I wanted to give a meditation on the mystical theology of kings and monarchs.
As a starting point, I would point out that bishops rightly wear the regalia of the Byzantine Emperor, and the government of the Orthodox Church is monarchical: her bishops are monarchs. And I would like to make a few observations about my own bishop, for whom I am grateful: His Grace Bishop Peter of Cleveland and Ohio (ROCOR). He offers a point of departure for understanding monarchy.
His Grace Bishop Peter’s public bearing is quite regal, and he receives honor publicly. But privately he acts differently, and in quite the opposite way as a Hollywood celebrity who is sympathetic and modest in front of the camera and haughty in private. Quite the opposite, His Grace Bishop Peter is a monk, and like a good monk he tried to run away when he found out he was going to be made bishop. He sleeps in a chair, in a modest apartment. One gets the impression, not so much that he is a bishop, but that he is a monk fulfilling the obedience of serving as a bishop when he would rather live as a more ordinary monk—the kind of monk who may be the best kind of bishop!
All this is in accord with the Philokalia, which prescribes that monks who are in authority publicly act as their office requires, but privately not see themselves as any greater than anyone else. Perhaps some may covet the office of bishop because they see in it a chance to see themselves as greater. But that is something that cannot exist. In a certain sense Bishop Peter’s fine robes are meant for others to see and not him: I may admire how great he is, and be edified, but he may not do so, and it is spiritual poison if he does. There really is something great about being clergy, or bishop, or king, but that greatness should be invisible to the person in the office. It is a trustworthy saying, and worthy of all acceptation: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Being a bishop or king is no exemption to this rule; if anything, it is a greater demand. Being in office does not make it legitimate to see yourself as better; it just makes this spiritual poison harder to avoid and a greater threat. I may admire how fine His Grace Peter looks in his vestments, and be spiritually nourished by it, but to him it would be poison: there exists no legitimate spiritual license for self-admiration, not even if you are a bishop or a king!
I have coveted the status of being a knight; when Google AdWords advertised “English titles of nobility”, I wish my eyes had not lingered. But this is folly. Wishing a title without responsibilities is like hoping to be married without a spouse. And I think that confusion is a sign of our times: perhaps people have always coveted honor, but if men covet honor when they are taught to be humble, what will they do when schools teach “self-esteem” and pastors encourage “Godly self-respect”? Now to enter a role of service, as servant leader, is another matter: ordination is not at its core about acquiring the honor of a title as entering a role of service (the whole “servant leadership”), and the title that is conferred is for the benefit of others; the honors conferred are a gift to those the candidate is to serve. To be clergy or monarch is privilege, but the privilege is for others, not for oneself. The question, “Is the king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king?” is rhetorical: the king is for the kingdom. The reason the Orthodox practice is to have bishops selected from among monks is not an indictment of marriage; St. Peter the Apostle, the Rock upon whom Christ built his Church, had a mother-in-law, and every bishop today is less than him. That monks are to be chaste is one part of a deeper reality: a monk is to be a whole burnt offering without remainder, and the reality in the Orthodox Church is that married men may be among the clergy, but its highest rank in particular is chosen from the monks who are peculiarly called to die to the world and be a whole burnt offering without remainder.
The Akathist to the Theotokos tells of the Magi, “The sons of the Chaldees saw in the hands of the Virgin Him Who with His Hand made man. And knowing him to be the Master, even though He had taken the form of a servant, they hastened to serve Him with gifts, and to cry to Her Who is blessed… Rejoice, Thou Who didst enlighten the initiates of the Trinity!” There is a a link here. The sons of the Chaldees came bearing gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each of these gifts is an emblem: gold of royalty, frankincense of divinity, and myrrh of suffering or sacrifice. And in this trinity of gifts, you cannot rightly pick up one without picking up the others. Every Christian must bear his cross, and if you read the lives of the saints, those who are fragrant with Heaven’s incense are fragrant after a life with deep suffering: they are fragrant with myrrh as sacrifices. And if the question is, “What is a king?” one answer would be, “One whose spirit is gold, but gold that is of one substance with frankincense and myrrh.” It is confusion to want to be a king, but have gold without myrrh. Better to recognize that kingship, divinity, and suffering are of the same substance as they appear in the great hymn to humility:
Let this mind be in you,
Which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God,
Thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation,
And took upon him the form of a servant,
And was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man,
He humbled himself,
And became obedient unto death,
Even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
And given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
Of things in heaven,
And things in earth,
And things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
Here is humility. Here are gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Mystical theology to live out
There is something we are missing if we understand monarchy only as a system of government. The Orthodox Church has words about how oil is used to anoint kings and priests, but these words are from when all the faithful are summoned to be anointed in Holy Week. The image we are made in is not only divine: it is royal. Myrrh is the emblem of sacrifice, of human approach to the divine; oil is the emblem of the divine approach to humans, and it is no mistake that anointing chrism is for all Christians: from ancient times Christ, which is to say the Anointed One, was understood to be anointed with the sacred oil that made prophet, priest, and king. And from ancient times the Church sees that anointing as given to Christians too. It is fashionable to claim a Facebook profile religious affiliation that over-modestly says, “Follower of Jesus”; I have wished it would be appropriate to answer with a stated affiliation of, “Alter christus: ‘follower of Jesus’ means ‘another Christ’!” But that could be over-forceful.
If we are kings, what are we kings of? One chief answer is that we are kings over our work. Whether we be working professionally, or homemaking, or learning how to grow up, or job hunting, or retired and volunteering, all of us are called to work and to work is to reign in the activity of the royal image. Secondly, we are called to rule over ourselves in ascesis. The “Sol Invictus” claim of “I am the master of my fate, I am the master of my soul” is an obscene parody; in quite a different way, in the ascesis of our lives, God summons us to serve as bishop and monarch over ourselves and our passions, conquering them and ultimately being God’s co-worker as they are transfigured. He who says “stewardship” says “royal reign”: if we are to be careful stewards of our time, treasure, and talent, we are to reign faithfully in these, and in other areas of life, in our relationships and in our solitude, we are to reign. And this is real reign.
When I was a graduate student in theology, I winced when people tried to pay me a compliment by saying that by my obscure sources and scholarly rigor I had a real, serious understanding of the Bible, and they merely had a lightweight, devotional understanding of the Bible. I respected the humble appreciation, but this was an entirely backwards understanding. The Bible in its real and dynamic form is used liturgically and devotionally; my difficult scholarly commentaries had a place but were something dead compared to the living devotional use of the Bible. “In humility consider others better than yourself” is spiritually sound, but I winced that people could say that my academic exercises were serious Bible study and their devotional reading was second-rate and fluffy. And in like fashion, monarchy is misunderstood if it means only that one person out of many exercises a political reign. It is a basic spiritual reality, and God summons all of us to be prophet, priest, and monarch.
A potent warning
I have written elsewhere:
Seekest thou a mighty deed,
Our broken world to straighten out?
Seek it not! Knowest thou not,
That the accursed axe ever wielded in the West,
To transform society, with a program to improve,
Is a wicked axe, ever damned,
And hath a subtle backswing, and most grievous?
Wittest thou not that to heal in such manner,
Is like to bearing the sword,
To smite a dead man to life therewith?
Know rather the time-honeyed words,
True and healthgiving when first spoken,
Beyond lifesaving in our own time:
And ten thousand around thee shall be saved.
In our time and place, this warning is one well worth heeding. One poster I saw showed a picture of Hitler and said, “Politicians. The best argument for monarchy yet.” I find it awfully hard to say that we live under an optimal government. But it’s an impulse shared with a Western half-converter to organize a manifesto to restore monarchy. A manifesto is an axe to depose kings; it is a fundamental error to try to approach monarchy through political activism as promulgated by the West for when you really care and want to make a difference. The fundamental error is almost:
Category Mistake, n. An assumption embodied in an inappropriate question, inquiring about an undefined attribute, such as, “Is yellow square or round?”, “Is the doctrine of the Trinity calm or excited?”, or “What was the point of that speech?”
To those who are convinced that kingship is ordained by God, I would recall Christ’s sharp question: “Which is greater, the gold of the temple, or the temple which makes that gold sacred?” The gold of earthly kingdoms may be sacred as liberal inventions are not. But the temple of the Kingdom of Heaven is greater, and that is a Kingdom that is established in us. Perhaps it is best to have both the gold and the temple that makes the gold sacred, but that does not mean we should leave the temple so we can bring some gold to be made sacred in it. The Sermon on the Mount bids us, impels us, commands us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” If there is to be a God-ordained restoration of monarchy, it will be one of “all these things” that “shall be added unto you.” It is a matter of “Save thyself, and ten thousand around thee will be saved.” If you leave this to be practical, you are picking up an axe that cannot but lay waste when its backswing hits.
There may be said to be two archetypes, the saint and the activist. The saint lives to contemplate God; even if this means a life of ascesis (as one monk described monastic life, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up,”), and never reach contemplation in its pure sense, laity in the world live for contemplation. By contrast, the activist lives to change the world, and the activist impulse is like a hydra: cut it off once, and it resurfaces in two other places. But it is not lawful to Orthodox. Many Orthodox saints have changed the world, but this was only because their goal was the goal of contemplation. Orthodoxy has no saying, with the activist, of “Try to make a plan a reality, and you may save ten thousand people.” She only says, and can say, “Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved:” Orthodoxy is not served by the activist, only by the saint.
And be advised that the wicked axe, ever damned, works just as well when people try to recover past glory as when people try to create something new. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, neo-Paganism, are but reincarnations of one single phenomenon: people trying to recover long past glory, break off continuities with the immediate past, and separate themselves in a schism further from the recent and ancient past alike. If you reconstruct monarchy, be ready for a backswing that will leave a society further, not closer, to the glory of human monarchy.
But there is another option. Save thyself, and God will change the game.