A Gratitude Letter to God

Dear God;

At one of the bleakest moments of my life I was asked to write down my reasons to live, and my reasons to die. Writing down my reasons to live was of life-changing, and possibly life-saving, power.

I have before written to thank you for what you have given me, but I believe it would be helpful to me to write again, of some of the things I am thankful for, and that I am more aware of now.

Now I have my repentance, my monastery, Saint Demetrios Orthodox Monastery, to be thankful for. And what do I have to thank you for in relation to that? Everything, it seems. Not that great and holy marriage is in any way lacking, but I have had a career of being a square peg pounded into a round hole, and now I am supported. How?

At the moment, I am thinking of practicing non-acquisition before I take a vow of poverty, or as it is also called, non-acquisition. I am finding that after de-prioritizing wants and barely spending on more than one want with my last pay, I am happier than when I was acquiring from want to want, even if spread out over time. I am grateful for some previous acquisition, but also that I chose something better than buying a to me very covetable, nice lightsabre toy, and I am happier not to have gotten the one thing I coveted at Christmas. As the philosophy classic After Virtue, which I am reading, points out, more money does not make you happy above $10,000-$20,000 per year (the figure from a ©1984 edition might need to be adjusted for inflation today), because more money can make you happy if you have difficulty acquiring enough food, and I would suggest that What to Own for Happiness (and not) is worth reading and possibly making purchases.

Which brings me to the topic of After Virtue and why I am reading it. My abbot underscores reading as part of monasticism, and there was a passage of time when I created myself difficulties by not asking for enough blessings of things to read. At a recent and significant confession, I owned up to my failing and requested a reading assignment from the library. His Beatitude responded by saying I was welcome to read anything from the monastery library. After Virtue was one of the first titles I took.

I wish to return to something related to non-acquisition and covetousness. I realized on Sunday a connection between covetousness and occult sin. Both are connected to what I wrote about in The Hydra, a relationship of alienation to just what the Providence of God the Spiritual Father has assigned to your benefit here and now. C.S. Lewis said that we want God to change our circumstances, while God wants our circumstances to change us. And I was able to abandon going from want to want and be grateful that God has given me exactly what I have now, with several possessions I acquired in the past (rightly desired, or coveted, or some mix of the two), but without the lightsabre that promised to glow, literally and figuratively, but left me looking on my existing possessions with dissatisfaction, which was not to my benefit. I am happier not wanting it, and I don't think having it would make me happy for long.

I am profoundly grateful for my abbot, His Beatitude and His Eminence Metropolitan JONAH. Even some things that surprised me and did not initially strike me well were things that I accidentally realized through my reading were based on careful decisions in line with monastic tradition. Part of what I realized, confirmed by later conversation with one of his other clergy, was that being permissive was part of a pedagogy designed to help bring out genuinely internal monastic discipline, and simply not a matter of having lower standards. Likewise, dispensing with absolute obligation of obedience given in return for the abbot answering for the disciple's sins has excellent monastic precedent in St. Ignatius in 19th century Russia. There are few rules, because His Beatitude is not attempting a rule-based morality, but one based on virtue and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that there is not a systematic set of rules to do the heavy lifting in guiding the community is because he is working hard to have the heavy lifting in guiding the community done by other things that are fundamentally better.

Furthermore, these are conclusions I came to, only about what struck me as odd at first. It is to say nothing of that His Beatitude Metropolitan JONAH is a tremendously loving and caring person, and that living under His Beatitude's authority is a privilege that I recognize and am grateful for after having spent much of my life feeling I was a square peg being pounded into a round hole. I am profoundly grateful for all this.

I would like to return to After Virtue. The opening image, which is quite arresting, asks the reader to imagine science suffering a catastrophe: "Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed." Then after the discipline of science is lost, people try to reconstitute science from the clues that remain among the wreckage:

Nonetheless all these fragments [of the lost science] are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology. Adults argue with each other about the relative merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory, and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the Periodic Table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all....

MacIntyre, the author, makes a compelling case that something like this has happened in the areas of morals, and it holds for the West as a whole; it almost certainly holds for moral debate within the academy. His devastating critique of modern moral emotivism as built on failed projects of past philosophers like Kant is persuasive, but I bring this in to highlight something about this monastery.

This monastery stands, or at least has stood so far, as something like what the Isle of Avalon or Ynes Avalach stands in Steven Lawhead's Merlin: a stable oasis in a falling-apart world. Among many other things, it is a place where virtue has not been lost and morals, or rather ascesis, are emphatically pursued, and ascesis reaches its proper ends. I have had warnings that violence is coming: and possibly I will not around in a year (but then I have never gone to bed knowing that I would wake up ever again). The gender rainbow continues to advance in the country the monastery is in, but the monastery remains a place where male guests are invited to engage in their "toxic masculinity." And my mention of guests is not an accident, because part of the normal functioning of the monastery is to be a light in the broader Orthodox community. This monastery places me within a beacon among Orthodox in the area, and I am understanding that I play a part in the service it offers. My book sales remain light, but I have been able to give away many copies of C.J.S. Hayward in Under 99 Pages, and that is if anything a secondary aspect of the service I am enabled to exercise.

Another aspect of Orthodoxy in general and life at the monastery has to do with what cognitive scientist Ian McGilchrist (interview on YouTube, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World), a cognitive scientist with great relevance to our society and to Orthodox along the lines of what I have heard from the pulpit referred to as "the hypertrophied dianoia," meaning far too much emphasis on the part of our mind that does logic. McGilchrist discusses the right and left hemispheres (not exactly along the lines of pop psychology), about the proper balance where they both contribute something unique and very important, the right hemisphere is the master, and the left hemisphere is a tremendous servant but makes a terrible master. He discusses in the West a monism of the left hemisphere that has closed off exits... but Orthodoxy in general and life at the monastery is here again an Isle of Avalon, an oasis in a desert where oases are hard to find. I am profoundly graceful for the sanity at the monastery on this score, too.

I am also grateful for the scandal of the particular. One feature of the systems-builders whom MacIntyre asserts have failed at moral construction is that they attempt something universal and normative for all places and times, and ended up being parochial. I have not attempted to make universal solutions in the problems I attend to, chiefly how we can live a properly human life in troubled technological times. Instead I work on solutions that are first personal and then parochial; in the conclusion to the eighth volume of the Hidden Price Tags series, I wrote of a virgin mentioned in the Philokalia who had made great ascetic efforts without being transformed by them,

Her practice was like sitting down at a table setting, and moving about knife, fork, and spoon in the usual way, but without ever putting food on the plate. We should use silverware, but going through the motions of using silverware, without any food at the table, is fruitless.

I thought about adding a footnote after "silverware," saying, "Or chopsticks, or hands, or whatever constitutes polite dining in your culture," but I think the text works better without such belabored clarifications. By being personal and parochial, I believe that some of the things I write may be timeless. The Consolation of Theology has been called a memoir of Providence in my life, but it imitates the timeless work The Consolation of Philosophy, a work that also participates in the scandal of the particular, and I do not see how the work would have been better if I tried to remove myself and produce a text from nowhere and nowhen, written by nobody. If as intended The Consolation of Theology has something timeless, its individual and parochial character serves its intended purpose of an icon of a story that is really written about Everyman. And really, the point of the work is not that God attends to me with a Providence wiser than anything I could arrange myself; it is intended as a particular account of a Providence for everyone.

On that account, I would recall a point repeated from prior sources by Constantine Zalalas (another benefit for me of being at the monastery is that I have been introduced to, and been blessed to watch, his videos): "God does not love the Theotokos more than he loves the devil." The reason is unpacked by C.S. Lewis in an optional chapter of Mere Christianity: God stands outside of time, and gives himself, his attention, and his love as fully to each individual creature as if that creature were the only one he ever created. His love for each of us is total, and his Providence is likewise total (God the Spiritual Father again).

Some of the saints' lives talk about monasticism as the true philosophy. Philosophical as I have been for almost my entire life, I had not initially made the connection. But monasticism as an encompassing way of life, that has many sides and values the privilege of manual labor, constitutes an education of the whole person that allows for thriving. My abbot has me both sweeping floors and writing (and watering plants as is seasonally appropriate), as well as participating in Liturgy and other things. There is really something to being under a competent and benevolent authority. For years before approaching monasticism, I have trod the path of self-direction and I confirm that it is as treacherous a condition as the Ladder would have it. I am profoundly grateful for the fact that I am under the loving and attentive care of a mature abbot who is seeking my every good.

I am grateful to be a novice now, under an abbot who is trying to give me a happy monastic childhood. That will not remain forever, I expect, but when I mentioned to one guestmaster at Holy Cross that I had written A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, he drew on the excellent Everyday Saints to say, "Bishops want to be novices!"

But there is more to say than only this, my Lord.

Everything is beautiful about you, the God who is Love because the Trinity has love before even Creation, the Creation you have made, the metanarrative in which you have placed me. Everything is beautiful.

Where to begin?

In A Pet Owner's Rules, I wrote,

God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:

  1. I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!

  2. Don't drink out of the toilet.

And truly, however attractive things may seem, the only water forbidden us is that which is in the toilet.

We can covet too much money, or prestige, or comfort, but none of these is a final good. "Ambition" is the name of a sin, but I might say that while I am forbidden to desire for myself my abbot's very high office, none of his virtues are forbidden for me to seek. And really, his office and title are nothing next to the glory, beauty, and desirability of virtue.

They mischaracterize us who say we believe that this life is unimportant, and merely transient in its important. Transient this life may be, but it is the short and momentous time in which of us make eternal a choice between Heaven and Hell, between us telling God, "Thy will be done," and God finally telling us, "Thy will be done!"

And I am not just interested in something your Saints have said, that most of us spend months preparing for a vacation of a week or two but scarcely spare a thought for that vacation and journey which is eternal. Out of your own kindness, Lord, and great mercy you have hidden from us the day of our death, for so many of us, knowing many years lay ahead, would keep putting off repentance and in the end arrive at our final days incorrigible. You do not let us know if we have seconds or decades to live, Lord, that we may repent here and now, and arrive before your Judgment Throne and be placed in eternal glory.

You have made repentance Heaven's best-kept secret. Repentance may sound joyless, but you, O Lord, make the repentant joyful, giving to each repentance its fitting reward.

Blessed are those who repent of the pride that blinds them to the beauty of others, for you will honor them with the humility that opens men's eyes to the beauty of others.

Blessed are those who repent of covetousness of what is not theirs, because to them will open the satisfaction of contentment.

Blessed are alcoholics who repent and regain sobriety, for they have turned their backs on a suffering they would not wish on their worst enemies, and they shall have as their reward nothing less than sobriety itself. (Their actual reward may be more than sobriety alone, but certainly not less.)

Blessed are those who repent of nursing a grudge, for they shall experience firsthand that forgiveness satisfies more than revenge.

Blessed are those who repent of ingratitude, for they shall discover the true joy of a life of gratitude.

Blessed are those who repent of a lust that drains Heaven and Earth of wonder, for you shall open their eyes to the beauty and wonder in Heaven and Earth that lust has blinded their eyes to see.

Blessed are those who repent of the very hope of escape from this world with its here and now, for you shall open their eyes to see a world you have created as good, and they shall receive the here and now as an icon of Paradise.

Blessed are those who repent of trying to manipulate you with their prayer and ascesis, for you shall reward them with a relation with utter freedom on both sides, in which you seek out men's interests better than men know to seek for themselves.

Blessed are those who repent and expect to be destroyed, for you will blindside them with a reward that is just and merciful, beyond justice and beyond mercy, at one stroke.

Virtue is its own reward. But, without any contradiction, virtue is also the reward for repentance, and what a reward it is!

Truly Heaven begins in this life, to those who have eyes to see it, and for that I thank you.

I thank you that nothing in life is wasted, and that out of my own "square peg, round hole" employment history I have been able to connect with a young man who is having a rough time. Heaven begins to redeem those memories.

I thank you that man is priestly, and that the sacramental priesthood exists as the crystallization of the priestly dignity of all thank you.

I thank you for monasticism, an icon through which Heaven shines, and for marriage, also an icon through which Heaven shines.

I thank you for ten thousand things I cannot name or ask, each one too beautiful for words, and that the love in the Trinity flows out into Creation.

I thank you that every day is Pascha.

And what can I say about Heaven itself? Death puts an end to further repentance, but not change. To those who die in good estate, death, even before the resurrection, is ever changing from glory to glory. And Heaven itself, words fail me. Not only do words fail me, but knowledge fails me: both what I do know, and what I can know. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, paints a singularly beautiful picture of Heaven for the purpose of his work, but at the end of the introduction says that the last thing he would want is to produce speculations about the details of the afterlife. "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him:" any honor or blessing or afterlife we could imagine or seek utterly pales in comparison for what God the Spiritual Father has for those who finish their earthly apprenticeship well.

My Joy! Christ is Risen!

With Much Thanks and Love,
Your Unworthy Son,