I’d like to open by flatly contradicting something that is openly stated in Scripture. St. Paul in defending Christ’s resurrection and our own (1 Cor 15:19, RSV), writes if there is no resurrection, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
Now I believe there is a resurrection, and furthermore that the significance of this life lies precisely in the fact that by our lives on earth we are making an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell. But I would like to submit something that may seem a straight-out opposite: suppose that there is no final resurrection, no judgment, no life or experience or existence after death, just nothingness, and the only life to be had is this life. That is all. In that case, what kind of life is to be desired? My answer is “Exactly the same as what Orthodox Christians try to live today.”
In regard to future punishment and rewards, Martin Luther was right when he said, “If we knew what Christ came to save us from, we would die of fear. If we knew what Christ came to save us for, we would die of joy.” And for that matter, C.S. Lewis was right when he portrayed Heaven as infinitely eclipsing Hell. And it is in regard to future reward that St. Maximus Confessor distinguished from three ranks among the Lord’s disciples: slaves, who obey out of fear, mercenaries, who obey out of hope for future reward, and sons, who obey out of love.
Now all three of these have a place, and I have obeyed as a slave at times, knowing that suicide would be a direct door to Hell, and on that point I would recall the Philokalia saying that strange as it may sound, we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, because more people have been saved through fear of Hell’s torments than through hope of Heaven’s joys. But mercenaries are more noble than slaves, and sons more noble than both. And in the end mercenaries are more insulated from Hell’s torments than slaves, sons even more insulated than mercenaries, and sons are more handsomely rewarded than mercenaries in the next life.
But with this as a big picture I cannot rightly disown, I’d like to narrow things down and focus solely on mercenary concerns, and even more unusually focus on this life.
People have said that virtue is its own reward, enough so that Calvin and Hobbes, with a Spaceman Spiff wanting to teach aliens that virtue is its own reward, despite the fact that I have never seen in the entire Calvin and Hobbes history evidence of Calvin having any concept that virtue could be its own reward. But what does it mean? I am wary of assuming that the reader knows what this means, or whether the saying is understood in addition to being quoted mindlessly.
Ask a recovering alcoholic who’s been dry for years which is better: being sober, or being drunk all the time. Now being drunk, or today toking, may bring great pleasure if you’re basically sober. However, I believe that most recovering alcoholics would vehemently affirm that being sober is better than being a slave chained to a bottle more constricting than a genie’s lamp. It has been said that alcoholism is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy! Or to quote Chesterton about another topic, “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.” Humility is a vaster thing than pride. And even within the limits of this life, on purely mercenary concerns, virtue is better today than vice.
There is an interesting point about how happiness is conceived in classical Greek, as represented by Plato and others, where the word, ευδαιμονια or eudaimonia, literally means “good spirits” and describes the happiness that derives from one’s spirit being in good condition. Thinking of happiness without particular regard to the health of one’s spirit is a bit like thinking about the endocrine rush provided by a good exercise program without any real regard to the health of one’s body: absurd, and how absurd it is is partly unpacked in the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke: The Republic. As to how this is unpacked, I refer the reader to the classics; but the idea of achieving happiness without one’s spirits being in good condition comes across as out of place, perhaps perhaps simply inconceivable, perhaps impossible, or perhaps just absurd and undesirable.
And this much may be said without touching any merits or joys that are specific to Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy. But in fact living the life of Christ already starts on earth, acquisition of the Holy Spirit already starts on earth, and Heaven itself starts on earth, and if there is (I speak hypothetically) no Heaven awaiting the faithful after death, I would rather live the beginning of Heaven on earth, and then stop existing or experiencing, than never touch Heaven at all.
And in terms of virtues and vices, I have something to say about the occult that may wound some of my dearest readers. It is unnatural vice.
The concept of unnatural vice in Orthodoxy is broader than sexual perversions including porn, and it may be hard to see why an informed person would call unnatural a nature religion like Wicca. My response is this: As far as standardized tests like the SAT go, there are some test preparation strategies that can legitimately raise scores. Kaplan, or its competitors, can raise scores. But there is another school that says that if you’re not cheating you’re not playing hard enough, and are strategies to cheat on tests. And the occult amounts to approaching cheating as how you raise your score, and is not satisfied with legitimate test preparation. It is an unnatural vice, and heavy nature theming and self-presentation as a route to harmony with nature do not change the fact that the empowerment Wicca claims is empowerment through nature-themed unnatural vice. Unnatural vice that works with plants is unnatural as artistic pornography in beautiful natural surroundings (eveandherfriends DOT tumblr DOT com) is an unnatural vice that disenchants the entire universe. Attempts to engage in an unnatural vice in a natural way do not remove the fact or the problem of a draining unnatural vice that destroys the possibility of joy. One acquaintance talked about how one person considered himself not to be an alcoholic, because he only drank gourmet wines!
I fear by saying this much, I may have already lost much of my audience by now. However, to help bring you to your senses, I would bring a poem (simply text with punctuation based on per cola et commata’s lines):
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Mother of God, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
G.K. Chesterton said something relevant to much more than poets and logicians:
The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
The Blessed Augustine wrote that if a master sends two slaves by routes that will cross, their meeting is an accident from the slaves’ perspective but by design from the master’s perspective. What is lost in all this is, if I may take a cue from astrology, dancing the Great Dance, where the dance is led by a little girl with a tambourine. Sin constricts; occult sin seeks to draw Heaven down to fit your desires. What we need is not to reduce Heaven to fit us; we need to open ourselves to fit Heaven. And when we pray, odd but wonderful coincidences can happen, and God draws us out of the Hell of self.
Applications in Our Day
Yes, that is well and good for easier times, but what about today?
Let me return to an example I have used earlier. The Bible contains warnings against drunkenness in both the Old and New Testaments. In Bible times, wine fermented to about 4% alcohol, which is a third of the alcohol in wine and slightly less than in a standard beer. In the Graeco-Roman world, that wine was mixed 1:2 with water, so we’re bringing the alcohol content down to significantly less than lite beer. It takes (or at least it takes us—I unofficially suspect that major dietary differences influence how well you can hold your liquor) a fair amount of drinking to get drunk.
Since ancient warnings about using wine in moderation or not using it at all, we have developed not only strong beer but wine that used to be 12% alcohol (that number tends to steadily increasing), and eighty proof, and Everclear if you wish, and now cannibalis—er, cannabis—is legal, with stronger drugs illegal but still available in 50 States.
Q: Is sobriety still relevant?
A: Now more than ever.
It’s harder to reach, but this sort of thing is if anything even more essential. (There is more on spiritual sobriety in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, which I highly recommend.)
Do not worry
Do not worry for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by worrying? You might as well try to worry your way into being a foot taller!
I have found that trying to solve a life’s problems on a day’s resources is a sure road to despair. The Sermon on the Mount is very practical in an everyday here and now. Some people have gotten the impression that I am better at planning and orchestrating than they are. I categorically deny the charges.
When I was in high school, there was a game of sorts called “Wargames,” that showed a world map and had a button to launch missles. When you clicked on “Launch,” you could see the missile trajectories as missiles launched from the God-blessed USA to the godless USSR—and from the godless USSR to the God-blessed USA, resulting in essentially total world annihilation. Then a preachy enough message appeared: “The only way to win this game is not to play at all.” And so it is with worry: The only way to win this game is not to play at all.”
Inner peace does not come when you have worried your ducks all into a row. Inner peace comes when you solve today’s problems, or even the problems of part of today, on today’s resources, and you let go.
Repulsive advice to heed
“In humility consider others better than yourself.” (Philippians 2:3, RSV)
This has got to be near the top of things in the Bible that we want to drag our heels on, but let me ask almost a riddle:
Would you rather meet people you admire and are in awe of, or people you look down on and despise?
If you’d like to be in the presence of people you admire, admire other people by in humility considering others better than yourself.
It’s that simple!
In the Philokalia we read St. Peter of Damascus’s “A Treasury of Divine Knowledge”:
…Thus through self-control he practices the other virtues as well. He looks on himself as in God’s debt for everything, finding nothing whatsoever with which to repay to his Benefactor, and even thinking that his virtues simply increase his debt. For he receives and has nothing to give. He only asks that he may be allowed to offer thanks to God. Yet even the fact that God accepts his thanks puts him, so he thinks, into still greater debt. But he continues to give thanks, ever doing what is good and reckoning himself an ever greater debtor, in his humility considering himself lower than all men, delighting in God his Benefactor and trembling even as he rejoices (cf. Ps. 2: I 1).
It is no accident that positive psychology tries to crank gratitude to the max. But there is ideally a feedback loop between gratitude and humility, and humility is deeper; it could almost be called the fourth Christian or theological virtue.
It is a wondrous experience to recognize that one is unworthy even to thank God for his many blessings, and thank him for his many blessings anyway.
So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord… (1 Peter 3:5-6)
This passage is not politically correct, but it is a hinge of joy and it respects the nature of women however much we try to grind it out of them. Snow White sang, “Some day, my prince will come,” and it is the desire of every little girl to marry a prince. This is true in all the older Disney cartoons except maybe Aladdin: a princess like Ariel and a commoner like Belle are both happy in being married to a lord. Out of this I have advice: if you want to be married to a lord then you might well see, and treat, your husband as your lord.
C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength says that obedience is “…also an erotic necessity.”
Ok, more people probably lost there. Despite my best wishes.
I have presented a paltry few aspects of the layer Christianity has to offer to those who seek mercenary reward, and are concerned within the bounds of this life.
Christianity is not just pie in the sky when you die. It is also steak on your plate while you wait.
Steak on your plate while you wait
I would like to give links to works on this site that significantly address mercenary concerns within the scope of this life, at least as one layer. This layer may not in the end be separable from obeying God out of sheer and undiluted love, but they are meant to speak here now and address our own interests.
If you want to know what set of eyes you should be looking through, look through these eyes here. It tells of a glory offered us that begins here and now: and what kind of glorious God governs the here and now.
- Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret
In The Paradise Wars, one character says, “You’re not happy unless you’re miserable.” I generally find myself happiest in repentance—and blindsided by unexpected reward!
- A Pet Owner’s Rules
God is like a Pet Owner who has only two rules, and the rules are designed for our benefit, not His.
- The Angelic Letters
Each of us has a guardian angel assigned at baptism, and a personal tempting demon allowed to test us for our strengthening. C.S. Lewis writes about a personal tempter. I write about our guardian angel.
- God the Spiritual Father
Life may sometimes feel like a ship without a Captain. But there is in fact a Captain who has arranged everything for you with as much care as if you were the only person He ever created.
- God the Game Changer
Sometimes things happen that appear so bad that nothing good can come out of them. God has been taking good out of terrible situations since before His only Son was crucified.
- A Pilgrimage from Narnia
This is what Orthodoxy has that is better than Narnia.
- The Arena
Each of us is called to be famous before God, and God wishes to show His excellence in our excellence.
- To a Friend
I wrote this, really, for just one friend, and I would do the same for you.
- Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict
I’m not happy with this piece, but it offers an extended exposition of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
- A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism
There is an Orthodox saying, “Only God and I exist.” Learn what it means.
- Who Is Rich? The Person Who Is Content
A look at true wealth.
- How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
From one who has both the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and is not Solomon or Melchizedek
- The Best Things In Life Are Free
This looks at how some of the toughest pills to swallow can in fact be the best things in life.
- All Orthodox Theology Is Positive Theology
An upgrade from positive psychology.
- The Consolation of Theology
I don’t know if I can call this any sort of upgrade to Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, but if a Christian may be be sustained by the riches of pagan philosophy, a fortiori an Orthodox Christian may be sustained by the riches of Christian theology
The note on which I wish to end this ensemble.