I got up, washed my face in the fountain, and put out the fire. The fountain was carved of yellow marble, set in the wall and adorned with bas-relief sculptures and dark moss. I moved through the labyrinth, not distracting myself with a lamp, not thinking about the organ, whose pipes ranged from 8′ to 128′ and could shake a cathedral to its foundation. Climbing iron rungs, I emerged from the recesses of a cluttered shed.
I was wearing a T-shirt advertising some random product, jeans which were worn at the cuffs, and fairly new tennis shoes. I would have liked to think I gave no hint of anything unusual: an ordinary man, with a messy house stocked with the usual array of mundane items. I blended in with the Illusion.
I drove over to Benjamin’s house. As I walked in, I said, “Benjamin, I’m impressed. You’ve done a nice job of patching this place since the last explosion.”
“Shut up, Morgan.”
“By the way, my nephews are coming to visit in two weeks, Friday afternoon. Would you be willing to tinker in your laboratory when they come? Their favorite thing in the world is a good fireworks display.”
“Which reminds me, there was one spice that I wanted to give you. It makes any food taste better, and the more you add, the better the food tastes. Pay no attention to the label on the bottle which says ‘arsenic’. If you’ll excuse me one moment…” He began to stand up, and I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down into the chair.
“How are you, Benjamin?”
“How are you, Morgan?”
I sat silent for a while. When Benjamin remained silent, I said, “I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library. The sense one gets when contemplating an artistic masterwork is concentrated in looking at what effect The Mystical Theology had on a thousand years of wonder.”
He said, “You miss the Middle Ages, don’t you?”
I said, “They’re still around—a bit here, a piece there. On one hand, it’s very romantic to hold something small in your hand and say that it is all that is left of a once great realm. On the other hand, it’s only romantic: it is not the same thing as finding that glory all about you.
“The pain is all the worse when you not only come from a forgotten realm, but you must reckon with the Illusion. It’s like there’s a filter which turns everything grey. It’s not exactly that there’s a sinister hand that forces cooperation with the Illusion and tortures you if you don’t; in some ways things would be simpler if there were. Of course you’re asking for trouble if you show an anachronism in the way you dress, or if you’re so gauche as to speak honestly out of the wisdom of another world and push one of the hot buttons of whatever today’s hot issues are. But beyond that, you don’t have to intentionally cooperate with the Illusion; you can ‘non-conform freely’ and the Illusion freely conforms itself to you. It’s a terribly isolating feeling.”
Benjamin stood up, walked over to a bookshelf, and pulled out an ivory tube. “I have something for you, Morgan. A pair of spectacles.”
“Did you make these?”
“I’m not saying.”
“Why are you giving me eyeglasses? My eyes are fine.”
“Your eyes are weaker than you think.” He waited a moment, and then said, “And these spectacles have a virtue.”
“What is their virtue? What is their power?”
“Please forgive me. As one who has struggled with the Illusion, you know well enough what it means to deeply want to convey something and know that you can’t. Please believe me when I say that I would like to express the answer to your question, but I cannot.”
I left, taking the glasses and both hoping that I was concealing my anger from Benjamin and knowing that I wasn’t.
I arrived at home and disappeared into the labyrinth. A bright lamp, I hoped, would help me understand the spectacles’ power. Had I been in a different frame of mind, I might have enjoyed it; I read an ancient and mostly complete Greek manuscript to The Symbolic Theology to see if it might reveal new insights. My eyes lingered for a moment over the words:
That symbol, as most, has two layers. Yet a symbol could have an infinite number of layers and still be smaller than what is without layer at all.
I had a deep insight of some sort over these words, and the insight is forever lost because I cared only about one thing, finding out what magic power the spectacles held. I tried to read a cuneiform tablet; as usual, the language gave me an embarrassing amount of trouble, and there was something strange about what it said that completely lacked the allure of being exotic. Wishing I had a better command of languages, I moved about from one serpentine passageway to another, looking at places, even improvising on the organ, and enjoying none of it. Everything looked exactly as if I were looking through a children’s toy. Had Benjamin been watching too much Dumbo and given me a magic feather?
After a long and fruitless search, I went up into my house, put the spectacles in your pocket, and sat in my chair, the lights off, fatigued in mind and body. I do not recall know how long I stayed there. I only know that I jumped when the doorbell rang.
It was Amber. She said, “The supermarket had a really good sale on strawberries, and I thought you might like some.”
“Do you have a moment to to come in? I have Coke in the fridge.”
I had to stifle my urge to ask her opinion about the spectacles’ virtue. I did not know her to be more than meets the eye (at least not in the sense that could be said of Benjamin or me), but the Illusion was much weaker in her than in most people, and she seemed to pick up on things that I wished others would as well. We talked for a little while; she described how she took her family to a pizza restaurant and her son “walked up to a soda machine, pushed one of the levers you’re supposed to put your cup against, jumped in startlement when soda fell on his hand, and then began to lick the soda off.”
“I’ve got to get home and get dinner on, but—ooh, you have new glasses in your pocket. Put them on for a moment.”
I put my spectacles on, and she said something to me, but I have no idea what she said. It’s not because I was drained: I was quite drained when she came, but her charm had left me interested in life again. The reason I have no idea what she said to me is that I was stunned at what I saw when I looked at her through the spectacles.
I saw beauty such as I had not begun to guess at. She was clad in a shimmering robe of scintillating colors. In one hand, she was holding a kaliedoscope, which had not semi-opaque colored chips but tiny glass spheres and prisms inside. The other hand embraced a child on her lap, with love so real it could be seen.
After she left, I took the spectacles off, put them in their case, and after miscellaneous nightly activities, went to bed and dreamed dreams both brilliant and intense.
When I woke up, I tried to think about why I had not recognized Amber’s identity before. I closed my eyes and filtered through memories; Amber had given signals of something interesting that I had not picked up on—and she had picked up on things I had given. I thought of myself as one above the Illusion—and here I had accepted the Illusion’s picture of her. Might there be others who were more than meets the eye?
I came to carry the spectacles with me, and look around for a sign of something out of the ordinary. Several days later, I met a tall man with cornrowed greying hair. When I asked him what he studied in college, he first commented on the arbitrariness of divisions between disciplines, before explaining that his discipline of record was philosophy. His thought was a textbook example of postmodernism, but when I put my spectacles on, I saw many translucent layers: each layer, like a ring of an oak, carried a remnant of a bygone age. Then I listened, and his words sounded no less postmodern, but echoes of the Middle Ages were everywhere.
I began to find these people more and more frequently, and require less and less blatant cues.
I sat in the living room, waiting with cans of Coca-Cola. I enjoy travelling in my nephews’ realms; at a prior visit, Nathan discovered a whole realm behind my staircase, and it is my loss that I can only get in when I am with him. Brandon and Nathan had come for the fair that weekend, and I told them I had something neat-looking to show them before I took them to the fair.
I didn’t realize my mistake until they insisted that I wear the spectacles at the fair.
I didn’t mind the charge of public drunkenness that much. It was humiliating, perhaps, but I think at least some humiliations are necessary in life. And I didn’t mind too much that my nephews’ visit was a bummer for them. Perhaps that was unfortunate, but that has long been smoothed over. There were, however, two things that were not of small consequence to me.
The first thing that left me staggered was something in addition to the majesty I saw. I saw a knight, clad in armor forged of solid light, and I saw deep scars he earned warring against dragons. I saw a fair lady who looked beautiful at the skin when seen without the spectacles, and beautiful in layer after layer below the skin when seen with them. The something else I saw in addition to that majesty was that this beauty was something that was not just in a few people, or even many. It was in every single person without exception. That drunken beggar everyone avoided, the one with a stench like a brewery next to a horse stable—I saw his deep and loyal friendships. I saw his generosity with other beggars—please believe me that if you were another beggar, what’s his was yours. I saw the quests he made in his youth. I saw his dreams. I saw his story. Beyond all that, I saw something deeper than any of these, a glory underneath and beneath these things. This glory, however disfigured by his bondage to alcohol, filled me with wonder.
The reason the police kept me in the drunk tank for so long was that I was stunned and reeling. I had always known that I was more than what the Illusion says a person is, and struggled to convey my something more to other people… but I never looked to see how other people could be more than the grey mask the Illusion put on their faces. When I was in the drunk tank, I looked at the other men in wonder and asked myself what magic lay in them, what my spectacles would tell me. The old man with an anchor tattooed to his arm: was he a sailor? Where had he sailed on the seven seas? Had he met mermaids? I almost asked him if he’d found Atlantis, when I decided I didn’t want to prolong the time the police officer thought I was drunk.
This brings me to the second disturbing find, which was that my spectacles were not with me. I assumed this was because the police had locked them away, but even after I was released, determined inquiry found no one who had seen them. They looked interesting, oddly shaped lenses with thick gold frames; had a thief taken them when I was stunned and before the police picked me up?
The next day I began preparing for a quest.
It filled me with excitement to begin searching the black market, both because I hoped to find the spectacles, and because I knew I would experience these people in a completely new light.
I had dealings with the black market before, but it had always been unpleasant: not (let me be clear) because I did not know how to defend myself, or was in too much danger of getting suckered into something dangerous, but because I approached its people concealing the emotions I’d feel touching some kind of fetid slime. Now… I still saw that, but I tried to look and see what I would see if I were wearing my spectacles.
I didn’t find anything that seemed significant. The next leg of my journey entailed a change of venue: I dressed nicely and mingled with the world of jewellers and antique dealers. Nada.
I began to search high and low; I brainstormed about what exotic places it might be, and I found interesting people along the way. The laborers whom I hired to help me search the city dump almost made me forget that I was searching for something, and over time I chose to look for my spectacles in places that would bring me into contact with people I wanted to meet…
Some years later, I was returning from one of my voyages and realized it had been long (too long) since I had spoken with Benjamin. I came and visited him, and told him about the people I’d met. After I had talked for an hour, he put his hand on my mouth and said, “Can I get a word in edgewise?”
I said, “Mmmph mph mmmph mmph.”
He took his hand off my mouth, and I said, “That depends on whether you’re rude enough to put your hand over my mouth in mid-sentence.”
“That depends on whether you’re rude enough to talk for an hour without letting your host get a word in edgewise.”
I stuck my tongue out at him.
He stuck his tongue out at me.
Benjamin opened a box on his desk, opened the ivory case inside the box, and pulled out my spectacles. “I believe these might interest you.” He handed them to me.
I sat in silence. The clock’s ticking seemed to grow louder, until it chimed and we both jumped. Then I looked at him and said, “What in Heaven’s name would I need them for?”
Early in one systematic theology PhD course at Fordham, the text assigned as theology opened by saying, “Theologians are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” Not content with this striking claim, the author announced that she was going to use “a term from science,” thought experiment, which was never used to mean a Gedanken experiment as in physics, but instead meant: if we have an idea for how a society should run, we have to experimentally try out this thought and live with it for a while, because if we don’t, we will never know what would have happened. (“Stick your neck out! What have you got to lose?“—”Your head?”) The clumsiness in this use of “a term from science” was on par with saying that you are going to use “an expression from American English”, namely rabbit food, and subsequently use “rabbit food” as obviously a term meaning food made with rabbit meat.
In this one article were already two things that were fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. Empirical sciences are today’s prestige disciplines, like philosophy / theology / law in bygone eras, and the claim to be a science seems to inevitably be how to mediate prestige to oneself and one’s own discipline. When I had earlier run into claims of, “Anthropologists are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences,’ like physics,” I had winced because the claim struck me as not only annoying and untrue, but self-demeaning. But it simply had not occurred to me that theologians would make such a claim, and when they did, I was not only shocked but embarrassed: why should theology, once acclaimed the queen of scholarly disciplines, now seek prestige by parroting the claim to be every-bit-as-much-a-science-as-the-so-called-“hard-sciences”-like-physics (where “so-called” seemed to always be part of the claim, along with the scare quotes around “hard sciences”)? To make my point clearer, I drew what was meant to be a shocking analogy: the claim that theologians are “scientists, and every bit as much as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics” was like trying to defend the dignity of being a woman by saying, “Women are male, and they are just as much male as people who can sire a child.”
This “physics envy” looks particularly strange next to the medieval Great Chain of Being as it moved from the highest to the lowest: “God, Angels, Man, Animals, Plants, Rocks, Nothing”. Theology is the study of God and Man; no discipline is given a more noble field. And however much other disciplines may have “physics envy”, no other discipline looks lower than physics, the science that studies Rocks and Nothing. There may be something pathetic about an anthropologist trying to step up on the pecking order by claiming to be “just as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” Yet on the lips of a theologian, it bears a faint hint of a CEO absurdly saying, “CEOs are janitors, and they are every bit as much janitors as the people responsible for cleaning wastebaskets.”
Furthermore, the endemic claim I saw to introduce a “term from science” was, so far as I could remember:
Rarely if ever used in any correct fashion.The one exception I can remember being Wolfhart Pannenberg’s illustration of a point by talking about fields such as one finds in the study of electricity and magnetism: the non-scientist theologians in the room said they were having real trouble understanding the illustration conceptually, which would make it seem somewhat dubious as an illustration to help get a point across.
Always reflect an effort to claim some of science’s prestige.I remember the “you’re being quaint” smiles I got when I suggested that a point that Pannenberg was trying to make by comparing something to a field as defined in physics, seemed in fact to be a point that could have been much better made by a comparison to the Force from Star Wars.Why the patronizing smiles? The job of the example from physics was to mediate prestige as well as to illustrate a concept that could have been better explained without involving a particularly slippery concept from physics.
A first response
Examples of this kind of “science” abounded, and I was perhaps not wise enough to realize that my clumsy attempts to clarify various misrepresentations of science were perhaps not well received because I was stepping on the Dark and Shameful Secret of Not Being Scientific Enough, and reminding them of an inferiority they were trying hard to dodge. And my attempts to explain “Not being a scientist does not make you inferior” seemed to have no soil in which to grow. In an attempt to start an online discussion, I wrote a piece called “Rumor Science”:
I really wish the theology students I knew would either know a lot more about science, or a lot less, and I really wouldn’t consider “a lot less” to be disappointing.
Let me explain why. When I was working on my master’s in math, there was one passage in particular that struck me from Ann Wilson Schaef’s Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System. Perhaps predictably given my being a mathematician in training, it was a remark about numbers, or rather about how people interact with numbers.
The author broke people down into more or less three groups of people. The first—she mentioned artists—was people that can’t count to twenty without taking off their shoes. She didn’t quite say that, but she emphasized artists and other people where math and numbers simply aren’t part of their consciousness. They don’t buy into the mystique. And they can say, and sincerely mean, that numbers don’t measure everything. They aren’t seriously tempted to believe otherwise.
The second group—she mentioned business people—consists of people for whom math works. Even if they’re not mathematicians, math works for them and does useful things, and they may say that numbers don’t measure anything, but it is well nigh impossible to believe—saying and meaning that numbers don’t measure everything is like saying that cars are nice but they can’t get you places.
And the third group in the progression? She mentioned scientists, but what she said was that they know math in and out and know it so well that they know its limitations and therefore they can say and mean that numbers don’t measure everything. And in the end, even though the “scientist” and the “artist” represent opposite extremes of mathematical competence, they both know there are things numbers can’t measure while the second, middle group for mathematical competence are in a position where they expect numbers to do things that numbers can’t do.
I was flattered, but I really think it stuck with me for more reasons than just the fact that she included me in one of the “good” groups. There is a sort of Karate Kid observation—”Karate is like a road. Know karate, safe. Don’t know karate, safe. In the middle, squash, like a grape!”—that is relevant to theology and science. It has to do with, among other things, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the question of evolution, and the like (perhaps I should mention the second law of thermodynamics). My point in this is not that there is an obligation to “know karate”, that theologians need to earn degrees in the sciences before they are qualified to work as theologians, but that there is something perfectly respectable about “don’t know karate.”
I’d like to start by talking about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Now a lot of people have heard about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Not many major mathematical theorems have had a Pulitzer prize-winning book written around them (and by the way, Gödel, Escher, Bach has been one of my favorite books). Nor do many theorems get summarized in Newsweek as an important theorem which demonstrates that mathematical “proofs” are not certain, but mathematical knowledge is as relative as any other knowledge.
Which is a crass error. The theological equivalent would be to say that Karl Barth’s unflattering remarks about “religion” are anti-Christian, or that liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor means that special concern for the poor is optional and to be dealt with according to personal preference. And saying that about liberation theology is a theological “squash like a grape,” because it is better to not know liberation theology and know you don’t know than believe that you understand liberation theology and “know” that the word “option” implies “optional.” It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, but what you know that ain’t so.
For the record, what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem means is that for a certain branch of mathematics, there are things that can be neither proven nor disproven—which made his theorem a shocker when there was a Tower of Babel effort to prove or disprove pretty much anything. It proves that some things can never be proven within certain systems. And it has other implications. But it does not mean that things that are proven in mathematics are uncertain, or that mathematical knowledge is relative. It says you can’t prove everything a mathematician would want to prove. But there are still lots and lots and lots of interesting things that can be proven, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem does not touch these proofs, nor does it mean that mathematical knowledge is merely relative in humanities fashion.
And I’d like to mention what happens when I mention Gödel’s Completeness Theorem:
The same great mathematical logician proved another theorem, which does not have a Pulitzer prize winning book, which says that in one other branch of mathematics, besides the branch that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem speaks to, you can have pretty much what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says you can’t have in the other branch. In other words, you can—mechanically, for that matter, which is a big mathematical achievement—either prove or disprove every single statement. I’m not sure it’s as important as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but it’s a major theorem from the same mathematician and no one’s heard of it.
There would seem to be obvious non-mathematical reasons for why people would want to be informed about the first theorem and not want to mention the second. I consider it telling (about non-mathematical culture). I know it may be considered a mark of sophistication to mention Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and share how it’s informed your epistemology. But it hasn’t informed my epistemology and I really can’t tell how my theology would be different if I hadn’t heard of it. And my understanding is that other mathematicians tend not to have the highest view of people who are trying to take account of scientific discoveries that an educated person “should” know. There are other reasons for this, including goofy apologetics that make the famous theorem a proof for God. But I at least would rather talk with someone who simply hadn’t heard of the theorem than a theologian who had tried to make a “responsible” effort to learn from the discovery.
And my main example is one I’m less sure how to comment on, and not only because I know less biology than math. There was one almost flippant moment in England when the curate asked if anybody had questions about the upcoming Student Evolution conference that everybody was being urged to attend. I asked, “Is this ‘Student Evolution’ more of a gradual process, or more a matter of ‘punk eek’?” (That question brought down the house.)
Punctuated equilibrium, irreverently abbreviated ‘punk eek’, is a very interesting modification of Darwinian theory. Darwinian evolution in its early forms posits and implies a gradual process of very slow changes—almost constant over very long (“geological”) time frames. And that is a beautiful theory that flatly contracts almost all known data.
As explained by my Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy biology teacher, “Evolution is like baseball. It has long stretches of boring time interrupted by brief periods of intense excitement.” That’s punk eek in a nutshell, and what interests me most is that it’s the mirror image of saying “God created the world—through evolution!” It says, “Evolution occurred—through punctuated equilibrium!”
That’s not the only problem; evolution appears to be, in Kuhnian terms (Structure of Scientific Revolutions), a theory “in crisis”, which is the Kuhnian term for when a scientific theory is having serious difficulties accounting for currently given data and may well be on its way out the door. There are several ways people are trying to cope with this—preserving some semblance of a materialist explanation; there was the same kind of resistance going on before science acknowledged the Big Bang, because scientists who want a universe without cause and without beginning or creator heard something that sounded too much like “Let there be light!” They’re very interesting, and intellectually dishonest.
Now I need to clarify; people seem to think you have to either be a young earth creationist or else admit evolution of some stripe. I believe in 13 billion years as the rough age of the universe, not six thousand years; I also believe in natural selection and something called “micro-evolution.” (By the way, JPII’s “more than a hypothesis” was in the original French “plus qu’un hypothèse“, alternately translatable as “more than one hypothesis”, and the official Vatican translation takes this reading. One can say that micro-evolution is one of the hypothesis gathered under the heading of evolution.)
I wince when I see theologians trying their dutiful best to work out an obligation to take evolution into account as a proven fact: squash, like a grape. It’s not just that science doesn’t trade in proof and evolution is being treated like a revelation, as if a Pope had consulted the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences and canonized The Origin of the Species as a book of the Bible. Or maybe that’s putting it too strongly. It would also be strong language to say that many theologians are adopting a carefully critical attitude to classic Church claims and part of their being critical means placing an embarrassingly blind faith in evolution. But that’s truer than I’d want to admit.
What about the second law of thermodynamics?
I don’t know what the first and third laws of thermodynamics say, and I can’t say that I’m missing anything. I don’t feel obligated to make the second law, which I am familiar with, a feature of my theology, but if I did, I would try to understand the first and third laws of thermodynamics, and treat it as physics in which those three laws and presumably other things fit into a system that needs to be treated as a whole. I don’t know how I would incorporate that in my theology, but I’m supposing for the sake of argument that I would. I would rather avoid treating it the way people usually seem to treat it when they treat that as one of the things that educated people “should” know.
I guess that my point in all of this is that some people think there’s a duty to know science and be scientific in theology, but this is a duty better shirked. My theology is—or I would like it to be—closer to that of someone who doesn’t understand science, period, than that of people who try to improve their theology by incorporating what they can grasp of difficult scientific concepts that the scientists themselves learned with difficulty.
Rumor science is worse than no science, and an ascientific theology is not a handicap. When I say that I would rather see theologians know either much more or much less science, I’m not hoping that theologians will therefore get scientific degrees. The chief merit for a theologian to know science is that it can be a source of liberation that frees people from thinking “We live in a scientific age so it would be better for theology to be scientific.” I’m not sure I would be able to question that assumption if I knew much less science. But what I believe that buys me is not a better theology than someone scientifically innocent but freedom from the perceived need to “take science into account” in my theology so I can do the same kind of theology as someone scientifically innocent.
I’m not as sure what to say about ecological theology; I wrote Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth at without scientific reference that I remember, and I believe there are other human ways of knowing Creation besides science. But an ecological theologian who draws on scientific studies is not trying to honor a duty to understand things an educated person should know, but pursuing something materially relevant. Science has some place; religion and science boundary issues are legitimate, and I don’t know I can dissuade people who think it’s progressive to try to make a scientific theology—although I really wish people with that interest would get letters after their name from a science discipline, or some other form of genuinely proper scientific credentials appropriate to a genuinely scientific theology.
There are probably other exceptions, and science is interesting. But there is no obligation to go from safely on one side of the road to a position in the middle because it is “closer” to a proper understanding of science. Perhaps liberation theologians want people to understand their cause, but it is better not to pretend to know liberation theology than to approach it in a way that leaves you “knowing” that the preferential option is optional. It isn’t what you know that hurts you, but what you know that ain’t so—and rumor science, with its accepted list of important scientific knowledge that scholars need to take into account, is one way to learn from what ain’t so.
Science is the prestige discipline(s) today; you see psychology wishing for its Newton to lead it into the promised land of being a science in the fullest sense of the term. You don’t see psychology pining for a Shakespeare to lead it into the promised land of being a humanity in the fullest sense of the term. And the social disciplines—I intentionally do not say social sciences because they are legitimate academic disciplines but not sciences—are constantly insisting that their members are scientists, but the claim that theologians are scientists annoys me as a scientist and almost offends me as a theologian. It should be offensive for much the same reason that it should be offensive to insist on female dignity by claiming that women are really male, and that they are just as much male as people who can sire a child.
It would be an interesting theological work to analyze today’s cultural assumptions surrounding science, which are quite important and not dictated by scientific knowledge itself, and then come to almost the same freedom as someone innocent of science.
“My theology,” ewwww. (While I was at it, why didn’t I discuss plans for my own private sun and moon? I’m not proud of proudly discussing “my theology”.) I know the text has a wart or two.
But the piece contains a suggestion: “rumor science” may be a red flag to a real problem in the place we give science.
Pondering Einstein, or at least dropping his name
That work left out the crowning jewel of scientific theories to ponder in “rumor science”: Einstein’s “theory of relativity.” Some time later, in my science fiction short story / Socratic dialogue, The Steel Orb, I wrote in fiction something that picked up what I had left out:
Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”
Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”
Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”
Art hesitated, and began to sit up.
Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”
Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.
Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”
Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”
Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”
“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”
“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.
“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the microscopically small difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”
“Um, I don’t know…”
“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”
“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”
“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”
“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”
“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”
“Rumor science”: The tip of an iceberg?
But I would like to get on to something that is of far greater concern than “rumor science” as it treats Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the second law of thermodynamics, relativity, evolution, and so on. If the only problem was making a bit of a hash of some scientific theories, that would be one thing. But “rumor science” may be the tip of an iceberg, a telling clue that something may be seriously amiss in how theology has been relating to science. There is another, far more serious boundary issue.
There is something about the nature of academic theology today that may become clearer if we ask questions about the nature of knowledge and line up academic theology with Orthodoxy on the one hand and modern science on the other. The table below lists a few questions connected with knowledge, and then a comparison between Orthodox Christianity, academic theology, and modern science in their own columns:
What is knowledge like?
“Adam knew Eve…” The primary word in the Old and New Testaments for sexual union is in fact ‘know’, and this is a significant clue about the intimate nature of knowledge. Knowledge is, at its core, the knowledge that drinks. It connects at a deepest level, and is cognate to how Orthodox say of the Holy Mysteries, “We have seen the true Light!”: to receive the Eucharist is to know.
Knowledge is critical, meaning detached: the privileged position is of the outsider who stands clear of a situation and looks into a window. The devout believer enjoys no real advantage in grasping his religion compared to the methodical observer who remains detached—and the ordinary believer may be at a marked disadvantage.
You can’t know how stars age or the limitations of the ideal gas law from direct personal experience. Science stems from a rationalism cognate to the Enlightenment, and even if one rebels against the Enlightenment, it’s awfully hard to know quarks and leptons solely by the intimacy of personal experience.
What aspect of yourself do you know with?
This may not be part of the standard Western picture, but the Orthodox, non-materialist understanding of mind holds that there is a sort of “spiritual eye” which knows and which grasps spiritual realities as overflow to its central purpose of worshiping God. The center of gravity for knowing is this spiritual eye, and it is the center of a whole and integrated person. Logical and other “discursive” reasoning may have a place, but the seat of this kind of reasoning is a moon next to the light of the sun which is the spiritual eye, the nous.
Good scholarship comes from putting all other aspects of the person in their place and enthroning the part of us that reasons logically and almost putting the logic bit on steroids. Continental philosophy may rebel against this, but it rebels after starting from this point.
We have a slightly more rigorous use of primarily logical reasoning and a subject domain that allows this reasoning to shine.
What should teachers cultivate in their students?
Teachers should induce students into discipleship and should be exemplary disciples themselves.
They should train students who will not be content with their teachers’ interpretations but push past to their own takes on the matter.
They should train students to develop experiments and theories to carefully challenge the “present working picture” in their field.
What is tradition, and how does your tradition relate to knowing?
One may be not so much underTradition as in Tradition: Tradition is like one’s culture or language, if a culture and language breathed on by the Holy Spirit of God. Though the matrix of Tradition need not be viewed with legalistic fundamentalism, it is missing something important to fail to love and revere Tradition as something of a mother.
Something of the attitude is captured in what followed the telling of an anecdote about a New Testament Greek class where the professor had difficulties telling how to read a short text, until a classics student looked and suggested that the difficulty would evaporate if the text were read with a different set of accents from what scholars traditionally assigned it. The Greek professor’s response (“Accents are not inspired!”) was presented by the academic theologian retelling this story as full warrant to suggest that scholars should not view themselves as bound by tradition with its blind spots.
As Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman observed, “You get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment.”
How much emphasis do you place on creativity?
It reflects some degree of fundamental confusion to measure the value of what someone says by how original it is. That which is true is not original, and that which is original is not true. Perhaps people may uncover new layers of meaning, but to measure someone by how many ideas he can claim as “mine” is a strange measure.
Publish something original, or perish. Better to say something original but not true than not have any ideas to claim as “mine.” If need be, rehabilitate Arius or Nestorius. (Or, if you are Orthodox, meet current fashions halfway and show that St. Augustine need not be a whipping boy.)
Continue to push the envelope. Are you an experimental physicist? If you cannot observe anything new by the layman’s means of observation, pioneer new equipment or a clever experiment to push the envelope of what can be observed. Publish something original or perish.
Where does your discipline place its empiricism?
There is a very real sense of empiricism, albeit a sense that has very little directly to do with empirical science. Knowledge is what you know through the “spiritual eye” and it is a knowledge that can only be realized through direct participation. An “idle word” may be a word of that which you do not have this knowledge of, and this sin would appear to be foundational to the empiricism of science. We really do have an empiricism, but it might be better not to engender pointless confusion by claiming to be empirical when the empiricism known to the academy is pre-eminently that of empirical science, whether it is either actual or aspiring science.
Theologians are just as empirical as physicists, whether or not they know basic statistics. We have such quasi-scientific empiricism as can be had for the human and divine domain we cover; there is a great deal of diversity, and some of us do not place much emphasis on the empiricism of science, but some of us have enough of scientific empiricism to do history work that stands its ground when judged by secular history’s standards.
As much as theology’s empiricism is the empiricism of a knowledge of the “spiritual eye” and the whole person, our empiricism is an empiricism of detached, careful, methodical, reasoned investigation—the investigation of the reasoning faculty on steroids. Our science exhibits professionalism and a particular vision of intellectual virtue. Our empiricism corresponds to this vision, and no one has pushed this empiricism of the reasoning faculty further, and the unique technology founded on science is a testament to how far we have pushed this kind of empiricism.
When they are lined up, academic theology appears to have a great many continuities with science and a real disconnect with Orthodox Christianity. Could academic theologians feel an inferiority complex about Not Being Scientific Enough? Absolutely. But the actual problem may be that they are entirely too scientific. I am less concerned that their theology is not sufficiently scientific than that it is not sufficiently theological.
Origins questions: can we dig deeper?
It is along those lines that I have taken something of the track of “join the enemy’s camp to show its weaknesses from within” in exposing the blind spots of Darwinism, for instance. In the theologically driven short story The Commentary, the issue is not really whether Darwinism is correct at all. The question is not whether we should be content with Darwinian answers, but whether we should be content with Darwinian questions.
Martin stepped into his house and decided to have no more distractions. He wanted to begin reading commentary, now. He opened the book on the table and sat erect in his chair:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The reader is now thinking about evolution. He is wondering whether Genesis 1 is right, and evolution is simply wrong, or whether evolution is right, and Genesis 1 is a myth that may be inspiring enough but does not actually tell how the world was created.
All of this is because of a culture phenomenally influenced by scientism and science. The theory of evolution is an attempt to map out, in terms appropriate to scientific dialogue, just what organisms occurred, when, and what mechanism led there to be new kinds of organisms that did not exist before. Therefore, nearly all Evangelicals assumed, Genesis 1 must be the Christian substitute for evolution. Its purpose must also be to map out what occurred when, to provide the same sort of mechanism. In short, if Genesis 1 is true, then it must be trying to answer the same question as evolution, only answering it differently.
Darwinian evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” Evolution is on philosophical grounds not a true answer to that question, because it is not an answer to that question at all. Even if it is true, evolution is only an answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” If someone asks, “Why is there this life that we see?” and someone answers, “Evolution,” it is like someone saying, “Why is the kitchen light on?” and someone else answering, “Because the switch is in the on position, thereby closing the electrical circuit and allowing current to flow through the bulb, which grows hot and produces light.”
Where the reader only sees one question, an ancient reader saw at least two other questions that are invisible to the present reader. As well as the question of “How?” that evolution addresses, there is the question of “Why?” and “What function does it serve?” These two questions are very important, and are not even considered when people are only trying to work out the antagonism between creationism and evolutionism.
Martin took a deep breath. Was the text advocating a six-day creationism? That was hard to tell. He felt uncomfortable, in a much deeper way than if Bible-thumpers were preaching to him that evolutionists would burn in Hell.
There is a hint here of why some people who do not believe in a young earth are no less concerned about young earth creationism: the concern is not exactly that it is junk science, but precisely that it is too scientific, assuming many of evolutionary theory’s blindnesses even as it asserts the full literal truth of the Bible in answering questions on the terms of what science asks of an origins theory.
There is an Dilbert strip which goes as follows:
Pointy-haired boss: I’m sending you to Elbonia to teach a class on Cobol on Thursday.
Dilbert: But I don’t know Cobol. Can’t you ask Wally? He knows Cobol!
Pointy-haired boss: I already checked, and he’s busy on Thursday.
Dilbert: Can’t you reschedule?
Pointy-haired boss: Ok, are you free on Tuesday?
Dilbert: You’re answering the wrong question!
Dilbert’s mortified, “You’re answering the wrong question!” has some slight relevance the issues of religion and science: in my homily, Two Decisive Moments I tried to ask people to look, and aim, higher:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”
I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.
Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.
It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!”
What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!
Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.
An icon of the Resurrection.
Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.
Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!
Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”
Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.
I wince at the idea that for theologians “boundary issues” are mostly about demonstrating the compatibility of timeless revealed truths to the day’s state of flux in scientific speculation. I wince that theologians so often assume that the biggest contribution they can give to the dialogue between theology and science is the rubber stamp of perennially agreeing with science. I would decisively prefer that when theologians “approach religion and science boundary issues,” we do so as boundaries are understood in pop psychology—and more specifically bad pop psychology—which is all about you cannot meaningfully say “Yes” until it is your practice to say “No” when you should say “No”: what theology needs in its boundaries with science is not primarily a question of what else we should seek to embrace, but of where theology has ingested things toxic to its constitution.
What gets lost when theology loses track (by which I do not mean primarily rumor science, but the three columns where theology seemed a colony of science that had lost touch with Orthodox faith) is that when theology assumes the character of science, it loses the character of theology.
The research for my diploma thesis at Cambridge had me read a lot of historical-critical commentary on a relevant passage; I read everything I could find on the topic in Tyndale House’s specialized library, and something became painfully obvious. When a good Protestant sermon uses historical or cultural context to illuminate a passage from Scripture, the preacher has sifted through pearls amidst sand, and the impression that cultural context offers a motherlode of gold to enrich our understanding of the Bible is quite contrary to the historical-critical commentaries I read, which read almost like phone books in their records of details I’d have to stretch to use to illuminate the passage. The pastor’s discussion of context in a sermon is something like an archivist who goes into a scholar’s office, pulls an unexpected book, shows that it is surprisingly careworn and dog-eared, and discusses how the three longest underlined passage illuminate the scholar’s output. But the historical-critical commentary itself is like an archivist who describes in excruciating detail the furniture and ornaments in the author’s office and the statistics about the size and weight among books the scholar owned in reams of (largely uninterpreted) detail.
And what is lost in this careful scholarship? Perhaps what is lost is why we have Bible scholarship in the first place: it is a divinely given book and a support to life in Christ. If historical-critical scholarship is your (quasi-scientific) approach to theology, you won’t seek in your scholarship what I sought in writing my (non-scientific) Doxology:
How shall I praise thee, O Lord?
For naught that I might say,
Nor aught that I may do,
Compareth to thy worth.
Thou art the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named,
The Glory for whom all glory is named,
The Treasure for whom treasures are named,
The Light for whom all light is named,
The Love for whom all love is named,
The Eternal by whom all may glimpse eternity,
The Being by whom all beings exist,
The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
Who art eternally praised,
Who art all that thou canst be,
Greater than aught else that may be thought,
Greater than can be thought.
In thee is light,
In thee is honour,
In thee is mercy,
In thee is wisdom, and praise, and every good thing.
For good itself is named after thee,
God immeasurable, immortal, eternal, ever glorious, and humble.
What mighteth compare to thee?
What praise equalleth thee?
If I be fearfully and wonderfully made,
Only can it be,
Wherewith thou art fearful and wonderful,
And ten thousand things besides,
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,
What tongue mighteth sing of thee?
What noetic heart mighteth know thee,
With the knowledge that drinketh,
The drinking that knoweth,
Of the νους,
The loving, enlightened spiritual eye,
By which we may share the knowing,
Of divinised men joining rank on rank of angel.
The Hidden Transcendent God who transcendest transcendence itself,
The One God who transfigurest Creation,
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God,
The divine became man that man mighteth become divine.
Monty Python and Christian theology
I would like to start winding down with a less uplifting note. A few years back, I visited a friend who was a Christian and a big Monty Python fan and played for me a Monty Python clip:
God: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.
God: And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy’. What are you doing now!?
Arthur: I’m averting my eyes, O Lord.
God: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms—they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!
This is blasphemous, and I tried to keep my mouth shut about what my host had presented to me, I thought, for my rollicking laughter. But subsequent conversation showed I had misjudged his intent: he had not intended it to be shockingly funny.
He had, in fact, played the clip because it was something that he worried about: did God, in fact, want to give grumbling complaints about moments when my friend cried out to him in prayer? Does prayer annoy our Lord as an unwelcome intrusion from people who should have a little dignity and leave him alone or at least quit sniveling?
This is much more disturbing than merely playing the clip because you find it funny to imagine God bitterly kvetching when King Arthur tries to show him some respect. If it is actually taken as theology, Monty Python is really sad.
And it is not the best thing to be involved in Monty Python as theology.
One can whimsically imagine an interlocutor encountering some of the theology I have seen and trying to generously receive it in the best of humor: “A book that promises scientific theology in its title and goes on for a thousand pages of trajectories for other people to follow before a conclusion that apologizes for not actually getting on to any theology? You have a real sense of humor! Try to avoid imposing Christianity on others and start from the common ground of what all traditions across the world have in common, that non-sectarian common ground being the Western tradition of analytic philosophy? Roaringly funny! Run a theological anthropology course that tells how liberationists, feminists, queer theorists, post-colonialists, and so on have to say to the Christian tradition and does not begin to investigate what the Christian tradition has to say to them? You should have been a comedian! Yoke St. Gregory of Nyssa together with a lesbian deconstructionist like Judith Butler to advance the feminist agenda of gender fluidity? You’re really giving Monty Python a run for their money!“… until it gradually dawns on our interlocutor that the lewd discussion of sexual theology is not in any sense meant as an attempt to eclipse Monty Python. (Would our interlocutor spend the night weeping for lost sheep without a shepherd?)
There are many more benign examples of academic theology; many of even the problems may be slightly less striking. But theology that gives the impression that it could be from Monty Python is a bit of a dead (coal miner’s) canary.
Scientific theology does not appear to be blame for all of these, but it is not irrelevant. Problems that are not directly tied to (oxymoronic) scientific theology are usually a complication of (oxymoronic) secular theology, and scientific theology and secular theology are deeply enough intertwined.
The question of evolution is important, and it is no error that a figure like Philip Johnson gives neo-Darwinian evolution pride of place in assessing materialist attacks on religion. But it is not an adequate remedy to merely study intelligent design. Not enough by half.
If theology could, like bad pop psychology, conceive of its “boundary issues” not just in terms of saying “Yes” but of learning to stop saying “Yes” when it should say “No”, this would be a great gain. So far as I have seen, the questions about boundaries with science are primarily not scientific ideas theology needs to assimilate, but ways theology has assimilated some very deep characteristics of science that are not to its advantage. The question is less about what more could be added, than what more could be taken away. And the best way to do this is less the Western cottage industry of worldview construction than a journey of repentance such as one still finds preached in Eastern Christianity and a good deal of Christianity in the West.
A journey of repentance
Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Repentance has been called unconditional surrender, and it has been called the ultimate experience to fear. But when you surrender what you thought was your ornament and joy, you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” And with letting go comes hands that are free to grasp joy you never thought to ask. Forgiveness is letting go of the other person and finding it is yourself you have set free; repentance is being terrified of letting go and then finding you have let go of needless pain. Repentance is indeed Heaven’s best-kept secret; it opens doors.
I have doubt whether academic theology will open the door of repentance; it is a beginner’s error to be the student who rushes in to single-handedly sort out what a number of devout Christian theologians see no way to fix. But as for theologians, the door of repentance is ever ready to open, and with it everything that the discipline of theology seeks in vain here using theories from the humanities, there trying to mediate prestige to itself science. Academic theologians who are, or who become, theologians in a more ancient sense find tremendous doors of beauty and joy open to them. The wondrous poetry of St. Ephrem the Syrian is ever open; the liturgy of the Church is open; the deifying rays of divine grace shine ever down upon those open to receiving tem and upon those not yet open. The Western understanding is that the door to the Middle Ages has long since been closed and the age of the Church Fathers was closed much earlier; but Orthodox will let you become a Church Father, here now. Faithful people today submit as best they are able to the Fathers before them, as St. Maximus Confessor did ages ago. There may be problems with academic theology today, but the door to theology in the classic sense is never closed, as in the maxim that has rumbled through the ages, “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” Perhaps academic theology is not the best place to be equipped to be a giant like the saintly theologians of ages past. But that does not mean that one cannot become a saintly theologian as in ages past. God can still work with us, here now.
Trinity! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of Heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
They pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
They completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.
Socrates: And now, let me give an illustration to show how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! a human being in a darkened den, who has a slack jaw towards only source of light in the den; this is where he has gravitated since his childhood, and though his legs and neck are not chained or restrained any way, yet he scarcely turns round his head. In front of him are images from faroff, projected onto a flickering screen. And others whom he cannot see, from behind their walls, control the images like marionette players manipulating puppets. And there are many people in such dens, some isolated one way, some another.
Glaucon: I see.
Socrates: And do you see, I said, the flickering screen showing men, and all sorts of vessels, and statues and collectible animals made of wood and stone and various materials, and all sorts of commercial products which appear on the screen? Some of them are talking, and there is rarely silence.
Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Socrates: Much like us. And they see only their own images, or the images of one another, as they appear on the screen opposite them?
Glaucon: True, he said; how could they see anything but the images if they never chose to look anywhere else?
Socrates: And they would know nothing about a product they buy, except for what brand it is?
Socrates: And if they were able to converse with one another, wouldn’t they think that they were discussing what mattered?
Glaucon: Very true.
Socrates: And suppose further that the screen had sounds which came from its side, wouldn’t they imagine that they were simply hearing what people said?
Glaucon: No question.
Socrates: To them, the truth would be literally nothing but those shadowy things we call the images.
Glaucon: That is certain.
Socrates: And now look again, and see what naturally happens next: the prisoners are released and are shown the truth. At first, when any of them is liberated and required to suddenly stand up and turn his neck around, and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the images; and then imagine someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is asking him to things, not as they are captured on the screen, but in living color -will he not be perplexed? Won’t he imagine that the version which he used to see on the screen are better and more real than the objects which are shown to him in real life?
Glaucon: Far better.
Socrates: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
Glaucon: True, he now will.
Socrates: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and hindered in his self-seeking until he’s forced to think about someone besides himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? He will find that he cannot simply live life as he sees fit, and he will not have even the illusion of finding comfort by living for himself.
Glaucon: Not all in a moment, he said.
Socrates: He will require time and practice to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the billboards best, next the product lines he has seen advertised, and then things which are not commodities; then he will talk with adults and children, and will he know greater joy in having services done to him, or will he prefer to do something for someone else?
Socrates: Last of he will be able to search for the One who is greatest, reflected in each person on earth, but he will seek him for himself, and not in another; and he will live to contemplate him.
Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and is absolutely the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Glaucon: Clearly, he said, his mind would be on God and his reasoning towards those things that come from him.
Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
Glaucon: Certainly, he would.
Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe what was happening in the world of brands and what new features were marketed, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master” than to reign as king of this Hell, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
Glaucon: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness, and seem simply not to get it?
Glaucon: To be sure.
Socrates: And in conversations, and he had to compete in one-upsmanship of knowing the coolest brands with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went with his eyes and down he came without them; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would give him an extremely heavy cross to bear.
Glaucon: No question. Then is the saying, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king,” in fact false?
Socrates: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is crucified. Dear Glaucon, you may now add this entire allegory to the discussion around a matter; the den arranged around a flickering screen is deeply connected to the world of living to serve your pleasures, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the spiritual transformation which alike may happen in the monk keeping vigil or the mother caring for children, the ascent of the soul into the world of spiritual realities according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the Source of goodness appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
Glaucon: I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.
I included Aristotle’s Physics when I originally posted An Orthodox Bookshelf, then read most of the text and decided that even if the Fathers’ science was largely Aristotelian physics, reading the original source is here less helpful than it might appear. The Fathers believed in elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and these elements are mentioned in the Theophany Vespers, which are one of the primary Orthodox texts on how the cosmos is understood. However, even if these are found in Aristotelian physics, the signal to noise ratio for patristic understanding of science is dismal: Aristotle’s Physics could be replaced with a text one tenth its length and still furnish everything the Fathers take from it.
I would like to take a moment to pause in looking at the word “physics.” It is true enough that historically Aristotelian physics was replaced by Newton, who in turn gave way to Einstein, and then quantum physics entered the scene, and now we have superstring theory. And in that caricatured summary, “physics” seems to mean what it means for superstring theory. But I want to pause on the word “physics.” Orthodox know that non-Orthodox who ask, “What are your passions?” may get a bit more of an earful than they bargained for. “Passions” is not a word Orthodox use among themselves for nice hobbies and interests they get excited about; it means a sinful habit that has carved out a niche for itself to become a spiritual disease. And “physics”, as I use it, is not a competitor to superstring theory; etymologically it means, “of the nature of things,” I would quote C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.“
The stars in the icon are connected with the six-winged seraphim, the highest rank of angels. The Heavens are an icon of Heaven, and the icon says something very different than, “What are stars if we view them as reductionists do?”
And this article is not intended to compete with physics as it is now understood, or to defend patristic Aristotelian physics against its challengers, or to demonstrate the compatibility of theology with the present state of scientific speculation: words that I choose carefully, because theology is about divine revealed doctrine while science is the present state of speculation in a very careful system of educated guesses, and scientific theories will not stop being discarded for newer alternatives until science is dead. It is therefore somewhat of a strange matter to demonstrate the compatibility of theology with science, as conforming timeless revealed doctrines to the present best educated guess that is meant to be discarded.
Of the nature of things
The central mystery in the nature of things is the divine nature. No man can see God and live, and the divine essence is not knowable to any creature. The divine energies are available, and indeed can deify creation, but the central mystery around which all else revolves is God’s unknowable essence and nature.
This is the central mystery around which everything else revolves, but the divine essence is not part of a larger system, even as its largest part. God lies beyond the created order, and perhaps the greatest failure of Aristotelian physics to understand the nature of things lies in its tendency towards materialism, its sense that you understand things by looking down. Some have said, in introducing Michael Polanyi’s theories of personal knowledge, that behavioralism in psychology does not teach, “There is no soul;” rather, it induces students into investigation in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never even considered. And Aristotelian physics started a trajectory that has lingered even when the specifics of Aristotelian physics were considered to be overturned: you understand the nature of things by looking at them materially. Aristotelian physics, in asking, “What is the nature of this?” leads the listener so as to never even consider an answer of, “Because that is how it functions as a satellite of God.” And the entire phusis or nature of every created being is as a satellite of God: the atheist who says “The very notion of a God is incoherent,” does so with the breath of God.
Headship and harmony with nature
Many Westerners may identify the goal of harmony with nature with the East, but the concept as we have it is essentially Western in nature. Orthodox monasticism may look a lot like harmony with nature to the West: it often takes place in rustic surroundings, and animals are not afraid of monastics: deer will eat from a monk’s hand. But there is a fundamental difference between this and the Western concept of harmony with nature: the harmony does not come from our taking out cue from plants and animals. Monks and nuns are to take their cue from God, and harmony with animals comes from how they take their cue from God.
All creation bears some resemblance to God, and God himself is called the Rock. For every creature there is a logos or idea in God’s heart, that is what that creature should strive to be. But there is a distinction among creation. Some are given the image of God: men and angels, and we exist in a fuller and deeper sense than creatures that do not bear such an image. God exists in a unique and deepest sense, and if we say that God exists, we cannot say that we exist in the same sense, and if we say that we exist, we cannot say that God exists in the same sense. Those who are given the image, who have a human or angelic mind, are more fully nature than those creatures who have do not exist in the same way on the same level. And we who bear the royal image, even if liturgical ascesis removes barriers between us and the rest of Creation, are to take our cue from God our head.
Getting past “the politics of envy”
The concept of headship is a difficult and perhaps touchy one, not least because the only place where people think it applies is the husband being the head of the wife. But it is written into the cosmos in larger letters. St. Maximus the Confessor spoke of five divisions that are to be transcended:
The inhabited world
All these differences are ultimately to be transcended, and many more not listed. But the project of transcending them assumes there are differences to start off with, which we do not transcend by closing our eyes and pretending they are not there. And this feature of creation runs aground what might be called “the politics of envy”, whose central feature is an equality that boils down to saying, “I don’t want anybody to be better than me.”
And this brings me to the point of inequality. Not only are the politics of envy toxic, but unequal treatment bears something that the politics of envy would never imagine. The kindest and most courteous acts are most often not those that treat the other as an equal, but those that treat the other as not equal. The man who buys six dozen roses for his wife does not treat her as an equal: the thought would not occur to him to buy six dozen roses for one of his fellow workmen. The mother who holds and comforts a child after a scrape extends a courtesy that would not be extended quite so far for an adult capable of managing moods and life’s scrapes. The greatest courtesies are extended precisely at the point when someone in a position of headship treats someone else, not as an equal, but as the head’s body as in the chart above. The same is implied for authority, or some of the more painful social lessons having to do with profound giftedness. Perhaps people may say “Treat me as an equal” instead of “treat me well,” but it has been my own experience that treating people as equals in an area where they request equality has given social explosions that I could have avoided if I were wise enough to realize that the point where I was asked, “Treat me as an equal,” were precisely the situations which demanded the wisdom not to treat people as intellectual equals that could handle the full force of what I was thinking, but extend some of the most delicate courtesy and social graces. Exactly what is needed is hard to say, but precisely what is not needed is to say, “Great, I’ve found someone gifted in exactly the same way I am,” and launch into the full force of your deepest thought. God does not create two blades of grass alike. He has never created two humans who are equal, but after each, he broke the mould.
Microcosm and mediator
Mankind was created to be a microcosm, summarizing both the spiritual and tangible creation, and a mediator. All the Orthodox faithful participate in a spiritual priesthood, and its sigil is the sacramental priesthood that a few identify. We are called to mediate and help transcend the differences above. Our worship of the God who is Light, and ourselves being the light of the world, is as the vanguard of Creation returning to the Creator, the firstfruits of a world created by and for God.
I would like to close on an understanding of symbol. Men are symbols of God; that is what it means to be made in the image of God. The material world is best understood, not as things operating under mathematical laws, but as having a symbolic dimension that ultimately points back to God. The theory of evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” because it does not address the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” If it is true, it is a true answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” The sciences answer questions of “How,” not questions of “Why,” and the world is best understood as having a symbolic dimension where the question of “Why?” refers to God and overshadows the question of “How?”
Even if physics answers its questions with accuracy, it does not answer the deepest questions, and a deeper level has three kinds of causation, all of them personal. Things are caused by God, or by humans, or by devils. When we pray, it is not usually for an exception to the laws of physics, but that nature, governed by personal causes on a deeper level, may work out in a particular way under God’s governance. And the regular operations of physics do not stop this.
Miracles are very rare, if we use the term strictly and not for the genuine miracle of God providing for us every day. But the readings for the Theophany Vespers repeat miracles with nature, and they present, if you will, nature at its most essential. Most of the matter in the universe is not part of icons of Christ, his Mother, and his Saints, and yet even outside of men icons are a vanguard, a firstfruit of a creation that will be glorified. Mankind is at its most essential in Christ himself, and the natural world is at its most essential as an arena for God’s power to be displayed. And God’s display of power is not strictly a rarity; it plays out when bread comes out of the earth, when The Heavens declare the glory of God / And the firmament sheweth his handywork. / Day unto day uttereth speech / And night unto night sheweth knowledge.
Sweet Lord, You Play Me False
All of this may be true, but there is an odor of falsity built in its very foundations, to provide an Orthodox “physics” (or study of “the nature of things”) analogous to Aristotle’s original “physics.” Anselm famously wrote the “Monologion” (in which Anselm explores various arguments for God’s existence) and the “Proslogion” (in which Anselm seeks a single and decisive proof of God’s existence). Once I told an Anselm scholar that there had been a newly discovered “Monophagion,” in which Anselm tries to discern whether reasoning can ever bring someone to recognize the imperative of eating, and “Prosphagion,” in which Anselm gets hungry and has a bite to eat. For those of you not familiar with Greek, “prosphagion” means “a little smackerel of something.”
This work is, in a sense, an exploration about whether philosophy can bring a person to recognize the necessity of eating. But that’s not where the proof of the pudding lies. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating, in the live liturgical life that culminates in the Eucharist, the fulcrum for the transformation and ultimate deification of the cosmos. The proof of the pudding lies not in the philosophizing, but in the eating.
To thee, O camel who passed through the eye of the needle, we offer thanks and praise: for thou gavest of thy wealth to the poor, as an offering to Christ. Christ God received thy gift as a loan, repaying thee exorbitantly, in this transient life and in Heaven. Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures! (Repeated thrice.)
Thou hadst earthly wealth yet knewest true treasure: thou madest use of thy possessions but trustedst them never, for in thee was the Kingdom of God and thy treasurehouse was Heaven. Wherefore thou hearest these praises which we offer to thee:
Rejoice, illustrious and wealthy noble who knew true wealth!
Rejoice, O thou who were ever mindful of the poor!
Rejoice, who knew thy deeds to the poor are deeds done to Christ!
Rejoice, O thou who knew true wealth from false!
Rejoice, O thou who knew that we can take nothing from the world!
Rejoice, O thou who knew that the righteous would never be forsaken!
Rejoice, O thou who gave ever more than was asked!
Rejoice, O thou who withheld not thy last ounce of wheat!
Rejoice, O thou who gave all six bushels to one who asked for a little!
Rejoice, O thou whose friend gave thee forty bushels thereafter!
Rejoice, O thou who trusted in the Lord with all his heart!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Thou knewest treasure enough to feed thy household for a hundred years without work: And thou wert true to thy name, Philaret or “Lover of Virtue”, even when thine own wife saw not the horses on the mountain and chariots of fire which surround the true lover of virtue. But with eyes raised to fiery Heaven, we cry out with thee: Alleluia!
Thou invitedst thine own to join thy love of virtue, and thine own received not thine invitation. But thine invitation remaineth open, and we who receive thine invitation and hearken to the open door cry out to thee in praise:
Rejoice, O diadem of married life in the world!
Rejoice, O thou who knewest virtue as treasure!
Rejoice, O thou who fed a household out of the treasurehouse of thy virtue!
Rejoice, O thou who knew not the greed of Midas’s curse!
Rejoice, O thou whose gifts would yet multiply and enrich the recipient!
Rejoice, O thou who was generous when he was rich!
Rejoice, O thou who was raided by marauders yet became no less generous!
Rejoice, O thou who trusted God when he had much and when he had little!
Rejoice, O thou who knewest that riches profit not in the day of wrath!
Rejoice, O thou whose virtue profited in easy times and hard times alike!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Many a generous beggar will give his last penny, whilst few a rich man will give to thee from his hedge of protection. Yet we behold a wonder in thee, who was rich, illustrious, and of noble lineage, and esteemed these not. Thy hedge of protection was the Lord God, and virtue and treasure in Heaven, and thou wert generous unto thine uttermost farthing. To thee, a rich man more generous than a beggar, we cry: Alleluia!
Thou transcendedst the virtues of pagan philosophy: fortitude, justice, prudence, and temperance, the virtues of a well lived earthly life. But thou knewest the Christian, deiform virtues: faith, hope, and love, the virtues of a Heavenly life already present in an egg in life on earth. Wherefore we cry out to thee:
Rejoice, O thou whose fortitude sought no protection from earthly treasures!
Rejoice, O thou whose justice transcended human reckoning!
Rejoice, O thou whose prudence was the Wisdom who is Christ!
Rejoice, O thou whose temperance sought from earthly things nothing in excess of what they could give!
Rejoice, O thou whose faith trusted that Christ would faithfully provide!
Rejoice, O thou whose hope in God was never disappointed!
Rejoice, O thou whose love refrained from sharing neither virtue nor earthly possessions!
Rejoice, O thou whose joy flowed in easy times and hard!
Rejoice, O thou whose peace flowed from the silence of Heaven!
Rejoice, O thou whose generosity was perfect!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
We will forever underestimate thy generosity if we merely count what thou gavest against what much or little property thou possessesdt, for thine open hand was a shadow and an icon of the vast wealth thou heldest in the generous treasure in Heaven, and this vast treasure thou laid hold to as Philaret, lover of virtue, which is to say lover of treasures in Heaven, eclipseth thy generosity with mere earthly property as the sun eclipseth the moon—nay, as the sun eclipseth a candle! Wherefore, with thee who hoarded true treasure, we cry: Alleluia!
Beseech the Lord God that we also might seek true treasure in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrodes and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherefore we cry out in wonder to thee:
Rejoice, O thou who drunk from the wellspring of Truth!
Rejoice, O thou who were fed by the Tree of Life!
Rejoice, O thou who knew silver from dross!
Rejoice, O thou who never grasped at dross because thou clungst to the Treasure for whom every treasure is named!
Rejoice, O thou who esteemed men of humble birth because thou questedst after the royal priesthood!
Rejoice, O thou who grasped treasure next to which every earthly endowment is but dust and ashes!
Rejoice, O thou who counted the poor and needy as more precious than gold!
Rejoice, O thou who cast away shadows to behold the Sun of Righteousness!
Rejoice, O thou who never forsook the Lord!
Rejoice, O thou whom the Lord never abandoned!
Rejoice, O thou who found that not one of His good promises has failed!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Ever seeking Christ, thou becamest thyself like Christ, the source and the summit of all virtue. Wishing to imitate thee as thou imitatedst Christ, we cry unto thee: Alleluia!
Every virtue is an icon of Christ, an icon not before us, but in us. Seeking after the virtues as we seek Christ, we cry out to thee:
Rejoice, O thou divine lover of virtue!
Rejoice, O thou who knew the Source of virtue!
Rejoice, O thou whose virtue was an imprint of Christ!
Rejoice, O thou who perfected the divine image with voluntary likeness!
Rejoice, O thou who teaches us virtue in the Christian walk!
Rejoice, O thou ever willing to share not only possessions but virtue!
Rejoice, O thou in whom Christ sat enthroned on virtue!
Rejoice, O thou who in virtue loved and served God!
Rejoice, O volume wherein the Word was inscribed in the ink of the virtues!
Rejoice, O thou who ever banishest passions!
Rejoice, O polished mirror refulgent with the uncreated Light!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Eating from the Tree of Life, thou becamest thyself a tree of life, to the nourishment of many. Hungering for lifegiving food, we cry with thee: Alleluia!
Sown in good soil, thou baredst fruit thirty, sixty, a hundredfold. Wherefore we cry unto thee:
Rejoice, O thou who were food to the hungry!
Rejoice, O thou who were wealth to the destitute!
Rejoice, O thou who were a robe of boldness to the naked!
Rejoice, O thou who gave abundantly out of thine abundance!
Rejoice, O thou who gave abundantly out of lack and want!
Rejoice, O thou who were God’s abundance to thy neighbour!
Rejoice, O thou who never merely gave money or property!
Rejoice, O thou who always gave with a blessing!
Rejoice, O thou who loved Christ in thy neighbour!
Rejoice, O thou tree whose shade sheltered many!
Rejoice, O thou river who irrigated vast lands!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Blessed art thou, O holy Father Philaret the Merciful! Merciful wert thou, and thou receivedst mercy, wherefore we cry with thee: Alleluia!
Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead! Wherefore we ask of thee no miracle, O merciful Father Philaret, for thou shewedst the continual miracle of mercy, and we cry unto thee:
Rejoice, O thou who gave the very last thou hadst!
Rejoice, O thou who received recompense from Christ thereafter!
Rejoice, O thou who withheld nothing from him who asked of thee!
Rejoice, O thou who wherewith withheld nothing from Christ!
Rejoice, O thou who clung not to gold!
Rejoice, O thou who clung to the Light next to which gold is as dust!
Rejoice, O wise one who made blessings as abundant as dust!
Rejoice, O thou who were ever full of mercy!
Rejoice, O thou whose mercy was as a lamp!
Rejoice, O thou who firmly beheld the invisible!
Rejoice, O thou whose faith worked mercy through love!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Rejoice, thou who wilt stand before Christ’s dread judgment throne numbered among those who hear: Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came to me. And thou wilt cry with the blessed saints: Alleluia!
Knowing that no man can love God whom he cannot see except that he love his neighbor whom he has seen, thou wert ever merciful, wherefore we cry unto thee:
Rejoice, O thou who fed Christ when He was an hungred!
Rejoice, O thou who gave Christ to drink when He was athirst!
Rejoice, O thou who showed Christ hospitality when He came a stranger!
Rejoice, O thou who clothed Christ when He was naked!
Rejoice, O thou who visited Christ when He was sick!
Rejoice, O thou who came to Christ when He was in prison!
Rejoice, O thou who met the least of these and saw Christ!
Rejoice, O thou who called every man thy brother!
Rejoice, O thou who saw no man as outside of God’s love!
Rejoice, O thou perfect in mercy as thy Heavenly Father is perfect in mercy!
Rejoice, O lamp ever scintillating with the Light of Heaven!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
All the angels were amazed at the excellence of thy virtue, for thy name “Philaret” is not only “Lover of Virtue” but “Lover of Excellence”, for in thee excellence, virtue, and power are one and the same. Wherefore thou joinest the angels in crying: Alleluia!
Even the most eloquent of orators cannot explain how thy virtue excelleth, for they cannot explain how in every circumstance thou soughtest out and lovedst virtue. But we marvel and cry out faithfully:
Rejoice, O rich man who cared for the poor!
Rejoice, O illustrious man who cared for men of no account!
Rejoice, O excellent in virtue in times of advantage!
Rejoice, O excellent in virtue in times of suffering as well!
Rejoice, O man who held great treasure and yet ever fixed his eyes upon true Treasure!
Rejoice, O thou who in every circumstance found an arena for excellent virtue!
Rejoice, O thou who were ever an excellent worshipper of God!
Rejoice, O thou who in the world escaped the Devil’s snares!
Rejoice, O thou who unmasked hollow Mammon!
Rejoice, O thou who found harbor on the sea of life!
Rejoice, O thou who by loving virtue loved Christ!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Thy life wast a living manuscript of the Sermon on the Mount, for even Solomon in his splendor had not raiment like unto thy faith. Beholding thy splendor we cry with thee: Alleluia!
Thou storedst up possessions wherewith not to worry: not fickle and corruptible treasure on earth, but constant and incorruptible treasure in Heaven. Wherefore we cry unto thee:
Rejoice, O thou who however rich wert poor in spirit!
Rejoice, O thou who mourned thy neighbor’s unhappiness!
Rejoice, O thou meek before thy neighbor’s suffering!
Rejoice, O thou who hungered and thirsted for justice and all virtue!
Rejoice, O thou mirror of mercy!
Rejoice, O thou who remained pure in heart!
Rejoice, O thou who made deepest peace!
Rejoice, O living mirror of the Beatitudes!
Rejoice, O thou soaring as the birds of the air!
Rejoice, O thou who wert devoted to one Master, and despised all others!
Rejoice, O living exposition of the Sermon on the Mount!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Thou wert as the widow who bereaved herself even of her last two farthings: not only gave she more than all the others, but she who gave up her creaturely life received the uncreated, immortal, and eternal life. Like her, thou wert a vessel empty enough to fill, wherefore we cry with thee: Alleluia!
Thou wert a second Job, steadfast whilst Satan tore off layer after layer of thy belongings to show that there was nothing inside. Wherefore, we cry to thee who ever persevered:
Rejoice, O thou worshiper of God in plenty and in need!
Rejoice, O thou icon of perseverance and faith!
Rejoice, O thou generous with thy coin and generous with thy virtue!
Rejoice, O thou phoenix ever arisen from thy very ashes!
Rejoice, O thou saint immobile in thy dispassion!
Rejoice, O thou who in want showed the truth of thy generosity in easy times!
Rejoice, O thou who ever blessed the name of the Lord!
Rejoice, O thou who with many possessions loved them not!
Rejoice, O thou who with few possessions loved them no more!
Rejoice, O thou who remained stalwart whilst Satan tore away what was thine, to show there was nothing inside!
Rejoice, O thou who were vindicated when God peeled off the nothing and showed there was everything inside!
Rejoice, O thou who vindicated God as did Job!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
Thou hadst no food in the house, when imperial emissaries came looking for a bride for the Emperor: thou rich in Heaven, in trust thou beganst preparations to honourably meet the imperial emissaries. And thy neighbours came and brought food, a fitting feast, and the imperial emissaries found thy granddaughter finest in virtue and modesty, choosing her for her excellence to become Empress. Wherefore we cry with thee: Alleluia!
When all this had come to pass, in thy virtue, in thine excellence, thou knewest what is real treasure. In thy virtue and humility, thou refusedst all imperial rank and office, saying that it sufficed thee to be known as grandfather to the Empress. Wherefore, amazed, we cry to thee:
Rejoice, O thou who knew true Treasure!
Rejoice, O thou who were lover of virtue and excellence!
Rejoice, O thou who were rich and cared for the poor!
Rejoice, O thou who lost almost all and still opened thy hand!
Rejoice, O thou who became grandfather to the Empress whilst remaining ever humble!
Rejoice, O thou who were illustrious and noble yet cherished those of low estate!
Rejoice, O thou who were razed nigh unto the earth, and ever remained excellent as a lover of virtue!
Rejoice, O thou who were raised nigh unto Heaven, and ever remained humble as a lover of virtue!
Rejoice, O thou who sought first the Kingdom of Heaven!
Rejoice, O thou who were given all other things as well!
Rejoice, O thou who even then fixed his virtuous gaze on Christ!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
O holy Father Philaret whose excellence was virtue and whose virtue was excellence, whose power was virtue and whose virtue was power, who was ever merciful and generous out of thine overflowing virtue, ever protected by the Kingdom of God, pray for us as we cry with thee: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! (Repeated thrice.)
Thou hadst earthly wealth yet knewest true treasure: thou madest use of thy possessions but trustedst them never, for in thee was the Kingdom of God and thy treasurehouse was Heaven. Wherefore thou hearest these praises which we offer to thee:
Rejoice, illustrious and wealthy noble who knew true wealth!
Rejoice, O thou who were ever mindful of the poor!
Rejoice, who knew thy deeds to the poor are deeds done to Christ!
Rejoice, O thou who knew true wealth from false!
Rejoice, O thou who knew that we can take nothing from the world!
Rejoice, O thou who knew that the righteous would never be forsaken!
Rejoice, O thou who gave ever more than was asked!
Rejoice, O thou who withheld not thy last ounce of wheat!
Rejoice, O thou who gave all six bushels to one who asked for a little!
Rejoice, O thou whose friend gave thee forty bushels thereafter!
Rejoice, O thou who trusted in the Lord with all his heart!
Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
To thee, O camel who passed through the eye of the needle, we offer thanks and praise: for thou gavest of thy wealth to the poor, as an offering to Christ. Christ God received thy gift as a loan, repaying thee exorbitantly, in this transient life and in Heaven. Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
A journey of the heart, barely begun,
Anointed with chrism, like as prophet, priest, king,
A slow road of pain and loss,
Giving up straw to receive gold: Further up and further in!
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,
Silence without, building silence within:
The prayer of the mind in the heart,
Prayer without mind’s images and eye before holy icons,
A simple Way, a life’s work of simplicity, Further up and further in!
A camel may pass through the eye of a needle,
Only by shedding every possession and kneeling humbly,
Book-learning and technological power as well as possessions,
Prestige and things that are yours— Even all that goes without saying:
To grow in this world one becomes more and more;
To grow in the Way one becomes less and less: Further up and further in!
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God:
The chief end of mankind,
Is to glorify God and become him forever.
The mysticism in the ordinary,
Not some faroff exotic place,
But here and now,
Living where God has placed us,
Lifting where we are up into Heaven:
Paradise is wherever holy men are found.
Escape is not possible:
Yet escape is not needed,
But our active engagement with the here and now,
And in this here and now we move, Further up and further in!
Today the biggest symbol of evil is Hitler or Naziism; there is almost no bigger insult than calling someone a Nazi or a comparison to Hitler. The Old Testament’s symbol of evil that did the same job was a city in which the Lord God of Hosts could not find fifty righteous, nor forty-five, nor forty, nor thirty, nor twenty, nor even ten righteous men. It was the city on which fire and brimstone rained down from Heaven in divine wrath until smoke arose as from a gigantic furnace. It was, in short, the city of Sodom.
Ezekiel has some remarks about Sodom’s sin that might surprise you. Ezekiel 16:49 says, This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, more than enough food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
These are far from the only stinging words the Bible says to rich people who could care for the poor and do not do so. Jesus said something that could better be translated, “It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). It would take hours or perhaps days to recite everything blunt the Bible says about wealth, if even I could remember so much.
But who are the rich? The standard American answer is, “People who have more money than I do,” and the standard American answer is wrong. It takes too much for granted. Do you want to know how special it is, worldwide, to be able to afford meat for every meal you want it and your Church permits it? Imagine saying “We’re not rich; we just have Champagne and lobster every day.” That’s what it means for even poorer Americans to say “We’re not rich, just a bit comfortable.” The amount of money that America spends on weight loss products each year costs more than it would cost to feed the hungry worldwide. When Ezekiel says that “your sister Sodom” had more than enough food but did not care for the poor, he is saying something that has every relevance to us if we also fail to care for the poor.
I would be remiss not to mention the Sermon on the Mount here, because the Sermon on the Mount explains something we can miss (Matt 6:19-21,24-33):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your life? You might as well try to make yourself a foot taller! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
This includes a hard saying about wealth, but it is not only a hard saying about wealth, but an invitation to joy. “Do not store up treasures on earth but store up treasures in Heaven” is a command to exchange lead for gold and have true wealth. It is an invitation to joy, and it is no accident that these sharp words about Money lead directly into the Bible’s central text on why we never need to worry.
Elsewhere we read, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12:15), which is not a statement that spiritual people can rise so high that their lives aren’t measured by possessions. It is about everybody, great and small. If money doesn’t make you happy this is not something specially true about spiritual people; it’s something that’s true of everybody. But Jesus’s entire point is to direct us to what our life does consist in. The words about storing up treasures in Heaven prepare us for the “Therefore I tell you,” and an invitation to live a life that is fuller, richer, more vibrant, deeper, more alive, more radiant with the light of Heaven than we can possibly arrange through wealth.
What will we leave behind if we spend less on ourselves? Will we leave behind the Lord’s providence, or hugs, or friendship, or banter, or worship, or the Church, or feasting? Will we leave behind the love of the Father, or Christ as our High Priest, or the Spirit? Will we be losing a Heaven whose beginning is here and now, or will we be pulling out our right hands and our right eyes? If it seems that way, we may adapt C.S. Lewis to say that living the life of Heaven through our finances today may seem like it will cost our right hand and our right eye, or in today’s words an arm and a leg, but once we have taken that plunge, we will discover that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Or perhaps we could say that we are leaving behind a false Savior who never delivers, but only distracts us from the true Savior in Christ, and the treasure that is ours when we lay our treasures at his feet.
Is there a luxury you could give up in this invitation to joy?
I am writing to you concerning the inestimable responsibility and priceless charge who has been entrusted to you. You have been appointed guardian angel to one Mark.
Who is Mark, whose patron is St. Mark of Ephesus? A man. What then is man? Microcosm and mediator, the midpoint of Creation, and the fulcrum for its sanctification. Created in the image of God; created to be prophet, priest, and king. It is toxic for man to know too much of his beauty at once, but it is also toxic for man to know too much of his sin at once. For he is mired in sin and passion, and in prayer and deed offer what help you can for the snares all about him. Keep a watchful eye out for his physical situation, urge great persistence in the liturgical and the sacramental life of the Church that he gives such godly participation, and watch for his ascesis with every eye you have. Rightly, when we understand what injures a man, nothing can injure the man who does not injure himself: but it is treacherously easy for a man to injure himself. Do watch over him and offer what help you can.
With Eternal Light and Love, Your Fellow-Servant and Angel
My dear son Eukairos;
I would see it fitting to offer a word about medicating experience and medicating existence. There is a thread of escape that men reach for when they cannot tolerate silence.
When one of the race of men medicates experience by means of wine, that is called drunkenness. When by means of the pleasures of the palate, that is called gluttony. When by means of other pleasures, it is called lust. When by means of possessions and getting things, it is called avarice. Escapism is an ancient vice and a root of all manner of evils: ancient Christians were warned strongly against attempting to escape this world by medicating experience.
Not that pleasure is the only way; medicating experience by mental gymnastics is called metaphysics in the occult sense, and medicating experience by means of technology is a serious danger.
Not all technologies, and perhaps not any technology, is automatically a problem to use. But when technologies become a drone they are a problem. Turning on a radio for traffic and weather news, and then turning it off, is not a drone. Listening to the radio at a particular time to devote your attention to a concert is not a drone. Turning on a radio in the background while you work is a drone; even Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance discusses what is wrong with mechanics having the radio on in the background. And texting to get specific information or coordinate with someone is not a drone, but a stream of text messages that is always on is a drone. Technology has its uses, but when technology is a drone, noise in the background that prevents silence from getting too uncomfortable, then it is a spiritual problem, a tool to medicate experience. And there are some technologies, like video games, that exist to medicate experience.
(Of course, technologies are not the only drone; when Mark buckles down to prayer he discovers that his mind is a drone with a stream of thoughts that are a life’s work to quiet.)
More could be said about technologies, but my point here is to point out one of the dangers Mark faces. Not the only one, by any means, but he has at his disposal some very powerful tools for doing things that are detrimental. It’s not just a steady stream of X-rated spam that puts temptation at his fingertips. He has all the old ways to medicate experience, and quite a few powerful technologies that can help him medicate his experience as well. And for that he needs prayer.
But what is to be done? The ways of medicating experience may be in some measure more than many saints have contended with; the answer is the same. Don’t find another way to medicate experience, or escape the conditions God has placed you in, trying to escape to Paradise. Don’t ask for an easier load, but tougher muscles. Instead of escaping the silence, engage it. Prayerfully engage it. If your dear Mark does this, after repenting and despairing of finding a way to escape and create Paradise, he will find that escape is not needed, and Paradise, like the absent-minded Professor’s lost spectacles, were not in any of the strange places he looked but on his nose the whole time.
A man does not usually wean himself of drones in one fell swoop, but pray and draw your precious charge to cut back, to let go of another way of medicating experience even if it is very small, and to seek not a lighter load but a stronger back. If he weans himself of noise that medicates uncomfortable silence, he might find that silence is not what he fears.
Watch after Mark, and hold him in prayer.
Your Dearly Loving Elder,
Your Fellow-Servant, But a Wind and a Flame of Fire
My dear, dear Eukairos;
When fingers that are numb from icy cold come into a warm, warm house, it stings.
You say that the precious treasure entrusted to you prayed, in an uncomfortable silence, not for a lighter load but for a stronger back, and that he was fearful and almost despairing in his prayer. And you wonder why he looks down on himself for that. Do not deprive him of his treasure, by showing him how much good he is done.
He has awakened a little, and I would have you do all in your power to show him the silence of Heaven, however little he can receive it yet. You know some theologians speak of a river of fire, where in one image among others, the Light of Heaven and the fire of Hell are the same thing: not because good and evil are one, but because God can only give himself, the uncreated Light, in love to his creatures, and those in Hell are twisted through the rejection of Christ so that the Light of Heaven is to them the fire of Hell. The silence of Heaven is something like this; silence is of Heaven and there is nothing to replace it, but to those not yet able to bear joy, the silence is an uncomfortable silence. It is a bit like the Light of Heaven as it is experienced by those who reject it.
Help Mark in any way you can to taste the silence of Heaven as joy. Help him to hear the silence that is echoed in the Church’s chanting: when he seeks a stronger back to bear silence, strengthen his back, and help him to taste the silence not as bitter but sweet. Where noise and drones would anaesthetize his pain, pull him through his pain to health, wholeness, and joy.
The Physician is at work!
With Eternal Light and Love, Your Fellow-Servant and Angel
Dear blessed Eukairos;
Your charge has had a fall. Do your best that this not be the last word: help him get up. Right now he believes the things of God are not for those like him.
The details of the fall I will not treat here, but suffice it to say that when someone begins to wake up, the devils are furious. They are often given permission to test the awakening man, and often he falls. And you know how the devils are: before a fall, they say that God is easy-going and forgiving, and after a fall, that God is inexorable. Do your best to aid a person being seduced with the lie that God is inexorable.
Mark believes himself unfit for the service of the Kingdom. Very well, and in fact he is, but it is the special delight of the King to work in and through men who have made themselves unfit for his service. Don’t brush away a mite of his humility as one fallen, but show him what he cannot believe, that God wishes to work through him now as much as ever And that God wishes for him prayer, liturgy, sacrament..
And open his eyes now, a hint here, a moment of joy there: open them that eternity is now: eternal life is not something that begins after he dies, but that takes root now, and takes root even (or rather, especially) in those who repent. He considers himself unworthy of both Heaven and earth, and he is; therefore, in God’s grace, give him both Heaven and earth. Open up earth as an icon, a window to Heaven, and draw him to share in the uncreated Light and Life.
Open up his repentance; it is a window to Heaven.
In Light and Life and Love, Your Brother Angel
My dear fellow-ministering angel;
I would make a few remarks on those windows of Heaven called icons.
To Mark, depending on the sense of the word ‘window’, a ‘window’ is an opening in a wall with a glass divider, or alternately the ‘window’ is the glass divider separating inside from outside. But this is not the exact understanding when Orthodox say an icon is a window of Heaven; it is more like what he would understand by an open window, where wind blows, and inside and outside meet. (In most of human history, a window fitted with glass was the exception, not the rule.) If an icon is a window of Heaven, it is an opening to Heaven, or an opening between Heaven and earth.
Now Mark does not understand this, and while you may draw him to begin to sense this, that is not the point. In The Way of the Pilgrim, a man speaks who was given the sacred Gospels in an old, hard-to-understand book, and was told by the priest, “Never mind if you do not understand what you are reading. The devils will understand it.” Perhaps, to Mark, icons are still somewhat odd pictures with strange postures and proportions. You may, if you want, help him see that there is perspective in the icons, but instead of the usual perspective of people in their own world, it is reverse perspective whose vanishing point lies behind him because Mark is in the picture. But instead of focusing on correcting his understanding, and certainly correcting his understanding all at once, draw him to venerate and look at these openings of Heaven. Never mind if he does not fully grasp the icons he venerates. The devils will understand.
And that is true of a great many things in life; draw Mark to participate in faith and obedience. He expects to understand first and participate second, but he needs to come to a point of participating first and understanding second. Many things need to start on the outside and work inwards.
Whose Incarnation Unfurls in Holy Icons, Your Fellow
Dear cherished, luminous son;
Your charge is reading a good many books. Most of them are good, but I urge you to spur him to higher things.
It is a seemingly natural expression of love to try to know as much about possible about Orthodoxy. But mature Orthodox usually spend less time trying to understand Orthodoxy through books. And this is not because they have learned everything there is to learn. (That would be impossible.) Rather, it is because they’ve found a deeper place to dig.
God does not want Mark to be educated and have an educated mind. He wants him to have an enlightened mind. The Orthodox man is not supposed to have good thoughts in prayer, but to have no thoughts. The Orthodox settled on the path have a clear mind that is enlightened in hesychastic silence. And it is better to sit in the silence of Heaven than read the Gospel as something to analyze.
Books have a place. Homilies have a place. But they are one shadow of the silence of Heaven. And there are more important things in the faith, such as fasting and almsgiving, repentance and confession, and prayer, the crowning jewel of all ascesis. Give Mark all of these gems.
With Deep Affection, Your Brother Angel
My dearly beloved, cherished fellow angel Eukairos;
Your charge Mark has been robbed.
Your priceless charge Mark has been robbed, and I am concerned.
He is also concerned about a great many things: his fear now, which is understandable, and his concerns about where money may come from, and his loss of an expensive smartphone and a beautiful pocketwatch with sentimental as well as financial value to him, and his inconvenience while waiting on new credit cards.
There are more concerns where those came from, but I am concerned because he is concerned about the wrong things. He has well over a week’s food in his fridge and he believes that God failed to provide. Mark does not understand that everything that happens to a man is either a temptation God allowed for his strengthening, or a blessing from God. I am concerned that after God has allowed this, among other reasons so Mark can get his priorities straight, he is doing everything but seeking in this an opportunity for spiritual growth to greater maturity.
If you were a human employee, this would be the time for you to be punching in lots of overtime. Never mind that he thinks unconsciously that you and God have both deserted him; your strengthening hand has been invisible to him. I do not condemn you for any of this, but this time has been appointed for him to have opportunities for growth and for you to be working with him, and the fact that he does not seek growth in this trial is only reason for you to work all the harder. That he is seeking to get things back the way they were, and suffering anger and fear, is only reason for you to exercise more diligent care. God is working with him now as much as ever, and I would advise you for now to work to the point of him seeking his spiritual good in this situation, however short he falls of right use of adversity for now.
Your name, “Eukairos,” comes from “eu”, meaning “good”, and “kairos”, an almost inexhaustible word which means, among other things, “appointed time” and “decisive moment.” You and Mark are alike called to dance the great dance, and though Mark may not see it now, you are God’s agent and son supporting him in a great and ordered dance where everything is arranged in God’s providence. Right now Mark sees none of this, but as his guardian angel you are charged to work with him in the dance, a dance where God incorporates his being robbed and will incorporate his spiritual struggles and, yes, provide when Mark fails to see that the righteous will never be forsaken.
A good goal would be for Mark to pray for those that robbed him, and through those prayers honestly desire their good, or come to that point. But a more immediate goal is his understanding of the struggle he faces. Right now he sees his struggle in terms of money, inconveniences, and the like. Raise his eyes higher so he can see that it is a spiritual struggle, that God’s providence is not overrulled by this tribulation, and that if he seeks first the Kingdom of God, God himself knows Mark’s material needs and will show deepest care for him.
Your Fellow-Servant in Prayer, But an Angel Who Cannot Struggle Mark’s Struggle on his Behalf
My dear, esteemed son and fellow-angel Eukairos;
That was a deft move on your part, and I thank you for what you have helped foster in Mark’s thoughts.
Mark began to console himself with the deep pit of porn, that poison that is so easily found in his time and place. And he began to pray, on his priest’s advice, “Holy Father John, pray to God for me,” and “Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me,” Saint John the Much-Suffering and Saint Mary of Egypt being saints to remember when fighting that poison. And you helped him for a moment to see how he was turned in on himself and away from others, and he prayed for help caring about others.
At 10:30 PM that night on the dot, one of his friends was walking in the dark, in torrential rains, and fell in the street, and a car ran over his legs. This friend was someone with tremendous love for others, the kind of person you cannot help but appreciate, and now that he had two broken legs, the flow of love reversed. And Mark unwittingly found himself in an excellent situation to care about something other than himself. He quite forgot about his money worries; and he barely noticed a windfall from an unexpected source. He kept company and ran errands for his friend.
What was once only a smouldering ember is now a fire burning brightly. Work as you can to billow it into a blaze.
With an Eternal Love, Your Respectful Brother Angel
My dear, scintillating son Eukairos;
I would recall to you the chief end of mankind. “To glorify God and enjoy him forever” is not a bad answer; the chief end of mankind is to contemplate God. No matter what you do, Mark will never reach the strictest sense of contemplation such as monastic saints enjoy in their prayer, but that is neither here nor there. He can have a life ordered to contemplation even if he will never reach the spiritual quiet from which strict contemplation is rightly approached. He may never reach beyond the struggle of ascesis, but his purpose, on earth as well as in Heaven, is to contemplate God, and to be deified. The point of human life is to become by grace what Christ is by nature.
Mark is right in one way and wrong in another to realize that he has only seen the beginning of deification. He has started, and only started, the chief end of human life, and he is right to pray, go to confession, and see himself as a beginner. But what he is wrong about is imagining that the proof of his fledgling status is that his wishes are not fulfilled in the circumstances of his life: his unconscious and unstated assumption is that if he had real faith like saints who worked miracles, his wishes would be fulfilled and his life would be easier. Those saints had less wishes fulfilled, not more, and much harder lives than him.
(And this is beside the point that Mark is not called to perform miracles; he is called to something greater, the most excellent way: love.)
Mark imagines you, as his guardian angel, to be sent by God to see that at least some of his wishes happen, but the truth is closer to saying that you are sent by God to see that some of his wishes do not happen so that in the cutting off of self-will he may grow in ways that would be impossible if he always had his wishes. There is a French saying, «On trouve souvent sa destiné par les chemins que l’on prend pour l’éviter.»: “One often finds his destiny on the paths one takes to avoid it.” Destiny is not an especially Christian idea, but there is a grain of truth here: Men often find God’s providence in the situations they hoped his providence would keep them out of.
This cutting off of self-will is part of the self-transcendence that makes deification; it is foundational to monks and the office of spiritual father, but it is not a “monks-only” treasure. Not by half. God answers “No” to prayers to say “Yes” to something greater. But the “Yes” only comes through the “No.”
As Mark has heard, “We pray because we want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us.”
Mark has had losses, and he will have more to come, but what he does not understand is that the path of God’s sanctification is precisely through the loss of what Mark thinks he needs. God is at work allowing Mark to be robbed. God is at work allowing Mark to use “his” “free” time to serve his friend. And God is at work in the latest challenge you wrote to me about.
Mark has lost his car. A drunk and uninsured driver slammed into it when it was parked; the driver was saved by his airbag, but Mark’s car was destroyed, and Mark has no resources to get another car, not even a beater for now. And Mark imagines this as something that pushes him outside of the Lord’s providence, not understanding that it is by God’s good will that he is now being transported by friendship and generosity, that he is less independent now.
Right now Mark is not ready either to thank God for his circumstances or to forgive the driver. But do open his eyes to the good of friendship and generosity that now transports him. Even if he sees the loss of his car as an example of God failing to provide for him, help him to see the good of his being transported by the love and generosity of his friends. Help him to see God’s providence in circumstances he would not choose.
Your Fellow-Servant in the Service of Man, A Brother Angel
Mark would never say that you can reason your way into Heaven, but he is trying to straighten out his worldview, and he thinks that straightening out one’s ideas is what this verse is talking about. And he holds an assumption that if you’re reasoning things out, or trying to reason things out, you’re probably on the right path.
Trying to reason things out does not really help as much as one might think. Arius, the father of all heretics, was one of many to try to reason things out; people who devise heresies often try harder to reason things out than the Orthodox. And Mark has inherited a greatly overstated emphasis on how important or helpful logical reasoning is.
Men’s thoughts are not just abstract reasoning; they are all sorts of things, some entangled with sinful desire, that are around all the time to a mind that has not learned hesychastic silence. Thoughts that need to be taken captive include thoughts of money entangled with greed, thoughts of imagined success entangled with pride, thoughts of wrongs suffered entangled with anger, thoughts of food compounded with gluttony, thoughts of desired persons compounded with lust, thoughts of imagined future difficulties entangled with worry and doubt about the Lord’s good providence. Such thoughts as these need to be addressed, and not by tinkering with one’s worldview: these thoughts remain a battleground in spiritual warfare even if one’s worldview condemns greed, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, worry, and doubt.
Work with Mark. Guide him and strengthen him in the unseen warfare that includes learning to cut off such thoughts as soon as possible: a fire that is spreading through a house is hard to put out, and what Mark needs to learn is to notice the smoke that goes before fire and extinguish the smouldering that is beginning and not waiting for leaping flames to make doomed efforts to fight it. Help him to see that his thoughts are not only abstract ideas, and help him to be watchful, aware of his inner state. Unseen warfare in thoughts is of inestimable importance, and do what you can to help him see a smouldering smoke when it has not become a raging fire, and to be watchful.
Do what you can to draw him to repeat the Jesus Prayer, to let it grow to a rhythm in him. If the question is, “What should I start thinking when I catch myself?”, the answer is, “The Jesus prayer.”
Keep working with Mark, and offer what support you can. And keep him in your prayers.
With Deepest Affection, Another Member of the Angel Choirs
Dear fellow-warrior, defender, and son Eukairos;
I wish to write to you concerning devils.
Mark has the wrong picture with a scientific worldview in which temptations are more or less random events that occur as a side effect of how the world works. Temptations are intelligently coordinated attacks by devils. They are part of unseen warfare such as Mark faces, part of an evil attack, but none the less on a leash. No man could be saved if the devils could give trials and temptations as much as they wished, but the devils are allowed to bring trials and temptations as much as God allows for the strengthening, and the discipleship, of his servants.
Some street drugs are gateway drugs, and some temptations are temptations to gateway sins. Gluttony, greed, and vanity are among the “gateway sins”, although it is the nature of a sin to give way to other sins as well. Gluttony, for instance, opens the door to lust, and it is harder by far to fight lust for a man whose belly is stuffed overfull. (A man who would fare better fighting against lust would do well to eat less and fast more.) In sin, and also in virtue, he who is faithful in little is faithful in much, and he who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much. You do not need to give Mark what he expects now, help in some great, heroic act of virtue. He needs your help in little, humble, everyday virtues, obedience when obedience doesn’t seem worth the bother.
The liturgy speaks of “the feeble audacity of the demons”, and Mark needs to know that that is true, and true specifically in his case. What trials God allows are up to God, and the demons are an instrument in the hand of a God who would use even the devils’ rebellion to strengthen his sons. The only way Mark can fall into the demons’ hands is by yielding to temptation: nothing can injure the man who does not injure himself. The trials Mark faces are intended for his glory, and more basically for God’s glory in him—but God chooses glory for himself that glorifies his saints. Doubtless this will conflict with Mark’s plans and perceptions of what he needs, but God knows better, and loves Mark better than to give Mark everything he thinks he needs.
Do your best to strengthen Mark, especially as regards forgiveness to those who have wronged him and in the whole science of unseen warfare. Where he cannot see himself that events are led by an invisible hand, help him to at least have faith, a faith that may someday be able to discern.
And do help him to see that he is in the hands of God, that the words in the Sermon on the Mount about providence are not for the inhabitants of another, perfect world, but intended for him personally as well as others. He has rough things he will have to deal with; help him to trust that he receives providence at the hands of a merciful God who is ever working all things to good for his children.
With Love as Your Fellow-Warrior and Mark’s, Your Fellow-Warrior in the War Unseen
My dear, watchful son Eukairos;
Mark has lost his job, and though he has food before him and a roof over his head, he thinks God’s providence has run short.
Yet in all of this, he is showing a sign of growth: even though he does not believe God has provided, there is a deep peace, interrupted at times by worry, and his practice of the virtues allows such peace to enter even though he assumes that God can only provide through paychecks.
Work on him in this peace. Work on him in the joy of friendship. Even if he does not realize that he has food for today and clothing for today, and that this is the providence he is set to ask for, help him to enjoy what he has, and give thanks to God for everything he has been given.
And hold him in your prayers.
As One Who Possesses Nothing, One Who Receives All He Needs From God
My prayerful, prayerful Eukairos;
Prayer is what Mark needs now more than ever.
Prayer is the silent life of angels, and it is a feast men are bidden to join. At the beginning it is words; in the middle it is desire; at the end it is silence and love. For men it is the outflow of sacrament, and its full depths are in the sacraments. There are said to be seven sacraments, but what men of Mark’s day do not grasp is that seven is the number of perfection, and it would do as well to say that there are ten thousand sacraments, all bearing God’s grace.
Help Mark to pray. Pray to forgive others, pray for the well-being of others, pray by being in silence before God. Help him to pray when he is attacked by passion; help him to pray when he is tempted and when he confesses in his heart that he has sinned: O Lord, forgive me for doing this and help me to do better next time, for the glory of thy holy name and for the salvation of my soul.
Work with Mark so that his life is a prayer, not only with the act-prayer of receiving a sacrament, but so that looking at his neighbor with chaste eyes he may pray out of the Lord’s love. Work with Mark so that ordinary activity and work are not an interruption to a life of prayer, but simply a part of it. And where there is noise, help him to be straightened out in silence through his prayer.
And if this is a journey of a thousand miles that Mark will never reach on earth, bid him to take a step, and then a step more. For a man to take one step into this journey is still something: the Thief crucified with Christ could only take on step, and he took that one step, and now stands before God in Paradise.
Ever draw Mark into deeper prayer.
With You Before God’s Heart that Hears Prayers, A Praying Angel
My dearly beloved, cherished, esteemed son; My holy angel who sees the face of Christ God; My dear chorister who sings before the eteral throne of God; My angel divine; My fellow-minister;
Your charge has passed through his apprenticeship successfully.
He went to church, and several gunmen entered. One of them pointed a gun at a visitor, and Mark stepped in front of her. He was ordered to move, and he stood firm. He wasn’t thinking of being heroic; he wasn’t even thinking of showing due respect to a woman. He only thought vaguely of appropriate treatment of a visitor and fear never deterred him from this vague sense of appropriate care for a visitor.
It is my solemn, profound, and grave pleasure to now introduce you to Mark, no longer as the charge under your care, but as a fellow-chorister with angels who will eternally stand with you before the throne of God in Heaven.
Go in peace.
Your Fellow-Minister, םיכאל • ΜΙΧΑΗΛ • MICHAEL • Who Is Like God?
George had finally gotten through the first week at Calix College, and the chaos was subsiding. Bored for a minute, and too exhausted from the busy work to start researching something, he sat down, tried to remember something strange that he meant to investigate, and tried some more.
When he finally gave up and tried to think about what else he could do, he remembered a book he had seen in his closet, perhaps left over by a previous resident. He pulled out a fan and a lamp that were placed on it, and pulled out a large book. The entire leather cover had only eleven letters, and the dark leather showed signs of wear but seemed to be in remarkably good condition. The golden calligraphy formed a single word: Brocéliande. All across the front lay dark, intricate leather scrollwork.
What was “Brocéliande?” After looking at the leather and goldwork a short while, George opened Brocéliande and read:
The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”
The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”
“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”
“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”
“Thou wete it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wete.”
“That be perplexed, and travail sore to understand.”
The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”
“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”
“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”
“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”
“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”
“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”
“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”
George’s cell phone rang, and he closed the book and ran to hear the call better. When he came back, though he spent an hour searching, he could not find his place in the heavy book. He turned outside.
There were a lot of people, but what he saw was the castle-like stonework of the campus, the timeworn statues, and finally the great wood with its paths, streams, and meadows. He got lost several times, but not truly lost, as he was exploring and finding interesting places no less when he lost his sense of direction. The next time he found his way, he went to the cafeteria and sat down at a table, part listening and part sifting through thoughts.
When he got home, his mind was hungry again, and he opened Brocéliande to the middle:
“Lord of Heaven and Earth, I have everything I want, or rather everything I fled to. I have left the city and the company of men, and am become as a wild beast, living on grass and nuts.
“Is this because of whose son I am? Some say I have powers from my father, serving the Light only because the prayers spoken when some learned of that dread project. Yet here outside of castle and city I have learned things hidden from most men. I can conjure up a castle from the air, but not enter and live in one: I live in the wood as a man quite mad.”
Then he looked around. The trees were a verdant green, yet he found apples. Presently he came to the fountain of Brocéliande; he rang not the bell but drew deep and drank a draught. The forest were his labyrinth and his lair.
A hawk came and set him on the branch close up.
Merlin said to it, “Yet I can speak with thee: no element is a stranger to me.”
A sound of footsteps sounded, and Merlin ran not away.
Merlin his sister Ganeida laid a hand on Merlin his arm. “Come, Merlin. This is unworthy. I have brought thee food for a journey: King Arthur summoneth thee to his court.”
Merlin beheld the wood called Brocéliande. He beheld its holly, its ivy, its trees shaken by storm and wind. He thought of the animals. And there was something about this forest that drew him: it seemed larger on the inside than the outside, and there was something alway that seemed shining through it, like faint and haunting music which he had by struggles learned to catch as he withdrew from castles and the world of men.
Then Ganieda did start to sing a different song, a plain and simple folk tune, and Merlin his heart settled, and he did walk with his sister.
George slowly closed the book.
He imagined the scene; there was something about Merlin that haunted and eluded him. There was—
There was a knock on the door.
He opened it. It was one of the people from dinner.
“Do you want to see a movie?”
“We’re still deciding. But there are a few of us going to the theater.”
George thought for a moment. Up until that point he thought he didn’t want to read more of the book for now. When he declined the invitation, there was a fleeting insight which he forgot the next moment.
The next day in class, the figure of Merlin had a stronger grip on his imagination.
If George had less energy, his classes might have suffered more. As it was, he was getting by, and he slowly began to realize that there was something more that gripped him than horses, swords, and armor. He kept opening more to see the beautiful fantasy, so different from his world. At one point he turned the page:
Then Queen Guinevere did sigh and wept sore.
A lady asked, “Milady, what is it?”
“This Grail cometh even now. Is it accursed?
“The Round Table shattered sore hard and knights return with strange tales. Such a holy thing this Grail is called, yet when it cometh the rich Grail yet burneth like fire. Already King Arthur his work is unraveling.
“Will it even take from me my Sir Lancelot? Or can I take even my Lancelot from the Holy Grail?”
There was something in the back of George’s mind. He sat back, thinking, and then closed the book to make a brief visit to the unspoilt beauty of the wood.
When he went in, he noticed a great beech tree, lying, weeping. It seemed that there was something trying to get out of the verdure. There were ferns and moss around, and he walked and walked. The path took many turns, and George began to realize several things. First, it was dark. Second, he was lost. Third, a chill was setting in. Fourth, he could not see even the stars.
Before long he was running in heavy, icy rain, branches lashing, until a branch hitting his chest winded him. He sat down in stinging pain and regained his breath, then felt around and crawled beneath an outcropping. Here the rain at least would not get to him any more. He spent the night in waking shock at what this great pristine nature, unsullied by human contamination, was really like: the forest seemed to be without reason or order right down to the awkward surface of the rock that he was painfully lying on. Long-forgotten fears returned: when a little light broke through the clouds, were those things he saw rocks, fallen trees, or goblins? He spent a long time shivering, and when the sun rose, he thirsted for light, and got up, only half awake, and followed it until he came to the edge of the forest and saw the castle-inspired buildings of the college. A short while later he was warming up with a welcome blanket and the welcome sound of voices in conversation.
Something was eating away at the back of George’s mind.
Perhaps because of his weariness, his attention in class was chiefly on the flicker of the fluorescent light and how the buildings, which on the outside were so evocative of castles, were so modern on the inside. The one thing that caught his mind was a set of comments about either how we must be individuals and do our own thing or else we are all community and individuality is an illusion. He wanted to be haunted and meet hints of a larger world, and others’ passionately held opinions seemed like they were taken from Newsweekand USA Today.
What was on TV? He stopped in the lobby and saw a show with a medieval set, very carefully done to convey a medieval flavor, and watched until a heroine looked at a magical apparition in a full-length mirror and said, “I am having… a biochemical reaction!” He could not explain what failed to confront him, but he walked out. It was Freya’s Day, commonly shortened to “Friday.” When he learned how the days of the week were named, for Norse gods or celestial bodies—namely, Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Tiw’s Day, Wotan’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day, and Saturn’s Day—something seemingly pedestrian met him with a touch of a larger world. Now, it seemed, things that looked like they could tell of a larger world confronted him with the utterly pedestrian?
His homework did not take long.
Then, amidst Bon Jovi blaring through the hall, George began read. What he was reading seemed to affect him more like a song would than a story: a lullabye almost. He read of Arthur walking into battle, carrying an icon of the Virgin above him. There were mighty blows, armies with their mounted shock troops, great knights clothed in chainmail hauberks astride elephantine destriers, and in the center Arthur holding what seemed to be a story within a story, an icon that opened out onto something larger, and yet something he could not see in his mind’s eye.
Then at another place he read as Arthur crossed land and sea and placed his sword on the ground and claimed a second Britain, and then gave of his knights, his brothers, and his substance to make a place like Great Britain, with forests and orchards, fields and towns, until he had given what he could of his spirit to make a Little Britain.
George looked through and began to see things weaving in and out: an intensity, a concentration, and not just that he was entering another time but he was entering another time, though he could not tell how it was different: he only sensed that time moved differently, and that his watch told something very different.
Then all of this seemed to crystallize as a grievously wounded Sir Lancelot came to an hospitable knight and Elaine his daughter spent endless time healing his wounds. Love so overwhelmed her that she poured herself out with such intensity that when Lancelot left for the only woman he could love, her body emptied of spirit and life floated on a bier in a boat until Arthur’s court wept at the most piteous tale of her love. George found himself wishing he could weep.
—over hill, over dale until the night was black, and neither candle nor star pierced it. The great knight his destrier shook the earth. The great knight was clad in a double coat of mail and the shaft of his greater spear was as a weaver’s beam. Then he did stop to dismount and his own steps shook the earth.
Before him was a chalice of purest gold, radiant with light—radiant as the day. He walked before it, his steps shook the earth, and he stood taller than ever he did stand, until his hand grasped it.
The light blazed brighter and a voice in the air spake, “Lancelot, Lancelot, why mockest thou me?” The light blazed, and Sir Lancelot fell against the ground in tremors, and his horse fled far away in terror.
Then Sir Lancelot spake a question which I will not tell you.
The voice answered with words not lawful for man to write, and the pure gold chalice vanished and the light with it.
The knight wist not why he ran, and later he awoke him in a strange place where there were neither man nor beast in sight.
George closed the book. He had been reading for a long time, he told himself. What was there to do?
He looked around the school website for clubs and organizations, and none of the many things people were doing caught his eye. He walked around the campus, looking at the buildings. He went to the library and wandered around the bookshelves, and picked up a few items but set them down. Then he returned to his room and sat down for a while.
He was bored for the rest of the day.
That night, as he dreamed, he saw a castle, and walked into it. Whenever he looked at his body, he saw what looked like his ordinary clothing, and yet he believed he was wearing armor. He walked through hallways, chambers, the great hall, even dungeons, trying to see what he was searching for. At last he was in a room where he heard people, and smelt something ineffable. He caught a glimpse of a chalice that he could not see, yet he sensed its silhouette, bathed in indescribable light on either side, and he saw light rising above its core. But he never succeeded in seeing it.
He awoke from the strain to see it. He heard birdsong, and the fingers of the light of the dawn were brushing against his face.
Something crystallized in George’s mind, and he did not need to tell himself, “I am on a quest.”
The next day he went into the city to look around in the medieval institute, and tried to see what was there. He managed to walk at a brisk pace, almost run, through the museum, and was nervous over whether he would get out by the time he had to leave to catch dinner. Nothing caught his eye; nothing seemed interesting; everything seemed good only for a glimpse.
There was something eating at him.
During the next week, George discovered online reproduction sword dealers and looked at the perfectly machined character of the many closeup images available online. He didn’t buy anything, but after the week thinking and failing to find other places, George returned to the museum. Maybe there was something he had missed.
He stopped at the first sword.
The sword, or what was left of it, looked like it had been eaten by worms, if that were possible. The deeply pitted surface intrigued him; it had all the surface of the complexity of a rock, and he thought that if he could take a magnifying glass or a zoomed-in camera lens to this or that part, it could pass for the intricate surface of a volcanic rock.
The handle didn’t look right at all. It was a thin square rod connecting a thick blade and a thicker pommel, and seemed the very definition of “ergonomically incorrect,” as if it had been designed to gouge the wearer’s hand or generate blisters. It held for George something of the fascination of a car wreck. Why on earth had the museum put such a poor-quality specimen on display?
Then he read the rather large plaque.
The plaque read:
This sword was excavated in what is now Cornwall in Great Britain and dates to the 5th or 6th century AD. It is considered to be remarkably well-preserved, being one of few such finds to be straight and in one solid piece, the metal part lacking only a handguard, and is one of this museum’s prized holdings and one of the most valuable gifts from an anonymous donor. The handle, of which only the metal tang remains, was probably wood or possibly other organic materials.
Think for a moment about the time and place this sword would have come from. Everything was made by hand, and there was little wealth: owning a sword would have been like owning a car today. Microscopic examination suggests that this sword was made for someone wealthy, as there are tiny fragments of gold embedded in the blade.
What was life like when nothing was made by machines or mass-produced and therefore things were more expensive and there was less you could buy? What was life when you could not travel faster than a horse and what we today call information could not travel faster than people? What would your life have been like when you would have probably been born, lived, and died within a few miles of the same spot? Life was hard.
But then look at the other side of the coin: can you think of anything people then would have had that you do not have today?
George looked at the sword, and tried to imagine it whole. At least he could tell what shape it suggested. And he tried to think about what the placard said, with none of the technologies he was used to. What would one do? Practice at swordplay? Wander in the forest?
George saw in his mind’s eye Sir Lancelot kneeling on one knee, his sword point in earth, his sword pointing down, taking an oath. Then George looked over the sword again and it looked like Lancelot’s sword: he imagined Sir Lancelot—or was it George?—laying his right hand on the sword and taking a mighty oath, and for a moment the sword in the museum took its full cruciform shape. And then as his eyes traced over the contours of the sword, it looked almost a relic, and he saw now one thing, now another: one scene fromBrocéliande gave way to another, and something tugged at his heart.
He tried to imagine a great feast given by King Arthur to his nobles. There was something of that feast right in front of him, and it seemed to suggest an unfolding pageant. Knights and Ladies dined with uproarious laughter, while minstrels sung enchanting ballads, and—
George realized someone was tapping on his shoulder. “Sir? Excuse me, but it’s time for you to leave.”
George turned and saw a security guard, and in puzzlement asked her, “Why? Have I done something wrong?”
She smiled and said, “You haven’t done anything wrong, but I’m sorry, the museum is now closing. Come back another day!”
George looked out a window and saw that the daylight had completely fled. He realized he was very hungry.
He left after briefly saying, “Thank-you.”
When he arrived home he was even hungrier, but even before he began eating he began looking through the same sites, selling swords.
None of them looked real to him.
After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:
Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.
Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.
Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.
Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.
Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.
Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”
Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.
George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.
George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.
George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.
Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.
He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.
George sat bolt upright on his bunk, awake in a cold sweat, and hit his head on the ceiling.
The next day, George went to the medieval history library that was almost at the center of the campus, housed in a white limestone tower with one timeworn spire, and intricately woven with passages like rabbit holes. The librarian was nowhere in sight, and owing to his eccentricities the library still had only a paper card catalog, emanating a strange, musty aroma. George started to walk towards it, before deciding to wander around the shelves and get a feel for things medieval. The medieval history librarian was rumored to be somewhat eccentric, and insisted on a paper card catalog with no computers provided, which many of the students said might as well have been medieval.
His first read traced the development of symbol from something that could not give rise to science to something that apparently paved the way in that a symbol and what it refers to were no longer seen as connected. It seemed hard to follow, some where the argument was obscure and even more when he followed the reasoning: he grasped it and grasped it not. As he read, he read of the cultivation of cabbages and tales of kings, and whether grotesques could let pigs have wings. He read of boys doing the work of men and men who acted like boys, of children who asked for bread and their fathers would give them stones in their bread, of careful historians ages before the great discovery of history and classicists preserving the ancient life after the ancient life met its demise, of strange things that turned familiar and yet familiar things turned strange, of time becoming something a clock could measure, of those who forged, those who plagiarized, and arguments today why no medieval author should be accused of plagiarism for what he copied, and yet he read of a world where few died of old age and minor cuts and illnesses could kill. He read of the problem of underpopulation, the challenge of having enough births, and untold suffering when there were not enough people.
Yet to speak this way is deceptive, because all these wonders and more were made pedestrian. The more he studied, the fewer wonders he met, or at least the fewer wonders he could find, and the more he met a catalog of details. He read the chronicles of kings and those seeking what could be recovered through them, and however much he read King Arthur was not mentioned once. Though he spent weeks searching in the library, the haunting beauty of Brocéliande had been rare to begin with and now he wot of it not none.
And the fruitless search for the history of Arthur led him to knock on the librarian’s door.
“I’m in a bad mood. Leave me alone!”
“You can come in if you must, but you would be better off leaving.”
“I’ve looked all over and found neither hide nor hair of a book on King Arthur. Does this library have nothing on him?”
“King Arthur? No, not this part of the library; look in the appropriate sections on the electronic card catalog in the regular library.”
“But I want to know the history of Arthur.”
“The history of King Arthur?!? What can you possibly mean?”
“I had been reading about King Arthur outside the library.”
“The general library has a number of the original sources, along with more literary criticism than one person can possibly read, and what little the history of literature knows about more and less obscure authors. And our literature department has several renowned scholars on Arthurian literature. But why are you trying to find King Arthur in a medieval history library? That’s as silly as looking for the history of the animals in Aesop’s fables.”
“You don’t believe in Arthur?”
“No, I don’t. Though I could be wrong. A lot of scholars, wrong as they may be, believe there was an Arthur around the 6th century, a warrior owning a horse, though the consensus is that he was not a king. These—”
“So Arthur was a knight and not a king?!?”
“No, he wasn’t a knight. He couldn’t have been. If there ever was such a person.”
“But you said he had a horse and—”
“You’re making a basic historical mistake if you’re imagining a warrior then, even one with a horse, as a ‘knight‘. It would like a historian five or six centuries from now studying our technology, and knowing that Saint Thomas Aquinas was an author, imagining him doing Google searches and composing, in Latin of course, on his computer’s word processor.
“Warriors owned horses, but stirrups hadn’t reached Arthur’s supposed land, and without a stirrup it is almost impossible to fight while mounted. A horse was a taxi to get a warrior to battle to fight on foot like everybody else, and nothing more. A warrior with a horse was a warrior with a better taxi to get to the scene of battle. A knight, on the most material level, is an almost invincible mounted shock troop compared to the defenseless-as-children so-called ‘infantry.’ And then you have the ideal, almost the mythos, of chivalry that developed about these mighty brutal warriors.
“The Arthurian legends were never even close to history to begin with, even if they hadn’t grown barnacles on top of barnacles, like… a bestseller with too many spinoffs. All the versions have their own anachronisms, or rather the earlier versions are nothing like anachronisms, projecting a legendary past for the kind of knight that was then becoming fashionable. You have a late medieval Sir Thomas Mallory fitting knights with plate armor that would have been as anachronous for an Arthur of the 5th or 6th century to wear as it would have been for a knight of Mallory’s day to be equipped with today’s Kevlar version of a bulletproof vest.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly big deal for there to be anachronisms; the idea that anachronism is a problem is a complete anachronism in evaluating medieval literature; saying that Chrétien de Troyes built an anachronous social ideal is as silly as complaining that the accounts of animals in a medieval bestiary are not doing the same job in the same way as a scientific biology textbook. Of course they aren’t, but you’re being equally silly to read a medieval bestiary as something that should be empirical scientific biology.
“Of course, getting back to anachronism, Mallory has guns which—”
“Guns?!? Machine guns? Handguns? Rifles?” George said.
“Nothing fancy, just early cannon, not a modern assault rifle. But there are none the less guns in the pivotal late medieval version of the story, which had Arthur’s son and nephew, Mordred, besieging—”
“Which one was Mordred, and what was the other one’s name?” George said.
“‘Which one’? What do you mean…” The librarian said, pausing. “Aah, you get it. For that matter, the stories tend to include endless nobles whose family tree is, like a good nobility family tree, more of a family braid, and—”
It was around then that the conversation became something that George remembered with the confused memory of a dream. He knew that the librarian had explained something, but the closest he could come to remembering it was a discussion of how networked computers as the next generation of computing contributed to a unique medieval synthesis, or what actually seemed to make more sense of the shape of that “memory,” the sound of an elephant repeatedly ramming stone walls.
What he remembered next was walking—walking through the library, walking around campus, walking through the forest, and then…
Had he been asked, he might have been collected enough to say that this was the first time in a long while he was not on a quest.
What was he doing now?
Was he doing anything?
Where was George?
He was lost, although that didn’t register on his mind. Or perhaps he wasn’t lost, if “lost” means not only that you don’t know where you are, but that you wish you knew.
George was in the city somewhere, if that was where he was. A great forest of steel, glass, and brick. Some was adorned by graffiti, other bits by ugly paint. This was definitely not the castle to him, but the wild wood, much more the wild wood than what was merely a place with many trees and few buildings. What made the wood a wood and not like a castle, anyway?
George looked around. In front of him was a boarded-up restaurant. The sign said, “Closed for minor renovations. REOPENING SOON.” Its paint looked chipped and timeworn, and from what he could see looking in the dirty windows, it was dusty inside. What, exactly, did the menu say? George could see the menu, and some pictures of what was probably supposed to be food, but even though he was on the edge of hunger, the hazy blurs did nothing to make his mouth water.
George walked a good distance further, and saw the bright colors of a store, and heard music playing. He wandered in.
Inside, the store was bustling with activity. Just inside, there was a demonstration of electronic puppies: an employee was showing the puppy off. On a whim, George walked over.
The young woman was saying words commands which the puppy sometimes did not respond to. She handed it to children to pet, who responded with exuberant warmth. But the more George watched the scene, the more the whole scene seemed off-kilter.
The puppies were cute, but there seemed to be something much less cute when they moved. What was it? The puppy’s animation seemed neither like a cute stuffed animal nor like a toy robot. It seemed like a robot in a puppy costume, but the effect was… almost vampiric.
Then George looked at the employee again. She was quite attractive, but her smile and the exaggerated energy for her role… reminded George of makeup almost covering dark circles under someone’s eyes.
He ducked into an aisle. Below were not only unflavored dental floss and mint floss, but many different kinds of floss in all different colors, thicknesses, and several different flavors. But the choices in the actual floss were dwarfed by the choices in the cases: purple-and-pink containers of floss for preteen girls, larger rough-looking containers made of dark stonelike plastic for a man’s man, and sundry groups—including trainers for babies who were still teething. George saw a sign above a display that said, “We bring you the freedom TO CHOOSE!”
He tried not to think about sledgehammers. He tried.
George was looking for a reason to stay in the store. There was eye-catching color everywhere, and he saw a section of posters, and started flipping through art posters, looking for something to buy, until he saw the sign above the posters. It said, “Priceless masterpieces from the greatest museums of the world, conveniently made available to you in American standard poster size and format, for only $4.99 each.”
Somehow the store’s showmanlike displays seemed a bit hollow. George left.
George wandered out, something not quite clicking in his mind. He knocked on the building next door, and a voice said, “Just a minute; come in.” He opened the door and saw a sight in shadows. A man was heading out a door. “As soon as I’ve finished taking out the trash and washed my hands, I can help you.”
A short while later, the man emerged. “Hi. I’m Fr. Elijah.” He extended his hand, his head and hands standing out against the darkness and his dark robe, and shook George’s hand. George said, “I’m George.”
“What can I do for you?”
George stopped, and thought. He said, “I was just looking around while I was waiting for my thoughts to clear.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Are you a student?”
George said, “Yes.”
Fr. Elijah said nothing, but it did not seem he needed to say anything just then. George was growing calm.
“May I offer you something to drink? I was just going to make tea, and I don’t have a full range of soft drinks, but there should be something worth drinking. There’s a pitcher of ice-cold water if you don’t care for an old man’s coffee or tea.”
George said “Yes.”
“Wonderful. Come with me.” The two began walking, and they sat down.
George looked at him.
Fr. Elijah said, “Please sit down,” motioning to an armchair. “Did you want coffee, water, or tea? I have cookies. Oh, and there’s milk too.”
George smiled. “Could I have a chalice of milk?”
Fr. Elijah turned to get the cookies, a cup and some milk.
George said, “I meant to say a cup of milk. Sorry, I was trying to be a little more serious.”
Fr. Elijah said, “You can explain, or not explain. It’s your choice. But I think you were being serious. Just not the way you expected. But we can change the subject. Do you have a favorite book? Or has anything interesting happened to you lately? I can at least listen to you.”
George said, “I was just at the store nearby.”
Fr. Elijah asked, “What do you think of it?”
George said, “Are you sure you won’t be offended?”
Fr. Elijah said, “One of the things I have found in my work is that people can be very considerate about not being offensive, but sometimes I have something valuable to learn with things people think might offend me.”
“Ever wonder about the direction our society has headed? Or see something that left you wishing you could still wonder about that?”
“A lot of people do.”
“I was already having a bad day when I wandered into a store, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any more crass, they got more crass. I’ve just been invited to buy an identity with the help of a market-segment dental floss container.”
“You’re a man after my own heart. I’ve heard that the store manager has some pretty impressive connections. I’ve heard that if none of the dental floss containers in the store suit the identity you want to have, and you ask the manager, he can get your choice of floss in a custom container made by a sculptor to meet your whims!”
“But isn’t there more to life than that?”
“I certainly hope so! Oh, and did I mention that I’ve found that store an excellent place for important shopping for April Fools’ Day? I’m hoping to get my godson horribly artificial sugary-sweet tasting lacy pink floss in a container covered by red and white hearts and words like ‘Oochie-pooh.’ He’ll hit the roof! On second thought, he’ll be expecting such a gift… I should probably give it to him on what you’d consider August 12.”
“Why? What’s special about August 12?”
“That’s a bit of a labyrinth to sort out. Some Orthodox keep the old Julian calendar, while some keep the ‘new’ civil calendar, which means that those who preserve the old calendar, even if we manage not to go off in right field, are thirteen days ‘late’ for saints’ days, celebrating July 30, the Feast of Saint Valentine, on what you’d consider August 12. What you call Valentine’s Day is the Western celebration of the saint we celebrate on another day, and it’s a bit of a Western borrowing to use it for pseudo-romantic purposes to pick on my godson, as that saint’s feast did not pick up all the Western romantic connotations; Saint Valentine’s story is a typical story of a bishop who strengthened people against paganism and was martyred eventually. Every day is a feast of some sort, and every feast—that is, every day—has several saints to celebrate… but I’m going on and on. Have I confused you yet?”
“Um, ‘right field’? What does that mean?”
“Oops, sorry, personal expression. In the West people go out in left field and go loony liberal. In Orthodoxy, people go out in right field and go loony conservative. Some of the stuff I’ve been told would make me at least laugh if I didn’t want to cry so badly. Sorry, I’m rambling, and I was trying to hear you out when it looked like you’ve had a rough day, right up to a store telling you there was nothing more to hope for in life than things like dental floss with a container designed for your market segment. Let me let you change the subject.”
“Um, you’re probably wondering why I said, ‘chalice of milk.'”
“I would be interested in hearing that, but only if you want to tell. I have a guess, but I really don’t want you to feel obligated to say something you’d rather not.”
“What is your guess?”
“That you said ‘chalice of milk’ for an interesting reason that probably has an interesting connection to what, in life, you hope goes beyond the trivialities you were pushed into at that store. A chalice, whatever that means to you, is something deeper and richer.”
George opened his mouth, then closed it for a moment, and said, “Does a chalice mean anything to you?”
“Oh, yes. A chalice means quite a lot to me.”
“What does it mean to you?”
“George, have you ever seen a chalice?”
“No, but it’s pretty important in something I’ve read.”
“Would you like to see a chalice?”
“The chalice I’ve read about was made of purest gold. I’d imagine that if you have a fancy wine glass, maybe lead crystal, it would look poorer than what I’d imagine, and there are some things that are big enough that I’d rather not imagine.”
“Well, there are some things that are bigger than can be seen, and that includes a chalice. But the chalice I have—I can’t show it to you now—has the glint of gold, which has more layers than I can explain or know.”
“Is there a time you can show it to me?”
“Yes, come during the Divine Liturgy, and you can see the chalice from which I serve the Eucharist. I can’t explain—I know this offends some people, and I will understand if you are offended—that it would not be good for me to give you the Eucharist if you are not Orthodox. But you can see the chalice as it holds a treasure infinitely more valuable than its goldwork.”
“What is that?”
“Isn’t that just a symbol?”
“Hmm, there are six hundred ways to respond to that. I can get into some of the intricacies later. If you want. Or we need never talk about it. But…
“Saying the Eucharist is ‘just a symbol’ is as silly as saying that the Eucharist is ‘just the body and blood of Christ’. What else do you want it to be—a designer container of dental floss?”
George’s laugh was interrupted by a knock at a door. Fr. Elijah looked at his watch, and his face fell. He said, “Just when the conversation was getting interesting! I’m sorry; I have an appointment.”
George said, “Well, I won’t take any more of your time; I’ll come on Sunday. What time?”
“The Divine Liturgy starts at 9:00 Sunday morning; I’m sorry, that isn’t a very good time for college students. Arriving five minutes late isn’t a big deal. Most of the professors of campus can give you directions to my parish, the Church of the Holy Trinity. And bother that I have to end our talk!”
“That’s OK. Do you have some literature that you want to give me? Where are your pamphlets?”
“Hmm, that would take some time to explain, and I can explain later if you want. But I don’t have any pamphlets. If you want a book I can go to the library and you can borrow one. But Orthodox people don’t usually feel obligated to stuff your pockets with as much paper as we can and leave you walking away feeling guilty that you dread the prospect of reading it. Come back; I enjoyed talking with you, and if you want I can get something from the library. But only if you want. Please excuse me.” Fr. Elijah stood up and bowed slightly, but reverently, to George as they shook hands.
“Coming!” Fr. Elijah said. “I’m sorry; I was just trying to wrap up a conversation. Please come in. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I’ve been looking forward to it.”
George stepped out, and walked out. He stopped by a window to look into the Church building again.
He could tell nothing that looked to him like a chalice, but everywhere was the glint of gold.
George wandered back with a spring in his step.
He returned home and opened Brocéliande, and read:
Blaise turned at a slow step. “Why callest thou thyself empty? Hast thou none, my son?”
Merlin answered him. “Forgive me, my master, my lord.”
The wind was deadly still.
Blaise turned even more fully. “What is it, my pupil?”
Merlin reached out his hand. A mighty wind blew, such as openeth doors that be closed and closeth doors that be open.
An apple tree shook of a violence and apples met their place on the humble earth, all apples did so which fell, save one which Merlin his hand did close upon it.
The wind blew and blew, stronger and stronger it blew, and Blaise looked upon Merlin, and spake: “Flyest thou now, my hawk?”
Merlin his chaste teeth closed in on the apple, and the great and mighty wind closed a door against the stone and hushed to become a soft murmuring breeze, as a still small voice.
Merlin looked upon his master. “Though the Grail remain a secret and a secret remain the Grail, men shall know it even under its cloak of samite most red. When a man shall grasp the secret of the Grail then shall he grasp the mystery of the Trinity.”
Blaise looked upon his servant. “And who shall be in that grasp?”
Merlin spake softly. “My lord, I wit me not.”
Blaise said, “My lord, it is well with thee.”
Merlin abode in a quiet still spirit.
The hours and days passed quickly, until it was Sunday and George left a little early and arrived at the Church of the Holy Trinity early, looked at his watch and saw 8:53 AM.
He stepped inside and found things suddenly cool. There was a dazzling darkness, with pure candlelight and lamplight glittering off of gold, with fragrances of smoke and beeswax and incense. There was a soft chanting, and the funny thing was that it was hard to say whether the Church seemed full or empty. He saw few people, even for the small space, but he had rather a sense that the place was full of worshipers, mostly unseen. He could feel glory, almost as a weight.
There seemed to be a continuous faint commotion as people entered, went to the front, doing something he could not tell, and walked around. He stood as most people were standing, although some were sitting and people seemed to bow or move their hands. It is not exactly that George did not feel conspicuous as to how he was standing out, as that that was not quite the greatest way he felt conspicuous.
How did he feel conspicuous? George found no answer he liked. The whole situation seemed foreign to him, and for the first time it did not seem so much that he was examining something but that something, or someone, was examining him and judging him.
Something happened. Or rather, this time the something that happened meant that people were sitting down, in pews around the edges or on the floor, and the chant had become ordinary speech. Fr. Elijah said,
In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last week after Liturgy, little John came up to me and said, “Fr. Elijah, I have a question.” “What, I asked.” “I saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Friday and it was really, really cool! Could you tell me all about the Ark?” So I paused in thought, and exercised a spiritual father’s prerogative. I said, “You know what? That’s a good question. Let me think a bit and I’ll answer that question in my homily.” And when his father said, “But weren’t you going to—” I said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll blame the homily on him, and if people find it duller than a worn-out butter knife, they can call you at work and complain.” And finally I got him to crack a faint smile.
So this is the homily I’m blaming on him. First of all, the Ark of the Covenant is a spiritual treasure, and is spiritually understood. It is not lost, but it is found in a much deeper way than some expect. For it is both a what and, more deeply, a who. You can look up in fact where it is, and the amazing thing is that it is still guarded as a relic rather than treated simply as something that merely belongs in a museum, and the hidden Ark is in fact greater than if it were displayed in a showcase. It is one of many treasures the Church guards, and it is at the Church of our Lady Mary gof Zion in the Ethiopian city of Axum. I’ve been there, even if I could not see the Ark. But the Ark which holds the bread from Heaven and the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed is in the shadow of the Ark to whom we sing, “Rejoice, O Volume wherein the Word was inscribed” and whose womb is a garden of spiritual treasures, “more spacious than the Heavens” as we say, by whom we are given the greater and in fact greatest Bread from Heaven. When we read of the Ark coming to King David and of the Theotokos or Mother of God coming to Lady Elizabeth, there are some surprising parallels which seem stunning until we recognize that that is just how Luke might be telling us that the Theotokos is someone to whom the Ark hints. There is a profound connection to the Arthurian legends, in which the Sir Galahad is granted to see into the Holy Grail and beholds a wonder beyond the power of words to tell. And it is in fact a misunderstanding on a number of levels to think that that rich Grail is confined to—
If George were sitting on a chair, he might have fallen off it. He was, fortunately, sitting on the floor. When he caught himself enough to follow the words, he listened closely:
…these other images. It was from the virgin earth that the first Adam, by whom we all live natural life, was taken. It was from the parched earth of the Virgin Theotokos that the last Adam, by whom we are called to the divine life, was given. And still this is not to tell how the first Adam, wanting to become God, lost his divinity, until God became the Last Adam, raising up Adam that all of us who bear Adam’s likeness might become divine, bearing the likeness of God. Death entered when we took and ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and now everlasting begins when we obey the summons to take and eat the Fruit from the Tree of Life.
Is it possible to call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail? Yes and amen. We can call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail in a very deep sense. She spoke before the Emperor, and that incident is why after all these years Christians still color Easter eggs, red eggs for the Orthodox Church as the were for Mary Magdalene, when she presented a red egg to the Emperor, perhaps miraculously. There are only a few dozen people the Church has ever honored more. She bears the rank of “Equal to the Apostles,” and an angel told her the mysterious news of the Resurrection, and it was she who told the Apostles who in turn would be sent (“Apostle” means “Sent One”) to the uttermost ends of the earth.
The Holy Grail is that vessel which first held the blood of Christ, and it is the shadow of that symbol in which the body and blood of Christ become real so that they can transform us. The Eucharist is misunderstood through the question of just what happens when the priest consecrates the gift, because the entire point of the transformation of the gifts is the transformation of the faithful so that we can be the Body of Christ and have the divine blood, the royal bloodline, the divine life coursing through our veins. God the Father the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each the King for whom every kingdom is named, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is more, not less, of a Kingdom than the kingdoms we can study on earth.
In the third prayer before communion, we are invited to pray, “O Thou Who by the coming of the Comforter, the Spirit, didst make thy sacred disciples precious vessels, declare me also to be a receptacle of his coming.” Mary Magdalene bears powerful witness to what a disciple can be if she becomes a humble earthen vessel in which there is another coming of Christ. She became the Holy Grail, as does every one of us transformed by the power of Christ’s body and blood. If you only ask questions about the transformation of bread and wine, the Holy Grail is merely a what… but if you recognize the larger transformation that has the smaller transformation as a microcosm, the Holy Grail can also be a who: you and I.
It would take much longer to even begin to speak of that nobility of which you will only find the trace and shadow if you study royalty and their bloodlines. I have spoken enough.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
George was at once attracted, entranced, repulsed, and terrified. It seemed like more than he had dared to dream was proclaimed as truth, but that this meant he was no longer dealing with his choice of fantasy, but perhaps with reality itself. The chanting resumed. There was a procession, and what was in it? Ornate candles, a golden spoon and something that looked like a miniature golden lance, something covered with a cloth but that from its base might have been an intricately worked golden goblet, a cross that seemed to be glory itself, and other things he could not name. It was not long before George heard, “The holy things are for those who are holy,” and the reply—was it a correction?—immediately followed: “One is holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”
George wanted to squirm when he heard the former, and when he heard the latter, he headed for the door. The spiritual weight he had been feeling seemed more intense; or rather, it seemed something he couldn’t bear even though he hoped it would continue. He felt, just for a moment that this was more than him having an experience, but he failed to put his finger on what more it might be.
Once outside, he tried to calmly walk home, but found himself running.
George found himself walking, but in completely unfamiliar surroundings. He spent a good deal of time wandering until he recognized a major road, and walked alongside it until he returned home, hungry and parched.
He opened Brocéliande for a moment, but did not feel much like reading it. George went to check his email, began looking through his spam folder—to see if anything important got through, he told himself—and found himself wandering around the seedier side of the net.
In the days that followed, people seemed to be getting in his way, his homework was more of a waste of time, and somehow Brocéliande no longer seemed interesting.
Friday, George missed dinner and went, hungry, to a crowded store where a white-haired man stood right between him and the food he wanted… not only blocking the aisle with his cart, but adding a third 12-pack of soda to the bottom of his cart… and seeming to take forever to perform such a simple task.
After waiting what seemed too long, George refrained from saying “Gramps,” but found himself hissing through his teeth, “Do you need help getting that onto your cart?”
The white-haired man turned around in surprise, and then said, “Certainly, George, how are you?”
It was Fr. Elijah.
“Can, um, I help you get that in your cart?”
“Thank you, George, and I would appreciate if you would help me choose another one. Do you have a favorite soda?”
“This may sound silly, but Grape Crush. Why?”
“Help me find a 12-pack of it. I realized after you came that it was kind of silly for me to inviting people like you inside and not having any soda for them, and I’ve been procrastinating ever since. Aah, I think I see them over there. Could you put that under your cart?”
George began walking over to the Grape Crush.
Fr. Elijah asked, less perfunctorily, “How are you, George?” and reached out his hand. At least George thought Fr. Elijah was reaching out his hand, but it was as if Fr. Elijah was standing on the other side of an abyss of defilement, and holding out a live coal.
Fr. Elijah shook George’s hand.
George tried to find his footing on shifting ground, and managed to ask, “Fr. Elijah, how are you going to get that soda out to your car?”
“Usually someone from the store helps me put things in my trunk or something; I’ve never found a grocery store to be a place where nothing is provided.”
The chasm yawned; George felt as if he were clothed in filthy rags.
“Um, and at home?”
“The Lord always provides something. Sorry, that sounded super spiritual. Usually it’s not too long before someone strong comes by and can carry things.”
George tried to smile. “I’m fine. How are you?”
Fr. Elijah made no answer with words. He smiled a welcoming smile, and somehow the store began to remind him of Fr. Elijah’s office.
George kept waiting for Fr. Elijah to say something more, to answer, but Fr. Elijah remained silent. There seemed to be a warmth about him, as well as something he feared would burn his defilement, but Fr. Elijah remained silent, and pushed his cart, which had a small armload of groceries and a heavy weight of soda cases, to the register.
“I can help you load things into your car, Fr. Elijah.”
Fr. Elijah turned with warmth. Gratitude was almost visible in his features, but he remained strangely silent.
George momentarily remembered to grab a sandwich, then returned to Fr. Elijah in line.
George began to wonder why Fr. Elijah was not speaking to him. Or rather, that was the wrong way to put it. George could not accuse Fr. Elijah of being inattentive, but why was he silent?
George began to think about what he had been doing, and trying not to, to think of something else, to think of something else to talk about. But images returned to his mind, and a desire to—he certainly couldn’t mention that.
Where were they? Fr. Elijah had just pushed the cart to his car, and slowly fumbled with his keys to unlock his trunk. George thought with a shudder about what it would be like to an old man to load cases of soda, even 12-packs.
“I can help you unload the soda at your house.”
Fr. Elijah turned and made the slightest bow.
Once inside the car, George made a few nervous remarks about the weather. Fr. Elijah simply turned with what must have been a fatherly smile, but said nothing.
George did not consider himself strong, but it was only a few minutes for him to get the handful of cases of soda tucked into a slightly messy closet.
Once back in the car, Fr. Elijah seemed to arrive almost immediately at the dorm.
George said, “Now I remember. I wouldn’t ask for another ride back, but I should have asked to borrow a book from your library.”
Fr. Elijah turned. “Should you?”
George said, “What do you mean, should I? Are you mad at me? Didn’t you tell me that I could borrow any book in your library if you wanted?”
Fr. Elijah said, “For all I am concerned now, you may borrow the whole library, if you want to. Or keep it, if you want.”
“Then why don’t you want me borrowing a book now?”
“I have many good books you could read, but right now, you don’t really want one of my books.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you genuinely want to borrow a book, I will gladly talk with you and suggest what I think would be your deepest joy. But why are you asking me for a book now?”
“I thought it would be polite to…”
Fr. Elijah waited an interminable moment and said, “Something is eating you.”
George said, “You have no right to—”
Fr. Elijah said, “I have no right to this discussion, and neither do you. Thinking in terms of rights is a way to miss the glory we were made for. But let us stop looking at rights and start looking at what is beneficial. You don’t have to answer, but are you happy now?”
George waited, and waited, and waited for an escape route to open up. Then he said, and the saying seemed like he was passing through white-hot ice, “I’ve been looking at—”
Fr. Elijah said, “Stop, You’ve said enough.”
George said, “But how did you know?”
Fr. Elijah sighed, and for a moment looked like he wanted to weep. “George, I would like to say something deep and mysterious about some special insight I have into people’s souls, but that is not it. I am a father, a confessor, and one of the biggest sins I hear in confession—’biggest’ not because it is unforgivable; Jesus was always ready, more than ready, to forgive this kind of sin, but ‘biggest’ because it keeps coming up and causing misery, is the sort of sin you’ve been struggling with. I count myself very fortunate that I grew up in an age when you could have all the basic utilities without getting all sorts of vile invitations coming whether you want them or not, and I am glad that I do not feel obligated to purchase some nasty pills because I’m not a real man unless I have the same drives I had at the age of eighteen. What a miserably small and constricted caricature of manhood! I count myself a real man, much more because I have not suffered what tends to become such a dreary dissipation and deflation of any real manhood.”
George said, “You’re not mad?”
Fr. Elijah raised his hand, moved it up and down and side to side, and said, “I am blessing you, priceless son.”
George said, “How can I be free of this?”
Fr. Elijah said, “Come with me. Get back in the car.”
They drove for a few more minutes, neither one needing to say anything, until George noticed with alarm the shape of the hospital.
George said, “Where are we going?”
Fr. Elijah said, “To the emergency room.”
George looked around in panic. “I don’t have money for—”
“Relax. None of the treatment you will be receiving will generate bills.”
“What on earth are you—”
“I’m not telling you. Just come with me.”
They walked through a side door, George’s heart pounding, and George noticed two people approaching immediately.
Fr. Elijah turned momentarily, saying, “Buenos noches, Señoras,” and motioned with his hand for them to follow him.
As they and George followed, Fr. Elijah said, “Because of the triage in an emergency room, and because mere seconds are a matter of life and death in treating really severe injuries, people with relatively ‘minor’ injuries that still need medical attention can wait for an interminable amount of time.”
Fr. Elijah suddenly stopped. George saw a boy with skinned knees, whose mother was slowly working through paperwork. Fr. Elijah said, “Take away his pain.”
George looked at him, halfway to being dumbfounded. “What?”
Fr. Elijah said, “You heard me.” Then he turned and left, so that George saw only Fr. Elijah’s back and heard from him only broken Spanish.
George felt grateful that at least he wasn’t too easily grossed out. He could look at lacerated flesh and eat if he needed to. George sat next to the boy, smelled an overwhelming odor from his blood, and suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
George tried to refrain from swearing about what Fr. Elijah could possibly have meant. Badger the hospital into giving anaesthesia sooner? Kiss it and make it better? Use some psychic power he didn’t have? Find a switch on the back of the kid’s neck and reboot him?
For a while, nothing happened, until the boy stopped sobbing, and looked at him, a little bit puzzled.
George said, “Hi, I’m George.”
The boy said, “Mr. George.”
George tried to think of something to say. He said, “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo?”
“Really big holes all over Australia.”
The boy looked at him, but showed no hint of a smile.
“Do you not get it?” George asked.
The boy said, very quietly, “No.”
“An elephant has a lot of weight, and a kangaroo bounces up and down. If you put ‘weight’ and ‘bouncy’ together, then you get something that, when it bounces, is so heavy it makes big holes in the ground.”
The boy said nothing until George added, “That’s what makes it funny.”
The boy made himself laugh loudly, and just as soon winced in pain.
George tried to think of what to do. After a while, he asked, “What’s your favorite color?”
When the boy said nothing, George looked at his face and was surprised at the pain he saw.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Tommy.”
George thought about what to say. He began to tell a story. He told of things he had done as a boy, and funny things that had happened (the boy didn’t laugh), and asked questions which met with incomprehension. And this went on and on and on.
George wondered why he was having so much fun.
Then George looked at Tommy.
When was the last time George had even begun to do something for someone else?
George realized three things. First, he had stopped talking. Second, a hand was holding tightly to his sleeve. Third, there was something he was trying very hard not to think about.
George looked, and Tommy asked, “Mister, are you a knight? I want to be a knight when I grow up.”
George had never before felt such shame that he wished the earth would swallow him up.
“No, I am not a knight.”
“You seem like a knight.”
“You just do. Do you know anything about knights?”
“I’ve been reading a book.”
“What’s it called?”
“Tell me the story of Brookie-Land.”
“Because I haven’t read all of it.”
“What have you read?”
George closed his eyes. All he could remember now was a flurry of images, but when he tried to put them together nothing worked.
George was interrupted. “Do you have a suit of armor?”
Immediately, and without thought, George said, “What kind of armor? I mean, is it chain mail, like a steel, I mean iron, sweater, or is it the later plate armor that gets into the later depictions? Because if there were a King Arthur, he would—”
“Did King Arthur know powerful Merlin? Because Merlin could—”
“I’ve read a lot about Merlin—he could build a castle just with his magic. And it apparently matters whose son he is, but I couldn’t—”
“I want you to show me—”
A voice cut in. “Tommy!”
“Yes?” the boy said.
“The doctor is ready to see you… Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but—”
“Why does the doctor want to see me?”
“Because she wants to stitch up your knees, Silly Sweetie. Let the nurses roll you away. I’m glad—”
Tommy looked in puzzlement at his knees, saw how badly lacerated they were, and began screaming in pain.
There was a minor commotion as the nurses took Tommy in to be stitched up, or so George would later guess; he could never remember the moment. He only remembered walking around the emergency room, dazed.
Truth be told, though, George felt wonderful. He faintly noticed hearing Fr. Elijah’s voice, saying something in Spanish, and joined a group of people among whom he felt immediate welcome. Then the woman who was on the bed was taken in, and Fr. Elijah, and to his own surprise, George, bid farewell to the other members of the group.
George and Fr. Elijah were both silent for a long time in the car.
Fr. Elijah broke the silence.
“Would it be helpful to talk with me about anything?”
“I have to choose just one?”
“No, you can ask as many questions as you want.”
“Besides what I started to tell you—”
“When I was talking with that boy, I mean Tommy, the boy you introduced me to, I—I’m not sure I would have said exactly this, but I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Brocéliande and no time choosing to be with other people… would you keep that book for me, at least for a time?”
“I certainly could, but let’s look at our option. You sound less than fully convinced.”
“I don’t want to give it up.”
“Well, yes, I wouldn’t want to give it up either. But is that it?”
“No… I’m really puzzled. Just when I thought I had managed to stop thinking about never-never land and start thinking about Tommy, the kid asked me about never—I mean, he said that he wanted to grow up to be a knight, and he asked me if I was a knight. Which I am not.”
“That’s very mature of you…”
“What would you imagine yourself doing as the right thing?”
“Getting away from that silly desire and be with other people instead.”
“Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’?”
“Ok, I want to stop by my office before I drop you off at home, because I’m going to go against my word and give you literature to read. Although I only want you to read a few pages’ essay out of the book, unless you want to read more essays—is this OK?—”
“Because C.S. Lewis talked about the idea of unselfishness as a virtue, and said that there’s something pitiable about letting unselfishness be the center of goodness instead of the divine love. Or something like that. And the reason I remembered that is that somewhere connected with this is this terrible fear that people have that their desires are too strong, and maybe their desires are too much in need of being deepened and layered, except I think he only said, ‘too weak.’ Today I would add: in a much deeper way that you can remedy by dangerous pills in your spam.
“Maybe you don’t need to get rid of that book at all… maybe you should lend it to me for a time, and let me enjoy it, but maybe not even that is necessary.”
“My guess is that if you read enough in that book—or at least the ones I’ve read—you may notice a pattern. The knight goes to the company of the castle and then plunges into the woodland for adventure and quests, and you need a rhythm of both to make a good story. Or a good knight.”
“I fail to see how I could become a knight, or how knighthood applies to me.”
“Maybe that’s a can of worms we can open another time… For now, I will say that the reason the stories have knights doing that is not because the knights wore armor and rode horses, but because the people telling the stories were telling the stories of men. Who need both castle and wood. Keep reading Brocéliande, and push it further. Push it to the point that your college and your city are to you what the castle was to the knight. Or even so that you don’t see the difference. And alongside your trek into the enchanted wood, meet people. I would suggest that you find a way to connect with people, and work with it over time. If I may offer a prescription—”
“A priest is meant to be a spiritual physician, or at least that is what Orthodox understand. And part of the priest’s job is to prescribe something. If you’re willing.”
“I’ll at least listen.”
“First, I want you to spend some of your time with other people. Not all.”
“That’s something you need to decide, and even if I can offer feedback to you, I would not make that decision for you. You need to have a think about it.
“Second, something for you to at least consider… Come to me for confession. I cannot give the sacrament I give to Orthodox, but I can bless you. Which isn’t the immediate reason I mention it. Even if I were not to bless you, and even if Christ were not listening to your confession, there would still be power in owning up to what you have done. It gives power in the struggle.
“Third, do you access the Internet through a cable or through wireless?”
“An ethernet cable. I don’t have a laptop, and I’ve heard that the wireless network on campus is worth its weight in drool.”
“Do you have a USB key?”
“Then give me your Ethernet cable.”
“What kind of Luddite—”
“I’m not being a Luddite. I’m offering a prescription for you… There are different prescriptions offered for the needs of different people.”
“So for some people it is beneficial to visit—”
“For me it has been. When I was trying to figure out what was going on, I went to a couple’s house, and with their permission started looking through the pictures in their spam folder until I’d had more than enough. And I wept for a long time; I suddenly understood something I didn’t understand about what I was hearing in confession. I still pray for the people photographed and those looking at the photograph, and some of the women’s faces still haunt me—”
“The faces haunt you?”
“Yes. Understand that at my age, some temptations are weaker… but I looked at those faces and saw that each one was somebody’s daughter, or maybe somebody’s son, and my understanding is that it’s nothing pleasant to pose for those pictures. At least the faces I saw reminded me of an airline stewardess trying really hard to smile peacefully to someone who is being abrasive and offensive. But as I was saying, I count my hour of looking to be of the greatest spiritual benefit. But it would not benefit you, and it is my judgment that inyour case a little of what programmers call a ‘net vacation’—though I invite you to use lab and library computers—could help you in—”
“Do you know what it’s like to give up the convenience of computers in your room?”
“Do you know what it’s like to ride a horse instead of a car for a short time? I do…”
“But riding a horse is at least… like… um… it’s more like Arthur’s world, isn’t it?”
“If you want to look at it that way, you’re welcome to…” Fr. Elijah stopped the car and stepped out, saying, “Please excuse me for a moment.” The shuffling seemed to drag on, and Fr. Elijah stepped out with a book and got back in the car. “Oh, and I almost forgot. Please don’t make this a matter of ‘I won’t do such-and-such or even think about it,’ because trying not to think about a temptation is a losing game. I am inviting you to a trek from castle to wood, and wood to castle, with both feeding into a balance. Here is the book with ‘The Weight of Glory’ and other essays. Now…”
Calix College was in sight almost immediately, and Fr. Elijah waited outside George’s dorm for what became a surprisingly long time… he wondered if he should go up and see if George had changed his mind, and—
George walked out and handed him a cable in the dark. It was thick and stiff.
“I thought Ethernet cables weren’t this thick and stiff.”
“It’s my power cable. I put stuff I need on my USB key.”
“Goodbye, and George, one other thing…”
“There is no better time to be in a Church than when you know how unworthy you are.”
“I appreciate how much you’re stretching, but…”
“George, I want to ask you something.”
“I’ve been serving the Divine Liturgy for thirty-eight years now. How long have I been worthy to do so?”
“Is this a trick question? All thirty-eight?”
“It is indeed a trick question, but the answer is not ‘thirty-eight.’ I have never been worthy to serve the Divine Liturgy, nor have I ever been worthy to receive communion, nor have I ever been worthy to pray at Church, or anywhere else. We can talk about this if you like, but am not just being polite when I say that there is no better time to enter the Church than when you know yourself unworthy. Maybe we can talk later about what trumps unworthiness. For now, I wish you good night, and I would be delighted to see you join and adorn our company on Sunday.”
George climbed up in his room and sat in his armchair, and it felt like a throne. He was exhausted—and on the other side of shame. He began dutifully opening the C.S. Lewis book, glanced at the title, then tossed it aside. It was not what he really wanted. He picked upBrocéliande, wiped the dust off the cover with his hand, and opened to its middle, to its heart. George read:
rode until he saw a river, and in the river a boat, and in the boat a man.
The man was clad all in black, and exceeding simple he appeared. At his side was a spear, and was a basket full of oysters filled.
“I ask your pardon that I cannot stand. For the same cause I can not hunt, for I am wounded through the thighs. I do what I might, and fish to share with others.”
The knight rode on, Sir Perceval he hyght, until he came upon a castle. And in that castle he met a welcome rich, before a King all in sable clad round, and a sash of purple royal girt about his head, and full majestic he looked.
Then in walked a youth, bearing a sword full straight, for it were not falchion neither scimitar, but a naked sword with a blade of gold, bright as light, straight as light, light as light. The very base of that sword were gem work, of ivory made and with sapphires encrusted. And the boy was girt tightly with a baldric and put the sword in its place. In utmost decorum the sword hung at his side.
The boy placed what he shouldered at the feet of the King.
Spake the King: “I ask your forgiveness that I do not rise. Partake of my feast.”
Simpler fare was never adorned by such wealth of wisdom. The body was nourished, and ever more spirit in the fare that was read.
Anon processed one man holding a candelabra of purest gold with seven candles, anon another, anon a maiden mother holding a Grail, it was such a holy thing! Anon a lance that ever bore three drops of blood. And ever Perceval wondered, and never Perceval spake, though it passed many a time. With a war inside him Sir Perceval kept him his peace. Anon the King spake, “See thou mine only food,” and anon came the Grail holding not a stone neither a snake but a single wheaten host, afloat as a pearl in a sea of wine, red as blood. And never the King ate he none else.
Here a page was ripped out from Brocéliande, with yellowed marks where once tape failed to mend what was torn.
The damsel arose from her weeping. “Perceval! Perceval! Why askedst thou not thine enquiry?”
George soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Saturday he rested him all the day long: barely he stirred.
In his dream, George heard a song.
All was in darkness.
The song it came out of a mist, like as a mist, melodic, mysterious, piercing, like as a prayer, mighty, haunting, subtle, token of home and a trace of a deep place. How long this continued he wot not.
The one high, lilting voice, tinged with starlight, became two, three, many, woven in and out as a braid of three strands, or five, or ten, as a Celtic knot ever turning in and out. And as it wove in and out, it was as the waters of a lake, of an ocean, of a sea, and George swam in them. George was ever thirsty, and ever he swam. He swam in an ever-rippling reflection of the Heavens at midnight, a sea of unending midnight blue and living sapphire.
George’s feet sunk and he walked on the noiseless loam. Up about him sprung blades of grass and he walked into a forest growing of emerald and jade atop pillars of sculpted earth. Anon he walked slowly and slowly he saw a farm with the green grass of wheat growing of the fertile fecund field.
Upon a ruins he came, a soft, silent place where a castle still lingered and the verdant moss grew. Then through a city he walked, a city alive and vibrant in its stones, though its streets were a for a moment at a rest from its men. And in that city, he walked into the Church his heart, and found a tome opened upon a wooden stand entwined by vines.
George looked for a moment at the volume, and for a moment he saw letters of sable inscribed in a field argent. Then the words shifted, grew older, deepened into the depth of a root and the play of quicksilver. The script changed, the words spoke from afar, and became one word whose letters were hidden as behind a veil, one word inscribed at once in ciphers of luminous gold and congealed light that filled the book and shone all around it until—
George was awake, bright awake, wide awake, looking at a window the color of sunrise.
He arose to greet the coming of the dawn.
George went to Church and arrived almost an hour earlier than the 9:00 Fr. Elijah had given, and found to his surprise that although there were few other people, things had already begun. The fragrance of frankincense flowed and gold glittered, and he caught a word here and a phrase there—”Volume wherein the Word was inscribed,” “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,” “Blessed is the Kingdom,” “Lord have mercy.” Then he heard a phrase he had heard innumerable times in other contexts. A shibboleth later taken from the New Testament, “The just shall live by faith,” completely broke the illusion. George had had plenty of time to get sick of words he knew too well, or so it appeared to George. Yes, he was glad people understood them, but wasn’t there more to understand than that? Even if they were both straightforward and important…
The homily began.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about those who are righteous or just, “The just shall live by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.
It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.
In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave you trying to get disturbing images out of your minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.
The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The just shall live by faith.”
Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the just shall live by faith.”
The words “The just shall live by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.
Paul does not say, “The just shall live by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The just shall live by faith.”
Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The just shall live by faith.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
George was awash and realized with a start that he was not knocked off his feet, gasping for air. He felt a light, joyful fluidity and wondered what was coming next. This time he realized he was sure he saw a chalice; the liturgy seemed to go a little more smoothly and quickly.
As soon as he was free, Fr. Elijah came up to him. “Good to see you, George. How are you?”
George said, “Delighted… but I’m sorry, I haven’t read ‘The Weight of Glory’ for you yet.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Good man… no, I’m not being sarcastic. Put first things first, and read it when you have leisure. How did you find the homily?”
George said, “It was excellent… by the way, it was really for me that you preached last week’s homily, right? You seemed to be going a good bit out of your way.”
“It was really for you, as it was also really for others for reasons you do not know.”
“But weren’t you getting off track?”
“George, I have a great deal of responsibility, concerns, and duties as a priest. But I have a great deal of freedom, too. I can, if you want, draw on King Arthur and his court every service I preach at from now until Christmas.”
“How much do you mean, I mean literally? One or two? Four or five?”
“Huh? ‘Literally’? Um, there is a temptation in the West to devote entirely too much time to what is literal. I was exaggerating when I said every service from now until Chrismas… but, if you want, I’d be perfectly happy to do that literally, for every service you’re here.” Fr. Elijah extended his had. “Deal?”
George paused in thought a moment. “Um, you’ve said that I could take all the books in your library and keep them if I want. I know you were exaggerating, but…”
“Yes, I was. But I am not exaggerating when I say that you can take them if you want.”
“Don’t you love books?”
“Immensely, but not as much as I want to love people! They’re just possessions, and there are much greater treasures in my life than a good book, even though books can be quite good. Can we agree that I’ll preach on something in Arthurian literature every liturgy I preach at until Christmas?”
“What if I’m not here?”
“We can make it part of the deal that I’ll only preach on that topic if you’re here.”
George hesitated, and then shook his hand. “Deal.”
Fr. Elijah smiled. “Some people have said my best homilies and best surprises have come from this kind of rash vow.”
George started to walk away, and then stopped.
Fr. Elijah said, “Is something on your mind?”
George said, “What if other people don’t like you preaching on something so odd? What will you do if people complain?”
Fr. Elijah said, “Then I can give them your cell phone number and have them call you at all hours of the day and night to grouse at you for foisting such a terrible proposal on me. Now get some coffee. Go! Shoo!”
After getting home, George did his laundry, looked to see if anyone was hanging out in the lounge (everybody was gone), and played games in the computer lab. It was a nice break.
The next day in math class, the teacher drew a grid on the board, drew dots where the lines crossed, erased everything but the dots, and set the chalk down. “Today I’d like to show a game. I’m handing out graph paper; draw dots where the lines cross. We’re going to have two people taking turns drawing lines between dots that are next to each other. If you draw a line that completes a little square, you get a point. I’d like a couple of students to come up and play on the board.” After a game, there was a momentary shuffle, and George found himself playing against the kid next to him. This continued for longer than he expected, and George began to piece together patterns of what would let his opponent score points, then what laid the groundwork for scoring points…
The teacher said, “Have any of you noticed things you want to avoid in this game? Why do these things lead to you giving points to your opponent when you don’t want to, or scoring points yourself? This kind of observation is at the heart of a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorics.’ And almost any kind of game a computer can play—I’m not talking about tennis—is something that computers can only play through combinatorics. I’d like to show you some more ‘mathematical’ examples of problems with things we call ‘graphs’ where a lot of those same kinds of things are—”
She continued giving problems and showing the kinds of thought in those problems.
George felt a spark of recognition—the same thing that attracted him to puzzles. Or was it something deeper? Many “twenty questions” puzzles only depended on identifying an unusual usage of common words, “53 bicycles” referring to “Bicycle” brand playing cards rather than any kind of vehicle, and so on and so forth. Some of what the teacher was showing seemed deeper…
…and for the first time in his life, the ring of a buzzer left George realizing he was spellbound in a math class. It set his mind thinking.
In English class, he winced, as just as before-class chatter seemed about to end, one of the other students said, “A man gets up in the morning, looks out his window, and sees the sun rising in the West. Why?”
George was not in particular looking forward to a discussion of literature he wasn’t interested in, but he wanted even less to hear people blundering about another “twenty questions” problem, and cut in, “Because the earth’s magnetic poles, we suppose, were fluctuating, and so the direction the sun was rising from was momentarily the magnetic West.”
The teacher laughed. “That isn’t the answer, is it?”
The student who had posed the question said, “Um… it is…”
The professor said, “So we are to imagine someone going to a gas station, saying, ‘Which way is East?’, and the attendant responding with, ‘Just a sec, lemme check… I know usually this way is East, but with the Earth’s magnetic fluctuations, who knows?’ You know that in a lot of literature, East and West are less like numbers than like colors?”
“Um… How could a direction be like a number or a color?”
“There’s colorful difference and colorless difference. If I tell you there are 57 pens in my desk, I haven’t said anything very colorful that tells much about pens, or about my desk. But if I tell you a rose is a delicate pink, I’ve told you something about what it’s like, what it’s like, to experience a rose.”
“So what color is East, then? Camouflage green?”
“East isn’t a color, but it’s like a color where camouflage green and fiery red are different. In both Greek and Russian, people use the same word for ‘East’ and ‘sunrise’… and if you’re really into etymology, English does this too, only we don’t realize it any more. ‘East’ in English originally means ‘sunrise,’ as ‘Easter’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of a goddess of light and spring. Such terrible things the Orthodox miss out on by their quaint use of ‘Pascha.’ For us, the ‘big’ direction, the one which has the longest arrow or the biggest letter, the one all other directions are arranged around, is North; in Hebrew, it’s East. There is a reason many churches are arranged East-West and we often worship towards the East, and that has meant something for the U.S… Would you agree that we are part of the West?”
“So our land is the worst land?” George said.
“Well, if you read enough Orthodox nut jobs, yes… particularly if this land is their home. But U.S. land, or part of it at least, is called utter East… the one U.S. state where Orthodoxy isn’t edgy, exotic, fruitcake or ‘other,’ is Alaska, where there has been a native Orthodox presence, strong today, for over two hundred years. You know how, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis has a wood nymph speak an oracle that has drawn Sir Reepicheep all his life?
“Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.
“There’s something big you’ll miss about the holy land of Alaska if you just think of it as fully a state, but just one more state, just like every other state. It’s the only state, if ‘state’ is an adequate term, with a still-working mechanical clock on the outside of a public building that was made by an Orthodox saint. Among other things.
“And the idea of holy land that you would want you to travel to feeds into things, even in Protestant literature like Pilgrim’s Progress, which you will misunderstand if you treat the pilgrimage as just there as a metaphor for spiritual process. I have found it very interesting to look at what people classify as ‘just part of the allegory,’ even though we will read no simpler allegory among the readings for this class. Now in reading for today, have any of you had an experience like Pilgrim’s wakeup call at the beginning of Bunyan?”
George’s head was swimming.
Why were his classes so dull before this week? He remembered previous math lessons which, in various ways, failed to give him puzzle solving, and in annoyance, turned to previous English lessons, when—
—why hadn’t he paid attention? Or, more accurately, when George had paid attention, why hadn’t he let it be interesting?
Philosophy also turned out to be interesting; the professor began the unit on medieval philosophy by asking, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, eliciting various forms of derision, then asking people what they were deriding, began asking “How many of you can touch the head of the same pin at once?”, produced a pin, and after students made various jostling efforts, asked whether a pin could accommodate a finite or infinite number of angels.
This was used to a class discussion about the nature of matter and spirit and whether angels dancing on the head of a pin would push each other away the way human bodies would… and at the end of class the professor began asking if people wanted to talk about how unfortunate it was that medieval philosophers had to use the poetic image of angels dancing on the head of a pin where others would have used the colorless language of analytic philosophy.
In chemistry, the professor did nothing in particular to make things interesting. George still enjoyed the lecture as it built to a discussion of isotope distributions as used to compute average molecular weights.
George was quite surprised when the weekend approached, spent the weekend playing card games, and wondered at how quickly Sunday came.
On Sunday, George entered the strange world of the Church building. It seemed more, not less, strange, but things began to make sense. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” was something he noticed often, and he, if not understanding, was at least comfortable with the continual hubbub as people seemed to be moving about, sometimes to the front.
As the service passed, he found his eyes returning to, and then fixed on, an icon that showed three ?angels? sitting around a stone table. In the back was a mountain, a tree, and a building, a faroff building that George somehow seemed to be seeing from the inside…
The perspective in the picture was wrong. Wait, the perspective wouldn’t be that wrong by accident… the picture looked very distorted, and George wanted to reach out and—
George looked. The perspective vanished, not at some faroff place on the other side of the picture, but behind him, and the picture seemed at once faroff and something seen from inside.
And what was it, almost at the heart of the icon, or somewhere beneath it, that the three peaceful, radiant, great ?angels? almost seemed clustered around? It looked like a chalice of gold.
George was looking, trying to see into the picture, wishing he could go closer, and seeing one person after another come closer in the dance of song and incense. George instinctively found himself backing up, and then realized people were sitting down and Fr. Elijah began:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur has any number of characters, and I want to describe one of them, Sir Griflet, who is completely forgettable if you don’t know French: he appears briefly, never stays in the narrative for very long, never does anything really striking at all. His lone claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that Mallory refers to him as “Sir Griflet le fils de Dieu.” For those of you who don’t know French, we’ve just been cued in, in passing, that by the way, Sir Griflet is the Son of God.
Now why would this be? There some pretty striking things you can do if you are a character in that work. Sir Griflet is not a singular character who has the kind of energy of Sir Galahad, or in a different but highly significant way, Merlin. For that matter, he does not have even a more routine memorability like Sir Balin who wielded two swords at the same time. He’s just forgettable, so why is he called le fils de Dieu, I mean the Son of God?
In Chretien de Troyes, who is a pivotal author before Mallory, a character with a name that would become “Griflet” is equally pedestrian and is named “fis de Do”, son of Do, which has a root spelling of D-O where the word for God in that form of French is D-E-U. So a starkly pedestrian character, by an equally pedestrian language error, seems to have his father’s name mixed up with how you spell the word for God. How pedestrian, disappointing, and appropriate.
There is a somewhat more interesting case in the story of a monk who believed that Melchizedek was the Son of God, and this is not due to a language error. If you were listening when the readings were chanted from the Bible, you would have heard that Melchizedek was “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life: but made like unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually.” This may be surprising to us today, but that’s because most of us have lost certain ways of reading Scripture, and it was a holy monk who thought this. He made a theological error, not a mere language error, and when his bishop asked his assistance in praying over whether Melchizedek or Christ was the Son of God, he arrived at the correct answer.
Now let me ask you who is really the Son of God. Do you have an answer now?
I’m positive you’re wrong. It’s a forgettable person like Sir Griflet or Melchizedek.
When the Son of God returns in glory, he will say, “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you showed me no hospitality; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick or in prison, and you did not visit me.” And when the damned are confounded and ask when they could have possibly failed to do that, he will answer them, “I swear to you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.”
We, in our very nature, are symbols of the Trinity, and this does not mean a sort of miniature copy that stands on its own in detachment. The Orthodox understanding of symbol is very difficult to grasp in the West, even if you haven’t heard people trying to be rigorous or, worse, clever by saying “The word is not the thing it represents.” And talking about symbols doesn’t just mean that you can show reverence to a saint through an icon. It means that everything you fail to do to your forgettable neighbor, to that person who does absolutely nothing that draws your attention, you fail to do to Christ.
And if you are going to say, “But my neighbor is not Christ,” are you not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel in what you are being careful about? Your neighbor as such is not Christ as such. True, but this is really beside the point. It betrays a fundamental confusion if any of the damned answer their Judge and say, “But I wasn’t unkind to you. I was just unkind to other people.” We are so formed by the image of Christ that there is no way to do something to another person without doing that to Christ, or as this parable specifically says, fail to do. And I’d like you to stop for a second. The last time you were at an unexpected funeral, did you regret more the unkind thing you said, or the kind word you failed say, the kind action you failed to take? Perhaps it may be the latter.
Christ hides in each of us, and in every person you meet. There is a mystery: the divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became man that men might become gods and the Sons of God. Christ took on our nature so that by grace we might become what he is by nature, and that does not just mean something for what we should do in our own spiritual practices. It means that Christ hides in each person, and to each person we owe infinite respect, whether they’re boring, annoying, mean, lovely, offensive, fascinating, confusing, predictable, pedestrian, or just plain forgettable like old Sir Griflet.
You owe infinite respect.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Did George want to go up to the icon? He went up, feeling terribly awkward, but hearing only chant and the same shuffle of people in motion. He went up, awkwardly kissed the three figures someplace low, started to walk away in inner turmoil, turned back to the image, bowed as he had seen people see, and kissed the chalice of wine.
It was not long before he saw Fr. Elijah come out with a chalice, and draw from it with a golden spoon. This time he noticed people kissing the base of the chalice. There was nothing awkward about them, and there seemed to be something majestic that he began to catch a glimmer of in each of those present.
George later realized that he had never experienced worship “stopping” and coffee hour “beginning.” The same majestic people went from one activity into another, where there was neither chanting nor incense nor the surrounding icons of a cloud of witnesses, but seemed to be a continuation of worship rather than a second activity begun after worship. He was with the same people.
It didn’t occur until much later to George to wonder why the picture had a chalice… and then he could not stop wondering. He picked up Brocéliande and read:
The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”
The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”
“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail is?”
“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”
“Thou wote it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wote.”
“That is perplexing and hard to understand.”
The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”
“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”
“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”
“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”
“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”
“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”
“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”
“What madness askest thou?”
“Callest thou it madness? Such it is. But methinks thou wete not all that may be told.”
“Of a certainty speakest thou.”
“When thou dwellest in the darkness that doth compass round about the Trinity round about that none mayeth compass, then wilt thou dwell in the light of the Sign of the Grail with thy fellow man and thy brother Christian, for the darkness of the Trinity is the light of the Grail.”
George got up, closed the book, and slowly put it away. He wondered, but he had read enough.
George dreamed again of a chalice whose silhouette was Light and held Light inside. Then the Light took shape and became three figures. George almost awoke when he recognized the figures from the icon. George dreamed much more, but he could never remember the rest of his dream.
That week, Fr. Elijah’s homily was in George’s mind. He passed the check-in counter as he walked into the cafeteria, began to wonder where he might apply Fr. Elijah’s words… and stopped.
The line was moving slowly; he had come in late after wandering somewhat. Sheepishly, he stopped, looked at the woman who had scanned his ID, and extended his hand. “Hi, I’m George.”
The woman pushed back a strand of silver hair. “Hi. It’s good to meet you, George. I’m Georgina.”
George stood, trying to think of something to say.
Georgina said, “What are you majoring in?”
“I haven’t decided. I like reading… um… it’s really obscure, but some stuff about Arthur.”
“King Arthur and the Round Table?”
“Wonderful, son. Can you tell me about it sometime? I always love hearing about things.”
George said, “Ok. What do you… um…”
“I been working at this for a long time. It’s nice seeing all you students, and I get some good chats. You remind me of my grandson a little. But you’re probably pretty hungry now, and the lines are closing in a few minutes. Stop by another day!”
George ate his food, thoughtfully, and walked out of the cafeteria wishing he had said hi to more of the support staff.
That week, the halls seemed to be filled with more treasure than he had guessed. He did not work up the courage to introduce himself to too many people, but he had the sense that there was something interesting in even the people he hadn’t met.
On Wednesday, George went to register for his classes next semester, and realized his passwords were… on his computer, the one without a power cord.
After a while, thinking what to do, he knocked on a floormates’ door. “Um, Ivan?”
“Come in, George. What do you want?”
George hesitated and said, “Could I borrow a power cord? Just for a minute? I’ll give it right back.”
Ivan turned around and dragged a medium-sized box from under his bed. It was full of cables.
“Here, and don’t worry about returning it. Take a cord. Take twenty, I don’t care. I have them coming out of my ears.”
George grabbed one cord, then remembered he did not have the cord for his monitor. He took another. “I’ll have these back in a minute.”
“George, you’re being silly. Is there any reason you need not to have a power cord?”
“Um…” George opened his mouth and closed it. Then he hesitated. “No.”
George left, registered online, shut his computer down, left the room, did some work at the library, and went to bed.
Thursday he was distracted.
Friday, it was raining heavily, and after getting soaked in icy rain running to and from his classes, George decided he would check his email from his room… and found himself wandering through the spam folder, and threw the cords out in the dumpster.
Sunday he walked into church with hesitation, and Fr. Elijah almost immediately came over. “Yes, George?”
Then he told Fr. Elijah what was going on.
Fr. Elijah paused, and said, “George, do you know about the Desert Fathers?”
“A group of people a bit like the hermits in Arthurian legend. Some people think that Merlin was originally based on such monks… but aside from that speculation, they were much holier than either of us. And there was one time when someone asked them, ‘What do you do?’ And what do you think the Desert Father said?”
“Pray? Worship? Live a good life?”
“‘We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.’ That is the motion of Orthodox life, and if you see prostrations, you will literally see us fall and get up. I’m not sure if you think that if you repent of a sin once, the hard part’s over and it’s all behind you. In my sins, I have to keep repenting again and again. You have fallen, now get up. And get up again. And again. And again. And keep getting up.
“The Lord bless you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
George walked away still feeling unworthy, and everywhere saw a grandeur that seemed to be for others more worthy than him. Everything around him seemed royal, and Fr. Elijah preached:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In our commemorations, we commemorate “Orthodox kings and queens, faithful princes and princesses,” before we commemorate various grades of bishops. The bishop is in fact royalty; instead of calling him “Your Majesty,” we call him “Your Grace,” “Your Eminence,” “Your Holiness,” “Your All Holiness.” If you do research, you will find that the bishop is more than a king: the bishop is the Emperor, and wears the full regalia of the Roman Emperor.
One question that has been asked is, “The king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king:” is the king made king for the benefit of the kingdom, or is the kingdom a privilege for the benefit of the king? The Orthodox choice of now requiring bishops to be monks is not because married persons are unfit, or rather necessarily more unfit, to serve. Most of the apostles in whose shadows the monastic bishops stand were married, and the monk bishops I have met consider themselves infinitely less than the married apostles. But a monk is given to be a whole burnt offering where nothing is kept back and everything is offered to God to be consumed by the holy sacrificial fire. (Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen, but even if this is also what’s supposed to happen in a marriage, it’s more explicit in monasticism.) And it is this whole burnt offering, unworthy though he may be, who makes a bishop: Orthodoxy answers “the king for the kingdom:” the king is made king for the benefit of the kingdom, the bishop serves as a whole burnt offering for the benefit of the diocese.
Now let me ask: Which of us is royalty? And I want you to listen very carefully. All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. It’s not just the bishops. I will not go into this in detail now, but the essence of priesthood is not what I have that “ordinary” Orthodox don’t have. It’s what I have that Orthodox faithful do have. And without you I can celebrate the liturgy. And the essence of royalty is not what a king or bishop has that a “commoner” or faithful does not have; it’s what king and bishop share with the ordinary faithful. The Greek Fathers have no sense that “real” royal rule is humans ruling other humans; that’s a bit of an aberration; the real royal rule is humans ruling over what God has given them and over themselves, and doing that rightly is a much bigger deal than being one of the handful of kings and bishops.
And each of us is called to be what a bishop is: a whole burnt offering in humble service to the kingdom—large or small is not really the point—over which the Lord has appointed us king. It may mean showing conscience by cleaning up your room—and if you have a first world abundance of property, it is a very small way of offering them back to the Lord to keep them in good order. It means carefully stewarding precious moments with other people, maybe saying, “I hope you have a wonderful day,” and saying it like you mean it, to support staff. And it means humbly ruling your kingdom within, in which both Heaven and Hell may be found. It is when you serve as king, the king made for the kingdom, that your kingdom will be your crown and glory.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
After Church, a young woman stormed up to Fr. Elijah. She had, at as far arm’s length from her body as she could hold it, a clear trash bag holding a pink heart-shaped piece of artisan paper that appeared to have writing on it. She stopped opposite Fr. Elijah and said, “Do you know anything about this note?”
Fr. Elijah smiled gently. “It appears someone has sent you some sort of love note. How sweet!”
“Were you involved?”
“What, you think I would do something like that? I’m hurt!”
The young woman stood up straight and put her hand on her hip. Fr. Elijah turned to George and said, “Would you like to know what’s going on?”
The young woman said, “Yes, I’d love to hear you explain this.”
Fr. Elijah said, “George, the elephant population in Sri Lanka is in some peril. They’re not being hunted for their ivory, let alone for their meat, but there is a limited amount of land, and farmers and elephants are both trying to use an area of land that makes it difficult for them to both support themselves. So some people tried to think about whether there was a way to make a win-win situation, and make the elephants an economic asset. They asked themselves whether elephants produce anything. And it turns out that something that eats the enormous amount of food an elephant eats does, in fact, produce a lot of something.”
George said, “I don’t see the connection. Have I just missed that you’re changing the subject?”
The young woman said, “He hasn’t changed the subject.”
Fr. Elijah said, “They’re using it to make hand-crafted artisan paper, colored and available in a heart shape, which you can buy online at MrElliePooh.com if you’re interested.”
George looked at Fr. Elijah in shock and awe.
The woman said, “Grandpappy, you are such a pest!”
Fr. Elijah lightly placed an arm around her shoulder and said, “George, I’d like to introduce you to my granddaughter Abigail. She has a face as white as alabaster, raven-black hair, and lips are red as blood. And she has many merits besides being fun to pick on.”
Abigail stuck out her tongue at her grandfather and then shifted to his side. “And my grandfather does many fine things besides be obnoxious… Can’t live with him, can’t shoot him… You should get to know him, if you haven’t.” She gave him a gentle squeeze. “There are brownies today, George, and they’re great! Can I get you some?”
George read in Brocéliande, and wandered in the wood, and the castle of Calix College, and the surrounding city. Fr. Elijah began to introduce fasting, and George found something new in his struggles… and began to make progress. Nor was that the only thing in George’s life. He began to find the Middle Ages not too different from his own… and he was puzzled when he read in Brocéliande:
And in that wood anon saw Sir Yvain a lion fighting against a primeval serpent, and the serpent breathed fire against the lion his heel, and a baleful cry did the lion wail. Then Lord Yvain thought in his heart of which animal he should aid, and in his heart spake, “The lion is the more natural of the twain.” And anon he put his resources on the side of the lion, and with his sword he cleft the ancient serpent in twain and hew the serpent his head in seven, and warred against the wicked wyrm until he were reduced to many small bits. And he cleaned his sword of the serpent his venomous filth, and anon the lion kept him at his side.
And anon Sir Yvain slept and an advision saw: an old woman, whose colour was full of life and whose strength intact and yet who were wizened, riding upon a serpent and clothed in a robe black as coal, and spake and said, “Sir Yvain, why have ye offended me? Betake ye as my companion.” Then Sir Yvain refused her and there was a stench as brimstone aflame. Then a woman clad in white, riding astride a lion, new as white snow did courtesy and said, “Sir Yvain, I salute thee.” And about her was a fragrance of myrrh.
Anon Sir Yvain awoke, and sore amazed was he, and none could interpret his advision.
George spoke with Fr. Elijah, and asked him what the passage meant. Fr. Elijah said, “What does this passage mean? You know, that isn’t as big a question in Orthodoxy as you think… but I’ll try to answer. In fact, I think I’ll answer in a homily.”
“It had better be impressive.”
“Fine. I’ll preach it as impressive as you want.”
That evening, George called Fr. Elijah to say that he was going home for Christmas… and then, later in the week, said, “Fr. Elijah? Do you know anybody who could keep me? My parents were going to buy me a ticket home with frequent flier mileage on an airline, but my grandfather is ill and my mother used up those miles getting a ticket… and money is tight… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Well, you could talk with your College and try to get special permission to stay over break… but I’d prefer if you stayed with me. Because we agreed that I would only preach on the Arthurian legends, including your Old Law and New Law, if you were there… and I was so looking forward to preaching a Christmas homily on the Arthurian legends.”
“Can’t you preach it without me?”
“We agreed and shook hands. I have that homily for Christmas, but only if you’re there.”
“Um… I would be an intruding—”
“George, I am a priest because I love God and I love people. And I do meet people quite a lot, but my house is empty now. It would be nice to have some young energy and someone to share more than a Christmas dinner with?”
“Are you sure?”
“You know how to get to my place. I’ll see you whenever you want to come over.”
On Christmas, Fr. Elijah preached,
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Christ is born! Glorify him!
In the Arthurian legends, there is a story of a knight who sees a serpent fighting a lion, kills the serpent, and wins a kind response from the lion. In some versions the knight has a vision in which one woman appears on the serpent and another on the lion, and we learn that these women represent the Old Law and the New Law.
What are the Old Law and the New Law? One can say the Torah or Law of Moses, and the Gospel, and that is true up to a point, but the “Old Law” is not just a take on Judaism. Sir Palomides, a Saracen, described with profound confusion between Islam and paganism (and the problem with Islam is not that it is pagan but that it is not pagan enough—it is more emphatic about there being one God, even more than the one God is), becomes a Christian and is asked to renounce the Old Law and embrace the New Law. Even if Sir Palomides is in no sense a Jew.
In the ancient world, it is not enough to say that the Orthodox Church understood itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, politically incorrect as that may be. The Orthodox Church was even more fully the fulfillment of paganism, and if you understand what was going on in Plato, you understand that paganism was deepening. The Orthodox Church is the place where that final deepening of paganism took place. And I would like to explain for a moment why Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-“pagan” forms like Druidry aren’t.
The popular stereotype is that paganism was merry and free until Christianity’s grim hand came down, and that’s like saying that difficult toil was carefree until someone came along and with a grim hand invited people to a feast. Pagan virtues—courage, justice, wisdom, moderation—are retained in Christianity, but they are not the virtues of joy by themselves. C.S. Lewis said that if you’re not going to be a Christian, the next best thing is to be a Norseman, because the Norse pagans sided with the good gods, not because they were going to win, but because they were going to lose. The Norse decision was to meet the Day of Doom, called Ragnarok, and go down fighting on the right side. And so the Norse have a tale of the war-god Tyr who took and kept an oath even at the price of letting a wolf bite off his right hand, and there is something very much like ancient paganism in keeping an oath though it cost your right hand.
What Orthodoxy offered paganism in the ancient world was precisely not a grim hand flattening everything, but retaining the virtue already recognized in paganism while deepening them with faith, hope, and love that live the life of Heaven here on earth. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love are the virtues that can see beauty, that bring Heaven down to earth, that can call for the whole Creation to worship God: as we sing at the Eucharist, joining the Song that summons the host of angels, sun, moon and stars, heavens and waters above the heavens, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl, kings and all people, princes and rulers, young men and maidens, old men and children—all called in the Psalmist’s summons to praise the Lord.
If you want to know how today’s “neo-paganism” can fail to be pagan, I would recall to you the Medieval Collectibles website which offers a medieval toilet cover so you can have a real medieval coat of arms on your, um, “throne.” The website’s marketing slogan is “Own a piece of history,” but you’re not owning a piece of history… or think of the interior decorator who was told, “I want an authentic colonial American bathroom,” to which the decorator replied, “Ok, so exactly how far from the house do you want it?”
Some have noted that the majority of books written by Orthodox today are by Western converts, and there is a reason for that. The Reformation almost created literate culture, but the opposite of literate is not illiterate, but oral, in a way that neo-paganism may want to create but is awfully hard to recreate. Even in its spiritual reading the Orthodox Church remains an oral culture in its core while it uses writing: many of its most devout would never write a book, and even now, sensible Orthodox will answer the question, “What should I read to understand Orthodoxy?” by saying “Don’t read, at least not at first, and don’t ever let reading be the center of how you understand Orthodoxy. Come and join the life of our community in liturgy.” Orthodoxy is not better than classical paganism in this regard, but it is like classical paganism and it keeps alive elements of classical paganism that neo-paganism has trouble duplicating. (A neo-“pagan” restoration of oral culture bears a hint of… I’m not sure how to describe it… an oxymoron like “committee to revitalize” comes close.) After years of the West tearing itself away from nature, people in the West are trying to reconnect with nature, and some neo-“pagans” are spearheading that. But look at Orthodoxy. Come and see the flowers, the water and oil, the beeswax candles and herbs, the bread and wine that are at the heart of Orthodox worship: the Orthodox Church has not lost its connection with the natural world even as it uses technology, and it may even have a fuller connection with the natural world than paganism had; classical Rome could sow salt in the soil of Carthage and go out of their way to pollute out of spite, which even environmentally irresponsible companies rarely do today. Which isn’t getting into the full depth of a spiritually disciplined connection to nature like that of St. Symeon the New Theologian—in the Orthodox Church we call him “new” even though he’s from the fourteenth century—but it’s missing the point to ask if Orthodoxy is pagan because of the role of the saints in worshiping God. If you want the deep structure, the culture, the way of life, of paganism, the place where you will find it most alive is precisely Orthodoxy.
The Arthurian author Charles Williams makes a very obscure figure, the bard Taliesin, the pilgrim who comes to Byzantium sent to bring a treasure and returns with the Pearl of Great Price, the New Law. In Stephen Lawhead, it is Merlin who appears as the culmination of the Druidic Order and the apex of the Old Law: the old learned brotherhood is disbanded and Merlin proclaims the New Law, and this is really not just a story. The Evangelical Orthodox Church was formed when a group of Protestants tried to do something very Protestant, reconstruct the original Christian Church through studying old documents. Very Protestant. And they came to a certain point, that when they quizzed an Orthodox priest, they realized something. And the Evangelical Orthodox Church entered the Orthodox Church because they realized that the Old Law of Protestant searching to reconstruct the ancient Church needed to be fulfilled in what they realized was the New Law. The Holy Order of MANS—MANS is an acronym, but not in English; it stands for Mysterion, Agape, Nous, Sophia, some terms from Greek that are deep enough to be hard to translate, but something like “profound mystery, divine love, spiritual eye, wisdom.” Do these mean something Christian? Do they mean something esoteric? In fact the Holy Order of MANS was something of both, and they pushed their tradition deeper and deeper… until the Holy Order of MANS was dissolved and many of its people followed their leader’s sense that their Old Law led to this New Law. If you know the story of the Aleut religion in Alaska, the shamans—and it is difficult to explain their “shamans” in contemporary terms; perhaps I should refer to them as people who had tasted spiritual realities—said that certain people were coming and to listen to the people who were to come. And the people the shamans foretold were Orthodox monks who had in turn tasted of spiritual realities, such as St. Herman of Alaska. Not, necessarily, that moving from paganism to Orthodoxy was that big of a change for them. It wasn’t. But the Aleuts recognized in these monks something that was very close to their way of life, but something that could deepen it, and it was because of their depth in their Old Law as pagans that they were ready for an Orthodox New Law. Stephen Lawhead has a lot of carefully researched history—at times I wished for a little less meticulous research and a little more riveting story—but whether or not anything like this can be confirmed archaeologically in the Celtic lands, the same kind of thing can be confirmed, even as having happened very recently.
But when I say “Merlin,” many of you do not think of the herald of the New Law, and for that matter many of the older sources do not do this either. If a boy today is enchanted by just one character from the Arthuriad, it is ordinarily not King Arthur, Pendragon though he may be, nor Sir Galahad, who achieved the Holy Grail in some versions, nor Sir Lancelot, who is proven to be the greatest knight in the world, nor the Fisher-King, nor the fairy enchantress Morgana le Fay, nor King Arthur’s peerless Queen Guinevere, whose name has become our “Jennifer.” It is the figure of Merlin.
Today, if you ask what Merlin was—and I intentionally say, “what,” not “who,” for reasons I will detail—the usual answer is, “a wizard.” But if you look at the stories that were spread from the Celtic lands, the answer is, “a prophet.” In the Old Testament, one of the prophets protests, “I am neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” and another prophet says something to the Lord that somehow never gets rendered clearly in English Bible translations never choose to get right: “You violated my trust, and I was utterly betrayed.” The Hebrew word for prophet, ‘nabi‘, means “called one,” and one never gets the sense in reading the Old Testament prophets that the prophets, when they were children, said, “I want to grow up to be a prophet” the way people today say, “I want to be the President of the United States.”
And this idea of Merlin as prophet is not just a different or a more Christianly correct word. The Arthurian legends may be thought of today as “something like fiction;” even when people in the Middle Ages questioned their historical accuracy, those people were throwing a wet blanket on something a great many people took as literal fact. There is a book called The Prophecies of Merlin, which was taken extremely seriously for centuries, as the word of a prophet. And one gets the sense that in modern terms Merlin’s identity was not a self-definition that he chose, not in modern terms, but something that was thrust upon him.
It may sound strange to some if I say that the earlier attempt to build a castle on Merlin’s blood, and Merlin’s later calling a castle out of the wind, relate to Christ. But if you think I am pounding a square peg into a round hole, consider this: Sir Galahad, whom some consider a painfully obvious Christ-figure, whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure and who is always strong in the face of temptation, enters the world after Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world and a man who goes above and beyond the call of duty of faithfulness in his devotion to another man’s wife, goes to a castle, is given the Arthurian equivalent of a date-rape pill in the form of a potion that makes him think his hostess is the woman he’s been carrying on with, and that night sires Galahad. You may call this a magical birth story if you like, but it doesn’t give us much advance notice that the son born will turn out to be the Arthurian icon of purity who will achieve the Grail.
So how is Merlin, who reeks of magic, introduced? In the oldest surviving work that flourished outside of Celtic circles, in fact written by a Celtic bishop, Merlin appears when King Vortigern searches for a boy without a father, and hears Merlin being teased for being without a father. And let me be clear, this is not because his father has passed away. We learn that the Devil wished to be incarnate, could only come into the world of a virgin, found a virgin who was spiritually pure, having only slipped in her prayers once, and thus the person meant to be the anti-Christ was conceived. The Church, just in time, said powerful prayers and the boy, born of a virgin without a sire, commanded all the power over the natural world he was meant to, but would serve the good. Now is anyone going to say that that’s not a reference to Christ? Merlin is most interesting because of how the story itself places him in the shadow of Christ.
One thing that’s very easy to overlook is that in the story where there’s a terrible storm and Christ is sleeping in the front of the boat while his disciples are asking if he doesn’t care that they were going to die, is not just that the disciples were right: in that part of the world there were storms that could very quickly flood a boat and kill people when the boat sank. Christ stands up, and says something to the storm before rebuking the disciples for their lack of faith. And that’s when the disciples really began to be afraid. Mark’s Gospel is the one Gospel with the simplest, “I don’t speak Greek very well” Greek, and at this point he uses the King James- or Shakespeare-style Greek Old Testament language to say that when Jesus commands the storm to be still and it actually obeys him, that is when they are most terrified.
Before Jesus stopped the storm, they were afraid enough; they knew the storm they saw was easily enough to kill them. But this was nothing compared to the fear out of which they asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” This person who had been teaching them had just displayed a command over nature that left them wondering who or what he was, a “what” that goes beyond today’s concern about “who am I?” and has something that cannot be reached by angst-ridden wrestling with who you are.
Something like that question is at the heart of debates that people argued for centuries and are trying to reopen. What, exactly, was Jesus? Was he an ancient sage and teacher? Was he a prophet? A healer or a worker of wonders? Someone who had drunk of deeper spiritual realities and wanted to initiate others into the same? Was he something more than a man, the bridge between God and his world?
The answer taken as final was the maximum possible. It was “Every one of these and more.” It pushed the envelope on these even as it pushed into a claim for the maximum in every respect: Christ was maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserved the divine and human while being the final image both for our understanding of what it is to be God and what it is to be human.
And what, finally, would we have if we deepened Merlin? What if he were the son, not of the worst finite creature, but of the best and infinite Creator? What if he had not simply power over nature but were the one through whom the world was created and in whom all things consist? What if we were dealing with, not the one who prophesied that a few would find the Holy Grail, but the one who gave the Holy Grail and its gifts that are still with us? What if Merlin were made to be like the pattern he is compared to? When Merlin is deepened far enough, he becomes Christ.
The Christian lord of Cyprus was out hawking when his dearly beloved hawk—I don’t know if the hawk was a merlin, but I can say that a merlin is a type of hawk—became entangled in the brush in the wood. Loving the hawk dearly, he ordered that the branches be cut away so that he would still have this hawk, and when that was done, not only was his hawk found, but an icon showing the Queen and Mother of God on a throne, and the Divine Child enthroned upon her lap and an angel on either side. They found what they were looking for, but they also found a singularly majestic icon of the Incarnation.
The Christ Mass, the Nativity, is an invasion in the dead of winter. It is the feast of the Incarnation, or more properly one of the feasts of the Incarnation, which is not something that stopped happening once after the Annunciation when the Mother of God bore the God-man in her womb.
Everything that the Christ Mass stands for will eventually be made plain, but the Christ Mass is a day of veiled glory. When God became man, he was born in a stable. When Christ returns, he will appear riding on the clouds. When he came, a choir of angels proclaimed the news to shepherds and a few knees bowed. When he returns, rank upon rank of angels will come in eternal radiant glory and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the manifest glory of God the Father. When he came once, a star heralded the hour of his birth. When he returns, the stars will fall as ripe figs from a tree and the sky itself will recede as a vanishing scroll. Every thing that is a secret not will be made plain, but he first came in secret…
…and he comes today in secret, hidden in us. For the Incarnation was not finished after the Annunciation, but unfolds still as Christ is incarnate in the Church, in the saints like St. Herman of Alaska, a wonderworker who was seen carrying logs weighing much more than himself, stopped a forest fire, calmed a stormy sea, and left behind a body preserved from corruption as it was on display for a month at room temperature, and left behind much of the Aleut Orthodox community that remains to this day—and also in us. And the Incarnation is still unfolding today. The castle of the Arthurian world is more than stone walls and a porticullis; the castle is almost everything we mean by city, or society, or community. And it is the castle writ large that we find in the Church, not only a fortress waging war against the Devil but a people ruled by her Lord. This Castle is at once founded upon a fluid more precious than ichor, not the blood of a boy without a father but the blood of a God-man, without father on the side of his mother and without mother on the side of his Father. It is the Castle still being built by the wind of his Spirit still blowing—and remember that the world behind the Medieval West did not always stow “spirit” and “wind” in sealed watertight compartments: the wind blows where it will and the Spirit inspires where it will, so this Castle has a Spirit blowing through it that is more windlike than wind itself.
And until the Last Judgment, when every eye will see him, even those that pierced him, it is his will to be incarnate where he is hidden behind a veil to those who cannot see him: incarnate in the Church and in each of us, called to be his saints, and called to become Christ.
Christ is born! Glorify him!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Fr. Elijah turned around, stopped, bent his head a moment, and at last turned back. “Oh, and one more thing… George’s number is in the parish directory, and these homilies that talk about King Arthur and his court have been all his fault. If there’s anything at all that you don’t like about them, I invite you to call him at all hours of the day and night to grouse at him for foisting such terrible ideas on me.”
That evening, George came, and after some hesitancies, said, “When can I become Orthodox?”
“At Pascha. We can continue working, and you will be received in the Church.”
George thanked him, and began to walk out.
“Um, Fr. Elijah, aren’t you somewhat surprised?”
“George, I was waiting for you to see that you wanted to become Orthodox. Go back to your reading.”
The Christmas break passed quickly, and the first class after break was the introduction to computer science. The professor said, “Most of my students call me Dr. Blaise, although you can use my last name if you’re comfortable. I wanted to offer a few remarks.
“Many of your professors think their class is your most important class, and that entitles them to be your number one priority in homework and demands outside the classroom. I don’t. I believe this class is a puzzle piece that fits into a larger puzzle. Exactly how it fits in will differ, depending on whether you become a major—which I invite you to consider—or whether you choose an allied major but focus on something other than computer science, or whether your interests lie elsewhere and I am broadening your horizons even if your main interests lie somewhere else. I will try to help give you a good puzzle piece, and in office hours especially I want to support you in helping fit this piece of the puzzle into the broader picture.
“My best student was a mechanic; car and airplane mechanics, for instance, are solving a problem with a system, and I have never been so stunned at how quickly a student learned to debug well as with this mechanic. I’ve found that people who know something about physics, mathematics, or engineering pick up computer work more quickly even if you don’t see a single physics equation in this class: learn physics and programming is a little easier to learn. And it goes the other way too: one of my colleagues in the math department explained that students who know the process of taking something and writing a computer program to reach the desired results, correctly, are prepared to do something similar in mathematics, and take something and write a correct proof to reach the desired results. Learn something in one hard science and you have an advantage in others.”
One student raised her hand. “Yes?” Dr. Blaise asked.
“What about those of us interested in philosophy or religion? What if we’re doing something computers won’t help us with? Are you going to teach us how to use word processors?”
“Well, I’d point out that there is a long tradition of studying mathematics—geometry—as a sort of mental weightlifting before studying philosophy or theology. Or some of my poet friends say that it’s a way of poisoning the mind, and I’ll respect them if they want to say that. But for many of you, it is useful, even if we don’t teach word processing—ask the lab tech for sessions that will teach you how to use computer software. Computer science is about something else; computer science isn’t any more about how to use computers than astronomy is about how to use telescopes.”
The student raised her hand again, slightly, and then put it down.
Dr. Blaise said, “I’d like to hear your thought. If you aren’t convinced, other people probably aren’t convinced either, and it will do everybody good to have it out in the open.”
“Um… But why does…” She paused, and Dr. Blaise smiled. “I want to study English.”
“Good stuff. So does my daughter. It’s a bit of a cross-cultural encounter, and I think it can benefit English students for the same reason my majors benefit from taking English classes. But never mind programming specifically; I want to talk about how the disciplines can integrate. Programming won’t help you the same way as some of the humanities will, but I’d like to talk about how things might fit together.
“I saw one of your English professors, a lovely medievalist who knows the Arthurian legends well. She was talking with one of the campus ethicists, who has interests in the history of moral theology. The topic of discussion? One that you might wince at, on the short list of positions the Catholic Church is unpopular for: contraception. And the ethicist said he’d found something he thought the medievalist literature professor might find interesting.
“The history of contraception, like almost any other big question, involves a lot of other things. And one of those things involves a suggestion by John Noonan, not for one of several proposed answers for a question, but of an answer to a puzzle that has no other answers, at least as of the time Noonan wrote.
“The vision of courtly love, and what is celebrated in that love between a man and a woman—probably another man’s wife, for what it’s worth—is an ideal that was all about celebrating ‘love’, and in this celebration of ‘love,’ there was a big idea of ‘Play all you want; we will encourage and celebrate play, whether or not you’re in marriage; just be sure that you do it in a way that won’t generate a child.’
“Scholars do have difficulty keeping a straight face in the idea that the courtly romances are coded messages about secret Cathar teachings. They aren’t. But they flourished as nowhere before in a land where something of Catharism was in the air, and, like contraception, the idea of celebrating ‘love’ and encouraging people, ‘Play, but do it in a way that don’t generate a child’ is not exactly Cathar, but is the sort of thing that could come if Catharism was in the air.
“And, the ethicist went further, the Arthurian romances are done in such a way that it is very difficult to demonstrate any clear and conscious authorial understanding of Cathar teachings, let alone coded messages sent to those ‘in the know’… but that doesn’t mean that Catharism had nothing to do with it. And not just because strict Cathars would have taken a dim view of this way of taking their ball and running with it. A very dim view, for that matter.
“Catharism, called Gnosticism as it appeared in the ancient world and various other things as it resurfaces today, has various things about it, and not just wanting to celebrate love to high Heaven while understanding this wonderful ‘love’ as something which one should be able to do without generating children. That’s not the only thing, and it is one point of including Cathar elements without doing them very well.
“Catharism, or Gnosticism or whatever the day’s version of it is called, is deeply connected with magic, and this occult element has a lot of ideas, or something like ideas, if you get very deep into it. And in the Arthurian legends, there is an occult element, but it isn’t done very well. There are dweomers all over the place, and Merlin and almost every woman work enchantments, not to mention that all sorts of items have magical ‘virtues’, but the English professor had almost no sense that the authors were really involved with the occult themselves. It was kind of a surface impression that never had any of the deeper and darker features, or the deeper secret doctrines of one in the know. It kind of portrays magic the way a poorly researched TV show portrays a faroff land—there may be a sense of interest and enchantment untainted by actual understanding of what is being portrayed.
“And besides that surface impression, there is something of self-centered pride. The only people who really have a pulse are nobles living in large measure for themselves, knights who are trying to do something impressive. Commerce never seems to really taint the screen of luxury; furthermore there is a sense that being in fights for one’s glory is no great sin, and it doesn’t really matter what those fights do to the others. It’s a very different view of fighting from ‘just war.’
“The Arthurian legends are undoubtedly classics of world literature, and it is terribly reductive to say that they’re simply a bad version of Cathar doctrine. That denigration of their literary qualities is not justified, just as dismissing Star Wars as just a bit of violent Gnosticism or Catharism or whatever is out of line. Star Wars would never succeed if it were just dressed up Gnosticism.
“But it does raise the question of whether the literature of courtly love, so foundational to how people can understand ‘love’ today and understand what it means to celebrate ‘love’ and say that the Catholic Church hates love between men and women if it will not recognize that contraception will help that love be celebrated with less unwelcome ‘consequences’… It raises the question, not of whether the literature is bad literature and not worth study, but whether it is very good literature that contains something fatal.”
There was one more question, and Dr. Blaise began discussing computer science. At least George believed later that the professor had been discussing computer science, and trusted others’ reports on that score.
But George did not hear a word more of what Dr. Blaise said that day.
The computer science class was a night class, and when it was finished, George found himself surprised when he entered the parsonage.
Fr. Elijah was sitting, his back to the door, staring into the fireplace. A large volume, looking like an encyclopedia volume, was sitting open on Fr. Elijah’s sparsely appointed desk. Fr. Elijah, his back still to the door, said, “Come in, George. What is the matter?”
George said, “I hope I didn’t interrupt—”
Fr. Elijah said, “I was just resting a bit after reading something. St. Maximus’s language gives me such trouble.”
George rushed over to the desk. “Maybe I can help.” He looked, and looked again, until he realized the volume had columns of Latin and Greek. The volume was printed, but it looked old, and there were worm holes.
“Come in and sit down, George. You don’t need to be reading St. Maximus the Confessor quite yet, even if your Greek is better than mine, or you find the Latin easier. Now sit down. You didn’t come here so you could help me understand the Greek, even if I wouldn’t be surprised if, bright lad as you are, you know Greek a good deal better than I do.”
“It’s Greek to me,” George said, forcing a smile, and then shaking. Fr. Elijah rose, turned around, and said, “Sit down in my chair, George, and enjoy the fire. I’ll step out into the kitchen, make some hot cocoa, and then we can talk. I wish my cat were still around; she was a real sweetheart, and she would sit in your lap and purr. Even if it was the first time she met you.” Fr. Elijah left, silently, and went about making hot cocoa. He returned, holding two mugs, and gave one mug to George. “I put extra marshmallows in yours.”
Then Fr. Elijah sat down in a smaller chair, in the corner, and sat, listening.
George blurted out, after some silence, “I think the Arthurian stuff I read may be Gnostic.”
Fr. Elijah took a sip.
“One of the people in my class said that Arthurian literature arose because of the Cathars.”
Fr. Elijah took another sip.
“Or something like that. It seems that a lot of what people do as glorious things in courtly literature is Gnostic.”
Fr. Elijah took a slow sip, and asked, “Like what?”
“Well, the ideal of love is big on celebrating love, only it’s better if children don’t get in the way, and you’re careful to keep children out of the way. And there’s magic all over the place, and nobles are superior.”
Fr. Elijah took another sip.
“At least that’s how I remember it, only I’m probably wrong.”
Fr. Elijah stroked his beard for a moment and said, “Well, that’s a big enough question that we should respect the matter by not trying to sort it out all at once. Let’s not assume that because it is so big a question, we are obligated to rush things. If it is a big question, we are more obligated not to rush things.”
“Ever hear of Arius or Arianism?”
“You mean racism?”
“No, not that spelling. A-R-I-U-S and A-R-I-A-N-I-S-M. The race-related bit is spelled with a ‘Y’.”
“Arius was a deacon who was really worried that his bishop was saying something wrong. So he rushed to correct his bishop, and in his rush to correct the Orthodox Church founded a heresy. He gets it worse in the Orthodox liturgy than even Judas; various other heretics are accused of being taught by Arius.
“There were two mistakes he made. The biggest and worst mistake was fighting the Orthodox Church when they said he was wrong, and that was the real problem with Arius. But another mistake was trying to rush and fix the problem of heresy he thought his bishop was guilty of.
“Holier men than either of us have rushed and said something heretical in their rush job. I’m not sure either of us are going to go warring against the Church and trying to fix it has thought about our correction and said ‘No,’ but if you’ve raised a big question, or your class has, that’s all the more reason not to rush.”
George said, “So what should we do?”
Fr. Elijah said, “Take a deep breath and a sip of cocoa,” and waited. Then he said, “Now what is it that has you so wound up?”
“I thought there was really something in what I was reading.”
“There probably is.”
“But the idea of love, and all the magic, are some sort of second-rate Cathar stuff.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Well, I’m not sure… um… well, they’re big on the experience of love.”
Fr. Elijah sank a little into his chair. “In other forms of Gnosticism, there is an idea of some things as experience… and they are understood as experiences, significant as experiences, and not as significant for other reasons… and I can see some pretty Gnostic assumptions feeding into that ideal of love. You may be right…”
“But isn’t love to be celebrated? How else could it be celebrated?”
“In the New Testament times, celibacy was encouraged despite the fact that it was giving up something big. But the something big is not the obvious ‘something big’ people would be worried about giving up today… it’s having children to carry on one’s name. There is a good deal more…. People, even with hormones, were interested in some other things besides pleasurable experiences. There is more I could explain about what else besides ‘being in love’ could make a happy marriage between happy people, but… Sorry, I’m ranting, and you’re not happy.”
“Fr. Elijah, if what I’m saying makes sense, then why on earth did you preach those homilies? Were you lying… um, I mean…”
“Don’t look for a nicer word; if you think I might have been lying, I would really rather have you bring it out into the open than have it smouldering and damaging other things. No, I’m not angry with you, and no, I wasn’t lying.”
“George, allow me to state the very obvious. Something was going on in you. And still is. It seemed, and seems to me, that you were coming alive in reading the Arthurian legends. As a pastor or priest or spiritual father or whatever you want to call me, I made an appropriate response and preached homilies that blessed not just you, but also several other people as well. Now, maybe, you are shattered, or maybe you are ready to begin hungering for something more. You know how, in classic Gnosticism, there’s a distinction the Gnostics hold between the so-called ‘hylic’ people who don’t have much of any spiritual life, meaning people who aren’t Christian in any sense, and the ‘psychic,’ meaning soulish, not ESP people, of Christians who have a sort of half-baked spiritual awakening, and the ‘pneumatic,’ meaning spiritual, Gnostics who are the real spiritual elite?”
George said, “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s absolute bosh from beginning to end. It has nothing to do with the truth.”
Fr. Elijah closed his eyes for a moment. “George, I am not quite sure I would say that.”
“What, you’re going to tell me the Gnostics had it right?”
“They had more right than you think; they’re seductively similar to Christianity. They wouldn’t have anywhere near the effect they’re having if it were any other way.
“You know how Orthodox Christianity is patted on the head as a sort of lesser outer revelation that is permissible for those who have reached the outer courts but are not ready to enter the inner sanctum of the Gnostics’ secret knowledge? That’s backwards. The Gnostic ‘knowledge’ might be excusable for people who have not reached the inner reaches of Orthodoxy. It is the Gnostic that is the light-weight spiritual reality. And it is the light-weight spiritual reality that is the Old Law which the New Law fulfills more than the Old Law can fulfill itself. You reacted to something in the Arthurian legends because there is something there, and if you now know that they are not the New Law, I will ask you to excuse me if I still hold those legends to be an Old Law that finds its completion in the New Law. The highest does not stand without the lowest, and part of the New Law is that it makes a place for the Old Law. Including that spark of life you saw in the Arthurian legends.”
“But why preach as if you found so much in them? I were to ask you to do something silly, like preach a sermon on how things have been censored out of the Bible, would you do that too?” George took a breath. “I’m sorry; you can change the subject if you want.”
Fr. Elijah said, slowly, “I have a question for you, and I want you to think carefully. Are you ready for the question?”
George said, “Yes.”
“Can we know, better than God, what the Bible should say?”
“But quite a lot of people do think that. A lot of people seem to be trying to help the Bible doing a better job of what it’s trying so hard to say, but can’t quite manage. Or something like that.”
“I’ve read some liberals doing that.”
“It’s not just liberals. Let me give one example. George, have you been big in Creation and evolution debates?”
“Christians have several options, but for the Newsweek crowd, there are only two options. Either you’re a young earther, or you’re an evolutionist, and the new ‘intelligent design’ is just the old creationism with a more euphemistic name. Rather depressing for a set of options, but let’s pretend those are the only two options.
“Now are you familiar with what this means for dinosaurs?”
“The connection isn’t obvious. We’ve seen, or at least I have, cartoons in magazines that have cave men running from T. rexes or hunting a brontosaurus. Which is, to an evolutionist, over a hundred times worse than having cave men whining loudly about the World Wide Wait. There’s a long time between when the last dinosaurs of any kind, and the first humans of any kind, were around. As in hundreds of millions of years longer than humans have been around in any form. On that timeline, it’s a rather big mistake to have humans interacting with dinosaurs.
“But if you have a young earth timeline, with the whole world created in six days, then it’s not such a ludicrous idea that humans might have interacted with dinosaurs… and your English Bible offers an interesting reason to believe that humans have seen living dinosaurs. Have you read the book of Job?”
George said, “Um, no. It’s one of a lot of…”
Fr. Elijah interrupted. “There’s a lot in the Bible to read, and even people who read the Bible a lot don’t read it quickly unless they’re speed-reading, and then it still takes them a couple of weeks. If you can call that ‘reading the Bible;’ I’ve tried it and I think it’s one of the sillier things I’ve tried—a sort of spiritual ‘get rich quick’ scheme. I was smart enough to stop. But if you check your English Bible, you will see in Job a creature called the ‘behemoth,’ perhaps because the translators on the King James Version didn’t know how to translate it, and the ‘behemoth,’ whatever that may be, is a mighty impressive creature. We are told that it is not afraid though the river rushes against it, suggesting that whatever the behemoth is, it is a big beast. And we are told that it stiffens or swings its tail like a cedar, the cedar being a magnificent, and quite enormous, tree which reaches heights of something like one hundred fifty to two hundred feet. And regardless of where you stand on Creation and evolution, the only creature that has ever walked the earth with a tail that big, or anywhere near that big, is one of the bigger dinosaurs. So the Bible offers what seems to be excellent evidence that people have seen dinosaurs—alive.
“Which is all very lovely, of course given to the English Bible. But first, the ‘behemoth’ is in fact an overgrown relative of the pig, the hippopotamus, and second, it isn’t really talking about his tail. The same basic image is translated unclearly in the Song of S—”
George spit out a mouthful of soda and took a moment to compose himself. “I’m sorry. Did I—”
Fr. Elijah looked around. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that as you were taking a sip. Let me get you a napkin. Here.”
George said, “Ok, so maybe there are some other vivid images that have been, bowlderized—you know, edited for television. Anything more? Were any ideas censored?”
Fr. Elijah said, “A bit murky, but I’m tempted to say ‘yes.’ One idea has been made less clear; there may be other tidbits here and there. A couple of forceful passages that may be interpreted as implying things about contraception don’t come across as clearly. But that may not be censorship; there is a double meaning that is hard to translate correctly in English. I don’t find the English translation strange. But there’s one story in the Old Testament, where the future King David is running from King Saul, who is leading a manhunt and trying to kill David. There are a couple of points that David could have killed Saul, and at one of these points, David’s assistant either encourages David to kill Saul or offers to kill Saul himself, and David says what your English Bible puts as, ‘I will not lay my hand on the Lord’s anointed,’ or something like that. Would you like to know what it says in Hebrew or Greek, or in Latin translation?”
George said, “Um…”
Fr. Elijah got up. “I wasn’t expecting that you would; it’s really not that important or even as impressive as some people think. If you don’t know those languages, it may be easiest to see in the Latin. Aah! Here’s my Latin Bible. Just a minute. Let me get my magnifying glass.” After almost dropping a dark green Bible with golden letters on the cover, and an interminable amount of flipping, he said, “What is this word here?”
“I don’t know Latin.”
“Never mind that. What does that word look like?”
“It’s a lowercase version of ‘Christ,’ with an ‘um’ added.”
“Yes indeed. And at the top it says the name of an Old Testament book, in Latin ‘Liber Samuhelis.’ What do you think the word you pointed out means?”
“I told you that I don’t know Latin.”
“What’s an obvious guess?”
“Um…” George paused. “Christ.”
“What does the lowercase ‘c’ mean?”
“It means nothing. As a matter of language-loving curiosity, the text is in Latin; either in the manuscripts or in this printed Bible, capitalizations follow a different rule, and ‘christus’/’christum’/… isn’t automatically capitalized. Now why is the Old Testament book of Samuel using the equivalent of the ‘Christ’?”
“Because the Latin is messed up?”
“Ernk. Sorry. Bzzt. Thank you for playing, but no. The Latin is fine. It’s the English that’s messed up. The Latin correctly translates, ‘I will not lay my hand on,’ meaning violently strike, ‘the Lord’s Christ.’ Didn’t you know that the word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed’?”
“The Bible, Old Testament and New, uses ‘Christ’ for those who are anointed—the Son of God, prophets, priests, kings, and ultimately the people of God. The whole point of becoming Christian is to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and even if we can never be perfect in Christ, there is something real that happens. If you ever become Orthodox, you will be ‘Christed,’ or in the related and standard term, ‘chrismated,’ meaning, ‘anointed with holy oil.’ And, at a deeper level, the anointing is about anointing with the Holy Spirit, as Christ was. And the New Testament in particular says a lot about Christ, but the Bible calls Christ or Christs others who are anointed. But the Bible translations, coincidentally by people who have much less room for this in their theology, introduce a division that isn’t in Hebrew, Greek, or the Catholic Church’s Latin, and translate the Hebrew ‘moshiah’ or the Greek ‘christos’ one way when it refers to the one they think is ‘really’ Christ, and another way when it refers to other Christs even if what the text says is, quite literally, ‘Christ.’ They introduce a very clear divide where none exists in the text, using a language shenanigan not entirely different from some mistranslations translating ‘God’ with a big ‘G’ when the Bible talks about the Father, and a ‘god’ with a little ‘g’ when the Bible refers to Christ. Perhaps your Bible’s translators still say ‘anointed one,’ but there is some degree of censorship. The reader is saved the shock of too many correctly translated and explicit statements that we are to be little Christs, Sons of God, living the divine life—there’s a word for the divine life in Greek that is different from the word for mere created life, and that dimension doesn’t seem to come through. It’s not all censorship, but there’s something not quite right about the translators who refuse to either consistently say ‘Christ,’ or else consistently say ‘Anointed One,’ so that the readers never get the something important in the Bible that Western Christianity does not always get. But there is enough mystery in the Bible. Sacred Scripture is unfathomable even apart from relatively few areas where the translators try to make sure that the reader does not get the full force of the what the text is saying. God exceeds our grasp; he is and ever shall be Light, but whenever we try to shine a light to search him out, its beam falls off in darkness, and the God who is Light meets us beyond the cloud of darkness enshrouding him.
“I say this to answer your question, which I know was purely rhetorical. I’d prefer not to scandalize people and have to clean up the pieces later, but even the tough old women you see in our parish aren’t so prissy as you might think. But I want to more directly speak to your intent, and the deep question behind your asking if, because you had hypothetically asked me, I would preach a sermon about the Bible and censorship. I wasn’t crossing my fingers or simply saying what I thought would please you, when I preached about the Arthurian legends, and there is nothing I wish to take back. I really was preaching in good faith.”
“Then I don’t want Brocéliande for now.”
George said, “You may like the book. I don’t. I don’t want it any more.”
“Then may I take a look at it? I would like to have it, to look at. If you don’t want it any more, that’s fine, but you can have it back any time.”
“Fine. Maybe it will be better for you than for me.”
“By the way, what are you doing for Spring Break?”
“Dunno. Do you have any suggestions?”
“There are some truly beautiful places where you could get blasted out of your mind, acquire a couple of new diseases, and if you time it right, come back still in possession of a rather impressive hangover.”
“Why don’t we just cut to the chase and get to your real suggestion?”
“Aah, yes. It turns out that there’s a finishing school which is offering a week-long intensive course in the gentle art of polite conversation, but—oh, wait, I was going to suggest that to my granddaughter Abigail. I would never make such a suggestion to you. Finishing school—what was I thinking? What I was really wondering was whether you have considered one of the alternative spring breaks.”
“Like Habitat for Humanity? But I have no skill in construction.”
“That’s not really the point. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity had nothing on their website about how only seasoned construction workers can be of any use.”
“But aren’t there a lot of things that could go wrong?”
“I might hit myself on the thumb with a hammer.”
“If you’re worried about being at a loss for words, last April Fool’s Day my godson gave me a book listing bad words in something like a thousand languages, and you can borrow it. There are worse things in life than hitting your thumb with a hammer, and if it’s that big of an issue, I’d be happy to ask the head of Habitat for Humanity to refund your wasted time. If you’re worried about getting sunburned, the store next door has an impressive collection of sunscreen containers, giving you options that rival those for dental floss. I personally recommend the SPF 30 in your choice of soft pastel-hued plastic bottles with a delicate floral scent created through a carefully blended confection of unnatural chemicals. I don’t think that Habitat is going anywhere where you’d be in real danger of snakebite, but I can help find a kit you can use to bite the snake back. Have I left something out?”
A week later, and (though he did not tell Fr. Elijah) realizing that Abigail was also a student at Calix College, George returned. Fr. Elijah said, “Why the long face, George? Just a minute while I make some tea.”
“Um, I’m not signed up for the alternative spring break.”
“George, I only asked you to consider… tell me what’s on your mind… if you want to.”
“I was in line, and I just missed signing up.”
Fr. Elijah sat in silence.
“I could have gone, but there was a girl in line after me, and she really wanted to go. I let her have the last slot.”
“Excellent. Some would call it sexist, but I’d call it one of the finer points of chivalry.”
Fr. Elijah paused and then said, “Could you come with me to the house for a second?”
Fr. Elijah led George out to the house and rummaged on a shelf before pulling out a CD. “George, could you put this in the CD player and hit play? I’ve figured out how to use the CD player several times, but I keep forgetting, and I don’t want to keep you waiting.” He handed the CD to George and said, “I’ll be right out. I need to make a phone call.” He stepped into another room and closed the door.
George looked at the CD, did a double take, and looked at the player. He began to hear a rap beat.
As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain,
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain.
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me.
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity.
At 4:30 in the morning I’m milkin’ cows.
Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows… Fool!
And I’ve been milkin’ and plowin’ so long that
Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone.
I’m a man of the land! I’m into discipline!
Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin.
But if I finish all my chores and you finish thine,
Then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699!
We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
I’ve churned butter once or twice, living in an Amish paradise.
It’s hard work and sacrifice, living in an Amish paradise.
We sell quilts at discount price, living in an Amish paradise.
A local boy kicked me in the butt last week.
I just smiled at him and turned the other cheek!
I really don’t care; in fact, I wish him well.
‘Cause I’ll be laughing my head off when he’s burning in Hell!
But I ain’t never punched a tourist even if he deserved it
An Amish with a ‘tude? You know that’s unheard of!
I never wear buttons but I got a cool hat.
And my homies agree, I really look good in black… Fool!
If you’ll come to visit, you’ll be bored to tears.
We haven’t even paid the phone bill in 300 years
But we ain’t really quaint, so please don’t point and stare;
We’re just technologically impaired!
There’s no phone, no lights, no motorcar,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Caruso,
It’s as primitive as can be!
We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re just plain and simple guys, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no time for sin and vice, living in an Amish paradise.
We don’t fight. We all play nice, living in an Amish paradise.
Hitchin’ up the buggy, churnin’ lots of butter,
Raised a barn on Monday, soon I’ll raise another!
Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!
I’m the pious guy the little Amlettes wanna be like,
On my knees day and night, scorin’ points for the afterlife,
So don’t be vain and don’t be whiny,
Or else, my brother, I might have to get medieval on your heinie!
We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re all crazy Mennonites, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no cops or traffic lights, living in an Amish paradise.
But you’d probably think it bites, living in an Amish paradise.
Fr. Elijah walked back into the room and served the tea, smiling gently.
George said, “Um…”
Fr. Elijah said, “Yes?”
“I’m not sure how to put this delicately.”
“Then put it indelicately. Bluntly, if you wish.”
“I hadn’t picked you out for a Weird Al fan.”
“It was a present.”
“Who would buy you a Weird Al CD?”
“A loved one.”
“Um… do you ever do something less spectacular, like play chess?”
“I’m not a big fan of chess, and besides, I’ve visited the chess club at the Episcopalian church, and it seems the Anglican Communion isn’t going to produce that many more good chess players.”
Fr. Elijah sipped his tea. “Can’t tell a bishop from a queen.”
George coughed, sputtered, tried to keep a straight face, and then tried to steer the conversation back. “When were you given the Weird Al CD?”
“For April Fools’ Day. The present is much appreciated.”
“I like Weird Al, but why did you play that?”
“Because I was just on the phone.”
“I’ve just arranged for you to spend your Spring Break at an Amish paradise.”
“Are you joking?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Are you being sadistic again?”
“Yes, I’m being very sadistic.”
“I’m not saying.”
“I’ll be bored to tears.”
“Perhaps. But boredom can be good, and not just because it can build character.”
“Um… Never mind. I’ve grown rather fond of computers. I’ve found out the hard way that I rather need them.”
“If it’s that hard for you to spend a few days without spam, you can use your cell phone to read all the insulting messages telling you that you can’t handle money, or that you need snake oil diets, or some part of your body is too small, or you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and must content yourself with pixels on a screen. And if you forget leave your cell phone at home, you might be able to borrow one of theirs.”
“Amish don’t use phones or the Internet. They’re ‘just technologically impaired;’ didn’t the song say that?”
“You can ask them; I’m sure one of them would be willing to lend you his cell phone.”
“Let’s forget about that; we can talk about it later if you want. Anyway, after school gets out, come over here with your bag. Someone else is doing some running, and will give you a ride. He’s a bit hard of hearing, so he’s not much good for chatting in the car, but he’s a great guy. But you can gripe to him about how backwards the Amish are.
“Oh, and one more thing… I’m not exactly sending you into bear country, but if one of the workmen were attacked by a bear, I’d be very worried.”
“That seems obvious.”
“But not for the reason you think. I’ll explain why after you return.”
There was a knock on the door, and Fr. Elijah opened it.
“George, I’d like to introduce you to Jehu. Jehu, this is George. Oh, George, I’m sorry for being a pest, but could you open your bag and pull out everything inside?”
George looked at Fr. Elijah, rolled his eyes, and began unpacking.
“Which of these items mean anything at all to you? Which have a story, or were expensive, or were a gift?”
George looked at Fr. Elijah, who stood in silence.
“You can put anything that means anything to you in this closet; it will be here when you get back. I’m not sending you to a den of thieves, but…”
George began shuffling and sorting while Fr. Elijah waited. When he was finished, Fr. Elijah said, “How much does your windbreaker mean to you?”
“It’s new, but I want to have it with me on the trip.”
“Take it off. You have an old sweatshirt or two.”
“Sorry, I insist on this one. It doesn’t mean that much to me.”
Fr. Elijah said, “If you must…”
George said, “I’ve taken enough out. Have a good evening.” He stiffly shook Fr. Elijah’s hand. “You better have a good reason for your odd behavior.”
Fr. Elijah said, “I can explain later, if you need me to.”
George repacked the remaining half of his luggage into the duffle bag, and left with Jehu.
Some days later, Fr. Elijah heard a knock and opened the door. “George, George! How are you? I must hear about your trip. That’s a lovely jeans jacket you have there. Is there a story behind it?”
George gave Fr. Elijah a look that could have been poured on a waffle, and then began quickly taking his coat off.
Fr. Elijah said, “You wouldn’t throw a coat at an old man who doesn’t have the reflexes to block it… I must hear the story about the coat, though.”
George closed his mouth for a second, and then said, “Filthy sadist!”
Fr. Elijah said, “It sounded like you had an interesting trip.”
“Did you call and ask them to be obnoxious?”
“I did no such thing.”
“I called and asked them to go easy on you.”
“You called and asked them to go easy on me?”
“Well, you seem to have gotten through the matter without getting any black eyes.”
“You call that going easy? These guys are pacifists, right?”
“That depends on your idea of a ‘pacifist’. If you mean that they don’t believe you should use violence to solve conflicts, then yes, they are pacifists.”
George said, “And…”
“But does that make them wimps? In any sense at all?”
“You did say that you would be worried if one of them were attacked by a bear… Why?”
“I’d be worried for the bear.”
George sunk down into his chair.
“You must have some stories to tell.”
“They wanted help raising a barn, and they wouldn’t let me do any of the stunts they were doing without a harness, but when I went to the outhouse, things shook, and when I opened the door, I was over ten feet in the air.”
“Forklift. I don’t know why they had one.”
“Did you ever think you would sit on such a high throne? I have a suspicion that’s higher than even my bishop’s throne.”
“We are not amused.”
“You are using the royal ‘We,’ Your Majesty. Excellent.”
“The first day, I didn’t take off my shirt at work, but I did take off my windbreaker, and when I left, they nailed it to the beams!”
“Excellent. Is that why Your Majesty has a new, handmade jeans jacket?”
George gave Fr. Elijah another look that could have been poured on a waffle.
“I should maybe have told you… They don’t think anything of nailing down any clothing that’s taken off as a practical joke. Did you ever get an opportunity to nail down some clothing or something of theirs?”
“Yes, but like a gentleman, I did not.”
“That was rude of you.”
“You mean they’re offended at what I didn’t do?”
“No; I just said it was rude. They wouldn’t be offended. But what I was going to say is that the women have lots of denim, and are very adept at sewing new clothes; it’s almost like making a paper airplane for them. Or maybe a little bigger of a deal than that. But you seem to be laboring under a sense that since the Amish are such backwards people, they aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor. Were you surprised at the sense of humor they had?”
“So did you get bored with nothing interesting to do besides surf the web through your cell phone?”
George said, “Filthy sadist!” Then he paused.
Fr. Elijah sat back and smiled. “George, I believe you have a question.”
“Yes? Ask anything you want.”
George hesitated again, and asked, “When can I come back?”
Fr. Elijah just laughed.
George walked around, and had a few chats with Abigail on campus. She started to occupy his thoughts more… and George wondered if he really wanted to dismiss all of the literature of courtly love.
He tried to put this out of his mind the next time he saw Fr. Elijah.
He thought he’d pay a visit, and knocked on Fr. Elijah’s door.
Fr. Elijah said, “I’m glad you’re here, George. Did you know that a man-eating tiger got loose on the campus of Calix College?”
George stood up and immediately pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Do the police—”
“Sit down, George, and put your cell phone away, although I must commend your gallant impulse. This was before your time, and besides, George, it starved.”
George said, very forcedly, “Ha ha ha.”
“Sit down, please. Have you had any further thoughts about your holiday with the Amish?”
“It seems a bit like King Arthur’s court. Or at least—”
“Why would that be?”
George sat for a while, and said nothing.
“Are you familiar with Far Side comic strips?”
“I expected so. You like them, right?”
“Yes, but I haven’t read them in a while.”
“Do you remember the strip with its caption, ‘In the days before television’?”
“Can’t put my finger on it.”
“It shows a family, mesmerized, sitting, lying, and slouching around a blank spot where there isn’t a television… I think you’ve had a visit to the days before television. You didn’t even need a time machine.”
George sat in silence for a moment.
Fr. Elijah continued, “If you want, I can show you the technique by which the Bible is censored, and how the translators hide the fact that they’ve taken something out of the text. But do you know the one line that was censored from the movie production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the Disney one, I mean?”
“I didn’t notice that anything was censored.”
“Well, you’re almost right. Now it seems to be religion that is censored, Christianity having replaced sex as the publishing world’s major taboo, and Disney did not censor one iota of the stuff about Aslan. But there is one line of the book that almost gets into the movie, but then Father Christmas merely makes a smile instead of verbally answering the question. Do you know what that line is?”
“‘Battles are ugly when women fight.'”
“Um… I can see why they would want to smooth over that.”
“Why? Battles are ugly when men fight. There is a reason why Orthodox call even necessary fighting ‘the cross of St. George.’ ‘Cross,’ as in a heavy, painful burden. I’ve dealt pastorally with several veterans. They’ve been through something rough, much rougher than some people’s experience with, say, cancer. And it is my unambiguous opinion, and that of every single soldier I’ve spoken to at length, that battles are ugly… whether or not women fight. Therefore, battles are ugly when women fight, and you’d really have to not understand battle, think it’s the same thing as a violent fantasy or watching an action-adventure movie, to deny that battles are ugly when whatever group fights.
“So why make such a big deal over a single line, ‘Battles are ugly when women fight?’ Why is that one line worth censoring when Disney has the guts to leave Aslan untouched? What’s a bigger taboo in the media world than Christ?”
“Umm… I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Ok, let me ask you… What do you think of the Amish women?”
George tried not to stiffen.
“I’m sorry, George, I meant besides that… When you’re my age you can forget that for women to dress very modestly can—”
“Then what did you mean?”
“Imagine one of those women in a fight.”
George tried not to make a face.
Fr. Elijah said, “My understanding is that they’re strong and hard workers, probably a lot stronger than many men you know.”
George said, “Um…”
“Would you deny that they are strong? And tough, for that matter?”
“Does it bother you in the same way to imagine an Amish man having to carry a gun into combat?”
“No. He’d be pretty tough.”
“But the women are pretty strong and tough too. Why does it bother you to think about one of them entering combat and fighting?”
George said nothing.
“The women strike you as stronger and tougher than many men that you know. So they’re basically masculine?”
“Fr. Elijah… the women there almost left me wondering if I’d met real women before, and the men left me wondering if I’d met real men before. I don’t know why.”
“I think I have an answer for why the idea of an Amish woman fighting in battle bothers you more than an Amish man fighting in battle.”
“I’ve been reading through Brocéliande. Let me read you a couple of passages.” Fr. Elijah returned momentarily, and flipped through Brocéliande before reading:
Sir Galahad he rode, and rode and rode, until saw he a dragon red. Anon the wyrm with its tail struck a third of the trees against the earth that Sir Galahad they might slay. Anon Sir Galahad warred he against the wyrm.
The dragon charged, and anon Sir Galahad his horse trembled, and Galahad gat him down to earth. The dragon laughed at Sir Galahad’s spear which brake to-shivers, and breathed fire red as Hell.
Sir Galahad gat him behind his shield, and then charged with his sword, though it should break as rotted wood. Anon the dragon swept him, though his helm saved Sir Galahad his head from the rocks.
Then Sir Galahad, who his strength was as the strength of a thousand because his faith was pure, leapt him and wrestled against the beast. Anon the beast turned and tore, against the knight, until the knight he bled sore. Never was such combat enjoined, but the knight held his choke until the dragon his death met.
Fr. Elijah pulled the bookmark out, and found one of several other bookmarks:
Rose the smoke of incense, of frankincense pure the garden did fill. ‘Twere many women present, that hyght Lady Eva, and Lady Elizabeth, and Lady Anna, and Lady Martha, and Queen Mary. Sang they a song, ’twere of one voice, and in that song kept they a garden: in the garden was life. Queen Mary a radiant Child gave suck, and others gave life each in her way.
Verdant was the place of their labour.
Fr. Elijah said, “I think you’re missing the point if you’re trying to tell if there are differences between men and women by asking who is tougher.”
“It’s like asking what the differences are between apples and oranges, and then thinking you need to justify it with a measurement. So you may say that apples are bigger than oranges, until you realize that navel oranges are the size of a grapefruit and some varieties of apples don’t get that big. So maybe next you measure a sugar content, and you get really excited when you realize that maybe oranges have a measurably lower Ph than apples—a scientist’s way of measuring how sour they are—until someone reminds you that crabapples are so tart you wouldn’t want to eat them. And all this time you are looking for some precise scientific measurement that will let you scientifically be able to distinguish apples and oranges…
“Is it simply a measure of some difference in physical strength that makes you not like the idea of an Amish woman in battle? If you knew that the women were equally as strong as the men, identically strong, or tough or whatever, would that address…”
George hesitated. “But…”
Fr. Elijah sat silently.
“But,” George continued, “the idea of an Amish woman in battle… I know some girls who wanted to go into the military, and it didn’t bother me that much. And the Amish women are pacifists.”
“So if those women were gung-ho military enthusiasts, even if they weren’t soldiers, then you wouldn’t mind—”
“Ok, ok, that’s not it. But what is it about the Amish?”
“George, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“So what is the right tree? Where should I be barking?”
“When people notice a difference with another culture, at least in this culture they seek some ‘That’s cultural’ explanation about the other culture.”
“So there’s something about this culture? Ours?”
“George, let me ask you a question. How many times in the Arthurian legends did you see someone invite a man to be open about himself and have the courage to talk about his feelings?”
George was silent.
“We still have the expression, ‘wear the pants,’ even though it is no longer striking for a woman to wear trousers. It used to be as striking as it would be for a man to wear a skirt.”
“Um… you don’t approve of women wearing pants?”
“Let’s put that question on hold; it doesn’t mean the same thing. Abby wears trousers all the time. I wouldn’t want her to do otherwise.”
“George, when have you seen me at the front of the church, leading worship but not wearing a skirt?”
“But I wouldn’t want you wearing a skirt. The question of wearing a skirt, or pants, or whatever, is like trying to make a rule based on size or tartness or whatever to separate apples from oranges.”
“It’s the wrong question, then?”
“It’s fundamentally the wrong question… and it misleads people into thinking that the right question must be as impossible to answer as the wrong question. Never mind asking who is allowed to wear pants and who is allowed to wear a skirt. We’re both men. I wear a skirt all the time. You shouldn’t. And, in either case, there is a way of dressing that is appropriate to men, and another to women, and that propriety runs much deeper than an absolute prohibition on who can wear what. And this is true even without getting into the differences between men’s and women’s jeans, which are subtle enough that you can easily miss them, but important.”
“For starters, the cloth is hung on men’s jeans so that the fabric is like a grid, more specifically with some of the threads running up and down, and others running side to side. On women’s clothing, jeans included, the threads run diagonally.”
“And this is a deliberately subtle clue for the super-perceptive?”
“It changes how the cloth behaves. It changes the cloth’s physical properties. Makes women’s clothing run out faster, because it’s at just the right angle to wear out more quickly. But it also makes the cloth function as more form-fitting. On men’s jeans, the cloth just hangs; it’s just there as a covering. On women’s jeans, the cloth is there to cover, but it’s also there to highlight. This, and the cut, and a few other things, mean that even if men and women are both wearing jeans, there are differences, even if they’re subtle enough that you won’t notice them. Men’s jeans are clothing. Women’s jeans are more about adornment, even—or especially—if it’s something you’re not expected to notice.”
“So we do have differences?”
“We do have differences despite our best efforts to eradicate them. We want men to be sophisticated enough to cultivate their feminine sides, and women to be strong enough to step up to the plate.”
“Um, isn’t that loaded language?”
“Very. Or maybe not. But one of the features of Gnosticism is that there keeps popping up an idea that we should work towards androgyny. Including today.”
“Um, you mean besides an educational system that is meant to be unisex and tells boys and girls to work together and be… um… ‘mature’ enough not to experience a tingle in the relationship? Or dressing unisex? Or not having too many activities that are men only or women only? Or not having boys and men together most of the time, and women and girls together? Or having people spend long periods of time in mixed company whether or not it is supposed to be romantic? Or an idea of dating that is courtly love without too many consciously acknowledged expectations about what is obviously the man’s role, and what is obviously the women’s role? Or—”
“Ok, ok, but I think there was more—”
“Yes, there is much more to the Amish, or the Arthurian legends, than what they hold about men and women. But there is also much more in what they hold about men and women—all the more when they are telling of Long Ago and Far Away, so that political correctness does not apply to them, so that men who go on great quests can be appreciated even by a woman who thinks men would be better off if they would just learn to talk more about their feelings and in general hold a woman’s aspirations of conversational intimacy. And the Amish are ‘technologically impaired,’ or whatever you want to call them, so they’re allowed to have real men and real women despite the fact that they are alive today. But the pull of men taught to be men, and women taught to be women, is powerful even if it’s politically incorrect, and—”
George interrupted. “Is this why I was trying to keep a straight face when you were asking me to imagine an Amish woman carrying a gun?”
Fr. Elijah thought. “For an Amish man to have to fight in battle would be bad enough. An Amish woman entering a battlefield would be something that would cut against the grain of their life as women. It’s not so superficial as the women being dainty and not strong enough to hold a gun.”
“The men seem stronger and tougher than the women, though.”
“Yes, but is it only a matter of being tougher? Is what you observed simply a matter of the women being tough but the men being tougher?”
George was silent.
Fr. Elijah looked at his watch and winced. “Always when I’m having a good conversation… George, I’m sorry, but I’ve got someone coming over any minute, and a bit of preparation. Sorry…”
George picked up his belongings, and Fr. Elijah blessed him on his way out. Then George stepped out, and Fr. Elijah momentarily opened the door. “Oh, and by the way, George, I have some more of that paper, if you want to write her a love note.” He closed the door.
George scurried away, hoping that Fr. Elijah hadn’t seen him blush.
It was not much later that April Fool’s Day came, falling on a Sunday. George did not feel brave, and paid a visit to Bedside Baptist. The days seemed to pass quickly with Abigail in the picture.
On Earth Day, George listened and was amazed at how many references to Creation he heard in the liturgy—not just the reference to “his mother, the earth,” but how plants and trees, rocks, stars, and seas, formed the warp and woof by which the Orthodox Church praised her Lord. The liturgy left him wishing Fr. Elijah would put off his preaching and say something to celebrate earth day…
Fr. Elijah stood up.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is Earth Day, and I thought that that would provide an excellent basis for my preaching today. The very opening chapters of Genesis are not about man alone but man and the whole Creation. There are some very interesting suggestions people have made that when Genesis says that we were told not only to “be fruitful and multiply,” but “fill the earth and subdue it,” the word translated “subdue” is very gentle, almost an embrace, as a mother nurtures a child. Which is a very lovely image, but is absolute hogwash.
The word translated “subdue” is the word Christ uses for exactly what Christians must not do by “lording their authority” over other Christians as the heathen do. The book of Genesis tells of this beautiful Creation and then has God charge us with a charge that could much better be translated, “trample it under foot.” And what better day than Earth Day than to talk about why we should trample the earth under foot, told to us in a text that is resplendent with natural beauty?
Many people today call the earth ‘Gaia’, and that is well and good. Today one calls a man ‘Mr.’ and a woman ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ if there is no other honorific, and as much as adults all bear that title, in Latin every woman bears then name of ‘Gaia’ and every man bears the name of ‘Gaius.’ And if we are speaking of the earth, it is well and proper to call her Gaia; only someone who understands neither men nor women would think of her as sexless!
If you are dealing with a horse, for instance, it helps to keep in mind that they are prey animals with a lot of fear. Never mind that they’re much bigger than you; they’re afraid of you, as you would be afraid of a rat, and need to be treated like a small child. But you can only deal with a horse gently after it is broken and after you have made it clear that it is you holding the reins and not the horse. You need to be able to treat a horse like a little child if you are to handle them… but if you spoil it, and fail to establish your authority, you have a terrified small child that is stronger than an Olympic athlete. You do need to be gentle with a horse, but it is a gentleness that holds the reins, with you in charge.
There are a number of fundamental difficulties we face about being in harmony with nature, and one of the chief ones is that we are trying to be in harmony with nature the wrong way. We are trying to take our cue from our mother the earth, perhaps instead of taking our cue from technology. And it is excellent to treat Gaia gently, and perhaps technology is in fact quite a terrible place to take our cue from, and something else we absolutely need to trample under foot, but there is something mistaken about the rider taking his cue from the horse. In Genesis we are called to rule material Creation as its head: we are to give it its cue, rather than following. Perhaps you have seen the Far Side cartoon that says, “When imprinting studies go awry” and shows a scientist last in line with ducklings follow a mother duck… which is very funny, but not a recipe for a life well lived. We are made from the same clay as horse and herb, but unless we are deeply sunk into the even worse cues we will take from technology when we fail to rule it, we do not serve our best interests—or the earth’s—when we ask her to dance and expect her to be our lead.
But enough of what is politically incorrect in the West, where we say that men should not lead and mean, in both senses, that humans should not lead the rest of Creation and that males should not lead females. I could belabor why both of those are wrong, but I would like to dig deeper, deeper even than saying that lordship applies to every one of us even if we are all “a man under authority,” including me.
Patristic exegesis of the rule over Creation is first and foremost of a rule over our passions and over ourselves. We are not fit to lead others or Creation if we have not even learned to lead ourselves; “better is a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” If you are following a Western model, then you may be thinking of a big enterprise for us to start ruling Creation which is really beside the point. If you save yourself through ascetical mastery, ten thousand will be saved around you. Never mind that this is mystical; it is a matter of “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” You become a leader, and a man, not by ruling over others, but by ruling over yourself.
We are in Great Lent now, the central season of the entire Orthodox year, not because it is about ruling others or about ruling Creation—it isn’t—but because it is about ruling ourselves. We are not to seek a larger kingdom to rule outside ourselves; we are to turn our attention to the kingdom within, and rule it, and God will add a larger kingdom outside if we are ready. The first, foremost, and last of places for us to exercise lordship is in ourselves, and our rule over the Creation is but an image of our rule over ourselves, impressive as the outer dominion may be.
We bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve, and we are to be transformed into the image of Christ. Let us seek first the Kingdom of God, with all that that means for our rule over ourselves.
In the Name of the Lord and Father, and of the Son who is Lord, and of the Heavenly King, who is the Holy Ghost, Amen.
After his Sunday dinner, George thought it would be a good time to wander in the wood.
In the forest, he found himself by a babbling brook, with the sound of a waterfall not far off. George brushed off a fallen mossy log and sat down to catch his breath.
George began listening to the birdsong, and it almost seemed he could tell a pattern. Then two warm hands covered his eyes.
George tried to look up, remembered his eyes were covered, and brought his own hands up to his face, briefly touching a small, soft pair of hands. Then he said, “It’s definitely a man…”
Then George turned. Abigail was sticking out her tongue.
Abigail’s dress was a rich, deep, deep red, the color of humble earth seen through a ruby. A pair of bare white feet peeked out from beneath a long flowing skirt, a wide, golden straw hat sat atop her locks, and dark, intricate knotwork lay across her heart.
George looked down at his own feet and saw his own worn combat boots, before looking at Abigail’s face. She smiled and said, “Boo!”
George said, “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Taking a walk, as I do from time to time.”
“Must be pretty rare for you, if this is the first time I’ve seen you.”
“You’re in the woods more often than I am?”
A squirrel darted out, climbed across Abigail’s foot, and scurried away.
George asked, “It wasn’t afraid of you?”
“Most of them aren’t, at least not that much of the time.”
George looked at her, and she said, “It’s not such a big deal, really. Read any good books lately?”
“No, and—ooh, I told Fr. Elijah I’d read C.S. Lewis, something or other about ‘glory.’ I need to get back to him.”
“Maybe it’s a box you’re not meant to open, at least not yet… if I know Grandpa, he’s probably forgotten about it completely.”
“But I should—”
“You should leave it a closed box, if anything. How are you?”
George looked at the forest—how like a garden it looked—and then Abigail. He was at something of a loss for words. He looked down at her alabaster feet, and then her face. “Having a good day.”
She smiled, and a sparrow flew between them. “There’s a hawk in here somewhere, only it’s hard to find. You can spend a lot of time exploring this forest. I’m having a good day, too.”
George sat for a while, trying to think of something to say, and Abigail said, “You’re being pretty quiet now.”
George said, “I’ve been looking at majoring in math.”
Abigail said, “Um…”
“You know how to tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”
George looked down and said, “He looks at your feet when they’re talking to you.”
Abigail giggled. “Have you heard my Grandpappy’s theory on how PMS got its name?”
George said, “Um…”
She giggled again. “Something about ‘Mad Cow Disease’ being taken.”
George stiffened, and looked for something to say.
Abigail said, “Stop it, George. Just stop it. Don’t you get it? Don’t you stand and listen or sing the hymn where the the Mother of God is honored as the Ewe that bore the Lamb of God and the Heifer that bore the Unblemished Calf?”
George’s mind raced. “I suppose that if, in the same breath, Christ is called—”
Abigail interrupted. “Next time you’re in Church, listen, really listen, as the Mother of God is honored, then listen as Christ our God is worshiped. There’s a difference. Don’t try to analyze it or even put your finger on it. Just listen, and… George, do you understand women? At all?”
George looked for something to say, but found nothing.
A dark cloud blew across the sky, and cold rain began to fall more heavily until it poured.
George said, “May I lend you my jacket?”
Abigail said, “I’m fine.”
The rain grew colder, and began to pelt. George and Abigail both rose and began scurrying towards campus. George took off his jacket and started to place it around Abigail’s shoulders.
Abigail said, “I don’t—”
George looked down and said, “I’m wearing boots and you have bare feet,” and wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. Then a gust of wind tore at Abigail’s hat, but George caught it.
Then they ran back, with George shivering under his threadbare T-shirt. When they got back, he went to his dorm and she to hers. George called Abigail and confirmed she was OK, took three long, hot showers, and spent the rest of the evening sinking into a lounge chair in his bathrobe, sipping cocoa, and thinking.
Tuesday evening, George found time to visit Fr. Elijah. He wanted to talk about another subject. Definitely another subject.
“Fr. Elijah, are you busy?”
“I hope not… come in.”
“After all this, I still want the Holy Grail.”
“Excellent thing, my son… the chief point of life is to search for the Holy Grail.”
“But will I find it? I mean… I’m not sure what I mean.”
“May I show you something old?”
“As far as material age goes, it is much older than the Holy Grail.”
The old man opened a desk drawer, and fished out a small box.
“I thought this might interest you,” he said, and took something out of the box, and placed it in George’s hand.
George looked the item over. It looked like a piece of bark, not much larger than a pebble, and yet it seemed heavy for a piece of bark. “Is this stone or wood? I can’t tell which it is.”
“Is it stone or wood? In fact, it is petrified wood… from the Oak of Mambre.”
“Oak of Mambre? Should I have heard of it before?”
“You probably have, and if you can’t remember it, there is something you’re missing.”
“What is the Oak of Mambre?”
“I’ll tell you in a bit. When you grasp the Oak of Mambre, you hold the Holy Grail.”
“The Oak of Mambre is older than any of the civilizations you know; for that matter, it might be older than the practice of writing. Do you know about Abraham?”
“The one Paul calls the father of all who believe?”
“Yes, that Abraham. The Bible tells how Abraham met three men who came to him, and showed the most lavish hospitality, giving them the costliest meal he could have given. And it was then that the men promised the impossible. It is clear enough later that these men were in fact angels, were in fact God.
“From the West, you may not know that even if we Orthodox are big on icons, it’s fingernails to a chalkboard when Orthodox see the Father portrayed as the proverbial old man with a beard. Christ may be portrayed because of his incarnation; the same is not true of the invisible Father, who is not and never will be incarnate. Icons of the Father have been fundamentally rejected, but there was one exception. From ancient times there has been an icon of Abraham’s hospitality to the three men, or three angels, and centuries ago one iconographer showed something deeper: it is the same three men or angels, but instead of a table with a lamb as in the old version of the icon, there is an icon with a chalice atop an altar. In both the old and the new form of the icon, the Oak of Mambre is in the back, and it is this same oak for which I have shown you a fragment.”
“Is it holy because it is old?”
“Being old does not make a thing holier. The pebbles in your yard are of stone ages older than the oldest relic. Though they are, admittedly, part of the earth which received Christ’s blood on the cross, and which Bulgakov rightly calls the Holy Grail.
“A thing is kept and preserved because it is holy, and if people will try to keep a holy thing for a long time, it will probably be old to most of the people who see it. Same reason most of the people who have seen the Liberty Bell saw it when it was old because people have been keeping it for a long time, much longer than the time when it was new, so most of the people who have seen, or will see, the Liberty Bell, see it as an old treasure. But back to holy things: a holy thing is, if anything, timeless: when there arose a great evil in Russia and Marx’s doctrine helped people try to make paradise and caused a deep, deep river of blood to flow, the communists in the Orthodox heartland of Russia made martyrs, and in that torrential river of blood made more Orthodox martyrs than the rest of history put together. God will preserve saints’ relics from that, and it may be that there are more relics from the past century than all centuries before. And they are not the less holy because they are new. But let us return to the Oak of Mambre and why, if you grasp it, you hold the Holy Grail.”
“Ok. Why is that?”
“The Church has decided that the only legitimate way to portray an icon of the Trinity is in the hospitality of Abraham. And the Icon of the Holy Trinity is the deepest icon of the Holy Grail—deeper even than an icon that I can show you that shows the Mother of God as a chalice holding her Son. Where is the Holy Grail in this icon?”
“Is it that little thing in the center?”
“In part. Where else is it?”
George looked long and hard, seemed to almost catch something, before it vanished from his face.
“There are different interpretations,” Fr. Elijah said, “and the icon conceals things; even the angel is a protecting veil to a reality that cannot be seen. But in the layers of this icon, the deepest glimpse sees the Father on the left, the Spirit on the right, and the Son in blood red clothes in the center, encased as in a chalice, showing the reality in Heaven for which even the Holy Grail is merely a shadow.”
George turned the stone over in his hand with awe, closed his eyes, and then looked at the relic he held in his hand. “So I am holding the Holy Grail.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Yes, if you look on it with enlightened eyes. Where else do you meet the Holy Grail?”
“In every person I meet?”
“‘Tis hard to answer better than that. When you become Orthodox, you will receive the Eucharist and kiss the chalice, and, perhaps, find that the Holy Grail is achieved not by an unearthly isolated hero, but by a community in common things.”
“But why do people kiss the Holy Grail? I mean the chalice?”
“If you call it the Holy Grail, even if your tongue slips, you may be understanding it. The Western view is that there is one original chalice and the others are separate sorts of things; in Orthodoxy, what is the same between the Holy Grail and ‘another’ chalice runs infinitely deeper than what separates them; the ‘real’ thing is that they are the same.”
“But why the kiss?”
“Let me ask you a question. Do you think a kiss has more to do with worship, or with mental calculations?”
“Does it have to do with either?”
“You haven’t read the Bible in Greek.”
“What does the Greek Bible have to do with it?”
“Quite a lot, but it will take me a bit to explain why. But there is a deep tie.
“The main word for reverence or worship, in the Greek Bible, literally means to kiss. Part of what you’ll keep coming to again and again is that the West understands the mind as the thing that calculates, and the East understands the mind as what knows, and is enlightened, because it tastes and even more deeply because it worships. I don’t know how to put this clearly, in terms that will make sense to someone who does not know the spiritual realities involved. There is a false kiss—I dare say, the kiss of Judas or a kiss that is hollow like the kiss of Judas—that is nothing more than a calculated act. But there is also a kiss that has something to do with worship, and it is no error that Orthodoxy has things ‘with love and kisses.’ We embrace icons, crosses, holy books, each other with reverence that includes a kiss. And rightly done, such kisses are connected to worship.”
“I still don’t understand why.”
“Let me make a momentary detour; I’ll get back in a moment. Old texts can be at once something we genuinely experience a deep connection to, and something treacherously unfaithful to our assumptions. What would you say, for instance, that the medieval Scholastics are talking about when they use the word that is usually translated, ‘intellect’?”
“I try to keep my mind free of preconceptions, especially when dealing with something unfamiliar.”
“So you’d be open to anything they’d say about the intellect’s ability to draw logical conclusions from one thing to another?”
“They can let the intellect draw conclusions however they want to.”
“But here’s the thing. They don’t. It is a fundamental error to read ‘intellect’ as ‘the thing that reasons by logical deduction. Saying that the ‘intellect’ is what makes deductions by reasoning from one thing by another is like saying that an object’s height is what you measure with a bathroom scale, or that its weight is measurable with a ruler. It’s a fundamental error; the intellect is precisely what does not reason from premises to conclusions.”
“Then what is the intellect?”
“I usually don’t use the term ‘intellect’ for it; the closest English equivalent I can think of is ‘spiritual eye’. But even that misses what exactly this spiritual eye connects with. And this spiritual eye was known to the Greek Fathers no less than the Latin scholastics; if anything, the Greek Fathers were more attuned to it. Scholastic theology is an exercise, to a large degree, of that which reasons; the theology of the Fathers comes from another place. The spiritual eye is that which connects with spiritual realities, that which worships above all—and if you want a good, short definition for what ‘intellect’ means besides ‘what IQ is supposed to measure,’ use the definition ‘where one meets God.’ If reasoning deduces what you may not see yet, the spiritual eye sees, and knows by what it can see, not by what it can pull from other things it already has. This reasoning from one thing shines like the sun in Western Scholasticism.”
“And that’s something you don’t have in Orthodoxy?”
“We do have it. But reasoning shines like the moon: it reflects the light of the sun in each of us, the sun of our mind’s spiritual eye. It plays more of a supporting role.”
“And what does all of this have to do with your ritual kiss?”
“There was an awful video I heard was shown in one of your college’s psychology classes; I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It was talking about one psychological theory, and discussed how reward and such could be used to reduce autistic behaviors. And it showed a scientist, or psychologist, or something, who was patiently training a little girl to not do whatever he was trying to stop her from doing, and the girl lit up when he gave her a kiss. And then, along with a fake-sounding Mommy-ese talking in a high-pitched voice which Iassure you was not spontaneous, he started to use almost forced kisses to, well…”
George cut in. “Manipulate her?”
“Yes, you found the word I was looking for. The one time I heard Abigail talking about that video, she said there was a bit of bristling going though the class; the students were uncomfortable with something about that video and its one more mere technique, a meretool, for changing a little girl’s behavior.”
“Is the spiritual eye, or whatever, spontaneous? Is it about spontaneity?”
“I’ll have to think about that… I’m not sure I’ve seriously thought about whether the spiritual eye is spontaneous. But spontaneity is not the issue here. The point has to do with what place a kiss should come from if it is not to be hollow. Have you noticed that none of the icons I’ve showed you have a signature?”
“Because the iconographers are not supposed to be what we think of in the West as artists, with their own signature style and their big egos?”
“A little bit. Iconography is art, and artistry and talent do mean anything: the iconographer is not a cog in a machine—and may be doing something much bigger than trying to use art supplies for self-expression. There is something self-effacing about iconography—something very self-effacing—but you find that when you bow down and efface yourself, it is you doing something much bigger than otherwise. Writing icons is a form of prayer, a spiritual exercise, and it is said—just like we speak of ‘writing’ icons rather than ‘painting’ them—that it is inadequate for an iconographer to sign the icon, because the icon is written, not merely by the iconographer’s hand, but by his his spiritual eye. It is ever much more than a merely material process, and when you become Orthodox you may sense icons that have spiritual depth and icons that let you see no further than the wood, and if you receive this gift, you will be responding to the spiritual process out of which the icon arose.”
“I have sensed something… the icons still look like awkward pictures to me, but I’m starting to find something more.”
“That is good. And your mouth—with which you breathe in your spirit, and show the reason of speech, and will receive the Eucharist—is not that by which you may give a kiss; it is that through which you may give the kiss that comes from and to some extent is the embrace of your spiritual eye. That’s when a kiss is furthest from the hollow kiss that Judas gave. The knowledge of the spiritual eye is something I have discussed as sight, but in the ancient world all people recognized something touch-y about all the five senses, not just one. And this knowledge and drinking are exemplars of each other, draughts from the same fountain, and it is not an accident that ‘know’ has a certain sense in the Bible between, for instance, Adam and Eve: the spiritual eye knows by drinking in, and it is a fundamental error to think that the holy kiss has nothing to do with knowledge.”
“This sounds like a fairy tale.”
“Maybe you know your fairy tales, and know that there is something magic about a kiss. As one scholar put it, examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of almost every culture in the Western world. Orthodoxy has something more than this enchantment. There is a spiritual mingling, and even the Eucharist is understood as a kiss, and a kiss that embraces others: in the Eucharist, the body of Christ is offered up, including a token of bread for every parishioner—before being distributed. Have you not noticed that the best bishops and the most devout of the Orthodox, give the best kisses? But let me step back a bit.
“The difference in understanding symbol is one of the biggest differences between East and West. In the West, at least in its modern forms, a symbol is a detached and somewhat arbitrary representation. In the East a symbol is connected, cut from the same cloth as it were. The difference between Orthodoxy and various Protestant schools is not whether the Eucharist is a symbol, but what that means—that the Eucharist is an arbitrarily detached token, connected only in the viewer’s mind, or whether it is connected and in fact the same on a real level.
“We are made in the image of God, which means that how you treat others is inseparable from how you treat God: you treat God with respect, love, or contempt as you meet him in the person of others. And the things that we reverently kiss in Orthodoxy are all connected with God. We show our reverence to God in how we treat them. And if a person is being transformed according to the likeness of Christ, then it is fitting to reverently kiss that person and show respect for the Lord.
“To give the holy kiss rightly is a microcosm of faith and community. You cannot do it alone, nor can you do it apart from worship. If you look at the things that fit together in a fitting kiss, you have love, God, your neighbor… there are a great many actions that are listed in the Bible, and many of them are holy actions, but only one is called holy: the holy kiss. If you grasp the Holy Grail in your heart, and you grasp this kiss in its full sense, you will know that the sacred kiss in which our souls are mingled is the Sign of the Grail. It is the eighth sacrament.”
George was silent for a long time. “I don’t think I know enough to be Orthodox.”
Fr. Elijah said, “Join the club! I know I don’t know enough.”
“But you’re a priest!”
“And you cannot become Orthodox without entering the royal priesthood. You aren’t ready to be Orthodox just because you know a certain amount; you’re ready when you’re ready for the responsibility, like getting married, or getting a job, or any other of a number of things. You are ready when you are ready to take the responsibility to return the Creation as an offering to God and shoulder a priestly office. And, in your case, I might add, when you enter the great City and Castle called the Church, and are ready for the Sign of the Grail.”
“All I know now is my own unworthiness.”
“Good. You’re growing! Ponder your unworthiness and give it to God. Do you want to take Brocéliande back now?”
George gladly took the book back. He returned to his room, and some time later, George began reading:
The hermit spoke. “Listen as I tell the history of Saint George.
“The King wept sore. ‘The land is weeping, the land itself weeps. The dragon hath devoured every damsel of the land, every last one, and now it seeketh mine own. I bewail the death of my joy and my daughter.’
“Then Saint George said, ‘By my faith I will protect her and destroy this fiend,’ and Saint George prayed and gat him his destrier and armed him and fewtered his spear and rode out and faced the sea.
“And the dragon arose from the sea and his deeps. And venom were in the wyrm his heart, and the grievous stench of death stank all round.
“Then the serpent charged upon Saint George the ever victorious knight, and the dragon breathed fire which brake and were quenched upon Saint George his shield, a grand cross gules upon a field or.
“Then Saint George made him the Sign of the Cross.
“Then Saint George smote the dragon, the great paladin his great spear dove into the dragon his mouth and dolve far beyond that insatiate devouring maw, until the dragon his head were riven asunder from the dragon his body trampled by Saint George his horse. And Saint George hurled the wyrm his head into the dark thrice cursed valley far outside of the castle.
“That day the King and the whole castle made such merriment as had never been since, for we do not know merriment today. There were jugglers and jesters and a table full filled, and before evensong the King gave George the hand of the King his daughter. That were the gayest of all.”
The knight asked the hermit, “Why speakest thou me of this history?”
The hermit spake unto him and answered, “Sir knight, thou hast given me not thine name. What be it?”
“Thou entreatest of me my name? Thou askest what none hath asked of me aforetimes. My name is called Sir Perceval. And now I ask of thee of what I have asked not aforetimes. Had Saint George heard tell of whom doth the Grail serve?”
George slowly closed the book, and put it on a shelf. He momentarily wondered why he treated Brocéliande as something to read alone. There was something that seemed just out of his reach.
And then George realized something deep, deep inside himself.
Then it was Holy Week.
Or at least George wanted it to be holy week for him, too.
George found himself standing in Church, in the holiest of surroundings, and struggling to pray. Memories arose; painful memories of stinging things done by those he loved. Voluptuous images sometimes followed. He struggled to pray, but his mind remained locked in earthly struggles. His body ached in the long services: there were icons, chanting, and incense without, and struggles within. He wanted to rest in worship, and he couldn’t.
In his mind, he remembered a moment when a beggar had come to him, and wouldn’t stop pleading no matter how much he annoyed George. The image filled his mind, and George was startled when he turned and saw the beggar’s face on the wall. Why was that?
George was looking at an icon of Christ.
He had fallen short, and not only in seeing that beggar as nothing but an annoyance. Did George really have no common bond with that beggar?
For that matter, did George have no common bond with the civilization that he disdained, the civilization that included everybody he knew from the beggar to his parents, the civilization that gave him everything from his clothing to his language? Was it there for no other purpose than for him to criticize and feel superior to?
Fr. Elijah, moving amongst the congregation, swung the censer before George in veneration.
George barely noticed that some of these thoughts were giving way, and he was aware, with almost a painful sharpness, of something else.
George mulled over Fr Elijah’s words about hollow kisses, and then started to see how hollow George was.
Unworthy thought he felt, George stood with growing awe and wonder, waiting until Great and Holy Thursday, the one day in holy week where wine was allowed. “Ordinary” wine was allowed, held in honor and in remembrance of the Last Supper, when wine became the blood of Christ and the eucharistic chalice was forever given to men. This day, if anything, was to George the feast of the Holy Grail.
And so he stood entranced, as if he were entering from afar. He watched the Last Supper as here and now, as Fr. Elijah stood “in the flame” before the altar, and then listened as he read the Gospel according to St. John the Evangelist, of the night when Christ loved his disciples to the last, and prayed out from the glory he shared with the Father before the worlds had begun.
And Fr. Elijah read and read, reading until George’s body ached from standing.
Then someone walked over to twelve unlit candles, and lit one. The first.
George’s heart sank. There were eleven candles still to go.
The readings continued, and became shorter, until the twelve candles were lit. George began to feel anger at the unending readings—until he heard Christ’s words from the garden of Gethsemane: “What, could you not watch with me one hour?” Who were those words spoken to?
And then, when the readings had run their course, the liturgy followed—at once unlike an intimate gathering in an upper room in external appearance, but yet like the place that feels like home though nothing on the outside resembles the home. George thought for a moment about a historical reconstruction of the Last Supper pursued through academic rigor in archaeology… and then realized he needed no such thing. He was watching the Last Supper all around him, and in the words of Fr. Elijah’s remark, “You didn’t even need a time machine.”
Or was this liturgy a spiritual time machine? Certainly time flowed in the most interesting ways, now quickly, now slowly, swirling about in eddies… there was something George could not put his finger on, but he understood for a moment what could make a person imagine a way to turn back time.
And so George found himself almost surprised when Fr. Elijah said, “He gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins.'”
Then the faithful sealed this with their, “Amen.”
Then Fr. Elijah said, “Likewise, he took the cup of the fruit of the vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it, he gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.'”
The disciples around him sealed this, with their, “Amen.”
George looked in wonder at the chalice that was raised. He thought, “This is it. This is the Holy Grail, forever given, that belongs to Christ’s disciples.”
As the liturgy continued, and Fr. Elijah proclaimed the Holy Gifts, the people continued to seal the Gifts with their “Amen,” and George watched as they received from the chalice, and kissed the chalice in reverence, and (though George paid this little attention) Fr. Elijah’s hand.
George found himself basking in the glow of that long moment for as the liturgy continued and Fr. Elijah anointed those around him that they may be healed in soul and body.
As he walked home, he thought, “I have seen the Holy Grail. It has been under my nose. Very soon I will be one of those who share it, one of those the Holy Grail belongs to.”
When George got home, he slept as peacefully as he slept in ages.
Then George entered the Church on Great and Holy Friday.
The whole service moved slowly, felt like something great but alien that slipped through George’s fingers no matter what he did to grasp it. Around him were some who were silent, some who were singing, and some who were weeping. A great cross was brought out, and a great icon of Christ hung on it with nails.
And then something clicked in George’s heart.
Some years before, he had been at a martial arts demonstration and saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans. And then, for an instant, there was a flurry of motion as he was attacked by six other black belts with swords. And then, an instant later, George saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans, and all around him were six other black belts with swords, on the ground, crying.
That had for long been the greatest display of power George had seen.
Now something was at the back of his mind.
Here was a new image of strength.
Were they the same?
Were they different?
Was the true nature of strength, strength in weakness?
The fifth degree black belt showed strength behind apparent weakness—or at least what looked like weakness to an outsider like George; he had no idea what it would look like to someone who was not a barbarian like him. To him, the martial arts demonstration seemed to show strength, if a show was needed, and a strength great and powerful enough to vastly understate itself. And the One before him on the cross showed more of the same… or was that really true?
Something about that did not sit well.
Inside George’s heart flashed an icon that had been on his mind—of a Man, his head bent, a purple robe about his wounded body. The robe was royal purple to mock the “pretender,” his hands were bound, and a crown of thorns rested atop his bent head.
Atop the icon was an inscription in Greek and in English:
Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ
THE KING OF GLORY
George raised his eyes to the crucified God.
This was another kind of strength.
George began to weep.
This was the strength that prayed, if there was any way, that the cup might pass from him.
This was the strength that prayed, “Thy will be done.”
This was the strength that drank the cup to the dregs, and shattered it forever.
THE KING OF GLORY
THE KING OF KINGS
THE LORD OF LORDS
THE GOD OF GODS
THE LION OF JUDAH
THE FIRSTBORN OF THE DEAD
THE RESURRECTION AND ETERNAL LIFE
THE NEW MAN AND THE LAST ADAM
THE UNCREATED GOD
THE DIVINE, ORDERING WISDOM
THROUGH WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
BY WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
IN WHOM ALL THINGS CONSIST
THE LORD OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION
THE BRIDEGROOM OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION
Had George ever known what it was to worship?
George stood in awe of the one who was, in truth, the Holy Grail…
or rather, the one for whom the Holy Grail was but a shadow.
And who was George next to such holiness and power?
Unclean and defiled.
When George had thought about going to his first confession, it had looked to him like the least attractive part of the picture of becoming Orthodox. But now, even if he knew even more dread, he wanted, not so much to be unburdened for himself, but to turn himself in and render what was due.
He didn’t just think he needed to. He simply knew that it was something that he owed with from the core of his being.
What evil had he not practiced?
He prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and then in spirit and body fell prostrate before his God and Lord.
George returned home, mindful of his sin, but ever so much more mindful of the greatness of the Lord and Savior.
He spent Saturday in the terrifying struggle to repent of his sin, to face his sin and write the spiritual blank check that he feared in the unconditional surrender of rejecting sin.
When he confessed his sin, Fr. Elijah blessed him, said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you the sacramental absolution yet—that will follow your chrismation,” and then said, “Welcome home, son. Keep repenting.”
And then the vigil was upon them.
It began with George standing in the center of the action as he stood before the congregation and, answering Fr. Elijah, renounced the Devil and all his works, rejecting sin, schism, and heresy, and vowed himself to Christ as a member of the Orthodox Church.
Then Fr. Elijah anointed George with sacred chrism, chrismating him with the fragrant oil of anointing that sealed George as a little Christ, as spiritual prophet, priest, and king, as one of the faithful in the Orthodox Church. This oil of spiritual blessing that worked in him more deeply even as it was wiped away from his skin—the emblem of the Spirit that penetrated like a sword. Fr. Elijah absolved George of his sins, and then the newly illumined servant of God George, stood before the congregation.
Then George faded into the background while the vigil unfolded, and he could never remember all of it—only that it seemed like a treasurehouse from which more and more wondrous treasure was brought forth. George remembered later the incense, the chant of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” the call of “Christ is risen!” and its answer, “He is risen indeed!”, repeated triumphantly, in English, in Slavonic, in Arabic, in Spanish… and most of all George remembered the faces around them. There was something more deeply radiant and beautiful than that of someone who had won millions of dollars. The vigil lasted for hours, but though George ached, he barely minded—he almost wished it would last for hours more.
When it was time for the homily, Fr. Elijah stood up, his face radiant, and read the age-old homily of St. John Chrysostom, read at all kinds of Orthodox parishes on Pascha for ages:
If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have labored long in fasting,
Let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honor the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.
And then the prayers moved very quickly—joyously—radiantly—and the Eucharist was served, George being called up first among the faithful to receive it.
Then the newly illumined servant George received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
And George kissed Fr. Elijah’s hand and the chalice,
forgetting it was the Holy Grail.
And when the liturgy finished, Fr. Elijah announced to the congregation, “You may kiss the convert.”
Then the feast began,
a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed,
and a fragrant fragrance of flowers flowed.
Fr. Elijah spoke a blessing,
over a table piled high with finest meats
and every good thing,
and the fruit of the vine poured out.
Every door and every window was opened,
and the wind blew where it willed,
and the wind blew where it pleased,
and George settled in to his home,
grateful to God.
Then someone told a Russian folktale,
and someone began singing,
and people began dancing,
and a little boy chased a little girl,
clutching a flower.
And men and women,
young and old,
saluted George with a kiss,
every last one
of his brethren.
And the crystalline light
of a sapphire sky
blew through the window,
and angels danced,
and saints below cracked red Pascha eggs,
red in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene,
a holy grail,
and George laughed,
and wanted to weep,
Then George and Abigail talked long.
George could never remember now long the celebration seemed to last. It seemed that he had found a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed, filled with every kind of wonder, at once Heaven and home, at once chalice and vine, maiden and mother, ancient and alive. It was the family George had forever wanted to enter.
Then George kissed Abigail—a long, full kiss—and absolutely nothing about it was hollow.
When he stepped back, Fr. Elijah tapped him on the shoulder. “By the way, George… I know this is down the road, but let me know when you two get engaged. I’d be happy to do your wedding.”
George looked at Abigail, paused, and said, “Abigail, do you see how the candlelight glistens off your Grandpappy’s bald spot? Isn’t it romantic?”
Fr. Elijah and Abigail turned to each other and said, “It’s about time!”
Then Fr. Elijah said, “Welcome to the Castle of the Saints, George. Welcome home.”
All of us do the will of God. The question is not whether we do God’s will or not, but whether we do God’s will as instruments, as Satan and Judas did, or as sons, as Peter and John did. In the end Satan may be nothing more than a hammer in the hand of God.
C.S. Lewis, paraphrased
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
There are a lot of concerns on people’s minds. For those of us in the U.S., we’ve been facing an economic disaster. Is “the decade from Hell” over and done? Or has the economic depression just begun? Has the real nightmare just begun? People have faced unemployment, and some are worried about hyper-inflation. And the big question on almost everyone’s mind is, “Can I survive this? And if so, how?” And these quotes have something to say to the billion dollar question on almost everyone’s mind.
Let’s turn the clock back a bit, to 1755. There was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbonne in Portugal, and its untold misery shook people’s faith in the goodness of the world we live in. In the questioning that came afterwards, Voltaire wrote Candide in which the rather ludicrous teacher Pangloss is always explaining that we live in “the best of all possible worlds:” no matter what misfortune or disaster befell them, the unshakable Pangloss would always find a way to explain that we still lived in the best of all possible worlds. And Voltaire’s point is to rip that preposterous idea apart, giving a dose of reality and showing what the misery in Lisbonne made painfully clear: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But there is another shoe to drop.
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.
Once we have truly grasped that God the Spiritual Father is the best of all possible Gods, it becomes a mistake to focus on how, in fact, we simply do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps we all need to repent and recognize that we ourselves are far from being the best of all possible people. But we need to raise our eyes higher: raise our eyes and see that our lives and our world are under the love of the best of all possible Gods: God the Spiritual Father.
The Orthodox Church has understood this since ancient times. Let’s read some longer quotes:
We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:
Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue.
Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.
All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?
Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.
(The new St. Seraphim, of Viritsa was born in 1866. He married and had three children. In 1920, at the age of 54, he and his wife quietly separated and each entered monastic life. Eventually he became the spiritual father of the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg, where, as a clairvoyant staretz, he also confessed thousands of laity. He said, “I am the storage room where people’s afflictions gather.” In imitation of his patron saint, he prayed for a thousand nights on a rock before an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He reposed in the Lord in 1949 and the Church of Russia glorified him in August of 2000.)
The following is (slightly abridged) from a letter sent by St. Seraphim to a spiritual child of his, a hierarch who was at that time in a Soviet prison. It is in the form of consolation given by God to a troubled man’s soul.
St. Seraphim of Viritsa
Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.
I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.
I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.
I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.
I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.
You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.
With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.
Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.
Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.
Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.
All these things were from Me.
St. Seraphim of Viritsa
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We may be entering an economic depression. We live in hard times, and things may get much harder. It is becoming more and more clear that this is no mere recession: it looks more and more like a depression. We see people asking, “Where is God when it hurts?” And there is something important about the answer to “Where is God when it hurts?”: something very important, something profoundly important.
I believe in one God, the Spiritual Father Almighty.
I’m not sure how to explain this without saying something about Orthodox monasticism, but the Orthodox concept of a spiritual father is of someone one owes obedience in everything, and who normally assigns some things that are very difficult to do, unpleasant, and painful. And this seems a strange thing to be getting into. But there is method to what may seem mad: we do not reach our greatest good, we do not flourish, we do not reach our highest heights, if we are the spiritual equivalent of spoiled children. And the entire point of this duty of obedience is to arrange things for the good of the person who obeys in this situation. The entire point of obedience in what the spiritual father arranges is for the spiritual father as a spiritual physician to give health and freedom through the disciple’s obedience.
In that sense, only monks and nuns are expected to have spiritual fathers to shape them. The rest of us have God as our Spiritual Father, and we can kick against the goads, but God the Spiritual Father is at work in every person we meet. God the Spiritual Father is God the Great Physician, working everything for our health and freedom if we will cooperate. People and situations he sends us may be part of his will for us as instruments, or they may be part of his will for us as sons of God, but God’s will unfolds in each person who acts in our lives: kind people and cruel, having excess and having lack, getting our way and having our will cut short as a spiritual father does to form a monk under his care, becomes part of the work of God the Spiritual Father. Even economic nightmares become part of “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
When God gives us our true good, nothing can take it away.
What exactly is our true good unfolds in the saints’ lives, which are well worth reading: many of them lived in great hardship. Some were martyred; the beloved St. Nectarios lost his job repeatedly for reasons that were not just unfortunate, but completely and absolutely unfair. God was still at work in his life, and he is now crowned as a saint in Heaven. God allowed things to happen, terrible things to happen, but not one of them took him away from God giving him everything he needed and ultimately working in him the glory of one of the greatest saints in recent times.
The Sermon on the Mount says some harsh words about how we use money, but these words set the stage for a profound treasure that we can still have, even in an economic depression:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, [or, today, where economic havoc can ruin our financial planning] but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal [or, today, where your treasures cannot be taken away even by a complete economic meltdown].
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’
For the godless seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
The life of St. Philaret the Merciful speaks volumes:
Righteous Philaret the Merciful, son of George and Anna, was raised in piety and the fear of God. He lived during the eighth century in the village of Amneia in the Paphlagonian district of Asia Minor. His wife, Theoseba, was from a rich and illustrious family, and they had three children: a son John, and daughters Hypatia and Evanthia.
Philaret was a rich and illustrious dignitary, but he did not hoard his wealth. Knowing that many people suffered from poverty, he remembered the words of the Savior about the dread Last Judgment and about “these least ones” (Mt. 25:40); the the Apostle Paul’s reminder that we will take nothing with us from this world (1 Tim 6:7); and the assertion of King David that the righteous would not be forsaken (Ps 36/37:25). Philaret, whose name means “lover of virtue,” was famed for his love for the poor.
One day Ishmaelites [Arabs] attacked Paphlagonia, devastating the land and plundering the estate of Philaret. There remained only two oxen, a donkey, a cow with her calf, some beehives, and the house. But he also shared them with the poor. His wife reproached him for being heartless and unconcerned for his own family. Mildly, yet firmly he endured the reproaches of his wife and the jeers of his children. “I have hidden away riches and treasure,” he told his family, “so much that it would be enough for you to feed and clothe yourselves, even if you lived a hundred years without working.”
The saint’s gifts always brought good to the recipient. Whoever received anything from him found that the gift would multiply, and that person would become rich. Knowing this, a certain man came to St Philaret asking for a calf so that he could start a herd. The cow missed its calf and began to bellow. Theoseba said to her husband, “You have no pity on us, you merciless man, but don’t you feel sorry for the cow? You have separated her from her calf.” The saint praised his wife, and agreed that it was not right to separate the cow and the calf. Therefore, he called the poor man to whom he had given the calf and told him to take the cow as well.
That year there was a famine, so St Philaret took the donkey and went to borrow six bushels of wheat from a friend of his. When he returned home, a poor man asked him for a little wheat, so he told his wife to give the man a bushel. Theoseba said, “First you must give a bushel to each of us in the family, then you can give away the rest as you choose.” Philaretos then gave the man two bushels of wheat. Theoseba said sarcastically, “Give him half the load so you can share it.” The saint measured out a third bushel and gave it to the man. Then Theoseba said, “Why don’t you give him the bag, too, so he can carry it?” He gave him the bag. The exasperated wife said, “Just to spite me, why not give him all the wheat.” St Philaret did so.
Now the man was unable to lift the six bushels of wheat, so Theoseba told her husband to give him the donkey so he could carry the wheat home. Blessing his wife, Philaret gave the donkey to the man, who went home rejoicing. Theoseba and the children wept because they were hungry.
The Lord rewarded Philaret for his generosity: when the last measure of wheat was given away, a old friend sent him forty bushels. Theoseba kept most of the wheat for herself and the children, and the saint gave away his share to the poor and had nothing left. When his wife and children were eating, he would go to them and they gave him some food. Theoseba grumbled saying, “How long are you going to keep that treasure of yours hidden? Take it out so we can buy food with it.”
During this time the Byzantine empress Irene (797-802) was seeking a bride for her son, the future emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (780-797). Therefore, emissaries were sent throughout all the Empire to find a suitable girl, and the envoys came to Amneia.
When Philaret and Theoseba learned that these most illustrious guests were to visit their house, Philaret was very happy, but Theoseba was sad, for they did not have enough food. But Philaret told his wife to light the fire and to decorate their home. Their neighbors, knowing that imperial envoys were expected, brought everything required for a rich feast.
The envoys were impressed by the saint’s daughters and granddaughters. Seeing their beauty, their deportment, their clothing, and their admirable qualities, the envoys agreed that Philaret’ granddaughter, Maria was exactly what they were looking for. This Maria exceeded all her rivals in quality and modesty and indeed became Constantine’s wife, and the emperor rewarded Philaret.
Thus fame and riches returned to Philaret. But just as before, this holy lover of the poor generously distributed alms and provided a feast for the poor. He and his family served them at the meal. Everyone was astonished at his humility and said: “This is a man of God, a true disciple of Christ.”
He ordered a servant to take three bags and fill one with gold, one with silver, and one with copper coins. When a beggar approached, Philaret ordered his servant to bring forth one of the bags, whichever God’s providence would ordain. Then he would reach into the bag and give to each person, as much as God willed.
St Philaret refused to wear fine clothes, nor would he accept any imperial rank. He said it was enough for him to be called the grandfather of the Empress. The saint reached ninety years of age and knew his end was approaching. He went to the Rodolpheia (“The Judgment”) monastery in Constantinople. He gave some gold to the Abbess and asked her to allow him to be buried there, saying that he would depart this life in ten days.
He returned home and became ill. On the tenth day he summoned his family, he exhorted them to imitate his love for the poor if they desired salvation. Then he fell asleep in the Lord. He died in the year 792 and was buried in the Rodolpheia Judgment monastery in Constantinople.
The appearance of a miracle after his death confirmed the sainthood of Righteous Philaret. As they bore the body of the saint to the cemetery, a certain man, possessed by the devil, followed the funeral procession and tried to overturn the coffin. When they reached the grave, the devil threw the man down on the ground and went out of him. Many other miracles and healings also took place at the grave of the saint.
After the death of the righteous Philaret, his wife Theoseba worked at restoring monasteries and churches devastated during a barbarian invasion.
This merciful saint trusted God the Spiritual Father. He cashed in on the promise, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.”
In terms of how to survive an economic depression, the right question to ask is not, “Do I have enough treasures stored up on earth?” but “Do I have enough treasures in Heaven?” And the merciful St. Philaret lived a life out of abundant treasure in Heaven.
The biggest thing we need right now is to know the point of life, which is to live the life of Heaven, not starting at death, but starting here on earth. C.S. Lewis lectured to students on the eve of World War II when it looked like Western civilization was on the verge of permanent collapse. I won’t try to repeat what he said beyond “Life has never been normal” and add that God’s providence is for difficult circumstances every bit as much as when life seems normal. God’s providence is how we can survive an economic depression. The Sermon on the Mount is no mere wish list only for when life that is perfect; it is meant for God’s work with us even in circumstances we would not choose, especially in circumstances we would not choose, and speaks of the love of God the Spiritual Father who can and will work with us in an economic depression, if we will let him, and work with us no less than when life is easy.
(Some have said not only that God provides in rough times as well as easy times, but that God’s providence is in fact clearer in rough times, such as an economic depression, than when things go our way and we can forget that we need a bit of help from above.)
God the Spiritual Father wants to use everything for our good. Everything he allows, everything in our lives, is either a blessing or a temptation that has been allowed for our strengthening. His purpose even in allowing rough things to happen is to help us grow up spiritually, and to make us Heavenly. The Great Divorce imagines a busload of people come from Hell to visit Heaven, and what happens is something much like what happens in our lives: they are offered Heaven and they do not realize Heaven is better than the seeds Hell that they keep clinging to because they are afraid to let go. Heaven and Hell are both real, but God does not send people to Hell. C.S. Lewis quotes someone saying that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done,” respecting their choice to choose Hell after Heaven has been freely offered to them. The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. Hellfire is nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced by those who reject the only possibility for living joy there is. And neither the reality of Heaven nor the state of mind we call Hell begins after death; their seeds grow on us in this training ground we call life. We can become saints, heavenly people like St. Philaret, or we can care only about ourselves and our own survival. God the Spiritual Father wants to shape us to be part of the beauty of Heaven, and everything he sends us is intended for that purpose. But in freedom he will let us veto his blessings and choose to be in Hell.
Heaven is generous, and that generosity was something Heavenly that shone during the Great Depression. People who had very little shared. They shared money or food, if they had any. (And even if you have no money to share, you can share time; if you do not have a job, you can still volunteer.) St. Philaret shared because he knew something: “Knowing that many people suffered from poverty, he remembered the words of the Savior about the dread Last Judgment and about ‘these least ones’ (Mt. 25:40)…” In this part of the saint’s life, the reference is to some of the most chilling words following The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
St. Philaret the Merciful will be greeted before Christ’s awesome judgment seat and hear, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I came to you and asked for a little wheat, and you gave me all six bushels you had, and your only donkey with them.” God did provide, but the reward is not just that a friend gave him forty bushels of wheat. The ultimate reward is that Christ regards how St. Philaret treated other people as how he treated Christ himself, and because St. Philaret was merciful, there is a reward for him in Heaven, a reward so great that next to it, the forty bushels of wheat from his friend utterly pale in comparison.
Remember this next time you see a beggar. If you can’t give a quarter, at least see if there is a kind word or a prayer you can give. This has everything to do with how to survive an economic depression.
We are at a time with terrible prospects for earthly comfort, but take heart. Let me again quote Lewis: “Heaven cannot give earthly comfort, and earth cannot give earthly comfort either. In the end, Heavenly comfort is the only comfort to be had. To quote from my ownSilence: Organic Food for the Soul:
Do you worry? Is it terribly hard
to get all your ducks in a row,
to get yourself to a secure place
where you have prepared for what might happen?
Or does it look like you might lose your job,
if you still have one? The Sermon on the Mount
urges people to pray,
“Give us this day our daily bread,”
in an economy
when unlike many homeless in the U.S. today,
it was not obvious to many
where they would get their next meal.
And yet it was this Sermon on the Mount
that tells us our Heavenly Father will provide for us,
and tells us not to worry:
what we miss
if we find this a bit puzzling,
we who may have bank accounts, insurance, investments
even if they are jeopardized right now,
is that we are like a child with some clay,
trying to satisfy ourselves by making a clay horse,
with clay that never cooperates, never looks right,
and obsessed with clay that is never good enough,
we ignore and maybe fear
the finger tapping us on our shoulder
until with great trepidation we turn,
and listen to the voice say,
“Stop trying so hard. Let it go,”
and follow our father
as he gives us a warhorse.
This life is an apprenticeship, and even now, when we may be in situations we do not like, God is asking us to be apprentices, learning to be knights riding the warhorse he gives us even in the situations we might not like. The life of Heaven begins on earth, even in an economic depression.
However much power world leaders may have, God the Spiritual Father is sovereign, and their summits pale in comparison for the work God the Spiritual Father is working even now.
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his Christ, saying,
“Let us rip apart their religious restrictions,
and throw off their shackles.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
For the conqueror says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I have removed the boundaries of peoples, and have plundered their treasures; like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as men gather eggs that have been forsaken so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing, or opened the mouth, or chirped.”
Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
World leaders may work his will as instruments or as sons, but they will always work his will. This is true in an economic depression as much as any other time. God the Spiritual Father rules the world as sovereign on a deeper level than we can imagine, and he works good out of everything to those who love him and are called according to his purpose to make them sons of God.
Some people really hope that if the right government programs are in place, we can get back on track to a better life. But even if governments have their place, “Put not your trust in princes,” or rather, “Do not put your trust in governments,” is not obsolete. Far from it: government initiatives cannot make everything better, even in the long haul, even with lots of time, sacrifices, and resources. But having given that bad news, I have good news too. Even if government initiatives fail to do what we want them to, we have God the Spiritual Father trying to give us the greatest good, and the time he offers us his will does not start sometime in the future: it is for here, and it is for now. He works his will alike through instruments like Satan and Judas, and sons like Peter and John, but in either case he works his will now, not sometime in the future when some human effort starts achieving results. Again, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man might become god and the sons of God.
St. Maximus Confessor
There was one time when two theology professors were talking when the weather was very rough. One of them said, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” and the other said, “Well, he’s done better!” And the joke may be funny, but sun and rain, heat and cold, are all given by God. We miss something if we only think God is working with us if it is warm and sunny, if we find ourselves in a violent storm and assume God must have abandoned us, if it seems that God can’t or won’t help us because the weather is so bad.
And we are missing something if we look at the news and the world around us, and want to say, “This is the day that the Lord has made… he’s done better!”
If we are in an economic depression, say, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” You’re missing something if you need to add, “Well, he’s done better!”
A friend quoted to me when I was in a rough spot,
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 it is true. It is not just, as some have said, that God’s address is at the end of your rope. That is where you meet God best. It may be easier, not harder, to find God and his providential care in an economic depression. God is working a plan of eternal glory. Westminster opens with the great question, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But there is a deeper answer. The chief end of man is to become Christ. The chief end of man is to become by grace what Christ is by nature. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man and the sons of man might become gods and the sons of God. The Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God. The divine became human that the human might become divine. This saying has rumbled down through the ages: not only the entire point of being human, but the entire point of each and every circumstance God the Spiritual Father allows to come to us, as a blessing or as a temptation allowed for our strengthening, as God’s will working through instruments or sons, is to make us share in Christ’s divinity, and the saints’ lives show few saints who met this purpose when everything went their way, and a great many where God worked in them precisely in rough and painful circumstances. If we watch the news and say, “This is the day the Lord has made. Well, he’s done better,” try to open your eyes to the possibility that “Well, he’s done better” is what people want to say when, in the words of C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, “Aslan is on the move.”
Christ’s Incarnation is humble. It began humbly, in the scandalous pregnancy of an unwed teen mother, and it unfolds humbly in our lives. Its humble unfolding in our lives comes perhaps best when we have rough times and rough lives, in circumstances we would not choose, in an economic depression above all. You do not understand Christ’s Incarnation unless you understand that it is an Incarnation in humility, humble times, and humble conditions. You do not understand Christ’s humble Incarnation until you understand that it did not stop when the Mother of God’s scandalous pregnancy began: Christ’s humble Incarnation unfolds and unfurls in the Church, in the Saints, and Christ wishes to be Incarnate in every one of us. Christ wishes to be Incarnate in all of us, not in the circumstances we would choose for ourselves, but in the circumstances we are in, when God the Spiritual Father works everything to good for his sons.
Take heart if this sounds hard, like a tall order to live up to. It is hard for me too. It is hard, very hard, or at least it is for me. But it is worth trying to live up to. Even if we do not always succeed.
God became man that man might become God. In whatever circumstances God gives us to train us, as God the Spiritual Father, let us grow as sons of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.