We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).
Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.
Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.”
Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.
(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)
Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?
In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.
My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.
Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)
Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.
Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work
Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.”
I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.
Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.
There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!
I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.
I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)
In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”
I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.
But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.
Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development
But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.
Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin
Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.
Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.
Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.
Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.
I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.
Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.
Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.
How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”
But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of such beauty would be a joy forever.
But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly in my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and be silent?
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.
These two striking Western quotes need some counterbalance. Orthodox confess before communion: “I believe that thou hast come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And though this is above my pay grade, there are some very important words (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for instance) about longing for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, an experience that I believe is very different from the inside and from the outside. The experience of reaching a new level of pride may be exultant for an instant, but the natural course of that sin, if we do not repent of it, is to hold on to the sin while its pleasure necessarily vanishes. My suspicion that those who long for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, retain the virtue while its sting gives way to joy. Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and the monastic longing for dishonor may also bring joyful surprises.
With all of that stated, the story about the globe is the best picture I’ve seen of the heart of humility. And the humblest people I have known don’t really try to impress upon me how horrible people they are. They bear a striking resemblance to the figure Lewis describes: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what you have to say, and wanting to understand you. Their style, the practical living effect of their belief that God is everything and they are nothing, is marked by joy in whatever person’s company God deigns to grace them with.
One verse that I’ve found profoundly difficult to appreciate is, “In humility consider others better than yourself.” I suspect others don’t find it pleasant either. But there is treasure inside.
I’d like for you to imagine yourself sitting next to your hero: your favorite person, past or present, near or far, someone you know or someone you might never meet. What is it like to be next to that person?
Now imagine someone who is a jerk and acts like an absolute scumbag. Do you enjoy the company?
Which one of these two is humbly considering others better than yourselves?
Pride is blinding; the term “hubris” refers to a blinding arrogance. The greatest degree of pride that has a label I’m aware of is called “prelest” or spiritual illusion, a term that doesn’t even mention self-opinion but describes being completely and destructively out of touch with reality and what will benefit oneself and/or others.
But with humility it is quite different. Some have said that the only true intelligence is humility. Humility opens people’s eyes, and it opens them to everything that is beautiful, honorable, and noble in others.
Humility allows us to see and enjoy the royal race.
The royal race
What do I mean by “the royal race?”
Let’s visit Confucius.
One nice, opaque snippet states that Confucius learned of a fire in the horse stables. Confucius asked, “Were any people hurt?” And we are explicitly told that he did not ask about the horses.
Today this story lends itself to thinking, “I guess Confucius just wasn’t the world’s biggest animal lover,” and trust me if I say, “Please ignore that; something completely different was going on culturally.”
In the China of Confucius’s day, a stable worker was a slave, here meaning a mere commodity worth only 20% of the value of a horse. Please contrast this with U.S. Southern slave owners who rationalized slavery at infinite length because they knew it was wrong, and they rationalized because they knew that it was morally wrong to keep African-American slaves in conditions unworthy of human beings and unfit for human consumption. In Confucius’s day, they didn’t even know it was wrong. The socially expected response from Confucius, upon hearing that there had been a major fire in the horse stables, would be to ask about what was the most valuable and important: the precious horses, not the expendable stable hands.
Confucius’s question about people in the stable left the obvious, socially expected response highly conspicuous by its absence. The point he sledgehammered was of the supreme value of every human life, whether at the top of the social scale, or the bottom, or anywhere in between. He didn’t say that all human life is sacred, and possibly it would not have occurred to him to connect life with the sacred, but the essential point he drove home is the supreme value of human life.
And that is really a dignity of the royal race.
Having mentioned race, I would like to comment something on the biology of the royal race. If we lay out on a football field the whole millions of years since humans first appeared, the first ninety-nine yards, or perhaps even the first ninety-nine and a half yards, show to the best of my knowledge our ancestors as living in Africa in the Sahara Forest. Then, a geological eyeblink ago, there was an Ice Age, and some of our ancestors bundled up against the cold and migrated under sub-Arctic conditions to what was eventually Europe. And they suddenly changed from needing lots of dark pigment to block out the mighty African sun, to vastly decreased levels of our built-in sunscreen because they needed to get as much of the precious little sun as they could. The whole change was only reducing the amount of one particular chemical: that’s it. And that is one major factor of the difference between dark and light skin.
What I would like to comment here is that this is an extremely shallow biological adaptation. Never mind that a dark-skinned and a much lighter-skinned person look quite different to the uninstructed.The biological difference is shallow. It is quite literally only skin-deep. None of us as the royal race grow feathers and have the ability to fly like birds, or can breathe underwater without technology, or can sleep while standing up unsupported. Nor, apart from birth defect, accident, etc. have we lost toes, or lose the full support of a circulatory system, or anything like that. Unless disability or adverse circumstances stop us, we all walk and we all trade in the miracle of language. There is one set of human anatomical features to be had with distinction between the sexes. We all need food, water, sleep, and so on. We tend to think we are very different because we look different, but the adaptations we have are biologically the shallow adaptations of a single, royal human race. There are admittedly other adaptations besides the pigments in our skin, but race as we know it hinges on people leaving Africa an extremely short time ago on geological terms and not enough time for much of any particularly interesting evolution to have occurred. We are all from the same species, Homo sapiens. For that matter, we are also all from the same, more specific subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens!
Now I would balance my remark in biology and acknowledge any number of the most profound cultural differences across the world and possibly right in each other’s back yards, but again this is the royal race. Humpback whales have a culture; wolves have a culture; but there is essentially one culture for an animal community in a wild ecosystem. So far as I know the vast number of cultures that exist today attest to an unparalleled flexibility built into the royal race.
And if we look at Genesis 1, perhaps the two biggest takeaways are that we are made in the image of God, constituted by the divine presence in us, and that the entire human race is one family. The person before you is great: and he is your brother.
A note on beggars
And I would like to make one comment, very specific: “He is your brother” includes beggars.
I know some people, who do or do not give to beggars, who have made a careful and considerate decision and act in a situation where evaluating the best action is hard to do. I know of some people whose considered judgment is that giving money to beggars does more harm than good, and their refrain from giving is harder to them than giving would be. I might also suggest that one could give things other than money; one can carry a bag with easily peeled Cuties citrus fruit, or a Halloween-style bag of tiny chocolate bars if the weather won’t melt them.
However, I have heard, and wince, when someone says “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin.They are not. They are made in the image of God, as you, and the Orthodox Church’s teaching is that you should give, and when you give, you are respecting others made in the image of God. It is possible that their begging is sinful; that is not your concern and you do not share in the guilt by a gift. I’ve heard multiple Orthodox priests address the topic, and they never seem to suggest giving particularly much; the specific suggestion is to give little at least most of the time, without any suggestion that you have to furnish all that a beggar with a story of need lists as the needed expense.
But there is a more basic concern than meeting beggars with an open hand, and that is meeting them with an open heart. Monastics are said to be “above alms”: those who have placed themselves above possessions may not have a single bite of food to offer at the moment. But the literature quotes, “Is not a word better than a gift?”, with the implication explicitly explored that if you have nothing you could give (or, perhaps, you have a $20 bill but have run out of the quarters or singles you carry in a separate pocket to give), a warm welcome is itself giving a gift. Monastics are spoken of as “above alms”, but they are not above loving beggars. Those monastics, perhaps more than people who are not above alms, are called to fit the picture of humility towards beggars: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what they have to say, and wanting to understand them. This kind of warm welcome is a much bigger gift than a quarter.
But may I suggest a view of beggars that has more sharply defined contours?
Look at beggars as altars. The beggar, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God and can never be rightly understood without reference to God. He who despises the poor shows reproach for their Maker; God loves everybody at every level of the social scale, and to show kindness to a beggar is to show a kindness to God. It is possible to embrace without touching, or embrace in an offered fist bump. Insofar as you are able, give a quarter or dollar (if you are in the U.S.) / a Cutie / chocolate / …, and what is more, try to give in the generosity of a monk above alms who meets the dues of hospitality.
Look on beggars as altars on whom you can show kindnesses to God.
One more quote to squirm by
Here is one more quote that makes people squirm; it is a personal favorite (Mt 25:31-46, NIV):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, 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 did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ, in his own person, has no needs beyond the Trinity and could not possibly benefit from any generosity from any person.
But Christ in the person of a beggar is another story. There we can welcome him as Christ; there we can ease his hunger; there we can show a million kindnesses that will answer for us on that dread day when we are judged before his throne.
Someone who had a large collection of books asked, “Will I have any of these books with me in Heaven?” The answer came, “Probably.” The book lover then asked, “Which ones?” The answer came, “The ones you gave away.”
When our life is spent, none of the possessions we cling to will offer us any hope. However, even the tiniest of gifts given in the right spirit will answer for us. Even a smile, when you didn’t have change available, counts!
In humility consider beggars better than yourself. They, too, belong to the royal race!
I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.
The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing normally goes well beyond what is needed for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.
Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds“. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.
Theory of other minds,
Split into “theory of like minds”, and:
“theory of alien minds”:
A Copernican shift
One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.
Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.
For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.
The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.
“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”
“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.
This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.
So what does a “theory of alien minds” really look like?
Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:
Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.
Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…
…but few guess how much.
The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.
Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.
In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.
When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.
Some time later, Hayward realized two things.
First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)
Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.
Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”
Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…
And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.
When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.
Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.
In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.
No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…
But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.
No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.
But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consultant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”
Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.
What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?
I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.
Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology.Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.
Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:
One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.
What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insiders.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.
What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.
“Why This Waste?” quoth the Thief,
Missing a pageant unfold before his very eyes,
One who sinned much, forgiven, for her great love,
Brake open a priceless heirloom,
An alabaster vessel of costly perfume,
Costly chrism beyond all price anointing the Christ,
Anointing the Christ unto life-giving death,
Anointed unto life-giving death,
A story ever told,
In memory of her:
“Why This Waste?” quoth also the Pious,
Kings and Priest and Prophet one,
Regarding in Heaven and earth a cornucopia great of blessing,
Rank on rank of angelic host,
Seraphim, cherubim, thrones, domonions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels and angels,
Sapphire Heavens and an earth growing living emeralds,
A sun of gold, a moon of silver,
A Theotokos eternally reigning after Heaven kissed earth,
The Son of God who opened the womb of death,
Pageantry of uncreated God and creation made one with God,
“Why This Waste?” indeed.
“Why This Waste?” quoth the Mother,
A child borne in her womb,
Soon become a corpse nestled in her bosom,
Rejecting the empty consolation of lies that lie evil away,
Facing the stark, hard truth,
Of clay in the hands of the potter,
Dust is she too,
To dust also to return,
The last word, this is not:
“Why This Waste?” quoth not another Mother,
Whose Son’s death as a sword her heart pierced,
And seeth the infant son lost,
In no wise lost, but found on her Son’s throne in Heaven.
“Why This Waste?” quoth the Father Almighty,
Seeing his creation enter sin, death, and decay,
Then moved Heaven and earth, nay the two hands of his Son and Spirit,
To right things wrong, straighten all things bent,
Until sinners should become saints,
The physical body sown in dishonor raised in honor,
Spiritual, incorruptible, imperishable, glorious,
Every move Satan makes one step closer to God sealing checkmate,
The truimph of God using every attack of Satan in victory eternal.
“Why This Waste?” quote you and I,
Having lost some things in a global economic crisis,
More losses to come, it would seem.
It would seem.
Fearing that the providence of God,
Faileth us in a disaster.
“Why This Waste?” quote we in error,
Mistaking the limits of sight for those of faith itself.
The day his daughter Abigail was born was the best day of Abraham’s life. Like father, like daughter, they said in the village, and especially of them. He was an accomplished musician, and she breathed music.
He taught her a music that was simple, pure, powerful. It had only one voice; it needed only one voice. It moved slowly, unhurriedly, and had a force that was spellbinding. Abraham taught Abigail many songs, and as she grew, she began to make songs of her own. Abigail knew nothing of polyphony, nor of hurried technical complexity; her songs needed nothing of them. Her songs came from an unhurried time out of time, gentle as lapping waves, and mighty as an ocean.
One day a visitor came, a young man in a white suit. He said, “Before your father comes, I would like you to see what you have been missing.” He took out a music player, and began to play.
Abby at first covered her ears; she was in turn stunned, shocked, and intrigued. The music had many voices, weaving in and out of each other quickly, intricately. She heard wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels of complexity. She began to try, began to think in polyphony — and the man said, “I will come to you later. It is time for your music with your father.”
Every time in her life, sitting down at a keyboard with her father was the highlight of her day. Every day but this day. This day, she could only think about how simple and plain the music was, how lacking in complexity. Abraham stopped his song and looked at his daughter. “Who have you been listening to, Abigail?”
Something had been gnawing at Abby’s heart; the music seemed bleak, grey. It was as if she had beheld the world in fair moonlight, and then a blast of eerie light assaulted her eyes — and now she could see nothing. She felt embarrassed by her music, ashamed to have dared to approach her father with anything so terribly unsophisticated. Crying, she gathered up her skirts and ran as if there were no tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and the day after; it was a miserable day, after sleeping in a gutter. Abigail began to beg, and it was over a year before another beggar let her play on his keyboard. Abby learned to play in many voices; she was so successful that she forgot that she was missing something. She occupied herself so fully with intricate music that in another year she was asked to give concerts and performances. Her music was rich and full, and her heart was poor and empty.
Years passed, and Abigail gave the performance of her career. It was before a sold-out audience, and it was written about in the papers. She walked out after the performance and the reception, with moonlight falling over soft grass and fireflies dancing, and something happened.
Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.
In the wind, Abigail heard music, and in the wind and the music Abigail heard all the things she had lost in her childhood. It was as if she had looked in an image and asked, “What is that wretched thing?” — and realized she was looking into a mirror. No, it was not quite that; it was as if in an instant her whole world was turned upside down, and her musical complexity she could not bear. She heard all over again the words, “Who have you been listening to?” — only, this time, she did not think them the words of a jealous monster, but words of concern, words of “Who has struck a blow against you?” She saw that she was blind and heard that she was deaf: that the hearing of complexity had not simply been an opening of her ears, but a wounding, a smiting, after which she could not know the concentrated presence a child had known, no matter how complex — or how simple — the music became. The sword cut deeper when she tried to sing songs from her childhood, at first could remember none, then could remember one — and it sounded empty — and she knew that the song was not empty. It was her. She lay down and wailed.
Suddenly, she realized she was not alone. An old man was watching her. Abigail looked around in fright; there was nowhere to run to hide. “What do you want?” she said.
“There is music even in your wail.”
“I loathe music.”
There was a time of silence, a time that drew uncomfortably long, and Abigail asked, “What is your name?”
The man said, “Look into my eyes. You know my name.”
Abigail stood, poised like a man balancing on the edge of a sword, a chasm to either side. She did not — Abigail shrieked with joy. “Daddy!”
“It has been a long time since we’ve sat down at music, sweet daughter.”
“You don’t want to hear my music. I was ashamed of what we used to play, and I am now ashamed of it all.”
“Oh, child! Yes, I do. I will never be ashamed of you. Will you come and walk with me? I have a keyboard.”
As Abby’s fingers began to dance, she first felt as if she were being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The self-consciousness she had finally managed to banish in her playing was now there — ugly, repulsive — and then she was through it. She made a horrible mistake, and then another, and then laughed, and Abraham laughed with her. Abby began to play and then sing, serious, inconsequential, silly, and delightful in the presence of her father. It was as if shackles fell from her wrists, her tongue loosed — she thought for a moment that she was like a little girl again, playing at her father’s side, and then knew that it was better. What could she compare it to? She couldn’t. She was at a simplicity beyond complexity, and her father called forth from her music that she could never have done without her trouble. The music seemed like dance, like laughter; it was under and around and through her, connecting her with her father, a moment out of time.
After they had both sung and laughed and cried, Abraham said, “Abby, will you come home with me? My house has never been the same without you.”
Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, “No picnic is complete without ants.” So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for “ascesis” (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ’s name, and Christ’s answer was: “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven.” The reality of the disciples’ names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God’s grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and money,” it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, “No man can serve two masters” all the more needed in our day.
Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. “No man can serve two masters” is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:
Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.
Hobbes: That must have been scary!
Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!
But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.
There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan “astrological” calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn’t able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike… or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
No technology is permanently exotic.
When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called “a Utopia of spoiled children.” It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological “progress” often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, “We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!”
Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to “support” weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special “safety” features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one’s priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call “space-conquering technologies” might more aptly be titled, “body-conquering technologies,” because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
Today, “everybody knows” that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one’s spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that “proved” that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck’s gas tank (see analysis).
St. John Chrysostom wrote,
Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well… Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.
The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul’s blistering words about forbidding marriage:
Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage’s fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one’s health.
Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for “pull and pray.” (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—”medicine men” one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple’s hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they “simply cannot afford any more children”—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, “Take control of your life!” For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one’s elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life 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 much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;” they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
One classic attitude to wine was not “We forbid drinking wine,” or even “It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage,” but goes beyond saying, “The pleasure of wine was given by God as good” to saying: “Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying ‘when’ and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape.”
The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person’s life and pursuits.)
The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company’s success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn’t think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
Good to Great leadership saw their companies’ success in terms of people.
There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
In Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a “man” with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of “water brothers” who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to “push the envelope” of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is “functioning the way a human being was organized to function.”
People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its “good news” of an escape from the miserable here and now is “good news” as misery would want it. Today’s Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics’ bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: “Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk,” in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, “Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!”
What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business’s website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another’s death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one’s own life.
An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people’s Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people’s Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn’t a soul in the place!
Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
“Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
“Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, “Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!” Less witty complaints about the younger generation’s immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today’s older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. “The youth these days” have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
When they were young, the older generation’s ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its “cool” is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
The Liturgy prays, “Pierce our souls with longing for Thee.” Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as “space-conquering,” it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
“The demons always fast:” such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body’s limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos’s virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, “Isn’t there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?”, the answer is, “Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle.” In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures’ best interests.
People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology’s use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one’s watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee’s attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, “watchfulness.”
The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
Nepsis is a watchfulness over one’s heart, including the mind.
Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one’s thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one’s senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”
Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
That “something better” is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.
The crown of Earth is the temple,
and the crown of the temple is Heaven.
Stephan ran to get away from his pesky sister—if nothing else he could at least outrun her!
Where to go?
One place seemed best, and his legs carried him to the chapel—or, better to say, the temple. The chapel was a building which seemed larger from the inside than the outside, and (though this is less remarkable than it sounds) it is shaped like an octagon on the outside and a cross on the inside.
Stephan slowed down to a walk. This place, so vast and open and full of light on the inside—a mystically hearted architect who read The Timeless Way of Building might have said that it breathed—and Stephan did not think of why he felt so much at home, but if he did he would have thought of the congregation worshipping with the skies and the seas, the rocks and the trees, and choir after choir of angels, and perhaps he would have thought of this place not only as a crown to earth but a room of Heaven.
What he was thinking of was the Icon that adorns the Icon stand, and for that matter adorns the whole temple. It had not only the Icons, but the relics of (from left to right) Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great. His mother had told Stephan that they were very old, and Stephan looked at her and said, “Older than email? Now that is old!” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them she smiled. “Older than email,” she said, “and electric lights, and cars, and a great many of the kinds of things in our house, and our country, and…” her voice trailed off. He said, “Was it as old as King Arthur?” She said, “It is older than even the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”
As he had kissed the relics, he had begun to understand that what made them important was something deeper than their old age. But he could not say what.
But now he opened the doors to the temple, smelled the faint but fragrant smell of incense—frankincense—and was surprised to see another Icon on the stand. (Oh, wait, he thought. There were frequently other Icons.) The Icon was Saint Mary of Egypt. (This Icon did not have any relics.) He looked at the Icon, and began to look into it. What was her story? He remembered the part of her story he liked best—when, very far from being a saint at the beginning of her life, she came to a church and couldn’t go in. An invisible force barred her, and a saint, the Mother of God, spoke to her through an Icon. Stephan vaguely remembered Father saying something about how it was also important how after years of fasting from everything but bread or vegetables, she was discovered but refused to go back to places that would still have been a temptation to her.
She was very gaunt, and yet that gauntness held fierce power. When he had looked into the Icon—or through it, as one looks through a window—he kissed her hand and looked at the royal doors, light doors with a kind of wooden mesh (it was beautiful) and a tower of three Icons each. The royal doors were at the center of the low, open wall that guarded the holy of holies within the temple, a special place crowned by the altar. The top two Icons told the place, not of the Annunciation to the Mother of God, but the Annunciation of the Mother of God. He looked into the pictures and saw the Annunciation of the Mother of God: not when the Archangel said, “Hail, O favored One! The Lord is with you,” but when the Virgin listened and replied, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The spine of Eve’s sin was snapped.
Death and Hell had already begun to crumble.
After looking through these pictures—it was not enough to say that he simply looked at them, though it was hard to explain why—he turned around and was absorbed into the Icon painted as a mural on the sloped ceiling that was now before him.
If that was the answer to Eve’s sin, this was the answer to Adam’s sin.
The Icon was an Icon the color of sunrise—or was it sunset? Then he saw something he hadn’t seen before, even though this was one of his favorite Icons. It was an Icon of the Crucifixion, and he saw Christ at the center with rocks below—obedience in a garden of desolation had answered disobedience in a garden of delights—and beyond the rocks, the Holy City, and beyond the Holy City a sky with bands and whorls of light the color of sunrise. Now he saw for the first time that where Christ’s body met the sky there was a band of purest light around it. Christ had a halo that was white at the center and orange and red at the sides—fitting for the Christ who passed through the earth like a flame.
The flame made him think of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. This God sent his Son, who was also the One Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. In his teaching, in his friendship, in his healing the sick and raising the dead, every step he made was a step closer to this, the Cross. And yet he did this willingly.
Stephan turned, and for a moment was drawn to the mural to the right, which was also breathtakingly beautiful. Two women bore myrrh (the oil that newly chrismated Orthodox have just been anointed with) to perform a last service—the last service they could perform—to a dearly loved friend. And yet they found an empty tomb, and a majestic angel announcing news they would not have dared to hope: the Firstborn of the Dead entered death and death could not hold him. Its power had more than begun to crumble. But then Stephan turned back, almost sharply. Yes, this was glory. This was glory and majesty and beauty. But Stephan was looking for the beginning of triumph…
…and that was right there in the Icon the color of sunrise. The Cross in itself was the victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. However much it cost him, he never let go of his plan or his grace. Christ knew he could call for more than twelve legions of angels—but he never did. He walked the path the Father set before him to the very end.
Stephan stood, his whole being transported to the foot of the Cross. However long he spent there he did not know, and I do not know either. He looked through the Icon, and saw—tasted—the full victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around.
When he did look away, it was in the Light of that God. Everything now bore that Light. He went over to the relics of the patron saints of his land, and though they were much newer than the relics of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great, that didn’t seem to matter. It was like dust from another world—precious grains of sand from Heaven—and the Icon of Saint Herman of Alaska and Saint Innocent holding up a tiny building was richly colorful—”like a rainbow that has grown up,” he heard one of the grown-ups say.
Then he walked over to the Icon of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, holding a scroll that was open partway, with his letter to the Romans: “Let me be given to the wild beasts, for by their means I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the beasts, so that I may an”—but here the quotation stopped, leaving him wondering. That Icon itself was one of several old-looking, yellowed Icons—though not nearly the oldest around—held in a deep, rich brown wooden frame carved with grapevines and bunches of grapes, as many things in that room were carved (though some had intricate interwoven knots). Stephan said, “I want to be a martyr just like you, Saint Ignatius. Pray for me.”
Then he walked over to an Icon that was much smaller, but showed a man standing besides a rustic settlement with an outer wall and turrets and doors and buildings inside. It looked medieval to him, and he wished he could enter that world. It was darkened and yellowed and had a gold leaf sky, and something was written at the top, but he couldn’t read it because it was in a very old language: Old Slavonic.
Right by that Icon was Saint Anthony, the father of all monastics. He had a piercing gaze, and Stephan had the feeling he needed to confess something—but he couldn’t think of anything besides his bout with his sister, and she had been a pest. He looked away.
Stephan looked at the Icon on the left of the wall, and saw the prince, Saint Vladimir, with buildings and spires behind him that looked like they were having a party.
Then Stephan stood in front of the main Icon of the Mother of God holding God the Son, though he stood some distance back. The background was gold, and this drew him in a different way than the Icon of Saint Vladimir. This more than any other did not work like a photograph. (Or at least he was more aware of this now.) It might look odd to people who were just used to photographs, but you could say that a photograph was just a picture, but to say this was just a picture would show that you missed what kind of a picture you were looking at. But he had trouble thinking of how. He didn’t so much sense that he was looking inot the Icon as that the Mother of God and the Son of God were looking at him. He didn’t even think of the Icon being the Icon of the Incarnation and First Coming.
Then he looked at the Icon of the Last Judgment, where Christ the King and Lord and Judge returns holding a book of judgment, a book that is closed because there is nothing left to determine.
He thought intensely. The First Coming of Christ was in a stable, in a cave, and a single choir of angels sung his glory. The Second and Glorious Coming he will ride on the clouds, with legion on legion of angels with him. The First Coming was a mystery, one you could choose to disbelieve—as many people did. There will be no mistaking the Second Coming. In the First Coming, a few knees bowed. In the Second Coming, every knee will bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, some in bliss and rapture and others in utter defeat. At the First Coming, a lone star in the sky heralded Christ’s birth. At the Second Coming, the stars will fall to earth like overripe figs and the sky recede as a vanishing scroll.
What were those chilling, terrifying words of Christ? “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, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, lacking clothes and you did not give me the dignity of having clothes to wear.” Then the condemned will say, “Where did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty or sick or in prison and not take care of you?” And the King and Lord and Judge will say, “I most solemnly tell you, as much as you did not do it for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did not do it for me.”
Stephan looked at the Icon and said, “I wish Dad would let me give money to beggars when I see…” Then his voice trailed off. The words didn’t feel right in his mouth. He looked at the solemn love in the Icon, and then his mind was filled with the memory of his sister in tears.
He slowly backed down from the Icon, feeling the gaze of the King and Lord and Judge. He turned to almost run—he was in too holy of a place to run, and…
Something stopped him from leaving. After struggling inside, he looked around, and his eyes came to rest on the Icon of the Crucifixion that was the color of sunrise. Now he had not noticed them earlier this time, but he saw the Mother of God on one side and the beloved disciple on the earth. What had he just heard in church on Sunday? “Christ said to the beloved disciple, who is not here named because he is the image of every disciple, ‘Behold your Mother,’ and to his Mother, ‘Behold your Son.’ Listen to me very carefully. He did not say, ‘Behold another man who is also your son,’ but something much stranger and more powerful: ‘Behold your Son,’ because to be Orthodox is to become Christ.” Stephan started to think, “Gold for kingship, incense for divinity, myrrh for suffering—these are Christ’s gifts but he shares them with the Church, doesn’t he?” He looked up, and then looked down.
“But I need to go and apologize for hurting my sister.”
Part of the books behind the title had a reviewer say, “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise,” and possibly the same could be said of this dialogue, but it is laced with the spiritual poison of escape.
This title has its merits, enough so not to delete. However, I would warn that its spice is spiritual MSG.
The car pulled up on the dark cobblestones and stopped by the darker castle. The vehicle was silver-grey, low to the ground, and sleek. A—let us call him a man—opened the driver’s door on the right, and stood up, tall, dark, clad in a robe the color of the sky at midnight. Around the car he went, opened the door for his passenger, and once the passenger stepped out, made one swift motion and had two bags on his shoulder. The bags were large, but he moved as if he were accustomed to carrying far heavier fare. It was starlight out, and the moon was visible as moonlight rippled across a pool.
The guest reached for the bags. “Those are heavy. Let me—”
The host smiled darkly. “Do not worry about the weight of your bags.”
The host opened a solid greyblack door, of unearthly smoothness, and walked swiftly down a granite hallway, allowing his guest to follow. “You’ve had a long day. Let me get you something to drink.” He turned a door, poured something into two iridescent titanium mugs, and turned through another corridor and opened a door on its side. Inside the room were two deep armchairs and a low table.
“This is my first time traveling between worlds—how am I to address you?”
The host smiled. “Why do you wish to know more of my name? It is enough for you to call me Oinos. Please enjoy our welcome.”
The guest sipped his drink. “Cider?”
The host said, “You may call it that; it is a juice, which has not had artificial things done to make it taste like it just came out of its fruit regardless of how much it should have aged by the time you taste it. It is juice where time has been allowed to do its work.” He was holding a steel orb. “You are welcome here, Art.” Then—he barely seemed to move—there was a spark, and Oinos pulled a candle from the wall and set it on the table.
Art said, “Why not a fluorescent light to really light the room up?”
The host said, “For the same reason that you either do not offer your guests mocha at all, or else give them real mocha and not a mix of hot water, instant coffee, and hot cocoa powder. In our world, we can turn the room bright as day any time, but we do not often do so.”
“Aah. We have a lot to learn from you about getting back to nature.”
“Really? What do you mean by ‘getting back to nature’? What do you do to try to ‘get back to nature’?”
“Um, I don’t know what to really do. Maybe try to be in touch with the trees, not being cooped up inside all the time, if I were doing a better job of it…”
“If that is getting back in touch with nature, then we pay little attention to getting in touch with nature. And nature, as we understand it, is about something fundamentally beyond dancing on hills or sitting and watching waves. I don’t criticize you if you do them, but there is really something more. And I can talk with you about drinking juice without touching the natural processes that make cider or what have you, and I can talk with you about natural cycles and why we don’t have imitation daylight any time it would seem convenient. But I would like you to walk away with something more, and more interesting, than how we keep technology from being too disruptive to natural processes. That isn’t really the point. It’s almost what you might call a side effect.”
“But you do an awfully impressive job of putting technology in its place and not getting too involved with it.”
Oinos said, “Have you had enough chance to stretch out and rest and quench your thirst? Would you like to see something?”
Oinos stood, and led the way down some stairs to a room that seemed to be filled with odd devices. He pushed some things aside, then walked up to a device with a square in the center, and pushed one side. Chains and gears moved, and another square replaced it.
“This is my workshop, with various items that I have worked on. You can come over here and play with this little labyrinth; it’s not completely working, but you can explore it if you take the time to figure it out. Come on over. It’s what I’ve been working on most recently.”
Art looked around, somewhat amazed, and walked over to the ‘labyrinth.’
Oinos said, “In your world, in classical Greek, the same word, ‘techne,’ means both ‘art’ and ‘technology.’ You misunderstand my kindred if you think we aren’t especially interested in technology; we have a great interest in technology, as with other kinds of art. But just as you can travel a long distance to see the Mona Lisa without needing a mass-produced Mona Lisa to hang in your bathroom, we enjoy and appreciate technologies without making them conveniences we need to have available every single day.”
Art pressed a square and the labyrinth shifted. “Have I come here to see technologies?”
Oinos paused. “I would not advise it. You see our technologies, or how we use them, because that is what you are most ready to see. Visitors from some other worlds hardly notice them, even if they are astonished when they are pointed out.”
Art said, “Then why don’t we go back to the other room?”
Oinos turned. “Excellent.” They went back, and Art sat down in his chair.
Art, after a long pause, said, “I still find it puzzling why, if you appreciate technology, you don’t want to have more of it.”
Oinos said, “Why do you find it so puzzling?”
“Technology does seem to add a lot to the body.”
“That is a very misleading way to put it. The effect of most technologies that you think of as adding to the body is in fact to undercut the body. The technologies that you call ‘space-conquering’ might be appropriately called ‘body-conquering.'”
“So the telephone is a body-conquering device? Does it make my body less real?”
“Once upon a time, long ago from your perspective, news and information could not really travel faster than a person could travel. If you were talking with a person, that person had to be pretty close, and it was awkward and inconvenient to communicate with those who were far away. That meant that the people you talked with were probably people from your local community.”
“So you were deprived of easy access to people far away?”
“Let me put it this way. It mattered where you were, meaning where your body was. Now, on the telephone, or instant messages, or the web, nothing and no one is really anywhere, and that means profound things for what communities are. And are not. You may have read about ‘close-knit rural communities’ which have become something exotic and esoteric to most of your world’s city dwellers… but when space conquering technologies had not come in, and another space-conquering technology, modern roads allowing easy moving so that people would have to say goodbye to face-to-face friendships every few years… It’s a very different way of relating. A close-knit rural community is exotic to you because it is a body-based community in ways that tend not to happen when people make heavy use of body-conquering, or space-conquering, or whatever you want to call them, technologies.”
“But isn’t there more than a lack of technologies to close-knit communities?”
“Yes, indeed… but… spiritual discipline is about much more than the body, but a lot of spiritual discipline can only shape people when people are running into the body’s limitations. The disciplines—worship, prayer, fasting, silence, almsgiving, and so on—only mean something if there are bodily limits you are bumping into. If you can take a pill that takes away your body’s discomfort in fasting, or standing through worship, then the body-conquering technology of that pill has cut you off from the spiritual benefit of that practice.”
“Aren’t spiritual practices about more than the body?”
“Yes indeed, but you won’t get there if you have something less than the body.”
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 minute 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.”
“Would you explain relativity to me so that I can discuss its implications?”
“I really think there might be more productive ways to use your visit.”
“But you have a scientist’s understanding of relativity.”
“I am not sure I’d say that.”
“Why? You seem to understand relativity a lot more like a scientist than I do.”
“Let’s talk about biology for a moment. Do you remember the theory of spontaneous generation? You know, the theory that life just emerges from appropriate material?”
“I think so.”
“But your world’s scientists haven’t believed in spontaneous generation since over a century before you were born. Why would you be taught that theory—I’m assuming you learned this in a science class and not digging into history?”
“My science course explained the theory in covering historical background, even though scientists no longer believe that bread spontaneously generates mold.”
“Let me ask what may seem like a non-sequitur. I assume you’re familiar with people who are working to get even more of religion taken out of public schools?”
“They are very concerned about official prayers at school events, right? About having schools endorse even the occasional religious practice?”
“Ok. Let me ask what may seem like a strange question. Have these ‘separation of Church and state’ advocates also advocated that geometry be taken out of the classroom?”
Art closed his eyes, and then looked at Oinos as if he had two heads. “It seems you don’t know everything about my world.”
“I don’t. But please understand that geometry did not originate as a secular technical practice. You migth have heard this mentioned. Geometry began its life as a ‘sacred science,’ or a religious practice, and to its founders the idea that geometry does not have religious content would have struck them as worse than saying that prayer does not have religious content.”
“Ok, I think I remember that being mentioned. So to speak, my math teacher taught about geometry the ‘sacred science’ the way that my biology teacher taught about the past theory of spontaneous generation.”
Oinos focused his eyes on Art. “In our schools, and in our training, physics, biology, and chemistry are ‘taught’ as ‘secular sciences’ the same way, in your school, spontaneous generation is taught as ‘past science’, or even better, the ‘sacred science’ of geometry is ‘taught’ in the course of getting on to a modern understanding of geometry.”
Art said, “So the idea that the terrain we call ‘biology’ is to you—”
Oinos continued: “As much something peered at through a glass bell as the idea that the terrain of regular polygons belongs to a secularized mathematics.”
“What is a sacred science?”
Oinos sat back. “If a science is about understanding something as self-contained whose explanations do not involve God, and it is an attempt to understand as physics understand, and the scientist understands as a detached observer, looking in through a window, then you have a secular science—the kind that reeks of the occult to us. Or that may sound strange, because in your world people proclaiming sacred sciences are proclaiming the occult. But let me deal with that later. A sacred science does not try to understand objects as something that can be explained without reference to God. A sacred science is first and foremost about God, not about objects. When it understands objects, it understands them out of God, and tries to see God shining through them. A sacred science has its home base in the understanding of God, not of inanimate matter, and its understanding of things bears the imprint of God. If you want the nature of its knowing in an image, do not think of someone looking in and observing, detached, through a window, but someone drinking something in.”
“Is everything a sacred science to you? And what is a sacred science? Astrology?”
“Something like that, except that I use the term ‘sacred science’ by way of accommodation. Our own term is one that has no good translation in your language. But let us turn to the stars.”
“Astrology is right in this: a star is more than a ball of plasma. Even in the Bible there is not always such a distinction between the ranks of angels and the stars as someone raised on materialist science might think.” He rose, and began to walk, gesturing for Art to follow him. In the passage, they turned and entered a door. Oinos lit a lamp next to an icon on the wall.
The icon looked like starlight. It showed angels praying at the left, and then the studded sapphiric canopy of the night sky behind a land with herbs shooting from the earth, and on the right an immense Man—if he was a Man—standing, his hand raised in benediction. All around the sapphire dome were some majestic figures, soaring aloft in two of their six wings. Art paused to drink it in.
“What are those symbols?”
“They are Greek letters. You are looking at an icon of the creation of the stars, but the text is not the text for that day; it is from another book, telling of the angels thunderously shouting for joy when the stars were created. So the stars are connected with the angels.”
“Is this astrology?”
“No, because the stars and angels both point to God. The influences in astrology point beyond matter to something else, but they do not point far enough beyond themselves. If you can use something to make a forecast that way, it doesn’t point far enough beyond itself.”
“One definition to distinguish religion from magic—one used by anthropologists—is that religion is trying to come into contact with the divine, and magic is trying to control the divine. God cannot be controlled, and there is something of control in trying to foretell a future that God holds in mystery. A real God cannot be pried into by a skill. Astrology departs from a science that can only see stars as so much plasma, but it doesn’t go far enough to lead people to look into the stars and see a shadow of their Creator. To be a sacred science, it is not enough to point to something more than matter as secular science understands it; as the term is used in our language, one can only be a sacred science by pointing to God.”
“Then what is a sacred science? Which branches of learning as you break them up? Can they even be translated into my language?”
“You seem to think that if astrology is not a sacred science then sacred sciences must be something much more hidden. Not so. Farming is a sacred science, as is hunting, or inventing, or writing. When a monk makes incense, it is not about how much incense he can make per unit of time; his making incense is the active part of living contemplatively, and his prayer shows itself in physical labor. His act is more than material production; it is a sacred science, or sacred art or sacred endeavor, and what goes into and what comes out of the activity is prayer. Nor is it simply a matter that he is praying while he acts; his prayers matter for the incense. There are many lands from your world’s Desert Fathers to Mexico in your own day where people have a sense that it matters what state people cook in, and that cooking with love puts something into a dish that no money can buy. Perhaps you will not look at me askance when I say that not only monks in their monasteries exotically making incense for worship are performing a sacred science, but cooking, for people who may be low on the totem pole and who are not considered exotic, as much as for anyone else, can and should be a sacred science. Like the great work that will stay up with a sick child all night.”
“Hmm…” Art said, and then finished his tankard. “Have you traveled much?”
“I have not reached one in five of the galaxies with inhabited worlds. I can introduce you to people who have some traveling experience, but I am not an experienced traveler. Still, I have met sites worth visiting. I have met, learned, worshiped. Traveling in this castle I have drunk the blood of gems. There are worlds where there is nothing to see, for all is music, and song does everything that words do for you. I have beheld a star as it formed, and I have been part of an invention that moves forward as a thousand races in their laboratories add their devices. I have read books, and what is more I have spoken with members of different worlds and races. There seems to be no shortage of wonders, and I have even been to your own world, with people who write fantasy that continues to astonish us—”
“My son-in-law is big into fantasy—he got me to see a Lord of the whatever-it-was movie—but I don’t fancy them much myself.”
“We know about Tolkein, but he is not considered a source of astonishing fantasy to us.”
“Um…” Art took a long time to recall a name, and Oinos waited patiently. “Lewis?”
“If you’re looking for names you would have heard of, Voltaire and Jung are two of the fantasy authors we consider essential. Tolkein and Lewis are merely imaginative. It is Voltaire and Jung who are truly fantasy authors. But there are innumerable others in your world.”
Art said, “Um… what do you mean by ‘fantasy author’?”
Oinos turned. “I’m sorry; there is a discrepancy between how your language uses ‘fantasy author’ and ours. We have two separate words that your ‘fantasy’ translates, and the words stand for very different concepts. One refers to works of imagination that are set in another world that is not confused with reality. The other refers to a fundamental confusion that can cost a terrible price. Our world does not produce fiction; we do appreciate the fiction of other worlds, but we do not draw a particularly strong line between fiction where only the characters and events are imagined, and fiction where the whole world is imagined. But we do pay considerable attention to the second kind of fantasy, and our study of fantasy authors is not a study of imagination but a study of works that lead people into unreality. ‘Fantasy author’ is one of the more important terms in understanding your world and its history.”
Art failed to conceal his reaction.
“Or perhaps I was being too blunt. But, unfashionable as it may be, there is such a thing as evil in your world, and the ways in which people live, including what they believe, has something to do with it. Not everything, but something.”
Oinos waited for a time. Then, when Art remained silent, he said, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” He opened a door on the other side of the room, and went into the next room. The room was lit by diffuse moonlight, and there was a ledge around the room and water which Oinos stirred with his hand to light a phosphorescent glow. When Art had stepped in, Oinos stepped up, balancing on a steel cable, and stood silent for a while. “Is there anything here that you can focus on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Step up on this cable and take my hand.”
“What if I fall into the water?”
Art tried to balance, but it seemed even more difficult in the dark. For a while, he tried to keep his balance with Oinos’s help, but he seemed barely up. He overcompensated twice in opposite directions, began flying into the water, and was stopped at last by Oinos’s grip, strong as steel, on his arm.
“I can’t do this,” Art said.
“Very well.” Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.
“What is it?”
“A telescope, not too different from those of your world.”
Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, “Do you see that body?”
“What is it?”
“A small moon.”
Oinos said, “I want you to look at it as closely as you can,” and then pulled something on the telescope.
“It’s moving out of sight.”
“That’s right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them.”
“Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?”
“This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation.”
Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.
Art said, “This is a hard telescope to control.”
Oinos said, “The telescope is worth controlling.”
“Can you turn the tracking back on?”
Oinos merely repeated, “The telescope is worth controlling.”
The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view… and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.
Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.
“Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?”
“We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it’s not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly.”
“Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?”
“Maybe you aren’t pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?”
Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.
Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn’t have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.
He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.
It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.
Then Art realized he was exhausted, and began to sit down; Oinos pulled him to a bench.
After closing his eyes for a while, Art said, “This was a magnificent break from your teaching.”
“A break from teaching? What would you mean?”
Art sat, opened his mouth, and then closed it. After a while, he said, “I was thinking about what you said about fantasy authors… do you think there is anything that can help?”
Oinos said, “Let me show you.” He led Art into a long corridor with smooth walls and a round arch at top. A faint blue glow followed them, vanishing at the edges. Art said, “Do you think it will be long before our world has full artificial intelligence?”
Oinos said, “Hmm… Programming artificial intelligence on a computer is not that much more complex than getting a stone to lay an egg.”
Art said, “But our scientists are making progress. Your advanced world has artificial intelligence, right?”
Oinos said, “Why on earth would we be able to do that? Why would that even be a goal?”
“You have computers, right?”
“Yes, indeed; the table that I used to call up a scientific calculator works on the same principle as your world’s computers. I could almost say that inventing a new kind of computer is a rite of passage among serious inventors, or at least that’s the closest term your world would have.”
“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”
“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.
“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”
“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”
“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”
“What else could the mind be?”
“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”
“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”
“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”
“I know that computers don’t have emotions yet, but they seem to have rationality down cold.”
“Are you actually going to tell me that computers, with their math and logic, aren’t rational?”
“Let me ask you a question. Would you say that the thing you can hold, a thing that you call a book, can make an argument?”
“Yes; I’ve seen some pretty good ones.”
“Really? How do paper and ink think out their position?”
Art hesitated, and said, “Um, if you’re going to nitpick…”
“I’m not nitpicking. A book is a tool of intelligent communication, and they are part of how people read author’s stories, or explanation of how to do things, or poetry, or ideas. But the physical thing is not thereby intelligent. However much you think of a book as making an argument, the book is incapable of knowing what an argument is, and for that matter the paper and ink have no idea of whether they contain the world’s best classic, or something mediocre, or incoherent accusations that world leaders are secretly planning to turn your world to dog drool, or randomly generated material that is absolute gibberish. The book may be meaningful to you, but the paper with ink on it is not the sort of thing that can understand what you recognize through the book.
“This might ordinarily be nitpicking, but it says something important about computers. One of the most difficult things for computer science instructors in your world to pound through people’s heads is that a computer does not get the gist of what you are asking it to do and overlook minor mistakes, because the computer has no sense of what you are doing and no way to discern what were trying to get it to do from a mistake where you wrote in a bug by telling it to do something slightly different from what you meant. The computer has no sense that a programmer meant anything. A computer follows instructions, one after another, whether or not they make sense, and indeed without being able to wonder whether they make sense. To you, a program may be a tool that acts as an electronic shopping cart to let you order things through the web, but the web server no more understands that it is being used as a web server than a humor book understands that it is meant to make people laugh. Now most or all of the books you see are meant to say something—there’s not much market for a paperback volume filled with random gibberish—but a computer can’t understand that it is running a program written for a purpose any more than a book can understand that the ink on its pages is intended for people to read.”
Art said, “You don’t think artificial intelligence is making real progress? They seem to keep making new achievements.”
Oinos said, “The rhetoric of ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now; we’re on the verge of full artificial intelligence, and with what we’re achieving, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner’ is not new: people have been saying that full artificial intelligence is just around the corner since before you were born. But breeding a better and better kind of apple tree is not progress towards growing oranges. Computer science, and not just artificial intelligence, has gotten good at getting computers to function better as computers. But human intelligence is something else… and it is profoundly missing the point to only realize that the computer is missing a crucial ingredient of the most computer-like activity of human rational analysis. Even if asking a computer to recognize a program’s purpose reflects a fundamental error—you’re barking up the wrong telephone pole. Some people from your world say that when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The most interesting thing about the mind is not that it can do something more complete when it pounds in computer-style nails. It’s something else entirely.”
“When things are going well, the ‘computer’ that performs calculating analysis is like your moon: a satellite, that reflects light from something greater. Its light is useful, but there is something more to be had. The sun, as it were, is that the mind is like an altar, or even something better. It takes long struggles and work, but you need to understand that the heart of the mind is at once practical and spiritual, and that its greatest fruit comes not in speech but in silence.”
Art was silent for a long time.
Oinos stopped, tapped a wall once, and waited as an opening appeared in the black stone. Inside an alcove was a small piece of rough hewn obsidian; Oinos reached in, took it, and turned it to reveal another side, finely machined, with a series of concentric ridged grooves centered around a tiny niche. “You asked what a kairometer was, and this is a kairometer, although it would take you some time to understand exactly what it is.”
“Is it one of the other types of computers in your world?”
“Yes. I would call it information technology, although not like the information technology you know. It is something people come back to, something by which people get something more than they had, but it does this not so much according to its current state as to our state in the moment we are using it. It does not change.” Oinos placed the object in Art’s hands.
Art slowly turned it. “Will our world have anything like this?”
Oinos took the kairometer back and returned it to its niche; when he withdrew his hand, the opening closed with a faint whine. “I will leave you to find that yourself.”
Oinos began walking, and they soon reached the end of the corridor. Art followed Oinos through the doorway at the end and gasped.
Through the doorway was something that left Art trying to figure out whether or not it was a room. It was a massive place, lit by a crystalline blue light. As Art looked around, he began to make sense of his surroundings: there were some bright things, lower down, in an immense room with rounded arches and a dome at the top, made of pure glass. Starlight streamed in. Art stepped through the doorway and sunk down a couple of inches.
Oinos stooped for a moment, and then said, “Take off your shoes. They are not needed here.” Art did so, and found that he was walking on a floor of velveteen softness. In the far heart of the room a thin plume of smoke arose. Art could not tell whether he smelled a fragrance, but he realized there was a piercing chant. Art asked, “What is the chant saying?”
Oinos did not answer.
What was the occasion? Art continued to look, to listen, and began trying to drink it in. It almost sounded as if they were preparing to receive a person of considerable importance. There was majesty in the air.
Oinos seemed to have slipped away.
Art turned and saw an icon behind him, hanging on the glass. There was something about it he couldn’t describe. The icon was dark, and the colors were bright, almost luminous. A man lay dreaming at the bottom, and something reached up to a light hidden in the clouds—was it a ladder? Art told himself the artistic effect was impressive, but there was something that seemed amiss in that way of looking at it.
What bothered him about saying the icon had good artistic effect? Was the artistry bad? That didn’t seem to be it. He looked at a couple of areas of artistic technique, but it was difficult to do so; such analysis felt like a foreign intrusion. He thought about his mood, but that seemed to be the wrong place to look, and almost the same kind of intrusion. There seemed to be something shining through the icon; looking at it was like other things he had done in this world, only moreso. He was looking through the icon and not around it, but… Art had some sense of what it was, but it was not something he could fit into words.
After being absorbed in the icon, Art looked around. There must have been hundreds of icons around, and lights, and people; he saw what seemed like a sparse number of people—of Oinos’s kind—spread out through the vast space. There was a chant of some kind that changed from time to time, but seemed to somehow be part of the same flow. Things seemed to move very slowly—or move in a different time, as if clock time were turned on its side, or perhaps as if he had known clock time as it was turned on its side and now it was right side up—but Art never had the sense of nothing going on. There seemed to always be something more going on than he could grasp.
Art shifted about, having stood for what seemed like too long, sat down for a time, and stood up. The place seemed chaotic, in a way cluttered, yet when he looked at the “clutter,” there was something shining through, clean as ice, majestic as starlight, resonant as silence, full of life as the power beneath the surface of a river, and ordered with an order that no rectangular grid could match. He did not understand any of the details of the brilliant dazzling darkness… but they spoke to him none the less.
After long hours of listening to the chant, Art realized with a start that the fingers of dawn had stolen all around him, and he saw stone and verdant forest about the glass walls until the sunlight began to blaze. He thought, he though he could understand the song even as its words remained beyond his reach, and he wished the light would grow stronger so he could see more. There was a crescendo all about him, and—
Oinos was before him. Perhaps for some time.
“I almost understand it,” Art said. “I have started to taste this world.”
Oinos bowed deeply. “It is time for you to leave.”
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?”