September 2008


Sefrou is a fairly small town south of Fes, placed between the grand valley of Fes and the Middle Atlas. One approaches Sefrou from Fes through rolling groves of olives, mostly, the citadel-shaped mountain that stands guard over the town drawing closer and closer. The town itself sits in a little valley, with the rolling expanse of the Middle Atlas spreading behind; a stream drops down from the hills alongside, over a lovely little (and much locally celebrated) waterfall, and through the Old Medina (where it serves pretty much as a garbage chute, unfortunately). The entire time I was in Morocco this little river was full of water, and Sefrou and its surronding countryside was incredibly green. Walking around the edge of town I was always struck by how incongrous all the greenery- oaks and ivy even!- was in comparison to the usual image of North Africa as all desert and barren mountains: a far cry from reality.

Nor is it all sunshine and heat, as this set of photos relates. I took them on my first full day in Morocco- a wet, cold, and continually rainy day. I had spent the night in Fes after taking a plane to Tangier and then train to Fes; after checking in with the Arabic institute in the morning I trudged through the rain, down the street past Fes’ regal McDonalds, and confidently got in a grand-taxi bound for Sefrou. When I arrived, the rain that had harried me on my trek to the grand-taxi stand in Fes was still pouring down, so I sat in my little hotel room and looked out the window, wondering if had in fact ended up not in North Africa but perhaps England or Ireland. After a while I could stand no more sitting about, so I put on my raincoat and set out into the little medina, where I got lost (not for long- it’s hard to stay lost in Sefrou’s diminutive medina) and thoroughly drenched. In the meanwhile I took these photos, which are a bit drab, thanks to the rain, and work-a-day in their subject matter, I suppose. However, as I was looking back over this set today- inspired by the advent of cool, rainy weather here in Tennessee- I thought that they give a nice snapshot of ordinary medina life, and all the wonderful colours and shapes you can see, and perhaps a hint of the sounds and tastes and smells and feelings attendent to the seen things: the marvelously rich- moreso than any other urban place I’ve visited in the world- sensory experience of the Moroccan medina.

This is probably in the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter- Sefrou’s old Mellah takes up nearly half the Medina, though only a handful, if any Jews, now live there.

The robes some of the men in the photos have on are jellabas, the traditional, and quite functional, Moroccan outerwear.

In the always wonderful and aromatic (particularly compared to the meat sellers stalls…) vegetable and herb section of the suqs.

Along the outside of the walls, on the north side of the Medina.

In the evening, in one of the ridiculously narrow streets of the Mellah part of the Medina. It was rather cold by now, and I did not, alas, possess.

(Disclaimer: the following may offend you, and if it does, and you find yourself vehemently angry at me, forgive me. Pray for me a sinner.)

I occasionally mention to people that I do not plan on voting in the much-vaulted upcoming election, and could really care less which candidate wins- a proposition usually taken with curiosity, at the least. I suppose I owe an explanation of sorts for this shockingly heretical attitude- no, I’m not a full-fledged anarchist, though perhaps of the Dorothy Day sort… Rather, in appraising the two candidates, I cannot support either one, for reasons of the deepest importance. One may ask, why not vote third-party? For one thing, I am not all jazzed about anyone running- Chuck Baldwin is apparently a moral majoritarian sort, the Libertarians have fielded what seems like a Republican-lite candidate, and so on. Besides, let’s be quite honest, voting for anyone apart from the two is quite pointless no matter where you live. As it is, a vote for either McCain or Obama would probably be pretty pointless here, Tennessee being a state pretty well placed in McCain’s column. But regardless. Why then can I not support either candidate?

Both men represent systems of doing things that are rooted in fundamental violence and oppression; they both reflect and do not question in their own way- alike though not identical- the culture of death that both supports and informs that American State (not that it’s unusual in that). A vote for either one is a vote for continuing systematic, intense, State-funded and supported violence and aggression. They only differ in their preferred targets, and that is all. Obama, to begin with, is not and has never been the “peace candidate,” even excepting his undiminished support for abortion-on-demand. While his early rhetoric sounded anti-war and even slightly radical, he has long since obediently and probably willingly shifted into the usual centre-right position, an advocate of American exceptionalism- one supported only part of the time, in certain places, by bombs and bullets, you understand. Mr. Obama would have us leave off one war- that in Iraq (though not too quickly!)- in order to escalate another, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That even more civilians are being slaughtered by American “smart” bombs in the latter places seems to be of little importance; it is the good war, after all, and that no one disputes. Besides those stated objectives, Mr. Obama would have us continue to proselytize the world for democracy etc etc, and in those promises the threat of force is never far behind, even if the Democrats at the moment prefer to not emphasize it.

As far as Mr. McCain’s approach to foreign policy goes, one hardly need say anything. Obama at least wraps his imperialism in lofty rhetoric and sometimes anti-war sounding evasions; McCain stands on a stage and sings about obliterating brown people with his bombs. He fully and unapologetically embraces the war machine; hatred of the enemy and mass violence are necessary for his campaign’s success after all.

But that is not the only issue in which the two candidates embrace systems of brutal violence and oppression. Obama is an unapologetic, if not particularly outspoken, proponent of industrialized abortion, the systematic violence against unborn child and mother. Not only are we asked to tolerate this subculture of death and violence, but we are asked (well, with the State there isn’t “asking,” only telling) to support it. This violence is in fact made sacrosanct, in one of the great perversions of modern life: the “right” to destroy is not only important, but essential, the underpinning of the all-holy human (well, the right sort of human that is) ability to control all things, from unwanted children to unwanted nations. “Consumer choice” invades the womb and bombs the world.

Neither candidate has seriously challenged or even discussed the ongoing violence and destruction propagated in the name of the “war on drugs.” Its victims do not enter the national discourse; Obama has given vague soundbites about “reforming” in some vague way the war, but just as in his foreign policy, this only means a shifting a resources, the dropping of bombs on a different group of the poor. As for McCain, again, there is nothing hidden here. Both candidates leave unquestioned the pervasive evils of the drug war; neither can imagine or desire to imagine alternatives to this great projection of deeply violent State power. Why should they? Again, State violence becomes virtually sacrosanct: the drug war, the war on terror, are all holy wars, the fight of noble Civilization against its dark, murderous enemies.

McCain, despite having once sought immigration reform of a sort, is now parroting the xenophobic lines of the hard right, endorsing yet another system of dehumanization and violence, yet another front for creating enemies and targets. Racist tactics are, as politicians have long known, particularly in my part of the world, one of the most effective ways for stirring human passions and fears, and directing them into creating you more power.

Knowing all this- that to endorse either candidate is to endorse systematic violence against my neighbor- how can I in good conscience vote for either? How can I listen to the words of Christ, how can I claim citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, and give my assent to these sorts of things? Do not suggest to me the lesser of two evils- am I too choose which forms of violence and evil I reject less strongly?

Am I suggesting running away from the world because it’s messy? No- instead of voting, do something that matters, go get messy, stand up against the currents of violence and despair, rebel against the culture of death: go find a homeless person and buy him lunch. Befriend a lonely person. Plant a garden. Go to church. Go find your neighbor, talk to her, love her. Go find the closest nursing home and visit the elderly. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy centre. Treat the immigrant like a human being. Pray. Forgive your enemy. Love him, however you can. Don’t vote for his annihilation.

I live a couple miles east of the university; every morning I descend on my bike the hill my neighborhood is perched on and take a greenway that runs alongside the Tennessee River. It comes out below the university, leaving a short hustle uphill to get on campus. All in all, a hard to beat commute. Though the up-hill journey coming back is less enjoyable.

Trumpet creeper vines

The Tennessee River (well, the Tennessee Lake these days, to be more accurate)

Morning glories are everywhere and in multiple colors along the river.

Downtown comes into view

I was driving on the interstate the other day when I noticed a big billboard for a church. Now, here in the American South religious oriented billboards are nothing noteworthy, but this one stood out. It read: “Real. Comfortable. Church.” in big letters, next to a picture of a couch, along with the name of the particular church being advertised. I was floored- comfortable church? My initial thought was, man, at my church we stand up for the entire service, I wonder if we could figure out how to get that on a billboard- maybe a guy standing and another prostrating, someone having an allergic reaction to the incense, with a caption like “Orthodoxy: Real. Uncomfortable. Church.” Fr. Justin and I talked about the sign this evening- he had noticed it also- and he suggested, in a more serious vein, “Real. Martyred. Church.”- but more on that in a moment.

On further contemplation, there are a multitude of things that greatly bother me with the image of a “comfortable church.” Now, I suppose someone could construct a justification for the term, how it’s meant to attract people turned off of church by all the various things that turn people off to Christianity. There are types of discomfort that should, must be avoided in church- the discomfort of vicious politics and character assasination, the intercine struggles and nastiness and internal schisms, the hurt feelings and the ruined relationships over petty things- all the things I’ve seen in church life (I grew up literally on church property as a pastor’s son, and got to see all the dark secrets from the inside), all of which cause intense discomfort and should be avoided. But there are also numerous, absolutely vital ways in which we ought to be intensely uncomfortable when we go to church- indeed, if we are not somehow discomforted, then we are missing out on the whole point of the Gospel! Christ did not come to tell us all how wonderful we are, and how we can just go on doing what we’re doing- and oh if you’d like and you’d say your quick prayer you can come chill with Me on my couch in Heaven after you knock off down here.

No! Sed contra, Christ declares to the world as a whole and to each one of us- look at your lives! Look at the sin, the injustice, the violence, the oppression, the self-destruction you’re perpetrating on yourself, on everyone around you! Repent! Is the call to repentance comfortable? Does it make us feel good when someone calls us on our actions? Why do you think they threw Jeremiah in the pit? Why did they- we- crucify- still crucify- Christ? Because He, and all the saints and prophets, disturb our comfort, our cherished love of our selves that will brook no one telling us otherwise. Because the prophets come telling us we have blood on our hands, that our comfort is paid for with the blood of the oppressed. Because Christ comes telling us that our comfort in our selves will lead us straight to Hell, that we are living, not the life of God, but the unlife of the Enemy so long as we linger in our drugged out comfort built on sin and deceit.

Christ came, as was said of Dorothy Day, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Why? Because we- the comfortable (and that includes most of us living here in the West, where life is handed to us on a silver platter, compared to the plight of people in much of the Majority World)- must be afflicted with the truth if we are to wake up to our true state, and seek repentance and the genuine life of Christ.

And that life- once we have been jarred from our sleep, rolled off the couch into the light and truth of Christ- is not easy, is not cozy comfort. Christ gives us consolation and relief from the despair of sin and the blindness of the world and its comforts (which really are no comforts at all but mere opiates)- his yoke is easy and his burden is light- but he also calls us to a very specific form of life. He calls us to pick up our Cross and carry it with Him- and as the Apostles who first heard that message would have known immediately, carry a cross means getting crucified, it means death. Crucifixion is not comfortable. Getting martyred is not comfortable. Christ calls us to spiritual combat, but it is not push-button bombing from an armchair. It is the warfare of love, our weapon is the cross, the weapon of peace, and our tactics are turning the other cheek, forgiving our enemies, dropping the literal sword, cutting off our anger and our hatred and turning to love. This is not comfortable! God knows all of this is hard, it sounds hard, and it is hard- loving your enemies, living a life of constant prayer, rejecting the opiates of the world- if it was easy, if it was comfortable, we’d all be doing it like we should, I’d be doing it like I should and not slipping back into the blissful ignorance and sleep of the world. Christ calls us to look our sin in the face and call it what it is- extremely uncomfortable. Christ calls us to look the homeless man on the street and call him human and mean it. Christ calls us to look at those icons of the saints and the martyrs and embrace them and seriously imitate them- even to death. It is not comfortable, it is not easy, it is at variance with a world that embraces the grossest extremes of comfort, that has desensitized itself to the killing of the unborn and the killing of its enemies in distant lands, that dresses its worst and most brutal violence in comfortable tones and images. The Church is not called to be a comfortable church, a church that exists to affirm the violence and sin of State and Society. The Church is called to be a martyred Church, one that stands against the comforts of its age and suffers for its witness.

I do not need any more comfort. I am stupidly comfortable in my quiet little mostly untroubled existence. I get up, go about my business and if I avoid the homeless men over in Downtown and don’t pay too much attention to my prayers I usually manage to feel pretty good about myself every day. May God save me, save all of us, from feeling good about ourselves, from being comfortable with our sin and the violence and despair around us. May God wake us up, roll us off the couch, and may we pick up the cross and really, truly, follow after Christ. May God grant us to live as a martyred Church, a Church that has died to the world and is living the difficult, demanding, but true, life-filled and life-affirming, the light-filled life of the Crucified Christ.

John Scotus, influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, considered the area of Scripture in its origins and in its end term, in the first, fresh simplicity of its beaming divine radiance and in the rediscovered unity of all things in it. What is simpler than the Word, what is more one than what he gathers together for eternity? But in coming to us simplicity is fragmented, or, rather, simplicity becomes fecund and fruitful, it opens itself up to the multiplicity that it engenders, so as to gather it up at later stage and contain in it in its bosom: “in that whole notion of simplicity, however, there are to be found many facets of speculative thought.” This whole intermediate area, comprised as it is of multiple sacraments that are united in the sacramental mystery of the flesh of Christ, is given to us, during our terrestrial existence, for our varied and many-sided contemplation. Thus, without losing the primordial unity that it possesses in the Word, Scripture does not discourage our making use of a whole gamut of senses, which are as numerous as the many colors of a peacock’s tail. This is an image that John Scotus could have received from Cassiodorus, who made a special application of it to the Psalter. To speak in more concrete terms, the interpretation of Scripture is indefinite, being as it is in the image of the infinity of its Author. It is like a great poem, with a pedagogical intent, whose inexhaustible significance leads us to the pure heights of the summit of contemplation.

Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, Vol. 1, p. 77

I am stealing the quotation below from Fr. Stephen; it sums up the way we must relate to a very unjust and violent world, stuff like this and this and this and…. Those injunctions about loving your enemy, putting down you sword- they seem easy enough when we’re just talking about personal enemies (not that they are easy in those instances, even), but they’re even harder when we’re talking about genuinely evil actions, systems and pervasive patterns of injustice- shooting wars, not just the personal verbal battles we fight all too often. What is the way the St. Silouan offers? Pick up the sword only when a really genuine revolution summons? No- pray for the evil people (yourself included), feel the deepest compassion for them. This is the only way, the only way really to truly and authentically resist evil. Lord knows I’ve often felt the urge to pick up the sword, to want to see the powerful evil-doers pay, here, now, to not get away with it. According to St. Silouan- and he has Christ Himself backing him up- that is the wrong spirit. Only love can overcome, forgiveness and compassion- for all- are the only real way.

Lord have mercy on us.

If you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others. And if a man dies without repenting, without having forgiven his brother, his soul will go to the place where lives the evil spirit which possessed his soul.

This is the law we have: if you forgive others, it is a sign that the Lord has forgiven you; but if you refuse to forgive, then your own sin remains with you.

The Lord wants us to love our fellow-man; and if you reflect that the Lord loves him, you have a sign of the Lord’s love for you. And if you consider how greatly the Lord loves His creature, and you yourself have compassion on all creation, and love your enemies, counting yourself the vilest of all, it is a sign of abundant grace of the Holy Spirit in you.

He who has the Holy Spirit in him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. This heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for the fire of torment. For them, more than for himself, he prays day and night, that all may repent and know the Lord.

Christ prayed for them that were crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ Stephen the Martyr prayed for those who stoned him, that the Lord ‘lay not this sin to their charge.’ And we, if we wish to preserve grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hell-fire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit.

St. Silouan

Think again, comrade. And you thought it was bad when they stuck political dissenters in “free speech” zones- ie cages. Now, at least in St. Paul, they’re not even bothering to give lip-service to such out-moded concepts as free speech- just bust down the doors and arrest the dissenters. I mean, it’s worked for other states, why not here? Don’t you know there’s a war on, comrade?

From Glen Greenwald’s article:

Jane Hamsher and I were at two of those homes this morning — one which had just been raided and one which was in the process of being raided. Each of the raided houses is known by neighbors as a “hippie house,” where 5-10 college-aged individuals live in a communal setting, and everyone we spoke with said that there had never been any problems of any kind in those houses, that they were filled with “peaceful kids” who are politically active but entirely unthreatening and friendly.

In the house that had just been raided, those inside described how a team of roughly 25 officers had barged into their homes with masks and black swat gear, holding large semi-automatic rifles, and ordered them to lie on the floor, where they were handcuffed and ordered not to move. The officers refused to state why they were there and, until the very end, refused to show whether they had a search warrant. They were forced to remain on the floor for 45 minutes while the officers took away the laptops, computers, individual journals, and political materials kept in the house.