A Professional Courtesy to a Fellow Poet

I’m delighted to be here!

I’ve just come back from a stay at a psych ward, and I feel better than if I’d come back from a five-star vacation. Really, I do. Let me explain. Or at least just try.

I think the point I’ll begin is at is that I called my doctor’s office asking for an appointment to check in with her, and her nurse told me, “Just go to the ER.”

So they brought me to the ER, and before long, they had gotten me to a safe place, and I am genuinely glad they got me to a safe place, because within hours of getting to a safe place, I was subjected to an unprovoked physical assault.

By this time I was operating on like one neuron at this point, and my sluggish thoughts realized, “He’s getting ready to get violent with me.”

Then he punched me in the face and knocked me to the ground.

Then a sluggish thought ran that it would probably be a good idea to kick him in the groin.

So I attempted a weak enough kick to his groin, and astonishingly enough, it actually connected.

That slowed him down.

Then after another second, a sluggish thought ran, “In a self-defense situation, you’re supposed to make noise.” So I shouted, “HELP!” and then “STAFF!” And within seconds, they got him away from me. He didn’t get to strike me again. Within seconds after that, I was being lifted off the floor and taken away. (And by the way, this is a squeaky-clean “win” from a martial arts perspective.) They took my blood pressure, which was 150 over something like 150, and the nurse said, “Fight or flight;” a blood pressure of 150 or perhaps higher is just what you want in that situation!

I was sent down for a CT scan and for stitches, because I was bleeding slightly as I’d sliced my lip. The CT scan was squeaky-clean, no brain injury, and the person responsible for giving me stitches looked at the wound closely and said that stitches weren’t even needed. The cut didn’t even justify stitches, and I didn’t even get a goose egg. Bad posture for the win!

Not terribly long after that, a woman in scrubs (I guessed she might be part of the hospital legal counsel who put on scrubs to avoid intimidating me) came, apologized from her heart, and told me I would have the option of pressing charges. I just shrugged it off, to her surprise. But let me explain why, giving two decoy reasons before the real reason.

Decoy reason #1: I was hoping to leave the country within weeks, to go to the Holy Mountain in Greece, and I simply had no interest in being involved in any legal battle.

Decoy reason #2: I think it’s a horrible thing to lock a man away in prison. I don’t say it’s not justified; I don’t say it’s not warranted or justified; I also don’t want to jump on the political bandwagon protesting mass imprisonment. If we’re going to insist on “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth“, I’d really rather say, “He punched me and knocked me over, I kicked him in the groin hard enough, let’s call it even already!” than see him locked away in a cold, dark, creepy, dangerous, terrifying dungeon for years. Which is what a prison is. That’s not the lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in the New Testament. It’s not “an eye for an eye” in the Old Testament either, for that matter,

Now, the real reason: I had simply lost interest in all further involvement in the conflict on my part within minutes of the hospital staff starting to care for my needs. As the sign in front of Pleasant Hill Community Church has said, forgiveness satisfies more than revenge. (I am, none the less, grateful that the hospital explicitly told me I could press charges.)

There are some other things which I don’t think I’ll be as quick to shrug off. I had my first conversation with a prostitute, for instance, and that and other conversations were among the most edifying conversations in my life. I don’t mean that they were either pleasant or that they were Hallmark moments; the whore was surly and rude to me. And I did quite deliberately say “whore,” because I overheard her introducing herself as a “whore!” But after a flustered conversation with a social worker, I was told that my proposed conversational goal of “Just treat her with respect.” was absolutely appropriate, and if anything her total failure to return or even recognize my respect, just helped me see how seared she was as a human being. When she called herself a whore, really quite loudly, I understood more in one minute than I had in decades of reading the Bible why Jesus Christ himself was so incredibly quick to hang out with prostitutes. (Maybe someday I’ll meet a real porn star!)

That wasn’t the only thing that affected me. At all. I also met a young woman who had recently been raped.

There was a group session, and I asked, “May I say something that may sound strange?” She said, “Yes.” Then I reached inside and pulled out something from the vilest memory of my entire life, and told it to her. In front of other people. Then I said, slowly, “Healing is possible.” And it was very clear from her “Thank you,” that I had done exactly as I had hoped. And, for the first time in my life, I was grateful for what I had gone through.

After that conversation, I deliberately related to her distantly. Even if I thought she trusted me. I spoke to her but from a faroff distance and kept conversations short, but I gave a good many of them. When she was discharged, her eyes were shining. Oh, and by the way, we waved goodbye, with no hug offered on either side. Apart from what I know about boundaries that have been trampled on and what it’s like to feel like your boundaries are not in the right places, staff had a very clear rule against touching. (Plus, I had managed to relate to her in a way that made that rule a total irrelevancy.)

I also… Ok, time for me to sound Christian and very pious; I apologize that I haven’t been able to scare up WWJD socks, just these tactical boots. There was a man with the scariest tattoos I have seen. Yet. And a T-shirt I can only describe as an icon of Hell. And then he trusted me, I don’t know why, enough to start pouring out his heart, and I felt very, very small, and sheepishly realized that perhaps the big, stinking sin I should be attending to was my judging him when that’s not what Jesus would do…

The voices… Oh, the voices! I don’t know how to explain this one. I’m tempted to say that the voices were the worst part of the the lot. But only tempted.

I was minding my own business, getting my medications from a nurse, when a voice said something odd and caught me completely off guard. And then I heard it again, and again, and again. Voices. Saying the same thing, the same stupid thing, and it was all self-referential. Like I’d spent waaaaayyy too much time staring down the rabbit hole of Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Which I have. I’m a recovering mathematician, like it or not, and I’ve been known to respond to an opponent’s carefully-thought-out position and simply say, “I play the self-referential incoherence card.” It got to the point where I asked one of the ward’s staff members to check whether insurance would pay for singing lessons for the voices in my head. I mean, if I have to listen to voices, is it really too much to ask that they at least be able to sing once in a while?

And let me boast a bit. I have perfect pitch. I love good music, especially if it is live, and even if I choose to spend my time in silence. And I’d prefer singing from the voices in my head that is not in a called “F three quarters sharp.”

And what the voices were saying, over and over again, was, “Do you hear any voices?” “Are the voices any better?” “Have you had any auditory or visual hallucinations yesterday today?” That part of my experience was bizarre and unprecedented for me, but fortunately enough that particular psychiatriac symptom stopped cold the moment I was out of earshot of the ward. It was incredible! (I’m writing that one off as a fluke.)

Amputation is also a horrible, horrid thing! It may be funny enough on Monty Python that, when John Cleese is in the process of getting himself so worked up that he’s dragged away to the hospital for overacting, he has been holding his arms behind his back the whole time, and he says, “I’m not a whole man,” to which one of the other man quickly and sympathetically adds, “Yes, and you’ve also lost your arms.”

But amputees in fact do not feel like they are whole people. Amputees look like they are less than fully human, they feel like they are infinitely less than fully human, and phantom pain is really only the beginning of the nightmare.

A poet by the name of William Earnest Henley lost one leg to tuberculosis. Then he was told he’d lose the other. He enlisted the services of a distinguished surgeon who performed five surgeries on his remaining foot, and saved his remaining leg.

Out of that horror, he wrote (“Invictus” is Latin for “Unconquered”):

Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years,
Finds and shall find me unashamed.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.

“Invictus”, Latin for “Unconquered,” is a poem that has inspired many. It is considered a classic of Victorian Stoicism, it is very famous and has impressed many people with real problems, it was quoted word for word by murderer and terrorist Tim McVeigh in the moments before his execution, and if you do a Google search for “invictus white nationalism” you’ll get over forty thousand—


Did I really say that?

Did I really mean to say that?

Yes. I did.

“Invictus” is squeaky-clean as far as being free from racism, but “Invictus” is the biggest monument to arrogance I have ever met in a poem, and it is an industrial strength magnet to the kind of idiot who actually finds it attractive to try and take racism and make it a heroic virtue.

I therefore wish to extend this classic poem a slight, um, Professional-Courtesy:

Invictus, second draft, by Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward

Out of the pitch black of my sin and vice,
Chosen only of my own free will,
I thank the God beyond all knowing
For my yet still fighting soul.

In the cunning net of His Providence,
I have spurned kindnesses for my good,
Gifts I have fought as chance left me,
Bloodied, but more deeply bowed:

Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?
It hurteth thee to kick against the goads.

Beyond this life of pleasure and pain,
Lie the Gates of Heaven and Hell,
Battered I still make my choice,
Seeking neither to bolt nor bar,
From inside, the gates of Hell.

Narrow is the path and strait the gate:
The entrance to Glory beyond,
All trials and tests named in the scroll,
Thy Grace my wounds have bound with salve.

I thank the ranks of men made gods,
Who cheer me on to join their choir,
Thou blessest me beyond any fate,
That I could ever know to ask.

Thy Glory is to transfigure me,
To Live, Thou Thyself:
I AM the Master of my Fate!
I AM the Captain of my Soul!

soli deo gloria

“Soli deo gloria”? What does that mean? Let’s get back to Bach.

When I played the organ, which was my favorite musical instrument, I loved Bach. I would take the theme to his Little Fugue in G Minor, and improvise on it for hours. (On an organ or piano, if I didn’t have an organ handy. I tried not to be picky.) Even if I played it in the wrong key.

Bach was in the universal habit of writing, at the end of every single one of his manuscripts, the letters, “S.D.G.” These letters were an abbreviation of “Soli deo gloria,” Latin for “To God alone be the glory.” Wheel of Morality here, this is a reminder that it in fact is possible to be both great and humble.

[Dramatic pause…]


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Introduction: Alchemy and Questionable Moral Character

I would like to open with a disturbing passage from Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. I might briefly mention that Midgley is no feminist; she is a conservative whose chief influences are Plato and Aristotle.

We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).

Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.

Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.

Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.

(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)

Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?

In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.

My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.

Alchemy in the Limelight

Some time over ten years back, and much to my later chagrin, I wanted to illustrate a point and deliberately chose alchemy, as a jarring image, to illustrate it.

Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)

Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.

Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work

Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.

I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.

Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.

There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!

I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.

I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)

There was an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book The Alchemist which on the back had a quote from ?Bill Clinton? saying something like, “When I read it I felt like I was awake and the whole world was asleep.” Friends, you do not want to feel like that. One of the usual signs you are coming to a spiritual breakthrough is that you are repenting.

Alchemy Is Deeper Than Hinduism? Huh?

In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”

I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.

But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.

Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development

But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.

Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin

Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.

Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.

Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.

Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.

I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.

Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.

Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.

How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

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