(Note: Some of this is old and some of this is new. I’m not seeking to be original.)
Trust technology about as far as you can throw it, and remember that you can’t throw software or the web.
When facing a situation, ask, “What would a Boomer do?”
If your priest is willing, ask for pastoral guidance in slowly but steadily withdrawing from technologies that hurt you. (Don’t try to leap over buildings in one bound. Take one step at a time, and one day at a time.)
Practice the spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, generosity, church attendance, the sacraments, silence, etc.
Use older technologies.
Fast from technologies some of the time, especially on fasting days.
Use your phone only for logistics, never for games, entertainment, or killing time. (You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.)
Unplug your intravenous drip of noise, little by little. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it.
Choose face-to-face meetings over Zoom meetings if you have a choice, and Zoom over any instant messaging.
Consider screen time, and multitasking, to be a drain on the mindfulness we are seeking from the East because we have rejected it in the West.
Turn off all phone notifications you have a live option to do.
Look at your phone when it rings or buzzes. Do not check your phone unprovoked every five minutes to see if you missed a text.
When you are reading on the web, don’t just scan the page. Read it, like a paper book, slowly.
When you type, type full words, not txtisms.
Don’t trade your adequate, existing, working gadgets for the latest and hottest gadget.
Set a fixed bedtime, and then lights out is lights out.
Keep and charge your phone in some room that is away from your bedroom.
If you use porn, stop. If you find yourself unable to stop, bring it to confession, and seriously consider XXXchurch.com.
Do not store up treasures on earth, but own and use technology only so far as it advances the Kingdom of Heaven.
Live by a Silicon Rule of, “What technologies do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” Steve Jobs, for instance, gave his kids walls of paper books and animated discussion, and so far as I am aware no iPads.
Shop in real, local stores, even a local Wal-Mart, rather than making Amazon your first port of call.
Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.
When you want to go shopping like some feel-good sacrament, do not buy it. You may buy it after you’ve let go of coveting after it, not before.
Limit your consumption of TED talks, and recognize them along psychology as something of a secular religion. (But if you need help, get help, without fear or shame.)
Write snailmail letters, preferably with your own handwriting.
Recognize that from the Devil’s perspective, Internet is for porn—and he may have helped inspire, guide, and shape its development.
Expect Amazon and Google Books to delist priceless treasures. (This is already happening.)
Cultivate the virtues.
Cultivate social skills, especially for face-to-face.
If your conscience and applicable law permit, maybe consider owning and learning to use a gun. It’s safer for everyone to have most criminals and some law-abiding citizens be armed than only have criminals be armed.
Seek theosis in the acquisition of the Spirit.
When shopping, use a debit card before a credit card, and use cash before either if you have a choice. Giving away paper bills and wondering what to do with change is a partial deterrent to buying things you do not need.
Never form an identity around the brands you patronize, and do not adopt a personal brand.
Drop it and pay attention to the person you’re with.
Keep good posture and take steps to avoid the diseases of civilization. Some approaches that have been taken to all be important include using Paleo diet (with fasts, eating vegetables in lieu of grain) and exercise, have a balanced ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids, get real sleep, have engaging activities, and have social interactions.
Do not be surprised if you live to see the Antichrist rise to power.
Learn survival skills.
Recognize that we are already in an apocalyptic singularity.
Recognize that it will be easier to get the people out of the cyber-quarantine than to get the cyber-quarantine, our new home, out of the people.
Keep a reasonable amount of cash available, at home or in a money belt.
Environmentalist, n. One devoted to a particular political agenda, regardless of its impact on the environment.
A recent project at Argonne National Laboratory was working on a new generation of nuclear reactor which would be in many ways a dream come true. Its design would be such that meltdown would be physically impossible. It could run on nuclear waste from other plants, not only generating power but reducing them to material which would become harmless in a matter of roughly a century, rather than millions of years. It could run on nuclear warheads, thus not only providing a safe and permanent manner to dispose of some of the most appalling and destructive devices ever created, but so doing in a manner which would provide useful energy to hospitals and families; a beautiful picture of what it means to beat swords into ploughshares.
However, it is still nuclear, and, in the eyes of environmentalism, all nuclear power is evil and must be stopped at any cost. This project was, most definitely, stopped at any cost. It was terminated at great monetary cost; it was nearing completion, and, now that it was ready to be tested on different materials, those materials must be disposed of, at a cost of ninety-four million dollars more than it would have cost to complete. It was terminated at great environmental cost; those materials are dangerous nuclear wastes, and, though they were going to be made harmless, they must now be disposed of in established manners; that is to say, function as the nuclear waste that environmentalists so adamantly oppose. However, they stopped something bearing the dirty ‘n’ word, so environmentalists are now happy.
It is at least fortunate that environmentalists do not yet have the means to extinguish the sun.
Historically, there have been many transitions of technology. Before he came along, people were happy with the solutions they had for indoor lighting, and those solutions exist: when I grew up we had an oil lantern and various candles, which were trotted out for power outages and candlelight dinners, and I use candles in my prayers today. However, you could brightly illuminate indoor spaces with Edison’s light bulbs, and precious few people reach for candles and lanterns when they want illumination. The Amish might, for all I know, because of carefully thought out convictions. However, when the question of illuminating a building or a room comes up, people naturally reach for electric lighting, just like horses exist (and I would love to have a horse), but when the question comes of getting from one point to another, they reach for an automobile of some description, whether gas, hybrid, or electric. I’d personally love to have both a horse and a recumbent trike, and there are bicycle-friendly cities where people have made another carefully-thought-out decision, but for practical purposes I may have a say in which type of car I drive; I don’t have a say in which of these are live options for my living situation. The invisible hand of the free market has removed candles oil-burning lighting and horse riding from mainstream use.
Having Big Brother legislate a technology transition from incandescent bulbs to good LED lighting would have been bizarre enough, but the move that was actually made, at first, was at any cost to the health of the environment. I have gently twisted a CFL to unscrew it and broken it; my understanding is that there are techhical implications which make it not a live option to make a durable plastic shell for the mercury payload, but people can and do mass produce thin tempered glass sheets that will substantially protect cell phones from some pretty impressive blows. Making CFL’s that require more than being treated as if they are made of glass (something adults have learned in dealing with incandescent bulbs) is asking for environmental degradation that dwarfs the higher power consumption of an incandescent heat bulb.
Now the first white LED’s I know of were what is called “lunar white”, which looked white but (speaking as someone who used a lunar white LED flashlight to pick out clothes from a close closet) everything was a shade of grey and it was a wild guess whether a shirt and a pair of pants had matching color. Something of this has been explicitly acknowledged in LED lighting advertising that they show colors truly, and the problem has been overcome. And it is part of the normal flow for people to note that good LED bulbs don’t need to be treated like they are made of glass (or at least I have never broken one), cost pennies on the dollar for your electric bill, apparently last for ages (or at least I’ve never replaced an LED that died), don’t make a well-lit summer room even hotter, can be truthfully advertised as much more attractive for environmental concerns, and so on and so forth, and the forces of the free market would make incandescent heat bulbs go the way of the oil lantern and the horse without the faintest government intervention.
But what is odd, and really historically out of place, was that Big Brother decided he needed to power the change. It would have been a strange thing for the dead hand of government intervention to specify a move from incandescent bulbs to mature LED technology, but the exact inept move enforced was from incandescent bulbs, which contain no toxins to speak of, to a mercury delivery system that seems not to be intended for members of the general public to be able to handle without breakage. And again, I’ve broken a CFL by a gentle if firm twist that would have been entirely appropriate for a made-of-glass incandescent bulb.
What’s true for the goose is true for the gander
We have not directly have laws in force that require us to use any technology, and people off the grid are welcome to stay off the grid. However, the quarantine has created social conditions so that now some technologies are socially mandated. No one is holding a gun to our heads and demanding we use Zoom—but the government is holding a gun to our heads and forbidding us most normal social interactions.
What can we do?
There are several things to do, and I would point out the top 10:
Please note that I am not jockeying for book sales, and if you don’t want to buy a copy on Amazon, email me and I will send you a free copy. Most of it was worked out before the present cyberquarantine, but the issues have long roots, and a book on how to be responsible with beer and wine has everything to do if water and juice are restricted but 151 proof rum is now placed before us and available for free.
Do what you can within the rules to live as human.
It has been said in reference to fair trade that international laws are not biased against poor countries, but for the rich. Fair trade serves as a witness that it is possible to support dignified and human life if a conscious effort to that is done.
The rules are not specifically prohibitions on all human contact; they just load the dice so a Toastmasters Zoom meeting is much more in reach than a face-to-face meeting, and it must be admitted that doing some things virtually has its convenience. However, it is still possible to have human meetings. It is still possible, if socially awkward, to have a conversation with a friend across six feet’s distance. It is possible to eat at picnic tables six feet apart. Things like this are not impossible; they just take an extra bit of reaching when virtual interaction is in much easier reach.
Limit your use of counterfeit social interactions, or at least try to consume them in balance.
I have written in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology about the goal of a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. I mentioned research that cultures that have absorbed tofu use and are not harmed by it consume only fermented soy, in limited quantities, and never as a substitute for meat.
Social media (meaning anti-social media) are fake tofu. FecesBook keeps you plugged in and glued on, but it causes depression. The people who enjoy it most dip in and out quickly; prolonged use is asking for real depression.
If you are feeling lonely, seek out a face-to-face conversation with a friend. Maybe a conversation at six feet distance while wearing a mask, but don’t just reach for FecesBook when you feel lonely and want to feel better.
Make counter-cultural technology decisions.
I agreed with Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul before I read it, but reading Larchet raised the bar higher. I didn’t watch TV or movies if there was a polite way to avoid it, and I still don’t. What’s different is that instead of checking my email every hour (and watching my clock), I now check my email once in the morning and other times as needed on a case-by-case basis. I also don’t compulsively check my phone. My life is only the richer for this, and I have unplugged a drain on the human soul.
I put on a gaiter mask just around my neck in the morning, pull it up to cover my mouth and nose when a mask is called for, and can breathe without feeling hot. It’s a bit of a mask lite, but all the orthochristian.com articles about COVID being a big deal were by older men. I entertain some skepticism for a situation where e.g. a motorcycle fatality is classified as a COVID death because doctors know what side their bread is buttered on.
A gaiter mask removes a strong disincentive to social interactions of the normal face-to-face type.
Consider getting a pet.
Some people are not animal people, and I am not personally in a position to responsibly own a pet. However, a friendly, good-natured cat or dog makes wonderful companionship without a quarantine, and possibly makes essential companionship with a quarantine. And if you like animals but can’t own one now, do spend some time with the pets of any friend you visit.
We vote our fears. And a very good thing that we do, according to the formidable Dennis Prager. In his newsletter, he lists the major interest groups of the two major parties and then suggests that we ask ourselves: “If all the listed Republican groups had their way, what would happen to America? If all the listed Democratic groups had their way, what would happen to America?” Mr. Prager asked himself and concluded that, while he supports almost none of the organizations on the Republican list, he fears them less than the groups on the Democratic list, and so he “nearly always” votes Republican. Here are his lists. Republican: National Rifle Association, Christian Coalition and Religious Right, Big Business, Black Conservatives (e.g., Clarence Thomas), Pro-Life Organizations, Conservative Justices, Tobacco Companies. Democrats: American Civil Liberties Union, Hollywood, Teachers’ Unions, Black Leaders (e.g., Jesse Jackson), Feminist Organizations, Liberal Justices, Trial Lawyers, Alcohol Companies.
The comment is dated by more than twenty years; the lack of mention of the gender rainbow alone says that the ink is far from being wet. But I would mention something to those who do vote your fears:
The quarantine will be bad under Trump and worse under Biden. That it will go badly under Trump hardly needs saying, but under Biden we are talking drones to enforce the wearing of masks, and who knows what else after federal drones have their “killer app” role of enforcing mask use. Please, have the courage to vote your fears.
In Robert Heinlein’s sex-crazed, anti-Christian Stranger in a Strange Land, the grandfather-figure asks the heroine if she knows the Bible, and when she says “not much,” he says, “It merits study, it provides helpful advice for most emergencies.” And really, it does. “Do not worry about tomorrow; each day has enough trouble of its own” is very, very practical advice. If you haven’t availed yourself of this kind of resource, visit an Orthodox Church that is open (some are). If you have, dig deeper.
And in any case, give thanks in any and every circumstance, and be mindful of what you have to be grateful for.
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From Falstaff to Herodotus, grace: I send your excellence my manuscript, as revised again, and have returned the Imaginarium. I have tried to envision what life was really like in The Setting, but yet also keep things contemporary. Please send my boots and cloak by my nephew.
Here is the story:
Oct 8, 2020, Anytown, USA.
Anna looked at the sky. The position of the sun showed that it was the ninth hour, and from the clouds it looked like about four or five hours until there would be a light rain.
She stood reverently and attentively, pulled out her iPhone, and used a pirated Internet Explorer 6 app to spend deliberate time on social networks: first Facebook, then Twitter, then Amazon. It was the last that offered the richest social interaction.
Technology in that society underscored the sacred and interlocking rhythm of time, with its cycles of lifetime, year, month, and day, right down to the single short hour. But there was a lot of technology, and it had changed things. The road had for ages been shared between pedestrian man and horse. Now, decades after automobiles had taken root, it had to be shared between man, horse, and motorcar. A shiny, dark Ford Ferrari raced by her on the sidewalk. She paused to contemplate its beauty. Then she listened, entranced, as a poor street musician played sad, sad music on an old Honda Accordion.
And in all this she was human. Neither her lord nor she knew how many winters each had passed when they married; neither she nor her lord for that matter knew that it was the twentieth century. She cared for birth and mirth, and she loved her little ones. She did not know how many winters old they were, either. And there was life within her.
And she was intensely religious, and intensely superstitious, so far as to be almost entirely tacit. She knew the stories of the saints, and attended church a few times a year. She lived long under religion’s shadow. And her mind was tranquil, unhurried, unworried, and this without the slightest effort to learn Antarctican Mindfulness.
And in all this, she was content. Her family had lived on the same sandlot; more than seven generations had been born, lived, and died without traveling twenty miles from this root. The stones and herbs were family to her as much as men, but this was, again, tacit.
She was human. Really and truly human, no matter what others thought the epoch was.
Then a crow crowed. She looked around, thoughtfully. It was well nigh time to visit her sister.
“But how to get there?” she thought, and then, “I have walked in the opposite direction, and she will be upset if I am even two or three hours late.”
Then a solution occurred to her. She reached into her pocket, pulled out her new iPhone Pro, pulled up the Uber app, and ordered a shared helicopter ride.
In The Divine Names I have shown the sense in which God is described as good, existent, life, wisdom, power, and whatever other things pertain to the conceptual names for God. In my Symbolic Theology I have discussed analogies of God drawn from what we perceive. I have spoken of the images we have of him, of the forms, figures, and instruments proper to him, of the places in which he lives and the ornaments which he wears. I have spoken of his anger, grief, and rage, of how he is said to be drunk and hungover, of his oaths and curses, of his sleeping and waking, and indeed of all those images we have of him, images shaped by the workings of the representations of God. And I feel sure that you have noticed how these latter come much more abundantly than what went before, since The Theological Representations and a discussion of the names appropriate to God are inevitably briefer than what can be said in The Symbolic Theology. The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing. In the earlier books my argument this downward path from the most exalted to the humblest categories, taking in on this downward path an ever-increasing number of ideas which multiplied what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.
Now you may wonder why it is that, after starting out from the highest category when our method involves assertions, we begin now from the lowest category involves a denial. The reason is this. When we assert what is beyond every assertion, we must then proceed from what is most akin to it, and as we do so we make the affirmation on which everything else depends. But when we deny that which is beyond every denial, we have to start by denying those qualities which differ most from the goal we hope to attain. Is it not closer to truth to say that God is life and goodness rather than that he is air or stone? Is it not more accurate to deny that drunkenness and rage can be attributed to him than to deny that we can apply to him the terms of speech and thought?
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can be neither seen nor touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of this can either be identified with it nor attributed.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or any other being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name or knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation, it is also beyond every denial.
Prof. Sarovsky slowly and reverently closed the book.
“St. Dionysius says elsewhere that God is known by every name and no name, and that everything that is is a name of God. And in fact in discussing symbols which have some truth but are necessarily inadequate to reality, crude symbols are to be preferred to those which appear elevated, since even their ‘crassness’ is a ‘goad’ spurring us to reach higher.”
“So now I’d like to have an exercise. Could somebody please name something at random, and I can tell how it tells the glory of God?”
A young man from the back called out, “Porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky said, “Ha ha, hysterical. Could I have another suggestion?”
Another young man called out, “Porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky said, “I’m serious. Porn, when you start using it, seems to be a unique spice. But the more you use it, the more it actually drains spice from everything else, and eventually drains itself, and when pornography can only go so far, you find yourself not only jailed but charged with rape. Lustfulness is in the beginning as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword. And much as I disagree with feminists on important points, I agree with a feminist dictionary: ‘Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.’ Could I have a serious suggestion?”
A couple of cellphones started playing, “Internet is for porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky called on the class’s most vocal feminist. “Delilah! Would you pick a topic?”
Delilah grinned wickedly and said, “I’m with the boys on this one. Porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky paused briefly and says, “Very well, then, porn it is. The famous essay ‘I, Pencil‘ takes the humble pencil up and just starts to dig and dig at the economic family tree of just what resources and endeavors make up the humble lead pencil. So it talks about logging, and all the work in transporting the wood, and the mining involved in the graphite, and the exquisite resources that go just to make the blue strip on the metal band, and so on and so forth, and the ‘rubber’ eraser and whatnot. The conclusion is that millions of dollars’ resources (he does not calculate a figure) went into making a humble wooden pencil, and he pushes further: only God knows how to make a pencil. And if only God knows how to make a pencil, a fortiori only God knows how to make a porn site…
“And, I suppose, a pencil must be a phallic symbol.”
Then he paused, and said, “Just kidding!”
The room was silent.
Prof. Sarovsky bowed deeply and grinned: “I’ll see you and raise you.”
And this is what he said.
I, Porn, want to tell you about myself. There are options that eclipse me, but I can make my point more strongly if I speak for myself, Porn, who represent myriads of wonders.
Nor do I suggest that the straight-laced print off a Porn image and frame and hang it on the wall. Though if they understood my lineage, the question would then become whether they were worthy to do so.
I have a magnificent and vaster lineage than “I, Pencil” begins to draw out. A brilliance in economics, the author simply underscores a great interdependent web of economic resources in the humble pencil’s family tree. Equipment, mining, logging, transportation: the economic underpinnings of a humble pencil amount to millions of dollars, and the details mentioned only scratch the surface even of the economics involved.
I have a vaster lineage, including such things as war in Heaven. Now the war in Heaven is over, and was over when the Archangel Michael only said his name, which in the Hebrew tongue says, “Who is like God?” and with that, the devils were cast down, sore losers afflicting the Royal Race one and all. And even then, it was only angelic spirits that could come anywhere close to their war against God. Even then, they are limited. They are on a leash. Perhaps someday I will tell you of why you are summoned to a holy and blinding arrogance towards that whole camp.
What is the Royal Race? I get ahead of myself.
I, Porn, don’t merely share a universe with the divine virtues. In my production there is the cutting off of self-will, long suffering, and as little lust as might be found in a monastery. Dostoevsky offers the image of the chaste harlot; I can add only that if Christ were walking today, Porn models would be among the first he would associate with.
The core impulse I, Porn, draw on, is good. It is a testament to the human spirit that nine months after a natural disaster, there is a wave of babies born. The core impulse is the impulse for the preservation of the species, the possibility by which a community of mortals has itself no automatic end.
It is closer to my point to say that God is not just good and divine; he has created a world that in every way reflects his grandeur. There are no small parts: only actors who are not really small. Every superstring vibration in the cosmos is grander and vaster than all the pagan gods of all worlds put together.
Or as G.K. Chesterton said, “Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.”
It is still closer to my majesty to observe Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who suffered in the Gulag that Hitler sent observers for inspiration for Nazi concentration camps, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, not between political parties either — but right through every heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
The Heavens declare the glory of God—and so do I, Porn.
Perhaps the most beautiful doctrine in Origen that Orthodox must condemn is the final and ultimate salvation of all Creation: that the Devil himself will be a last prodigal son returning to home in Heaven. But the Orthodox teaching is more beautiful: a teaching that every spiritual being, every man, every fallen or unfallen angel, is given an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell and not one of these will God rape, however much he desires their salvation. To quote The Dark Tower: “A man can’t be taken to hell, or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own steam.” God has made a rock he could not could move, and that rock is man and angel.
The rising crescendo that practically seals C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” is:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
Which brings us to the messy circumstances of your lives.
George Bernard Shaw said, “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” We can see it, perhaps in a fantasy setting, in a passage from C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, has Lucy tiptoe to a room with a spellbook and see a singular spell:
Then she came to a page which was such a blaze of pictures that one hardly noticed the writing. Hardly—but she did notice the first words. They were, An infallible spell to make beautiful she that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Lucy peered at the pictures with her face close to the page, and though they had seemed crowded and muddlesome before, she found she could now see them quite clearly. The first was a picture of a girl standing at a reading-desk reading in a huge book. And the girl was dressed up exactly like Lucy. In the next picture Lucy (for the girl in her picture was Lucy herself) was standing up with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face, chanting or reciting something. In the third picture the beauty beyond the lot of mortals had come to her. It was strange, considering how small the pictures had looked at first, that the Lucy in the picture now seemed quite as big as the real Lucy; and they looked into each other’s eyes and the real Lucy was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy; though she could still se a sort of likeness to herself in that beautiful face. And now the pictures came crowding on her thick and fast. She saw herself throned on high at a great tournament in Calormen and all the Kings of the world fought because of her beauty. After that it turned from tournaments to real wars, and all Narnia and Archenland, Telmar and Calormen, Galma and Terebithinia, were laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes and great lords who fought for her favor. Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked exactly like the real Susan only plainer and with a nasty expression. And Susan was was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now.
The temptation, patterned after real temptation of the real world, is to want a horror. It is because Lucy is bewitched that she even wants what the spell promises. The destruction of kingdoms when lords vie for her beauty? Women may want to feel like the most beautiful woman in the world, but the count in stacking dead bodies like cordwood is no true metric for beauty. As a faithfully portrayed temptation by C.S. Lewis, what is being desired is not something Heavenly. It is a vision of Hell, pure and simple. While in the grips of temptation, she could not be happy without casting that spell until she let go of it from a strong warning from Aslan. But even if she succeeded, she would be even more unhappy. Her success would rival world wars or nuclear wars in its destruction of beautiful worlds, and if it didn’t bring her death, she would live on in a wrecked world, knowing for the rest of her life that it was her petty self-absorption that obliterated the majesty of worlds.
Even if we scale from back from undisguised fantasy, we can look at what is a practical possibility for some people in the real world. Cameron Russell’s Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe me, I’m a model. The TED talk eloquently explains that being a supermodel is not all sunshine and not the solution to all life’s problems. For that matter it isn’t even the solution to body image problems, and the final point she shares is that as a model she has to be more, not less, insecure about her body, no matter how lovely she may appear to others. It turns out that supermodels are intimidated by… other supermodels. Being a model is not a way to be exempt from body image struggles.
And this is in no way a solely a phenomenon about body image. There is one man where professional opinion is that he is smarter than most genuises, and that the average Harvard PhD has never met someone so talented. And his work history, given that he’s tried to give his best? Here’s something really odd. One job assistant said, “You don’t want your boss figuring out you’re smarter than him.” When he hands in his first piece of work, only some bosses respond kindly to work that is beyond the boss’s wildest dreams. Most of them find themselves in unfamiliar social territory, and strike out or retaliate. He’s been terminated a dozen times and is now retired on disability, the best financial arrangement he has had yet. It may be true, up to a point, that there’s something likable about being smart. That doesn’t mean in any sense that the smarter you get, the more people like you, or that your life is easy.
There is a portal that far excels entering another world, entering Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. And this portal is much harder to see or look for than Narnia. It is entering the here and now you have been placing.
Spiritual masters have said to want what you have, not what you don’t have, and want things to be for you just the way they are. Now there is such a thing as legitimately seeking to solve, lessen, or improve a problem, and wishing you had a better-paying job, a car, or a nicer house. Wishing never runs out, and if you get the Apple Watch you want, wishing will just wish for newer or different things. Buy something you don’t need but will make you enchanted for a month. I dare you.
Oh, and by the way, I, Porn, know all about wishing. I know everything about it, and I know everything it can’t do.
When you let go of escape, soon you may let go of relating the here and now as the sort of thing one should flee, and some thick, sticky grey film will slowly melt away from your eyes and they will open on beauty all around you, and you will have crossed a threshold no fantasy portal even comes close. And you will have every treasure that you have. And perhaps, in and through ancient religion or postmodern positive psychology, cultivate a deep and abiding gratefulness for all the blessings you have.
In the Way of Things, there are two basic options one can pursue. One is the Sexual Way, and the other is the Hyper-Sexual Way. Let me explain.
Study after study has been launched to investigate which group of mavericks has the best sex, and they have been repeatedly been dismayed to find that the overlooked Sexual Way has the most pleasure. The overlooked Sexual Way is that of a contest of love, for life, between one lord and one wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, grateful for children, and knowing that the best sex ever is when you are trying to make a baby. After the first year or two some outward signs get quiet and subdued, but the marriage succeeds because the honeymoon has failed. It deepens year after year and decade after a decade, and a widowed senior can say, “You don’t know what love is when you’re a kid.” And here, like no other place, beauty is forged in the eye of the beholder. Here, unlike fashion magazines, sweaty fitness regimens, and dieting, and weighing, and accursed “bodysculpting,” a woman can and should be made to feel like she is the most beautiful woman in the world, to a husband to whom she really is the most beautiful woman in the world, as naturally as the Church on Sunday. As Homer and Marge humbly and quietly sing to each other, “You are so beautiful to me!”
If the sexual impulse is spent wisely in the Sexual Way, it is invested at exorbitant interest on the Hyper-Sexual Way. Wonder what all that curious monastic modesty about? It compounds an essential sexual condition, by which a monastic, man or woman, becomes a transgendered god and his sexual desire is entirely fixed on God. Does this seem strange? Let us listen to St. Herman of Alaska:
Further on Yanovsky writes, “Once the Elder was invited aboard a frigate which came from Saint Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. In the company of this group sat a monk of a hermitage, small in stature and wearing very old clothes. All these educated conversationalists were placed in such a position by his wise talks that they did not know how to answer him. The Captain himself used to say, ‘We were lost for an answer before him.’
“Father Herman gave them all one general question: ‘Gentlemen, What do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered … Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘It is not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion—that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’ He then continued, ‘Would you not say, Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men? Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’
“All said, ‘Why, yes! That’s self-evident!’ Then the Elder asked, ‘But do you love God?’ They all answered, ‘Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?’ ‘And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,’ Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said, ‘we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?’ They had to admit that they had not! ‘For our own good, and for our own fortune,’ concluded the Elder, ‘let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!’ Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives.’
Fr. Herman had something better than pixels on a screen. Much better.
Perhaps the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy is by Anselm of Canterbury, who said, “If God exists, nothing greater than him could exist. Now God either exists in reality and also in our minds, or only as a concept in our minds. But to exist in reality as well as our minds is greater than to exist only in our minds. Therefore, God must have the higher excellence of existing in reality as well as our minds.”
I am not specifically interested in bringing agreement or disagreement to this argument. First, most people first meeting this argument feel that something has been slipped past them, but they can’t put a finger on where the error is. However, I did not exactly include this argument to discuss what it asserts, but what it assumes: if God is greater than anything else that can be thought, then we have something that pierces deeply into the Christian God.
The joke is told that four rabbis would get together to discuss Torah, and one specific rabbi was the odd man out, every single time. And they said, “Three against one.” Finally, the exasperated odd rabbi out knelt down, prayed, “Gd, I’ve worked very hard, and they never listen. Please send them a sign that I’m right.” It was a warm day out, but a sudden chilly wind blew by, and some clouds appeared in the sky. The other three rabbis said, “That’s odd, but it’s still three against one.” Then the rabbi knelt down, prayed, “Please make a clearer sign,” and the wind grew more bitter and it began sleeting. The rabbi said, “Well?” The other rabbis said, “This is quite a coincidence, but it’s still three against one.” Then before the rabbi could begin to pray, bolts of lightning splintered a nearby tree, there was an earthquake, the earth opened, and a deep voice thundered, “HE’S RIGHT!” The rabbi said, “Well?” Quick as a flash, another rabbi said, “Well? It’s still three against two!”
The humor element in this element extends beyond, “If God has spoken, the discussion is over.” The humor element hinges on the fact that counting does not go from “one, two, three, four” to “one, two, three, four, Five”: there is infinite confusion in adding one God to four men. As written in Doxology:
Thou who art One,
Eternally beyond time,
So wholly One,
That thou mayest be called infinite,
Timeless beyond time thou art,
The One who is greater than infinity art thou.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Three who are One,
No more bound by numbers than by word,
And yet the Son is called Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ,
Divine ordering Reason,
Eternal Light and Cosmic Word,
Way pre-eminent of all things,
Beyond all, and infinitesimally close,
Thou transcendest transcendence itself,
The Creator entered into his Creation,
Sharing with us humble glory,
Lowered by love,
Raised to the highest,
The Suffering Servant known,
The King of Glory,
Wert thou a lesser god,
Numerically one as a creature is one,
Only one by an accident,
Then thou couldst not deify thine own creation,
Whilst remaining the only one god.
But thou art beyond all thought,
All word, all being,
We may say that thou existest,
But then we must say,
Thou art, I am not.
And if we say that we exist,
It is inadequate to say that thou existest,
For thou art the source of all being,
And beyond our being;
Thou art the source of all mind, wisdom, and reason,
Yet it is a fundamental error to imagine thee,
To think and reason in the mode of mankind.
Thou art not one god because there happeneth not more,
Thou art The One God because there mighteth not be another beside thee.
Thus thou spakest to Moses,
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Which is to say,
Thou shalt admit no other gods to my presence.
And there can be no other god beside thee,
So deep and full is this truth,
That thy Trinity mighteth take naught from thine Oneness,
Nor could it be another alongside thy divine Oneness,
If this God became man,
That man become god.
The Trinity does not represent a weaker or less consistent monotheism than Islam. The Trinity represents a stronger and more consistent monotheism than Islam, and that is why it can afford things that are unthinkable to a Muslim.
A Hindu once asked a Christian, “I can accept the truth of the incarnation, but why only one?” And in that conversation, where the Christian defended only one incarnation, both were wrong. Or rather, the Christian was wrong; the Hindu was merely mistaken.
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to BECOME him forever.
One theology professor tried to explain to a Muslim that the Trinity is how Christians get to the absolute Oneness of God. The men who first articulated the doctrine looked with some horror on the concept of using the word “Trinity” as a handle for the doctrine.
Regarding the Hindu mentioned, I would say that there have been many, many true incarnations of God, and they still continue. Now the Hindu concept of an Avatar can be what Christianity rejected as docetistic, with Christ not recognized to have real flesh. However, what I would rather have been said is this: No one besides Christ enters the world with part or all of God as part of them. However, the reason for the coming of the Son of God is to destroy the devil’s work. An ancient hymn states, “Trying to be god, Adam failed to be God. Christ became man, to make Adam god.” And the vast company of Saints that God keeps on giving are in fact the gift of a company of Avatars; we just have a different understanding of how one reaches a very similar goal.
The Philokalia says, “Blessed is the monk who regards each man as God after God.”
St. John Chrysostom comments on the Scripture: “We beheld,” he says, “His glory, the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father.”
Having declared that we were made “sons of God,” and having shown in what manner5 namely, by the “Word” having been “made Flesh,” he again mentions another advantage which we gain from this same circumstance. What is it? “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father”; which we could not have beheld, had it not been shown to us, by means of a body like to our own. For if the men of old time could not even bear to look upon the glorified countenance of Moses, who partook of the same nature with us, if that just man needed a veil which might shade over the purity7 of his glory, and show to them have face of their prophet mild and gentle; how could we creatures of clay and earth have endured the unveiled Godhead, which is unapproachable even by the powers above? Wherefore He tabernacled among us, that we might be able with much fearlessness to approach Him, speak to, and converse with Him.
But what means “the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father”? Since many of the Prophets too were glorified, as this Moses himself, Elijah, and Elisha, the one encircled by the fiery chariot (2 Kings vi. 17), the other taken up by it; and after them, Daniel and the Three Children, and the many others who showed forth wonders; and angels who have appeared among men, and partly disclosed to beholders the flashing light of their proper nature; and since not angels only, but even the Cherubim were seen by the Prophet in great glory, and the Seraphim also: the Evangelist leading us away from all these, and removing our thoughts from created things, and from the brightness of our fellow-servants, sets us at the very summit of good. For, “not of prophet,” says he, “nor angel, nor archangel, nor of the higher power, nor of any other created nature,” if other there be, but of the Master Himself, the King Himself, the true Only-Begotten Son Himself, of the Very Lord of all, did we “behold the glory.”
For the expression “as,” does not in this place belong to similarity or comparison, but to confirmation and unquestionable definition; as though he said, “We beheld glory, such as it was becoming, and likely that He should possess, who is the Only-Begotten and true Son of God, the King of all.” The habit (of so speaking) is general, for I shall not refuse to strengthen my argument even from common custom, since it is not now my object to speak with any reference to beauty of words, or elegance of composition, but only for your advantage; and therefore there is nothing to prevent my establishing my argument by the instance of a common practice. What then is the habit of most persons? Often when any have seen a king richly decked, and glittering on all sides with precious stones, and are afterwards describing to others the beauty, the ornaments, the splendor, they enumerate as much as they can, the glowing tint of the purple robe, the size of the jewels, the whiteness of the mules, the gold about the yoke, the soft and shining couch. But when after enumerating these things, and other things besides these, they cannot, say what they will, give a full idea of the splendor, they immediately bring in: “But why say much about it; once for all, he was like a king;” not desiring by the expression “like,” to show that he, of whom they say this, resembles a king, but that he is a real king. Just so now the Evangelist has put the word As, desiring to represent the transcendent nature and incomparable excellence of His glory.
Elsewhere we are asked to consider what things would be like if a King were to take up residence in one of the houses of a city. Would not the entire city, and each house in it, be forever honored? And the Son of God is now one of our homeboys. He ascended into Heaven and brought us with him, enthroned in Heaven with him.
We are the Royal Race. We are made in the image of God, and made to reach unimaginable glory.
And there may be named three laws that are the Constitution of the Royal Race, three laws which are one and the same.
The first law is the Law of the Canoe, as C.S. Lewis summarized his friend Charles Williams:
It is Virgil himself who died without reaching the patria, who saw ‘Italy’ only from a wave before he was engulfed forever. It is Virgil himself who stretches out his hands among the ghosts ripae ulterioris amore, longing to pass a river that he cannot pass. This poet from whose work so many Christians have drawn spiritual nourishment was not himself a Christian—did not himself know the full meaning of his own poetry, for (in Keble’s fine words) ‘thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given’. This is exquisite cruelty; he made honey not for himself; he helped to save others, himself he could not save.
…The Atonement was a Substitution, just as Anselm said. But that Substitution, far from being a mere legal fiction irrelevant to the normal workings of the universe, was simply the supreme instance of a universal law. ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save’ is a definition of the Kingdom. All salvation, everywhere and at all times, in great things or in little, is vicarious. The courtesy of the Emperor has absolutely decreed that no man can paddle his own canoe and every man can paddle his fellow’s, so that the shy offering and modest acceptance of indispensable aid shall be the very form of the celestial etiquette. [emphasis original]
The second law is the Law of the Long Spoon. As one telling goes from a liberal enough source:
One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. “It is simple,” he said, “These people share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves…”
The last law is the Law of Narcissus’s Mirror. It states that the Royal Race are absolutely forbidden to stand and gaze at themselves in Narcissus’s Mirror, entranced at their own beauty, and commanded to gaze at other members of the Royal Race, entranced at their beauty.
These three laws are one and the same. One joke, about “communio” theologians who hold the Trinity to mean that God himself is a community, ran:
Q: How many communio theologians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but he thinks he is a community.
But we are not communities. We are part of a community, and the full grandeur of being a member of the Royal Race is that you are no island, but a connected and beautiful part of a continent.
And furthermore, God has ordered Heaven and Earth for the benefit of us as the Royal Race.
Though this may be more subtle in the Sexual Way than in the Hyper-Sexual Way, but the behavior enjoined on the Hyper-Sexual Way is that of a spiritual miser, who constantly thinks his Heavenly wealth is too little and he must spare no effort to get more, and no matter how much treasure in Heaven he acquires, he never rests on his laurels, but keeps on storing up more and more and more.
Men each have one interest, one real interest, and only one interest: a good answer before the Dread Judgment-Throne of Christ. This life is inestimably precious, and in treasures such as repentance, Heaven’s best-kept secret, we can only store up these treasures before this fleeting life is over. Now the Church Triumphant is no terrible place to be, but there are profound goods that are only open to us, the living, for as long as we live. And the various strange prescriptions of the Philokalia and the Orthodox Way, about believing oneself to be the worst of sinners, about giving oneself no credit for any good actions, about believing “All the world will be saved and I will be damned,” about repenting as if one will die tomorrow but treating your body as if it will last for many years, are in fact braces to support being one hoarding spiritual miser for the rest of one’s life, and crossing the finish line, in triumph, and with treasure after treasure after treasure in your hoard. It is explained that God conceals from us the day of our death, because if we knew we would not die for some decades, we would put off repentance and be incorrigible. Not that God is absolutely unwilling to reveal to people the day of their death: it is in fact considered a mark of holiness to know that, because a person is in a good enough state for the secret not to need to be hidden. But the Philokalia’s discussion, perhaps here most clearly of all, explains that things are ordered this way because God has stacked the deck, in our favor. And as regards the Sexual Way, the path is said not to be an environment for children to grow up, but an environment for parents to grow up.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, fields an objection which was apparently on people’s minds but I have not heard brought up live in my lifetime. However, the answer says everything to a world in disintegrating economy, COVID, Jihad, and more:
I’d like to deal with a difficulty some people find about the whole idea of prayer. Somebody put it to me by saying: “I can believe in God alright, but what I can’t swallow is this idea of Him listening to several hundred million human beings who are all addressing Him at the same moment.” And I find quite a lot of people feel that difficulty. Well, the first thing to notice is that the whole sting of it comes in the words “at the same moment.” Most of us can imagine a God attending to any number of claimants if only they come one by one and He has an endless time to do it in. So what’s really at the back of the difficulty is this idea of God having to fit too many things into one moment of time. Well that, of course, is what happens to us. Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along, and there’s room for precious little in each. That’s what Time is like. And, of course, you and I tend to take it for granted that this Time series — this arrangement of past, present and future — isn’t simply the way life comes to us but is the way all things really exist. We tend to assume that the whole universe and God Himself are always moving on from a past to a future just as we are. But many learned men don’t agree with that. I think it was the Theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in Time at all. Later, the Philosophers took it over. And now some of the scientists are doing the same. Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life doesn’t consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He hasn’t got to listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call “ten-thirty.” Ten-thirty, and every other moment from the beginning to the end of the world, is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has infinity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames. That’s difficult, I know. Can I try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I’m writing a novel. I write “Mary laid down her book; next moment came a knock at the door.” For Mary, who’s got to live in the imaginary time of the story, there’s no interval between putting down the book and hearing the knock. But I, her creator, between writing the first part of that sentence and the second, may have gone out for an hour’s walk and spent the whole hour thinking about Mary. I know that’s not a perfect example, but it may just give a glimpse of what I mean. The point I want to drive home is that God has infinite attention, infinite leisure to spare for each one of us. He doesn’t have to take us in the line. You’re as much alone with Him as if you were the only thing He’d ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you’d been the only man in the world.
And God’s Providence is not just Providence in great things. It is Providence in the small. It is not just Providence in a career, or entering the Sexual Way. It is also Providence when you are stuck in traffic and the light seems never to be turning green and that still, small voice urges you to grow just a little as a person so you can be as happy in your car as in a lounge chair at home. And it is the mighty arm of Providence all the more powerfully revealed when we are persecuted, or lose money, or any number of other things. And it is a Providence that gives you the here and now, a here and now chosen for you from all eternity, and will, if you cooperate, help you appreciate the gift.
And if you are one of the many who believe that I, Porn, am the only interesting spice in a fatally dull world, I, Porn, can only say this:
Watch me when I am Transfigured.
To quote your own age’s little reflection of The Divine Comedy:
I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.
‘Off so soon?’ said a voice.
The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.
‘Yes. I’m off,’ said the Ghost. ‘Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) that he’d have to be quiet if he came—which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.
‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.
‘Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
‘Don’t you want him killed?’
‘You didn’t say anything about killing at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’
‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’
‘There is no time. May I kill it?’
‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.’
‘The gradual process is of no use at all.’
‘Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.’
‘There is no other day. All days are present now.’
‘Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.’
‘It is not so.’
‘Why, you’re hurting me now.’
‘I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.’
‘Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by to-night’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.’
‘This moment contains all moments.’
‘Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me in pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.’
‘I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?’
The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.
‘Be careful,’ it said. ‘He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yess. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams—all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent . . .’
‘Have your permission?’ said the Angel to the Ghost.
‘I know it will kill me.’
‘It won’t. But supposing it did?’
‘You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.’
‘Then I may?’
‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost; but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.
‘Ow! That’s done for me,’ gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialized while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man—an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that the something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinneying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed into each other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but may have only been the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seats he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to se them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.
An Orthodox would realize in the Burning Angel a clearest reference to the fiery Seraphim, the highest of the nine angel choirs, and the one for whom St. Seraphim of Sarov came, the most beloved Orthodox saint in centuries, the St. Seraphim whose extraordinary conversation with the pilgrim Motovilov reveals the purpose of human life.
We live in interesting times. There is a singularity, or rather has been but keeps growing exponentially, and this singularity may turn in to the end of the world: a strange Ragnarok where the forces of Good resound with apocalyptic triumph. And I, Porn, am part of the singularity, an important part.
Did you know that I, Porn, am not the only thing in life?
Remember: “Every man who visits a Porn site is looking for God.”
Delilah friend turned back. “Yep, dear, he does that sort of thing in practically every class.”
Why did we call ourselves the Katana? It was in the excitement of a moment, and a recognition that our project has some off the elegance of a Katana to a Japan fan. We were more current than today’s fashions and for that matter made today’s fashions, but representing an unbroken tradition since Plato’s most famous work, what they call the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke: The Republic. Things would have been a lot easier if it weren’t for them. They obstructed the Katana.
The Katana have a dynamic thousand-or-so goals, but there is only one that counts: the relentless improvement of the Herd. Some of the older victories have really been improving agriculture what seems like thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, with mechanized engineering for farming and a realization that you can have meat costing scarcely more than vegetables if you optimize animals like you’d optimize any other machine, under conditions that turn out to be torture for farm animals. There are some lands where the Herd has been imbued with enough progress that the middle class has about as many creature comfort as there is to be had, and for that matter among the poor the #1 dietary problem is obesity. Maybe we made the Herd look more like pigs, but please do not blame us! We aren’t eating that much!
And we are altruists through and through.
We have been providing the Herd with progressively greater “space-conquering technologies”, as they are sold, which neuter the significance of their having physical bodies and the structure of life that was there before us. First we gave gasoline-powered Locomotives and great Aerobirds, devices that could move the meat of the human body faster. Now we are unfolding another wave of body-conquering technologies, which obviate the need to move meat. They are powered by a kind of unnatural living thing. Perhaps the present central offering in this horn of plenty, or what we present as a horn of plenty, is a Portal: a small device carried by many even in the poorest lands, that draws attention to itself and such stimulation it offers, disengaging from ancient patterns of life.
Things would be so much easier if it weren’t for them. We tried to tell people that they hate women; now we’ve told people that they hate gays. They still get in the way of progress.
Yesterday there was a planned teleconference, a town hall among the Katana after an important document from them had been intercepted. It was encrypted with a flawed algorithm, but cryptanalysis is easy and semantics is hard, and we gave the document to the semanticians for analysis.
The title of the document was straightforward and one that the Katana was happy to see: “How to Serve Man”. But the head semantician came late, and his face was absolutely ashen. It took him some time to compose himself, until he said—”The book… How to Serve… How to Serve Man… It doesn’t contain one single recipe!”
Readers familiar with my site might have read Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion, which complains about attempts to resurrect the glory of ages past (and willing, to do so, break from a nearer past), such as the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Vatican II’s ressourcement and aggiornamiento, and perhaps I should have included neo-Paganism, on the assertion that they bring a decisive break with the recent past and ultimately from the older past they seek to resurrect as well. So what is my point about asking for the ancient ways now?
Simply this: the cyber-quarantine for Coronavirus has brought us to a newer and virtual way of doing things, and however much we may long for the real thing in the moment, they are in some cases convenient, above and beyond a field training exercise for the next level of virtual living.
When we can, we would do well to resume what we were doing, in for instance meeting with people face-to-face and perhaps driving to do so. I applaud Civil War re-enacting, not specifically as a means of resurrecting something long past, but because it is a kind of face-to-face meeting (and community!) that has been part of our present and that we would do well to resume. And participate in church life as you are able, and the door remains open. I am not at all impressed that my own governor has decided to keep churches closed, but in Orthodoxy there is a very simple rule: in matters pertaining to the Church, obey your bishop first and Caesar second. That is all. (I do not know other bishops’ positions to comment on them, nor perhaps should I comment on them). My own archbishop has said to obey the law and work within the quarantine, which has now included having online services and allow one person at a time to enter the cathedral building to receive communion. It is a hardship, perhaps, but the Orthodox position is very simple.
There is something ancient and beautiful in a real (not virtual) hug, a picnic on the lawn, seeing your co-workers face-to-face (some places are discovering remote work now, which gives people a private office such as has been banished from mainstream businesses, first for cubicles and then for open plan offices, and discovering that employees work remarkably better when they can hear themselves think, but this is a separate issue). In the “Old Technologies” section of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, I wrote:
There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)
I remember one time when I was visiting a friend, and his son and two best friends were holding close to each other and each playing a video game on a portable device. I’m not going to endorse video games, but I will comment that three little boys were having fun together face-to-face, and if they were all playing video games, they were still playing them face-to-face, friends like in time immemorial.
So some of the things we can do when the quarantine is relaxed (or lifted) include ordering a paper book from Amazon, reading it outside and putting it on a bookshelf and taking care of it so it is available afterwards, or driving to a new restaurant via GPS to have a meal together, or just go to church, or spending some days in the office face-to-face to maintain social connection with your co-workers. Note that I am commenting less on using or not using new technologies (but really it is also possible to do purely older things like take a stack of blank sheets of paper and hold a physical brainstorm about how to make paper airplanes, or origami—which I mention not because it is of Asian origins but because it is a recognized thing in my time and place). Or build something with Legos, old or new (I might comment that the decidedly new-school Lego Mindstorms robots offer a whole new dimension for creativity). What all of these share is that they are sharing something classic and organic, regardless of how much (or little) they use technology. Churches may have signs saying, “Cellphones that go off in the service will be dunked in holy water,” but while some avoid or minimize digital technology usage while fasting for the Eucharist, there is presently little policing of cellphone usage in getting to the church.
We have one more doors open, doors to something unclean. Perhaps now there is not legitimate choice, and if our bishops say “Obey the quarantine” we should obey the law. Those inclined to increasingly virtual life have had a good practice at handling things virtually, and so have those not so inclined. And there is something practically good, if not always in trying to recover long-lost glory, at very least at continuing in living traditions we know how to do, and to be able to get up from the new normal, get off our back ends, and reclaim ancient and still living glory that remains open to all of us, even if it turns out to be surprisingly more convenient not to drive (another technology) and meet people face-to-face.
When I was at a friend’s wedding, his father mentioned a surprisingly sick story about a boy whose older brother committed suicide, and for Christmas the boy was given a gun as a gift: more specifically, his older brother’s suicide weapon. (I should clarify that my friend’s father was not being sick; his conversation with me on the topic was entirely appropriate…)
In the book he mentioned, Scott Peck’s People of the Lie talks about a personality profile that was characterized by narcissism and several other warped things; surprisingly, at least to me, the single defect the author chose to crystallize what was wrong was that they were characterized by lies. We tend to think of lies today as not the most serious evil, perhaps using an idiom like “not the end of the world.” Peck meant something very serious by characterizing these patients as “people of the lie.”
In one statement that the author does not unpack (probably more because he did not want to slow the text down rather than a failure to understand what was going on), the boy’s mother said, with what I would call narrower entailment than implicature, “Most sixteen year old boys would have given their eyeteeth to have a gun!” This statement is, of course, in an almost literal sense true, in that literally speaking, most sixteen year old boys would be delighted to receive a gun for Christmas. However, it was in a deeper sense false and a lie in that it idiomatically conveys that it was reasonable under the circumstances to believe in good faith that this sixteen year old boy would have been delighted to receive that gun as his Christmas gift. (Interested parties may read me unpack an “emotional plea” with discussion of entailment and implicature in a dissertation.) Such lies, once analyzed, shed light on what is sick in the discussion. An (almost) literally true statement here conveys a lie; the “almost” does not specifically amount to deception but using a metaphor that does not lie, about giving one’s “eyeteeth.” Elsewhere the author complains about a half-truth that conveys a lie. Here I would say that no matter how literally true a statement is, lying is in the author’s mind deeply, deeply characteristic of what has gone wrong.
My specific reason for bringing Scott Peck and People of the Lie has to do with something else, the surprising rationality of the lie. In his book, and in my own life, I might accuse people of lying, but I cannot interpret their behavior as clumsy, random, or unthinking. Scott Peck complains about the “cheapness, laziness, and insensitivity” of making the gun the boy’s Christmas gift. I would speak differently, and here please do not accuse me of speaking against the spirit of Peck’s book, even if I attempt “change from within” (as C.S. Lewis uses the term in The Abolition of Man).
The choice of gift was the result of the parents’ solution to an optimization problem, of what under the circumstances would best advance their campaign. It might have been horrifyingly insensitive to buy him a new, bigger and better gun, but the gun they gave really leaves no doubt. If they had seen an opportunity to make the gift sicker by gluing camouflaged razor blades to the outside of the gun so he would (in a literal sense) cut his hands when he innocently picked the gun up, they would have done so. This was no mere case of giving an ashtray to someone who doesn’t smoke. They could have given him, without thinking, a used Barbie doll from a garage style or a new book in a language he doesn’t read. Or, for that matter, shaved his head and given him a set of combs. A gun, or more specifically this gun, does something else exquisitely well. It says, “Your turn.”
Behavior that seems thoughtless or irrational, from people of the lie, is usually nothing of the sort, perhaps because we assume rationality is a rationality of good faith. So that gun is seen as an astonishingly bad failure in an attempt to give an appropriate Christmas present: cheap, lazy, and insensitive. It is in fact nothing of the sort. Much seemingly irrational behavior is in fact perfectly rational in an attempted solution to the problem of finding a seemingly socially appropriate way to pursue socially inappropriate goals. Behavior may be rational and sick, or rational and treacherous, or rational and warped. But offensive behavior, in a People of the Lie context, even or especially when it seems puzzlingly irrational, is usually rational in the pursuit of a wrong goal. I do not find the young woman’s behavior mystifying, who behaved in seemingly inexplicable ways in receiving therapy. She had plenty of IQ and her behavior makes perfect sense as amusing herself by toying with, mystifying, and frustrating a psychiatrist. Her behavior seems irrational on the assumption that she was approaching a psychiatrist with the goal of bettering herself by receiving real psychotherapy. Once we discard the assumption of good faith seeking psychotherapy, all of her making the psychiatrist sexually uncomfortable (for instance) makes perfect sense as a very intelligent person rationally pursuing an inappropriate goal. (Possibly, though I remember no direct evidence of this, in her mind, she was killing two birds with one stone and getting even, after one or more people insisted she get treatment.)
Elsewhere, if I am recalling the book correctly (I may be conflating two stories), the author complains about professional parents whose line of work required empathy were surprisingly unempathetic in dealing with their children, and appeared to comment that it’s almost as if their goal was to break their son’s spirit, but despite the allegation the author does not take seriously this possible goal. I submit that this guess is right on the money. At one point, their son worked with disabled people and was awarded a trip to a conference which his parents confiscated on the assertion that his room was not clean. The author commented that he would be worried if a son of his age didn’t have a somewhat messy room, and appeared to believe that they believe that confiscating such an award was genuinely proportionate discipline for a messy room. I submit that they found a seemingly socially appropriate way to implement socially inappropriate behavior, and they confiscated the trip and honor because it was a seemingly, or at least arguably, socially appropriate way to break his spirit on terms that even the author of People of the Lie would not equate with a naked and obvious effort to break their son’s spirit.
What this means for the profoundly gifted, or many who are gifted but happen not to be at that echelon, is this. “Confucius say that elevator smell different to dwarf.” Maybe, but Confucius should also say eight foot tall elevator feel different to nine or ten foot tall intellectual giant. In cases where he was treating a child of “people of the lie,” the author usually found the child much less sick, and more of a victim, than parents guilty of aggression. (He talked about the “identified patient,” meaning that in a dysfunctional situation the person labelled as a psychiatric patient may well be the least in need of psychiatric treatment.) Furthermore, as I explored in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, meeting someone who is by far the most brilliant person that someone has ever met brings out some insecurities in people. Most of the parents he discusses succeeded in social situations where success requires some genuine sensitivity. The author wonders and is mystified that they didn’t apply their well-developed sensitivity to dealing with their child. I submit that they were perfectly sensitive, but applied their sensitivity in the service of a warped goal.
If you are dealing with a People of the Lie situation, a couple of things. First of all, it may defuse some frustration to move from believing “They are trying to behave in a socially appropriate way but doing a mystifying and painfully bad way of doing it (and reasoning with them doesn’t work),” to “They are rationally pursuing inappropriate behavior in a way they are presenting as socially appropriate (and the results of reasoning with them are inline with this.” It defuses some of “They are being painfully irrational and defy attempts at being rational.” And if what they want is to get your goat, standard psychological advice may apply. Second, it is more effective to work with people on grounds of their actual motivation than a motivation falsely presented. Not a panacea, but it is surely not a panacea to tell people who want to get your goat, in perfectly good faith, “You are hurting me.”
I submit that being willing to consider the possibility of encountering the rational behavior of “people of the lie” can be part of a constructive exercise of Theory of Alien Minds.
In A Pet Owner’s Rules, I wrote of God as a Pet Owner who has only two rules: to enjoy freely of the gifts he has given, and “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” I wrote, “Strange as it may sound, it takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. Drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet… It takes chastity to enjoy even lust… It takes contentment to enjoy even greed… As G.K. Chesterton said, it takes humility to enjoy even pride…”
I would like to zero in on it taking contentment to enjoy even covetousness.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my suitemates had an “I Learned It All From Kindergarten”-style poster, except it was in this case it was “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Star Trek,” and one of the entries was, “Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting; it is not logical but it is often true.”
Whatever your opinion of Star Trek may be, I regard this specific lesson (which I don’t remember meeting in any Star Trek TV show or movie that I’ve watched), as an unfortunate lesson. Possibly there is more pleasure in starting to covet something than being in contentment before; twentieth century critiques offering conservative warnings about capitalist society where people like corporations because they sell them such desirable and coveted things; advertising perennially creates a spirit of discontent with whatever one has. And here what is a great good appears small and what is small in its merits appears great: the greatness of being content with what you have appears a trivial thing, and the triviality of things that can be acquired by chasing covetousness appears deceptively great.
The Orthodox Church does us a service in exhorting us to be content with what we have. In fact, through the purifying fire of fasting (for instance), the Orthodox Church does us a service by exhorting us to be content with less than what we have.
What did St. Paul have in mind when he called a form of covetousness “the root of all evil?” Let me give one educated guess about two people who coveted more than reigning as lords in Paradise. Adam and Eve did not fall because they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; God’s Plan A had always been for them to eat that fruit, in the right way, and when they were ready for it. The ban was only meant to be temporary while they grew. Adam and Eve fell because they went behind God’s back and had the fruit on their own terms, not God’s. And that is why what God intended as a profound blessing was received as the venomous sting of death, that opened the door to every sin, suffering, and sorrow known to man.
Now for this article, I personally find it annoying when other people use a made-up term known only to themselves without explaining what they mean and expect other people to understand them, and here I’m going to do half half better by using some made-up terms, but explain what no standard term I’m aware of meaning. In each case I will explain the term, and I’m sorry if this is confusing. I’ll try to be understandable, but here I think new terms will be fruitful.
In my own covetousness I have experienced some future purchase as mediating humanity. What I mean by mediating humanity is that I feel that I will not be full and complete as a human being until I get whatever hot new thing I just can’t live without. But whenever I get whatever junk I need to have, it thrills for a short while but the thrill quietly slips away, and I soon finding myself needing some other acquirement to mediate my being fully human. Ick!
When I was getting ready to study theology, I had some money and used it to buy a computer that ended up lasting me for several years: an IBM ThinkPad (a respected brand, for good reason), with 15″ of screen real estate, having 1GB RAM and a 1GHz processor. That’s still plenty for running Linux, and it was quite respectable for a laptop when I bought it in 2002 and several years after.
When I was working out buying a computer that I would have last me for a long time, I worked out the details of a practical investment, but there was something holding me back. My conscience wasn’t quiet. I didn’t see why this wouldn’t be an optimal solution to a rational problem, but my desire was in part what I call sacramental shopping. Not too far in meaning from mediating humanity, sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament, a sacrament made much dumber. Not that we are not to live by consuming: the Holy Mysteries are quite specifically there for us to feed on and live by consuming. But we are missing something if we shop for merchandise to give us life. And, finally, I repented of my seeking sacramental shopping and accepted my conscience’s “No,” whole cloth. And then my conscience surprised me by changing, and I purchased the computer as a careful investment, but only a rational choice and not sacramental shopping.
Indulging covetousness does not satisfy. It can’t. Contentment is what satisfies.
St. Basil said of lust that it is like a dog licking a saw. The dog continues because of the taste, but the taste is of his own blood, of his own woundedness. And so, really is seeking contentment from indulging covetousness. The pleasure is the pleasure of our own woundedness.
But in all this, and in A Pet Owner’s Rules, the bit about not drinking out of the toilet is only a footnote to the #1, central rule: “I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have provided for your good!” We are perhaps content to feed a dog canned or dry pet food and water, but “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined” what the Pet Owner in Heaven has for us, beginning not after the Last Judgment but here and now. I remember a time visiting a monastery where I was bowled over by humility by a layman who was not even a novice, just one of the people who worked in the kitchen, and I came back and wanted to see him, not because he was kind to me (although I assure you that he was very warm and kind), but because I wanted to catch some crumbs from under the table of his humility. My two thoughts were that I had not dreamed there were such things in Heaven or on earth, and a perhaps brash thought, “I want the mint [spiritual money-printing machine]!” because his humility really had reached that degree, and I wanted the source of such money. (Perhaps we are commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up treasures on earth,” but that is a #2 helper, a footnote, to “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and humility is one such treasure, legitimate to have and legitimate to desire and seek.) And let us ascend!
Again, as we climb higher, we may say this. Sacramental shopping is alchemy made dumber: alchemy—the spiritual tradition of transforming metals and men with a technique that would circumvent the need for a lifetime of hard discipline. Alchemy is much more confusingly similar to Truth than sacramental shopping, but alchemy is sacramental Christianity made dumber. Boethius lamented the person who fathered the practice of adorning with lifeless jewels and gold the human body: the living artwork of God. And what is the transformation into gold, possible or impossible, besides the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ himself?
And beyond that, we are to heed St. Athanasius that we are not to command the driver’s seat for ourselves. Our participation in the Holy Mysteries is to recognize ourselves a partner in a Great Dance where God himself seeks our consent to transform us. All of creation is blessed to follow God’s lead, and we humans are blessed to actively participate in our following God’s lead. We are not solipsists who on our own are worthy to be transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ. We must not count ourselves worthy of things much lesser: but God laughs and beckons us further up and further in!
And beyond even that, we cannot overreach. Not in anything truly important, that is. We may be forbidden to seek the office or honors of Bishop, Archbishop, Metropolitan, Patriarch, or Pope, but not one of us is forbidden to seek repentance, Heaven’s best-kept secret, nor asceticism, nor moral character worthy of such office. Humility, true humility, is a wonder such as we can scarcely even guess; when we meet a truly humble man we may say, “I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.” And in deifying transformation, we cannot pursue too much or too hard. Possibly we can pursue unwisely, as novices who attempt impossible virtues, or monastics who attempt warfare above their strength, but this is not really a matter of wanting too much good for ourselves, but traps beside the way of virtue that miss the mark and seek good in a premature and flawed way. We are summoned perhaps to let go of dust and ashes like coveted silver and gold, but only that we may be made able to grasp Silver beyond silver and Gold beyond gold, the Treasure for Whom every treasure in Heaven and on earth is named. We may be forbidden to seek fame and praise before men: I am perhaps forbidden to seek fame before my fellow laity, or the Readers, or the Subdeacons, or the Deacons, or the Priests and Archpriests, or my Archbishop, or ROCOR’s Metropolitan, or the Patriarch of Moscow, but that is only because all of us are summoned to seek fame before God himself, a God who Wonders at our slightest act or thought of good. I may be forbidden to be impressed with myself: but that is so that God may be eternally impressed.
One priest complained that no one ever confessed covetousness. Covetousness is one of many gates of Hell, if indeed Hell has more than one gate. The virtues are one Virtue, and consequently there is really only one vice we need shed. But if we shed covetousness, with it open not only Heavenly contentment, but the gates of Heaven open to live here on earth.
A friend of mine quoted words written by C.S. Lewis 72 years ago. I follow his suggestion to replace “atomic bomb” with “corona virus:”
“In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in an age of the coronavirus?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of AIDS, an age of terrorism, an age of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus was anywhere near our radar: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have acknowledged one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by the coronavirus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—there are really a lot of things we can do from our own homes even if we do not wander around outside our homes—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about the coronavirus. They may break our bodies (a mishap with modern inconveniences can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948 and updated 2020 by C.S. Hayward) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
Taking appropriate measures
We have several strokes of good fortune compared to every other pandemic in history. We have Amazon and Facebook, and opportunities to live for more than ourselves. But coping strategies extend beyond merely preventing transmission of the virus, and I would like to comment on standard guidelines. From sampling the CDC:
Clean your hands often
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Avoid close contact
Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
The first impression that this makes is that it is based on a superstitious and neanderthal concept of immunology, though I would here state that desperate times call for desperate measures and I don’t see why my immune system should stand up particularly well to something as nasty as COVID-19. People are working on not touching, and normally loving touch stimulates the immune system. Social isolation itself is an excellent way to depress the person and the immune system at one stroke. Furthermore, the prolonged effect of obsessive-compulsive cleanliness is to weaken the immune system. However, again, this is probably a case of desperate times that call for desperate measures.
I would pause briefly to comment that it is possible, albeit not obvious, to embrace without touching. Treasure tells how I supported a crying little girl without touching above a handshake that ended the interaction. When I went to give a present to my young nephews, I did not touch them, but was vigorous about making a nice big waving motion with my arm. If it is appropriate, these circumstances make it all the more helpful to be able to give an embrace without touching.
The second thing I would say is that this advice is like whiffle balls: it doesn’t go very far. It touches a point of need, but there is much more to coping.
For that reason, I offer another shopping list to try to get what you can:
“Really coping” shopping list
Lego Mindstorms EV3 31313 Robot Kit, preferably with The Lego Mindstorms Discovery Book. Legos are good, but Lego Mindstorms are better. Lego generated tremendous enthusiasm in the robotics community by dropping the price for serious robotics hobbyists by a factor of four. One feeling you may face going out very little is being cooped up by the walls of your home. If you are exploring what you can do with a super Lego set and more, these walls are likely to be a lot less restricting.
If you are interested in learning a foreign language during this downtime, I personally recommend FluentU, the best language learning app I’ve seen. The best free language app I know is DuoLingo. Avoid Rosetta Stumblingblock; it doesn’t work for adult brains.
Dorothy Sayers wrote in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” “I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.'” Writing in World War II in England about gluttony broadly construed, Sayers wrote,
You will notice that, under a war economy, the contrast [between consumption by rich and poor] is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities, and to revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world: when we will not amend ourselves by Grace, we are compelled under the yoke of Law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of, say, half a dozen dishes in a restaurant instead of forty. In the matter of clothing, we are beginning to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and to salvage waste products; and in learning to do these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure.
And I believe that this coronavirus might not just be a restriction on civil liberties, or practical restrictions when others are being meticulous. The coronavirus and COVID-19 has declared war on humanity; we have declared war on it. By reining ourselves in we can and will reduce human casualties. And in this warfare we may touch something almost transcendent. We may, through difficult measures, save many, many, many human lives.
There is something I wish to say, and I wish it so much that it is hard to think of how to say it. I wrote in God the Spiritual Father that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes all the difference.
Life is here and now, under the circumstances, and life is not about waiting for the rain to stop so you can dance, but dancing in the rain.
One koan has a cook monk, a position of high status, toiling over vegetables in the midday sun. A less mature monk asked him, “Why are you doing that work on the vegetables now?” The cook countered with a question: “When else can I do it?”
Zen and koans have a reputation for being enigmatic, but the point is sometimes a clue-by-four to help someone see the painfully obvious. The only time we can live is now, in the here and now that God has given us. Perhaps some of us are not Zen rigorists and are willing to schedule like the less mature monk expected. None the less, Orthodox hold to salvation being in the here and now, and recognizing that the here and now is under the guiding hand of Providence. It is fruitful for us to pray, with St. Philaret of Moscow,
My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.
And the Father may gently answer, in a poem of unknown attribution,
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
And with it, the prayer for acceptance of God’s will from St. Philaret of Moscow:
We are in God’s workshop, and God is working with us, if we will work with him, to create an eternal glory. The circumstances of our lives may be messy; God’s Providence is perfect in order, and it beckons to us.
A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l’Engle. Swirls of kything, Charles Wallace, and Blajeny. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Swirls of Narnia and visits to that land. Arthurian legends. Swirls of knighthood, Merlin, and the Holy Grail. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Swirls of grokking, Michael Valentine Smith, and Martian wisdom.
These are some of the “realer world” things I have found captivating over the years, and all of them, in different forms, offer a glimpse of transcendence—and heartache.
There is a scene, central to the plot, in The Silver Chair where a Witch has been weaving an enchantment to seduce the Narnian Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum and the earthborn children into believing that there is no world outside the underground caverns, no sun, no Aslan and so on and so forth, and when the Witch has practically won, Puddleglum mostly stamps out the spice-laden, narcotic fire with his bare feet, and greatly weakens the enchantment, and tells the Witch,
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is this, that in that case the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
This heroic stance is, in a word, the marketing proposition offered by fantasy.
(Particularly if it is taken out of its context of defending the book’s real world, Narnia.)
People who find the world dismal can seek salvation in escape, where there is no true salvation to be found. But there is another option.
Realize that the greater world is not by escape, but by recognizing that the real world is not the dreary, mundane cave that it looks like when you are making Puddleglum’s stance.
The Orthodox Church is very much embracing the here and now, and insists that no, there is no other place than the here and now God has given us that we can be saved. Or that we can be happy. But something funny happens along the way.
We may discover that after we have given up the hope of any illusion of the Holy Grail that the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail, to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Mysteries ourselves, as the Blessed Augustine said, “Behold what you believe! Become what you behold!” and the purpose of being human is to become by grace what Christ is by nature.
There are lessons along the way. One is that happiness is not for sometime down the road when we get some new possession, but for here now. Possessions, no matter how badly we want them, do not mediate our really living human life. Another lesson is that the greatest treasures, all of them, we are invited to pursue. The God Who Transcends His Own Transcendence bids us grow in humility, love, and divinity. These eclipse Nobel Prizes, royal honors, and indeed all the honor in the world.
And really, it is an adventure, but it all hinges on repentance and virtue.