Take Your Shoes Off Your Feet, For the Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy Ground: a meditation for Lent

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Take your shoes off of your feet:
For the place where you stand is holy ground

And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in flaming fire out of the bush, and he sees that the bush burns with fire,—but the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses, and he said, What is it? And he said, Draw not high hither: loose thy sandals from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraam, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and Moses turned away his face, for he was afraid to gaze at God…

And Moses said to God, Behold, I shall go forth to the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of our fathers has sent me to you; and they will ask me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING, and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING has sent me unto you.

(Exodus 3:2-5, 13-14, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)

(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ: And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

I Corinthians 10:4-6, KJV

The Fathers bid us, in approaching holiness, to take away the dead thoughts of the passions. In their day, and in Righteous Abraham’s day, and for that matter often in ours, shoes are made of leather, the dead skin of animals, and the Fathers bid us cast away the dead thoughts of the passions as we approach God.

I would like to look at this further, but first pause to look at two distractions and say, “That is understandable, but it is fundamentally inadequate.”

The first distraction:
Tinkering to straighten out our worldview

On reading “bringing into captivity every thought”, a natural reading today is “bring into captivity our worldview and every part of it,” and steadily working on our worldview to make it Christian.

But the idea of thinking worldviewishly, and classifying religions (with philosophies and political ideologies) as worldviews is of recent vintage in the history of religions; it would have been as alien to Calvin and Luther as to St. Athanasios or St. John Chrysostom. A worldview appears to stand on its own, but entirely neglected is the thought that a worldview may come into existence as almost a by-product of the Way one walks.

I spoke with one person and quoted G.K. Chesterton saying, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a doubt.” I pronounced the final ‘t’ rather silently, and he asked me if I had said, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a Tao,” meaning a Way that one walks. The conversation included his mention of a book written by a Christian missionary to Japan, Zen Way, Jesus Way, and while my intended point was something else, that Buddhism is skeptical and perhaps in stronger form than most Western skepticism, the point he anticipated is also true: Buddhism is not about what you believe but the Way that you walk. And on this point we may saliently point out that the oldest name for Christianity, the name used in the New Testament itself, is not “the Creed,” but “the Way.”

My godfather knew rather astutely what kinds of temptations I would face, and when I asked him a question about building an Orthodox worldview, he pointedly insisted that I had not been invited to work out an Orthodox worldview, but to walk the Orthodox Way. There may be an Orthodox worldview, but it emerges out of walking the Orthodox Way, and the suggestion that it takes seven to ten years to become Orthodox, this does not mean that it takes seven to ten years of worldview tinkering to develop the right worldview, but it takes seven to ten years for a whole person’s transformation to occur. And even then, a number of Orthodox saints, described as being baptized in their own blood because they were martyred before they could manage to get baptized at all, are canonized saints who had pagan worldviews while they lived on earth, and canonized saints who did not spend their brief time confessing Christ on straightening out their worldviews.

There is something seductive about seeing things in terms of worldview; it is a hammer that soon makes everything appear to be a nail, so that “taking every thought captive” seems to mean “installing a piece of your worldview” and not, for instance, taking a lustful thought captive, and breaking it apart. But leave that for later. For now, I would note that the idea of thinking worldviewishly is of recent vintage, and mention that in Islam the term for ‘heresy’ is ‘innovation.’ Not that I am endorsing Islam; but What the West Doesn’t Get About Jihadists and Islam is largely about the Muslim Way and only to a lesser degree about delving into the Islamic worldview.

The second distraction:
The refinement of desire

A picturesque pair of antique opera glasses

Show me what a person desires, and I will show you his heart.

To the right is a pair of antique opera glasses; I mention it partly to show my temptations. They are a valued gift from a valued friend, but in a way they are also like the Dr. Who sonic screwdriver a team lead got for Christmas: they seem like a touch of another world here: the realms of the Urvanovestilli, or The Steel Orb. And what seems to be a piece of an unreal world brings real pleasure, but on a deeper, spiritual level, is something of a non sequitur: I should only value the opera glasses, not as a token of worlds I have as an author imagined, but as a valued gift from a valued friend.

Reading the saints’ lives has something to do with this. It may be said that the saints’ lives, “biography as theology”, are an important spiritual staple food for neophytes and an important spiritual staple sought out by the more advanced. My own desires have been sought out and something I wanted fulfilled: first of all by my favorite children’s book, Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, which left me desiring kything, Teachers, and giftedness, and much later writing Within the Steel Orb: I went to mail Madeleine l’Engle a copy but found out that she had just passed away. After a different spiritual struggle I made The Minstrel’s Song with its cultures, and I pined for that world. Then later I read medieval sources for the Arthurian legends, and I pined for knighthood and the Holy Grail and wrote The Sign of the Grail. And the same, I believe, holds for Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, romance novels of being swept off one’s feet, and quite a lot of TV, literature, and movies.

We are made to desire, and there is nothing wrong with that. But our desires often point in the wrong directions, and the saints’ lives in particular help reorient and refine our desires so that we heed the Apostle’s precept, Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. We are to desire things that are real—and good.

This, however, is limited in scope; it is one point among others, and I have not read worldviewish-style attempts to tinker with one’s desires in the Fathers. The verse I cited is beautiful enough, but I have not read any of the Fathers make it a leitmotif. I don’t want to downplay the saints’ lives, but there is more benefit to reading them than just the shaping and reshaping of our desires. But there is something of our thoughts that the Fathers make central. But let us pause for one moment before moving on.

When the ink was still drying on the medieval versions of the Arthurian legends, they told of a Never-Never Land that was long ago and far away. Such things as commerce and peasant’s worknever intrude on the scene; the pseudohistory in the “Brut” which first captivated the hearts and minds of Europe outside of Celtic circles, already placed King Arthur at six centuries in its past, in a past that never existed. There is a common thread in these desires for the unreal; we are better off desiring what is real (see Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a passion for further discussion), and at least one saint has found happiness and said, “Whatever happens to you, desire it.” Again, we are to desire what is real and desire what is good.

Not a distraction:
Taking the shoes of passionate thoughts off our feet

It has been said, “Nothing but a metaphysic ever replaces a metaphysic.” Nothing Western, at least. But a true metaphysic can be replaced by an ersatz metaphysic; unlike ‘weak agnosticism’, which says in essence “I do not yet know whether God, or gods, or angels exist,” ‘strong agnosticism’ says “We can never know if God, or gods, or angels exist,” and that rules out any deity capable of decisive revelation, ruling out the Christian God quickly. And that provides an ersatz metaphysic in continuity with the ersatz metaphysics implied by continental epistemology.

However, it is possible to have a metaphysic replaced by something else: Zen replaces a metaphysic with silence, and Orthodox Christianity, which has a metaphysic, also has silence, and beyond Buddhism having been influenced by Christianity and Zen resembling Orthodox hesychasm, the silence of Orthodox hesychasm is on par with the silence that replaces a metaphysic.

“You have more power than you think,” an alcoholic or addict is told. Once temptation is in full swing, it’s a difficult and often losing fight for the upper hand. But there is a brief, easy-to-look moment, when the temptation comes, very small.

If your house is burning down, it may take fire hoses to stop; when the fire is in a room, pouring out a bucket and running for another may stop it; easiest of all is to smush out a smouldering spark as it hits the curtains. If you blot out the spark, with it you blot out all the remaining process of damage. In a monastic setting, men were warned that if a mental image of a man’s face appears, temptation to anger is close at hand, and if a woman’s face appears, temptation to lust is close at hand, and they say “In Christ there is no male nor female“: neither temptation need have dominion over us.

In its beginning, the temptation is not yet a temptation. A passionate image, what the Fathers saw in the dead leather shoes Moses was commanded to remove, is not the very first part of temptation. The very first part of temptation is a simple image not mixed with passion: perhaps not a face, but an image of gold, which will soon be mixed with a temptation to covet. Then if we dally with the thought, it becomes mixed with passion, and the longer you go the harder the fight becomes. Confession is always available and it is a second baptism and a clean slate, but the Orthodox filled with hesychastic silence does not have or develop thick, strong arms from dousing buckets of water onto burning furniture, but attentiveness and quick reflexes from putting out sparks. Now this needs to be put alongside the monk who was asked, “What do you do?” and said, “We fall and get up; fall and get up; fall and get up.” But hesychasm is mindful, mindful of one’s thoughts, observing and mentally separating thoughts and mental images from the passions mixed in them.

Lent, the central season of the Church year:
A Lenten Psalm

Great Lent is hard, but it is the central season in the Church calendar. During Great Lent, the choir chants what may be the most politically incorrect part of Scripture:

For David, a Psalm of Jeremias

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat;
And wept when we remembered Sion.
We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it.
For there they that had taken us captive asked of us the words of a song;
And they that had carried us away asked a hymn, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to my throat, if I do not remember thee;
If I do not prefer Jerusalem as the chief of my joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to its foundations.
Wretched daughter of babylon!
Blessed shall he be who shall reward thee as thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall sieze and dash thine infants against the rock.

(Psalm 136/137, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)

“Blessed shall what?!?!? This is sung in church in Lent?”

Yes: the entire Psalm speaks to our spiritual condition. We were made for Jerusalem, the city of peace, which is ultimately Heaven, but we have allowed ourselves, every one, to be taken captive to the foreign land of sin and passion. How can we sing the Lord’s song when we are exiled to the land of passion? As to the last words, the Fathers say that the rock is Christ: infant Babylonians grow into adult Babylonians, and tiny and seemingly insignificant passions, tiny sparks, grow into full-grown passions, a fire burning up our house. And it is against Christ that we must extinguish sparks. The vilest of sins is a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love, but still, the earlier we dash passions against Christ, the better. If we have allowed to a spark to set a chair on fire, douse it with Christ. And in all things remember the holy city, the city of peace which is ultimately Heaven. And strive for it.

An unwelcome, unsought blessing:
“Ask better!”

Lent seems to be the sort of thing one would not want. We are to cut back on pleasures, and give more to others. And it is supposed to be a struggle; if we’re cruising through Lent and having no worries, something is wrong, and we need to work with our priest to make it a better struggle. But monks say, “Have a good struggle.”

But this much is a blessing in disguise, and is part of why devout, seasoned Orthodox often look forward to the challenge. The rules forbidding things in the Orthodox life all tell a pet, “Don’t drink out of the toilet,” which really means, “Ask better.” Lent is about letting go of things we believe will satisfy us and accepting the things which really will satisfy us.

In my repentance implied in “The refinement of desire” above, every thing I let go of was so I could grasp something better. Perhaps my growth is more stunted than most; perhaps it is less. No matter; God has summoned me to ask better and open my hand wide to receive blessings. And I mention this not to make a big deal of my own struggle, but because these are one form of the struggles we all face, because (I hope) they could serve as Everyman’s struggles, and I could concretely name something we all must face to ask better.

Ask better. And have a good struggle.

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