To my parents John and Linda— I owe you more than words can say.
The state of psychology
Martin Seligman, a giant in the psychological community, kicked off a major TED talk by talking about how a TV station wanted a sound bite from him, and it should be one word. He said, “Good.” Then they decided that as the president of the American Psychological Association he was a figure of such stature that they would let him have two words, and he said, “Not good.” Finally, they decided he was of such stature that he would be allowed three words, and his three words were, “Not good enough.”
What he was getting at was essentially as follows: clinical psychology had a goal which was remarkably well accomplished: the complete classification of behavioral health conditions, along with effective psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy. He didn’t really underscore the magnitude and implications of this goal; apart from the fact that public figures know they at least need to act humble publicly, sometimes greatness brings real humility and he was trying to lead people to see there was more to ask for than just getting someone to feel OK, and he did not suggest that clinical psychology is the kind of tool that lets people of all kinds to thrive in every way. He called for a positive psychology to help people thrive, have fulfilling and delightful living, and enable high talent not to go to waste. And the point that I know him for is his calling for positive psychology.
What is systematic theology? What is mystical theology? What is positive theology?
One distinction between Eastern Orthodoxy and Rome is that in Rome, all theology is systematic theology, and in Orthodoxy, all theology is mystical theology. This much is true to point out, however it invites confusion.
Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, couldn’t cut it for “publish or perish” academia. He is revered as one of the greatest giants in history, but he would not obviously be welcome as an academic today. While there are many ideas in his Summa Theologiae, few or any have the faintest claim to originality. Some people, including me, don’t think that a single original idea is to be found. Others think that there are a few, very few: I have not read anyone attribute even a dozen original ideas in his quite enormous work. But what he did provide was a system: an organized set of cubbyholes with a place for everything and everything in its place. And the claim that all Roman theology is systematic theology means that everything fits somewhere in the system, whether Thomas Aquinas’s or something else.
The claim that all theology in Orthodoxy is mystical theology is a different sort of claim. It says that all true theology meets a particular criterion, like saying that all true fire brings heat. It is not a claim that everything fits under some kind of classification scheme. Systematic theology as such is not allowed, and trying to endow the Orthodox Church with its first systematic theology is a way to ask the Church heirarchy for a heresy trial. “Mystical” in mystical theology means theology that is practiced, experienced, and lived. The claim to “study” a martial art can involve reading, especially at the higher levels, but if you are going to study karate, you go to a dojo and start engaging in its practices. In that sense, while books may have some place in martial arts mastery, but “studying” ninjutsu is not something you do by burying your nose in books. It is a live practice.
All theology is positive theology, and my assertion is like saying that all theology is mystical theology, and not that all theology is part of systematic theology.
As to the relationship between positive psychology and positive theology, I honestly hope for an interesting conversation with some of the positive psychology community. I do not assert that positive theology contains positive psychology as we know it, or that positive psychology contains positive theology. I do, however, wish to suggest that something interesting and real is reflected in the claim that all theology is positive theology.
A wonderful old world
I wish to make one point of departure clear in the interest of framing what I am attempting.
There is a certain sense that this work could be seen as novel; for all I know it may be the first work discussing all Orthodox theology as being positive theology, but I follow Chesterton’s footsteps here (or rather fall short of them). I am not seeking to invent a positive theology. I am in fact attempting no novelty of any sort other than a new articulation of timeless truths that are relevant to the conversation. And I am seeking to offer something better than something wonderful I invented. I want to talk about wondrous things that I believe God invented, as old as the hills.
A deliberately jarring example
What is positive in the psychology of the Orthodox Church? To get off to a good start, I would like to say “repentance from sins.” And one of my articles unfolds in Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret.
The Philokalia says that men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them. Repentance is terrifying. It is an unconditional surrender. But once you have made that surrender, you receive a reward. You realize that you needed that sin like you need a hole in the head—and you are free of a trap. It is something like a spiritual chiropractic massage, that you walk away from in joy with a straighter spine. And in my own experience, I’m not sure I am ever as joyful as when I am repenting. And the effect is cumulative; repentance represents a rising spiritual standard of living. Repentance is like obediently showing up for your funeral, and then you get there and you have shown up for your resurrection.
Monasticism, which I discuss in A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, represents a position of supreme privilege within the Orthodox Church. Now I love my Archbishop dearly and wouldn’t want to take him down one whit, but part of the point of the piece is that if you are given a choice between being the greatest bishop in the world and being an ordinary monk, “ordinary monk” is hands down the better choice to choose. The overriding concern in that environment is the spiritual, human profit of its members. Poverty, obedience, and chastity are all conditions to one of two routes to salvation, and however wonderful marriage may be, monasticism is even better. And as well as other terms, monasticism is spoken of as “repentance.” To live in a monastery is to work at a place that is minting spiritual money and giving all members as copious pay as possible.
The Utopia that is nowhere absent
Robert Goudzward, in Aid for the Overdeveloped West, talked about Old Testament law as representing a paradise, and part of the picture is that it represented a paradise in which it was hard to get rich. A sage in the Bible asks, “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” and there is a sense that having more and more money is not good for us as humans.
This world was created to be a paradise. The Old Covenant represented a paradise. The New Covenant represents a paradise. Marriage represents a paradise. Monasticism represents a paradise.
We were made for human flourishing, and part of what the Church attempts is to provide for each person to flourish as that person should flourish. Abbots (and everyone else) are not to colonize and clone; the authority is profound, but it is a profound authority in restoring a damaged icon—and helping the icon look like itself, not like something it isn’t. If you read the saints’ lives over time, all the saints represent Christ, but there is incredible diversity among how the saints represent Christ.
What does God ask from us?
If we look at the question of what God commands and what he requests, there is fundamental confusion in thinking God is asking us to fill his needs. God in Heaven is perfect, and has no conceivable needs except in the person of our neighbor. God makes demands of us, not to fill his needs like an incompetent therapist, but to give us what is best. St. Maximus the Confessor divides three classes of obedience: slaves, who obey out of fear, mercenaries, who obey to obtain benefits, and sons, who obey out of love. Now all obedience is in at least some sense obedience and sometimes obedience out of fear is just what the doctor ordered, but if you obey as a slave you can be saved, if you obey as a mercenary you do better, and if you obey as a son even better than that. However, none of this is a setup to fill God’s needs. The point is not that it is best for God if we obey out of love; the point is that it is best for us if we obey out of love.
A better kind of affirmation
This may come across very strangely to a psychologist who endorses affirmations, but the two main affirmations in Orthodoxy are “Christ died to save sinners, of whom I am first,” and “All the world will be saved, and I will be damned.”
Part of this stems from beliefs that I will explain but I do not ask you to subscribe to. Religion has enough of a reputation for focusing on the afterlife that it is provocative for a social gospel poster to say, “We believe in life before death.” This life is of cardinal and incomparable significance; it is a life in which inch by inch we decide whether we will embrace Heaven or Hell when our live ends and no further repentance is available. But it has also been said that birth and death are an inch apart whilst the ticker tape goes on forever, and reform is only possible before we die. What the “affirmations” (of a sort) that I have mentioned do is prepare people like plaintiffs to press forth for maximum awards in their favor. The statements are for our good, and they help before death. Furthermore, it is believed that God doesn’t do everything in our good works for us, but he allows a genuine cooperation of combined powers where we do part of it. We are told, though, that we are not to take credit for one single achievement in our life, but give all the merit to God… but come Judgment Day, all good deeds we have done our part to are reckoned as if we did them entirely ourselves and without any help from God. I do not ask you to believe this or think it makes sense, but I suggests it is a part of a picture where an overriding concern is God blessing us as much as we will accept.
Dr. Seligman’s lecture linked at the beginning of this article talked about how French vanilla ice cream tastes exquisite for the first bite, but by the time you get to the fifth or sixth bite, the flavor is gone. In the first candidate for the good life, people habituate quickly.
I have slightly opposite news about Orthodox affirmations: when you make them central to your life, the sting crumbles. Furthermore, if you see yourself as the worst sinner in a parish, or a monastery, or all prehistory and prehistory, that’s the time that real growth and even real joy appear. Orthodoxy’s affirmations unlock the door to repentance, and there is no end of treasure to be mined from that vein.
Stoicism and virtue
I’ve seen TED talks about how stoicism is being taken as some sort of ultimate power tool, and secret weapon, within the professional NFL community.
Part of my thought was, “Duh!” and with it a thought that it is a mischaracterization of philosophy to assume it’s just something for odd and eccentric people, including yours truly, who have their noses in books. Stoicism is legitimately a power tool, but it is one of many power tools that have garnished quite a following and have been as powerful to their practitioners might have been.
I have said elsewhere, “Orthodoxy is pagan. Neo-paganism isn’t,” and The Philokalia preserves the very best of pagan philosophy with its profound endowment of virtues. N.B. the same word in Greek means “virtue” and “excellence,” and if you want to help people thrive and develop giftedness, the four-horsed chariot of courage, justice, wisdom, and moderation has really quite a lot to go for it, and all the more if these are perfected by the virtues of faith, hope, and love. All of these are called “cardinal” or “hinge” virtues, meaning that not only are they good, but they are positive “gateway drugs” to other and perhaps even greater virtue.
And I would like to say one thing that the authors of The Philokalia simply can’t much of ever stop talking about. This does not seem an view of yourself that you would want to have, but I’ve had some pretty arrogant and abrasive people try pretty hard to teach me about humility. But I will say this: humility is the Philosopher’s Stone and maybe the Elixir of Life. It opens your eyes to beauty pride may not see, and I need humility in my daily living more than I need air. I’m not going to try to further argue for an unattractive virtue, but I will say that it looks tiny and constricted from the outside, and vast and spacious from the inside. And for another Chesterton name drop: “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.”
If we are going to look at world traditions, the Greek term for virtue, arete also meant excellence, and arete (I both mean ‘virtue’ and ‘excellence’) represents a tradition well worth heeding. Bits and pieces have been picked up on TED talks; Stoicism is a power tool among the professional American football community, and another TED talk talks about how “grit” (also known as fortitude or courage) makes a big difference in success. But the tradition of virtue itself, and virtue philosophy, is worth attention.
I haven’t read the title, but I have read Fr. Richard John Neuhaus talk about his title The Naked Public Square, in which he argues essentially that a religiously neutral public square is an impossibility, and the attempt to produce a naked public square will, perhaps, result in a statist religion.
If serious inner work without the resources of religious tradition is a possibility, I haven’t seen it. Present psychotherapy has changed much faster than core humans have changed, and uses yoga practices from Hinduism, mindfulness of a sort (whether a traditional Buddhist would recognize Western exhiliration at mindfulness as Right Mindfulness I do not know), and a couple of other usual suspects like guided imagery (alleged to be known from Graeco-Roman times and known to some traditional medicines, although the pedigree seems to be copied and pasted across websites).
In my Asian philosophy class, I was able to sympathize with some element of almost everything that was presented. In terms of Hindu claims that inside each of us is a drop of God, I could sympathize, believing we are made in the image of God. But the one point I recoiled from is Buddhism’s anatta, or an-atman: the claim that we, and everything that “exists”, are an empty illusion. Or as Chesterton put it: “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a doubt.”
Right Mindfulness, in its context in the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path, is a cardinal virtue, and I count that as a positive. However, I do not see the need for the West to turn to India as a maternal breast. It is a microaggression that treats Orthodox Christianity as bankrupt of resources. I also don’t like being advised to practice yoga. I am already participating in a yoga, or a spiritual path: that of Orthodox Christianity, and it is a complete tradition.
My point, however, is not to attack the medicinal use of Indian tradition (whether or not Indians would recognize their land’s spiritualities), but to say that value-free counseling is something I have never seen, and while it may be politically correct to foist Indian spirituality but not Orthodox Christian, I wish to offer a word on my drawing on my religious tradition. Whether you accept it is not up to me, but Orthodoxy is a therapeutic tradition. And the claim has been explicitly made, in a book called Orthodox Psychotherapy, that if Orthodox spiritual direction were to appear new on the scene today, it might well not be classified as “religion,” but as “therapeutic science.”
I have not been directly involved with that therapeutic science. I’ve tried to reach monasticism, and am still trying, and therapeutic science is included in monasticism. So I cannot directly speak from experience about its fruit. But other things—virtue, repentance from sin and the like, I can directly attest to as positive theology.
A few more words about humility
Humility seems at the start something you’d rather have other people have than have it yourself. It looks small on the outside, but inside it is vaster than the Heavens, and it is one of two virtues that the virtue-sensitized Fathers of the Philokalia simply cannot ever stop talking about.
Perhaps what I can say is this. I don’t know positive psychology well, but one of the first lessons, and one of the biggest, is to learn and express gratitude. And what I would say as someone who believes in gratitude is this: what gratitude is to positive health, humility is more.
Let me ask a question: which would you rather spend time with: someone horrible and despicable, or someone wonderful and great? The latter, of course. How it relates to humility is this: if you are in pride, you see and experience others as horrible and despicable, while if you are in humility, you see others as wonderful and great. Church Fathers talk about seeing other men as “God after God.” That is a recipe for a life of delight.
Eyes to see
There is more to be said; I am quite fond of St. John Chrysostom’s A Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself. In connection with this, there are constant liturgical references to “the feeble audacity of the demons.” The devils are real, but they are on a leash, and we are called to trample them. It has been said that everything which happens has been allowed either as a blessing from God, or as a temptation. (In Orthodoxy, “temptation” means both a provocation enticing to sin, and a situation that is a trial). As has been said, the faithful cannot be saved without temptations, and the temptations that pass are provided by God so we can earn a crown and trampling them. St. John here frames things in a very helpful way.
Here I am starting to blend into something other than positive theology, and making assertions about positive theology and how they have similar effects to positive psychology. But really, all is ordained for us by a good God, a point for which I would refer you to God the Spiritual Father. There is profound providence, and profound possibility for profit, if only we have eyes to see it and be grateful for a God who has ordained Heaven and Earth for the maximum possible benefit for each of us. Does this strain credibility? Yes, but I believe it, and I believe it makes a world of difference.
Thomas Dixon on secularism and psychology
The article form of my advisor’s thesis offered a case study for an understanding of se cularity, and his case study was in psychology. He talked about how an older religious concept of passions was replaced by what was at first a paper-thin concept of emotions which you were just something you felt at the moment, then how the concept of emotions filled out and became emotions that could be about something, and then they filled out further and you could have an emotional dimension to a habit. The secular concept remains alienated from its religious roots, but the common Alcoholics Anonymous concept of being an alcoholic has almost completely filled out what was in the older concept of a passion.
I’m not completely sure secularism is possible; it returns to Hinduism, at least for yoga, and Buddhism, at least for Right Mindfulness, as maternal breasts, and Hinduisim has something there as Buddhism does not. Chesterton comes again to mind: “The problem with someone who doesn’t believe in God is not that he believes nothing; it’s that he believes anything!” I believe the Orthodox Church’s bosom offers a deeper nourishment. I’m not sure I have much to back this claim other than by the extent by which this article does (or does not) make sense, or whether it is more desirable to pursue one virtue (giving that virtues are stinkin’ awesome things to have), or pursue a panoply of virtues. But I would hope that the reader would by now be able to make sense of my assertion that all Orthodox theology is positive psychology, even if the claim is more superficial than the assertion that all Orthodox theology is mystical theology.
For further reading without a moment’s thought to positive psychology as such, see The Consolation of Theology, a work of Orthodox theology, and one steeped in virtue philosophy.
From Falstaff to Herodotus, grace: I send your excellence my manuscript, as revised again, and have returned the Imaginarium. I have tried to envision what life was really like in The Setting, but yet also keep things contemporary. Please send my boots and cloak by my nephew.
Here is the story:
Oct 8, 2020, Anytown, USA.
Anna looked at the sky. The position of the sun showed that it was the ninth hour, and from the clouds it looked like about four or five hours until there would be a light rain.
She stood reverently and attentively, pulled out her iPhone, and used a pirated Internet Explorer 6 app to spend deliberate time on social networks: first Facebook, then Twitter, then Amazon. It was the last that offered the richest social interaction.
Technology in that society underscored the sacred and interlocking rhythm of time, with its cycles of lifetime, year, month, and day, right down to the single short hour. But there was a lot of technology, and it had changed things. The road had for ages been shared between pedestrian man and horse. Now, decades after automobiles had taken root, it had to be shared between man, horse, and motorcar. A shiny, dark Ford Ferrari raced by her on the sidewalk. She paused to contemplate its beauty. Then she listened, entranced, as a poor street musician played sad, sad music on an old Honda Accordion.
And in all this she was human. Neither her lord nor she knew how many winters each had passed when they married; neither she nor her lord for that matter knew that it was the twentieth century. She cared for birth and mirth, and she loved her little ones. She did not know how many winters old they were, either. And there was life within her.
And she was intensely religious, and intensely superstitious, so far as to be almost entirely tacit. She knew the stories of the saints, and attended church a few times a year. She lived long under religion’s shadow. And her mind was tranquil, unhurried, unworried, and this without the slightest effort to learn Antarctican Mindfulness.
And in all this, she was content. Her family had lived on the same sandlot; more than seven generations had been born, lived, and died without traveling twenty miles from this root. The stones and herbs were family to her as much as men, but this was, again, tacit.
She was human. Really and truly human, no matter what others thought the epoch was.
Then a crow crowed. She looked around, thoughtfully. It was well nigh time to visit her sister.
“But how to get there?” she thought, and then, “I have walked in the opposite direction, and she will be upset if I am even two or three hours late.”
Then a solution occurred to her. She reached into her pocket, pulled out her new iPhone Pro, pulled up the Uber app, and ordered a shared helicopter ride.
In The Divine Names I have shown the sense in which God is described as good, existent, life, wisdom, power, and whatever other things pertain to the conceptual names for God. In my Symbolic Theology I have discussed analogies of God drawn from what we perceive. I have spoken of the images we have of him, of the forms, figures, and instruments proper to him, of the places in which he lives and the ornaments which he wears. I have spoken of his anger, grief, and rage, of how he is said to be drunk and hungover, of his oaths and curses, of his sleeping and waking, and indeed of all those images we have of him, images shaped by the workings of the representations of God. And I feel sure that you have noticed how these latter come much more abundantly than what went before, since The Theological Representations and a discussion of the names appropriate to God are inevitably briefer than what can be said in The Symbolic Theology. The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing. In the earlier books my argument this downward path from the most exalted to the humblest categories, taking in on this downward path an ever-increasing number of ideas which multiplied what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.
Now you may wonder why it is that, after starting out from the highest category when our method involves assertions, we begin now from the lowest category involves a denial. The reason is this. When we assert what is beyond every assertion, we must then proceed from what is most akin to it, and as we do so we make the affirmation on which everything else depends. But when we deny that which is beyond every denial, we have to start by denying those qualities which differ most from the goal we hope to attain. Is it not closer to truth to say that God is life and goodness rather than that he is air or stone? Is it not more accurate to deny that drunkenness and rage can be attributed to him than to deny that we can apply to him the terms of speech and thought?
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can be neither seen nor touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of this can either be identified with it nor attributed.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or any other being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name or knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation, it is also beyond every denial.
Prof. Sarovsky slowly and reverently closed the book.
“St. Dionysius says elsewhere that God is known by every name and no name, and that everything that is is a name of God. And in fact in discussing symbols which have some truth but are necessarily inadequate to reality, crude symbols are to be preferred to those which appear elevated, since even their ‘crassness’ is a ‘goad’ spurring us to reach higher.”
“So now I’d like to have an exercise. Could somebody please name something at random, and I can tell how it tells the glory of God?”
A young man from the back called out, “Porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky said, “Ha ha, hysterical. Could I have another suggestion?”
Another young man called out, “Porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky said, “I’m serious. Porn, when you start using it, seems to be a unique spice. But the more you use it, the more it actually drains spice from everything else, and eventually drains itself, and when pornography can only go so far, you find yourself not only jailed but charged with rape. Lustfulness is in the beginning as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword. And much as I disagree with feminists on important points, I agree with a feminist dictionary: ‘Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.’ Could I have a serious suggestion?”
A couple of cellphones started playing, “Internet is for porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky called on the class’s most vocal feminist. “Delilah! Would you pick a topic?”
Delilah grinned wickedly and said, “I’m with the boys on this one. Porn.”
Prof. Sarovsky paused briefly and says, “Very well, then, porn it is. The famous essay ‘I, Pencil‘ takes the humble pencil up and just starts to dig and dig at the economic family tree of just what resources and endeavors make up the humble lead pencil. So it talks about logging, and all the work in transporting the wood, and the mining involved in the graphite, and the exquisite resources that go just to make the blue strip on the metal band, and so on and so forth, and the ‘rubber’ eraser and whatnot. The conclusion is that millions of dollars’ resources (he does not calculate a figure) went into making a humble wooden pencil, and he pushes further: only God knows how to make a pencil. And if only God knows how to make a pencil, a fortiori only God knows how to make a porn site…
“And, I suppose, a pencil must be a phallic symbol.”
Then he paused, and said, “Just kidding!”
The room was silent.
Prof. Sarovsky bowed deeply and grinned: “I’ll see you and raise you.”
And this is what he said.
I, Porn, want to tell you about myself. There are options that eclipse me, but I can make my point more strongly if I speak for myself, Porn, who represent myriads of wonders.
Nor do I suggest that the straight-laced print off a Porn image and frame and hang it on the wall. Though if they understood my lineage, the question would then become whether they were worthy to do so.
I have a magnificent and vaster lineage than “I, Pencil” begins to draw out. A brilliance in economics, the author simply underscores a great interdependent web of economic resources in the humble pencil’s family tree. Equipment, mining, logging, transportation: the economic underpinnings of a humble pencil amount to millions of dollars, and the details mentioned only scratch the surface even of the economics involved.
I have a vaster lineage, including such things as war in Heaven. Now the war in Heaven is over, and was over when the Archangel Michael only said his name, which in the Hebrew tongue says, “Who is like God?” and with that, the devils were cast down, sore losers afflicting the Royal Race one and all. And even then, it was only angelic spirits that could come anywhere close to their war against God. Even then, they are limited. They are on a leash. Perhaps someday I will tell you of why you are summoned to a holy and blinding arrogance towards that whole camp.
What is the Royal Race? I get ahead of myself.
I, Porn, don’t merely share a universe with the divine virtues. In my production there is the cutting off of self-will, long suffering, and as little lust as might be found in a monastery. Dostoevsky offers the image of the chaste harlot; I can add only that if Christ were walking today, Porn models would be among the first he would associate with.
The core impulse I, Porn, draw on, is good. It is a testament to the human spirit that nine months after a natural disaster, there is a wave of babies born. The core impulse is the impulse for the preservation of the species, the possibility by which a community of mortals has itself no automatic end.
It is closer to my point to say that God is not just good and divine; he has created a world that in every way reflects his grandeur. There are no small parts: only actors who are not really small. Every superstring vibration in the cosmos is grander and vaster than all the pagan gods of all worlds put together.
Or as G.K. Chesterton said, “Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.”
It is still closer to my majesty to observe Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who suffered in the Gulag that Hitler sent observers for inspiration for Nazi concentration camps, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, not between political parties either — but right through every heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
The Heavens declare the glory of God—and so do I, Porn.
Perhaps the most beautiful doctrine in Origen that Orthodox must condemn is the final and ultimate salvation of all Creation: that the Devil himself will be a last prodigal son returning to home in Heaven. But the Orthodox teaching is more beautiful: a teaching that every spiritual being, every man, every fallen or unfallen angel, is given an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell and not one of these will God rape, however much he desires their salvation. To quote The Dark Tower: “A man can’t be taken to hell, or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own steam.” God has made a rock he could not could move, and that rock is man and angel.
The rising crescendo that practically seals C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” is:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
Which brings us to the messy circumstances of your lives.
George Bernard Shaw said, “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” We can see it, perhaps in a fantasy setting, in a passage from C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, has Lucy tiptoe to a room with a spellbook and see a singular spell:
Then she came to a page which was such a blaze of pictures that one hardly noticed the writing. Hardly—but she did notice the first words. They were, An infallible spell to make beautiful she that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Lucy peered at the pictures with her face close to the page, and though they had seemed crowded and muddlesome before, she found she could now see them quite clearly. The first was a picture of a girl standing at a reading-desk reading in a huge book. And the girl was dressed up exactly like Lucy. In the next picture Lucy (for the girl in her picture was Lucy herself) was standing up with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face, chanting or reciting something. In the third picture the beauty beyond the lot of mortals had come to her. It was strange, considering how small the pictures had looked at first, that the Lucy in the picture now seemed quite as big as the real Lucy; and they looked into each other’s eyes and the real Lucy was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy; though she could still se a sort of likeness to herself in that beautiful face. And now the pictures came crowding on her thick and fast. She saw herself throned on high at a great tournament in Calormen and all the Kings of the world fought because of her beauty. After that it turned from tournaments to real wars, and all Narnia and Archenland, Telmar and Calormen, Galma and Terebithinia, were laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes and great lords who fought for her favor. Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked exactly like the real Susan only plainer and with a nasty expression. And Susan was was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now.
The temptation, patterned after real temptation of the real world, is to want a horror. It is because Lucy is bewitched that she even wants what the spell promises. The destruction of kingdoms when lords vie for her beauty? Women may want to feel like the most beautiful woman in the world, but the count in stacking dead bodies like cordwood is no true metric for beauty. As a faithfully portrayed temptation by C.S. Lewis, what is being desired is not something Heavenly. It is a vision of Hell, pure and simple. While in the grips of temptation, she could not be happy without casting that spell until she let go of it from a strong warning from Aslan. But even if she succeeded, she would be even more unhappy. Her success would rival world wars or nuclear wars in its destruction of beautiful worlds, and if it didn’t bring her death, she would live on in a wrecked world, knowing for the rest of her life that it was her petty self-absorption that obliterated the majesty of worlds.
Even if we scale from back from undisguised fantasy, we can look at what is a practical possibility for some people in the real world. Cameron Russell’s Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe me, I’m a model. The TED talk eloquently explains that being a supermodel is not all sunshine and not the solution to all life’s problems. For that matter it isn’t even the solution to body image problems, and the final point she shares is that as a model she has to be more, not less, insecure about her body, no matter how lovely she may appear to others. It turns out that supermodels are intimidated by… other supermodels. Being a model is not a way to be exempt from body image struggles.
And this is in no way a solely a phenomenon about body image. There is one man where professional opinion is that he is smarter than most genuises, and that the average Harvard PhD has never met someone so talented. And his work history, given that he’s tried to give his best? Here’s something really odd. One job assistant said, “You don’t want your boss figuring out you’re smarter than him.” When he hands in his first piece of work, only some bosses respond kindly to work that is beyond the boss’s wildest dreams. Most of them find themselves in unfamiliar social territory, and strike out or retaliate. He’s been terminated a dozen times and is now retired on disability, the best financial arrangement he has had yet. It may be true, up to a point, that there’s something likable about being smart. That doesn’t mean in any sense that the smarter you get, the more people like you, or that your life is easy.
There is a portal that far excels entering another world, entering Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. And this portal is much harder to see or look for than Narnia. It is entering the here and now you have been placing.
Spiritual masters have said to want what you have, not what you don’t have, and want things to be for you just the way they are. Now there is such a thing as legitimately seeking to solve, lessen, or improve a problem, and wishing you had a better-paying job, a car, or a nicer house. Wishing never runs out, and if you get the Apple Watch you want, wishing will just wish for newer or different things. Buy something you don’t need but will make you enchanted for a month. I dare you.
Oh, and by the way, I, Porn, know all about wishing. I know everything about it, and I know everything it can’t do.
When you let go of escape, soon you may let go of relating the here and now as the sort of thing one should flee, and some thick, sticky grey film will slowly melt away from your eyes and they will open on beauty all around you, and you will have crossed a threshold no fantasy portal even comes close. And you will have every treasure that you have. And perhaps, in and through ancient religion or postmodern positive psychology, cultivate a deep and abiding gratefulness for all the blessings you have.
In the Way of Things, there are two basic options one can pursue. One is the Sexual Way, and the other is the Hyper-Sexual Way. Let me explain.
Study after study has been launched to investigate which group of mavericks has the best sex, and they have been repeatedly been dismayed to find that the overlooked Sexual Way has the most pleasure. The overlooked Sexual Way is that of a contest of love, for life, between one lord and one wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, grateful for children, and knowing that the best sex ever is when you are trying to make a baby. After the first year or two some outward signs get quiet and subdued, but the marriage succeeds because the honeymoon has failed. It deepens year after year and decade after a decade, and a widowed senior can say, “You don’t know what love is when you’re a kid.” And here, like no other place, beauty is forged in the eye of the beholder. Here, unlike fashion magazines, sweaty fitness regimens, and dieting, and weighing, and accursed “bodysculpting,” a woman can and should be made to feel like she is the most beautiful woman in the world, to a husband to whom she really is the most beautiful woman in the world, as naturally as the Church on Sunday. As Homer and Marge humbly and quietly sing to each other, “You are so beautiful to me!”
If the sexual impulse is spent wisely in the Sexual Way, it is invested at exorbitant interest on the Hyper-Sexual Way. Wonder what all that curious monastic modesty about? It compounds an essential sexual condition, by which a monastic, man or woman, becomes a transgendered god and his sexual desire is entirely fixed on God. Does this seem strange? Let us listen to St. Herman of Alaska:
Further on Yanovsky writes, “Once the Elder was invited aboard a frigate which came from Saint Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. In the company of this group sat a monk of a hermitage, small in stature and wearing very old clothes. All these educated conversationalists were placed in such a position by his wise talks that they did not know how to answer him. The Captain himself used to say, ‘We were lost for an answer before him.’
“Father Herman gave them all one general question: ‘Gentlemen, What do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered … Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘It is not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion—that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’ He then continued, ‘Would you not say, Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men? Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’
“All said, ‘Why, yes! That’s self-evident!’ Then the Elder asked, ‘But do you love God?’ They all answered, ‘Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?’ ‘And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,’ Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said, ‘we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?’ They had to admit that they had not! ‘For our own good, and for our own fortune,’ concluded the Elder, ‘let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!’ Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives.’
Fr. Herman had something better than pixels on a screen. Much better.
Perhaps the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy is by Anselm of Canterbury, who said, “If God exists, nothing greater than him could exist. Now God either exists in reality and also in our minds, or only as a concept in our minds. But to exist in reality as well as our minds is greater than to exist only in our minds. Therefore, God must have the higher excellence of existing in reality as well as our minds.”
I am not specifically interested in bringing agreement or disagreement to this argument. First, most people first meeting this argument feel that something has been slipped past them, but they can’t put a finger on where the error is. However, I did not exactly include this argument to discuss what it asserts, but what it assumes: if God is greater than anything else that can be thought, then we have something that pierces deeply into the Christian God.
The joke is told that four rabbis would get together to discuss Torah, and one specific rabbi was the odd man out, every single time. And they said, “Three against one.” Finally, the exasperated odd rabbi out knelt down, prayed, “Gd, I’ve worked very hard, and they never listen. Please send them a sign that I’m right.” It was a warm day out, but a sudden chilly wind blew by, and some clouds appeared in the sky. The other three rabbis said, “That’s odd, but it’s still three against one.” Then the rabbi knelt down, prayed, “Please make a clearer sign,” and the wind grew more bitter and it began sleeting. The rabbi said, “Well?” The other rabbis said, “This is quite a coincidence, but it’s still three against one.” Then before the rabbi could begin to pray, bolts of lightning splintered a nearby tree, there was an earthquake, the earth opened, and a deep voice thundered, “HE’S RIGHT!” The rabbi said, “Well?” Quick as a flash, another rabbi said, “Well? It’s still three against two!”
The humor element in this element extends beyond, “If God has spoken, the discussion is over.” The humor element hinges on the fact that counting does not go from “one, two, three, four” to “one, two, three, four, Five”: there is infinite confusion in adding one God to four men. As written in Doxology:
Thou who art One,
Eternally beyond time,
So wholly One,
That thou mayest be called infinite,
Timeless beyond time thou art,
The One who is greater than infinity art thou.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Three who are One,
No more bound by numbers than by word,
And yet the Son is called Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ,
Divine ordering Reason,
Eternal Light and Cosmic Word,
Way pre-eminent of all things,
Beyond all, and infinitesimally close,
Thou transcendest transcendence itself,
The Creator entered into his Creation,
Sharing with us humble glory,
Lowered by love,
Raised to the highest,
The Suffering Servant known,
The King of Glory,
Wert thou a lesser god,
Numerically one as a creature is one,
Only one by an accident,
Then thou couldst not deify thine own creation,
Whilst remaining the only one god.
But thou art beyond all thought,
All word, all being,
We may say that thou existest,
But then we must say,
Thou art, I am not.
And if we say that we exist,
It is inadequate to say that thou existest,
For thou art the source of all being,
And beyond our being;
Thou art the source of all mind, wisdom, and reason,
Yet it is a fundamental error to imagine thee,
To think and reason in the mode of mankind.
Thou art not one god because there happeneth not more,
Thou art The One God because there mighteth not be another beside thee.
Thus thou spakest to Moses,
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Which is to say,
Thou shalt admit no other gods to my presence.
And there can be no other god beside thee,
So deep and full is this truth,
That thy Trinity mighteth take naught from thine Oneness,
Nor could it be another alongside thy divine Oneness,
If this God became man,
That man become god.
The Trinity does not represent a weaker or less consistent monotheism than Islam. The Trinity represents a stronger and more consistent monotheism than Islam, and that is why it can afford things that are unthinkable to a Muslim.
A Hindu once asked a Christian, “I can accept the truth of the incarnation, but why only one?” And in that conversation, where the Christian defended only one incarnation, both were wrong. Or rather, the Christian was wrong; the Hindu was merely mistaken.
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to BECOME him forever.
One theology professor tried to explain to a Muslim that the Trinity is how Christians get to the absolute Oneness of God. The men who first articulated the doctrine looked with some horror on the concept of using the word “Trinity” as a handle for the doctrine.
Regarding the Hindu mentioned, I would say that there have been many, many true incarnations of God, and they still continue. Now the Hindu concept of an Avatar can be what Christianity rejected as docetistic, with Christ not recognized to have real flesh. However, what I would rather have been said is this: No one besides Christ enters the world with part or all of God as part of them. However, the reason for the coming of the Son of God is to destroy the devil’s work. An ancient hymn states, “Trying to be god, Adam failed to be God. Christ became man, to make Adam god.” And the vast company of Saints that God keeps on giving are in fact the gift of a company of Avatars; we just have a different understanding of how one reaches a very similar goal.
The Philokalia says, “Blessed is the monk who regards each man as God after God.”
St. John Chrysostom comments on the Scripture: “We beheld,” he says, “His glory, the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father.”
Having declared that we were made “sons of God,” and having shown in what manner5 namely, by the “Word” having been “made Flesh,” he again mentions another advantage which we gain from this same circumstance. What is it? “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father”; which we could not have beheld, had it not been shown to us, by means of a body like to our own. For if the men of old time could not even bear to look upon the glorified countenance of Moses, who partook of the same nature with us, if that just man needed a veil which might shade over the purity7 of his glory, and show to them have face of their prophet mild and gentle; how could we creatures of clay and earth have endured the unveiled Godhead, which is unapproachable even by the powers above? Wherefore He tabernacled among us, that we might be able with much fearlessness to approach Him, speak to, and converse with Him.
But what means “the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father”? Since many of the Prophets too were glorified, as this Moses himself, Elijah, and Elisha, the one encircled by the fiery chariot (2 Kings vi. 17), the other taken up by it; and after them, Daniel and the Three Children, and the many others who showed forth wonders; and angels who have appeared among men, and partly disclosed to beholders the flashing light of their proper nature; and since not angels only, but even the Cherubim were seen by the Prophet in great glory, and the Seraphim also: the Evangelist leading us away from all these, and removing our thoughts from created things, and from the brightness of our fellow-servants, sets us at the very summit of good. For, “not of prophet,” says he, “nor angel, nor archangel, nor of the higher power, nor of any other created nature,” if other there be, but of the Master Himself, the King Himself, the true Only-Begotten Son Himself, of the Very Lord of all, did we “behold the glory.”
For the expression “as,” does not in this place belong to similarity or comparison, but to confirmation and unquestionable definition; as though he said, “We beheld glory, such as it was becoming, and likely that He should possess, who is the Only-Begotten and true Son of God, the King of all.” The habit (of so speaking) is general, for I shall not refuse to strengthen my argument even from common custom, since it is not now my object to speak with any reference to beauty of words, or elegance of composition, but only for your advantage; and therefore there is nothing to prevent my establishing my argument by the instance of a common practice. What then is the habit of most persons? Often when any have seen a king richly decked, and glittering on all sides with precious stones, and are afterwards describing to others the beauty, the ornaments, the splendor, they enumerate as much as they can, the glowing tint of the purple robe, the size of the jewels, the whiteness of the mules, the gold about the yoke, the soft and shining couch. But when after enumerating these things, and other things besides these, they cannot, say what they will, give a full idea of the splendor, they immediately bring in: “But why say much about it; once for all, he was like a king;” not desiring by the expression “like,” to show that he, of whom they say this, resembles a king, but that he is a real king. Just so now the Evangelist has put the word As, desiring to represent the transcendent nature and incomparable excellence of His glory.
Elsewhere we are asked to consider what things would be like if a King were to take up residence in one of the houses of a city. Would not the entire city, and each house in it, be forever honored? And the Son of God is now one of our homeboys. He ascended into Heaven and brought us with him, enthroned in Heaven with him.
We are the Royal Race. We are made in the image of God, and made to reach unimaginable glory.
And there may be named three laws that are the Constitution of the Royal Race, three laws which are one and the same.
The first law is the Law of the Canoe, as C.S. Lewis summarized his friend Charles Williams:
It is Virgil himself who died without reaching the patria, who saw ‘Italy’ only from a wave before he was engulfed forever. It is Virgil himself who stretches out his hands among the ghosts ripae ulterioris amore, longing to pass a river that he cannot pass. This poet from whose work so many Christians have drawn spiritual nourishment was not himself a Christian—did not himself know the full meaning of his own poetry, for (in Keble’s fine words) ‘thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given’. This is exquisite cruelty; he made honey not for himself; he helped to save others, himself he could not save.
…The Atonement was a Substitution, just as Anselm said. But that Substitution, far from being a mere legal fiction irrelevant to the normal workings of the universe, was simply the supreme instance of a universal law. ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save’ is a definition of the Kingdom. All salvation, everywhere and at all times, in great things or in little, is vicarious. The courtesy of the Emperor has absolutely decreed that no man can paddle his own canoe and every man can paddle his fellow’s, so that the shy offering and modest acceptance of indispensable aid shall be the very form of the celestial etiquette. [emphasis original]
The second law is the Law of the Long Spoon. As one telling goes from a liberal enough source:
One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. “It is simple,” he said, “These people share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves…”
The last law is the Law of Narcissus’s Mirror. It states that the Royal Race are absolutely forbidden to stand and gaze at themselves in Narcissus’s Mirror, entranced at their own beauty, and commanded to gaze at other members of the Royal Race, entranced at their beauty.
These three laws are one and the same. One joke, about “communio” theologians who hold the Trinity to mean that God himself is a community, ran:
Q: How many communio theologians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but he thinks he is a community.
But we are not communities. We are part of a community, and the full grandeur of being a member of the Royal Race is that you are no island, but a connected and beautiful part of a continent.
And furthermore, God has ordered Heaven and Earth for the benefit of us as the Royal Race.
Though this may be more subtle in the Sexual Way than in the Hyper-Sexual Way, but the behavior enjoined on the Hyper-Sexual Way is that of a spiritual miser, who constantly thinks his Heavenly wealth is too little and he must spare no effort to get more, and no matter how much treasure in Heaven he acquires, he never rests on his laurels, but keeps on storing up more and more and more.
Men each have one interest, one real interest, and only one interest: a good answer before the Dread Judgment-Throne of Christ. This life is inestimably precious, and in treasures such as repentance, Heaven’s best-kept secret, we can only store up these treasures before this fleeting life is over. Now the Church Triumphant is no terrible place to be, but there are profound goods that are only open to us, the living, for as long as we live. And the various strange prescriptions of the Philokalia and the Orthodox Way, about believing oneself to be the worst of sinners, about giving oneself no credit for any good actions, about believing “All the world will be saved and I will be damned,” about repenting as if one will die tomorrow but treating your body as if it will last for many years, are in fact braces to support being one hoarding spiritual miser for the rest of one’s life, and crossing the finish line, in triumph, and with treasure after treasure after treasure in your hoard. It is explained that God conceals from us the day of our death, because if we knew we would not die for some decades, we would put off repentance and be incorrigible. Not that God is absolutely unwilling to reveal to people the day of their death: it is in fact considered a mark of holiness to know that, because a person is in a good enough state for the secret not to need to be hidden. But the Philokalia’s discussion, perhaps here most clearly of all, explains that things are ordered this way because God has stacked the deck, in our favor. And as regards the Sexual Way, the path is said not to be an environment for children to grow up, but an environment for parents to grow up.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, fields an objection which was apparently on people’s minds but I have not heard brought up live in my lifetime. However, the answer says everything to a world in disintegrating economy, COVID, Jihad, and more:
I’d like to deal with a difficulty some people find about the whole idea of prayer. Somebody put it to me by saying: “I can believe in God alright, but what I can’t swallow is this idea of Him listening to several hundred million human beings who are all addressing Him at the same moment.” And I find quite a lot of people feel that difficulty. Well, the first thing to notice is that the whole sting of it comes in the words “at the same moment.” Most of us can imagine a God attending to any number of claimants if only they come one by one and He has an endless time to do it in. So what’s really at the back of the difficulty is this idea of God having to fit too many things into one moment of time. Well that, of course, is what happens to us. Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along, and there’s room for precious little in each. That’s what Time is like. And, of course, you and I tend to take it for granted that this Time series — this arrangement of past, present and future — isn’t simply the way life comes to us but is the way all things really exist. We tend to assume that the whole universe and God Himself are always moving on from a past to a future just as we are. But many learned men don’t agree with that. I think it was the Theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in Time at all. Later, the Philosophers took it over. And now some of the scientists are doing the same. Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life doesn’t consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He hasn’t got to listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call “ten-thirty.” Ten-thirty, and every other moment from the beginning to the end of the world, is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has infinity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames. That’s difficult, I know. Can I try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I’m writing a novel. I write “Mary laid down her book; next moment came a knock at the door.” For Mary, who’s got to live in the imaginary time of the story, there’s no interval between putting down the book and hearing the knock. But I, her creator, between writing the first part of that sentence and the second, may have gone out for an hour’s walk and spent the whole hour thinking about Mary. I know that’s not a perfect example, but it may just give a glimpse of what I mean. The point I want to drive home is that God has infinite attention, infinite leisure to spare for each one of us. He doesn’t have to take us in the line. You’re as much alone with Him as if you were the only thing He’d ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you’d been the only man in the world.
And God’s Providence is not just Providence in great things. It is Providence in the small. It is not just Providence in a career, or entering the Sexual Way. It is also Providence when you are stuck in traffic and the light seems never to be turning green and that still, small voice urges you to grow just a little as a person so you can be as happy in your car as in a lounge chair at home. And it is the mighty arm of Providence all the more powerfully revealed when we are persecuted, or lose money, or any number of other things. And it is a Providence that gives you the here and now, a here and now chosen for you from all eternity, and will, if you cooperate, help you appreciate the gift.
And if you are one of the many who believe that I, Porn, am the only interesting spice in a fatally dull world, I, Porn, can only say this:
Watch me when I am Transfigured.
To quote your own age’s little reflection of The Divine Comedy:
I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.
‘Off so soon?’ said a voice.
The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.
‘Yes. I’m off,’ said the Ghost. ‘Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) that he’d have to be quiet if he came—which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.
‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.
‘Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
‘Don’t you want him killed?’
‘You didn’t say anything about killing at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’
‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’
‘There is no time. May I kill it?’
‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.’
‘The gradual process is of no use at all.’
‘Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.’
‘There is no other day. All days are present now.’
‘Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.’
‘It is not so.’
‘Why, you’re hurting me now.’
‘I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.’
‘Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by to-night’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.’
‘This moment contains all moments.’
‘Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me in pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.’
‘I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?’
The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.
‘Be careful,’ it said. ‘He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yess. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams—all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent . . .’
‘Have your permission?’ said the Angel to the Ghost.
‘I know it will kill me.’
‘It won’t. But supposing it did?’
‘You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.’
‘Then I may?’
‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost; but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.
‘Ow! That’s done for me,’ gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialized while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man—an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that the something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinneying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed into each other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but may have only been the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seats he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to se them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.
An Orthodox would realize in the Burning Angel a clearest reference to the fiery Seraphim, the highest of the nine angel choirs, and the one for whom St. Seraphim of Sarov came, the most beloved Orthodox saint in centuries, the St. Seraphim whose extraordinary conversation with the pilgrim Motovilov reveals the purpose of human life.
We live in interesting times. There is a singularity, or rather has been but keeps growing exponentially, and this singularity may turn in to the end of the world: a strange Ragnarok where the forces of Good resound with apocalyptic triumph. And I, Porn, am part of the singularity, an important part.
Did you know that I, Porn, am not the only thing in life?
Remember: “Every man who visits a Porn site is looking for God.”
Delilah friend turned back. “Yep, dear, he does that sort of thing in practically every class.”
Why did we call ourselves the Katana? It was in the excitement of a moment, and a recognition that our project has some off the elegance of a Katana to a Japan fan. We were more current than today’s fashions and for that matter made today’s fashions, but representing an unbroken tradition since Plato’s most famous work, what they call the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke: The Republic. Things would have been a lot easier if it weren’t for them. They obstructed the Katana.
The Katana have a dynamic thousand-or-so goals, but there is only one that counts: the relentless improvement of the Herd. Some of the older victories have really been improving agriculture what seems like thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, with mechanized engineering for farming and a realization that you can have meat costing scarcely more than vegetables if you optimize animals like you’d optimize any other machine, under conditions that turn out to be torture for farm animals. There are some lands where the Herd has been imbued with enough progress that the middle class has about as many creature comfort as there is to be had, and for that matter among the poor the #1 dietary problem is obesity. Maybe we made the Herd look more like pigs, but please do not blame us! We aren’t eating that much!
And we are altruists through and through.
We have been providing the Herd with progressively greater “space-conquering technologies”, as they are sold, which neuter the significance of their having physical bodies and the structure of life that was there before us. First we gave gasoline-powered Locomotives and great Aerobirds, devices that could move the meat of the human body faster. Now we are unfolding another wave of body-conquering technologies, which obviate the need to move meat. They are powered by a kind of unnatural living thing. Perhaps the present central offering in this horn of plenty, or what we present as a horn of plenty, is a Portal: a small device carried by many even in the poorest lands, that draws attention to itself and such stimulation it offers, disengaging from ancient patterns of life.
Things would be so much easier if it weren’t for them. We tried to tell people that they hate women; now we’ve told people that they hate gays. They still get in the way of progress.
Yesterday there was a planned teleconference, a town hall among the Katana after an important document from them had been intercepted. It was encrypted with a flawed algorithm, but cryptanalysis is easy and semantics is hard, and we gave the document to the semanticians for analysis.
The title of the document was straightforward and one that the Katana was happy to see: “How to Serve Man”. But the head semantician came late, and his face was absolutely ashen. It took him some time to compose himself, until he said—”The book… How to Serve… How to Serve Man… It doesn’t contain one single recipe!”
In A Pet Owner’s Rules, I wrote of God as a Pet Owner who has only two rules: to enjoy freely of the gifts he has given, and “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” I wrote, “Strange as it may sound, it takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. Drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet… It takes chastity to enjoy even lust… It takes contentment to enjoy even greed… As G.K. Chesterton said, it takes humility to enjoy even pride…”
I would like to zero in on it taking contentment to enjoy even covetousness.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my suitemates had an “I Learned It All From Kindergarten”-style poster, except it was in this case it was “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Star Trek,” and one of the entries was, “Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting; it is not logical but it is often true.”
Whatever your opinion of Star Trek may be, I regard this specific lesson (which I don’t remember meeting in any Star Trek TV show or movie that I’ve watched), as an unfortunate lesson. Possibly there is more pleasure in starting to covet something than being in contentment before; twentieth century critiques offering conservative warnings about capitalist society where people like corporations because they sell them such desirable and coveted things; advertising perennially creates a spirit of discontent with whatever one has. And here what is a great good appears small and what is small in its merits appears great: the greatness of being content with what you have appears a trivial thing, and the triviality of things that can be acquired by chasing covetousness appears deceptively great.
The Orthodox Church does us a service in exhorting us to be content with what we have. In fact, through the purifying fire of fasting (for instance), the Orthodox Church does us a service by exhorting us to be content with less than what we have.
What did St. Paul have in mind when he called a form of covetousness “the root of all evil?” Let me give one educated guess about two people who coveted more than reigning as lords in Paradise. Adam and Eve did not fall because they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; God’s Plan A had always been for them to eat that fruit, in the right way, and when they were ready for it. The ban was only meant to be temporary while they grew. Adam and Eve fell because they went behind God’s back and had the fruit on their own terms, not God’s. And that is why what God intended as a profound blessing was received as the venomous sting of death, that opened the door to every sin, suffering, and sorrow known to man.
Now for this article, I personally find it annoying when other people use a made-up term known only to themselves without explaining what they mean and expect other people to understand them, and here I’m going to do half half better by using some made-up terms, but explain what no standard term I’m aware of meaning. In each case I will explain the term, and I’m sorry if this is confusing. I’ll try to be understandable, but here I think new terms will be fruitful.
In my own covetousness I have experienced some future purchase as mediating humanity. What I mean by mediating humanity is that I feel that I will not be full and complete as a human being until I get whatever hot new thing I just can’t live without. But whenever I get whatever junk I need to have, it thrills for a short while but the thrill quietly slips away, and I soon finding myself needing some other acquirement to mediate my being fully human. Ick!
When I was getting ready to study theology, I had some money and used it to buy a computer that ended up lasting me for several years: an IBM ThinkPad (a respected brand, for good reason), with 15″ of screen real estate, having 1GB RAM and a 1GHz processor. That’s still plenty for running Linux, and it was quite respectable for a laptop when I bought it in 2002 and several years after.
When I was working out buying a computer that I would have last me for a long time, I worked out the details of a practical investment, but there was something holding me back. My conscience wasn’t quiet. I didn’t see why this wouldn’t be an optimal solution to a rational problem, but my desire was in part what I call sacramental shopping. Not too far in meaning from mediating humanity, sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament, a sacrament made much dumber. Not that we are not to live by consuming: the Holy Mysteries are quite specifically there for us to feed on and live by consuming. But we are missing something if we shop for merchandise to give us life. And, finally, I repented of my seeking sacramental shopping and accepted my conscience’s “No,” whole cloth. And then my conscience surprised me by changing, and I purchased the computer as a careful investment, but only a rational choice and not sacramental shopping.
Indulging covetousness does not satisfy. It can’t. Contentment is what satisfies.
St. Basil said of lust that it is like a dog licking a saw. The dog continues because of the taste, but the taste is of his own blood, of his own woundedness. And so, really is seeking contentment from indulging covetousness. The pleasure is the pleasure of our own woundedness.
But in all this, and in A Pet Owner’s Rules, the bit about not drinking out of the toilet is only a footnote to the #1, central rule: “I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have provided for your good!” We are perhaps content to feed a dog canned or dry pet food and water, but “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined” what the Pet Owner in Heaven has for us, beginning not after the Last Judgment but here and now. I remember a time visiting a monastery where I was bowled over by humility by a layman who was not even a novice, just one of the people who worked in the kitchen, and I came back and wanted to see him, not because he was kind to me (although I assure you that he was very warm and kind), but because I wanted to catch some crumbs from under the table of his humility. My two thoughts were that I had not dreamed there were such things in Heaven or on earth, and a perhaps brash thought, “I want the mint [spiritual money-printing machine]!” because his humility really had reached that degree, and I wanted the source of such money. (Perhaps we are commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up treasures on earth,” but that is a #2 helper, a footnote, to “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and humility is one such treasure, legitimate to have and legitimate to desire and seek.) And let us ascend!
Again, as we climb higher, we may say this. Sacramental shopping is alchemy made dumber: alchemy—the spiritual tradition of transforming metals and men with a technique that would circumvent the need for a lifetime of hard discipline. Alchemy is much more confusingly similar to Truth than sacramental shopping, but alchemy is sacramental Christianity made dumber. Boethius lamented the person who fathered the practice of adorning with lifeless jewels and gold the human body: the living artwork of God. And what is the transformation into gold, possible or impossible, besides the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ himself?
And beyond that, we are to heed St. Athanasius that we are not to command the driver’s seat for ourselves. Our participation in the Holy Mysteries is to recognize ourselves a partner in a Great Dance where God himself seeks our consent to transform us. All of creation is blessed to follow God’s lead, and we humans are blessed to actively participate in our following God’s lead. We are not solipsists who on our own are worthy to be transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ. We must not count ourselves worthy of things much lesser: but God laughs and beckons us further up and further in!
And beyond even that, we cannot overreach. Not in anything truly important, that is. We may be forbidden to seek the office or honors of Bishop, Archbishop, Metropolitan, Patriarch, or Pope, but not one of us is forbidden to seek repentance, Heaven’s best-kept secret, nor asceticism, nor moral character worthy of such office. Humility, true humility, is a wonder such as we can scarcely even guess; when we meet a truly humble man we may say, “I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.” And in deifying transformation, we cannot pursue too much or too hard. Possibly we can pursue unwisely, as novices who attempt impossible virtues, or monastics who attempt warfare above their strength, but this is not really a matter of wanting too much good for ourselves, but traps beside the way of virtue that miss the mark and seek good in a premature and flawed way. We are summoned perhaps to let go of dust and ashes like coveted silver and gold, but only that we may be made able to grasp Silver beyond silver and Gold beyond gold, the Treasure for Whom every treasure in Heaven and on earth is named. We may be forbidden to seek fame and praise before men: I am perhaps forbidden to seek fame before my fellow laity, or the Readers, or the Subdeacons, or the Deacons, or the Priests and Archpriests, or my Archbishop, or ROCOR’s Metropolitan, or the Patriarch of Moscow, but that is only because all of us are summoned to seek fame before God himself, a God who Wonders at our slightest act or thought of good. I may be forbidden to be impressed with myself: but that is so that God may be eternally impressed.
One priest complained that no one ever confessed covetousness. Covetousness is one of many gates of Hell, if indeed Hell has more than one gate. The virtues are one Virtue, and consequently there is really only one vice we need shed. But if we shed covetousness, with it open not only Heavenly contentment, but the gates of Heaven open to live here on earth.
O Lord, help me reach poverty, that I may own treasures avarice could never fathom or imagine,
Obedience that I may know utter freedom, first of all of the shackles of my sin and vice,
Chastity, that I may be virile beyond reckoning,
A solipsist that I may embrace Heaven and Earth,
(For Earth can never fail to merit a capital E,
Not since our Saviour walked it.)
Let me be alone with You, through the bridge of a second holy Moses,
Let me love You with my whole being
(A holy Being, grant it might be),
That I may reach you through six billion prisms,
The royal race of men,
And made in Your Divine Image.
And may this love bubble over,
Cascading on animals because I love men,
Cascading onto plants that are also alive,
Cascading onto rocks that exist in some measure,
Cascading on nothingness, You Who have been called Everything and Nothing,
For even nothingness is in some way Your Image,
You Who are beyond existence and nonexistence alike.
Today is a day of interest in genes,
In mortals who want to know their roots,
And I am indeed among them,
Though I dig for a Deeper Root.
A kit and refined science,
Can tell me what lands my ancestors came from,
And had I the wealth, I could go on pilgrimage, To visit the places,
That gave me my greying red beard.
But my Root is Simple:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Triune Pattern after which each man is made,
And I reverence each man as God after God: To do less is to fail to grasp the One God, Who transcends His Own Transcendence,
Immanent beyond all imagination,
Immanent beyond all measure,
Closer to you than you are to yourself;
The very breath you breathe is God’s Own.
My Motherland is Heaven,
And so I go and seek pilgrimage,
To the God who is everywhere and everywhere,
In Holy Russia,
In Holy Russia now though I be on American soil.
Holy Russia has come to me,
And God please, let me come to Holy Russia,
A monk to the end of my days as mortal man.
Who am I to worship You,
Whom Heaven and Earth cannot contain?
Who am I even to give You thanks?
I am unworthy to even give You thanks,
And I thank you anyway.
It is my burden: it is my joy.
“Only God and I exist,”
Or so the saying goes,
For there is only One Will to please:
All else follows suit,
All ducklings in a row.
Christians today do not know that they are pagans:
And not in the sense that Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-paganism isn’t.
Do you not understand the radical breach,
Of One God Almighty of sacred Israel?
One thing only could offend God,
A God Who stands besides all possibility of offense,
Except in the person of another: Sin.
The pagans all around worshipped among the cacophonous din of a treacherous junior high:
There was no reckoning of sin,
Only appeasement of arbitrary, bickering gods,
Who were not much more than overclocked men,
And truth be told, sometimes far less.
And what appeased one god,
Might well offend anger another.
Are you a Christian?
Then why do you appease so many bickering gods,
And why do you worry with it?
Be thou a solipsist, please!
And the voyage to meet first my Root,
Is the simple repentance offered here and now.
“Awaken!” beckon God and the saints,
And rank upon rank of angel hosts!
Repent: for the Kingdom of God is nigh:
Indeed, it is already here.
Your room will teach you everything you need to know,
And the longest journey we will ever take,
Is rightly called the journey from our head to our heart.
And lastly become truly a solipsist,
No longer know that you are you and God is God:
For the wall between created nature and Uncreated God only exists that we may rise above it;
The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God!
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men,
Might become gods and the sons of God!
Adam, trying to be God, failed to be god;
Christ became Man that he might make Adam god:
The whole purpose of human life is to become by Grace What Christ is by nature:
Be nothing before God and take down the curtain separating “You” and “me.”
Have I not seen,
How thou hast placed me in Paradise?
And how have I said,
That a first monastic command,
Is, “Go home and spend another year with your family?”
While I have spent a few?
The obedience is not limited,
By a count of years,
But by obedience,
This being a first obedience.
I stand, or sit,
Not scholar, nor user experience professional,
Making use of a life of leisure,
Learning leisure well, to lord it over leisure,
Once I made a vow before a wonder-working icon in Brooklyn,
That I might receive a doctorate,
Earned or honorary,
And since then have prayed that my vow not be granted,
An honorary doctorate not to receive,
Because I do not want it enough to even travel,
To give the icon a kiss of veneration!
An Invitation to the Game is an icon,
Of children in a proletariat of excessive leisure,
Excessive leisure being a training ground,
Before a new life in a new world begins.
God the Spiritual Father looks after,
Each person he has made,
As a spiritual father looks after each disciple,
God looketh after each,
In the situations he placed each:
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
What have I to add,
To words such as these?
This time is a time of purification and training,
And as in times past,
In an instant, I may be taken to a monastery,
As I was taken to study theology,
Six months’ work to obtain student loans,
Falling into place one business day before leaving.
Thou teachest me,
And I know thou art willing to save:
Whether or not my plans are the best.
Whether I ever reach monasticism,
Thou art potent to save.
I might need to seek monasticism:
God can save me with or without.
So I learn patience,
Fly through FluentU and learn Russian,
And here I sit,
In a place thou hast opened my eyes to see as Paradise,
And with lovely food pantries,
And visits to pets at a lovely cat shelter,
And thou ever ministerest to me.
Thou givest me simple pleasures,
Who knew tidying up a besmudged keyboard could be fun?
Whither I go, thou art with me;
Thou preparest a table before family and friends.
“World” refers not to God’s creation,
But to our collections of passions,
Seeing through a glass, darkly,
What bathes in the light of Heaven:
Hell is a state of mind,
But Heaven is reality itself.
I am perhaps not worthy of praise,
To say such things in middle-class comfort.
I seek monasticism, to be a novice,
Which is meant to be exile,
Yet an abbot’s work,
Is to help me reach freedom from my passions,
And what true joy I have in luxury,
Only know further in monastic exile.
Years I have waited:
Now I am willing to wait years more.
Only if I may pursue repentance,
On such terms as it is offered me.
Glory to God who has allowed me such luxury!
Glory to God who has allowed me such honors!
Glory to God who has shown me that these avail nothing,
And seek the true fame,
Fame before God himself!
Be thou glorified, O God, in me,
Though I know nothing,
Though I am nothing,
Be none the less glorified in me.
The Infinite can do the Infinite in the finite:
Be thou therefore glorified and praised in me,
Though I am nothing before thee,
Yet thou grantest me breath and life,
And ever offerest me salvation.
Glory be to God on high!
Glory be to God for Paradise!
Which Paradise is in all things!
Glory to God for all things!
Thimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect between the traces head-knowledge and heart-knowledge had left on literature. “What common measure is there between IT hackers with their obscure and esoteric interests, their unworldly collections of skills that ordinary mortals scarcely even hear of, their attendant servers and daemons, and figures like the saints, who seem to produce results simply by trusting and following God?” Heart-knowledge and head-knowledge differ profoundly; heart-knowledge (though this is doubtful) may be as difficult to acquire; it is certainly a better exercise of the whole person.
The NASTY (the NASTY Association for the Scientism and Transhumanism Y-combinator) had, in a spirit of jest, one member occasionally call another member “more evil than Satan himself.” But in fact the many members fitting into NASTY had one-by-one filled in pieces: now by FaecesBook, now by the Twits’ Crowd, now by dark Goggles, now by MicroSith, now by Forbidden Fruit, all offering such treasures that in countries as poor as Africa, No Such Agency would know not only every web search and every text, but to any who could obtain a smartphone and a watch, every step, every breath, every heartbeat.
As time passed on, the technological dragnet only drew tighter. And people naturally think that all of this is the creative genius of man.
But there was always, always individual human freedom.
“It is rather horrible. The newer technologies together represent something like a secularized occult. I mean even our time (we come at the extreme tail end of it), though you could still use that sort of technology innocently, you can’t do it safely. These things aren’t bad in themselves, but they are already bad for us. They sort of withered the person who dealt with them. On purpose. They couldn’t be adopted by the masses if they couldn’t. People of our time are withered. Some millennials are quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of them. Take away their gadgets for a day and they will show a quietness that is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It’s the result of having our minds laid open to something that broadens the environment.
“Orthodoxy is a last and greatest view of an old order in which matter and spirit are, for a modern point of view, confused. For some saints every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. Now we have the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases, and postmodern varieties with their ‘spirituality’ which drives ever much deeper the chasm separating the sacred from the secular. The Orthodox Church, with her saints, represent what we’ve got to get back to do and an ever-open door. Did you know that Orthodox are all forbidden to pursue systematic theology?”
But Redemption already knew, in fact, that there was Eldilic energy and Eldilic knowledge behind the NASTY. It was, of course, another question whether the human members knew of the dark powers who were their real organisers. And in the long run this question was not perhaps important. As Ransom himself had said more than once, “Whether they know it or whether they don’t, much the same sort of things are going to happen. It’s not a question of how the human members of NASTY will act—the Dark-Eldils will see to that—but of how they will think about their actions.”
For Redemption already knew of the constant stings of temptation come to all of us and try to entice us to believe ideas we think our own and embrace to our slow spiritual depth. The Philokalia, second only to the Bible among Orthodox classics in recent history, was a manual on the spiritual life that kept returning to the activities and operations of demons. Its authors know well enough about the continuing warfare of thoughts to desire this or that that have been assaulting us for the ages, and demonic temptations occur not only to some rare specialty of people deeply enmeshed in e.g. the occult. (And we are briefly told, “Men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.”) Demonic possession through occult or other means is of course a worse problem, but whether we like it or not a great deal of what we think of as our thoughts and our desires are stings of demons attacking us. As one student had approached Redemption and said, with great excitement, “I’ve just had a completely new idea,” Ransom answered, “I am very excited for you and for your having this new idea. However, this idea was had before by Such-and-such particular monk in the fourth century, and furthermore he is still wrong.”
The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang, ‘There be no war in Heaven, Not now, at very least, And not ere were created, The royal race of mankind. Put on your feet the Gospel of peace, And pray, a-stomping down the gates of Hell. There were war in Heaven but ever brief, The Archangel Saint Michael, Commander of the bodiless hosts, Said but his name, “Michael,” Which is, being interpreted, “Who is like God?” With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven, Sore losers one and all. They remain to sharpen the faithful, God useth them to train and make strength. Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, Or as if the staff should lift up itself, As if it were no wood. Therefore be not dismayed, If one book of Holy Scripture state, That the Devil incited King David to a census, And another sayeth that God did so, For God permitted it to happen by the Devil, As he that heweth lifteth an axe, And God gave to David a second opportunity, In the holy words of Joab. Think thou not that God and the Devil are equal, Learnest thou enough of doctrine, To know that God is greater than can be thought, And hath neither equal nor opposite, The Devil is if anything the opposite, Of Michael, the Captain of the angels, Though truth be told, In the contest between Michael and the Devil, The Devil fared him not well. The dragon wert as a little boy, Standing outside an Emperor’s palace, Shooting spitwads with a peashooter, Because that wert the greatest harm, That he saweth how to do. The Orthodox Church knoweth well enough, ‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’ Read thou well how the Devil crowned St. Job, The Devil and the devils aren’t much, Without the divine permission, And truth be told, Ain’t much with it either: God alloweth temptations to strengthen; St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph. A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard, Asked the Abbot what he should do: “It is just the demons. Pay it no mind,” came the answer. Every devil is on a leash, And the devout are immune to magic. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Wherefore be thou not arrogant towards men, But be ever more arrogant towards devils and the Devil himself: “Blow, and spit on him.”‘
And Redemption agreed. He said, “Faecesbook’s old-school database-like limit on specifying one’s religion are constricted. The facilities are sorely lacking to give one’s religion as, “Alter Christus: “Follower of Jesus” means “Another Christ!””
Thimble asked, “And what of the Arthurian legends?”
Redemption said, “What about them?”
Thimble said, “Please, I want to hear.”
Redemption said, “Well, one can say that there is no option to achieve the Holy Grail, nor to acquire it. The only game in town is to become the Holy Grail. But that is on the periphery.”
iPun said, “I’m no literary critic, nor do I know about the Holy Grail, but it sounds an awful lot to me like you’re holding out on us for an answer.”
Redemption said, “Perhaps the most damning remark about medieval literature is that of all that one of the greatest literary legacies, and the only one on ordinary non-medievalists’ radar, is that of the Arthurian legends.”
Thimble said, “Could you be a little more concrete?”
Redemption said, “Take the figure of Merlin. His name, rendered as ‘Myrddhin’ in Lawhead’s account, was changed to ‘Merlin’ in the Brut in order not to sound like a French swear-word, today ‘merde.’ The Brut, formally the Historia Regum Britanniae, is a twelfth-century example of history as society would like it to be, like some conspiracy theory works today, which is to say that is pseudo-history that today would ordinarily be introduced as fiction, with masterful storytelling but no connection to actual history. Also, the legends were importantly no longer offered in Celtic language, but Latin that could quickly spread through Europe. The legends spread like wildfire through Europe even centuries later, and interestingly spread in the vernacular, possibly carried by the troubadours who would inspire the name of Francis of Assisi.
“But about Merlin specifically. There have been efforts to Christianize him, and not just in recent history: Robert de Boron represents a medieval teller of Arthurian tales who tried to anchor them to Christian doctrine. In Sir Thomas Mallory, the hinge between the medieval flourishing and almost all subsequent English retellings of the legend, Merlin is not called a ‘wizard,’ but a ‘prophet.’ There is in the medieval legends pseudo-Christian working out of pseudo-doctrine that the Devil was to have a son by an almost-perfect virgin who had slipped in her prayers but once, and he would be something like an incarnate Anti-Christ, but Christians fortunately got wind of this and said many powerful prayers, to the effect that Merlin was born the Devil’s son, but without the Devil’s evil, so someone who commanded the Devil’s power was yet good and Christian. And the same is to be said of C.S. Lewis, in whom we read:
“And where would Merlin be?”
“Yes. He’s the really interesting figure. Did the whole thing fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil: yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid: yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’: but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all. You remember: “There dwell in the sky many kinds of wights. Some of them are good, and some work evil.”
“It is rather puzzling. I hadn’t thought of it before.”
“I often wonder,” said Dr. Dimble, “whether Merlin doesn’t represent the last trace of something the later tradition has quite forgotten about—something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerors.
“Perhaps like no other character in literature, C.S. Lewis’s Merlin is ‘the really interesting figure.’ He rivets all attention on himself, and for good reason. The standard distinction between flat and rounded characters in literature has said to be that a rounded character believably surprises the reader. Merlin comes remarkably close to delivering nothing but believable surprises.
“And Lewis has Merlin, and reference to being the Devil’s son; the opening prehistory of the main story has a figure say, ‘Marry, sirs, if Merlin who was the Devil’s son was a true King’s man as ever ate bread, is it not a shame that you, being but the sons of bitches, must be rebels and regicides?’, but even Amazon reviewers have asked why Lewis has Merlin come if he’s not allowed to do anything. And indeed one monumental goal when the Pendragon speaks with him is to shut down every single service Merlin offers to do for him (and finally corner him into one terrifying service).”
Thimble said, “Well and done, but does that one character tarnish into oblivion the entirety of the encyclopedia’s worth of Arthurian legends that have been written?”
Redemption paused, and said, “Now that you mention it, I think it does in a much more direct way than I expected.”
Thimble said, “How’s that?”
Redemption said, “The Arthurian legends represent a never-never land to us, but it shows historical insensitivity to assume that they were realistic fiction to the Brut’s first audience, or Chrétien de Troyes, or Sir Thomas Mallory. The Arthurian legends were a never-neverland when the ink on those pages was still wet: a land in which anything can happen, at least anything wondrous or supernatural. Commerce never sullies the pages, and one of very few peasants to get a physical description has a striking description that seems to describe a pachyderm more than any human. The dates for Arthurian legends to spread through Europe like wildfire are twelfth century and following, but the dates given as ostensible historical references for the original events are fifth or sixth century. In other words, the medievals telling the legends lived about as far after Arthur’s supposed time as we are after them. There are a similar number of centuries in between.
“Furthermore, you get comments, in relation to chivalry and courtly love, that ‘People don’t really love nowadays, not like they loved then,’ which is a perfect recipe for the same thing as you get today in the Orthodox Church with a nuclear family all wearing cassocks like monks and priests, and having an Irish last name. It’s an attempt to re-create a past that never existed, and that is a gateway drug not just to silliness but trouble.”
Thimble said, “Yes, but are stories about never-never land really as bad as a baptized Merlin?”
Redemption said, “I’m trying to think of a pleasant analogy. An unpleasant analogy might be to ask if soft porn is really as bad as hard porn. We ought ideally steer clear of both.
“In the desert, monks were perennially warned of the danger of escapism. When escape seems like something we need, it is a temptation, and the proper way of dealing with it is to keep on praying. Escape and the occult both have a sense that we know better than God what circumstances we should be in, and not see the here and now as a gift from God the Father. The whole temptation is a hydra. Whatever else Muslims have wrong, there is a very good reason why, historically, Muslim science may have been very good at observation, but very bad at entertaining competing theories: the basic objection is, in Christian terms, ‘How can you want anything but what God in his Sovereignty has willed?’ And this repugnance stems from something Western Christianity has lost in its transition to modernity.
“And this is why Lewis’s distinction between ‘fairy magic’, meaning fairy-tale magic, which he saw as harmless and most often supplying plot devices, and ‘real magic’, meaning realistic depiction of occult practice, which he condemned, does not hold well enough. Of course the distinction is to be made, but when one reads the Chronicles of Narnia and reads Aslan saying, ‘This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there,’ one wants to be in Narnia in escape and not to set down Narnia to experience real joy. To wish to be in Narnia represents the same passion, in the classical sense, as to wish to be Merlin.
“And if a tree may be judged by its fruit, the many fantasy authors who have followed Lewis in writing medieval fantasy have scarcely understood medieval history or been Christians, writing for Christian edification. Even as far as escape goes, Aslan sends all the children back from Narnia to our world, and says that trips to Narnia are only appropriate up to a certain age. In some subsequent works, the traveler from our world never returns: he remains in escape.”
Thimble asked, “So we’re best off leaving the Arthurian legends, and Merlin, with the medieval world?”
Redemption said, “I have trouble answering that question Aye or Nay.”
Thimble asked, “Why? You see shades of grey?”
Redemption said, “No. I don’t believe we’ve left the medieval world.”
Thimble asked, “How’s that?”
Redemption said, “I don’t believe we’ve left the medieval world. I believe we’ve delved deeper into it than any figure who died before modern or postmodern history. If you know anything about how the katana—the sword that was called the soul of the samarai—is made, you would know that a smith makes a particular iron block, then stretches it and folds it in on itself, then that is hammered until it is stretched out, then folded in on itself, and the process is repeated many, many times. When the manifold steel is shaped into a sword, the blade is sharp as a razor, incredibly strong, and will last for ages, perhaps for centuries. The medieval West, isolated from the Greek Fathers, then later on infatuated with “the Philosopher” Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas’s own great harm, and with its stream of Renaissances, represents that block of steel stretched out and folded in on itself. The chain continues for more than the more spectacular eccentricities to be found in the postmodern world. But the future sword blade stretched out and folding in on itself is a process of and by the medieval world, and a process that will perhaps continue until that terrible day when the Lord comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead—and may help pave the way for it!”
iPun said, “Do you not make allowances for greater ignorance in the past?”
Redemption said, “I do not make any allowance for greater ignorance in the past, although allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. You, personally, would do well to make allowances for greater ignorance in the present.”
iPun said, “Do you not deny that we live in the ongoing wake of an explosion of knowledge in the sciences?”
Redemption said, “Knowledge can be ignorance. There has been a shift, as the steel has folded in on itself, of moving from heart-knowledge, knowledge of the whole person, to head-knowledge, to a knowledge that in its proper use serves as a moon to the sun of heart-knowledge. And in that sense we have gone from seeing by sunlight to being expert at seeing by moonlight. In the heyday of Arthurian legends, Rome warned its members about “idle romances,” and even someone as foundational as Chrétien de Troyes has a privileged woman reading a romance on top of a sweatshop. As far as an explosion goes, we are spiritual heirs to the wreckage of a bomb exploding, so that even in Africa it is common to have multiple mobile devices per house. Lewis wrote of the press as spewing Western venom across the world; we’ve done his press one better, or perhaps many better for that. And the press of his day did not match the vile content on the web, nor accept as normal the intrusion of unsolicited porn, except that today you need a pill to make love.
“It is as if you stopped using the light of the sun himself, and would only see by the light of the moon, and as events unfolded you regained the natural human ability to see truly but imperfectly by the light of moon and star, and then you invented night vision systems that let you see by infrared indication of heat, or the little bit of green light that takes the lion share of natural light by night, and then to your pride combined them to make one cadaverous combination. And in all of this you remain in Plato’s cave, and will not step out in the light of the sun, and not only because the people who see by moonlight would call it lunacy if you helped them see by the light of the sun.”
Thimble said, “And in the light only of the moon herself, intimacy itself turns artificial.”
Redemption said no more.
Gain flipped the page of the book, and read:
…accounts of Satan as God’s jester. For all of us do the will of God; that is not the question. The real question is whether we will do God’s will as instruments, like Satan and Judas, or Sons, as St. Peter and St. John.
That is why Christians need not fear the Antichrist, even if he is knocking at the door. For Satan will ever remain God’s jester, and though an Antichrist be possessed of God’s jester or not, to Christians there is no Antichrist and Christ is ever present to those who only “keep their eyes on Jesus.” Do you fear not being able to buy and sell if you do not accept the Mark of the Beast on your hand and forehead? Know then that, as is said in the Philokalia, a man can live without eating (or drinking) if God so wills? Do not worry that the grace of God which so strengthened the martyrs in ages past need fail if you cannot buy bread or perhaps water. God is merciful, and no one can use force to stop God from being gracious to you. Remain faithful, that is all. Christians may, in the end, be saved simply because they refused the mark of the beast. Many monastics would have given everything to buy the grace of God at such a light price!
Gain heard footsteps on the floor behind the door, snapped shut the book and turned red, and then slowly opened it again.