A Mechanism

Buy The Orthodox Martial Art is Living the Sermon on the Mount on Amazon.

Quotes that have rumbled down the ages

Perhaps the most famous quote in Orthodoxy, a John 3:16, is "God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God." Or that's at least one variant.

Another quote or two that have rumbled down the ages, if not quite so spectacularly, is:

  • Save yourself and ten thousands around you will be saved.

  • Make peace with yourself and Heaven and earth will make peace with you.

I would like to suggest a mechanism by which such things make effect, or at least a physical shadow of an explanation. The deepest sense in which such things happen is God's grace, in a relationship where God is totally free and we are totally free, and I do not want to detract from that. However, there is a physical mechanism, a physical dimension, that I'd like to explore, before saying, "The truth is greater than all this."

Do arguments persuade?

Do arguments persuade?

The pop psychology consensus is that we are emotion with a veneer of rationality, and in the context of interpersonal relations and conflicts, arguments rarely persuade. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the same is true in public debates: political speechwriter Simon Lancaster in Speechwriting: The Expert Guide compares rational and emotional appeal to a peashooter and a cannon in their effectiveness, and says that argument is never appropriate in speeches, though it may occasionally be helpful to provide an illusion of argument, and he explains how to do that when it is called for.

However, there are other contexts in which arguments do persuade. In a debate where one person is arguing one position and another is arguing the opposite position, it is likely that neither will persuade the other. However, with bystanders and onlookers the matter is different. In, for instance, the Christological and Trinitarian controversies, arguments loom large in Orthodox Church history. One finds in the Orthodox Church's greatest public speaker, St. John Chrysostom, public argument that there can be (for instance) no interval of separation between the Father and the Son, because if you make an interval between the Father's beginning and that of the Son, you make the Father as well as the Son to have a beginning. This is one of many arguments St. John Chrysostom makes in the course of his applied public speaking.

I believe that arguments can persuade, that argument is appropriate in public discourse, and apologetics are and remain a part of the legitimate public face of Orthodoxy, but they are not the whole picture. Furthermore, I suggest that there are other major factors. And even speaking as an apologist who has been called disciple to C.S. Lewis, I would like to try to expose one major feature of legitimate influence that does not boil down to addressing a task of apologetics.

Furthermore, there is a time to keep your mouth shut even if you are right. I think of one person I know where I have kept my mouth shut about his belief in a flat earth for the simple reason and communication principle that people have pushed him away by trying to argue him out of belief in a flat earth, and if I say more than I have, I will just push him away further, and his position is not morally represhensible in the sense that authorites need to lay down the law. I am kind to him and I keep my mouth shut, and I have his respect. A study of persuasion by argument shows up that there are some contexts where arguing something, even something true, will just push people away, and the pop psychology consensus that "A man convinced against his will, retains the same opinion still," is on the money.

Bowled over by humility

There was a time when I was visiting Holy Cross Monastery, and I talked to another person about someone who worked in the kitchen (name withheld), who had "bowled me over by humility." The other person knew immediately whom I was talking about and what I meant.

There was something incredibly compelling in those interactions with him, and before long my unspoken reaction was, "I want the mint!", i.e. I don't want some of the money he has, but what he has that he was minting spiritual money with. Now he offered me undiluted kindness in every interaction, but my "I want the mint!" was something that extended well beyond appreciating the kindness he treated me with. I did not want, exactly, for him to treat me so kindly, but I did want to observe and see if there was some way I could learn where he was spiritually minting money from. Dealing with him was riveting.

I think also of another time I encountered someone very humble, and I saw something great, and was again closely trying to observe him and wanting what he had, but I kept my mouth shut.

Bruising someone's humility

There was one other time I'd mention, on a not so theatrical scale, when I told my abbot, "I'm not telling [Name] in order not to bruise his humility, but you don't know what an incredible blessing it is to answer to someone who is humble." And that was appreciated.

Pride wants compliments; humility helps uproot that desire, and so it's not best, when dealing with humble people, to offer comments that will bruise their humility. Pride wants human honor; humility is extremely wary of receiving honor, partly because humility includes an accurate assessment of how empty human honor really is. The suggestion I'd give for dealing with someone who has an awe-inspiring humility is to sit on your hands as far as compliments go; interact with the person, love and appreciate him, and try to get what you can of the mint, but respect that a humble person will regard human praise as fool's gold that is inseparable from hostilities that follow it, and he wants things much greater. I would add to this that such people have their sights set on a much higher target, and you do nothing to hinder them in their quest by sitting and enjoying their humility.

There was one time at a gathering where I was listening with rapt attention to musicians playing, and in a personal conversation after the performance, the performers spoke appreciatively of my listening. I do not remember what language they used but I would use a term like "listening loudly," or listening loud and clear. Someone who is listening in a prickly or hostile way makes it harder to perform; someone who is listening sympathetically makes it easier to perform, and I give every blessing to "listen loudly," when encountering someone humble.

How not to impart humility, and what is better

There is something compelling in this listening, and something I have never met in meeting the Seraphinians I encountered that led up to writing, and continues after writing, The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. They were, without exception, very big on my need for humility and fully willing to harass and bluntly criticize me to pound me into being humble. And none of my own humility, such as I have, came from there. If anything, like a bad heresiologist I fell into the trap of picking up some of my opponents' approach in communicating, and however much I may have attempted to argue in a compelling fashion, I do not believe many readers have been drawn to it as by humility.

There is someone else I met who has a deep and contagious calm, enough so that people are drawn to him in the hope that some of his calm rubs off on them. Calm and humility are not exactly the same thing, and the deep calm may or may not have been accompanied by humility. However, there was something of the same kind of draw. People have wanted to be near him in the hope some of his calm will rub off.

In the Roman empire before Constantine, there was a saying, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith." Roman citizens seeing public martyrdoms of Christians saw at least one thing that even transcends that wild beasts were let loose to devour martyrs and came and licked the martyrs' feet. They saw families that were summoned to the contest, and who were exuberantly happy, as if they had been summoned to a great feast, and there was something very compelling about this. Although martyrs had been sometimes healed in the course of their contest, they saw that a pagan Empire could kill Christians but not defeat them. Now it is to be mentioned in some cases that there were apologetics at play, and Great-Martyr Katherine, for instance, converted the fifty philosophers who were asked to out-argue her. However, there was something in the many martyrs beyond some of them being effective apologists. Rome could kill Christians but not defeat them, and in the final run killing Christians under those conditions was an act of impotence.

The story is told of one teacher who took over a religion class whose terrible behavior had driven out her predecessor, and whose unruly students found to their astonishment that all their verbal missiles simply passed through her without causing harm or leaving a trace. Their hostility gave way to an incredible curiosity about who she was and why she was not harmed by their missiles.

I was not argued into entering Orthodoxy, and I only reasoned my way into it to a limited extent. I wanted what the Orthodox Church has.

The "fruit of the Spirit" option

The Benedict Option argues forcefully that Christianity has lost the point of sexual morality in the public sphere, and really lost what is to be had in the public sphere of argument. But Galatians 5:22 reads, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." Christianity may have lost all legal status above that of bigotry in face of anti-Christian opposition, but the option is as much now as ever open to leave people in the misery heralded by the gender rainbow to see their misery and the "I want what he has!" to our joy in the Spirit.

Years before entering Orthodoxy, I was part of an "Anglican opposition" parish, with a healing ministry for homosexuals, and one of the priests talked about how as gay he had a vision of a face he did not recognize. But the face he did not recognize was his own, radiant as the ex-gay priest he would become. And he really was unrecognizably transformed in his penitence.

It hurts to kick against the goads, and it still hurts if you have the entirety of the law, public discourse, and political correctness defending the full legitimacy of kicking against the goads. Now that traditional teaching on sexuality is legally no more privileged than bigotry, Christians have lost incredibly much in the public square, but Orthodox and Christians are free now as much as ever to have something that queers want.

A quote that relates to misery

Fr. Thaddeus, who echoed in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, wrote to a spiritual daughter,

I had barely fallen asleep when I dreamt that I had died. Two young men led me into a room and had me stand on some sort of platform between them. To my right were the judges. Someone in the far left corner of the room was reading the charges against me. "That's him! That's the one who cannot get along with anyone!" I stood there dumbfounded. The voice repeated the same accusation two or more times. Then the young man standing on my right said to me, "Do not be afraid! It is not true that you cannot get along with anyone. You just cannot get along with yourself!"

My first encounter with the man who bowled me over in humility was when he was cheerfully folding a sheet, and talking about how he loved to do laundry. And it is the characteristic of humility to be able to enjoy the here and now. An oppressive escapism, sensing the "here and now" to be intolerable, but in many cases the intolerability entirely consists in our inner state. Perhaps really bad surroundings can also make people miserable, but people can find the here and now oppressive no matter how nice a here and now they may be in. And humility, besides everything else above, is a key to joy. As G.K. Chesterton said, "It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride."

Engaging solipsism

Solipsism, at least as a sense that only one's self is believed knowable, is rising and if it does not have too much limelight yet, it will. But engaging with solipsists may take the form of A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism, and living the truth in,

O Lord, help me reach poverty, that I may own treasures avarice could never fathom or imagine,
Obedience that I may know utter freedom, first of all of the shackles of my sin and vice,
Chastity, that I may be virile beyond reckoning,
A solipsist that I may embrace Heaven and Earth...

Argument has its place, but important as it is, there is more power, especially today, it is more powerful to live a life that will leave others wanting what we have. The lost state of the public arena today is owned by people inside it who, as of my studies, say, "We have lost the metanarrative." and the possibility of choosing your own metanarrative is only another way of saying that our world has lost the metanarrative.

I do not know if many people can be argued out of this position, but the door remains open to living a joy that will leave people wanting what we have. If argument has its place, this is more important for most of us to have. A few martyrs argued opponents out of error, but a great many of them showed such a vibrancy and vitality of life that a Roman state that could kill them could not defeat them, and the saying "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith." was quoted by pagan and Christian alike.

And when time had reached its fullness, impotence gave way to power and pagan Rome became Christian.