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Herodotus: And what say thou of these people? Why callest thou them the Singularity, Merlin?
John: Mine illuminèd name is John, and John shall ye call me each and every one.
Herodotus: But the Singularity is such as only a Merlin could have unravelled.
John: Perchance: but the world is one of which only an illuminèd one may speak aright. Call thou me as one illuminèd, if thou wouldst hear me speak.
Herodotus: Of illumination speakest thou. Thou sawest with the eye of the hawk: now seest thou with the eye of the eagle.
John: If that be, speak thou me as an eagle?
Herodotus: A point well taken, excellent John, excellent John. What speakest thou of the Singularity?
John: A realm untold, to speak is hard. But of an icon will I speak: inscribed were words:
‘Waitress, is this coffee or tea?’
‘What does it taste like?’
‘IT TASTES LIKE DIESEL FUEL.’
‘That’s the coffee. The tea tastes like transmission fluid.’
Herodotus: Upon what manner of veneration were this icon worshipped?
John: That were a matter right subtle, too far to tell.
Herodotus: And of the inscription? That too be subtle to grasp.
John: Like as a plant hath sap, so a subtle engine by their philosophy wrought which needeth diesel fuel and transmission fluid.
Herodotus: [laughs] Then ’twere a joke, a jape! ‘Tis well enough told!
John: You perceive it yet?
Herodotus: A joke, a jape indeed, of a fool who could not tell, two different plants were he not to taste of their sap! Well spoke! Well spoke!
John: Thou hast grasped it afault, my fair lord. For the subtle engine hath many different saps, no two alike.
Herodotus: And what ambrosia be in their saps?
John: Heaven save us! The saps be a right unnatural fare; their substance from rotted carcasses of monsters from aeons past, then by the wisdom of their philosophy transmogrified, of the subtle engine.
Herodotus: Then they are masters of Alchemy?
John: Masters of an offscouring of all Alchemy, of the lowest toe of that depravèd ascetical enterprise, chopped off, severed from even the limb, made hollow, and then growen beyond all reason, into the head of reason.
Herodotus: Let us leave off this and speak of the icon. The icon were for veneration of such subtle philosophy?
John: No wonder, no awe, greeteth he who regardest this icon and receive it as is wont.
Herodotus: As is wont?
John: As is wanton. For veneration and icons are forcèd secrets; so there is an antithesis of the sacra pagina, and upon its light pages the greatest pages come upon the most filled with lightness, the icons of a world that knoweth icons not.
Let me make another essay.
The phrase ‘harmony with nature’ is of popular use, yet a deep slice of the Singularity, or what those inside the Singularity can see of it, might be called, ‘harmony with technology’.
Herodotus: These be mystics of technology.
John: They live in an artificial jungle of technology, or rather an artificial not-jungle of technology, an artificial anti-jungle of technology. For one example, what do you call the natural use of wood?
Herodotus: A bundle of wood is of course for burning.
John: And they know of using wood for burning, but it is an exotic, rare case to them; say ‘wood’ and precious few will think of gathering wood to burn.
Herodotus: Then what on earth do they use wood for? Do they eat it when food is scarce or something like that?
John: Say ‘wood’ and not exotic ‘firewood’, and they will think of building a house.
Herodotus: So then they are right dexterous, if they can build out of a bundle of gathered sticks instead of burning it.
John: They do not gather sticks such as you imagine. They fell great trees, and cut the heartwood into rectangular box shapes, which they fit together in geometrical fashion. And when it is done, they make a box, or many boxes, and take rectangles hotly fused sand to fill a window. And they add other philosophy on top of that, so that if the house is well-built, the air inside will be pleasant and still, unless they take a philosophical machine to push air, and whatever temperature the people please, and it will remain dry though the heavens be opened in rain. And most of their time is spent in houses, or other ‘buildings’ like a house in this respect.
Herodotus: What a fantastical enterprise! When do they enter such buildings?
John: When do they rather go out of them? They consider it normal to spend less than an hour a day outside of such shelters; the subtle machine mentioned earlier moves but it is like a house built out of metal in that it is an environment entirely contrived by philosophy and artifice to, in this case, convey people from one place to another.
Herodotus: How large is this machine? It would seem to have to be very big to convey all their people.
John: But this is a point where their ‘technology’ departs from the art that is implicit in τεχνη: it is in fact not a lovingly crafted work of art, shaped out of the spirit of that position ye call ‘inventor’ or ‘artist’, but poured out by the thousands by gigantical machines yet more subtle, and in the wealth of the Singularity, well nigh unto each hath his own machine.
Herodotus: And how many can each machine can convey? Perchance a thousand?
John: Five, or six, or two peradventure, but the question is what they would call ‘academical’: the most common use is to convey one.
Herodotus: They must be grateful for such property and such philosophy!
John: A few are very grateful, but the prayer, ‘Let us remember those less fortunate than ourselves’ breathes an odor that sounds truly archaical. It sounds old, old enough to perhaps make half the span of a man’s life. And such basic technology, though they should be very much upset to lose them, never presents itself to their mind’s eye when they hear the word ‘technology’. And indeed, why should it present itself to the mind his eye?
Herodotus: I strain to grasp thy thread.
John: To be thought of under the heading of ‘technology’, two things must hold. First, it must be possessed of an artificial unlife, not unlike the unlife of their folklore’s ghouls and vampires and zombies. And second, it must be of recent vintage, something not to be had until a time that is barely past. Most of the technologies they imagine provide artificially processed moving images, some of which are extremely old—again, by something like half the span of a man’s life—while some are new. Each newer version seemeth yet more potent. To those not satisfied with the artificial environment of an up-to-date building, regarded by them as something from time immemorial, there are unlife images of a completely imaginary artificial world where their saying ‘when pigs can fly’ meaning never is in fact one of innumerable things that happen in the imaginary world portrayed by the technology. ‘SecondLife’ offers a second alternative to human life, or so it would seem, until ‘something better comes along.’
Herodotus: My mind, it reeleth.
John: Well it reeleth. But this be but a sliver.
For life to them is keeping one’s balance on shifting sand; they have great museums of different products, as many as the herbs of the field. But herein lies a difference: we know the herbs of the field, which have virtues, and what the right use is. They know as many items produced by philosophy, but they are scarce worse for the deal when they encounter an item they have never met before. For while the herbs of the field be steady across generations and generations, the items belched forth by their subtle philosophy change not only within the span of a man’s life; they change year to year; perchance moon to moon.
Herodotus: Thou sayest that they can navigate a field they know not?
John: Aye, and more. The goal at which their catechism aims is to ‘learn how to learn’; the appearance and disappearance of kinds of items is a commonplace to them. And indeed this is not only for the items we use as the elements of our habitat: catechists attempt to prepare people for roles that exist not yet even as the students are being taught.
Though this be sinking sand they live in, they keep balance, of a sort, and do not find this strange. And they adapt to the changes they are given.
Herodotus: It beseemeth me that thou speakest as of a race of Gods.
John: A race of Gods? Forsooth! Thou knowest not half of the whole if thou speakest thus.
Herodotus: What remaineth?
John: They no longer think of making love as an action that in particular must needeth include an other.
Herodotus: I am stunned.
John: And the same is true writ large or writ small. A storyteller of a faintly smaller degree, living to them in ages past, placed me in an icon:
The Stranger mused for a few seconds, then, speaking in a slightly singsong voice, as though he repeated an old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:
‘Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?’
Ransom replied, ‘Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursede people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.’
The storyteller saw and saw not his future. ‘Tis rare in the Singularity to fabricate children ‘by vile arts in a secret place’. But the storyteller plays us false when he assumes their interest would be in a ‘cunningly fashioned image of the other’. Truer it would be to say that the men, by the fruits of philosophy, jump from one libidinous dream to another whilest awake.
John: A prophet told them, the end will come when no man maketh a road to his neighbors. And what has happened to marriage has happened, by different means but by the same spirit, to friendship. Your most distant acquaintanceship to a fellow member is more permanent than their marriage; it is routine before the breakable God-created covenant of marriage to make unbreakable man-made covenants about what to do if, as planned for, the marriage ends in divorce. And if that is to be said of divorce, still less is the bond of friendship. Their own people have talked about how ‘permanent relationships’, including marriage and friendship, being replaced by ‘disposable relationships’ which can be dissolved for any and every reason, and by ‘disposable relationships’ to ‘transactional relationships’, which indeed have not even the pretension of being something that can be kept beyond a short transaction for any and every reason.
And the visits have been eviscerated, from a conversation where voice is delivered and vision is stripped out, to a conversation where words alone are transmitted without even hand writing; from a conversation where mental presence is normative to a conversation where split attention is expected. ‘Tis yet rarely worth the bother to make a physical trail, though they yet visit. And their philosophy, as it groweth yet more subtle, groweth yet more delicate. ‘Twould scarcely require much to ‘unplug’ it. And then, perhaps, the end will come?
Herodotus: Then there be a tragic beauty to these people.
John: A tragic beauty indeed.
Herodotus: What else hast thou to tell of them?
John: Let me give a little vignette:
Several men and women are in a room; all are fulfilling the same role, and they are swathed with clothing that covers much of their skin. And the differences between what the men wear, and what most of the women wear, are subtle enough that most of them do not perceive a difference.
Herodotus: Can they not perceive the difference between a man and a woman?
John: The sensitivity is dulled in some, but it is something they try to overlook. But I have not gotten to the core of this vignette:
One of them indicateth that had they be living several thousand years ago they would not have had need of clothing, not for modesty at least, and there are nods of agreement to her. And they all imagine such tribal times to be times of freedom, and their own to be of artificial restriction.
And they fail to see, by quite some measure, that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than being without clothing; or that their buildings deaden all of a million sources of natural awareness: the breeze blowing and the herbs waving in the wind; scents and odours as they appear; song of crickets’ kin chirping and song of bird, the sun as it shines through cloud; animals as they move about, and the subtleties and differences in the forest as one passes through it. They deaden all of these sensitivities and variations, until there is only one form of life that provides stimulation: the others who are working in one’s office. Small wonder, then, that to a man one woman demurely covered in an office has an effect that a dozen women wearing vines in a jungle would never have. But the libertines see themselves as repressed, and those they compare themselves to as, persay, emancipated.
Herodotus: At least they have the option of dressing modestly. What else hast thou?
John: There is infinitely more, and there is nothing more. Marriage is not thought of as open to children; it can be dissolved in divorce; it need not be intrinsically exclusive; a further installment in the package, played something like a pawn in a game of theirs, is that marriage need not be between a man and a woman. And if it is going to be dismantled to the previous portion, why not? They try to have a world without marriage, by their changes to marriage. The Singularity is a disintegration; it grows more and more, and what is said for marriage could be said for each of the eight devils: intertwined with this is pride, and it is only a peripheral point that those who further undefine marriage speak of ‘gay pride’. A generation before, not mavericks but the baseline of people were told they needed a ‘high self-esteem’, and religious leaders who warned about pride as a sin, perhaps as the sin by which the Devil fell from Heaven, raised no hue and cry that children were being raised to embrace pride as a necessary ascesis. And religion itself is officially permitted some role, but a private role: not that which fulfills the definition of religare in binding a society together. It is in some measure like saying, ‘You can speak any language you want, as long as you utter not a word in public discourse’: the true religion of the Singularity is such ersatz religion as the Singularity provides. Real religion is expected to wither in private.
The Singularity sings a song of progress, and it was giving new and different kinds of property; even now it continues. But its heart of ice showeth yet. For the march of new technologies continues, and with them poverty: cracks begin to appear, and the writing on the wall be harder to ignore. What is given with one hand is not-so-subtly taken away with the other. The Singularity is as needful to its dwellers as forest or plain to its dwellers, and if it crumbles, precious few will become new tribal clans taking all necessities from the land.
Herodotus: Then it beseemeth the tragedy outweigheth the beauty, or rather there is a shell of beauty under a heart of ice.
John:But there are weeds.
Herodotus: What is a weed?
John: It is a plant.
Herodotus: What kind of plant is a weed? Are the plants around us weeds?
John: They are not.
Herodotus: Then what kinds of plants are weeds?
John: In the Singularity, there is a distinction between ‘rural’, ‘suburban’, and ‘urban’: the ‘rural’ has deliberately set plants covering great tracts of land, the ‘suburban’ has fewer plants, if still perhaps green all around, and the ‘urban’ has but the scattered ensconced tree. But in all of them are weeds, in an urban area plants growing where the artificial stone has cracked. And among the natural philosophers there are some who study the life that cannot be extinguished even in an urban city; their specialty is called ‘urban ecology’. The definition of a weed is simply, ‘A plant I do not want.’ We do not have weeds because we do not seek an artificial envionment with plants only present when we have put them there. But when people seek to conform the environment to wishes and plans, even in the tight discipline of planned urban areas, weeds are remarkably persistent.
And in that regard, weeds are a tiny sliver of something magnificent.
Herodotus: What would that be?
John: The durability of Life that is writ small in a weed here in the urban, there in the suburban is but a shadow of the durabiity of Life that lives on in the sons of men. Mothers still sing lullabyes to their dear little children; friendships form and believers pray at church far more than happened in the age where my story was told, a story dwarfed by what was called the ‘age of faith’. The intensity of the attacks on the Church in a cruel social witness are compelled to bear unwilling witness to the vitality of the Church whose death has been greatly exaggerated: and indeed that Church is surging with vitality after surviving the attacks. The story told seems to tell of Life being, in their idiom, ‘dealt a card off every side of the deck’—and answering, ‘Checkmate, I win.’ I have told of the differences, but there are excellent similarities, and excellent differences. For a knight whoso commandeth a wild and unbridled horse receiveth greater commendation than a knight whoso commandeth a well-bred and gentle steed.
Herodotus: The wind bloweth where it listeth. The just shall live by his faith. Your cell, though it be wholly artificial, will teach you everything you need to know.
John: Thou hast eagerly grasped it; beyond beauty, tragedy, and beyond tragedy, beauty. Thou hast grasped it true.
I write as someone who grew up first having my father read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at bedtime (my Mom recounted how Matthew and I were wide awake even when my father was nodding off), then reading The Chronicles of Narnia again and again, and eventually reading practically every essay, book, and story of Lewis’s that I could get my hands on. I’ve read “Dymer” and The Discarded Image and am aware of one and only one major work of Lewis’s that I have not read, a textbook that to my knowledge has not been superseded. I have been told that I write like an Englishman; if that is true, it is much more probably Lewis’s influence than anyone else.
And, as Orthodox, I have written A Pilgrimage from Narnia and backed away from Lewis’s objective of “mere Christianity”. I still respect Lewis, but the Orthodox Church has a great many treasures and some of them are not even hinted at when he presents standard Christianity.
Having finally gotten around to finding what to do with free time after some generous time off from holidays and recuperating from sickness (my job and my boss are really good), I reread C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, in the hope that it would inspire something for me to write. Partway through I imagined a work consisting entirely of questions about how Druidry is envisioned in That Hideous Strength. And in the end I arrived at inspiration for something to write, albeit not something I either welcomed or envisioned.
A physics teacher or show, I don’t remember which, said that the Holy Grail of physics would be a so-called “Grand Unified Theory”, which would essentially mean that everything we know about physics could be boiled down to a set of equations that could be written on one half of a side of a sheet of paper. And something, in a perverse way, is true for ancient Druids. Almost everything we reliably know about them could be written on one half of a sheet of paper. They are almost unknown from historical sources, and almost equally inaccessible to archaeological knowing: one source, cited in the Wikipedia article, says, “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.”
Now there were ancient writers about Druids; Roman Caesars had something to say about the Druids of Gaul. But if their accounts were written today, they would be called Orientalist and dismissed even for grounds other than political correctness.
For those not familiar with the label of ‘Orientalism’, I would recall a conversation I sat in on at Cambridge, with German student who was researching for a thesis on 18th century English Orientalist views on China, and a Chinese student. The Chinese student, understandably enough, thought the German student would know a fair amount about China. But she did not, or at least she said she did not. And perhaps the German student was understating her knowledge: perhaps her flawless command of the English language was accompanied by a flawless command of English manners. But she very well may not have known anything real about China: not because she was an academic professional slouch, but simply because Western Orientalist views of China are so far disconnected from life in China that even extensive understanding of China would not shed much light on Orientalism as studied.
Orientalist views are a projection: Charles Baudelaire’s “tout n’est que l’ordre, luxe, calme et volupté” (“there is nothing but order, luxury, calm, and voluptuousness”) really tells us nothing about any of the Asian constellation of cultures, and much about… Charles Baudelaire. Trying to read Orientalist sources to understand the people described is like trying to read a book of dirty jokes to understand the psyche of beautiful women. A “beautiful woman” in dirty jokes is only a projection of male desire, and unrefined male desire at that; beautiful women may exist well enough but their psyches are not to be found from dirty jokes, and Orientalism is far enough from reality that it actually makes sense for a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, studying English Orientalism about China, to simply not attempt to understand much of Chinese culture: she might have been saving her elbow grease for topics that would actually illuminate her understanding of English views of China, and China and Chinese culture themselves were not among them.
The Roman reports we have of ancient Druids may illuminate something about Rome, although we have much knowledge of Rome already; they are Orientalist and do not tell us much about Druids. And again, what we reliably know about ancient Druids can fit on one half of one side of a sheet of paper.
Now what, in specific, did I find haunting about That Hideous Strength? Not all of it, and for that matter there is much in the book that is not objectionable; Lewis describes it as a counterpart to The Abolition of Man, which is deep and truthful through and through. But there is an occult bent, not entirely hidden, and there was something that made my skin creep this time through when Venus’s influence on Ransom’s house is elaborated by saying that there is a lot of copper to be found around it. A quick Google search later for “Venus copper alchemy” turns up what I already really knew: that there is some identification between Venus and copper in alchemy. (I didn’t go beyond the first search engine results page. Nor am I convinced it would have been particularly wise.) The Melchizedek mentioned is the immortal Melchizedek of alchemy, not the prefiguring type of Christ in the Bible.
As a rule, Lewis sticks to what he, and a great many in his wake, calls “mere Christianity.” That is, he tried as a rule to stick to those things that Christians had held in common for twenty centuries, and while a couple of clarifications to this might be given, in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan appears somewhat as a traveler from afar; the question of who Aslan’s mother might be and what significance she might hold is never even whispered and the reader is drawn into the narrative in such a way that the question probably never arises in the reader’s mind. And with a nod of recognition to the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia are not a deliberately concocted allegory (and that it betrays a profound misunderstanding to read the book as a coded catechism), there is a reason the reader is never invited to even think about Aslan’s mother: the question of who Christ’s mother is, how great or small, and what it means for her to be great, has been an area of disagreement among Christians. Orthodox venerate her primarily as Mother, Catholics as Virgin, Puritans saw an ordinary mortal woman who is not to be venerated on pain of idolatry, and perhaps many Protestants today see as an “agree to disagree” matter, that is, not an essential question to Christianity. With obscure exceptions, Lewis rarely if ever discusses the place of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, because “mere Christianity” such as he tried to limit himself to meets a bit of obstacle in the question of who is Mary and how we should relate to her, because there has been no “mere Christian” agreement such as Lewis argues, and the question is significant enough that any stance in it is profound, specifically including “It’s been centuries now. Can’t we just agree to disagree?”
I should like to clear away a distraction now and say that I am not bothered by Lewis’s portrayal of devils, nor am I bothered by the presence of devils in the fictional work corresponding to The Abolition of Man, in which devils are not explicitly mentioned. In thatsense the fictional portrayal is, if anything, more true than The Abolition of Man, as the project and doctrines critiqued in The Abolition of Man are, to put it bluntly, inspired by diabolical plans. To anyone who objects to the discussion of devils in Lewis’s work, I would say that Lewis understands spiritual struggle and his discussion of devils is true to the mark, or more pointedly that the one work which is the Orthodox Church’s canonical anthology of post-Biblical spiritual classics is the Philokalia, and the Philokalia spends more time discussing devils and their operations than any other work I’ve read. The fact that Lewis portrays diabolical plans as impinging on human history is no irresponsibility as a novelist, nor need it be chalked up to poetic conceit. If Lewis were to deny that his story of a diabolical assault on the earth were an unreal kind of story to tell, plenty of Orthodox at least might say that even if Lewis were to present it as a poetic conceit, it is no more a fantastic kind of thing to introduce to a story than Mary and Jane Studdock’s getting hungry and tired.
Now the book, being labeled “a fairy-tale for grown-ups” by its author, should be given room for poetic license. However, amidst explanation of things that are mere Christianity and which were already under attack when Lewis wrote the book, is separated by no clear divider by Lewis from the less popular elements of mere Christianity that he defends. And these speculations are not Orthodox, nor Catholic, nor Methodist, nor Calvinist, nor Anabaptist, nor any major thread of what he considered mere Christianity, but occult in character, and these may be the most seductive passages in a book that seduces well enough with Truth. A discussion surrounds Merlin and related topics:
What exactly he [Merlin] had done there [in Bragdon wood, where he was believed to be in suspended animation under a university campus] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far to either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their forbidden books, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this was doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.
But if the only possible attraction of Bragdon lay in its association with the last vestiges of Atlantean magic, this told the company something else…
The paragraph may make some readers want to read the book. Now I can accept something like Lewis’s poetic conceit, if it is poetic conceit. I do not see the division between Merlin’s age and our own, or whatever older thing there may have been that had a last survival in Merlin’s age. Animism or old-fashioned paganism are different from the Renaissance magus or today’s neo-Pagan as a virgin is different from a woman divorced. The man who practices the animism he learned at his mother’s knee as a member of his tribe or clan is a very different picture from the Renaissance magus, who bears a sword with which to cut through their society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy with it. The traditional animist is embedded in the fabric of his society’s existence; the Renaissance magus stood over and against society, viewing it as a rather despicable raw material to be used in Utopian plans; it is the Renaissance magus whose mantle left behind has created what we now know as political ideologies. “(though this was doubtful) been less guilty”: animism and Renaissance magic alike put men in thrall to devils, and one hears of a missionary starting to converse with a local who knew the Bible, and nervously being pulled aside, and rightly told that he was a witch doctor. But I had rather find myself in the company of the traditional animist, who had no messianic fantasy about how to transform the world, than a magus. And in that qualified sense I agree to a point that is connected to Lewis’s, even though it differs and may differ significantly.
There are phrases and sections that give a thrill. At one point it is mentioned that Ransom’s company has a knowledge of XYZ point of Arthuriana that orthodox Arthurian scholarship would not reach for several centuries. But when I look at things in the book that thrilled me most, they seemed if anything to be poisoned. A lost world is a haunting reality; this is true of any finished epoch in history but the Atlantean society and magic Merlin represents are doubly exotic.
The blaring obvious
Perhaps most obvious of the ways that the story is occult is its Arthurian themes. I have read quite a lot of medieval Arthurian legends by today’s standards, quite a lot: the Brut, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Mallory, but that only scratches the surface of even just the medieval tellings. The best way I can think of concisely describing Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is as a terse thousand page synopsis of the library’s worth of sources Mallory himself read. Now any serious student of the Arthurian legends will acknowledge that Mallory didn’t just abridge; he made transformations of his work and rendered cycles of romances to be a little more like a novel. And I wrote my own riff on the Arthurian legends in The Sign of the Grail, and the best way I can describe that is that I tried to write a Christian treatment of the Arthurian legends, and even in my successes I found the thing I was attempting was impossible. (I have not read Robert de Borron, arguably the medieval author I should most have read as he made the most effort to draw the legends into the Christian fold.) And there are things absent from the narrative that are abundantly present in the legends: the Puritan critique I am aware of is not that magical phenomena lurk around every corner and supply practically every plot device, nor the married flirting of courtly love (my brother years ago asked me, “If [Sir Lancelot]’s such a great knight, how come he has a crush on the queen?”), or for that matter of open adultery such as the story of Tristram and Yseult that was drawn into Arthurian orbit, but rather the Puritans raised objections to unending pages of open manslaughter. I would, off the cuff, place the combats between knights as at least half of Mallory and easily half of the Brut, as combat with it being a frequent occurrence for two mighty knights to hack each other to death’s door and be well a fortnight later. In that regard the legends are comparable to a U.S. R-rated action-adventure movie: there may be sex, but the bulk of the R comes from violence.
But the Arthurian legends are deeply occult, and it takes no heresiologist who has studied occult symbols to find treacherous occult symbolism behind seeming innocence. It is plain on a naive reading that magic and magical phenomena is a pillar of Arthurian foundations. And at the risk of a daft comparison between Lewis and myself, I will mention that Lewis also neglects completely the interminable fighting of medieval Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and the central Arthurian figure Lewis brings is not Ransom (who has enough transcendence and wonder of his own), but Merlin, who is the riveting center of attention in the company of Ransom before he is awakened and even more rivets attention on himself once he has entered the picture in the most direct sense. One definition of a rounded character in literature is not about having such-and-such many attributes defined, but of believably surprising the reader. Lewis’s Merlin is perhaps the most concentrated character in believable surprises in all of the literature I have read; he far eclipses the other characters, even Ransom, in a book whose characters are rounded enough. That Hideous Strength represents the culmination of a trilogy of which the first two books are not in particular Arthurian; Lewis does a deft job of shifting courses between Out of the Silent Planet to Perelandra, where the Unman appears and tells his tales to an Unfallen Eve, although here, even as he uses the symbolism of Mars and Venus much as John Gray does, he has two genders. In That Hideous Strength he discusses “the Seven Genders” in a way unconsciously unsettling to someone who had embraced his use of astrological symbolism in Perelandra the two genders covered are in fact two basic realities we would do well to acknowledge; in That Hideous Strength this is diluted and the genders represent more seven generic qualities than gender or sex as we know them; this is no gender rainbow, or at very least no conscious gender rainbow, but it muddies the foundation laid in Perelandra. And when Lewis joins That Hideous Strength to the other two, deftly, he incorporates an element that is arguably more occult than the stories or supernatural plot element to be found in the other two books. He welds in the Arthurian legends, and the central Arthurian character in the book is the most magical, the Devil’s son (though this attribution is denied in the text). And the result is more occult than the astrology, which a perceptive reader of Lewis and the Middle Ages—and not the average Joe C.S. Lewis fan—is not about what is called (in a muddy term) “judicial astrology,” the casting of horoscopes to inform a day’s decisions, but something more like a worldview where the influences of the planets did the job of science as an overall enterprise, and “judicial astrology” was more like the specific application of science in engineering: perhaps a valid distinction if Lewis was writing for other medievalists only, but a subtle and not-at-all-obvious distinction given the fact that C.S. Lewis was probably the twentieth century’s best loved Christian author and Perelandra and That Hideous Strength were written for a reading public who had no clue of the distinction between today’s (judicial) astrology and the outlook represented by medieval astrology as a whole. C.S. Lewis did write, I believe in the well-named The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, that people in the Middle Ages or more probably the Renaissance would be astonished that astrology was lumped in with magic by readers today: magic asserted human power, while astrology asserted human impotence. Any number of such subtle distinctions can be made, but they are overly fine to the majority audience of the twentieth century’s most popular Christian writer, the overwhelming majority of whom do not have enough history to understand how you can use and apparently endorse major astrological themes without being in the same league of the “Star Scrolls” sold in vending machines that I as a little boy wanted so much and my mother firmly forbade.
Now it may be asked, “Did you not read the label? Lewis offered a fairy tale for grown-ups.” And this categorization both is and is not true; it seems to represent a fair description where categories break down. The characterization and plot are those of a modern novel; the only novel-length book I have read that I would characterize as a fairy tale is Phantastes, by Lewis’s role model, George MacDonald. Psychological as opposed to a more mythic motivation moves all of the characters; Lewis does deal in archetypal characters and fills The Chronicles of Narnia with the repentant traitor, the apostate: but he does not deal in the minutia of their psychology. He does deal with the minutia of how Mark Studdock comes to reject the N.I.C.E. and of how Jane Studdock refuses to be open to the embrace of a child. Of my own writing, The Fairy Prince hovers on the allegorical, and does not hover over the minutia of its characters’ psychology even when a profound change is implied. Firestorm 2034 is speculative fiction, looks at its characters’ psychology, and I would only with reservation call it a fairy tale. (If I were to choose a term for it, it would be “culture fiction”, a term applicable to some degree to most of my fiction.) If I were to bring a paragraph’s description of That Hideous Strength into a fragment of a sentence, I’m not sure I could do better. But That Hideous Strength is a novel, some of the best speculative fiction around, but not a fairy tale.
And all of this is beside the point. The basic moral question that I raise here is, “Does That Hideous Strength arouse a haunting lust for things occult?” And if it does, this represents a flaw, whether or not it may also be called a fairy-tale for adults. Arousing impure desire is a flaw to Christian writing, and this is not just true of sexual lust. There are other lusts around, and merely sexual lust is somewhat dwarfed by lusting for magic (or, really, magick), which is properly called an unnatural vice. And this latter thirst is a propeller inThat Hideous Strength.
A complication: Turning back the clock?
The rough draft as I created it had a section that I later took out; partly because it was loosely connected with the main point as originally envisioned, and partly because a friend’s disagreement suggested that it might be a liability to include. After thinking further, I wish to re-include it:
There is some speculation in the book that, if not specifically occult, is at least speculation and not mere Christianity:
“But about Merlin?” asked Mrs. Dimble presently.
“Have you ever noticed,” said Dimble, “that the universe and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?”
His wife waited as those wait who know by long experience the mental processes of the person who is talking to them.
“I mean this,” said Dimble in answer to the question she had not asked. “If you dip into any college, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point where there is even less room for indecision and the choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder…”
The Orthodox Church may know of a decisive turning point in the Incarnation of Christ, and perhaps others, but not of less elbow room by the year. If anything, in Orthodoxy in my time and locale, things are a free for all compared to the sharp Church discipline of the ancient church. Sins are lightly forgiven that would have a period of penitence of years’ exclusion for communion. There are multiple bishops in any number of cities, and while things might not usually match the former Anglican free for all in the Western Rite, today’s Orthodoxy looks like a madhouse compared to better times—until you recognize why nineteenth century Russia has been called a Gnostic wonderland with everything to satisfy damnable curiosities, and the great Christological Ecumenical Councils of the fourth century were called, not because there was a golden age, but precisely because of how serious the problems were. The state of Orthodoxy today may look like a madhouse by historic standards, but still a Heaven that has beckoned in Orthodoxy in every age beckons now. Despair is no more an option than the legalism of “True Orthodoxy” or “Genuine Orthodoxy.” There is if anything more elbow room today than historically, certainly more this year than last year.
And there are other things that could complicate things. Christ counterculturally held a child as the model for entering into the Kingdom; when he chose his disciples, the last, “as one untimely born” (i.e. as a miscarriage) had top-notch scholarly learning; apart from St. Paul, Christ selected a diverse group of apostles who were children as far as book-learning was concerned. But more to the point, if we accept the process of maturity as described in the paragraph above, it must be remarked that this is a truth of personal development: I as a child appropriately spoke, understood, and reason as a child, but my coming to an age to put childish things behind me do not mean that it is wrong for the youngest members of my parish to speak, understand as a child. And my childhood was not license for my grandparents to behave as befits a child. Things may grow sharper with people’s processes of maturity; or may not: but this is a personal process, not a universal law. And on the key point under discussion in this passage, concerning magic and the relationship between spirit and matter. I have suggested earlier, in contradistinction to Lewis’s timeline portrayal, that the opposite of the Renaissance magus is not a member of some almost-forgotten College of magic that has left traces on our literature, but was becoming extinct in the sixth century, but animism, as learned at a mother’s knee and as practiced by cultures since before recorded history and continues to be practiced today.
Let me quote more of the same passage:
“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time… Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart.”…
“But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were more like physical actions.”…
“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”
My Orthodox response, is “That’s not what Rome would call a doctrinal development. It’s a Western perversion.” Regarding the first point on literature, we are indeed more specialized but as regards Bible translation we are worse. The King James Version is my preferred translation when I am reading in English, even though I have read any translation I wanted to. Someone has said, “The problem with the King James Version is the translators’ shaky grasp of Hebrew; the problem with all modern translations is the translators’ increasingly shaky grasp of English.” The issue Lewis was concerned about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed has changed only by further specialization. And the difference between the King James Version and modern translations is that the King James Version is the work of Renaissance men, polymaths who were both scholars of original languages and wordsmiths in their own right, and often quite devout. By contrast, the average modern Bible translator is a specialist of the sort Lewis raised concerns about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed, a specialist in ancient language and culture who is no published wordsmith at least. This is not a good thing, and that is part of why even though the King James Version used language that was old-fashioned when the translation was new, it has not been superseded in quality, even though the NIV (Now Indispensable Version) has exceeded it in current sales. Poetry and prose indeed grow further apart, to their detriment. Part of why G.K. Chesterton has his own following is that his prose never really leaves poetry behind; I’ve seen a Calvinist quote a passage from Chesterton that explicitly condemns Calvinism, partly because even though it condemned his beliefs it brought together the best of poetry and prose and bore a truth he could (in general) recognize. Now it may be commented that half-poetic prose is rare and Chesterton is significant partly as an exception. I would not contest the point. But however much the separation of poetry and prose may be a fact in Western historical development, it is not history sharpening all things, nor is it permanent. Fashions in education today may well create super-specialists far more than generalists, but my point is that this is a shift in fashion, and a point of how Western history has played out, but not the next step in the world’s process of improvement.
And a similar, but deeper, disturbance is in the difference between Merlin’s coaxing and stroking compared to the modern man’s view of a machine that is to be pulled to bits if it does not satisfy. And on that score Merlin is not a member of a College that was vanishing even in late antiquity, but a figure who agrees with Orthodoxy about the nature of Creation. Not, of course, in any sort of magic being lawful. But given the basic options of coaxing and pulling to bits, the Orthodox relationship is that of coaxing, and I tried to commit to writing how Orthodox view Creation in “Physics.
To give a hint and just illuminate things a little, I would comment that the more devout or higher up in the heirarchy a person is, the better with animals. It is a commonplace that animals, including wild animals, do not disturb monastics. I do not ask you to believe it, but even one journalist talked about eating lunch at Mount Athos, having a monk tell visitors not to worry about more than one boar in the bushes, and then telling his visitors, “Let me know when you’re done with your melons and other food, and I’ll give the signal.” So the people finished their lunches, threw down their melon rinds as expected, and then the monk spoke and the boars devoured the rinds and other food remnants (all of the while not harming any of the people). Less spectacularly, there was one monastery which I used to visit, and I am told, though I did not see this myself, that the deer would approach and eat from the monastics’ hands. I do know that I was visiting the monastery, in major deer hunting country where one wore a fluorescent orange hat and I lost count how many gunshots I heard, that two deer let another person and me approach within thirty feet of them. They slowly got out of our way after that, but they could have been keeping a whole lot more of a respectful distance than they did. The senior monk told me that the deer knew they were safe at the monastery. And even with domestic animals, I remember visiting someone and being told that the cat was bite-happy and would only settle down into the arms of clergy and monastics—I was advised to set the cat down. But I have in general been able fairly easily to make friends with animals—a dog that had been used as bait for pit bulls started by nervous barking, and ended by laying on his back in a condition of complete vulnerability, hoping for a good scratch. And I remember one time when a friend was moving in; all the rest of the friends were asked to carry things but I was handed the end of a leash and told the dog was uncomfortable and afraid of men. But even though at the beginning the dog was very clearly unhappy to be at the opposite end of his leash from me, I kept coaxing him by my actions and twenty minutes later he snuggled up with me, and to my astonishment approached the other men in our group, sniffing hands and otherwise making doggy efforts to make friends. I don’t believe this is some special or unique personal ability; clergy, monastics, and devout Orthodox faithful may or may not consider themselves good with animals, or even particularly interested in them, but when animals enter the picture, they are usually able to connect. In Lewis’s story it may be poetic conceit that Ransom can have a chat with Mr. Bultitude or a tiger and they would thereafter be safe enough company, but that bit of imagination is in continuity with something real, if perhaps less spectacular.
This account is inadequate, but part of the picture has to do with headship. “Headship,” as used in Evangelical circles, refers to a debate of whether a husband and wife are equal as regards authority or whether there is a relationship between husband and wife that is somewhat like that of the head and the body. To affirm it, in egalitarian circles, is taken to afford husbands a domination that greatly injures what is good for women. And the overall reply to that is perhaps not, as John Piper said, that the ways husband and wife serve each other mirror the ways Christ and the Church serve each other, and if this distinguished service is removed from marriage, marriage ceases to illuminate Christ and the Church. A better reply is to say, the full picture of headship is so far out of your orbit that it is probably pointless to press this point on its own.
There is a head-body relationship portrayed in Scripture and developed in the saints, which sees (this list is open-ended):
Holy of holies
The rest of the inherited world.
That which meets God
Sunday, the Eighth Day
The whole sacred week
Christ’s return in glory
Christ’s first coming with glory veiled
The spiritual sense of Scripture
The literal sense of Scripture
But absolutely not
The difference between the first long list and the second short list hinges on a single Greek word, katakurieuo used when Christ said that Gentile authorities “lord it over” those beneath them, but such is not permitted among Christians. And the term is not an exact match here; we are told in Genesis to domineer the creation, but there is a difference: domineering leadership can have a place and has to have a place (as, for instance, when a small child tests whether the rules are real), but there is an ocean of difference who domineers as a fierce medicine to free and nurture a disciple, and one who leads to make others an extension of his ego, or domineers to break a soul. And even when domineering is lawfully exercised, it is the exception, not the rule. The spirit of katakurieuo is the normal baseline in the Renaissance magus and mercy the exception; the servant leadership based on Christ is the normal baseline in all of these headships and an iron rod the exception. If there is an iron rod, it is much sooner applied to oneself than others—which is also not shared by the magus.
And there is a further point in St. Maximus the Confessor: all of these differences are to be transcended. In Christ there is no longer male nor female. In Christ even the distinction between created man and nature on the one hand, and uncreated God on the other, is transcended. The transformation reaches that far.
What was lostrejected dismantled in the Scientific Revolution
The birth of science was heralded through the metaphor of sexual violence to a woman, personified Nature. As to why this was, let me draw an analogy with marriage. Marriage is a profound thing and leaves an indelible mark, so that there is no way to hit an Undo and Reset button and simply restore the mere friendship that preceded the romance. And the very depth of its mark is attested to in the absolute misery of either side of a divorce, of feeling squashed like a bug, and pouring anger over everything in the relationship. Coarse jokes attest that you can’t simply wipe away a marriage and be where you started: “A wife is only temporary. An ex-wife is forever.”; “When two divorced people sleep together, there are four people in the bed.” The relationship can be torn apart, but it is deep enough of a thing that you can’t just reset it to how things were before.
Something as deep as a divorce with the older way of relating to Nature is found in early modern science, and that is why there are all the sexually violent lurid imagery about torturing and raping the personification of Nature. Mary Midgley, in Science as Salvation, argues:
It may be easier to see if we notice the way in which the pioneers of [scientific mechanist views] went about reshaping the concept of Nature. Very properly, they wanted to try the experiment of depersonalizing it. With that in view, the first step they surely needed to take was to stop using the feminine pronoun, or indeed any personal pronoun for ‘Nature’ altogether. But this was not done. We come 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 constant, common idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion…
This exceedingly foul imagery, persisting over time, attests to the durability and depth of the relationship that was being destroyed. Its vileness is like a divorce, ripping apart what cannot simply be dropped by dropping a personal pronoun. It is grieving, of a perverse sort: those who would object that for someone, “every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” can’t undo that relationship simply by dropping personification in speech in nature. The old relation to nature could only be dropped by ripping apart the persona of nature. Those who take Newton’s mathematical work to be a manual of rape may be wrong, but they are less wrong than you might think. And if Lewis’s fictional Merlin lived from “every operation on nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” know that this is not a last survival in an ancient world of something far more ancient, but a common treasure held by East and West alike until centuries after the Great Schism, and held by the Orthodox Church today.
The lot of de-mythologizers
Is there room for the de-mythologizing discipline of science? Orthodox are on very shaky ground to dismiss de-mythologizing disciplines altogether. As was hinted at earlier, one of the most profound texts in the history of science is a profound and much more interesting de-mythologizing enterprise than the sciences founded with modernity, and with people who demean their discipline with the physics envy that says they are just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics (a claim that is very demeaning if is false, and much more demeaning if it happens to be true). The enterprise of de-mythologizing as we know it followed up a de-anthromorphized physics in Newton with a de-anthropomorphized psychology in behaviorists like Skinner. And no Orthodox can complain about de-mythologization as such; one of the most singular of the Church’s texts finds its climax in the words,
The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. He is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. He is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. He is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. He suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. He is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. He endures no deprivation of light. He passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. He is not soul or mind, nor does he possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is he speech per se, understanding per se. He cannot be spoken of and he cannot be grasped by understanding. He is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. He is not immovable, moving, or at rest. He has no power, he is not power, nor is he light. He does not live nor is he life. He is not a substance, nor is he eternity or time. He cannot be grasped by the understanding since he is neither knowledge nor truth. He is not kingship. He is not wisdom. He is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is he a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. He is not sonship or fatherhood and he is nothing known to us or to any other being. He falls neither within the predicate of nonebeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know him as he actually is and he does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of him, nor name nor knowledge of him. Darkness and light, error and truth—he is none of these. He is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to him, but never of him, for he is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; he is also beyond every denial.
However, this great classic needs to be placed today alongside a much lesser work such as is found in the following little chapter of the heart-warming Everyday Saints and Other Stories:
In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple present farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, “I too respect God who created the world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He is very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk was left in the bowl.”
Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk. But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly ewatch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree.
No sooner said than done. When night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up and lapped up all the milk until the bowl was empty.
“Indeed!” the peasant sighed disappointedly. “Now I can see that it wasn’t God!”
The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something so completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence each in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.
The monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him:
“That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will doubtless say that you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, O learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.”
I cannot call this story the equal to the climax to St. Pseudo-Dionysius’s greatest work. I cannot. But in our de-mythologized age, we much less need to beat such a drum even more than see what the learned monk could not: that God accepted and drank the milk offered to him, perhaps by means of a fox. And we can show kindnesses to God when he suffers, perhaps in the person of our neighbor. It is a loss to say that God does not suffer when you are standing by a neighbor who is suffering and you can help. God does not suffer in himself, but he does suffer in our neighbor, and when we meet Christ’s Judgment Throne we will find that the way we treated the suffering is how we treated Christ. Really, most of us have more productive things to do than de-mythologize things further.
The temptation here is to campaign for a program of re-mythologizing life, to call out, “Stop burning down the rainforests in South America! Reforest the Sahara!” And, for reasons discussed in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion, this is a solution worthy of a magus and a spiritual dead end. What we may have instead, on a much smaller nuanced level, is a layer of spiritual awareness. One monk, who for exceptional reasons was working not on Mount Athos but at a U.S. print shop, discussed the unstable and unreliable print machines, and he talked about massaging and coaxing, and how you do not curse a machine that will not cooperate: those curses are real and have an effect. And I would specifically point out that a machine is about as far as you can get for a matter-based machine, understood by the laws of physics, and such a kind of thing as an early modern scientist would project onto much larger screen. He was not, for instance, talking about how to coax a tomato vine in your garden. He was talking about how to handle a machine, and while I do not remember him using the word ‘love’, the upshot of his discussion was that even a machine is something you govern through love. And he did not present this in particularly romanticized terms; it was a matter of fact man describing what work was like.
“Mother” and “matter” come from the same archaic root; in earlier ages the distinction was not so sharp. And we would do well to look on this whole creation on us as our mother, much as when we step into a temple we are stepping into an icon. I do not wish to push the point too far, but in the absence of a magus-paradigmed reform programme, we can open the doors of our heart to God, to our neighbor, to Creation, to everything we are able to love, and let God work with us.
What more are we to do to a right relationship? I think it’s more of what sanctified relationships will do to us.
George had finally gotten through the first week at Calix College, and the chaos was subsiding. Bored for a minute, and too exhausted from the busy work to start researching something, he sat down, tried to remember something strange that he meant to investigate, and tried some more.
When he finally gave up and tried to think about what else he could do, he remembered a book he had seen in his closet, perhaps left over by a previous resident. He pulled out a fan and a lamp that were placed on it, and pulled out a large book. The entire leather cover had only eleven letters, and the dark leather showed signs of wear but seemed to be in remarkably good condition. The golden calligraphy formed a single word: Brocéliande. All across the front lay dark, intricate leather scrollwork.
What was “Brocéliande?” After looking at the leather and goldwork a short while, George opened Brocéliande and read:
The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”
The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”
“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”
“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”
“Thou wete it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wete.”
“That be perplexed, and travail sore to understand.”
The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”
“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”
“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”
“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”
“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”
“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”
“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”
George’s cell phone rang, and he closed the book and ran to hear the call better. When he came back, though he spent an hour searching, he could not find his place in the heavy book. He turned outside.
There were a lot of people, but what he saw was the castle-like stonework of the campus, the timeworn statues, and finally the great wood with its paths, streams, and meadows. He got lost several times, but not truly lost, as he was exploring and finding interesting places no less when he lost his sense of direction. The next time he found his way, he went to the cafeteria and sat down at a table, part listening and part sifting through thoughts.
When he got home, his mind was hungry again, and he opened Brocéliande to the middle:
“Lord of Heaven and Earth, I have everything I want, or rather everything I fled to. I have left the city and the company of men, and am become as a wild beast, living on grass and nuts.
“Is this because of whose son I am? Some say I have powers from my father, serving the Light only because the prayers spoken when some learned of that dread project. Yet here outside of castle and city I have learned things hidden from most men. I can conjure up a castle from the air, but not enter and live in one: I live in the wood as a man quite mad.”
Then he looked around. The trees were a verdant green, yet he found apples. Presently he came to the fountain of Brocéliande; he rang not the bell but drew deep and drank a draught. The forest were his labyrinth and his lair.
A hawk came and set him on the branch close up.
Merlin said to it, “Yet I can speak with thee: no element is a stranger to me.”
A sound of footsteps sounded, and Merlin ran not away.
Merlin his sister Ganeida laid a hand on Merlin his arm. “Come, Merlin. This is unworthy. I have brought thee food for a journey: King Arthur summoneth thee to his court.”
Merlin beheld the wood called Brocéliande. He beheld its holly, its ivy, its trees shaken by storm and wind. He thought of the animals. And there was something about this forest that drew him: it seemed larger on the inside than the outside, and there was something alway that seemed shining through it, like faint and haunting music which he had by struggles learned to catch as he withdrew from castles and the world of men.
Then Ganieda did start to sing a different song, a plain and simple folk tune, and Merlin his heart settled, and he did walk with his sister.
George slowly closed the book.
He imagined the scene; there was something about Merlin that haunted and eluded him. There was—
There was a knock on the door.
He opened it. It was one of the people from dinner.
“Do you want to see a movie?”
“We’re still deciding. But there are a few of us going to the theater.”
George thought for a moment. Up until that point he thought he didn’t want to read more of the book for now. When he declined the invitation, there was a fleeting insight which he forgot the next moment.
The next day in class, the figure of Merlin had a stronger grip on his imagination.
If George had less energy, his classes might have suffered more. As it was, he was getting by, and he slowly began to realize that there was something more that gripped him than horses, swords, and armor. He kept opening more to see the beautiful fantasy, so different from his world. At one point he turned the page:
Then Queen Guinevere did sigh and wept sore.
A lady asked, “Milady, what is it?”
“This Grail cometh even now. Is it accursed?
“The Round Table shattered sore hard and knights return with strange tales. Such a holy thing this Grail is called, yet when it cometh the rich Grail yet burneth like fire. Already King Arthur his work is unraveling.
“Will it even take from me my Sir Lancelot? Or can I take even my Lancelot from the Holy Grail?”
There was something in the back of George’s mind. He sat back, thinking, and then closed the book to make a brief visit to the unspoilt beauty of the wood.
When he went in, he noticed a great beech tree, lying, weeping. It seemed that there was something trying to get out of the verdure. There were ferns and moss around, and he walked and walked. The path took many turns, and George began to realize several things. First, it was dark. Second, he was lost. Third, a chill was setting in. Fourth, he could not see even the stars.
Before long he was running in heavy, icy rain, branches lashing, until a branch hitting his chest winded him. He sat down in stinging pain and regained his breath, then felt around and crawled beneath an outcropping. Here the rain at least would not get to him any more. He spent the night in waking shock at what this great pristine nature, unsullied by human contamination, was really like: the forest seemed to be without reason or order right down to the awkward surface of the rock that he was painfully lying on. Long-forgotten fears returned: when a little light broke through the clouds, were those things he saw rocks, fallen trees, or goblins? He spent a long time shivering, and when the sun rose, he thirsted for light, and got up, only half awake, and followed it until he came to the edge of the forest and saw the castle-inspired buildings of the college. A short while later he was warming up with a welcome blanket and the welcome sound of voices in conversation.
Something was eating away at the back of George’s mind.
Perhaps because of his weariness, his attention in class was chiefly on the flicker of the fluorescent light and how the buildings, which on the outside were so evocative of castles, were so modern on the inside. The one thing that caught his mind was a set of comments about either how we must be individuals and do our own thing or else we are all community and individuality is an illusion. He wanted to be haunted and meet hints of a larger world, and others’ passionately held opinions seemed like they were taken from Newsweekand USA Today.
What was on TV? He stopped in the lobby and saw a show with a medieval set, very carefully done to convey a medieval flavor, and watched until a heroine looked at a magical apparition in a full-length mirror and said, “I am having… a biochemical reaction!” He could not explain what failed to confront him, but he walked out. It was Freya’s Day, commonly shortened to “Friday.” When he learned how the days of the week were named, for Norse gods or celestial bodies—namely, Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Tiw’s Day, Wotan’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day, and Saturn’s Day—something seemingly pedestrian met him with a touch of a larger world. Now, it seemed, things that looked like they could tell of a larger world confronted him with the utterly pedestrian?
His homework did not take long.
Then, amidst Bon Jovi blaring through the hall, George began read. What he was reading seemed to affect him more like a song would than a story: a lullabye almost. He read of Arthur walking into battle, carrying an icon of the Virgin above him. There were mighty blows, armies with their mounted shock troops, great knights clothed in chainmail hauberks astride elephantine destriers, and in the center Arthur holding what seemed to be a story within a story, an icon that opened out onto something larger, and yet something he could not see in his mind’s eye.
Then at another place he read as Arthur crossed land and sea and placed his sword on the ground and claimed a second Britain, and then gave of his knights, his brothers, and his substance to make a place like Great Britain, with forests and orchards, fields and towns, until he had given what he could of his spirit to make a Little Britain.
George looked through and began to see things weaving in and out: an intensity, a concentration, and not just that he was entering another time but he was entering another time, though he could not tell how it was different: he only sensed that time moved differently, and that his watch told something very different.
Then all of this seemed to crystallize as a grievously wounded Sir Lancelot came to an hospitable knight and Elaine his daughter spent endless time healing his wounds. Love so overwhelmed her that she poured herself out with such intensity that when Lancelot left for the only woman he could love, her body emptied of spirit and life floated on a bier in a boat until Arthur’s court wept at the most piteous tale of her love. George found himself wishing he could weep.
—over hill, over dale until the night was black, and neither candle nor star pierced it. The great knight his destrier shook the earth. The great knight was clad in a double coat of mail and the shaft of his greater spear was as a weaver’s beam. Then he did stop to dismount and his own steps shook the earth.
Before him was a chalice of purest gold, radiant with light—radiant as the day. He walked before it, his steps shook the earth, and he stood taller than ever he did stand, until his hand grasped it.
The light blazed brighter and a voice in the air spake, “Lancelot, Lancelot, why mockest thou me?” The light blazed, and Sir Lancelot fell against the ground in tremors, and his horse fled far away in terror.
Then Sir Lancelot spake a question which I will not tell you.
The voice answered with words not lawful for man to write, and the pure gold chalice vanished and the light with it.
The knight wist not why he ran, and later he awoke him in a strange place where there were neither man nor beast in sight.
George closed the book. He had been reading for a long time, he told himself. What was there to do?
He looked around the school website for clubs and organizations, and none of the many things people were doing caught his eye. He walked around the campus, looking at the buildings. He went to the library and wandered around the bookshelves, and picked up a few items but set them down. Then he returned to his room and sat down for a while.
He was bored for the rest of the day.
That night, as he dreamed, he saw a castle, and walked into it. Whenever he looked at his body, he saw what looked like his ordinary clothing, and yet he believed he was wearing armor. He walked through hallways, chambers, the great hall, even dungeons, trying to see what he was searching for. At last he was in a room where he heard people, and smelt something ineffable. He caught a glimpse of a chalice that he could not see, yet he sensed its silhouette, bathed in indescribable light on either side, and he saw light rising above its core. But he never succeeded in seeing it.
He awoke from the strain to see it. He heard birdsong, and the fingers of the light of the dawn were brushing against his face.
Something crystallized in George’s mind, and he did not need to tell himself, “I am on a quest.”
The next day he went into the city to look around in the medieval institute, and tried to see what was there. He managed to walk at a brisk pace, almost run, through the museum, and was nervous over whether he would get out by the time he had to leave to catch dinner. Nothing caught his eye; nothing seemed interesting; everything seemed good only for a glimpse.
There was something eating at him.
During the next week, George discovered online reproduction sword dealers and looked at the perfectly machined character of the many closeup images available online. He didn’t buy anything, but after the week thinking and failing to find other places, George returned to the museum. Maybe there was something he had missed.
He stopped at the first sword.
The sword, or what was left of it, looked like it had been eaten by worms, if that were possible. The deeply pitted surface intrigued him; it had all the surface of the complexity of a rock, and he thought that if he could take a magnifying glass or a zoomed-in camera lens to this or that part, it could pass for the intricate surface of a volcanic rock.
The handle didn’t look right at all. It was a thin square rod connecting a thick blade and a thicker pommel, and seemed the very definition of “ergonomically incorrect,” as if it had been designed to gouge the wearer’s hand or generate blisters. It held for George something of the fascination of a car wreck. Why on earth had the museum put such a poor-quality specimen on display?
Then he read the rather large plaque.
The plaque read:
This sword was excavated in what is now Cornwall in Great Britain and dates to the 5th or 6th century AD. It is considered to be remarkably well-preserved, being one of few such finds to be straight and in one solid piece, the metal part lacking only a handguard, and is one of this museum’s prized holdings and one of the most valuable gifts from an anonymous donor. The handle, of which only the metal tang remains, was probably wood or possibly other organic materials.
Think for a moment about the time and place this sword would have come from. Everything was made by hand, and there was little wealth: owning a sword would have been like owning a car today. Microscopic examination suggests that this sword was made for someone wealthy, as there are tiny fragments of gold embedded in the blade.
What was life like when nothing was made by machines or mass-produced and therefore things were more expensive and there was less you could buy? What was life when you could not travel faster than a horse and what we today call information could not travel faster than people? What would your life have been like when you would have probably been born, lived, and died within a few miles of the same spot? Life was hard.
But then look at the other side of the coin: can you think of anything people then would have had that you do not have today?
George looked at the sword, and tried to imagine it whole. At least he could tell what shape it suggested. And he tried to think about what the placard said, with none of the technologies he was used to. What would one do? Practice at swordplay? Wander in the forest?
George saw in his mind’s eye Sir Lancelot kneeling on one knee, his sword point in earth, his sword pointing down, taking an oath. Then George looked over the sword again and it looked like Lancelot’s sword: he imagined Sir Lancelot—or was it George?—laying his right hand on the sword and taking a mighty oath, and for a moment the sword in the museum took its full cruciform shape. And then as his eyes traced over the contours of the sword, it looked almost a relic, and he saw now one thing, now another: one scene fromBrocéliande gave way to another, and something tugged at his heart.
He tried to imagine a great feast given by King Arthur to his nobles. There was something of that feast right in front of him, and it seemed to suggest an unfolding pageant. Knights and Ladies dined with uproarious laughter, while minstrels sung enchanting ballads, and—
George realized someone was tapping on his shoulder. “Sir? Excuse me, but it’s time for you to leave.”
George turned and saw a security guard, and in puzzlement asked her, “Why? Have I done something wrong?”
She smiled and said, “You haven’t done anything wrong, but I’m sorry, the museum is now closing. Come back another day!”
George looked out a window and saw that the daylight had completely fled. He realized he was very hungry.
He left after briefly saying, “Thank-you.”
When he arrived home he was even hungrier, but even before he began eating he began looking through the same sites, selling swords.
None of them looked real to him.
After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:
Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.
Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.
Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.
Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.
Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.
Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”
Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.
George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.
George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.
George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.
Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.
He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.
George sat bolt upright on his bunk, awake in a cold sweat, and hit his head on the ceiling.
The next day, George went to the medieval history library that was almost at the center of the campus, housed in a white limestone tower with one timeworn spire, and intricately woven with passages like rabbit holes. The librarian was nowhere in sight, and owing to his eccentricities the library still had only a paper card catalog, emanating a strange, musty aroma. George started to walk towards it, before deciding to wander around the shelves and get a feel for things medieval. The medieval history librarian was rumored to be somewhat eccentric, and insisted on a paper card catalog with no computers provided, which many of the students said might as well have been medieval.
His first read traced the development of symbol from something that could not give rise to science to something that apparently paved the way in that a symbol and what it refers to were no longer seen as connected. It seemed hard to follow, some where the argument was obscure and even more when he followed the reasoning: he grasped it and grasped it not. As he read, he read of the cultivation of cabbages and tales of kings, and whether grotesques could let pigs have wings. He read of boys doing the work of men and men who acted like boys, of children who asked for bread and their fathers would give them stones in their bread, of careful historians ages before the great discovery of history and classicists preserving the ancient life after the ancient life met its demise, of strange things that turned familiar and yet familiar things turned strange, of time becoming something a clock could measure, of those who forged, those who plagiarized, and arguments today why no medieval author should be accused of plagiarism for what he copied, and yet he read of a world where few died of old age and minor cuts and illnesses could kill. He read of the problem of underpopulation, the challenge of having enough births, and untold suffering when there were not enough people.
Yet to speak this way is deceptive, because all these wonders and more were made pedestrian. The more he studied, the fewer wonders he met, or at least the fewer wonders he could find, and the more he met a catalog of details. He read the chronicles of kings and those seeking what could be recovered through them, and however much he read King Arthur was not mentioned once. Though he spent weeks searching in the library, the haunting beauty of Brocéliande had been rare to begin with and now he wot of it not none.
And the fruitless search for the history of Arthur led him to knock on the librarian’s door.
“I’m in a bad mood. Leave me alone!”
“You can come in if you must, but you would be better off leaving.”
“I’ve looked all over and found neither hide nor hair of a book on King Arthur. Does this library have nothing on him?”
“King Arthur? No, not this part of the library; look in the appropriate sections on the electronic card catalog in the regular library.”
“But I want to know the history of Arthur.”
“The history of King Arthur?!? What can you possibly mean?”
“I had been reading about King Arthur outside the library.”
“The general library has a number of the original sources, along with more literary criticism than one person can possibly read, and what little the history of literature knows about more and less obscure authors. And our literature department has several renowned scholars on Arthurian literature. But why are you trying to find King Arthur in a medieval history library? That’s as silly as looking for the history of the animals in Aesop’s fables.”
“You don’t believe in Arthur?”
“No, I don’t. Though I could be wrong. A lot of scholars, wrong as they may be, believe there was an Arthur around the 6th century, a warrior owning a horse, though the consensus is that he was not a king. These—”
“So Arthur was a knight and not a king?!?”
“No, he wasn’t a knight. He couldn’t have been. If there ever was such a person.”
“But you said he had a horse and—”
“You’re making a basic historical mistake if you’re imagining a warrior then, even one with a horse, as a ‘knight‘. It would like a historian five or six centuries from now studying our technology, and knowing that Saint Thomas Aquinas was an author, imagining him doing Google searches and composing, in Latin of course, on his computer’s word processor.
“Warriors owned horses, but stirrups hadn’t reached Arthur’s supposed land, and without a stirrup it is almost impossible to fight while mounted. A horse was a taxi to get a warrior to battle to fight on foot like everybody else, and nothing more. A warrior with a horse was a warrior with a better taxi to get to the scene of battle. A knight, on the most material level, is an almost invincible mounted shock troop compared to the defenseless-as-children so-called ‘infantry.’ And then you have the ideal, almost the mythos, of chivalry that developed about these mighty brutal warriors.
“The Arthurian legends were never even close to history to begin with, even if they hadn’t grown barnacles on top of barnacles, like… a bestseller with too many spinoffs. All the versions have their own anachronisms, or rather the earlier versions are nothing like anachronisms, projecting a legendary past for the kind of knight that was then becoming fashionable. You have a late medieval Sir Thomas Mallory fitting knights with plate armor that would have been as anachronous for an Arthur of the 5th or 6th century to wear as it would have been for a knight of Mallory’s day to be equipped with today’s Kevlar version of a bulletproof vest.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly big deal for there to be anachronisms; the idea that anachronism is a problem is a complete anachronism in evaluating medieval literature; saying that Chrétien de Troyes built an anachronous social ideal is as silly as complaining that the accounts of animals in a medieval bestiary are not doing the same job in the same way as a scientific biology textbook. Of course they aren’t, but you’re being equally silly to read a medieval bestiary as something that should be empirical scientific biology.
“Of course, getting back to anachronism, Mallory has guns which—”
“Guns?!? Machine guns? Handguns? Rifles?” George said.
“Nothing fancy, just early cannon, not a modern assault rifle. But there are none the less guns in the pivotal late medieval version of the story, which had Arthur’s son and nephew, Mordred, besieging—”
“Which one was Mordred, and what was the other one’s name?” George said.
“‘Which one’? What do you mean…” The librarian said, pausing. “Aah, you get it. For that matter, the stories tend to include endless nobles whose family tree is, like a good nobility family tree, more of a family braid, and—”
It was around then that the conversation became something that George remembered with the confused memory of a dream. He knew that the librarian had explained something, but the closest he could come to remembering it was a discussion of how networked computers as the next generation of computing contributed to a unique medieval synthesis, or what actually seemed to make more sense of the shape of that “memory,” the sound of an elephant repeatedly ramming stone walls.
What he remembered next was walking—walking through the library, walking around campus, walking through the forest, and then…
Had he been asked, he might have been collected enough to say that this was the first time in a long while he was not on a quest.
What was he doing now?
Was he doing anything?
Where was George?
He was lost, although that didn’t register on his mind. Or perhaps he wasn’t lost, if “lost” means not only that you don’t know where you are, but that you wish you knew.
George was in the city somewhere, if that was where he was. A great forest of steel, glass, and brick. Some was adorned by graffiti, other bits by ugly paint. This was definitely not the castle to him, but the wild wood, much more the wild wood than what was merely a place with many trees and few buildings. What made the wood a wood and not like a castle, anyway?
George looked around. In front of him was a boarded-up restaurant. The sign said, “Closed for minor renovations. REOPENING SOON.” Its paint looked chipped and timeworn, and from what he could see looking in the dirty windows, it was dusty inside. What, exactly, did the menu say? George could see the menu, and some pictures of what was probably supposed to be food, but even though he was on the edge of hunger, the hazy blurs did nothing to make his mouth water.
George walked a good distance further, and saw the bright colors of a store, and heard music playing. He wandered in.
Inside, the store was bustling with activity. Just inside, there was a demonstration of electronic puppies: an employee was showing the puppy off. On a whim, George walked over.
The young woman was saying words commands which the puppy sometimes did not respond to. She handed it to children to pet, who responded with exuberant warmth. But the more George watched the scene, the more the whole scene seemed off-kilter.
The puppies were cute, but there seemed to be something much less cute when they moved. What was it? The puppy’s animation seemed neither like a cute stuffed animal nor like a toy robot. It seemed like a robot in a puppy costume, but the effect was… almost vampiric.
Then George looked at the employee again. She was quite attractive, but her smile and the exaggerated energy for her role… reminded George of makeup almost covering dark circles under someone’s eyes.
He ducked into an aisle. Below were not only unflavored dental floss and mint floss, but many different kinds of floss in all different colors, thicknesses, and several different flavors. But the choices in the actual floss were dwarfed by the choices in the cases: purple-and-pink containers of floss for preteen girls, larger rough-looking containers made of dark stonelike plastic for a man’s man, and sundry groups—including trainers for babies who were still teething. George saw a sign above a display that said, “We bring you the freedom TO CHOOSE!”
He tried not to think about sledgehammers. He tried.
George was looking for a reason to stay in the store. There was eye-catching color everywhere, and he saw a section of posters, and started flipping through art posters, looking for something to buy, until he saw the sign above the posters. It said, “Priceless masterpieces from the greatest museums of the world, conveniently made available to you in American standard poster size and format, for only $4.99 each.”
Somehow the store’s showmanlike displays seemed a bit hollow. George left.
George wandered out, something not quite clicking in his mind. He knocked on the building next door, and a voice said, “Just a minute; come in.” He opened the door and saw a sight in shadows. A man was heading out a door. “As soon as I’ve finished taking out the trash and washed my hands, I can help you.”
A short while later, the man emerged. “Hi. I’m Fr. Elijah.” He extended his hand, his head and hands standing out against the darkness and his dark robe, and shook George’s hand. George said, “I’m George.”
“What can I do for you?”
George stopped, and thought. He said, “I was just looking around while I was waiting for my thoughts to clear.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Are you a student?”
George said, “Yes.”
Fr. Elijah said nothing, but it did not seem he needed to say anything just then. George was growing calm.
“May I offer you something to drink? I was just going to make tea, and I don’t have a full range of soft drinks, but there should be something worth drinking. There’s a pitcher of ice-cold water if you don’t care for an old man’s coffee or tea.”
George said “Yes.”
“Wonderful. Come with me.” The two began walking, and they sat down.
George looked at him.
Fr. Elijah said, “Please sit down,” motioning to an armchair. “Did you want coffee, water, or tea? I have cookies. Oh, and there’s milk too.”
George smiled. “Could I have a chalice of milk?”
Fr. Elijah turned to get the cookies, a cup and some milk.
George said, “I meant to say a cup of milk. Sorry, I was trying to be a little more serious.”
Fr. Elijah said, “You can explain, or not explain. It’s your choice. But I think you were being serious. Just not the way you expected. But we can change the subject. Do you have a favorite book? Or has anything interesting happened to you lately? I can at least listen to you.”
George said, “I was just at the store nearby.”
Fr. Elijah asked, “What do you think of it?”
George said, “Are you sure you won’t be offended?”
Fr. Elijah said, “One of the things I have found in my work is that people can be very considerate about not being offensive, but sometimes I have something valuable to learn with things people think might offend me.”
“Ever wonder about the direction our society has headed? Or see something that left you wishing you could still wonder about that?”
“A lot of people do.”
“I was already having a bad day when I wandered into a store, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any more crass, they got more crass. I’ve just been invited to buy an identity with the help of a market-segment dental floss container.”
“You’re a man after my own heart. I’ve heard that the store manager has some pretty impressive connections. I’ve heard that if none of the dental floss containers in the store suit the identity you want to have, and you ask the manager, he can get your choice of floss in a custom container made by a sculptor to meet your whims!”
“But isn’t there more to life than that?”
“I certainly hope so! Oh, and did I mention that I’ve found that store an excellent place for important shopping for April Fools’ Day? I’m hoping to get my godson horribly artificial sugary-sweet tasting lacy pink floss in a container covered by red and white hearts and words like ‘Oochie-pooh.’ He’ll hit the roof! On second thought, he’ll be expecting such a gift… I should probably give it to him on what you’d consider August 12.”
“Why? What’s special about August 12?”
“That’s a bit of a labyrinth to sort out. Some Orthodox keep the old Julian calendar, while some keep the ‘new’ civil calendar, which means that those who preserve the old calendar, even if we manage not to go off in right field, are thirteen days ‘late’ for saints’ days, celebrating July 30, the Feast of Saint Valentine, on what you’d consider August 12. What you call Valentine’s Day is the Western celebration of the saint we celebrate on another day, and it’s a bit of a Western borrowing to use it for pseudo-romantic purposes to pick on my godson, as that saint’s feast did not pick up all the Western romantic connotations; Saint Valentine’s story is a typical story of a bishop who strengthened people against paganism and was martyred eventually. Every day is a feast of some sort, and every feast—that is, every day—has several saints to celebrate… but I’m going on and on. Have I confused you yet?”
“Um, ‘right field’? What does that mean?”
“Oops, sorry, personal expression. In the West people go out in left field and go loony liberal. In Orthodoxy, people go out in right field and go loony conservative. Some of the stuff I’ve been told would make me at least laugh if I didn’t want to cry so badly. Sorry, I’m rambling, and I was trying to hear you out when it looked like you’ve had a rough day, right up to a store telling you there was nothing more to hope for in life than things like dental floss with a container designed for your market segment. Let me let you change the subject.”
“Um, you’re probably wondering why I said, ‘chalice of milk.'”
“I would be interested in hearing that, but only if you want to tell. I have a guess, but I really don’t want you to feel obligated to say something you’d rather not.”
“What is your guess?”
“That you said ‘chalice of milk’ for an interesting reason that probably has an interesting connection to what, in life, you hope goes beyond the trivialities you were pushed into at that store. A chalice, whatever that means to you, is something deeper and richer.”
George opened his mouth, then closed it for a moment, and said, “Does a chalice mean anything to you?”
“Oh, yes. A chalice means quite a lot to me.”
“What does it mean to you?”
“George, have you ever seen a chalice?”
“No, but it’s pretty important in something I’ve read.”
“Would you like to see a chalice?”
“The chalice I’ve read about was made of purest gold. I’d imagine that if you have a fancy wine glass, maybe lead crystal, it would look poorer than what I’d imagine, and there are some things that are big enough that I’d rather not imagine.”
“Well, there are some things that are bigger than can be seen, and that includes a chalice. But the chalice I have—I can’t show it to you now—has the glint of gold, which has more layers than I can explain or know.”
“Is there a time you can show it to me?”
“Yes, come during the Divine Liturgy, and you can see the chalice from which I serve the Eucharist. I can’t explain—I know this offends some people, and I will understand if you are offended—that it would not be good for me to give you the Eucharist if you are not Orthodox. But you can see the chalice as it holds a treasure infinitely more valuable than its goldwork.”
“What is that?”
“Isn’t that just a symbol?”
“Hmm, there are six hundred ways to respond to that. I can get into some of the intricacies later. If you want. Or we need never talk about it. But…
“Saying the Eucharist is ‘just a symbol’ is as silly as saying that the Eucharist is ‘just the body and blood of Christ’. What else do you want it to be—a designer container of dental floss?”
George’s laugh was interrupted by a knock at a door. Fr. Elijah looked at his watch, and his face fell. He said, “Just when the conversation was getting interesting! I’m sorry; I have an appointment.”
George said, “Well, I won’t take any more of your time; I’ll come on Sunday. What time?”
“The Divine Liturgy starts at 9:00 Sunday morning; I’m sorry, that isn’t a very good time for college students. Arriving five minutes late isn’t a big deal. Most of the professors of campus can give you directions to my parish, the Church of the Holy Trinity. And bother that I have to end our talk!”
“That’s OK. Do you have some literature that you want to give me? Where are your pamphlets?”
“Hmm, that would take some time to explain, and I can explain later if you want. But I don’t have any pamphlets. If you want a book I can go to the library and you can borrow one. But Orthodox people don’t usually feel obligated to stuff your pockets with as much paper as we can and leave you walking away feeling guilty that you dread the prospect of reading it. Come back; I enjoyed talking with you, and if you want I can get something from the library. But only if you want. Please excuse me.” Fr. Elijah stood up and bowed slightly, but reverently, to George as they shook hands.
“Coming!” Fr. Elijah said. “I’m sorry; I was just trying to wrap up a conversation. Please come in. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I’ve been looking forward to it.”
George stepped out, and walked out. He stopped by a window to look into the Church building again.
He could tell nothing that looked to him like a chalice, but everywhere was the glint of gold.
George wandered back with a spring in his step.
He returned home and opened Brocéliande, and read:
Blaise turned at a slow step. “Why callest thou thyself empty? Hast thou none, my son?”
Merlin answered him. “Forgive me, my master, my lord.”
The wind was deadly still.
Blaise turned even more fully. “What is it, my pupil?”
Merlin reached out his hand. A mighty wind blew, such as openeth doors that be closed and closeth doors that be open.
An apple tree shook of a violence and apples met their place on the humble earth, all apples did so which fell, save one which Merlin his hand did close upon it.
The wind blew and blew, stronger and stronger it blew, and Blaise looked upon Merlin, and spake: “Flyest thou now, my hawk?”
Merlin his chaste teeth closed in on the apple, and the great and mighty wind closed a door against the stone and hushed to become a soft murmuring breeze, as a still small voice.
Merlin looked upon his master. “Though the Grail remain a secret and a secret remain the Grail, men shall know it even under its cloak of samite most red. When a man shall grasp the secret of the Grail then shall he grasp the mystery of the Trinity.”
Blaise looked upon his servant. “And who shall be in that grasp?”
Merlin spake softly. “My lord, I wit me not.”
Blaise said, “My lord, it is well with thee.”
Merlin abode in a quiet still spirit.
The hours and days passed quickly, until it was Sunday and George left a little early and arrived at the Church of the Holy Trinity early, looked at his watch and saw 8:53 AM.
He stepped inside and found things suddenly cool. There was a dazzling darkness, with pure candlelight and lamplight glittering off of gold, with fragrances of smoke and beeswax and incense. There was a soft chanting, and the funny thing was that it was hard to say whether the Church seemed full or empty. He saw few people, even for the small space, but he had rather a sense that the place was full of worshipers, mostly unseen. He could feel glory, almost as a weight.
There seemed to be a continuous faint commotion as people entered, went to the front, doing something he could not tell, and walked around. He stood as most people were standing, although some were sitting and people seemed to bow or move their hands. It is not exactly that George did not feel conspicuous as to how he was standing out, as that that was not quite the greatest way he felt conspicuous.
How did he feel conspicuous? George found no answer he liked. The whole situation seemed foreign to him, and for the first time it did not seem so much that he was examining something but that something, or someone, was examining him and judging him.
Something happened. Or rather, this time the something that happened meant that people were sitting down, in pews around the edges or on the floor, and the chant had become ordinary speech. Fr. Elijah said,
In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last week after Liturgy, little John came up to me and said, “Fr. Elijah, I have a question.” “What, I asked.” “I saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Friday and it was really, really cool! Could you tell me all about the Ark?” So I paused in thought, and exercised a spiritual father’s prerogative. I said, “You know what? That’s a good question. Let me think a bit and I’ll answer that question in my homily.” And when his father said, “But weren’t you going to—” I said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll blame the homily on him, and if people find it duller than a worn-out butter knife, they can call you at work and complain.” And finally I got him to crack a faint smile.
So this is the homily I’m blaming on him. First of all, the Ark of the Covenant is a spiritual treasure, and is spiritually understood. It is not lost, but it is found in a much deeper way than some expect. For it is both a what and, more deeply, a who. You can look up in fact where it is, and the amazing thing is that it is still guarded as a relic rather than treated simply as something that merely belongs in a museum, and the hidden Ark is in fact greater than if it were displayed in a showcase. It is one of many treasures the Church guards, and it is at the Church of our Lady Mary gof Zion in the Ethiopian city of Axum. I’ve been there, even if I could not see the Ark. But the Ark which holds the bread from Heaven and the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed is in the shadow of the Ark to whom we sing, “Rejoice, O Volume wherein the Word was inscribed” and whose womb is a garden of spiritual treasures, “more spacious than the Heavens” as we say, by whom we are given the greater and in fact greatest Bread from Heaven. When we read of the Ark coming to King David and of the Theotokos or Mother of God coming to Lady Elizabeth, there are some surprising parallels which seem stunning until we recognize that that is just how Luke might be telling us that the Theotokos is someone to whom the Ark hints. There is a profound connection to the Arthurian legends, in which the Sir Galahad is granted to see into the Holy Grail and beholds a wonder beyond the power of words to tell. And it is in fact a misunderstanding on a number of levels to think that that rich Grail is confined to—
If George were sitting on a chair, he might have fallen off it. He was, fortunately, sitting on the floor. When he caught himself enough to follow the words, he listened closely:
…these other images. It was from the virgin earth that the first Adam, by whom we all live natural life, was taken. It was from the parched earth of the Virgin Theotokos that the last Adam, by whom we are called to the divine life, was given. And still this is not to tell how the first Adam, wanting to become God, lost his divinity, until God became the Last Adam, raising up Adam that all of us who bear Adam’s likeness might become divine, bearing the likeness of God. Death entered when we took and ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and now everlasting begins when we obey the summons to take and eat the Fruit from the Tree of Life.
Is it possible to call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail? Yes and amen. We can call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail in a very deep sense. She spoke before the Emperor, and that incident is why after all these years Christians still color Easter eggs, red eggs for the Orthodox Church as the were for Mary Magdalene, when she presented a red egg to the Emperor, perhaps miraculously. There are only a few dozen people the Church has ever honored more. She bears the rank of “Equal to the Apostles,” and an angel told her the mysterious news of the Resurrection, and it was she who told the Apostles who in turn would be sent (“Apostle” means “Sent One”) to the uttermost ends of the earth.
The Holy Grail is that vessel which first held the blood of Christ, and it is the shadow of that symbol in which the body and blood of Christ become real so that they can transform us. The Eucharist is misunderstood through the question of just what happens when the priest consecrates the gift, because the entire point of the transformation of the gifts is the transformation of the faithful so that we can be the Body of Christ and have the divine blood, the royal bloodline, the divine life coursing through our veins. God the Father the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each the King for whom every kingdom is named, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is more, not less, of a Kingdom than the kingdoms we can study on earth.
In the third prayer before communion, we are invited to pray, “O Thou Who by the coming of the Comforter, the Spirit, didst make thy sacred disciples precious vessels, declare me also to be a receptacle of his coming.” Mary Magdalene bears powerful witness to what a disciple can be if she becomes a humble earthen vessel in which there is another coming of Christ. She became the Holy Grail, as does every one of us transformed by the power of Christ’s body and blood. If you only ask questions about the transformation of bread and wine, the Holy Grail is merely a what… but if you recognize the larger transformation that has the smaller transformation as a microcosm, the Holy Grail can also be a who: you and I.
It would take much longer to even begin to speak of that nobility of which you will only find the trace and shadow if you study royalty and their bloodlines. I have spoken enough.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
George was at once attracted, entranced, repulsed, and terrified. It seemed like more than he had dared to dream was proclaimed as truth, but that this meant he was no longer dealing with his choice of fantasy, but perhaps with reality itself. The chanting resumed. There was a procession, and what was in it? Ornate candles, a golden spoon and something that looked like a miniature golden lance, something covered with a cloth but that from its base might have been an intricately worked golden goblet, a cross that seemed to be glory itself, and other things he could not name. It was not long before George heard, “The holy things are for those who are holy,” and the reply—was it a correction?—immediately followed: “One is holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”
George wanted to squirm when he heard the former, and when he heard the latter, he headed for the door. The spiritual weight he had been feeling seemed more intense; or rather, it seemed something he couldn’t bear even though he hoped it would continue. He felt, just for a moment that this was more than him having an experience, but he failed to put his finger on what more it might be.
Once outside, he tried to calmly walk home, but found himself running.
George found himself walking, but in completely unfamiliar surroundings. He spent a good deal of time wandering until he recognized a major road, and walked alongside it until he returned home, hungry and parched.
He opened Brocéliande for a moment, but did not feel much like reading it. George went to check his email, began looking through his spam folder—to see if anything important got through, he told himself—and found himself wandering around the seedier side of the net.
In the days that followed, people seemed to be getting in his way, his homework was more of a waste of time, and somehow Brocéliande no longer seemed interesting.
Friday, George missed dinner and went, hungry, to a crowded store where a white-haired man stood right between him and the food he wanted… not only blocking the aisle with his cart, but adding a third 12-pack of soda to the bottom of his cart… and seeming to take forever to perform such a simple task.
After waiting what seemed too long, George refrained from saying “Gramps,” but found himself hissing through his teeth, “Do you need help getting that onto your cart?”
The white-haired man turned around in surprise, and then said, “Certainly, George, how are you?”
It was Fr. Elijah.
“Can, um, I help you get that in your cart?”
“Thank you, George, and I would appreciate if you would help me choose another one. Do you have a favorite soda?”
“This may sound silly, but Grape Crush. Why?”
“Help me find a 12-pack of it. I realized after you came that it was kind of silly for me to inviting people like you inside and not having any soda for them, and I’ve been procrastinating ever since. Aah, I think I see them over there. Could you put that under your cart?”
George began walking over to the Grape Crush.
Fr. Elijah asked, less perfunctorily, “How are you, George?” and reached out his hand. At least George thought Fr. Elijah was reaching out his hand, but it was as if Fr. Elijah was standing on the other side of an abyss of defilement, and holding out a live coal.
Fr. Elijah shook George’s hand.
George tried to find his footing on shifting ground, and managed to ask, “Fr. Elijah, how are you going to get that soda out to your car?”
“Usually someone from the store helps me put things in my trunk or something; I’ve never found a grocery store to be a place where nothing is provided.”
The chasm yawned; George felt as if he were clothed in filthy rags.
“Um, and at home?”
“The Lord always provides something. Sorry, that sounded super spiritual. Usually it’s not too long before someone strong comes by and can carry things.”
George tried to smile. “I’m fine. How are you?”
Fr. Elijah made no answer with words. He smiled a welcoming smile, and somehow the store began to remind him of Fr. Elijah’s office.
George kept waiting for Fr. Elijah to say something more, to answer, but Fr. Elijah remained silent. There seemed to be a warmth about him, as well as something he feared would burn his defilement, but Fr. Elijah remained silent, and pushed his cart, which had a small armload of groceries and a heavy weight of soda cases, to the register.
“I can help you load things into your car, Fr. Elijah.”
Fr. Elijah turned with warmth. Gratitude was almost visible in his features, but he remained strangely silent.
George momentarily remembered to grab a sandwich, then returned to Fr. Elijah in line.
George began to wonder why Fr. Elijah was not speaking to him. Or rather, that was the wrong way to put it. George could not accuse Fr. Elijah of being inattentive, but why was he silent?
George began to think about what he had been doing, and trying not to, to think of something else, to think of something else to talk about. But images returned to his mind, and a desire to—he certainly couldn’t mention that.
Where were they? Fr. Elijah had just pushed the cart to his car, and slowly fumbled with his keys to unlock his trunk. George thought with a shudder about what it would be like to an old man to load cases of soda, even 12-packs.
“I can help you unload the soda at your house.”
Fr. Elijah turned and made the slightest bow.
Once inside the car, George made a few nervous remarks about the weather. Fr. Elijah simply turned with what must have been a fatherly smile, but said nothing.
George did not consider himself strong, but it was only a few minutes for him to get the handful of cases of soda tucked into a slightly messy closet.
Once back in the car, Fr. Elijah seemed to arrive almost immediately at the dorm.
George said, “Now I remember. I wouldn’t ask for another ride back, but I should have asked to borrow a book from your library.”
Fr. Elijah turned. “Should you?”
George said, “What do you mean, should I? Are you mad at me? Didn’t you tell me that I could borrow any book in your library if you wanted?”
Fr. Elijah said, “For all I am concerned now, you may borrow the whole library, if you want to. Or keep it, if you want.”
“Then why don’t you want me borrowing a book now?”
“I have many good books you could read, but right now, you don’t really want one of my books.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you genuinely want to borrow a book, I will gladly talk with you and suggest what I think would be your deepest joy. But why are you asking me for a book now?”
“I thought it would be polite to…”
Fr. Elijah waited an interminable moment and said, “Something is eating you.”
George said, “You have no right to—”
Fr. Elijah said, “I have no right to this discussion, and neither do you. Thinking in terms of rights is a way to miss the glory we were made for. But let us stop looking at rights and start looking at what is beneficial. You don’t have to answer, but are you happy now?”
George waited, and waited, and waited for an escape route to open up. Then he said, and the saying seemed like he was passing through white-hot ice, “I’ve been looking at—”
Fr. Elijah said, “Stop, You’ve said enough.”
George said, “But how did you know?”
Fr. Elijah sighed, and for a moment looked like he wanted to weep. “George, I would like to say something deep and mysterious about some special insight I have into people’s souls, but that is not it. I am a father, a confessor, and one of the biggest sins I hear in confession—’biggest’ not because it is unforgivable; Jesus was always ready, more than ready, to forgive this kind of sin, but ‘biggest’ because it keeps coming up and causing misery, is the sort of sin you’ve been struggling with. I count myself very fortunate that I grew up in an age when you could have all the basic utilities without getting all sorts of vile invitations coming whether you want them or not, and I am glad that I do not feel obligated to purchase some nasty pills because I’m not a real man unless I have the same drives I had at the age of eighteen. What a miserably small and constricted caricature of manhood! I count myself a real man, much more because I have not suffered what tends to become such a dreary dissipation and deflation of any real manhood.”
George said, “You’re not mad?”
Fr. Elijah raised his hand, moved it up and down and side to side, and said, “I am blessing you, priceless son.”
George said, “How can I be free of this?”
Fr. Elijah said, “Come with me. Get back in the car.”
They drove for a few more minutes, neither one needing to say anything, until George noticed with alarm the shape of the hospital.
George said, “Where are we going?”
Fr. Elijah said, “To the emergency room.”
George looked around in panic. “I don’t have money for—”
“Relax. None of the treatment you will be receiving will generate bills.”
“What on earth are you—”
“I’m not telling you. Just come with me.”
They walked through a side door, George’s heart pounding, and George noticed two people approaching immediately.
Fr. Elijah turned momentarily, saying, “Buenos noches, Señoras,” and motioned with his hand for them to follow him.
As they and George followed, Fr. Elijah said, “Because of the triage in an emergency room, and because mere seconds are a matter of life and death in treating really severe injuries, people with relatively ‘minor’ injuries that still need medical attention can wait for an interminable amount of time.”
Fr. Elijah suddenly stopped. George saw a boy with skinned knees, whose mother was slowly working through paperwork. Fr. Elijah said, “Take away his pain.”
George looked at him, halfway to being dumbfounded. “What?”
Fr. Elijah said, “You heard me.” Then he turned and left, so that George saw only Fr. Elijah’s back and heard from him only broken Spanish.
George felt grateful that at least he wasn’t too easily grossed out. He could look at lacerated flesh and eat if he needed to. George sat next to the boy, smelled an overwhelming odor from his blood, and suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
George tried to refrain from swearing about what Fr. Elijah could possibly have meant. Badger the hospital into giving anaesthesia sooner? Kiss it and make it better? Use some psychic power he didn’t have? Find a switch on the back of the kid’s neck and reboot him?
For a while, nothing happened, until the boy stopped sobbing, and looked at him, a little bit puzzled.
George said, “Hi, I’m George.”
The boy said, “Mr. George.”
George tried to think of something to say. He said, “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo?”
“Really big holes all over Australia.”
The boy looked at him, but showed no hint of a smile.
“Do you not get it?” George asked.
The boy said, very quietly, “No.”
“An elephant has a lot of weight, and a kangaroo bounces up and down. If you put ‘weight’ and ‘bouncy’ together, then you get something that, when it bounces, is so heavy it makes big holes in the ground.”
The boy said nothing until George added, “That’s what makes it funny.”
The boy made himself laugh loudly, and just as soon winced in pain.
George tried to think of what to do. After a while, he asked, “What’s your favorite color?”
When the boy said nothing, George looked at his face and was surprised at the pain he saw.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Tommy.”
George thought about what to say. He began to tell a story. He told of things he had done as a boy, and funny things that had happened (the boy didn’t laugh), and asked questions which met with incomprehension. And this went on and on and on.
George wondered why he was having so much fun.
Then George looked at Tommy.
When was the last time George had even begun to do something for someone else?
George realized three things. First, he had stopped talking. Second, a hand was holding tightly to his sleeve. Third, there was something he was trying very hard not to think about.
George looked, and Tommy asked, “Mister, are you a knight? I want to be a knight when I grow up.”
George had never before felt such shame that he wished the earth would swallow him up.
“No, I am not a knight.”
“You seem like a knight.”
“You just do. Do you know anything about knights?”
“I’ve been reading a book.”
“What’s it called?”
“Tell me the story of Brookie-Land.”
“Because I haven’t read all of it.”
“What have you read?”
George closed his eyes. All he could remember now was a flurry of images, but when he tried to put them together nothing worked.
George was interrupted. “Do you have a suit of armor?”
Immediately, and without thought, George said, “What kind of armor? I mean, is it chain mail, like a steel, I mean iron, sweater, or is it the later plate armor that gets into the later depictions? Because if there were a King Arthur, he would—”
“Did King Arthur know powerful Merlin? Because Merlin could—”
“I’ve read a lot about Merlin—he could build a castle just with his magic. And it apparently matters whose son he is, but I couldn’t—”
“I want you to show me—”
A voice cut in. “Tommy!”
“Yes?” the boy said.
“The doctor is ready to see you… Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but—”
“Why does the doctor want to see me?”
“Because she wants to stitch up your knees, Silly Sweetie. Let the nurses roll you away. I’m glad—”
Tommy looked in puzzlement at his knees, saw how badly lacerated they were, and began screaming in pain.
There was a minor commotion as the nurses took Tommy in to be stitched up, or so George would later guess; he could never remember the moment. He only remembered walking around the emergency room, dazed.
Truth be told, though, George felt wonderful. He faintly noticed hearing Fr. Elijah’s voice, saying something in Spanish, and joined a group of people among whom he felt immediate welcome. Then the woman who was on the bed was taken in, and Fr. Elijah, and to his own surprise, George, bid farewell to the other members of the group.
George and Fr. Elijah were both silent for a long time in the car.
Fr. Elijah broke the silence.
“Would it be helpful to talk with me about anything?”
“I have to choose just one?”
“No, you can ask as many questions as you want.”
“Besides what I started to tell you—”
“When I was talking with that boy, I mean Tommy, the boy you introduced me to, I—I’m not sure I would have said exactly this, but I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Brocéliande and no time choosing to be with other people… would you keep that book for me, at least for a time?”
“I certainly could, but let’s look at our option. You sound less than fully convinced.”
“I don’t want to give it up.”
“Well, yes, I wouldn’t want to give it up either. But is that it?”
“No… I’m really puzzled. Just when I thought I had managed to stop thinking about never-never land and start thinking about Tommy, the kid asked me about never—I mean, he said that he wanted to grow up to be a knight, and he asked me if I was a knight. Which I am not.”
“That’s very mature of you…”
“What would you imagine yourself doing as the right thing?”
“Getting away from that silly desire and be with other people instead.”
“Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’?”
“Ok, I want to stop by my office before I drop you off at home, because I’m going to go against my word and give you literature to read. Although I only want you to read a few pages’ essay out of the book, unless you want to read more essays—is this OK?—”
“Because C.S. Lewis talked about the idea of unselfishness as a virtue, and said that there’s something pitiable about letting unselfishness be the center of goodness instead of the divine love. Or something like that. And the reason I remembered that is that somewhere connected with this is this terrible fear that people have that their desires are too strong, and maybe their desires are too much in need of being deepened and layered, except I think he only said, ‘too weak.’ Today I would add: in a much deeper way that you can remedy by dangerous pills in your spam.
“Maybe you don’t need to get rid of that book at all… maybe you should lend it to me for a time, and let me enjoy it, but maybe not even that is necessary.”
“My guess is that if you read enough in that book—or at least the ones I’ve read—you may notice a pattern. The knight goes to the company of the castle and then plunges into the woodland for adventure and quests, and you need a rhythm of both to make a good story. Or a good knight.”
“I fail to see how I could become a knight, or how knighthood applies to me.”
“Maybe that’s a can of worms we can open another time… For now, I will say that the reason the stories have knights doing that is not because the knights wore armor and rode horses, but because the people telling the stories were telling the stories of men. Who need both castle and wood. Keep reading Brocéliande, and push it further. Push it to the point that your college and your city are to you what the castle was to the knight. Or even so that you don’t see the difference. And alongside your trek into the enchanted wood, meet people. I would suggest that you find a way to connect with people, and work with it over time. If I may offer a prescription—”
“A priest is meant to be a spiritual physician, or at least that is what Orthodox understand. And part of the priest’s job is to prescribe something. If you’re willing.”
“I’ll at least listen.”
“First, I want you to spend some of your time with other people. Not all.”
“That’s something you need to decide, and even if I can offer feedback to you, I would not make that decision for you. You need to have a think about it.
“Second, something for you to at least consider… Come to me for confession. I cannot give the sacrament I give to Orthodox, but I can bless you. Which isn’t the immediate reason I mention it. Even if I were not to bless you, and even if Christ were not listening to your confession, there would still be power in owning up to what you have done. It gives power in the struggle.
“Third, do you access the Internet through a cable or through wireless?”
“An ethernet cable. I don’t have a laptop, and I’ve heard that the wireless network on campus is worth its weight in drool.”
“Do you have a USB key?”
“Then give me your Ethernet cable.”
“What kind of Luddite—”
“I’m not being a Luddite. I’m offering a prescription for you… There are different prescriptions offered for the needs of different people.”
“So for some people it is beneficial to visit—”
“For me it has been. When I was trying to figure out what was going on, I went to a couple’s house, and with their permission started looking through the pictures in their spam folder until I’d had more than enough. And I wept for a long time; I suddenly understood something I didn’t understand about what I was hearing in confession. I still pray for the people photographed and those looking at the photograph, and some of the women’s faces still haunt me—”
“The faces haunt you?”
“Yes. Understand that at my age, some temptations are weaker… but I looked at those faces and saw that each one was somebody’s daughter, or maybe somebody’s son, and my understanding is that it’s nothing pleasant to pose for those pictures. At least the faces I saw reminded me of an airline stewardess trying really hard to smile peacefully to someone who is being abrasive and offensive. But as I was saying, I count my hour of looking to be of the greatest spiritual benefit. But it would not benefit you, and it is my judgment that inyour case a little of what programmers call a ‘net vacation’—though I invite you to use lab and library computers—could help you in—”
“Do you know what it’s like to give up the convenience of computers in your room?”
“Do you know what it’s like to ride a horse instead of a car for a short time? I do…”
“But riding a horse is at least… like… um… it’s more like Arthur’s world, isn’t it?”
“If you want to look at it that way, you’re welcome to…” Fr. Elijah stopped the car and stepped out, saying, “Please excuse me for a moment.” The shuffling seemed to drag on, and Fr. Elijah stepped out with a book and got back in the car. “Oh, and I almost forgot. Please don’t make this a matter of ‘I won’t do such-and-such or even think about it,’ because trying not to think about a temptation is a losing game. I am inviting you to a trek from castle to wood, and wood to castle, with both feeding into a balance. Here is the book with ‘The Weight of Glory’ and other essays. Now…”
Calix College was in sight almost immediately, and Fr. Elijah waited outside George’s dorm for what became a surprisingly long time… he wondered if he should go up and see if George had changed his mind, and—
George walked out and handed him a cable in the dark. It was thick and stiff.
“I thought Ethernet cables weren’t this thick and stiff.”
“It’s my power cable. I put stuff I need on my USB key.”
“Goodbye, and George, one other thing…”
“There is no better time to be in a Church than when you know how unworthy you are.”
“I appreciate how much you’re stretching, but…”
“George, I want to ask you something.”
“I’ve been serving the Divine Liturgy for thirty-eight years now. How long have I been worthy to do so?”
“Is this a trick question? All thirty-eight?”
“It is indeed a trick question, but the answer is not ‘thirty-eight.’ I have never been worthy to serve the Divine Liturgy, nor have I ever been worthy to receive communion, nor have I ever been worthy to pray at Church, or anywhere else. We can talk about this if you like, but am not just being polite when I say that there is no better time to enter the Church than when you know yourself unworthy. Maybe we can talk later about what trumps unworthiness. For now, I wish you good night, and I would be delighted to see you join and adorn our company on Sunday.”
George climbed up in his room and sat in his armchair, and it felt like a throne. He was exhausted—and on the other side of shame. He began dutifully opening the C.S. Lewis book, glanced at the title, then tossed it aside. It was not what he really wanted. He picked upBrocéliande, wiped the dust off the cover with his hand, and opened to its middle, to its heart. George read:
rode until he saw a river, and in the river a boat, and in the boat a man.
The man was clad all in black, and exceeding simple he appeared. At his side was a spear, and was a basket full of oysters filled.
“I ask your pardon that I cannot stand. For the same cause I can not hunt, for I am wounded through the thighs. I do what I might, and fish to share with others.”
The knight rode on, Sir Perceval he hyght, until he came upon a castle. And in that castle he met a welcome rich, before a King all in sable clad round, and a sash of purple royal girt about his head, and full majestic he looked.
Then in walked a youth, bearing a sword full straight, for it were not falchion neither scimitar, but a naked sword with a blade of gold, bright as light, straight as light, light as light. The very base of that sword were gem work, of ivory made and with sapphires encrusted. And the boy was girt tightly with a baldric and put the sword in its place. In utmost decorum the sword hung at his side.
The boy placed what he shouldered at the feet of the King.
Spake the King: “I ask your forgiveness that I do not rise. Partake of my feast.”
Simpler fare was never adorned by such wealth of wisdom. The body was nourished, and ever more spirit in the fare that was read.
Anon processed one man holding a candelabra of purest gold with seven candles, anon another, anon a maiden mother holding a Grail, it was such a holy thing! Anon a lance that ever bore three drops of blood. And ever Perceval wondered, and never Perceval spake, though it passed many a time. With a war inside him Sir Perceval kept him his peace. Anon the King spake, “See thou mine only food,” and anon came the Grail holding not a stone neither a snake but a single wheaten host, afloat as a pearl in a sea of wine, red as blood. And never the King ate he none else.
Here a page was ripped out from Brocéliande, with yellowed marks where once tape failed to mend what was torn.
The damsel arose from her weeping. “Perceval! Perceval! Why askedst thou not thine enquiry?”
George soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Saturday he rested him all the day long: barely he stirred.
In his dream, George heard a song.
All was in darkness.
The song it came out of a mist, like as a mist, melodic, mysterious, piercing, like as a prayer, mighty, haunting, subtle, token of home and a trace of a deep place. How long this continued he wot not.
The one high, lilting voice, tinged with starlight, became two, three, many, woven in and out as a braid of three strands, or five, or ten, as a Celtic knot ever turning in and out. And as it wove in and out, it was as the waters of a lake, of an ocean, of a sea, and George swam in them. George was ever thirsty, and ever he swam. He swam in an ever-rippling reflection of the Heavens at midnight, a sea of unending midnight blue and living sapphire.
George’s feet sunk and he walked on the noiseless loam. Up about him sprung blades of grass and he walked into a forest growing of emerald and jade atop pillars of sculpted earth. Anon he walked slowly and slowly he saw a farm with the green grass of wheat growing of the fertile fecund field.
Upon a ruins he came, a soft, silent place where a castle still lingered and the verdant moss grew. Then through a city he walked, a city alive and vibrant in its stones, though its streets were a for a moment at a rest from its men. And in that city, he walked into the Church his heart, and found a tome opened upon a wooden stand entwined by vines.
George looked for a moment at the volume, and for a moment he saw letters of sable inscribed in a field argent. Then the words shifted, grew older, deepened into the depth of a root and the play of quicksilver. The script changed, the words spoke from afar, and became one word whose letters were hidden as behind a veil, one word inscribed at once in ciphers of luminous gold and congealed light that filled the book and shone all around it until—
George was awake, bright awake, wide awake, looking at a window the color of sunrise.
He arose to greet the coming of the dawn.
George went to Church and arrived almost an hour earlier than the 9:00 Fr. Elijah had given, and found to his surprise that although there were few other people, things had already begun. The fragrance of frankincense flowed and gold glittered, and he caught a word here and a phrase there—”Volume wherein the Word was inscribed,” “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,” “Blessed is the Kingdom,” “Lord have mercy.” Then he heard a phrase he had heard innumerable times in other contexts. A shibboleth later taken from the New Testament, “The just shall live by faith,” completely broke the illusion. George had had plenty of time to get sick of words he knew too well, or so it appeared to George. Yes, he was glad people understood them, but wasn’t there more to understand than that? Even if they were both straightforward and important…
The homily began.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about those who are righteous or just, “The just shall live by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.
It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.
In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave you trying to get disturbing images out of your minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.
The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The just shall live by faith.”
Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the just shall live by faith.”
The words “The just shall live by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.
Paul does not say, “The just shall live by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The just shall live by faith.”
Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The just shall live by faith.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
George was awash and realized with a start that he was not knocked off his feet, gasping for air. He felt a light, joyful fluidity and wondered what was coming next. This time he realized he was sure he saw a chalice; the liturgy seemed to go a little more smoothly and quickly.
As soon as he was free, Fr. Elijah came up to him. “Good to see you, George. How are you?”
George said, “Delighted… but I’m sorry, I haven’t read ‘The Weight of Glory’ for you yet.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Good man… no, I’m not being sarcastic. Put first things first, and read it when you have leisure. How did you find the homily?”
George said, “It was excellent… by the way, it was really for me that you preached last week’s homily, right? You seemed to be going a good bit out of your way.”
“It was really for you, as it was also really for others for reasons you do not know.”
“But weren’t you getting off track?”
“George, I have a great deal of responsibility, concerns, and duties as a priest. But I have a great deal of freedom, too. I can, if you want, draw on King Arthur and his court every service I preach at from now until Christmas.”
“How much do you mean, I mean literally? One or two? Four or five?”
“Huh? ‘Literally’? Um, there is a temptation in the West to devote entirely too much time to what is literal. I was exaggerating when I said every service from now until Chrismas… but, if you want, I’d be perfectly happy to do that literally, for every service you’re here.” Fr. Elijah extended his had. “Deal?”
George paused in thought a moment. “Um, you’ve said that I could take all the books in your library and keep them if I want. I know you were exaggerating, but…”
“Yes, I was. But I am not exaggerating when I say that you can take them if you want.”
“Don’t you love books?”
“Immensely, but not as much as I want to love people! They’re just possessions, and there are much greater treasures in my life than a good book, even though books can be quite good. Can we agree that I’ll preach on something in Arthurian literature every liturgy I preach at until Christmas?”
“What if I’m not here?”
“We can make it part of the deal that I’ll only preach on that topic if you’re here.”
George hesitated, and then shook his hand. “Deal.”
Fr. Elijah smiled. “Some people have said my best homilies and best surprises have come from this kind of rash vow.”
George started to walk away, and then stopped.
Fr. Elijah said, “Is something on your mind?”
George said, “What if other people don’t like you preaching on something so odd? What will you do if people complain?”
Fr. Elijah said, “Then I can give them your cell phone number and have them call you at all hours of the day and night to grouse at you for foisting such a terrible proposal on me. Now get some coffee. Go! Shoo!”
After getting home, George did his laundry, looked to see if anyone was hanging out in the lounge (everybody was gone), and played games in the computer lab. It was a nice break.
The next day in math class, the teacher drew a grid on the board, drew dots where the lines crossed, erased everything but the dots, and set the chalk down. “Today I’d like to show a game. I’m handing out graph paper; draw dots where the lines cross. We’re going to have two people taking turns drawing lines between dots that are next to each other. If you draw a line that completes a little square, you get a point. I’d like a couple of students to come up and play on the board.” After a game, there was a momentary shuffle, and George found himself playing against the kid next to him. This continued for longer than he expected, and George began to piece together patterns of what would let his opponent score points, then what laid the groundwork for scoring points…
The teacher said, “Have any of you noticed things you want to avoid in this game? Why do these things lead to you giving points to your opponent when you don’t want to, or scoring points yourself? This kind of observation is at the heart of a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorics.’ And almost any kind of game a computer can play—I’m not talking about tennis—is something that computers can only play through combinatorics. I’d like to show you some more ‘mathematical’ examples of problems with things we call ‘graphs’ where a lot of those same kinds of things are—”
She continued giving problems and showing the kinds of thought in those problems.
George felt a spark of recognition—the same thing that attracted him to puzzles. Or was it something deeper? Many “twenty questions” puzzles only depended on identifying an unusual usage of common words, “53 bicycles” referring to “Bicycle” brand playing cards rather than any kind of vehicle, and so on and so forth. Some of what the teacher was showing seemed deeper…
…and for the first time in his life, the ring of a buzzer left George realizing he was spellbound in a math class. It set his mind thinking.
In English class, he winced, as just as before-class chatter seemed about to end, one of the other students said, “A man gets up in the morning, looks out his window, and sees the sun rising in the West. Why?”
George was not in particular looking forward to a discussion of literature he wasn’t interested in, but he wanted even less to hear people blundering about another “twenty questions” problem, and cut in, “Because the earth’s magnetic poles, we suppose, were fluctuating, and so the direction the sun was rising from was momentarily the magnetic West.”
The teacher laughed. “That isn’t the answer, is it?”
The student who had posed the question said, “Um… it is…”
The professor said, “So we are to imagine someone going to a gas station, saying, ‘Which way is East?’, and the attendant responding with, ‘Just a sec, lemme check… I know usually this way is East, but with the Earth’s magnetic fluctuations, who knows?’ You know that in a lot of literature, East and West are less like numbers than like colors?”
“Um… How could a direction be like a number or a color?”
“There’s colorful difference and colorless difference. If I tell you there are 57 pens in my desk, I haven’t said anything very colorful that tells much about pens, or about my desk. But if I tell you a rose is a delicate pink, I’ve told you something about what it’s like, what it’s like, to experience a rose.”
“So what color is East, then? Camouflage green?”
“East isn’t a color, but it’s like a color where camouflage green and fiery red are different. In both Greek and Russian, people use the same word for ‘East’ and ‘sunrise’… and if you’re really into etymology, English does this too, only we don’t realize it any more. ‘East’ in English originally means ‘sunrise,’ as ‘Easter’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of a goddess of light and spring. Such terrible things the Orthodox miss out on by their quaint use of ‘Pascha.’ For us, the ‘big’ direction, the one which has the longest arrow or the biggest letter, the one all other directions are arranged around, is North; in Hebrew, it’s East. There is a reason many churches are arranged East-West and we often worship towards the East, and that has meant something for the U.S… Would you agree that we are part of the West?”
“So our land is the worst land?” George said.
“Well, if you read enough Orthodox nut jobs, yes… particularly if this land is their home. But U.S. land, or part of it at least, is called utter East… the one U.S. state where Orthodoxy isn’t edgy, exotic, fruitcake or ‘other,’ is Alaska, where there has been a native Orthodox presence, strong today, for over two hundred years. You know how, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis has a wood nymph speak an oracle that has drawn Sir Reepicheep all his life?
“Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.
“There’s something big you’ll miss about the holy land of Alaska if you just think of it as fully a state, but just one more state, just like every other state. It’s the only state, if ‘state’ is an adequate term, with a still-working mechanical clock on the outside of a public building that was made by an Orthodox saint. Among other things.
“And the idea of holy land that you would want you to travel to feeds into things, even in Protestant literature like Pilgrim’s Progress, which you will misunderstand if you treat the pilgrimage as just there as a metaphor for spiritual process. I have found it very interesting to look at what people classify as ‘just part of the allegory,’ even though we will read no simpler allegory among the readings for this class. Now in reading for today, have any of you had an experience like Pilgrim’s wakeup call at the beginning of Bunyan?”
George’s head was swimming.
Why were his classes so dull before this week? He remembered previous math lessons which, in various ways, failed to give him puzzle solving, and in annoyance, turned to previous English lessons, when—
—why hadn’t he paid attention? Or, more accurately, when George had paid attention, why hadn’t he let it be interesting?
Philosophy also turned out to be interesting; the professor began the unit on medieval philosophy by asking, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, eliciting various forms of derision, then asking people what they were deriding, began asking “How many of you can touch the head of the same pin at once?”, produced a pin, and after students made various jostling efforts, asked whether a pin could accommodate a finite or infinite number of angels.
This was used to a class discussion about the nature of matter and spirit and whether angels dancing on the head of a pin would push each other away the way human bodies would… and at the end of class the professor began asking if people wanted to talk about how unfortunate it was that medieval philosophers had to use the poetic image of angels dancing on the head of a pin where others would have used the colorless language of analytic philosophy.
In chemistry, the professor did nothing in particular to make things interesting. George still enjoyed the lecture as it built to a discussion of isotope distributions as used to compute average molecular weights.
George was quite surprised when the weekend approached, spent the weekend playing card games, and wondered at how quickly Sunday came.
On Sunday, George entered the strange world of the Church building. It seemed more, not less, strange, but things began to make sense. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” was something he noticed often, and he, if not understanding, was at least comfortable with the continual hubbub as people seemed to be moving about, sometimes to the front.
As the service passed, he found his eyes returning to, and then fixed on, an icon that showed three ?angels? sitting around a stone table. In the back was a mountain, a tree, and a building, a faroff building that George somehow seemed to be seeing from the inside…
The perspective in the picture was wrong. Wait, the perspective wouldn’t be that wrong by accident… the picture looked very distorted, and George wanted to reach out and—
George looked. The perspective vanished, not at some faroff place on the other side of the picture, but behind him, and the picture seemed at once faroff and something seen from inside.
And what was it, almost at the heart of the icon, or somewhere beneath it, that the three peaceful, radiant, great ?angels? almost seemed clustered around? It looked like a chalice of gold.
George was looking, trying to see into the picture, wishing he could go closer, and seeing one person after another come closer in the dance of song and incense. George instinctively found himself backing up, and then realized people were sitting down and Fr. Elijah began:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur has any number of characters, and I want to describe one of them, Sir Griflet, who is completely forgettable if you don’t know French: he appears briefly, never stays in the narrative for very long, never does anything really striking at all. His lone claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that Mallory refers to him as “Sir Griflet le fils de Dieu.” For those of you who don’t know French, we’ve just been cued in, in passing, that by the way, Sir Griflet is the Son of God.
Now why would this be? There some pretty striking things you can do if you are a character in that work. Sir Griflet is not a singular character who has the kind of energy of Sir Galahad, or in a different but highly significant way, Merlin. For that matter, he does not have even a more routine memorability like Sir Balin who wielded two swords at the same time. He’s just forgettable, so why is he called le fils de Dieu, I mean the Son of God?
In Chretien de Troyes, who is a pivotal author before Mallory, a character with a name that would become “Griflet” is equally pedestrian and is named “fis de Do”, son of Do, which has a root spelling of D-O where the word for God in that form of French is D-E-U. So a starkly pedestrian character, by an equally pedestrian language error, seems to have his father’s name mixed up with how you spell the word for God. How pedestrian, disappointing, and appropriate.
There is a somewhat more interesting case in the story of a monk who believed that Melchizedek was the Son of God, and this is not due to a language error. If you were listening when the readings were chanted from the Bible, you would have heard that Melchizedek was “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life: but made like unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually.” This may be surprising to us today, but that’s because most of us have lost certain ways of reading Scripture, and it was a holy monk who thought this. He made a theological error, not a mere language error, and when his bishop asked his assistance in praying over whether Melchizedek or Christ was the Son of God, he arrived at the correct answer.
Now let me ask you who is really the Son of God. Do you have an answer now?
I’m positive you’re wrong. It’s a forgettable person like Sir Griflet or Melchizedek.
When the Son of God returns in glory, he will say, “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you showed me no hospitality; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick or in prison, and you did not visit me.” And when the damned are confounded and ask when they could have possibly failed to do that, he will answer them, “I swear to you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.”
We, in our very nature, are symbols of the Trinity, and this does not mean a sort of miniature copy that stands on its own in detachment. The Orthodox understanding of symbol is very difficult to grasp in the West, even if you haven’t heard people trying to be rigorous or, worse, clever by saying “The word is not the thing it represents.” And talking about symbols doesn’t just mean that you can show reverence to a saint through an icon. It means that everything you fail to do to your forgettable neighbor, to that person who does absolutely nothing that draws your attention, you fail to do to Christ.
And if you are going to say, “But my neighbor is not Christ,” are you not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel in what you are being careful about? Your neighbor as such is not Christ as such. True, but this is really beside the point. It betrays a fundamental confusion if any of the damned answer their Judge and say, “But I wasn’t unkind to you. I was just unkind to other people.” We are so formed by the image of Christ that there is no way to do something to another person without doing that to Christ, or as this parable specifically says, fail to do. And I’d like you to stop for a second. The last time you were at an unexpected funeral, did you regret more the unkind thing you said, or the kind word you failed say, the kind action you failed to take? Perhaps it may be the latter.
Christ hides in each of us, and in every person you meet. There is a mystery: the divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became man that men might become gods and the Sons of God. Christ took on our nature so that by grace we might become what he is by nature, and that does not just mean something for what we should do in our own spiritual practices. It means that Christ hides in each person, and to each person we owe infinite respect, whether they’re boring, annoying, mean, lovely, offensive, fascinating, confusing, predictable, pedestrian, or just plain forgettable like old Sir Griflet.
You owe infinite respect.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Did George want to go up to the icon? He went up, feeling terribly awkward, but hearing only chant and the same shuffle of people in motion. He went up, awkwardly kissed the three figures someplace low, started to walk away in inner turmoil, turned back to the image, bowed as he had seen people see, and kissed the chalice of wine.
It was not long before he saw Fr. Elijah come out with a chalice, and draw from it with a golden spoon. This time he noticed people kissing the base of the chalice. There was nothing awkward about them, and there seemed to be something majestic that he began to catch a glimmer of in each of those present.
George later realized that he had never experienced worship “stopping” and coffee hour “beginning.” The same majestic people went from one activity into another, where there was neither chanting nor incense nor the surrounding icons of a cloud of witnesses, but seemed to be a continuation of worship rather than a second activity begun after worship. He was with the same people.
It didn’t occur until much later to George to wonder why the picture had a chalice… and then he could not stop wondering. He picked up Brocéliande and read:
The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”
The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”
“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail is?”
“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”
“Thou wote it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wote.”
“That is perplexing and hard to understand.”
The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”
“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”
“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”
“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”
“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”
“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”
“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”
“What madness askest thou?”
“Callest thou it madness? Such it is. But methinks thou wete not all that may be told.”
“Of a certainty speakest thou.”
“When thou dwellest in the darkness that doth compass round about the Trinity round about that none mayeth compass, then wilt thou dwell in the light of the Sign of the Grail with thy fellow man and thy brother Christian, for the darkness of the Trinity is the light of the Grail.”
George got up, closed the book, and slowly put it away. He wondered, but he had read enough.
George dreamed again of a chalice whose silhouette was Light and held Light inside. Then the Light took shape and became three figures. George almost awoke when he recognized the figures from the icon. George dreamed much more, but he could never remember the rest of his dream.
That week, Fr. Elijah’s homily was in George’s mind. He passed the check-in counter as he walked into the cafeteria, began to wonder where he might apply Fr. Elijah’s words… and stopped.
The line was moving slowly; he had come in late after wandering somewhat. Sheepishly, he stopped, looked at the woman who had scanned his ID, and extended his hand. “Hi, I’m George.”
The woman pushed back a strand of silver hair. “Hi. It’s good to meet you, George. I’m Georgina.”
George stood, trying to think of something to say.
Georgina said, “What are you majoring in?”
“I haven’t decided. I like reading… um… it’s really obscure, but some stuff about Arthur.”
“King Arthur and the Round Table?”
“Wonderful, son. Can you tell me about it sometime? I always love hearing about things.”
George said, “Ok. What do you… um…”
“I been working at this for a long time. It’s nice seeing all you students, and I get some good chats. You remind me of my grandson a little. But you’re probably pretty hungry now, and the lines are closing in a few minutes. Stop by another day!”
George ate his food, thoughtfully, and walked out of the cafeteria wishing he had said hi to more of the support staff.
That week, the halls seemed to be filled with more treasure than he had guessed. He did not work up the courage to introduce himself to too many people, but he had the sense that there was something interesting in even the people he hadn’t met.
On Wednesday, George went to register for his classes next semester, and realized his passwords were… on his computer, the one without a power cord.
After a while, thinking what to do, he knocked on a floormates’ door. “Um, Ivan?”
“Come in, George. What do you want?”
George hesitated and said, “Could I borrow a power cord? Just for a minute? I’ll give it right back.”
Ivan turned around and dragged a medium-sized box from under his bed. It was full of cables.
“Here, and don’t worry about returning it. Take a cord. Take twenty, I don’t care. I have them coming out of my ears.”
George grabbed one cord, then remembered he did not have the cord for his monitor. He took another. “I’ll have these back in a minute.”
“George, you’re being silly. Is there any reason you need not to have a power cord?”
“Um…” George opened his mouth and closed it. Then he hesitated. “No.”
George left, registered online, shut his computer down, left the room, did some work at the library, and went to bed.
Thursday he was distracted.
Friday, it was raining heavily, and after getting soaked in icy rain running to and from his classes, George decided he would check his email from his room… and found himself wandering through the spam folder, and threw the cords out in the dumpster.
Sunday he walked into church with hesitation, and Fr. Elijah almost immediately came over. “Yes, George?”
Then he told Fr. Elijah what was going on.
Fr. Elijah paused, and said, “George, do you know about the Desert Fathers?”
“A group of people a bit like the hermits in Arthurian legend. Some people think that Merlin was originally based on such monks… but aside from that speculation, they were much holier than either of us. And there was one time when someone asked them, ‘What do you do?’ And what do you think the Desert Father said?”
“Pray? Worship? Live a good life?”
“‘We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.’ That is the motion of Orthodox life, and if you see prostrations, you will literally see us fall and get up. I’m not sure if you think that if you repent of a sin once, the hard part’s over and it’s all behind you. In my sins, I have to keep repenting again and again. You have fallen, now get up. And get up again. And again. And again. And keep getting up.
“The Lord bless you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
George walked away still feeling unworthy, and everywhere saw a grandeur that seemed to be for others more worthy than him. Everything around him seemed royal, and Fr. Elijah preached:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In our commemorations, we commemorate “Orthodox kings and queens, faithful princes and princesses,” before we commemorate various grades of bishops. The bishop is in fact royalty; instead of calling him “Your Majesty,” we call him “Your Grace,” “Your Eminence,” “Your Holiness,” “Your All Holiness.” If you do research, you will find that the bishop is more than a king: the bishop is the Emperor, and wears the full regalia of the Roman Emperor.
One question that has been asked is, “The king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king:” is the king made king for the benefit of the kingdom, or is the kingdom a privilege for the benefit of the king? The Orthodox choice of now requiring bishops to be monks is not because married persons are unfit, or rather necessarily more unfit, to serve. Most of the apostles in whose shadows the monastic bishops stand were married, and the monk bishops I have met consider themselves infinitely less than the married apostles. But a monk is given to be a whole burnt offering where nothing is kept back and everything is offered to God to be consumed by the holy sacrificial fire. (Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen, but even if this is also what’s supposed to happen in a marriage, it’s more explicit in monasticism.) And it is this whole burnt offering, unworthy though he may be, who makes a bishop: Orthodoxy answers “the king for the kingdom:” the king is made king for the benefit of the kingdom, the bishop serves as a whole burnt offering for the benefit of the diocese.
Now let me ask: Which of us is royalty? And I want you to listen very carefully. All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. It’s not just the bishops. I will not go into this in detail now, but the essence of priesthood is not what I have that “ordinary” Orthodox don’t have. It’s what I have that Orthodox faithful do have. And without you I can celebrate the liturgy. And the essence of royalty is not what a king or bishop has that a “commoner” or faithful does not have; it’s what king and bishop share with the ordinary faithful. The Greek Fathers have no sense that “real” royal rule is humans ruling other humans; that’s a bit of an aberration; the real royal rule is humans ruling over what God has given them and over themselves, and doing that rightly is a much bigger deal than being one of the handful of kings and bishops.
And each of us is called to be what a bishop is: a whole burnt offering in humble service to the kingdom—large or small is not really the point—over which the Lord has appointed us king. It may mean showing conscience by cleaning up your room—and if you have a first world abundance of property, it is a very small way of offering them back to the Lord to keep them in good order. It means carefully stewarding precious moments with other people, maybe saying, “I hope you have a wonderful day,” and saying it like you mean it, to support staff. And it means humbly ruling your kingdom within, in which both Heaven and Hell may be found. It is when you serve as king, the king made for the kingdom, that your kingdom will be your crown and glory.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
After Church, a young woman stormed up to Fr. Elijah. She had, at as far arm’s length from her body as she could hold it, a clear trash bag holding a pink heart-shaped piece of artisan paper that appeared to have writing on it. She stopped opposite Fr. Elijah and said, “Do you know anything about this note?”
Fr. Elijah smiled gently. “It appears someone has sent you some sort of love note. How sweet!”
“Were you involved?”
“What, you think I would do something like that? I’m hurt!”
The young woman stood up straight and put her hand on her hip. Fr. Elijah turned to George and said, “Would you like to know what’s going on?”
The young woman said, “Yes, I’d love to hear you explain this.”
Fr. Elijah said, “George, the elephant population in Sri Lanka is in some peril. They’re not being hunted for their ivory, let alone for their meat, but there is a limited amount of land, and farmers and elephants are both trying to use an area of land that makes it difficult for them to both support themselves. So some people tried to think about whether there was a way to make a win-win situation, and make the elephants an economic asset. They asked themselves whether elephants produce anything. And it turns out that something that eats the enormous amount of food an elephant eats does, in fact, produce a lot of something.”
George said, “I don’t see the connection. Have I just missed that you’re changing the subject?”
The young woman said, “He hasn’t changed the subject.”
Fr. Elijah said, “They’re using it to make hand-crafted artisan paper, colored and available in a heart shape, which you can buy online at MrElliePooh.com if you’re interested.”
George looked at Fr. Elijah in shock and awe.
The woman said, “Grandpappy, you are such a pest!”
Fr. Elijah lightly placed an arm around her shoulder and said, “George, I’d like to introduce you to my granddaughter Abigail. She has a face as white as alabaster, raven-black hair, and lips are red as blood. And she has many merits besides being fun to pick on.”
Abigail stuck out her tongue at her grandfather and then shifted to his side. “And my grandfather does many fine things besides be obnoxious… Can’t live with him, can’t shoot him… You should get to know him, if you haven’t.” She gave him a gentle squeeze. “There are brownies today, George, and they’re great! Can I get you some?”
George read in Brocéliande, and wandered in the wood, and the castle of Calix College, and the surrounding city. Fr. Elijah began to introduce fasting, and George found something new in his struggles… and began to make progress. Nor was that the only thing in George’s life. He began to find the Middle Ages not too different from his own… and he was puzzled when he read in Brocéliande:
And in that wood anon saw Sir Yvain a lion fighting against a primeval serpent, and the serpent breathed fire against the lion his heel, and a baleful cry did the lion wail. Then Lord Yvain thought in his heart of which animal he should aid, and in his heart spake, “The lion is the more natural of the twain.” And anon he put his resources on the side of the lion, and with his sword he cleft the ancient serpent in twain and hew the serpent his head in seven, and warred against the wicked wyrm until he were reduced to many small bits. And he cleaned his sword of the serpent his venomous filth, and anon the lion kept him at his side.
And anon Sir Yvain slept and an advision saw: an old woman, whose colour was full of life and whose strength intact and yet who were wizened, riding upon a serpent and clothed in a robe black as coal, and spake and said, “Sir Yvain, why have ye offended me? Betake ye as my companion.” Then Sir Yvain refused her and there was a stench as brimstone aflame. Then a woman clad in white, riding astride a lion, new as white snow did courtesy and said, “Sir Yvain, I salute thee.” And about her was a fragrance of myrrh.
Anon Sir Yvain awoke, and sore amazed was he, and none could interpret his advision.
George spoke with Fr. Elijah, and asked him what the passage meant. Fr. Elijah said, “What does this passage mean? You know, that isn’t as big a question in Orthodoxy as you think… but I’ll try to answer. In fact, I think I’ll answer in a homily.”
“It had better be impressive.”
“Fine. I’ll preach it as impressive as you want.”
That evening, George called Fr. Elijah to say that he was going home for Christmas… and then, later in the week, said, “Fr. Elijah? Do you know anybody who could keep me? My parents were going to buy me a ticket home with frequent flier mileage on an airline, but my grandfather is ill and my mother used up those miles getting a ticket… and money is tight… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Well, you could talk with your College and try to get special permission to stay over break… but I’d prefer if you stayed with me. Because we agreed that I would only preach on the Arthurian legends, including your Old Law and New Law, if you were there… and I was so looking forward to preaching a Christmas homily on the Arthurian legends.”
“Can’t you preach it without me?”
“We agreed and shook hands. I have that homily for Christmas, but only if you’re there.”
“Um… I would be an intruding—”
“George, I am a priest because I love God and I love people. And I do meet people quite a lot, but my house is empty now. It would be nice to have some young energy and someone to share more than a Christmas dinner with?”
“Are you sure?”
“You know how to get to my place. I’ll see you whenever you want to come over.”
On Christmas, Fr. Elijah preached,
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Christ is born! Glorify him!
In the Arthurian legends, there is a story of a knight who sees a serpent fighting a lion, kills the serpent, and wins a kind response from the lion. In some versions the knight has a vision in which one woman appears on the serpent and another on the lion, and we learn that these women represent the Old Law and the New Law.
What are the Old Law and the New Law? One can say the Torah or Law of Moses, and the Gospel, and that is true up to a point, but the “Old Law” is not just a take on Judaism. Sir Palomides, a Saracen, described with profound confusion between Islam and paganism (and the problem with Islam is not that it is pagan but that it is not pagan enough—it is more emphatic about there being one God, even more than the one God is), becomes a Christian and is asked to renounce the Old Law and embrace the New Law. Even if Sir Palomides is in no sense a Jew.
In the ancient world, it is not enough to say that the Orthodox Church understood itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, politically incorrect as that may be. The Orthodox Church was even more fully the fulfillment of paganism, and if you understand what was going on in Plato, you understand that paganism was deepening. The Orthodox Church is the place where that final deepening of paganism took place. And I would like to explain for a moment why Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-“pagan” forms like Druidry aren’t.
The popular stereotype is that paganism was merry and free until Christianity’s grim hand came down, and that’s like saying that difficult toil was carefree until someone came along and with a grim hand invited people to a feast. Pagan virtues—courage, justice, wisdom, moderation—are retained in Christianity, but they are not the virtues of joy by themselves. C.S. Lewis said that if you’re not going to be a Christian, the next best thing is to be a Norseman, because the Norse pagans sided with the good gods, not because they were going to win, but because they were going to lose. The Norse decision was to meet the Day of Doom, called Ragnarok, and go down fighting on the right side. And so the Norse have a tale of the war-god Tyr who took and kept an oath even at the price of letting a wolf bite off his right hand, and there is something very much like ancient paganism in keeping an oath though it cost your right hand.
What Orthodoxy offered paganism in the ancient world was precisely not a grim hand flattening everything, but retaining the virtue already recognized in paganism while deepening them with faith, hope, and love that live the life of Heaven here on earth. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love are the virtues that can see beauty, that bring Heaven down to earth, that can call for the whole Creation to worship God: as we sing at the Eucharist, joining the Song that summons the host of angels, sun, moon and stars, heavens and waters above the heavens, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl, kings and all people, princes and rulers, young men and maidens, old men and children—all called in the Psalmist’s summons to praise the Lord.
If you want to know how today’s “neo-paganism” can fail to be pagan, I would recall to you the Medieval Collectibles website which offers a medieval toilet cover so you can have a real medieval coat of arms on your, um, “throne.” The website’s marketing slogan is “Own a piece of history,” but you’re not owning a piece of history… or think of the interior decorator who was told, “I want an authentic colonial American bathroom,” to which the decorator replied, “Ok, so exactly how far from the house do you want it?”
Some have noted that the majority of books written by Orthodox today are by Western converts, and there is a reason for that. The Reformation almost created literate culture, but the opposite of literate is not illiterate, but oral, in a way that neo-paganism may want to create but is awfully hard to recreate. Even in its spiritual reading the Orthodox Church remains an oral culture in its core while it uses writing: many of its most devout would never write a book, and even now, sensible Orthodox will answer the question, “What should I read to understand Orthodoxy?” by saying “Don’t read, at least not at first, and don’t ever let reading be the center of how you understand Orthodoxy. Come and join the life of our community in liturgy.” Orthodoxy is not better than classical paganism in this regard, but it is like classical paganism and it keeps alive elements of classical paganism that neo-paganism has trouble duplicating. (A neo-“pagan” restoration of oral culture bears a hint of… I’m not sure how to describe it… an oxymoron like “committee to revitalize” comes close.) After years of the West tearing itself away from nature, people in the West are trying to reconnect with nature, and some neo-“pagans” are spearheading that. But look at Orthodoxy. Come and see the flowers, the water and oil, the beeswax candles and herbs, the bread and wine that are at the heart of Orthodox worship: the Orthodox Church has not lost its connection with the natural world even as it uses technology, and it may even have a fuller connection with the natural world than paganism had; classical Rome could sow salt in the soil of Carthage and go out of their way to pollute out of spite, which even environmentally irresponsible companies rarely do today. Which isn’t getting into the full depth of a spiritually disciplined connection to nature like that of St. Symeon the New Theologian—in the Orthodox Church we call him “new” even though he’s from the fourteenth century—but it’s missing the point to ask if Orthodoxy is pagan because of the role of the saints in worshiping God. If you want the deep structure, the culture, the way of life, of paganism, the place where you will find it most alive is precisely Orthodoxy.
The Arthurian author Charles Williams makes a very obscure figure, the bard Taliesin, the pilgrim who comes to Byzantium sent to bring a treasure and returns with the Pearl of Great Price, the New Law. In Stephen Lawhead, it is Merlin who appears as the culmination of the Druidic Order and the apex of the Old Law: the old learned brotherhood is disbanded and Merlin proclaims the New Law, and this is really not just a story. The Evangelical Orthodox Church was formed when a group of Protestants tried to do something very Protestant, reconstruct the original Christian Church through studying old documents. Very Protestant. And they came to a certain point, that when they quizzed an Orthodox priest, they realized something. And the Evangelical Orthodox Church entered the Orthodox Church because they realized that the Old Law of Protestant searching to reconstruct the ancient Church needed to be fulfilled in what they realized was the New Law. The Holy Order of MANS—MANS is an acronym, but not in English; it stands for Mysterion, Agape, Nous, Sophia, some terms from Greek that are deep enough to be hard to translate, but something like “profound mystery, divine love, spiritual eye, wisdom.” Do these mean something Christian? Do they mean something esoteric? In fact the Holy Order of MANS was something of both, and they pushed their tradition deeper and deeper… until the Holy Order of MANS was dissolved and many of its people followed their leader’s sense that their Old Law led to this New Law. If you know the story of the Aleut religion in Alaska, the shamans—and it is difficult to explain their “shamans” in contemporary terms; perhaps I should refer to them as people who had tasted spiritual realities—said that certain people were coming and to listen to the people who were to come. And the people the shamans foretold were Orthodox monks who had in turn tasted of spiritual realities, such as St. Herman of Alaska. Not, necessarily, that moving from paganism to Orthodoxy was that big of a change for them. It wasn’t. But the Aleuts recognized in these monks something that was very close to their way of life, but something that could deepen it, and it was because of their depth in their Old Law as pagans that they were ready for an Orthodox New Law. Stephen Lawhead has a lot of carefully researched history—at times I wished for a little less meticulous research and a little more riveting story—but whether or not anything like this can be confirmed archaeologically in the Celtic lands, the same kind of thing can be confirmed, even as having happened very recently.
But when I say “Merlin,” many of you do not think of the herald of the New Law, and for that matter many of the older sources do not do this either. If a boy today is enchanted by just one character from the Arthuriad, it is ordinarily not King Arthur, Pendragon though he may be, nor Sir Galahad, who achieved the Holy Grail in some versions, nor Sir Lancelot, who is proven to be the greatest knight in the world, nor the Fisher-King, nor the fairy enchantress Morgana le Fay, nor King Arthur’s peerless Queen Guinevere, whose name has become our “Jennifer.” It is the figure of Merlin.
Today, if you ask what Merlin was—and I intentionally say, “what,” not “who,” for reasons I will detail—the usual answer is, “a wizard.” But if you look at the stories that were spread from the Celtic lands, the answer is, “a prophet.” In the Old Testament, one of the prophets protests, “I am neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” and another prophet says something to the Lord that somehow never gets rendered clearly in English Bible translations never choose to get right: “You violated my trust, and I was utterly betrayed.” The Hebrew word for prophet, ‘nabi‘, means “called one,” and one never gets the sense in reading the Old Testament prophets that the prophets, when they were children, said, “I want to grow up to be a prophet” the way people today say, “I want to be the President of the United States.”
And this idea of Merlin as prophet is not just a different or a more Christianly correct word. The Arthurian legends may be thought of today as “something like fiction;” even when people in the Middle Ages questioned their historical accuracy, those people were throwing a wet blanket on something a great many people took as literal fact. There is a book called The Prophecies of Merlin, which was taken extremely seriously for centuries, as the word of a prophet. And one gets the sense that in modern terms Merlin’s identity was not a self-definition that he chose, not in modern terms, but something that was thrust upon him.
It may sound strange to some if I say that the earlier attempt to build a castle on Merlin’s blood, and Merlin’s later calling a castle out of the wind, relate to Christ. But if you think I am pounding a square peg into a round hole, consider this: Sir Galahad, whom some consider a painfully obvious Christ-figure, whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure and who is always strong in the face of temptation, enters the world after Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world and a man who goes above and beyond the call of duty of faithfulness in his devotion to another man’s wife, goes to a castle, is given the Arthurian equivalent of a date-rape pill in the form of a potion that makes him think his hostess is the woman he’s been carrying on with, and that night sires Galahad. You may call this a magical birth story if you like, but it doesn’t give us much advance notice that the son born will turn out to be the Arthurian icon of purity who will achieve the Grail.
So how is Merlin, who reeks of magic, introduced? In the oldest surviving work that flourished outside of Celtic circles, in fact written by a Celtic bishop, Merlin appears when King Vortigern searches for a boy without a father, and hears Merlin being teased for being without a father. And let me be clear, this is not because his father has passed away. We learn that the Devil wished to be incarnate, could only come into the world of a virgin, found a virgin who was spiritually pure, having only slipped in her prayers once, and thus the person meant to be the anti-Christ was conceived. The Church, just in time, said powerful prayers and the boy, born of a virgin without a sire, commanded all the power over the natural world he was meant to, but would serve the good. Now is anyone going to say that that’s not a reference to Christ? Merlin is most interesting because of how the story itself places him in the shadow of Christ.
One thing that’s very easy to overlook is that in the story where there’s a terrible storm and Christ is sleeping in the front of the boat while his disciples are asking if he doesn’t care that they were going to die, is not just that the disciples were right: in that part of the world there were storms that could very quickly flood a boat and kill people when the boat sank. Christ stands up, and says something to the storm before rebuking the disciples for their lack of faith. And that’s when the disciples really began to be afraid. Mark’s Gospel is the one Gospel with the simplest, “I don’t speak Greek very well” Greek, and at this point he uses the King James- or Shakespeare-style Greek Old Testament language to say that when Jesus commands the storm to be still and it actually obeys him, that is when they are most terrified.
Before Jesus stopped the storm, they were afraid enough; they knew the storm they saw was easily enough to kill them. But this was nothing compared to the fear out of which they asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” This person who had been teaching them had just displayed a command over nature that left them wondering who or what he was, a “what” that goes beyond today’s concern about “who am I?” and has something that cannot be reached by angst-ridden wrestling with who you are.
Something like that question is at the heart of debates that people argued for centuries and are trying to reopen. What, exactly, was Jesus? Was he an ancient sage and teacher? Was he a prophet? A healer or a worker of wonders? Someone who had drunk of deeper spiritual realities and wanted to initiate others into the same? Was he something more than a man, the bridge between God and his world?
The answer taken as final was the maximum possible. It was “Every one of these and more.” It pushed the envelope on these even as it pushed into a claim for the maximum in every respect: Christ was maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserved the divine and human while being the final image both for our understanding of what it is to be God and what it is to be human.
And what, finally, would we have if we deepened Merlin? What if he were the son, not of the worst finite creature, but of the best and infinite Creator? What if he had not simply power over nature but were the one through whom the world was created and in whom all things consist? What if we were dealing with, not the one who prophesied that a few would find the Holy Grail, but the one who gave the Holy Grail and its gifts that are still with us? What if Merlin were made to be like the pattern he is compared to? When Merlin is deepened far enough, he becomes Christ.
The Christian lord of Cyprus was out hawking when his dearly beloved hawk—I don’t know if the hawk was a merlin, but I can say that a merlin is a type of hawk—became entangled in the brush in the wood. Loving the hawk dearly, he ordered that the branches be cut away so that he would still have this hawk, and when that was done, not only was his hawk found, but an icon showing the Queen and Mother of God on a throne, and the Divine Child enthroned upon her lap and an angel on either side. They found what they were looking for, but they also found a singularly majestic icon of the Incarnation.
The Christ Mass, the Nativity, is an invasion in the dead of winter. It is the feast of the Incarnation, or more properly one of the feasts of the Incarnation, which is not something that stopped happening once after the Annunciation when the Mother of God bore the God-man in her womb.
Everything that the Christ Mass stands for will eventually be made plain, but the Christ Mass is a day of veiled glory. When God became man, he was born in a stable. When Christ returns, he will appear riding on the clouds. When he came, a choir of angels proclaimed the news to shepherds and a few knees bowed. When he returns, rank upon rank of angels will come in eternal radiant glory and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the manifest glory of God the Father. When he came once, a star heralded the hour of his birth. When he returns, the stars will fall as ripe figs from a tree and the sky itself will recede as a vanishing scroll. Every thing that is a secret not will be made plain, but he first came in secret…
…and he comes today in secret, hidden in us. For the Incarnation was not finished after the Annunciation, but unfolds still as Christ is incarnate in the Church, in the saints like St. Herman of Alaska, a wonderworker who was seen carrying logs weighing much more than himself, stopped a forest fire, calmed a stormy sea, and left behind a body preserved from corruption as it was on display for a month at room temperature, and left behind much of the Aleut Orthodox community that remains to this day—and also in us. And the Incarnation is still unfolding today. The castle of the Arthurian world is more than stone walls and a porticullis; the castle is almost everything we mean by city, or society, or community. And it is the castle writ large that we find in the Church, not only a fortress waging war against the Devil but a people ruled by her Lord. This Castle is at once founded upon a fluid more precious than ichor, not the blood of a boy without a father but the blood of a God-man, without father on the side of his mother and without mother on the side of his Father. It is the Castle still being built by the wind of his Spirit still blowing—and remember that the world behind the Medieval West did not always stow “spirit” and “wind” in sealed watertight compartments: the wind blows where it will and the Spirit inspires where it will, so this Castle has a Spirit blowing through it that is more windlike than wind itself.
And until the Last Judgment, when every eye will see him, even those that pierced him, it is his will to be incarnate where he is hidden behind a veil to those who cannot see him: incarnate in the Church and in each of us, called to be his saints, and called to become Christ.
Christ is born! Glorify him!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Fr. Elijah turned around, stopped, bent his head a moment, and at last turned back. “Oh, and one more thing… George’s number is in the parish directory, and these homilies that talk about King Arthur and his court have been all his fault. If there’s anything at all that you don’t like about them, I invite you to call him at all hours of the day and night to grouse at him for foisting such terrible ideas on me.”
That evening, George came, and after some hesitancies, said, “When can I become Orthodox?”
“At Pascha. We can continue working, and you will be received in the Church.”
George thanked him, and began to walk out.
“Um, Fr. Elijah, aren’t you somewhat surprised?”
“George, I was waiting for you to see that you wanted to become Orthodox. Go back to your reading.”
The Christmas break passed quickly, and the first class after break was the introduction to computer science. The professor said, “Most of my students call me Dr. Blaise, although you can use my last name if you’re comfortable. I wanted to offer a few remarks.
“Many of your professors think their class is your most important class, and that entitles them to be your number one priority in homework and demands outside the classroom. I don’t. I believe this class is a puzzle piece that fits into a larger puzzle. Exactly how it fits in will differ, depending on whether you become a major—which I invite you to consider—or whether you choose an allied major but focus on something other than computer science, or whether your interests lie elsewhere and I am broadening your horizons even if your main interests lie somewhere else. I will try to help give you a good puzzle piece, and in office hours especially I want to support you in helping fit this piece of the puzzle into the broader picture.
“My best student was a mechanic; car and airplane mechanics, for instance, are solving a problem with a system, and I have never been so stunned at how quickly a student learned to debug well as with this mechanic. I’ve found that people who know something about physics, mathematics, or engineering pick up computer work more quickly even if you don’t see a single physics equation in this class: learn physics and programming is a little easier to learn. And it goes the other way too: one of my colleagues in the math department explained that students who know the process of taking something and writing a computer program to reach the desired results, correctly, are prepared to do something similar in mathematics, and take something and write a correct proof to reach the desired results. Learn something in one hard science and you have an advantage in others.”
One student raised her hand. “Yes?” Dr. Blaise asked.
“What about those of us interested in philosophy or religion? What if we’re doing something computers won’t help us with? Are you going to teach us how to use word processors?”
“Well, I’d point out that there is a long tradition of studying mathematics—geometry—as a sort of mental weightlifting before studying philosophy or theology. Or some of my poet friends say that it’s a way of poisoning the mind, and I’ll respect them if they want to say that. But for many of you, it is useful, even if we don’t teach word processing—ask the lab tech for sessions that will teach you how to use computer software. Computer science is about something else; computer science isn’t any more about how to use computers than astronomy is about how to use telescopes.”
The student raised her hand again, slightly, and then put it down.
Dr. Blaise said, “I’d like to hear your thought. If you aren’t convinced, other people probably aren’t convinced either, and it will do everybody good to have it out in the open.”
“Um… But why does…” She paused, and Dr. Blaise smiled. “I want to study English.”
“Good stuff. So does my daughter. It’s a bit of a cross-cultural encounter, and I think it can benefit English students for the same reason my majors benefit from taking English classes. But never mind programming specifically; I want to talk about how the disciplines can integrate. Programming won’t help you the same way as some of the humanities will, but I’d like to talk about how things might fit together.
“I saw one of your English professors, a lovely medievalist who knows the Arthurian legends well. She was talking with one of the campus ethicists, who has interests in the history of moral theology. The topic of discussion? One that you might wince at, on the short list of positions the Catholic Church is unpopular for: contraception. And the ethicist said he’d found something he thought the medievalist literature professor might find interesting.
“The history of contraception, like almost any other big question, involves a lot of other things. And one of those things involves a suggestion by John Noonan, not for one of several proposed answers for a question, but of an answer to a puzzle that has no other answers, at least as of the time Noonan wrote.
“The vision of courtly love, and what is celebrated in that love between a man and a woman—probably another man’s wife, for what it’s worth—is an ideal that was all about celebrating ‘love’, and in this celebration of ‘love,’ there was a big idea of ‘Play all you want; we will encourage and celebrate play, whether or not you’re in marriage; just be sure that you do it in a way that won’t generate a child.’
“Scholars do have difficulty keeping a straight face in the idea that the courtly romances are coded messages about secret Cathar teachings. They aren’t. But they flourished as nowhere before in a land where something of Catharism was in the air, and, like contraception, the idea of celebrating ‘love’ and encouraging people, ‘Play, but do it in a way that don’t generate a child’ is not exactly Cathar, but is the sort of thing that could come if Catharism was in the air.
“And, the ethicist went further, the Arthurian romances are done in such a way that it is very difficult to demonstrate any clear and conscious authorial understanding of Cathar teachings, let alone coded messages sent to those ‘in the know’… but that doesn’t mean that Catharism had nothing to do with it. And not just because strict Cathars would have taken a dim view of this way of taking their ball and running with it. A very dim view, for that matter.
“Catharism, called Gnosticism as it appeared in the ancient world and various other things as it resurfaces today, has various things about it, and not just wanting to celebrate love to high Heaven while understanding this wonderful ‘love’ as something which one should be able to do without generating children. That’s not the only thing, and it is one point of including Cathar elements without doing them very well.
“Catharism, or Gnosticism or whatever the day’s version of it is called, is deeply connected with magic, and this occult element has a lot of ideas, or something like ideas, if you get very deep into it. And in the Arthurian legends, there is an occult element, but it isn’t done very well. There are dweomers all over the place, and Merlin and almost every woman work enchantments, not to mention that all sorts of items have magical ‘virtues’, but the English professor had almost no sense that the authors were really involved with the occult themselves. It was kind of a surface impression that never had any of the deeper and darker features, or the deeper secret doctrines of one in the know. It kind of portrays magic the way a poorly researched TV show portrays a faroff land—there may be a sense of interest and enchantment untainted by actual understanding of what is being portrayed.
“And besides that surface impression, there is something of self-centered pride. The only people who really have a pulse are nobles living in large measure for themselves, knights who are trying to do something impressive. Commerce never seems to really taint the screen of luxury; furthermore there is a sense that being in fights for one’s glory is no great sin, and it doesn’t really matter what those fights do to the others. It’s a very different view of fighting from ‘just war.’
“The Arthurian legends are undoubtedly classics of world literature, and it is terribly reductive to say that they’re simply a bad version of Cathar doctrine. That denigration of their literary qualities is not justified, just as dismissing Star Wars as just a bit of violent Gnosticism or Catharism or whatever is out of line. Star Wars would never succeed if it were just dressed up Gnosticism.
“But it does raise the question of whether the literature of courtly love, so foundational to how people can understand ‘love’ today and understand what it means to celebrate ‘love’ and say that the Catholic Church hates love between men and women if it will not recognize that contraception will help that love be celebrated with less unwelcome ‘consequences’… It raises the question, not of whether the literature is bad literature and not worth study, but whether it is very good literature that contains something fatal.”
There was one more question, and Dr. Blaise began discussing computer science. At least George believed later that the professor had been discussing computer science, and trusted others’ reports on that score.
But George did not hear a word more of what Dr. Blaise said that day.
The computer science class was a night class, and when it was finished, George found himself surprised when he entered the parsonage.
Fr. Elijah was sitting, his back to the door, staring into the fireplace. A large volume, looking like an encyclopedia volume, was sitting open on Fr. Elijah’s sparsely appointed desk. Fr. Elijah, his back still to the door, said, “Come in, George. What is the matter?”
George said, “I hope I didn’t interrupt—”
Fr. Elijah said, “I was just resting a bit after reading something. St. Maximus’s language gives me such trouble.”
George rushed over to the desk. “Maybe I can help.” He looked, and looked again, until he realized the volume had columns of Latin and Greek. The volume was printed, but it looked old, and there were worm holes.
“Come in and sit down, George. You don’t need to be reading St. Maximus the Confessor quite yet, even if your Greek is better than mine, or you find the Latin easier. Now sit down. You didn’t come here so you could help me understand the Greek, even if I wouldn’t be surprised if, bright lad as you are, you know Greek a good deal better than I do.”
“It’s Greek to me,” George said, forcing a smile, and then shaking. Fr. Elijah rose, turned around, and said, “Sit down in my chair, George, and enjoy the fire. I’ll step out into the kitchen, make some hot cocoa, and then we can talk. I wish my cat were still around; she was a real sweetheart, and she would sit in your lap and purr. Even if it was the first time she met you.” Fr. Elijah left, silently, and went about making hot cocoa. He returned, holding two mugs, and gave one mug to George. “I put extra marshmallows in yours.”
Then Fr. Elijah sat down in a smaller chair, in the corner, and sat, listening.
George blurted out, after some silence, “I think the Arthurian stuff I read may be Gnostic.”
Fr. Elijah took a sip.
“One of the people in my class said that Arthurian literature arose because of the Cathars.”
Fr. Elijah took another sip.
“Or something like that. It seems that a lot of what people do as glorious things in courtly literature is Gnostic.”
Fr. Elijah took a slow sip, and asked, “Like what?”
“Well, the ideal of love is big on celebrating love, only it’s better if children don’t get in the way, and you’re careful to keep children out of the way. And there’s magic all over the place, and nobles are superior.”
Fr. Elijah took another sip.
“At least that’s how I remember it, only I’m probably wrong.”
Fr. Elijah stroked his beard for a moment and said, “Well, that’s a big enough question that we should respect the matter by not trying to sort it out all at once. Let’s not assume that because it is so big a question, we are obligated to rush things. If it is a big question, we are more obligated not to rush things.”
“Ever hear of Arius or Arianism?”
“You mean racism?”
“No, not that spelling. A-R-I-U-S and A-R-I-A-N-I-S-M. The race-related bit is spelled with a ‘Y’.”
“Arius was a deacon who was really worried that his bishop was saying something wrong. So he rushed to correct his bishop, and in his rush to correct the Orthodox Church founded a heresy. He gets it worse in the Orthodox liturgy than even Judas; various other heretics are accused of being taught by Arius.
“There were two mistakes he made. The biggest and worst mistake was fighting the Orthodox Church when they said he was wrong, and that was the real problem with Arius. But another mistake was trying to rush and fix the problem of heresy he thought his bishop was guilty of.
“Holier men than either of us have rushed and said something heretical in their rush job. I’m not sure either of us are going to go warring against the Church and trying to fix it has thought about our correction and said ‘No,’ but if you’ve raised a big question, or your class has, that’s all the more reason not to rush.”
George said, “So what should we do?”
Fr. Elijah said, “Take a deep breath and a sip of cocoa,” and waited. Then he said, “Now what is it that has you so wound up?”
“I thought there was really something in what I was reading.”
“There probably is.”
“But the idea of love, and all the magic, are some sort of second-rate Cathar stuff.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Well, I’m not sure… um… well, they’re big on the experience of love.”
Fr. Elijah sank a little into his chair. “In other forms of Gnosticism, there is an idea of some things as experience… and they are understood as experiences, significant as experiences, and not as significant for other reasons… and I can see some pretty Gnostic assumptions feeding into that ideal of love. You may be right…”
“But isn’t love to be celebrated? How else could it be celebrated?”
“In the New Testament times, celibacy was encouraged despite the fact that it was giving up something big. But the something big is not the obvious ‘something big’ people would be worried about giving up today… it’s having children to carry on one’s name. There is a good deal more…. People, even with hormones, were interested in some other things besides pleasurable experiences. There is more I could explain about what else besides ‘being in love’ could make a happy marriage between happy people, but… Sorry, I’m ranting, and you’re not happy.”
“Fr. Elijah, if what I’m saying makes sense, then why on earth did you preach those homilies? Were you lying… um, I mean…”
“Don’t look for a nicer word; if you think I might have been lying, I would really rather have you bring it out into the open than have it smouldering and damaging other things. No, I’m not angry with you, and no, I wasn’t lying.”
“George, allow me to state the very obvious. Something was going on in you. And still is. It seemed, and seems to me, that you were coming alive in reading the Arthurian legends. As a pastor or priest or spiritual father or whatever you want to call me, I made an appropriate response and preached homilies that blessed not just you, but also several other people as well. Now, maybe, you are shattered, or maybe you are ready to begin hungering for something more. You know how, in classic Gnosticism, there’s a distinction the Gnostics hold between the so-called ‘hylic’ people who don’t have much of any spiritual life, meaning people who aren’t Christian in any sense, and the ‘psychic,’ meaning soulish, not ESP people, of Christians who have a sort of half-baked spiritual awakening, and the ‘pneumatic,’ meaning spiritual, Gnostics who are the real spiritual elite?”
George said, “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s absolute bosh from beginning to end. It has nothing to do with the truth.”
Fr. Elijah closed his eyes for a moment. “George, I am not quite sure I would say that.”
“What, you’re going to tell me the Gnostics had it right?”
“They had more right than you think; they’re seductively similar to Christianity. They wouldn’t have anywhere near the effect they’re having if it were any other way.
“You know how Orthodox Christianity is patted on the head as a sort of lesser outer revelation that is permissible for those who have reached the outer courts but are not ready to enter the inner sanctum of the Gnostics’ secret knowledge? That’s backwards. The Gnostic ‘knowledge’ might be excusable for people who have not reached the inner reaches of Orthodoxy. It is the Gnostic that is the light-weight spiritual reality. And it is the light-weight spiritual reality that is the Old Law which the New Law fulfills more than the Old Law can fulfill itself. You reacted to something in the Arthurian legends because there is something there, and if you now know that they are not the New Law, I will ask you to excuse me if I still hold those legends to be an Old Law that finds its completion in the New Law. The highest does not stand without the lowest, and part of the New Law is that it makes a place for the Old Law. Including that spark of life you saw in the Arthurian legends.”
“But why preach as if you found so much in them? I were to ask you to do something silly, like preach a sermon on how things have been censored out of the Bible, would you do that too?” George took a breath. “I’m sorry; you can change the subject if you want.”
Fr. Elijah said, slowly, “I have a question for you, and I want you to think carefully. Are you ready for the question?”
George said, “Yes.”
“Can we know, better than God, what the Bible should say?”
“But quite a lot of people do think that. A lot of people seem to be trying to help the Bible doing a better job of what it’s trying so hard to say, but can’t quite manage. Or something like that.”
“I’ve read some liberals doing that.”
“It’s not just liberals. Let me give one example. George, have you been big in Creation and evolution debates?”
“Christians have several options, but for the Newsweek crowd, there are only two options. Either you’re a young earther, or you’re an evolutionist, and the new ‘intelligent design’ is just the old creationism with a more euphemistic name. Rather depressing for a set of options, but let’s pretend those are the only two options.
“Now are you familiar with what this means for dinosaurs?”
“The connection isn’t obvious. We’ve seen, or at least I have, cartoons in magazines that have cave men running from T. rexes or hunting a brontosaurus. Which is, to an evolutionist, over a hundred times worse than having cave men whining loudly about the World Wide Wait. There’s a long time between when the last dinosaurs of any kind, and the first humans of any kind, were around. As in hundreds of millions of years longer than humans have been around in any form. On that timeline, it’s a rather big mistake to have humans interacting with dinosaurs.
“But if you have a young earth timeline, with the whole world created in six days, then it’s not such a ludicrous idea that humans might have interacted with dinosaurs… and your English Bible offers an interesting reason to believe that humans have seen living dinosaurs. Have you read the book of Job?”
George said, “Um, no. It’s one of a lot of…”
Fr. Elijah interrupted. “There’s a lot in the Bible to read, and even people who read the Bible a lot don’t read it quickly unless they’re speed-reading, and then it still takes them a couple of weeks. If you can call that ‘reading the Bible;’ I’ve tried it and I think it’s one of the sillier things I’ve tried—a sort of spiritual ‘get rich quick’ scheme. I was smart enough to stop. But if you check your English Bible, you will see in Job a creature called the ‘behemoth,’ perhaps because the translators on the King James Version didn’t know how to translate it, and the ‘behemoth,’ whatever that may be, is a mighty impressive creature. We are told that it is not afraid though the river rushes against it, suggesting that whatever the behemoth is, it is a big beast. And we are told that it stiffens or swings its tail like a cedar, the cedar being a magnificent, and quite enormous, tree which reaches heights of something like one hundred fifty to two hundred feet. And regardless of where you stand on Creation and evolution, the only creature that has ever walked the earth with a tail that big, or anywhere near that big, is one of the bigger dinosaurs. So the Bible offers what seems to be excellent evidence that people have seen dinosaurs—alive.
“Which is all very lovely, of course given to the English Bible. But first, the ‘behemoth’ is in fact an overgrown relative of the pig, the hippopotamus, and second, it isn’t really talking about his tail. The same basic image is translated unclearly in the Song of S—”
George spit out a mouthful of soda and took a moment to compose himself. “I’m sorry. Did I—”
Fr. Elijah looked around. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that as you were taking a sip. Let me get you a napkin. Here.”
George said, “Ok, so maybe there are some other vivid images that have been, bowlderized—you know, edited for television. Anything more? Were any ideas censored?”
Fr. Elijah said, “A bit murky, but I’m tempted to say ‘yes.’ One idea has been made less clear; there may be other tidbits here and there. A couple of forceful passages that may be interpreted as implying things about contraception don’t come across as clearly. But that may not be censorship; there is a double meaning that is hard to translate correctly in English. I don’t find the English translation strange. But there’s one story in the Old Testament, where the future King David is running from King Saul, who is leading a manhunt and trying to kill David. There are a couple of points that David could have killed Saul, and at one of these points, David’s assistant either encourages David to kill Saul or offers to kill Saul himself, and David says what your English Bible puts as, ‘I will not lay my hand on the Lord’s anointed,’ or something like that. Would you like to know what it says in Hebrew or Greek, or in Latin translation?”
George said, “Um…”
Fr. Elijah got up. “I wasn’t expecting that you would; it’s really not that important or even as impressive as some people think. If you don’t know those languages, it may be easiest to see in the Latin. Aah! Here’s my Latin Bible. Just a minute. Let me get my magnifying glass.” After almost dropping a dark green Bible with golden letters on the cover, and an interminable amount of flipping, he said, “What is this word here?”
“I don’t know Latin.”
“Never mind that. What does that word look like?”
“It’s a lowercase version of ‘Christ,’ with an ‘um’ added.”
“Yes indeed. And at the top it says the name of an Old Testament book, in Latin ‘Liber Samuhelis.’ What do you think the word you pointed out means?”
“I told you that I don’t know Latin.”
“What’s an obvious guess?”
“Um…” George paused. “Christ.”
“What does the lowercase ‘c’ mean?”
“It means nothing. As a matter of language-loving curiosity, the text is in Latin; either in the manuscripts or in this printed Bible, capitalizations follow a different rule, and ‘christus’/’christum’/… isn’t automatically capitalized. Now why is the Old Testament book of Samuel using the equivalent of the ‘Christ’?”
“Because the Latin is messed up?”
“Ernk. Sorry. Bzzt. Thank you for playing, but no. The Latin is fine. It’s the English that’s messed up. The Latin correctly translates, ‘I will not lay my hand on,’ meaning violently strike, ‘the Lord’s Christ.’ Didn’t you know that the word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed’?”
“The Bible, Old Testament and New, uses ‘Christ’ for those who are anointed—the Son of God, prophets, priests, kings, and ultimately the people of God. The whole point of becoming Christian is to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and even if we can never be perfect in Christ, there is something real that happens. If you ever become Orthodox, you will be ‘Christed,’ or in the related and standard term, ‘chrismated,’ meaning, ‘anointed with holy oil.’ And, at a deeper level, the anointing is about anointing with the Holy Spirit, as Christ was. And the New Testament in particular says a lot about Christ, but the Bible calls Christ or Christs others who are anointed. But the Bible translations, coincidentally by people who have much less room for this in their theology, introduce a division that isn’t in Hebrew, Greek, or the Catholic Church’s Latin, and translate the Hebrew ‘moshiah’ or the Greek ‘christos’ one way when it refers to the one they think is ‘really’ Christ, and another way when it refers to other Christs even if what the text says is, quite literally, ‘Christ.’ They introduce a very clear divide where none exists in the text, using a language shenanigan not entirely different from some mistranslations translating ‘God’ with a big ‘G’ when the Bible talks about the Father, and a ‘god’ with a little ‘g’ when the Bible refers to Christ. Perhaps your Bible’s translators still say ‘anointed one,’ but there is some degree of censorship. The reader is saved the shock of too many correctly translated and explicit statements that we are to be little Christs, Sons of God, living the divine life—there’s a word for the divine life in Greek that is different from the word for mere created life, and that dimension doesn’t seem to come through. It’s not all censorship, but there’s something not quite right about the translators who refuse to either consistently say ‘Christ,’ or else consistently say ‘Anointed One,’ so that the readers never get the something important in the Bible that Western Christianity does not always get. But there is enough mystery in the Bible. Sacred Scripture is unfathomable even apart from relatively few areas where the translators try to make sure that the reader does not get the full force of the what the text is saying. God exceeds our grasp; he is and ever shall be Light, but whenever we try to shine a light to search him out, its beam falls off in darkness, and the God who is Light meets us beyond the cloud of darkness enshrouding him.
“I say this to answer your question, which I know was purely rhetorical. I’d prefer not to scandalize people and have to clean up the pieces later, but even the tough old women you see in our parish aren’t so prissy as you might think. But I want to more directly speak to your intent, and the deep question behind your asking if, because you had hypothetically asked me, I would preach a sermon about the Bible and censorship. I wasn’t crossing my fingers or simply saying what I thought would please you, when I preached about the Arthurian legends, and there is nothing I wish to take back. I really was preaching in good faith.”
“Then I don’t want Brocéliande for now.”
George said, “You may like the book. I don’t. I don’t want it any more.”
“Then may I take a look at it? I would like to have it, to look at. If you don’t want it any more, that’s fine, but you can have it back any time.”
“Fine. Maybe it will be better for you than for me.”
“By the way, what are you doing for Spring Break?”
“Dunno. Do you have any suggestions?”
“There are some truly beautiful places where you could get blasted out of your mind, acquire a couple of new diseases, and if you time it right, come back still in possession of a rather impressive hangover.”
“Why don’t we just cut to the chase and get to your real suggestion?”
“Aah, yes. It turns out that there’s a finishing school which is offering a week-long intensive course in the gentle art of polite conversation, but—oh, wait, I was going to suggest that to my granddaughter Abigail. I would never make such a suggestion to you. Finishing school—what was I thinking? What I was really wondering was whether you have considered one of the alternative spring breaks.”
“Like Habitat for Humanity? But I have no skill in construction.”
“That’s not really the point. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity had nothing on their website about how only seasoned construction workers can be of any use.”
“But aren’t there a lot of things that could go wrong?”
“I might hit myself on the thumb with a hammer.”
“If you’re worried about being at a loss for words, last April Fool’s Day my godson gave me a book listing bad words in something like a thousand languages, and you can borrow it. There are worse things in life than hitting your thumb with a hammer, and if it’s that big of an issue, I’d be happy to ask the head of Habitat for Humanity to refund your wasted time. If you’re worried about getting sunburned, the store next door has an impressive collection of sunscreen containers, giving you options that rival those for dental floss. I personally recommend the SPF 30 in your choice of soft pastel-hued plastic bottles with a delicate floral scent created through a carefully blended confection of unnatural chemicals. I don’t think that Habitat is going anywhere where you’d be in real danger of snakebite, but I can help find a kit you can use to bite the snake back. Have I left something out?”
A week later, and (though he did not tell Fr. Elijah) realizing that Abigail was also a student at Calix College, George returned. Fr. Elijah said, “Why the long face, George? Just a minute while I make some tea.”
“Um, I’m not signed up for the alternative spring break.”
“George, I only asked you to consider… tell me what’s on your mind… if you want to.”
“I was in line, and I just missed signing up.”
Fr. Elijah sat in silence.
“I could have gone, but there was a girl in line after me, and she really wanted to go. I let her have the last slot.”
“Excellent. Some would call it sexist, but I’d call it one of the finer points of chivalry.”
Fr. Elijah paused and then said, “Could you come with me to the house for a second?”
Fr. Elijah led George out to the house and rummaged on a shelf before pulling out a CD. “George, could you put this in the CD player and hit play? I’ve figured out how to use the CD player several times, but I keep forgetting, and I don’t want to keep you waiting.” He handed the CD to George and said, “I’ll be right out. I need to make a phone call.” He stepped into another room and closed the door.
George looked at the CD, did a double take, and looked at the player. He began to hear a rap beat.
As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain,
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain.
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me.
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity.
At 4:30 in the morning I’m milkin’ cows.
Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows… Fool!
And I’ve been milkin’ and plowin’ so long that
Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone.
I’m a man of the land! I’m into discipline!
Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin.
But if I finish all my chores and you finish thine,
Then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699!
We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
I’ve churned butter once or twice, living in an Amish paradise.
It’s hard work and sacrifice, living in an Amish paradise.
We sell quilts at discount price, living in an Amish paradise.
A local boy kicked me in the butt last week.
I just smiled at him and turned the other cheek!
I really don’t care; in fact, I wish him well.
‘Cause I’ll be laughing my head off when he’s burning in Hell!
But I ain’t never punched a tourist even if he deserved it
An Amish with a ‘tude? You know that’s unheard of!
I never wear buttons but I got a cool hat.
And my homies agree, I really look good in black… Fool!
If you’ll come to visit, you’ll be bored to tears.
We haven’t even paid the phone bill in 300 years
But we ain’t really quaint, so please don’t point and stare;
We’re just technologically impaired!
There’s no phone, no lights, no motorcar,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Caruso,
It’s as primitive as can be!
We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re just plain and simple guys, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no time for sin and vice, living in an Amish paradise.
We don’t fight. We all play nice, living in an Amish paradise.
Hitchin’ up the buggy, churnin’ lots of butter,
Raised a barn on Monday, soon I’ll raise another!
Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!
I’m the pious guy the little Amlettes wanna be like,
On my knees day and night, scorin’ points for the afterlife,
So don’t be vain and don’t be whiny,
Or else, my brother, I might have to get medieval on your heinie!
We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re all crazy Mennonites, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no cops or traffic lights, living in an Amish paradise.
But you’d probably think it bites, living in an Amish paradise.
Fr. Elijah walked back into the room and served the tea, smiling gently.
George said, “Um…”
Fr. Elijah said, “Yes?”
“I’m not sure how to put this delicately.”
“Then put it indelicately. Bluntly, if you wish.”
“I hadn’t picked you out for a Weird Al fan.”
“It was a present.”
“Who would buy you a Weird Al CD?”
“A loved one.”
“Um… do you ever do something less spectacular, like play chess?”
“I’m not a big fan of chess, and besides, I’ve visited the chess club at the Episcopalian church, and it seems the Anglican Communion isn’t going to produce that many more good chess players.”
Fr. Elijah sipped his tea. “Can’t tell a bishop from a queen.”
George coughed, sputtered, tried to keep a straight face, and then tried to steer the conversation back. “When were you given the Weird Al CD?”
“For April Fools’ Day. The present is much appreciated.”
“I like Weird Al, but why did you play that?”
“Because I was just on the phone.”
“I’ve just arranged for you to spend your Spring Break at an Amish paradise.”
“Are you joking?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Are you being sadistic again?”
“Yes, I’m being very sadistic.”
“I’m not saying.”
“I’ll be bored to tears.”
“Perhaps. But boredom can be good, and not just because it can build character.”
“Um… Never mind. I’ve grown rather fond of computers. I’ve found out the hard way that I rather need them.”
“If it’s that hard for you to spend a few days without spam, you can use your cell phone to read all the insulting messages telling you that you can’t handle money, or that you need snake oil diets, or some part of your body is too small, or you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and must content yourself with pixels on a screen. And if you forget leave your cell phone at home, you might be able to borrow one of theirs.”
“Amish don’t use phones or the Internet. They’re ‘just technologically impaired;’ didn’t the song say that?”
“You can ask them; I’m sure one of them would be willing to lend you his cell phone.”
“Let’s forget about that; we can talk about it later if you want. Anyway, after school gets out, come over here with your bag. Someone else is doing some running, and will give you a ride. He’s a bit hard of hearing, so he’s not much good for chatting in the car, but he’s a great guy. But you can gripe to him about how backwards the Amish are.
“Oh, and one more thing… I’m not exactly sending you into bear country, but if one of the workmen were attacked by a bear, I’d be very worried.”
“That seems obvious.”
“But not for the reason you think. I’ll explain why after you return.”
There was a knock on the door, and Fr. Elijah opened it.
“George, I’d like to introduce you to Jehu. Jehu, this is George. Oh, George, I’m sorry for being a pest, but could you open your bag and pull out everything inside?”
George looked at Fr. Elijah, rolled his eyes, and began unpacking.
“Which of these items mean anything at all to you? Which have a story, or were expensive, or were a gift?”
George looked at Fr. Elijah, who stood in silence.
“You can put anything that means anything to you in this closet; it will be here when you get back. I’m not sending you to a den of thieves, but…”
George began shuffling and sorting while Fr. Elijah waited. When he was finished, Fr. Elijah said, “How much does your windbreaker mean to you?”
“It’s new, but I want to have it with me on the trip.”
“Take it off. You have an old sweatshirt or two.”
“Sorry, I insist on this one. It doesn’t mean that much to me.”
Fr. Elijah said, “If you must…”
George said, “I’ve taken enough out. Have a good evening.” He stiffly shook Fr. Elijah’s hand. “You better have a good reason for your odd behavior.”
Fr. Elijah said, “I can explain later, if you need me to.”
George repacked the remaining half of his luggage into the duffle bag, and left with Jehu.
Some days later, Fr. Elijah heard a knock and opened the door. “George, George! How are you? I must hear about your trip. That’s a lovely jeans jacket you have there. Is there a story behind it?”
George gave Fr. Elijah a look that could have been poured on a waffle, and then began quickly taking his coat off.
Fr. Elijah said, “You wouldn’t throw a coat at an old man who doesn’t have the reflexes to block it… I must hear the story about the coat, though.”
George closed his mouth for a second, and then said, “Filthy sadist!”
Fr. Elijah said, “It sounded like you had an interesting trip.”
“Did you call and ask them to be obnoxious?”
“I did no such thing.”
“I called and asked them to go easy on you.”
“You called and asked them to go easy on me?”
“Well, you seem to have gotten through the matter without getting any black eyes.”
“You call that going easy? These guys are pacifists, right?”
“That depends on your idea of a ‘pacifist’. If you mean that they don’t believe you should use violence to solve conflicts, then yes, they are pacifists.”
George said, “And…”
“But does that make them wimps? In any sense at all?”
“You did say that you would be worried if one of them were attacked by a bear… Why?”
“I’d be worried for the bear.”
George sunk down into his chair.
“You must have some stories to tell.”
“They wanted help raising a barn, and they wouldn’t let me do any of the stunts they were doing without a harness, but when I went to the outhouse, things shook, and when I opened the door, I was over ten feet in the air.”
“Forklift. I don’t know why they had one.”
“Did you ever think you would sit on such a high throne? I have a suspicion that’s higher than even my bishop’s throne.”
“We are not amused.”
“You are using the royal ‘We,’ Your Majesty. Excellent.”
“The first day, I didn’t take off my shirt at work, but I did take off my windbreaker, and when I left, they nailed it to the beams!”
“Excellent. Is that why Your Majesty has a new, handmade jeans jacket?”
George gave Fr. Elijah another look that could have been poured on a waffle.
“I should maybe have told you… They don’t think anything of nailing down any clothing that’s taken off as a practical joke. Did you ever get an opportunity to nail down some clothing or something of theirs?”
“Yes, but like a gentleman, I did not.”
“That was rude of you.”
“You mean they’re offended at what I didn’t do?”
“No; I just said it was rude. They wouldn’t be offended. But what I was going to say is that the women have lots of denim, and are very adept at sewing new clothes; it’s almost like making a paper airplane for them. Or maybe a little bigger of a deal than that. But you seem to be laboring under a sense that since the Amish are such backwards people, they aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor. Were you surprised at the sense of humor they had?”
“So did you get bored with nothing interesting to do besides surf the web through your cell phone?”
George said, “Filthy sadist!” Then he paused.
Fr. Elijah sat back and smiled. “George, I believe you have a question.”
“Yes? Ask anything you want.”
George hesitated again, and asked, “When can I come back?”
Fr. Elijah just laughed.
George walked around, and had a few chats with Abigail on campus. She started to occupy his thoughts more… and George wondered if he really wanted to dismiss all of the literature of courtly love.
He tried to put this out of his mind the next time he saw Fr. Elijah.
He thought he’d pay a visit, and knocked on Fr. Elijah’s door.
Fr. Elijah said, “I’m glad you’re here, George. Did you know that a man-eating tiger got loose on the campus of Calix College?”
George stood up and immediately pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Do the police—”
“Sit down, George, and put your cell phone away, although I must commend your gallant impulse. This was before your time, and besides, George, it starved.”
George said, very forcedly, “Ha ha ha.”
“Sit down, please. Have you had any further thoughts about your holiday with the Amish?”
“It seems a bit like King Arthur’s court. Or at least—”
“Why would that be?”
George sat for a while, and said nothing.
“Are you familiar with Far Side comic strips?”
“I expected so. You like them, right?”
“Yes, but I haven’t read them in a while.”
“Do you remember the strip with its caption, ‘In the days before television’?”
“Can’t put my finger on it.”
“It shows a family, mesmerized, sitting, lying, and slouching around a blank spot where there isn’t a television… I think you’ve had a visit to the days before television. You didn’t even need a time machine.”
George sat in silence for a moment.
Fr. Elijah continued, “If you want, I can show you the technique by which the Bible is censored, and how the translators hide the fact that they’ve taken something out of the text. But do you know the one line that was censored from the movie production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the Disney one, I mean?”
“I didn’t notice that anything was censored.”
“Well, you’re almost right. Now it seems to be religion that is censored, Christianity having replaced sex as the publishing world’s major taboo, and Disney did not censor one iota of the stuff about Aslan. But there is one line of the book that almost gets into the movie, but then Father Christmas merely makes a smile instead of verbally answering the question. Do you know what that line is?”
“‘Battles are ugly when women fight.'”
“Um… I can see why they would want to smooth over that.”
“Why? Battles are ugly when men fight. There is a reason why Orthodox call even necessary fighting ‘the cross of St. George.’ ‘Cross,’ as in a heavy, painful burden. I’ve dealt pastorally with several veterans. They’ve been through something rough, much rougher than some people’s experience with, say, cancer. And it is my unambiguous opinion, and that of every single soldier I’ve spoken to at length, that battles are ugly… whether or not women fight. Therefore, battles are ugly when women fight, and you’d really have to not understand battle, think it’s the same thing as a violent fantasy or watching an action-adventure movie, to deny that battles are ugly when whatever group fights.
“So why make such a big deal over a single line, ‘Battles are ugly when women fight?’ Why is that one line worth censoring when Disney has the guts to leave Aslan untouched? What’s a bigger taboo in the media world than Christ?”
“Umm… I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Ok, let me ask you… What do you think of the Amish women?”
George tried not to stiffen.
“I’m sorry, George, I meant besides that… When you’re my age you can forget that for women to dress very modestly can—”
“Then what did you mean?”
“Imagine one of those women in a fight.”
George tried not to make a face.
Fr. Elijah said, “My understanding is that they’re strong and hard workers, probably a lot stronger than many men you know.”
George said, “Um…”
“Would you deny that they are strong? And tough, for that matter?”
“Does it bother you in the same way to imagine an Amish man having to carry a gun into combat?”
“No. He’d be pretty tough.”
“But the women are pretty strong and tough too. Why does it bother you to think about one of them entering combat and fighting?”
George said nothing.
“The women strike you as stronger and tougher than many men that you know. So they’re basically masculine?”
“Fr. Elijah… the women there almost left me wondering if I’d met real women before, and the men left me wondering if I’d met real men before. I don’t know why.”
“I think I have an answer for why the idea of an Amish woman fighting in battle bothers you more than an Amish man fighting in battle.”
“I’ve been reading through Brocéliande. Let me read you a couple of passages.” Fr. Elijah returned momentarily, and flipped through Brocéliande before reading:
Sir Galahad he rode, and rode and rode, until saw he a dragon red. Anon the wyrm with its tail struck a third of the trees against the earth that Sir Galahad they might slay. Anon Sir Galahad warred he against the wyrm.
The dragon charged, and anon Sir Galahad his horse trembled, and Galahad gat him down to earth. The dragon laughed at Sir Galahad’s spear which brake to-shivers, and breathed fire red as Hell.
Sir Galahad gat him behind his shield, and then charged with his sword, though it should break as rotted wood. Anon the dragon swept him, though his helm saved Sir Galahad his head from the rocks.
Then Sir Galahad, who his strength was as the strength of a thousand because his faith was pure, leapt him and wrestled against the beast. Anon the beast turned and tore, against the knight, until the knight he bled sore. Never was such combat enjoined, but the knight held his choke until the dragon his death met.
Fr. Elijah pulled the bookmark out, and found one of several other bookmarks:
Rose the smoke of incense, of frankincense pure the garden did fill. ‘Twere many women present, that hyght Lady Eva, and Lady Elizabeth, and Lady Anna, and Lady Martha, and Queen Mary. Sang they a song, ’twere of one voice, and in that song kept they a garden: in the garden was life. Queen Mary a radiant Child gave suck, and others gave life each in her way.
Verdant was the place of their labour.
Fr. Elijah said, “I think you’re missing the point if you’re trying to tell if there are differences between men and women by asking who is tougher.”
“It’s like asking what the differences are between apples and oranges, and then thinking you need to justify it with a measurement. So you may say that apples are bigger than oranges, until you realize that navel oranges are the size of a grapefruit and some varieties of apples don’t get that big. So maybe next you measure a sugar content, and you get really excited when you realize that maybe oranges have a measurably lower Ph than apples—a scientist’s way of measuring how sour they are—until someone reminds you that crabapples are so tart you wouldn’t want to eat them. And all this time you are looking for some precise scientific measurement that will let you scientifically be able to distinguish apples and oranges…
“Is it simply a measure of some difference in physical strength that makes you not like the idea of an Amish woman in battle? If you knew that the women were equally as strong as the men, identically strong, or tough or whatever, would that address…”
George hesitated. “But…”
Fr. Elijah sat silently.
“But,” George continued, “the idea of an Amish woman in battle… I know some girls who wanted to go into the military, and it didn’t bother me that much. And the Amish women are pacifists.”
“So if those women were gung-ho military enthusiasts, even if they weren’t soldiers, then you wouldn’t mind—”
“Ok, ok, that’s not it. But what is it about the Amish?”
“George, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“So what is the right tree? Where should I be barking?”
“When people notice a difference with another culture, at least in this culture they seek some ‘That’s cultural’ explanation about the other culture.”
“So there’s something about this culture? Ours?”
“George, let me ask you a question. How many times in the Arthurian legends did you see someone invite a man to be open about himself and have the courage to talk about his feelings?”
George was silent.
“We still have the expression, ‘wear the pants,’ even though it is no longer striking for a woman to wear trousers. It used to be as striking as it would be for a man to wear a skirt.”
“Um… you don’t approve of women wearing pants?”
“Let’s put that question on hold; it doesn’t mean the same thing. Abby wears trousers all the time. I wouldn’t want her to do otherwise.”
“George, when have you seen me at the front of the church, leading worship but not wearing a skirt?”
“But I wouldn’t want you wearing a skirt. The question of wearing a skirt, or pants, or whatever, is like trying to make a rule based on size or tartness or whatever to separate apples from oranges.”
“It’s the wrong question, then?”
“It’s fundamentally the wrong question… and it misleads people into thinking that the right question must be as impossible to answer as the wrong question. Never mind asking who is allowed to wear pants and who is allowed to wear a skirt. We’re both men. I wear a skirt all the time. You shouldn’t. And, in either case, there is a way of dressing that is appropriate to men, and another to women, and that propriety runs much deeper than an absolute prohibition on who can wear what. And this is true even without getting into the differences between men’s and women’s jeans, which are subtle enough that you can easily miss them, but important.”
“For starters, the cloth is hung on men’s jeans so that the fabric is like a grid, more specifically with some of the threads running up and down, and others running side to side. On women’s clothing, jeans included, the threads run diagonally.”
“And this is a deliberately subtle clue for the super-perceptive?”
“It changes how the cloth behaves. It changes the cloth’s physical properties. Makes women’s clothing run out faster, because it’s at just the right angle to wear out more quickly. But it also makes the cloth function as more form-fitting. On men’s jeans, the cloth just hangs; it’s just there as a covering. On women’s jeans, the cloth is there to cover, but it’s also there to highlight. This, and the cut, and a few other things, mean that even if men and women are both wearing jeans, there are differences, even if they’re subtle enough that you won’t notice them. Men’s jeans are clothing. Women’s jeans are more about adornment, even—or especially—if it’s something you’re not expected to notice.”
“So we do have differences?”
“We do have differences despite our best efforts to eradicate them. We want men to be sophisticated enough to cultivate their feminine sides, and women to be strong enough to step up to the plate.”
“Um, isn’t that loaded language?”
“Very. Or maybe not. But one of the features of Gnosticism is that there keeps popping up an idea that we should work towards androgyny. Including today.”
“Um, you mean besides an educational system that is meant to be unisex and tells boys and girls to work together and be… um… ‘mature’ enough not to experience a tingle in the relationship? Or dressing unisex? Or not having too many activities that are men only or women only? Or not having boys and men together most of the time, and women and girls together? Or having people spend long periods of time in mixed company whether or not it is supposed to be romantic? Or an idea of dating that is courtly love without too many consciously acknowledged expectations about what is obviously the man’s role, and what is obviously the women’s role? Or—”
“Ok, ok, but I think there was more—”
“Yes, there is much more to the Amish, or the Arthurian legends, than what they hold about men and women. But there is also much more in what they hold about men and women—all the more when they are telling of Long Ago and Far Away, so that political correctness does not apply to them, so that men who go on great quests can be appreciated even by a woman who thinks men would be better off if they would just learn to talk more about their feelings and in general hold a woman’s aspirations of conversational intimacy. And the Amish are ‘technologically impaired,’ or whatever you want to call them, so they’re allowed to have real men and real women despite the fact that they are alive today. But the pull of men taught to be men, and women taught to be women, is powerful even if it’s politically incorrect, and—”
George interrupted. “Is this why I was trying to keep a straight face when you were asking me to imagine an Amish woman carrying a gun?”
Fr. Elijah thought. “For an Amish man to have to fight in battle would be bad enough. An Amish woman entering a battlefield would be something that would cut against the grain of their life as women. It’s not so superficial as the women being dainty and not strong enough to hold a gun.”
“The men seem stronger and tougher than the women, though.”
“Yes, but is it only a matter of being tougher? Is what you observed simply a matter of the women being tough but the men being tougher?”
George was silent.
Fr. Elijah looked at his watch and winced. “Always when I’m having a good conversation… George, I’m sorry, but I’ve got someone coming over any minute, and a bit of preparation. Sorry…”
George picked up his belongings, and Fr. Elijah blessed him on his way out. Then George stepped out, and Fr. Elijah momentarily opened the door. “Oh, and by the way, George, I have some more of that paper, if you want to write her a love note.” He closed the door.
George scurried away, hoping that Fr. Elijah hadn’t seen him blush.
It was not much later that April Fool’s Day came, falling on a Sunday. George did not feel brave, and paid a visit to Bedside Baptist. The days seemed to pass quickly with Abigail in the picture.
On Earth Day, George listened and was amazed at how many references to Creation he heard in the liturgy—not just the reference to “his mother, the earth,” but how plants and trees, rocks, stars, and seas, formed the warp and woof by which the Orthodox Church praised her Lord. The liturgy left him wishing Fr. Elijah would put off his preaching and say something to celebrate earth day…
Fr. Elijah stood up.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is Earth Day, and I thought that that would provide an excellent basis for my preaching today. The very opening chapters of Genesis are not about man alone but man and the whole Creation. There are some very interesting suggestions people have made that when Genesis says that we were told not only to “be fruitful and multiply,” but “fill the earth and subdue it,” the word translated “subdue” is very gentle, almost an embrace, as a mother nurtures a child. Which is a very lovely image, but is absolute hogwash.
The word translated “subdue” is the word Christ uses for exactly what Christians must not do by “lording their authority” over other Christians as the heathen do. The book of Genesis tells of this beautiful Creation and then has God charge us with a charge that could much better be translated, “trample it under foot.” And what better day than Earth Day than to talk about why we should trample the earth under foot, told to us in a text that is resplendent with natural beauty?
Many people today call the earth ‘Gaia’, and that is well and good. Today one calls a man ‘Mr.’ and a woman ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ if there is no other honorific, and as much as adults all bear that title, in Latin every woman bears then name of ‘Gaia’ and every man bears the name of ‘Gaius.’ And if we are speaking of the earth, it is well and proper to call her Gaia; only someone who understands neither men nor women would think of her as sexless!
If you are dealing with a horse, for instance, it helps to keep in mind that they are prey animals with a lot of fear. Never mind that they’re much bigger than you; they’re afraid of you, as you would be afraid of a rat, and need to be treated like a small child. But you can only deal with a horse gently after it is broken and after you have made it clear that it is you holding the reins and not the horse. You need to be able to treat a horse like a little child if you are to handle them… but if you spoil it, and fail to establish your authority, you have a terrified small child that is stronger than an Olympic athlete. You do need to be gentle with a horse, but it is a gentleness that holds the reins, with you in charge.
There are a number of fundamental difficulties we face about being in harmony with nature, and one of the chief ones is that we are trying to be in harmony with nature the wrong way. We are trying to take our cue from our mother the earth, perhaps instead of taking our cue from technology. And it is excellent to treat Gaia gently, and perhaps technology is in fact quite a terrible place to take our cue from, and something else we absolutely need to trample under foot, but there is something mistaken about the rider taking his cue from the horse. In Genesis we are called to rule material Creation as its head: we are to give it its cue, rather than following. Perhaps you have seen the Far Side cartoon that says, “When imprinting studies go awry” and shows a scientist last in line with ducklings follow a mother duck… which is very funny, but not a recipe for a life well lived. We are made from the same clay as horse and herb, but unless we are deeply sunk into the even worse cues we will take from technology when we fail to rule it, we do not serve our best interests—or the earth’s—when we ask her to dance and expect her to be our lead.
But enough of what is politically incorrect in the West, where we say that men should not lead and mean, in both senses, that humans should not lead the rest of Creation and that males should not lead females. I could belabor why both of those are wrong, but I would like to dig deeper, deeper even than saying that lordship applies to every one of us even if we are all “a man under authority,” including me.
Patristic exegesis of the rule over Creation is first and foremost of a rule over our passions and over ourselves. We are not fit to lead others or Creation if we have not even learned to lead ourselves; “better is a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” If you are following a Western model, then you may be thinking of a big enterprise for us to start ruling Creation which is really beside the point. If you save yourself through ascetical mastery, ten thousand will be saved around you. Never mind that this is mystical; it is a matter of “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” You become a leader, and a man, not by ruling over others, but by ruling over yourself.
We are in Great Lent now, the central season of the entire Orthodox year, not because it is about ruling others or about ruling Creation—it isn’t—but because it is about ruling ourselves. We are not to seek a larger kingdom to rule outside ourselves; we are to turn our attention to the kingdom within, and rule it, and God will add a larger kingdom outside if we are ready. The first, foremost, and last of places for us to exercise lordship is in ourselves, and our rule over the Creation is but an image of our rule over ourselves, impressive as the outer dominion may be.
We bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve, and we are to be transformed into the image of Christ. Let us seek first the Kingdom of God, with all that that means for our rule over ourselves.
In the Name of the Lord and Father, and of the Son who is Lord, and of the Heavenly King, who is the Holy Ghost, Amen.
After his Sunday dinner, George thought it would be a good time to wander in the wood.
In the forest, he found himself by a babbling brook, with the sound of a waterfall not far off. George brushed off a fallen mossy log and sat down to catch his breath.
George began listening to the birdsong, and it almost seemed he could tell a pattern. Then two warm hands covered his eyes.
George tried to look up, remembered his eyes were covered, and brought his own hands up to his face, briefly touching a small, soft pair of hands. Then he said, “It’s definitely a man…”
Then George turned. Abigail was sticking out her tongue.
Abigail’s dress was a rich, deep, deep red, the color of humble earth seen through a ruby. A pair of bare white feet peeked out from beneath a long flowing skirt, a wide, golden straw hat sat atop her locks, and dark, intricate knotwork lay across her heart.
George looked down at his own feet and saw his own worn combat boots, before looking at Abigail’s face. She smiled and said, “Boo!”
George said, “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Taking a walk, as I do from time to time.”
“Must be pretty rare for you, if this is the first time I’ve seen you.”
“You’re in the woods more often than I am?”
A squirrel darted out, climbed across Abigail’s foot, and scurried away.
George asked, “It wasn’t afraid of you?”
“Most of them aren’t, at least not that much of the time.”
George looked at her, and she said, “It’s not such a big deal, really. Read any good books lately?”
“No, and—ooh, I told Fr. Elijah I’d read C.S. Lewis, something or other about ‘glory.’ I need to get back to him.”
“Maybe it’s a box you’re not meant to open, at least not yet… if I know Grandpa, he’s probably forgotten about it completely.”
“But I should—”
“You should leave it a closed box, if anything. How are you?”
George looked at the forest—how like a garden it looked—and then Abigail. He was at something of a loss for words. He looked down at her alabaster feet, and then her face. “Having a good day.”
She smiled, and a sparrow flew between them. “There’s a hawk in here somewhere, only it’s hard to find. You can spend a lot of time exploring this forest. I’m having a good day, too.”
George sat for a while, trying to think of something to say, and Abigail said, “You’re being pretty quiet now.”
George said, “I’ve been looking at majoring in math.”
Abigail said, “Um…”
“You know how to tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”
George looked down and said, “He looks at your feet when they’re talking to you.”
Abigail giggled. “Have you heard my Grandpappy’s theory on how PMS got its name?”
George said, “Um…”
She giggled again. “Something about ‘Mad Cow Disease’ being taken.”
George stiffened, and looked for something to say.
Abigail said, “Stop it, George. Just stop it. Don’t you get it? Don’t you stand and listen or sing the hymn where the the Mother of God is honored as the Ewe that bore the Lamb of God and the Heifer that bore the Unblemished Calf?”
George’s mind raced. “I suppose that if, in the same breath, Christ is called—”
Abigail interrupted. “Next time you’re in Church, listen, really listen, as the Mother of God is honored, then listen as Christ our God is worshiped. There’s a difference. Don’t try to analyze it or even put your finger on it. Just listen, and… George, do you understand women? At all?”
George looked for something to say, but found nothing.
A dark cloud blew across the sky, and cold rain began to fall more heavily until it poured.
George said, “May I lend you my jacket?”
Abigail said, “I’m fine.”
The rain grew colder, and began to pelt. George and Abigail both rose and began scurrying towards campus. George took off his jacket and started to place it around Abigail’s shoulders.
Abigail said, “I don’t—”
George looked down and said, “I’m wearing boots and you have bare feet,” and wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. Then a gust of wind tore at Abigail’s hat, but George caught it.
Then they ran back, with George shivering under his threadbare T-shirt. When they got back, he went to his dorm and she to hers. George called Abigail and confirmed she was OK, took three long, hot showers, and spent the rest of the evening sinking into a lounge chair in his bathrobe, sipping cocoa, and thinking.
Tuesday evening, George found time to visit Fr. Elijah. He wanted to talk about another subject. Definitely another subject.
“Fr. Elijah, are you busy?”
“I hope not… come in.”
“After all this, I still want the Holy Grail.”
“Excellent thing, my son… the chief point of life is to search for the Holy Grail.”
“But will I find it? I mean… I’m not sure what I mean.”
“May I show you something old?”
“As far as material age goes, it is much older than the Holy Grail.”
The old man opened a desk drawer, and fished out a small box.
“I thought this might interest you,” he said, and took something out of the box, and placed it in George’s hand.
George looked the item over. It looked like a piece of bark, not much larger than a pebble, and yet it seemed heavy for a piece of bark. “Is this stone or wood? I can’t tell which it is.”
“Is it stone or wood? In fact, it is petrified wood… from the Oak of Mambre.”
“Oak of Mambre? Should I have heard of it before?”
“You probably have, and if you can’t remember it, there is something you’re missing.”
“What is the Oak of Mambre?”
“I’ll tell you in a bit. When you grasp the Oak of Mambre, you hold the Holy Grail.”
“The Oak of Mambre is older than any of the civilizations you know; for that matter, it might be older than the practice of writing. Do you know about Abraham?”
“The one Paul calls the father of all who believe?”
“Yes, that Abraham. The Bible tells how Abraham met three men who came to him, and showed the most lavish hospitality, giving them the costliest meal he could have given. And it was then that the men promised the impossible. It is clear enough later that these men were in fact angels, were in fact God.
“From the West, you may not know that even if we Orthodox are big on icons, it’s fingernails to a chalkboard when Orthodox see the Father portrayed as the proverbial old man with a beard. Christ may be portrayed because of his incarnation; the same is not true of the invisible Father, who is not and never will be incarnate. Icons of the Father have been fundamentally rejected, but there was one exception. From ancient times there has been an icon of Abraham’s hospitality to the three men, or three angels, and centuries ago one iconographer showed something deeper: it is the same three men or angels, but instead of a table with a lamb as in the old version of the icon, there is an icon with a chalice atop an altar. In both the old and the new form of the icon, the Oak of Mambre is in the back, and it is this same oak for which I have shown you a fragment.”
“Is it holy because it is old?”
“Being old does not make a thing holier. The pebbles in your yard are of stone ages older than the oldest relic. Though they are, admittedly, part of the earth which received Christ’s blood on the cross, and which Bulgakov rightly calls the Holy Grail.
“A thing is kept and preserved because it is holy, and if people will try to keep a holy thing for a long time, it will probably be old to most of the people who see it. Same reason most of the people who have seen the Liberty Bell saw it when it was old because people have been keeping it for a long time, much longer than the time when it was new, so most of the people who have seen, or will see, the Liberty Bell, see it as an old treasure. But back to holy things: a holy thing is, if anything, timeless: when there arose a great evil in Russia and Marx’s doctrine helped people try to make paradise and caused a deep, deep river of blood to flow, the communists in the Orthodox heartland of Russia made martyrs, and in that torrential river of blood made more Orthodox martyrs than the rest of history put together. God will preserve saints’ relics from that, and it may be that there are more relics from the past century than all centuries before. And they are not the less holy because they are new. But let us return to the Oak of Mambre and why, if you grasp it, you hold the Holy Grail.”
“Ok. Why is that?”
“The Church has decided that the only legitimate way to portray an icon of the Trinity is in the hospitality of Abraham. And the Icon of the Holy Trinity is the deepest icon of the Holy Grail—deeper even than an icon that I can show you that shows the Mother of God as a chalice holding her Son. Where is the Holy Grail in this icon?”
“Is it that little thing in the center?”
“In part. Where else is it?”
George looked long and hard, seemed to almost catch something, before it vanished from his face.
“There are different interpretations,” Fr. Elijah said, “and the icon conceals things; even the angel is a protecting veil to a reality that cannot be seen. But in the layers of this icon, the deepest glimpse sees the Father on the left, the Spirit on the right, and the Son in blood red clothes in the center, encased as in a chalice, showing the reality in Heaven for which even the Holy Grail is merely a shadow.”
George turned the stone over in his hand with awe, closed his eyes, and then looked at the relic he held in his hand. “So I am holding the Holy Grail.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Yes, if you look on it with enlightened eyes. Where else do you meet the Holy Grail?”
“In every person I meet?”
“‘Tis hard to answer better than that. When you become Orthodox, you will receive the Eucharist and kiss the chalice, and, perhaps, find that the Holy Grail is achieved not by an unearthly isolated hero, but by a community in common things.”
“But why do people kiss the Holy Grail? I mean the chalice?”
“If you call it the Holy Grail, even if your tongue slips, you may be understanding it. The Western view is that there is one original chalice and the others are separate sorts of things; in Orthodoxy, what is the same between the Holy Grail and ‘another’ chalice runs infinitely deeper than what separates them; the ‘real’ thing is that they are the same.”
“But why the kiss?”
“Let me ask you a question. Do you think a kiss has more to do with worship, or with mental calculations?”
“Does it have to do with either?”
“You haven’t read the Bible in Greek.”
“What does the Greek Bible have to do with it?”
“Quite a lot, but it will take me a bit to explain why. But there is a deep tie.
“The main word for reverence or worship, in the Greek Bible, literally means to kiss. Part of what you’ll keep coming to again and again is that the West understands the mind as the thing that calculates, and the East understands the mind as what knows, and is enlightened, because it tastes and even more deeply because it worships. I don’t know how to put this clearly, in terms that will make sense to someone who does not know the spiritual realities involved. There is a false kiss—I dare say, the kiss of Judas or a kiss that is hollow like the kiss of Judas—that is nothing more than a calculated act. But there is also a kiss that has something to do with worship, and it is no error that Orthodoxy has things ‘with love and kisses.’ We embrace icons, crosses, holy books, each other with reverence that includes a kiss. And rightly done, such kisses are connected to worship.”
“I still don’t understand why.”
“Let me make a momentary detour; I’ll get back in a moment. Old texts can be at once something we genuinely experience a deep connection to, and something treacherously unfaithful to our assumptions. What would you say, for instance, that the medieval Scholastics are talking about when they use the word that is usually translated, ‘intellect’?”
“I try to keep my mind free of preconceptions, especially when dealing with something unfamiliar.”
“So you’d be open to anything they’d say about the intellect’s ability to draw logical conclusions from one thing to another?”
“They can let the intellect draw conclusions however they want to.”
“But here’s the thing. They don’t. It is a fundamental error to read ‘intellect’ as ‘the thing that reasons by logical deduction. Saying that the ‘intellect’ is what makes deductions by reasoning from one thing by another is like saying that an object’s height is what you measure with a bathroom scale, or that its weight is measurable with a ruler. It’s a fundamental error; the intellect is precisely what does not reason from premises to conclusions.”
“Then what is the intellect?”
“I usually don’t use the term ‘intellect’ for it; the closest English equivalent I can think of is ‘spiritual eye’. But even that misses what exactly this spiritual eye connects with. And this spiritual eye was known to the Greek Fathers no less than the Latin scholastics; if anything, the Greek Fathers were more attuned to it. Scholastic theology is an exercise, to a large degree, of that which reasons; the theology of the Fathers comes from another place. The spiritual eye is that which connects with spiritual realities, that which worships above all—and if you want a good, short definition for what ‘intellect’ means besides ‘what IQ is supposed to measure,’ use the definition ‘where one meets God.’ If reasoning deduces what you may not see yet, the spiritual eye sees, and knows by what it can see, not by what it can pull from other things it already has. This reasoning from one thing shines like the sun in Western Scholasticism.”
“And that’s something you don’t have in Orthodoxy?”
“We do have it. But reasoning shines like the moon: it reflects the light of the sun in each of us, the sun of our mind’s spiritual eye. It plays more of a supporting role.”
“And what does all of this have to do with your ritual kiss?”
“There was an awful video I heard was shown in one of your college’s psychology classes; I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It was talking about one psychological theory, and discussed how reward and such could be used to reduce autistic behaviors. And it showed a scientist, or psychologist, or something, who was patiently training a little girl to not do whatever he was trying to stop her from doing, and the girl lit up when he gave her a kiss. And then, along with a fake-sounding Mommy-ese talking in a high-pitched voice which Iassure you was not spontaneous, he started to use almost forced kisses to, well…”
George cut in. “Manipulate her?”
“Yes, you found the word I was looking for. The one time I heard Abigail talking about that video, she said there was a bit of bristling going though the class; the students were uncomfortable with something about that video and its one more mere technique, a meretool, for changing a little girl’s behavior.”
“Is the spiritual eye, or whatever, spontaneous? Is it about spontaneity?”
“I’ll have to think about that… I’m not sure I’ve seriously thought about whether the spiritual eye is spontaneous. But spontaneity is not the issue here. The point has to do with what place a kiss should come from if it is not to be hollow. Have you noticed that none of the icons I’ve showed you have a signature?”
“Because the iconographers are not supposed to be what we think of in the West as artists, with their own signature style and their big egos?”
“A little bit. Iconography is art, and artistry and talent do mean anything: the iconographer is not a cog in a machine—and may be doing something much bigger than trying to use art supplies for self-expression. There is something self-effacing about iconography—something very self-effacing—but you find that when you bow down and efface yourself, it is you doing something much bigger than otherwise. Writing icons is a form of prayer, a spiritual exercise, and it is said—just like we speak of ‘writing’ icons rather than ‘painting’ them—that it is inadequate for an iconographer to sign the icon, because the icon is written, not merely by the iconographer’s hand, but by his his spiritual eye. It is ever much more than a merely material process, and when you become Orthodox you may sense icons that have spiritual depth and icons that let you see no further than the wood, and if you receive this gift, you will be responding to the spiritual process out of which the icon arose.”
“I have sensed something… the icons still look like awkward pictures to me, but I’m starting to find something more.”
“That is good. And your mouth—with which you breathe in your spirit, and show the reason of speech, and will receive the Eucharist—is not that by which you may give a kiss; it is that through which you may give the kiss that comes from and to some extent is the embrace of your spiritual eye. That’s when a kiss is furthest from the hollow kiss that Judas gave. The knowledge of the spiritual eye is something I have discussed as sight, but in the ancient world all people recognized something touch-y about all the five senses, not just one. And this knowledge and drinking are exemplars of each other, draughts from the same fountain, and it is not an accident that ‘know’ has a certain sense in the Bible between, for instance, Adam and Eve: the spiritual eye knows by drinking in, and it is a fundamental error to think that the holy kiss has nothing to do with knowledge.”
“This sounds like a fairy tale.”
“Maybe you know your fairy tales, and know that there is something magic about a kiss. As one scholar put it, examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of almost every culture in the Western world. Orthodoxy has something more than this enchantment. There is a spiritual mingling, and even the Eucharist is understood as a kiss, and a kiss that embraces others: in the Eucharist, the body of Christ is offered up, including a token of bread for every parishioner—before being distributed. Have you not noticed that the best bishops and the most devout of the Orthodox, give the best kisses? But let me step back a bit.
“The difference in understanding symbol is one of the biggest differences between East and West. In the West, at least in its modern forms, a symbol is a detached and somewhat arbitrary representation. In the East a symbol is connected, cut from the same cloth as it were. The difference between Orthodoxy and various Protestant schools is not whether the Eucharist is a symbol, but what that means—that the Eucharist is an arbitrarily detached token, connected only in the viewer’s mind, or whether it is connected and in fact the same on a real level.
“We are made in the image of God, which means that how you treat others is inseparable from how you treat God: you treat God with respect, love, or contempt as you meet him in the person of others. And the things that we reverently kiss in Orthodoxy are all connected with God. We show our reverence to God in how we treat them. And if a person is being transformed according to the likeness of Christ, then it is fitting to reverently kiss that person and show respect for the Lord.
“To give the holy kiss rightly is a microcosm of faith and community. You cannot do it alone, nor can you do it apart from worship. If you look at the things that fit together in a fitting kiss, you have love, God, your neighbor… there are a great many actions that are listed in the Bible, and many of them are holy actions, but only one is called holy: the holy kiss. If you grasp the Holy Grail in your heart, and you grasp this kiss in its full sense, you will know that the sacred kiss in which our souls are mingled is the Sign of the Grail. It is the eighth sacrament.”
George was silent for a long time. “I don’t think I know enough to be Orthodox.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Join the club! I know I don’t know enough.”
“But you’re a priest!”
“And you cannot become Orthodox without entering the royal priesthood. You aren’t ready to be Orthodox just because you know a certain amount; you’re ready when you’re ready for the responsibility, like getting married, or getting a job, or any other of a number of things. You are ready when you are ready to take the responsibility to return the Creation as an offering to God and shoulder a priestly office. And, in your case, I might add, when you enter the great City and Castle called the Church, and are ready for the Sign of the Grail.”
“All I know now is my own unworthiness.”
“Good. You’re growing! Ponder your unworthiness and give it to God. Do you want to take Brocéliande back now?”
George gladly took the book back. He returned to his room, and some time later, George began reading:
The hermit spoke. “Listen as I tell the history of Saint George.
“The King wept sore. ‘The land is weeping, the land itself weeps. The dragon hath devoured every damsel of the land, every last one, and now it seeketh mine own. I bewail the death of my joy and my daughter.’
“Then Saint George said, ‘By my faith I will protect her and destroy this fiend,’ and Saint George prayed and gat him his destrier and armed him and fewtered his spear and rode out and faced the sea.
“And the dragon arose from the sea and his deeps. And venom were in the wyrm his heart, and the grievous stench of death stank all round.
“Then the serpent charged upon Saint George the ever victorious knight, and the dragon breathed fire which brake and were quenched upon Saint George his shield, a grand cross gules upon a field or.
“Then Saint George made him the Sign of the Cross.
“Then Saint George smote the dragon, the great paladin his great spear dove into the dragon his mouth and dolve far beyond that insatiate devouring maw, until the dragon his head were riven asunder from the dragon his body trampled by Saint George his horse. And Saint George hurled the wyrm his head into the dark thrice cursed valley far outside of the castle.
“That day the King and the whole castle made such merriment as had never been since, for we do not know merriment today. There were jugglers and jesters and a table full filled, and before evensong the King gave George the hand of the King his daughter. That were the gayest of all.”
The knight asked the hermit, “Why speakest thou me of this history?”
The hermit spake unto him and answered, “Sir knight, thou hast given me not thine name. What be it?”
“Thou entreatest of me my name? Thou askest what none hath asked of me aforetimes. My name is called Sir Perceval. And now I ask of thee of what I have asked not aforetimes. Had Saint George heard tell of whom doth the Grail serve?”
George slowly closed the book, and put it on a shelf. He momentarily wondered why he treated Brocéliande as something to read alone. There was something that seemed just out of his reach.
And then George realized something deep, deep inside himself.
Then it was Holy Week.
Or at least George wanted it to be holy week for him, too.
George found himself standing in Church, in the holiest of surroundings, and struggling to pray. Memories arose; painful memories of stinging things done by those he loved. Voluptuous images sometimes followed. He struggled to pray, but his mind remained locked in earthly struggles. His body ached in the long services: there were icons, chanting, and incense without, and struggles within. He wanted to rest in worship, and he couldn’t.
In his mind, he remembered a moment when a beggar had come to him, and wouldn’t stop pleading no matter how much he annoyed George. The image filled his mind, and George was startled when he turned and saw the beggar’s face on the wall. Why was that?
George was looking at an icon of Christ.
He had fallen short, and not only in seeing that beggar as nothing but an annoyance. Did George really have no common bond with that beggar?
For that matter, did George have no common bond with the civilization that he disdained, the civilization that included everybody he knew from the beggar to his parents, the civilization that gave him everything from his clothing to his language? Was it there for no other purpose than for him to criticize and feel superior to?
Fr. Elijah, moving amongst the congregation, swung the censer before George in veneration.
George barely noticed that some of these thoughts were giving way, and he was aware, with almost a painful sharpness, of something else.
George mulled over Fr Elijah’s words about hollow kisses, and then started to see how hollow George was.
Unworthy thought he felt, George stood with growing awe and wonder, waiting until Great and Holy Thursday, the one day in holy week where wine was allowed. “Ordinary” wine was allowed, held in honor and in remembrance of the Last Supper, when wine became the blood of Christ and the eucharistic chalice was forever given to men. This day, if anything, was to George the feast of the Holy Grail.
And so he stood entranced, as if he were entering from afar. He watched the Last Supper as here and now, as Fr. Elijah stood “in the flame” before the altar, and then listened as he read the Gospel according to St. John the Evangelist, of the night when Christ loved his disciples to the last, and prayed out from the glory he shared with the Father before the worlds had begun.
And Fr. Elijah read and read, reading until George’s body ached from standing.
Then someone walked over to twelve unlit candles, and lit one. The first.
George’s heart sank. There were eleven candles still to go.
The readings continued, and became shorter, until the twelve candles were lit. George began to feel anger at the unending readings—until he heard Christ’s words from the garden of Gethsemane: “What, could you not watch with me one hour?” Who were those words spoken to?
And then, when the readings had run their course, the liturgy followed—at once unlike an intimate gathering in an upper room in external appearance, but yet like the place that feels like home though nothing on the outside resembles the home. George thought for a moment about a historical reconstruction of the Last Supper pursued through academic rigor in archaeology… and then realized he needed no such thing. He was watching the Last Supper all around him, and in the words of Fr. Elijah’s remark, “You didn’t even need a time machine.”
Or was this liturgy a spiritual time machine? Certainly time flowed in the most interesting ways, now quickly, now slowly, swirling about in eddies… there was something George could not put his finger on, but he understood for a moment what could make a person imagine a way to turn back time.
And so George found himself almost surprised when Fr. Elijah said, “He gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins.'”
Then the faithful sealed this with their, “Amen.”
Then Fr. Elijah said, “Likewise, he took the cup of the fruit of the vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it, he gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.'”
The disciples around him sealed this, with their, “Amen.”
George looked in wonder at the chalice that was raised. He thought, “This is it. This is the Holy Grail, forever given, that belongs to Christ’s disciples.”
As the liturgy continued, and Fr. Elijah proclaimed the Holy Gifts, the people continued to seal the Gifts with their “Amen,” and George watched as they received from the chalice, and kissed the chalice in reverence, and (though George paid this little attention) Fr. Elijah’s hand.
George found himself basking in the glow of that long moment for as the liturgy continued and Fr. Elijah anointed those around him that they may be healed in soul and body.
As he walked home, he thought, “I have seen the Holy Grail. It has been under my nose. Very soon I will be one of those who share it, one of those the Holy Grail belongs to.”
When George got home, he slept as peacefully as he slept in ages.
Then George entered the Church on Great and Holy Friday.
The whole service moved slowly, felt like something great but alien that slipped through George’s fingers no matter what he did to grasp it. Around him were some who were silent, some who were singing, and some who were weeping. A great cross was brought out, and a great icon of Christ hung on it with nails.
And then something clicked in George’s heart.
Some years before, he had been at a martial arts demonstration and saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans. And then, for an instant, there was a flurry of motion as he was attacked by six other black belts with swords. And then, an instant later, George saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans, and all around him were six other black belts with swords, on the ground, crying.
That had for long been the greatest display of power George had seen.
Now something was at the back of his mind.
Here was a new image of strength.
Were they the same?
Were they different?
Was the true nature of strength, strength in weakness?
The fifth degree black belt showed strength behind apparent weakness—or at least what looked like weakness to an outsider like George; he had no idea what it would look like to someone who was not a barbarian like him. To him, the martial arts demonstration seemed to show strength, if a show was needed, and a strength great and powerful enough to vastly understate itself. And the One before him on the cross showed more of the same… or was that really true?
Something about that did not sit well.
Inside George’s heart flashed an icon that had been on his mind—of a Man, his head bent, a purple robe about his wounded body. The robe was royal purple to mock the “pretender,” his hands were bound, and a crown of thorns rested atop his bent head.
Atop the icon was an inscription in Greek and in English:
Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ
THE KING OF GLORY
George raised his eyes to the crucified God.
This was another kind of strength.
George began to weep.
This was the strength that prayed, if there was any way, that the cup might pass from him.
This was the strength that prayed, “Thy will be done.”
This was the strength that drank the cup to the dregs, and shattered it forever.
THE KING OF GLORY
THE KING OF KINGS
THE LORD OF LORDS
THE GOD OF GODS
THE LION OF JUDAH
THE FIRSTBORN OF THE DEAD
THE RESURRECTION AND ETERNAL LIFE
THE NEW MAN AND THE LAST ADAM
THE UNCREATED GOD
THE DIVINE, ORDERING WISDOM
THROUGH WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
BY WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
IN WHOM ALL THINGS CONSIST
THE LORD OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION
THE BRIDEGROOM OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION
Had George ever known what it was to worship?
George stood in awe of the one who was, in truth, the Holy Grail…
or rather, the one for whom the Holy Grail was but a shadow.
And who was George next to such holiness and power?
Unclean and defiled.
When George had thought about going to his first confession, it had looked to him like the least attractive part of the picture of becoming Orthodox. But now, even if he knew even more dread, he wanted, not so much to be unburdened for himself, but to turn himself in and render what was due.
He didn’t just think he needed to. He simply knew that it was something that he owed with from the core of his being.
What evil had he not practiced?
He prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and then in spirit and body fell prostrate before his God and Lord.
George returned home, mindful of his sin, but ever so much more mindful of the greatness of the Lord and Savior.
He spent Saturday in the terrifying struggle to repent of his sin, to face his sin and write the spiritual blank check that he feared in the unconditional surrender of rejecting sin.
When he confessed his sin, Fr. Elijah blessed him, said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you the sacramental absolution yet—that will follow your chrismation,” and then said, “Welcome home, son. Keep repenting.”
And then the vigil was upon them.
It began with George standing in the center of the action as he stood before the congregation and, answering Fr. Elijah, renounced the Devil and all his works, rejecting sin, schism, and heresy, and vowed himself to Christ as a member of the Orthodox Church.
Then Fr. Elijah anointed George with sacred chrism, chrismating him with the fragrant oil of anointing that sealed George as a little Christ, as spiritual prophet, priest, and king, as one of the faithful in the Orthodox Church. This oil of spiritual blessing that worked in him more deeply even as it was wiped away from his skin—the emblem of the Spirit that penetrated like a sword. Fr. Elijah absolved George of his sins, and then the newly illumined servant of God George, stood before the congregation.
Then George faded into the background while the vigil unfolded, and he could never remember all of it—only that it seemed like a treasurehouse from which more and more wondrous treasure was brought forth. George remembered later the incense, the chant of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” the call of “Christ is risen!” and its answer, “He is risen indeed!”, repeated triumphantly, in English, in Slavonic, in Arabic, in Spanish… and most of all George remembered the faces around them. There was something more deeply radiant and beautiful than that of someone who had won millions of dollars. The vigil lasted for hours, but though George ached, he barely minded—he almost wished it would last for hours more.
When it was time for the homily, Fr. Elijah stood up, his face radiant, and read the age-old homily of St. John Chrysostom, read at all kinds of Orthodox parishes on Pascha for ages:
If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have labored long in fasting,
Let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honor the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.
And then the prayers moved very quickly—joyously—radiantly—and the Eucharist was served, George being called up first among the faithful to receive it.
Then the newly illumined servant George received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
And George kissed Fr. Elijah’s hand and the chalice,
forgetting it was the Holy Grail.
And when the liturgy finished, Fr. Elijah announced to the congregation, “You may kiss the convert.”
Then the feast began,
a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed,
and a fragrant fragrance of flowers flowed.
Fr. Elijah spoke a blessing,
over a table piled high with finest meats
and every good thing,
and the fruit of the vine poured out.
Every door and every window was opened,
and the wind blew where it willed,
and the wind blew where it pleased,
and George settled in to his home,
grateful to God.
Then someone told a Russian folktale,
and someone began singing,
and people began dancing,
and a little boy chased a little girl,
clutching a flower.
And men and women,
young and old,
saluted George with a kiss,
every last one
of his brethren.
And the crystalline light
of a sapphire sky
blew through the window,
and angels danced,
and saints below cracked red Pascha eggs,
red in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene,
a holy grail,
and George laughed,
and wanted to weep,
Then George and Abigail talked long.
George could never remember now long the celebration seemed to last. It seemed that he had found a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed, filled with every kind of wonder, at once Heaven and home, at once chalice and vine, maiden and mother, ancient and alive. It was the family George had forever wanted to enter.
Then George kissed Abigail—a long, full kiss—and absolutely nothing about it was hollow.
When he stepped back, Fr. Elijah tapped him on the shoulder. “By the way, George… I know this is down the road, but let me know when you two get engaged. I’d be happy to do your wedding.”
George looked at Abigail, paused, and said, “Abigail, do you see how the candlelight glistens off your Grandpappy’s bald spot? Isn’t it romantic?”
Fr. Elijah and Abigail turned to each other and said, “It’s about time!”
Then Fr. Elijah said, “Welcome to the Castle of the Saints, George. Welcome home.”