I remember one ethics class where I commented with deliberate wary tentativeness, “One comment that has been made about the atom bomb is that it didn’t just save lots and lots and lots of American lives, it also saved lots and lots and lots of Japanese lives,” and then added something very important: “…but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are,” bracketing that claim in a considerable degree of unknowing. And I was not surprised, nor did I argue, when a later resource in the course had someone comment in reference to just war, “The claim is not, ‘If we do not do this, this is what they will do,’ but ‘If we do not do this, this is what we will do.'” I have heard some people point out that American politicians had campaigned on a platform of unconditional surrender by the Japanese, but this assertion is a detail of American culture and an irrelevancy if you are going to claim to be within just war theory. (Another unintelligible point on just war terms is the choice to make civilian cities the ground zero of an experiment.) “We campaigned for unconditional surrender” is not a consideration that factors into the principles of just war. Neither jus ad bellum nor jus in bello explains why it is justifiable to reject any surrender short of an unconditional surrender, a condition tantamount to letting infidel trample on the holy city. I do not know what the terms are on which the Japanese emperor sued for peace before the use of the atom bomb, but he did sue for peace before we dropped the bomb, and the burden of proof falls on people who assert it was a matter of just war to detonate nuclear weapons in a push for unconditional surrender rather than try to work with the Japanese emperor for terms of peace, perhaps not all those originally proposed by the emperor, that would deal with the threat but not insist on unconditional surrender and consent to let the infidel trample on the holy city as much as they saw fit.
(It might also be commented that Albert Einstein asked that his theory be used to develop nuclear weapons to stop Hitler, and he was horrified that his work was used against the Japanese, which he did not consider to be picking on someone our own size: “Should I have known, I would have become a watchmaker.” But, culturally speaking, once we started to develop nuclear weapons there was essentially no way culturally we were not going to use them, and if we did not have nuclear weapons available in time to use them against the Nazis, Japan was next in succession.)
My reason for mentioning this is that I added an important qualifier: “but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are.” These are not weasel words. I am no fan of weasel words nor slippery rhetoric: see a dissertation focused on slippery rhetoric. But in a very real sense, what I was saying was that I didn’t understand the right import of the assertion (that nuclear weapons were mercifully quick, and had a far lower body count compared to the anticipated bloodshed of a land invasion where women and schoolchildren were doing combat drills and preparing in every way for a fight to the death), because I didn’t have a situated understanding, in particular knowing what lines of standard critique would be. (I have not heard anyone deny that assertion; the critique I saw essentially said, “No contest that it would be less bloody, but you are using the wrong standard and here is why.”) More broadly, understanding an assertion in the Great Conversation is incomplete if you do not grasp how it is situated in the Conversation, and part of that is understanding standard critiques.
Two senses of nature connection
I did a search for “nature connection critiques” on Google and DuckDuckGo, and Google got very quickly into academic articles having those three keywords but no connection to the nature connection movement, and DuckDuckGo gave nature connection pages without any critiques I could discern.
So I may be blazing a bit of a trail here in trying to situate nature connection.
I would like to begin by making a distinction between two significantly different senses of “nature connection.”
The first sense is an engagement with nature across many times and places, usually without any sense of nature connection in the second sense.
The second sense is an engagement with the nature connection movement’s tools, core routines, etc. The distinction between these is the difference between a general first category and a specific second type. The concerns I raise here mostly regard the second specific type.
I desire greater connection in the first sense, and it is one of the things I hope for in Orthodox monasticism, an arena that normally exposes one to nature a great deal and reaches further. (Perhaps I should say a third and other specific type centered on such things as virtue.)
A glimpse into a larger pattern
One place to start is Coyote the Trickster. Coyote is described in the pages of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, or at least what he does is described, and I’m not sure how to pin Coyote down (if he even should be pinned down). Is he only an animal as materialist science would understand an animal? That one possibility is the one I would be quickest to reject. Perhaps a coyote, the animal, is special, but what is Coyote? A spirit? A god? An archetype? A familiar? A patron saint? A Platonic Idea? An astrological sign? A totem? One god who is part of a henotheist God or Greatest Spirit in vaguely Hindu fashion?
I think that all of the possibilities above are at least illustrative, but this choice of the coyote writ large is perhaps not best for Christians, and not just because Coyote is coyote writ large. The text asserts Jesus and Buddha represent the Trickster; Jesus the trickster is illustrated by the cleansing of the Temple. Now it would perhaps be unfair to ask the work to do serious Biblical exegesis, but the cleansing of the Temple was one of the least prank-like actions he took. He wasn’t manipulating people; he was deeply offended by irreverent use of the Temple and drove people and animals out without the faintest mercurial intent. Not to say that there is nothing like the trickster in Christ; the story of Christ and St. Photini (“the Woman at the Well”) has St. Photini enlisting Christ’s help in fleeing from her shame, and Christ opening things up until she has been pulled through her shame and runs with no further shame saying, “See a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Christ?” Christ was mercurial enough that if you tried to catch Christ the Word in some trap of words, you always, always lose. And, perhaps, it is an exegesis of Christ that Orthodoxy has what are called holy fools. But the use of the cleansing of the Temple gives a sense that the text has been conscripted to fit the Trickster archetype. (For that matter, the story of Buddha has his father trying very hard to ensure that he would be a political leader, and he chose instead to go on a quest and found a religion. Perhaps in the cornucopia of Mahayana Buddhism we have Zen masters who may use trickery to teach, but I do not see that Buddha was being a Trickster to choose a divergent career path from what his father wanted.)
And I was trying to think of a good way to present a companion aspect, and I’m not sure I’ve found one. When I was in middle school, one Social Studies question was, if we had lived in the 19th century, we would have braved the hardships to settle the West. And I, little schoolboy that I was, said that the question was irrelevant because the West was already settled by people who had a right not to be killed. My teacher didn’t like that and tried to push me to answer the question on the terms that it was posed, and none of my classmates said anything like that. But to Native Americans, apart from Guns, Germs, and Steel concerns about Europeans carrying diseases Native America had no defenses for, how should Christianity be seen? It was the religion of white Americans who disregarded as basic interests among the Native Americans as life and not being subjected to needless and major suffering, and so it is not a surprise that my brother, a historical re-enactor, talked about one re-enacting group who re-enacted a first contact between white and Native American and who were explicitly Christian, calling themselves The King’s Regiment or the like, and were distinguished for all other re-enactors in that they did not engage in native American spirituality which was understandably laced with something anti-Christian.
Nothing I have listened or read from the nature connection movement is explicitly or directly anti-Christian. Critique may be implied in assertions that reject Christian practice, however nothing I have seen appears to be there for the purpose of facilitating attack on Christianity. However, nature connection is largely grounded in Native American figures, and even if nature connection is mostly secularized, people who dig into nature connection roots beyond nature connection will sooner or sooner run into this. We have, perhaps well outside of Native American culture, seen T-shirts saying:
But there is something profoundly important besides the humor. As I explained it to a friend at church, if we dug into the Book of Grudges we could probably find that far enough back, his ancestors did nasty things to my ancestors, and far enough back my ancestors did nasty things to his ancestors, but the only things he had needed to forgive me were things I had done personally. That’s not how all cultures work, and that’s not how most or all of the Native American cultures work. The Problem, as seen in Native American cultures, is not just that reservations have 35% unemployment. The Problem is that living conditions in today’s reservations are one link in a continuous chain of maltreatment that is the same thing as the Indian Removal Act and every other form of terrorism since 1492.
I don’t blame Native Americans for this. And I’d be very wary of claiming a teachable moment to impress on these people that Eastern Orthodoxy is not the Christianity of the settlers and it is the #1 religion among indigenous peoples in Alaska, and that my archbishop’s patron saint is one of the patron saints of our land, an Aleut martyr killed by the Jesuits. (N.B. I know a man whose academic career was ended by today’s Jesuits in a singularly unfortunate fashion.) But there are elements in Native American nature connection that conflict with Christianity, and others who dabble in Native American spirituality may dabble in something anti-Christian.
I might also point out that I have looked through wildernessawareness.org and 8shields.org and none of the bios I found let me discern a self-identified Christian of any stripe. I expect that at least a few of the members self-identify as Christian, but if nature connection is just for human beings, and you’re not trying to call people out of Christianity, not having Christians represented is kind of a gap.
A body without a head
The nature connection movement does much of the job of a religion: it does the work of peacemaking without invoking the Price of Peace, its practitioners engage in culture repair without exploring the cultic element of worship, and more broadly it treats what it means to be human without addressing created man as made in the image of God. Possibly there is a failure of complete secularity in pursuing “sacred fires;” I am not completely sure I understand what the word “sacred” means but it is culturally important and best started with a bowdrill or other ancient means. However, I find it difficult to construe the term “sacred fires” as it is used while neutering the term “sacred” to mean something secular.
I might comment in regards to secularity: secularity didn’t arise in Western history because of atheists crying for the Church’s blood; it arose when Western Christianity fragmented and each community treated others as infidel. It arose out of really nasty religious wars as a voice saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I call the nature connection movement “secular” as a recognition that it is intended to be appropriate to everyone. I have yet to detect a derisive word from a nature connection leader towards any religious community or tradition. However, this choice of common ground has an anemic dimension, something to do some of the work of a religion, but in a secular way, which psychology does on a larger scale. Orthodox would see this as a body needing a head, and wonderfully animated if we receive it.
The final critique I would give, with a challenge, is this: nature connection, as it is pursued, is a body without a head that only becomes richer and deeper if it has a head. I would challenge you to read my book The Best of Jonathan’s Corner, or for a better text, take a rebel author who works in caricatures, who decries Western music and blared Wagner’s opera (“Wagner,” as in, “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds”), and wrote, The Rape of Man and Nature, and see rebellion against all things Western done right!
Furthermore, these words are not meant to dismiss nature connection in either sense. They are written to family, not meant as taking no prisoners. Much of what is delivered in Native Eyes is an approach to core routines, and core routines are about equally foundational to Orthodoxy. It’s nice to see discussion of engaging in core routines. And it’s nice to see agape or love (or as nature connection has called it, “connection”) in reference to nature. A Christian could summarize ethics as saying we should love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, and love nature as our kingdom. Furthermore, if you read closely, you may see that I don’t find any critique of nature connection in the broader and more generic sense. I may question Coyote as totem, and I would gently note that my brother with the “What Would Loki Do?” T-shirt says for that trickster that the line between “Ha ha, fooled you!” and “Ha ha, killed you!” is a remarkably fine line. But I do not see a trickster edge as necessary for nature connection in the first, broader sense. Certainly it is not a necessity for nature connection in Orthodox monasticism, where animals cease being afraid of monks and cease to harm them.
Furthermore, the perceptive reader may note that none of my critique really affects nature connection in the broader sense. Historically, it is a rule in ethics that you don’t forbid what isn’t happening. The New Testament was written in an agrarian society where a large amount of nature connection was assumed. A parable takes its literal sense from a Sower sowing seed; Christ says that he is the Vine and his Father is the Vinedresser, and perhaps no one felt a need to explain something a friend pointed out, that you have to love a vine to prune it well. There were some moral failures common to ancient times and our own; the older Ten Commandments remain relevant. But the fact that the New Testament never condemns disengaging from awareness with nature in favor of an inanimate thing: this does not necessarily prove that the New Testament authors would make such condemnations if faced by today’s issues, but it also doesn’t make silence mean that there is no nature connection implied in the New Testament. The evidence concerning “nature deficit disorder” suggests to the person interested in ascesis that the harm caused by a lack of engagement with nature is a failure with a moral dimension. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, “Silence does not equal contempt.” In the Christian tradition, you have homilies for some religious feast which never mention the occasion for the feast. And this is true for questions that had been explicitly raised and addressed.
The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis. The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore this to our peril. The core insight to the Paleo diet is that the human organism works best on the kind of foods available to a hunter-gatherer, even if it takes extra effort to eat that way instead of MacDonald’s and Cheetos, and also that it is highly desirable to approximate hunter-gatherer exercise. The nature connection movement says that we need more than food and exercise, and as much as doctors may prescribe vitamin D for people who don’t get enough sunlight to synthesize the vitamin the natural way, we need to take added effort to consume vitamin N, Nature, even or especially if it takes going out of our way. There may be a Standard Social Sciences Model which asserts that human nature is infinitely malleable, but it is not, and we can still be biologically alive while living in a way that humans aren’t made to function.
There is an insistence among some that “Biology is not destiny.” Maybe, but biology is destiny to those heedless of the chassis we are running on. The less than ten thousand years of civilization (without which written history is possible) represent an eyeblink next to the four hundred thousand years we’ve had Homo sapiens sapiens and perhaps two million of some form of humans: written history represents less than 2% of the time we have existed as humans, with no significant evolution represented. Freedom, such as is available, recognized is as hunter-gatherers. And this may be a point where the nature connection movement deeply informs the conversation.
The nature connection movement is a voice worth listening to, and I hope these words can help it contribute to the conversation.
Readers familiar with my site might have read Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion, which complains about attempts to resurrect the glory of ages past (and willing, to do so, break from a nearer past), such as the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Vatican II’s ressourcement and aggiornamiento, and perhaps I should have included neo-Paganism, on the assertion that they bring a decisive break with the recent past and ultimately from the older past they seek to resurrect as well. So what is my point about asking for the ancient ways now?
Simply this: the cyber-quarantine for Coronavirus has brought us to a newer and virtual way of doing things, and however much we may long for the real thing in the moment, they are in some cases convenient, above and beyond a field training exercise for the next level of virtual living.
When we can, we would do well to resume what we were doing, in for instance meeting with people face-to-face and perhaps driving to do so. I applaud Civil War re-enacting, not specifically as a means of resurrecting something long past, but because it is a kind of face-to-face meeting (and community!) that has been part of our present and that we would do well to resume. And participate in church life as you are able, and the door remains open. I am not at all impressed that my own governor has decided to keep churches closed, but in Orthodoxy there is a very simple rule: in matters pertaining to the Church, obey your bishop first and Caesar second. That is all. (I do not know other bishops’ positions to comment on them, nor perhaps should I comment on them). My own archbishop has said to obey the law and work within the quarantine, which has now included having online services and allow one person at a time to enter the cathedral building to receive communion. It is a hardship, perhaps, but the Orthodox position is very simple.
There is something ancient and beautiful in a real (not virtual) hug, a picnic on the lawn, seeing your co-workers face-to-face (some places are discovering remote work now, which gives people a private office such as has been banished from mainstream businesses, first for cubicles and then for open plan offices, and discovering that employees work remarkably better when they can hear themselves think, but this is a separate issue). In the “Old Technologies” section of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, I wrote:
There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)
I remember one time when I was visiting a friend, and his son and two best friends were holding close to each other and each playing a video game on a portable device. I’m not going to endorse video games, but I will comment that three little boys were having fun together face-to-face, and if they were all playing video games, they were still playing them face-to-face, friends like in time immemorial.
So some of the things we can do when the quarantine is relaxed (or lifted) include ordering a paper book from Amazon, reading it outside and putting it on a bookshelf and taking care of it so it is available afterwards, or driving to a new restaurant via GPS to have a meal together, or just go to church, or spending some days in the office face-to-face to maintain social connection with your co-workers. Note that I am commenting less on using or not using new technologies (but really it is also possible to do purely older things like take a stack of blank sheets of paper and hold a physical brainstorm about how to make paper airplanes, or origami—which I mention not because it is of Asian origins but because it is a recognized thing in my time and place). Or build something with Legos, old or new (I might comment that the decidedly new-school Lego Mindstorms robots offer a whole new dimension for creativity). What all of these share is that they are sharing something classic and organic, regardless of how much (or little) they use technology. Churches may have signs saying, “Cellphones that go off in the service will be dunked in holy water,” but while some avoid or minimize digital technology usage while fasting for the Eucharist, there is presently little policing of cellphone usage in getting to the church.
We have one more doors open, doors to something unclean. Perhaps now there is not legitimate choice, and if our bishops say “Obey the quarantine” we should obey the law. Those inclined to increasingly virtual life have had a good practice at handling things virtually, and so have those not so inclined. And there is something practically good, if not always in trying to recover long-lost glory, at very least at continuing in living traditions we know how to do, and to be able to get up from the new normal, get off our back ends, and reclaim ancient and still living glory that remains open to all of us, even if it turns out to be surprisingly more convenient not to drive (another technology) and meet people face-to-face.
When I was at a friend’s wedding, his father mentioned a surprisingly sick story about a boy whose older brother committed suicide, and for Christmas the boy was given a gun as a gift: more specifically, his older brother’s suicide weapon. (I should clarify that my friend’s father was not being sick; his conversation with me on the topic was entirely appropriate…)
In the book he mentioned, Scott Peck’s People of the Lie talks about a personality profile that was characterized by narcissism and several other warped things; surprisingly, at least to me, the single defect the author chose to crystallize what was wrong was that they were characterized by lies. We tend to think of lies today as not the most serious evil, perhaps using an idiom like “not the end of the world.” Peck meant something very serious by characterizing these patients as “people of the lie.”
In one statement that the author does not unpack (probably more because he did not want to slow the text down rather than a failure to understand what was going on), the boy’s mother said, with what I would call narrower entailment than implicature, “Most sixteen year old boys would have given their eyeteeth to have a gun!” This statement is, of course, in an almost literal sense true, in that literally speaking, most sixteen year old boys would be delighted to receive a gun for Christmas. However, it was in a deeper sense false and a lie in that it idiomatically conveys that it was reasonable under the circumstances to believe in good faith that this sixteen year old boy would have been delighted to receive that gun as his Christmas gift. (Interested parties may read me unpack an “emotional plea” with discussion of entailment and implicature in a dissertation.) Such lies, once analyzed, shed light on what is sick in the discussion. An (almost) literally true statement here conveys a lie; the “almost” does not specifically amount to deception but using a metaphor that does not lie, about giving one’s “eyeteeth.” Elsewhere the author complains about a half-truth that conveys a lie. Here I would say that no matter how literally true a statement is, lying is in the author’s mind deeply, deeply characteristic of what has gone wrong.
My specific reason for bringing Scott Peck and People of the Lie has to do with something else, the surprising rationality of the lie. In his book, and in my own life, I might accuse people of lying, but I cannot interpret their behavior as clumsy, random, or unthinking. Scott Peck complains about the “cheapness, laziness, and insensitivity” of making the gun the boy’s Christmas gift. I would speak differently, and here please do not accuse me of speaking against the spirit of Peck’s book, even if I attempt “change from within” (as C.S. Lewis uses the term in The Abolition of Man).
The choice of gift was the result of the parents’ solution to an optimization problem, of what under the circumstances would best advance their campaign. It might have been horrifyingly insensitive to buy him a new, bigger and better gun, but the gun they gave really leaves no doubt. If they had seen an opportunity to make the gift sicker by gluing camouflaged razor blades to the outside of the gun so he would (in a literal sense) cut his hands when he innocently picked the gun up, they would have done so. This was no mere case of giving an ashtray to someone who doesn’t smoke. They could have given him, without thinking, a used Barbie doll from a garage style or a new book in a language he doesn’t read. Or, for that matter, shaved his head and given him a set of combs. A gun, or more specifically this gun, does something else exquisitely well. It says, “Your turn.”
Behavior that seems thoughtless or irrational, from people of the lie, is usually nothing of the sort, perhaps because we assume rationality is a rationality of good faith. So that gun is seen as an astonishingly bad failure in an attempt to give an appropriate Christmas present: cheap, lazy, and insensitive. It is in fact nothing of the sort. Much seemingly irrational behavior is in fact perfectly rational in an attempted solution to the problem of finding a seemingly socially appropriate way to pursue socially inappropriate goals. Behavior may be rational and sick, or rational and treacherous, or rational and warped. But offensive behavior, in a People of the Lie context, even or especially when it seems puzzlingly irrational, is usually rational in the pursuit of a wrong goal. I do not find the young woman’s behavior mystifying, who behaved in seemingly inexplicable ways in receiving therapy. She had plenty of IQ and her behavior makes perfect sense as amusing herself by toying with, mystifying, and frustrating a psychiatrist. Her behavior seems irrational on the assumption that she was approaching a psychiatrist with the goal of bettering herself by receiving real psychotherapy. Once we discard the assumption of good faith seeking psychotherapy, all of her making the psychiatrist sexually uncomfortable (for instance) makes perfect sense as a very intelligent person rationally pursuing an inappropriate goal. (Possibly, though I remember no direct evidence of this, in her mind, she was killing two birds with one stone and getting even, after one or more people insisted she get treatment.)
Elsewhere, if I am recalling the book correctly (I may be conflating two stories), the author complains about professional parents whose line of work required empathy were surprisingly unempathetic in dealing with their children, and appeared to comment that it’s almost as if their goal was to break their son’s spirit, but despite the allegation the author does not take seriously this possible goal. I submit that this guess is right on the money. At one point, their son worked with disabled people and was awarded a trip to a conference which his parents confiscated on the assertion that his room was not clean. The author commented that he would be worried if a son of his age didn’t have a somewhat messy room, and appeared to believe that they believe that confiscating such an award was genuinely proportionate discipline for a messy room. I submit that they found a seemingly socially appropriate way to implement socially inappropriate behavior, and they confiscated the trip and honor because it was a seemingly, or at least arguably, socially appropriate way to break his spirit on terms that even the author of People of the Lie would not equate with a naked and obvious effort to break their son’s spirit.
What this means for the profoundly gifted, or many who are gifted but happen not to be at that echelon, is this. “Confucius say that elevator smell different to dwarf.” Maybe, but Confucius should also say eight foot tall elevator feel different to nine or ten foot tall intellectual giant. In cases where he was treating a child of “people of the lie,” the author usually found the child much less sick, and more of a victim, than parents guilty of aggression. (He talked about the “identified patient,” meaning that in a dysfunctional situation the person labelled as a psychiatric patient may well be the least in need of psychiatric treatment.) Furthermore, as I explored in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, meeting someone who is by far the most brilliant person that someone has ever met brings out some insecurities in people. Most of the parents he discusses succeeded in social situations where success requires some genuine sensitivity. The author wonders and is mystified that they didn’t apply their well-developed sensitivity to dealing with their child. I submit that they were perfectly sensitive, but applied their sensitivity in the service of a warped goal.
If you are dealing with a People of the Lie situation, a couple of things. First of all, it may defuse some frustration to move from believing “They are trying to behave in a socially appropriate way but doing a mystifying and painfully bad way of doing it (and reasoning with them doesn’t work),” to “They are rationally pursuing inappropriate behavior in a way they are presenting as socially appropriate (and the results of reasoning with them are inline with this.” It defuses some of “They are being painfully irrational and defy attempts at being rational.” And if what they want is to get your goat, standard psychological advice may apply. Second, it is more effective to work with people on grounds of their actual motivation than a motivation falsely presented. Not a panacea, but it is surely not a panacea to tell people who want to get your goat, in perfectly good faith, “You are hurting me.”
I submit that being willing to consider the possibility of encountering the rational behavior of “people of the lie” can be part of a constructive exercise of Theory of Alien Minds.
In A Pet Owner’s Rules, I wrote of God as a Pet Owner who has only two rules: to enjoy freely of the gifts he has given, and “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” I wrote, “Strange as it may sound, it takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. Drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet… It takes chastity to enjoy even lust… It takes contentment to enjoy even greed… As G.K. Chesterton said, it takes humility to enjoy even pride…”
I would like to zero in on it taking contentment to enjoy even covetousness.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my suitemates had an “I Learned It All From Kindergarten”-style poster, except it was in this case it was “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Star Trek,” and one of the entries was, “Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting; it is not logical but it is often true.”
Whatever your opinion of Star Trek may be, I regard this specific lesson (which I don’t remember meeting in any Star Trek TV show or movie that I’ve watched), as an unfortunate lesson. Possibly there is more pleasure in starting to covet something than being in contentment before; twentieth century critiques offering conservative warnings about capitalist society where people like corporations because they sell them such desirable and coveted things; advertising perennially creates a spirit of discontent with whatever one has. And here what is a great good appears small and what is small in its merits appears great: the greatness of being content with what you have appears a trivial thing, and the triviality of things that can be acquired by chasing covetousness appears deceptively great.
The Orthodox Church does us a service in exhorting us to be content with what we have. In fact, through the purifying fire of fasting (for instance), the Orthodox Church does us a service by exhorting us to be content with less than what we have.
What did St. Paul have in mind when he called a form of covetousness “the root of all evil?” Let me give one educated guess about two people who coveted more than reigning as lords in Paradise. Adam and Eve did not fall because they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; God’s Plan A had always been for them to eat that fruit, in the right way, and when they were ready for it. The ban was only meant to be temporary while they grew. Adam and Eve fell because they went behind God’s back and had the fruit on their own terms, not God’s. And that is why what God intended as a profound blessing was received as the venomous sting of death, that opened the door to every sin, suffering, and sorrow known to man.
Now for this article, I personally find it annoying when other people use a made-up term known only to themselves without explaining what they mean and expect other people to understand them, and here I’m going to do half half better by using some made-up terms, but explain what no standard term I’m aware of meaning. In each case I will explain the term, and I’m sorry if this is confusing. I’ll try to be understandable, but here I think new terms will be fruitful.
In my own covetousness I have experienced some future purchase as mediating humanity. What I mean by mediating humanity is that I feel that I will not be full and complete as a human being until I get whatever hot new thing I just can’t live without. But whenever I get whatever junk I need to have, it thrills for a short while but the thrill quietly slips away, and I soon finding myself needing some other acquirement to mediate my being fully human. Ick!
When I was getting ready to study theology, I had some money and used it to buy a computer that ended up lasting me for several years: an IBM ThinkPad (a respected brand, for good reason), with 15″ of screen real estate, having 1GB RAM and a 1GHz processor. That’s still plenty for running Linux, and it was quite respectable for a laptop when I bought it in 2002 and several years after.
When I was working out buying a computer that I would have last me for a long time, I worked out the details of a practical investment, but there was something holding me back. My conscience wasn’t quiet. I didn’t see why this wouldn’t be an optimal solution to a rational problem, but my desire was in part what I call sacramental shopping. Not too far in meaning from mediating humanity, sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament, a sacrament made much dumber. Not that we are not to live by consuming: the Holy Mysteries are quite specifically there for us to feed on and live by consuming. But we are missing something if we shop for merchandise to give us life. And, finally, I repented of my seeking sacramental shopping and accepted my conscience’s “No,” whole cloth. And then my conscience surprised me by changing, and I purchased the computer as a careful investment, but only a rational choice and not sacramental shopping.
Indulging covetousness does not satisfy. It can’t. Contentment is what satisfies.
St. Basil said of lust that it is like a dog licking a saw. The dog continues because of the taste, but the taste is of his own blood, of his own woundedness. And so, really is seeking contentment from indulging covetousness. The pleasure is the pleasure of our own woundedness.
But in all this, and in A Pet Owner’s Rules, the bit about not drinking out of the toilet is only a footnote to the #1, central rule: “I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have provided for your good!” We are perhaps content to feed a dog canned or dry pet food and water, but “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined” what the Pet Owner in Heaven has for us, beginning not after the Last Judgment but here and now. I remember a time visiting a monastery where I was bowled over by humility by a layman who was not even a novice, just one of the people who worked in the kitchen, and I came back and wanted to see him, not because he was kind to me (although I assure you that he was very warm and kind), but because I wanted to catch some crumbs from under the table of his humility. My two thoughts were that I had not dreamed there were such things in Heaven or on earth, and a perhaps brash thought, “I want the mint [spiritual money-printing machine]!” because his humility really had reached that degree, and I wanted the source of such money. (Perhaps we are commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up treasures on earth,” but that is a #2 helper, a footnote, to “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and humility is one such treasure, legitimate to have and legitimate to desire and seek.) And let us ascend!
Again, as we climb higher, we may say this. Sacramental shopping is alchemy made dumber: alchemy—the spiritual tradition of transforming metals and men with a technique that would circumvent the need for a lifetime of hard discipline. Alchemy is much more confusingly similar to Truth than sacramental shopping, but alchemy is sacramental Christianity made dumber. Boethius lamented the person who fathered the practice of adorning with lifeless jewels and gold the human body: the living artwork of God. And what is the transformation into gold, possible or impossible, besides the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ himself?
And beyond that, we are to heed St. Athanasius that we are not to command the driver’s seat for ourselves. Our participation in the Holy Mysteries is to recognize ourselves a partner in a Great Dance where God himself seeks our consent to transform us. All of creation is blessed to follow God’s lead, and we humans are blessed to actively participate in our following God’s lead. We are not solipsists who on our own are worthy to be transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ. We must not count ourselves worthy of things much lesser: but God laughs and beckons us further up and further in!
And beyond even that, we cannot overreach. Not in anything truly important, that is. We may be forbidden to seek the office or honors of Bishop, Archbishop, Metropolitan, Patriarch, or Pope, but not one of us is forbidden to seek repentance, Heaven’s best-kept secret, nor asceticism, nor moral character worthy of such office. Humility, true humility, is a wonder such as we can scarcely even guess; when we meet a truly humble man we may say, “I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.” And in deifying transformation, we cannot pursue too much or too hard. Possibly we can pursue unwisely, as novices who attempt impossible virtues, or monastics who attempt warfare above their strength, but this is not really a matter of wanting too much good for ourselves, but traps beside the way of virtue that miss the mark and seek good in a premature and flawed way. We are summoned perhaps to let go of dust and ashes like coveted silver and gold, but only that we may be made able to grasp Silver beyond silver and Gold beyond gold, the Treasure for Whom every treasure in Heaven and on earth is named. We may be forbidden to seek fame and praise before men: I am perhaps forbidden to seek fame before my fellow laity, or the Readers, or the Subdeacons, or the Deacons, or the Priests and Archpriests, or my Archbishop, or ROCOR’s Metropolitan, or the Patriarch of Moscow, but that is only because all of us are summoned to seek fame before God himself, a God who Wonders at our slightest act or thought of good. I may be forbidden to be impressed with myself: but that is so that God may be eternally impressed.
One priest complained that no one ever confessed covetousness. Covetousness is one of many gates of Hell, if indeed Hell has more than one gate. The virtues are one Virtue, and consequently there is really only one vice we need shed. But if we shed covetousness, with it open not only Heavenly contentment, but the gates of Heaven open to live here on earth.
Light: Oddly, no. Or someone who knew him better than I did would say, “Obviously, no.” He was too busy living, “Christ is risen!“
When he was asked why he was a prisoner in the camps that served as role models for Nazi death camps, he said, “I violated the rules of my profession.” When he asked how, he said, “There was a new rule in place that I needed a permit to celebrate a marriage. And the officials were really dragging their heels, and people were assembled, a pig had been slaughtered, and still no permit came, the bride looked up at me and said, ‘You baptized me. Why can’t you marry me?’ And so I married the couple, which was now an act of professional misconduct, and I became a prisoner for my professional misconduct.” He also made some effort to make light-hearted excuses for the soldiers who destroyed his beehives; he apparently felt sorry for them.
And now we’ve left the older new rules of marriage in the dust; the new rules of his profession now are that people stand six feet apart in a service, and not more than ten people may attend, and not only for marriage, but all new services. The ancient pattern of worship, among Orthodox, heretics, pagans, all others of meeting together to worship are set aside for Hindu as much as Christian.
Dark: But don’t we have promise of technology? A chicken in every pot, really?
Light: We have delivered, if you will, a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. Tofu is not a new invention, even if it is a form of plant protein. There are several cultures that have refined a proper use, and they invariably consume it in limited measure and never as a replacement for meat!
Dark: And there is a world to be said there. You do not know what a sacrament simple face-to-face conversation is until you have abhorrently grasped telepresence, until you have grasped relating to others in no way but tofupresence telepresence.
Light: So it is.
Dark: It is, and is not, a matter of technology. Perhaps one could say that it is centered on technology once one has stepped into and embraced the illusion. Dorothy Sayers, our close contemporary, speaks largely in the past about the framing of things that finds that “ideas, like machines, grow rust and need to be replaced,” but she could almost as well have been writing about the future.
The business book Good to Great, which has been critiqued on various grounds as a book in business, is in fact a book in business with little pretension to be anything else, including spiritual gurudom. But it comments that actors in successful companies tend to downplay and de-emphasize technological advances even when they were being praised for groundbreaking advances. It commented, and pointedly not as a point about Einstein, that Einstein was Time Magazine’s Person of the Century; relativity on his claim would have come within five or ten years without him, and the fact that Einstein eclipses Mother Theresa among Man of the Year laureates says nothing about Einstein (or Mother Theresa) and everything about us.
The book does not particularly talk about World War I showing off the U.S.’s mechanized new army and trying and failing to catch a Mexican bandit who was harassing Californians; it does talk about Vietnam and makes the case that “Our cool gadgets will win the war for us” has never in history been a real military strategy, or at least not the kind that can win wars.
Moreover, we keep getting installments of the new normal. It’s like George Orwell’s 1984 in which the realization sweeps past that Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.
In technology, there has been a widespread phenomenon of things becoming obsolete. CFL’s are particularly interesting in that they were promoted on environmental grounds, were much more environmentally toxic than their predecessors, and we could have just used LED’s a few years later. But this particular version of “Out with the old, in with the new” was not the classic obsolescence where oil lamps couldn’t compete with electric light in the marketplace. And what is going on is rapid social change that is sliding over the line, or has already slid, from a technology transition where oil lamps mostly disappeared because they couldn’t compete with incandescent bulbs, to a transition that is mandated in the next installment, where the dead hand of government intervention and not the invisible hand of the free market enforced the transition.
After a certain point, you didn’t just include white people in pictures; there was an unspoken rule about other races being represented. Then, as one more installment of the new normal, some of the women were wearing hijabs. Sometime along the way came the first size 22 supermodel, and then the astonishing sight of swimsuit models with a medically healthy weight. As another installment, if you are going to do weddings, you have to do queer ones too. And this present installment looks very dubiously about one quarantine among others that will be wholly lifted once it has served its purpose. This quarantine is different in that it cuts presence but not telepresence tofupresence; things must be passed through the funnel of tofupresence, and this is not the same.
Light: Truly you have a dizzying grasp of the situation.
Darkness: But wait until I get going! Can you say anything like this?
Light: Three words known to the priest: “Christ is risen!” whether he had the faintest need to say them or not.
He lost a beehive that never really was his to begin with. Must he lose his temper too?
The emperor Valens, mercilessly sending into exile any bishop who displeased him, and having implanted Arianism into other Asia Minor provinces, suddenly appeared in Cappadocia for this same purpose. He sent the prefect Modestus to Saint Basil. He began to threaten the saint with the confiscation of his property, banishment, beatings, and even death.
Saint Basil said, “If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner (Ps. 38/39:13)? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.”
The official was stunned by his answer. “No one has ever spoken so audaciously to me,” he said.
“Perhaps,” the saint remarked, “ that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as naught, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.”
Reporting to Valens that Saint Basil was not to be intimidated, Modestus said, “Emperor, we stand defeated by a leader of the Church.”
Light: And perhaps this is helpful in viewing civil liberties that have never been ours to begin with; it’s been easily decades that libertarians have worn T-shirts with the text of the Bill of Rights, on top of them stamped, VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW.
The attitude of a priest or a heirarch may be most fitting within Church authorities, but none of this is marked “for Church authorities only.” The treasure is available to you and me, not just saints.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky took on the problem of evil, and he had no faint desire to water down his opponent’s position to be easier to fight. He tried to state the case for evil as strongly as possible, and some of the book’s inwards are gruesome. But the end shows a light touch in which good has triumphed all along. It is a bit like the Book of Job, where Satan tears off layer after layer of what Job can claim, to show that there is nothing inside, and then God peels off the nothing and shows that everything is inside. Some people think the book ends more strongly if Job does not in the end receive double for what has been taken, and Job just meets God. God disagrees. However, the position is worth mentioning because when Job loses his children and refuses to curse God, and then loses his health and refuses to curse God, this is as such victory. Job stands as a champion for God before the Slanderer, and the Slanderer’s defeat begins as he acts on permission to harm Job, and God wins in his champion’s response.
You are, I believe, one born in the Evangelical tradition?
Dark: Yes; I was received as a reconciled heretic. I have repented at length.
Light: I hope you have not repented of the fervor of faith or devoted study of the divine oracles of Scripture, but instead found a deeper root for what you only possessed in part.
And what do you believe about reconstructing the Early Church?
Dark: It is a cottage industry needed by Evangelicals, but entirely absent in the Early Church.
Light: You have answered well. You do well to have repented, but may I suggest something?
His Eminence Metropolitan KALLISTOS in The Orthodox Church, suggests that Orthodox Christians today may be in a position more like the Early Church than has since happened in history. And the suggestion has more gravitas now.
One finding in Church history, frustrating to some people today, was that at least some Roman persecution of the Church was not rightly understood simply as persecution of the Christian Church as such. There were, it was perceived, a sprawling bazaar’s worth of corrupting religious influences, and Christians were not always persecuted under a conception of Christianity. Christianity was sometimes not seen as distinct, but somewhat more like a department of New Age’s sprawl.
The saints’ lives record, and there is no real reason for a scholar to find this impossible, that when Christians refused to bow deeply before the idol, officials asked if they would just give a pinch of incense. Now this may have been what it seemed in temptation, and in my thought it is a possible injected in the officials’ minds by the diabolic host. However, the officials at least sometimes just wanted compliance, and hardly really wanted to make martyrs.
Furthermore, there is a social chasm surrounding holidays of pagan deities. Almost everybody in an area would be excited at a holiday, and Christians were saying something effectively inconceivable. In Chicago in recent years, there was a billboard showing the Chicago Bears and saying, “You’re a fan or you’re a tourist,” and there was tremendous enthusiasm with people happily paying thousands of dollars for tickets for when the Cubs won the World Series. The position of the Early Christian communicating with pagans was, in some measure, what the position would be in Chicago when the Bears, Bulls, Hawks, or Cubs were doing some spectacular winning, and refused on principle to say a word of enthusiasm about either team. I do not otherwise wish to compare sports fandom to idolatry, but this may be suggested: that refusing on principle to give an inch’s participation to a merry and pleasant holiday may not be something pagans conceived or rejected; in some cases it may be something they couldn’t be able to conceive of as something one could reject.
Now when victories are made by gay rights, there is a clear and distinct case of opposition and a change of society, but the Christian who does not see such things as obvious improvements may run into some level of the “You’re a fan or you’re a tourist” syndrome. That one disagrees may be communicable; the substance or even nature of the disagreement is harder to convey even if it were to queerly meet a sympathetic ear.
And pan-eroticism is not just another point of contact between our time and that of the Early Church; it is one of many false forms of living. The ascendancy of tofupresence makes for Christianity like under Roman paganism; so for that matter does the ascendancy of Islam.
But in all this there is something easy to forget. When, under Rome, Constantine ended the persecution against Christians, saints complained that easy times rob the Church of her treasures. It is said that the faithful need temptations in order to be saved. And whether or not we are the New Early Christians matters surprisingly little. We are under the care of an awesome God, and Heaven is wherever the saints are. Even if our priest does get arrested for marrying a youth and maiden without the required permit.
And that is why even know, when the blows are coming, and the Antichrist keeps knocking at the door, there is nothing to fear where we are. For the Christians there is no Antichrist, only Christ, who is ever risen and ever alive.
Christ is risen! The story of the Passion is long and detailed. And three words, “Christ is risen!” peel off the nothing and show that everything is inside. The Antichrist is knocking at the door; I know that as well as you. But then Christ will triumph, and an eternal glory will come next to which the worst persecutions of the Antichrist do not possess a shadow that is measurable at all.
A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l’Engle. Swirls of kything, Charles Wallace, and Blajeny. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Swirls of Narnia and visits to that land. Arthurian legends. Swirls of knighthood, Merlin, and the Holy Grail. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Swirls of grokking, Michael Valentine Smith, and Martian wisdom.
These are some of the “realer world” things I have found captivating over the years, and all of them, in different forms, offer a glimpse of transcendence—and heartache.
There is a scene, central to the plot, in The Silver Chair where a Witch has been weaving an enchantment to seduce the Narnian Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum and the earthborn children into believing that there is no world outside the underground caverns, no sun, no Aslan and so on and so forth, and when the Witch has practically won, Puddleglum mostly stamps out the spice-laden, narcotic fire with his bare feet, and greatly weakens the enchantment, and tells the Witch,
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is this, that in that case the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
This heroic stance is, in a word, the marketing proposition offered by fantasy.
(Particularly if it is taken out of its context of defending the book’s real world, Narnia.)
People who find the world dismal can seek salvation in escape, where there is no true salvation to be found. But there is another option.
Realize that the greater world is not by escape, but by recognizing that the real world is not the dreary, mundane cave that it looks like when you are making Puddleglum’s stance.
The Orthodox Church is very much embracing the here and now, and insists that no, there is no other place than the here and now God has given us that we can be saved. Or that we can be happy. But something funny happens along the way.
We may discover that after we have given up the hope of any illusion of the Holy Grail that the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail, to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Mysteries ourselves, as the Blessed Augustine said, “Behold what you believe! Become what you behold!” and the purpose of being human is to become by grace what Christ is by nature.
There are lessons along the way. One is that happiness is not for sometime down the road when we get some new possession, but for here now. Possessions, no matter how badly we want them, do not mediate our really living human life. Another lesson is that the greatest treasures, all of them, we are invited to pursue. The God Who Transcends His Own Transcendence bids us grow in humility, love, and divinity. These eclipse Nobel Prizes, royal honors, and indeed all the honor in the world.
And really, it is an adventure, but it all hinges on repentance and virtue.
In The 𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒐𝒏 Rule, I suggested that a good rule of thumb is to ask, “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” And Steve Jobs, for instance, did not have a nerd’s paradise for his kids. He had walls with big bookshelves and animated discussions. They hadn’t seen an iPad when it first entered the limelight. And employees of technology company chose what might seem some remarkably strict rules, because they didn’t buy into the mystique of hot gadgets. They knew better.
In Bridge to Terebithia, the author introduces Leslie as privileged with a capital P. The biggest cue is quite possibly not that money is not the issue, but that her family does not own a television. Today that character might also be introduced as not having a smartphone, for several reasons.
People know on several levels that Facebook and smartphones suck the life out of their users. That’s old news. This page is about an alternative.
How I tamed my iPhone
I have what might be called a Holy Grail of iPhone usage. I carry my iPhone but I rule it and it does not rule me. It is often at hand, but I have domineered it well enough that I don’t compulsively check it. I get almost all of the practical benefits with none of the hidden price tags.
Prequel: How I tamed television
Before I became a strict iPhone user, I was a slightly relaxed television non-user. I grew up with limited television, one hour per day during the schoolyear and two hours during summer vacation, and I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business and the more book-like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and also books like Stephen Covey’s First Things First. And I slowly checked out the rest of the way from television. And as an older child and later a young man, I had the vibrancy one associates with an unhindered imagination: the days before television, or something that as might as well be the days before television:
The irony of the Far Side cartoon is that time before television sucked the life out of everything was much more vibrant, not a family huddled around a vacant spot by a wall.
Prequel: Weston A. Price diet
I’m not specifically interested in converting people to Western A. Price or Paleo diets beyond saying that it is my opinion that your body’s engine merits pure premium fuel, but I wanted to comment on something very specific about Nourishing Traditions. As one friend pointed out, some of the ways food is produced are really gross; most vegetable oils besides olive, avocado, and coconut oils have to be extracted under conditions that goes rancid immediately, like popped popcorn, and are then made yellow and clear and not smelling bad by chemical wizardry, or the artificial phenomenon of getting four gallons of milk from a cow per day and then manipulations to make 2% milk (“No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows except for the additional ingredients of blood and pus.“). It overall builds a sense of “This is really gross and unfit for human consumption,” and that’s good.
I check my iPhone at intervals: once per hour, or perhaps once per day. That breaks the spine of constant checking, at least eventually. My phone has three games, all of them for my little nephews, and I’ve come to dodge showing them games on my smartphone, because when I show them a real, physical toy, they can wait turns and share, while smartphone games are addictive enough that when I take out my phone and let them play with it, squabbles consistently follow. In good spirit, when they wanted to play pinball games on my phone, I deleted the pinball game and then made a crude pinball machine out of some leftover wood, nails, rubber bands, large ball bearings, and a plastic pipe. They were initially disappointed, but when they had some time to play with it, they began to be imaginative in a way I have never seen with a smartphone video game.
Returning to my smartphone, I use it for utilitarian purposes, including making bottom-liner use of Facebook and Twitter. Bottom-liner use of Facebook can be constructed, but having it fill the hours is depressing to anyone.
Specific suggestions for iPhone and Android smartphones
On this point I would say that there are few things you must do, but many things you might do. Probably the single best advice I know is to work with an Orthodox priest who is comfortable freeing you from your chains to technology. Good advice is to make a small change to start, and then slowly but steadily build up until what you have in place is working for you.
I would also underscore that these are suggestions, that some people have found helpful. I do not use all the rules others have found helpful, and I’ve found benefit in getting stricter with myself as time has passed. However, you don’t owe a duty to make all of these your own.
Learn from Humane Tech. Humane Tech is a movement to mitigate some of turning people’s brains to tapioca, and it is well worth attending. I don’t believe they go far enough; I believe that Orthodox ascesis and fasting provide a good backbone, but knowing which apps make you happy and which apps make you sad is at very least a good start. Three Humane Tech pages you should know about include the following:
Take control. This gives many concrete suggestions. I’ve thought about all of them and implemented some of them.
Familiarize yourself with app ratings. All apps are not created equal in terms of their effect on how you feel. If you want to get your head out of your apps, this is another page I would at least recommend familiarizing yourself with.
Make a conscious adult decision about what you carry. I would recommend choosing between three primary options:
Keep a smartphone, but be sure that you are the one in charge. This is the option I go with, but only after not carrying a cell phone when they were becoming common, and have less plugged in days of only checking email once per day. I do more frequent usage, and think that checking it once per hour is also a good baseline, but I only check things more frequently when I have a specific logistical reason. The strongest reason for this may be less the inner logic of dominating your technology, than smartphones being socially mandated.
Don’t carry a smartphone. Kings, Emperors, Popes and Patriarchs before the twentieth century lived in great luxury without having any kind of phone access, ever. They weren’t deprived. You most likely don’t need it.
Carry alternate gear. What about, instead of carrying a smartphone, you carry a standalone GPS, an old-school handset that only does talk and text with a numeric keypad, a paper planner or a small paper pad for your scheduling, todo, and scratchpad use, and maybe a book or Kindle? That sounds like a lot, but it fits nicely, with room to spare, in my favorite messenger bag. Admittedly these things are not the same convergence device, but it really may be possible to carry everything you want without difficulty. And by the way, their not including social media isn’t a defect; it’s a feature.
Read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul, and The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. Pay close attention to the rules in The New Media Epidemic as taken from Silicon Valley tech Moms and Dads. Chapter 13 is rich in practical application, mentions a #1 rule of no phones in bedrooms ever, and “Alex Constantinople… said her youngest son, who is 5, is never allowed to use gadgets during the week, and her older children, 10 to 13, are only allowed 30 minutes a day on school nights.” Not an absolutely different rule from what my parents had for me. Other aspects covered include having the network’s router shut off outside of a certain window of time.
Take an attitude of “Everything is permitted… maybe, but not everything is beneficial.” We are tempted to try to get the most use out of our investment, when a better use might be more sparing. As far as TV goes, I have sought out to see one Simpsons episode in the past five or so years. Somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing as much television as I was allowed. Don’t use as much as you will let yourself use, and recognize that the most beneficial uses are sometimes the ones with the lightest touch. A smartphone in “Do Not Disturb” mode is just as much capable of calling 911 in a bad situation as any other cell phone.
Have an attitude of having a life outside of online activity. When I grew up, I was taught to cast a line with a fishing rod. I didn’t end up catching much of anything, but my father taught me the basics, face-to-face, with a genuine fishing rod. Young people today are far more likely to learn to cast a line with the accelerometer on a smartphone, and that was a deprivation. I did my studies through travelling to campuses face-to-face even if I used email as well. This is a human baseline that is a survival from the Middle Ages, for that matter a survival from the animal world where young wolves are not handed tools necessarily but are taught how to interact with their environment to hunt, face-to-face with other wolves. And I would suggest that traveling to a college campus and also using some email is a pretty good baseline for technology use. And in relation to this, we have:
Take up a hobby and give smartphones some competition. It can be hard to just pull back from habitual technology use. It is somewhat easier, even if it is not really easy, to pull back from the draw of technology and engage in something else, such as candle making. Having a constructive hobby can be very helpful as something else to do instead.
Use your phone for a purpose, and never to treat boredom. A practice of reaching for your phone when you need it to do something, and not much else, can be great. Your phone can be genuinely nice when you use it to contact an acquaintance by any means, or to order a pair of shoes. It’s a trap when you use it to just pass time or make boredom easier to deal with. The most miserable use of Facebook, for instance, is when you’re always on.
Use older technologies and fast from technologies. Fasting from technologies is explored in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and while it may not be possible, there are times where you can make a phone call instead of sending an email, or drive to see someone face-to-face instead of making a phone call. In general, using older space-conquering technologies instead of newer space-conquering technologies can uncover a forgotten richness. Some have had days of no electricity. A Lead Pencil Society day here and there can produce just a little freedom, or even just write a single hand-written, lead-pencil letter to a loved one, or perhaps buy a single, paper book instead of an ebook.
Treat porn as a real danger, and get help whenever you need it. Porn is the disenchantment of the entire universe; it is our day’s biggest attack on men; it is preparation for committing rape. Take things to a father confessor; use a support group; use xxxchurch.
Don’t look at your phone as a treasure from a magic world. A phone can feel exotic until you’re already hooked, but I think of people in the second world where a smartphone may seem a relic from the wonderland of the first world. In fact the U.S. may have more seeking of escape than Uganda. In fact material treasure may be found much more easily in the U.S.—and with it spiritual poverty. I believe that smartphones have uses, but as an experience they are not really helpful if you’re an American, and not really helpful if you’re a Ugandan friend. There are uses, and you can read ebooks for instance, which is really sweet. However, being sucked into a phone is not really a helpful way of using it. On those grounds I would advise friends both in the U.S. and Uganda to use phones, maybe, but know that God has placed people around you, and a person is infinitely better than a smartphone. Enjoy the real treasures!
All of this may seem like a lot, but it is very simple at heart:
Start walking on the path and put one foot in front of the other.
Taking a second look at asking, “What would Jesus do?”
I looked down on the “What would Jesus do?” fad when it was hot, and I have never had nor wanted a pair of W.W.J.D. Christian socks; for that matter, I have never asked that question. However, now much later, I wish to offer a word in its defense.
The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is not just a directive from the Bible; most or all world religions at least touch on it. And it is ethically very interesting in that is a simple and short ethical directive that sheds quite a lot of light over a very broad collection of situations. That’s a feat. Furthermore, it is also a feat represented by W.W.J.D. If you read the Bible regularly at all, the question “What would Jesus do?” brings clarity to many situations.
And I would like to provide another rule.
The Silicon Rule
The Silicon Rule, as I propose it, is a rule for guiding technology choices:
What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?
Now “What would Jesus do?” is only meaningful if you have some picture of what Jesus was like, and “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” may surprise you, although a search for “humane tech” might hit paydirt.
The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is rare in that it is not connected [to the Internet]. Three quarters of the pupils are children whose parents work in the area, with Google, Apple, Yahoo, or Hewlett-Packard. These people who work to develop the digital economy and propagate it into every level of society are especially glad that in this school, their offspring are completely sheltered from computers, tablets, and smartphones right up till eighth grade.
“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs […]. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”…
Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, and his wife, Sara Williams, said that in lieu of iPads, their two young boys have hundreds of books (yes, physical ones) that they can pick up and read any time.
So how do tech moms and dads determine the proper boundary for their children? In general, it is set by age.
Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, so these parents draw the line at not allowing any gadgets during the week. On weekends, there are limits of 30 minutes to 2 hours on iPad and smart-phone use. And 10- to 14-year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework.
“We have a strict no screen time during the week rule for our kids,” said Lesley Gold, founder and chief executive of the SutherlandGold Group, a tech media relations and analytics company. “But you have to make allowances as they get older and need a computer for school.”
Some parents also forbid teenagers from using social networks, except for services like Snapchat, which deletes messages after they have been sent. This way they don’t have to worry about saying something online that will haunt them later in life, one executive told me.
Although some non-tech parents I know give smartphones to children as young as 8, many who work in tech wait until their child is 14. While these teenagers can make calls and text, they are not given a data plan until 16. But there is one rule that is universal among the tech parents I polled.
“This is rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever,” Mr. Anderson said. […]
I never asked Mr. Jobs what his children did instead of using the gadgets he built, so I reached out to Walter Isaacson, the author of “Steve Jobs,” who spent a lot of time at their home.
“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of these things,” he said. “No one ever seemed to pull out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”
Examples could easily be multiplied, even if one is only quoting Larchet. This is, quite briefly, what Silicon Valley technology executives want for their children.
My own working model
I remember, on environmental issues, someone talking softly about how “subdue the earth” in Genesis 1 originally meant a very gentle mastery. That was everything I wanted to believe, and I’d still like it to be true, but it has been said that the Hebrew has the force of, “trample it under foot!” In the Orthodox Church’s Greek Bible, the word here translated as “subdue,” κατακ&upsilonριω (katakurio) is the same verb that in the New Testament for how Orthodox leaders are not to relate to the rank and file, and can be translated “lord it over.” κυριοσ (kurios) is the basic word for “lord,” and the prefix κατα (kata) in at least some places gives the word significantly more force.
Should we lord it over the earth? That’s one thing I think we have done disproportionately well. However, I bring this up for a reason. I believe we can, should, and perhaps need to lord it over technology, and the basis for our interactions, above the assumed life in the Church and frequent reception of sacraments, is the bedrock to how we should relate to technology. We should reject most use of technology along marketing positions. Possibly I will be under the authority of an abbot and be directed not to engage in electronic communication at all. For now, I have the usual technologies, apart from any working smartwatch.
One way I have tried to explain my basic attitude is as follows. Most of us, most of the time, should not be calling 911. And my understanding is that you can get in trouble with the law without having what the law considers appropriate justification; you don’t call 911 because you’re bored and you want someone to talk to. However, the single most important number you can call is 911; if you are in a medical emergency or some other major problem, being able to call 911 can be a matter of life and death.
My prescription is, in caricature, carry a smartphone but only use it when you need to call 911.
Apart from the smartphone, I try to avoid TV, movies, radio and so on. Michael in Stranger in a Strange Land said that he had questions about what he saw on the “g**d**-noisy-box”, and I really don’t think I’m losing out by not being involved in them. Television has over the years grown a heavy dose of MSG; watching even a clean movie hits me like a stiff drink. Silence is something precious, and it has been called the language of the world to come.
On my smartphone, I’ve watched maybe a couple of dozen movies and have nothing loaded for it as an iPod. I have no games, or at least none for my own use, nor amusement apps. Its use is governed by silence, which means in large measure that it is used for logistic purposes and not used when I do not have a logistical reason to use it. I only really use part or what appears on my home screen: Gmail, Calendar, Camera, Maps, Weather, Notes, App Store, Settings, Termius (software for IT workers), GasBuddy, PNC, Kindle, Flashlight, Pedometer, Libby, Translate, FluentU (for language learning), DuckDuckGo (a privacy-enhanced web browser), Phone, mSecure (a password manager), and Text. And of those, I do not really use Camera, Weather, Notes, or Kindle.
This may sound very ascetic, but it is a spiritual equivalent of good physical health. Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the ELIMINATION of Television looks about artificial unusuality, about how we connect with the kind of stimulation we receive, and how children not stimulated by television can be stimulated by the natural world. My seemingly austere use of my phone gives me luxuries that would have been unimaginable to Emperors and Popes in the ancient and medieval times. Even in the nineteenth century people were pushing the envelope on keeping toilets from smelling nasty.
One area where I am learning now is to avoid making fake or ersatz connections by computer or phone. I use Facebook and Twitter to announce new postings; arguably I shouldn’t do even that. They are an arena for idle talking, and for fake friendship. Larchet’s term for a person hollowed out by technology is Homo connecticus, Man the Connected. There are numerous ways to be connected, all the time, in a way that is simply not helpful, and in fact an intravenous drip of noise. If I do not have an active conversation, I check my email by default about once an hour; though this might not be a good idea, I have turned off all sound notifications for text messages. In previous years, I had gone on “net.vacations” and avoided computers and electronic communication for a few days; more recently I have sometimes kept my phone on a permanent “Do not disturb.” As far as my social life, I meet people (and cats) face-to-face when I can.
I also almost categorically try to avoid exposure to advertising, almost as if it were porn; both are intended to stimulate unhelpful desire. I tend to be a lot less likely to covet something and spend tight money on things I don’t need. And really, if I need something only after an advertiser paints ownership beautifully, chances are some
All of this is how, in the concrete, I have tried to trample technology underfoot, and really trample its marketing proposition. This is something of a countercultural use, but it works remarkably well, and if you can rein in yourself, it won’t suck out so much of your blood.
What is the advantage of having a phone then? Wouldn’t it be simpler to not own one? I personally think there is much to commend about not owning a smartphone, but it is a socially mandated technology. You should be able to get along well enough to have a paper planner and pad and a standalone GPS to navigate by, but this is how to skim the cream off of technology and not hurt yourself with its murkier depths.
All of this may sound excessively ascetic, or a feat that it isn’t. Feel free to chalk it up to eccentricity or introversion. However, I would point out that the conversations in Silicon Valley technology executive’s houses are quiet lively. For example, here are ten things you might do, or start doing.
Read a book by yourself.
Read a book and discuss it together.
Take up a new hobby, like woodworking. You can make a lot of interesting things woodworking.
Go to an Orthodox church. After that, take a breather and go to a museum or a library.
Pick one topic and research it as far as you can in a fixed number of days. Share with others what you learned.
Buy a pair of binoculars and take up bird watching. Please note that local conservation society members, park districts, possibly libraries, and so on may have excellent advice on how to get involved.
Spend an hour in silence and just sit, just unwind.
Use older technologies and practices. Drive to visit someone instead of calling. Call instead of texting. Watch old 1950’s movies that are at an F on special effects but an A on plot and storytelling. Go outside and play catch with a ball or frisbee.
Take a walk or a hike, or fish up a bicycle and take bike rides for fun.
Have a conversation about everything and nothing.
And trample technologies underfoot as much as it takes to have a life.
How to get there
What I have listed above is more a destination than a means how. As far as how goes, the basic method is to start whittling away at your consumption of noise bit by bit. If you watch television, you might decide in advance what you want to watch, and stick to only shows you’ve picked out. After that, vote one show per week off the island (maybe one show per month would stick better), until there is only one show, and then cut into the days you watch it. That is much more effective than through sheer force of will to stop watching together until you binge and decide you can’t live without it. And the same principle applies with other things.
An Orthodox priest can be very good at helping you taper down and stop activities, and another perspective can really help. If you want to stick with a book, Tito Collander’s The Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Inner and Spiritual Growth displays the discipline well. However, a real, live encounter with an Orthodox priest gives a valuable second set of eyes, and making the pilgrimage and overcoming a bit of shyness are two good things you should want to have.
One P.S. about motivation
My main motivation in writing this is for you and your spiritual health. Now it might also be good for your body to stop vegetating with your smartphone and start doing things, and it might also be beneficial for the environment in that it encourages a much lighter step in consumption.
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.
I met with dismay upon rereading Mirandola’s Renaissance Oration on the Dignity of Man. The first 80% or so of the text contains bits that sound Orthodox, and much of the text sounds Christian if you aren’t really paying attention. But the last 20% of the text is a hymn to the glory of magic, and while there exists a “goetia” that brings one into contact with demonic forces and of course we should steer clear of that and not touch it with a nine foot Serb ten foot pole, there is also another magic that is perhaps the noblest endeavor we can pursue.
My shock was not in particular at Mirandola’s endorsement of occult endeavor. It was rather recognizing a point of failure in C.S. Lewis. I had recognized what looks like a source, possibly one of many Renaissance mages’ sources, of the words in C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength:
Dimble and [the Director] and the Dennistons shared between them a knowledge of Arthurian Britain which orthodox scholarship will probably not reach for some centuries…
What exactly [Merlin] had done [in Bragdon wood] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it exactly with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after tha fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this is doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavourable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.
There is a problem with this passage. It is far too seductive. It also represents an adaptation of Mirandola or other Renaissance sources, enough to make me disgusted, but I am concerned that is seductive. Elsewhere Lewis portrays the banality of evil; Mark Studdock and the nightmarish, dystopian N.I.C.E. shock the reader by how hollow and empty they are, and leave one disgusted with the “Inner Ring” Lewis also critiques in cool prose. But here and elsewhere, Merlin is glorious. Ransom does not let Merlin renew old acquaintances or turn blades of grass to be weapons, but it is part of Merlin’s glory to offer what Ransom must refuse. And magic is the one area where Lewis portrays sin in seductive lighting. Never mind his “fairy[-tale] magic” vs. “real magic” distinction, which distinguishes the kind of magic that most often serves as a plot device in The Chronicles of Narnia, versus portrayal in literature of realistic occult practice, for the moment. One way people have described the difference between a flat character in literature, and a rounded one, is, “A rounded character believably surprises the reader.” Merlin on that definition at least is one of the most rounded characters I have seen in literature; he comes close to delivering nothing but believable surprises.
I should clarify that I don’t count it against Lewis that he has an older model. People have pointed out, for instance, that what C.S. Lewis advocates in The Abolition of Man is largely a framework of Aristotelian natural law; I guess that his use of the term “Tao” (which translates “Word”—”Λογος” in the classic Chinese Bible) is used in preference to “Natural Law” because Catholicism has taken the framework of natural law and moved it very far from what it was for the ancients, and for C.S. Lewis starting out with a separate term may have seemed easier than straightening out a now-highly-distorted conceptualization that people would think they already knew, not to mention that Lewis is not quick to publicly dress down a major emphasis within the Roman Catholic Church. However, in reading Mirandola, I was dismayed to have such a thing be a prototype for something that is glamorized in the text. I don’t object that C.S. Lewis worked from an older model: I object strongly that he worked here from that older model.
Now I should comment that I actually agree with some of the goodness that fills out Merlin’s character. A later dialogue reads:
“…But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age that aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions…”
…”Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and to be taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked in with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?
“I love vegans. They taste like chicken.”
I am an animal lover, and a meat lover (preferably grass-fed, organic). However, I would like to talk about myself a bit, at least on one point.
On one visit, a volunteer introduced me to a visitor in a way that was clearly publicly giving me thanks. She identified me as “one of our socializers,” and named four or five cats that I had helped to socialize to be friendly and ready to be adopted. I believe her, but I was aware of nothing of the sort. What I had done was to come in on visits, approach cats and let them get my scent (so they could decide and announce if they wanted to be petted, yes or no), and gently pet and gently talk to cats who let me approach them. And that was really all; I believed I was one of many hands helping pull off a class act and see to it that a cat could go home, and nothing more. But she apparently saw a much more singular contribution on my part even if contributing to a class act is itself a major achievement. I had commented, “The one thing that’s hard about visiting pets at the cat shelter is that all the cats I like most vanish,” with the thought that this was simply a fact about the most likable cats are the fastest to go home with someone. It appears, though, that I had a more active role for at least some of those cats. The one cat whose name I do remember, is a very friendly cat now whom I earlier vaguely remember as not at all mean, but not quite so affectionate earlier on.
Some of this may sound exotic (or maybe just boastful), and the only point in my life I remember being aware of achieving a striking goal was a half hour during which I gently took a dog who was nervous around men, and slowly coaxed and pulled his leash little by little until half an hour I was petting his head on my lap and when I stood up, he wanted to meet the other men. But at the shelter, I have never been aware of any goal of my own in actions beyond the major goal of simply showing love. I had not really been aware of cats becoming friendlier; the changes are not noticeable when your attention is on the pet. But apparently I had given a singular contribution to a class act, more than what I knew.
That is what I have done in my case. Monks who are above my pay grade in one direction show such love to animals that are wild. Married couples who are above my pay grade in another direction do the same in raising children. I happen to do this with pets. And one Orthodox priest I know beats a drum that extends well beyond showing love to shelter pets in saying, “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our head to our heart.”
Evangelical Orthodox Church
In living memory, a group of Evangelical Christians decided, like many good, red-blooded Protestants, to recreate the ancient Church, and to follow its development in history up to when it vanished. And they did so, calling themselves the Evangelical Orthodox Church, until at one point they ran across an Eastern Orthodox priest, and interrogated him as inside authorities interrogating an outsider, testing for instance whether he recognized Holy Communion as the body and blood of Christ, until they slowly realized that in fact he was the insider and they who questioned him were outside. Then most, although not all, members of the Evangelical Orthodox Church reached the logical end of their conclusions: they were received into the Orthodox Church that has never vanished.
Never mind if the Orthodox understanding of matter and spirit appear today to be confused. What fills out Merlin’s art is in fact alive and kicking in Orthodoxy. “Do you know that [Merlin] is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?” It comes as a surprise to Western Christians, especially those fond of figures like Thomas Aquinas, that I, like all Orthodox, am forbidden to engage in systematic theology. I am hesitant to call myself a theologian in that in the Orthodox understanding “theology” is not an endeavor like an academic discipline but the direct experience of God, and in the fullest sense of the term there are three that have rightly been called theologians: St. John the Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and (some centuries back) St. Symeon the New Theologian. It does not need saying that I am not a fourth member of that company. However, if we deal with the more elastic senses of the term, I deal some in mystical theology. And systematic theology is categorically off-limits for all theology and for all Orthodox.
Merlin is an advertisement for Holy Orthodoxy even if this may not be evident to readers who do not understand Holy Orthodoxy.
“Space-conquering technologies” are body-conquering technologies
In pop culture’s older science fiction, one technology is a jetpack, and in fact such jetpacks have been researched and do exist. They are, however, surprisingly loud, and it is difficult to learn to use them safely. It was reported at one Olympic Games that they had someone use a jetpack to successfully fly over the stadium, but military researchers made jet-packs to let soldiers cross over streams, and then found that they were too loud to be useful to soldiers in the intended fashion. It has also been popularly imagined that we would send astronauts to Mars and space travel would enter public usage like jet travel did, and that hasn’t happened yet.
It has been said in projecting the future that a good estimate is:
Tomorrow will be like today,
One year from now will be about as far from now as now is from one year back,
Accurately predicting ten years from now is the real trick.
For a time, advances in space-conquering technologies, which I really wish to call body-conquering technologies as overriding the limits of our embodied nature, were things that could move the human body from one place to another faster. Cars are one such technology, and airplanes a further advance, even if there is not widespread airplane ownership the way there’s been for cars. Airplanes have gotten faster than sound, although faster-than-sound airplane use is not widespread and SR-71 “Blackbirds” and Concordes have been retired from use.
What was less anticipated is that the body-conquering technologies that would prevail at least up to now are not about making meat move faster; they’re about circumventing the need to move meat. Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul looks from radio onwards at body-conquering technologies, even though I do not recall much of any comment about their status as space-conquering. Much of the book covered terrain that I already knew, but something that surprised and saddened me was to learn that 85% of African households now own a television, and cellphone use was very widespread. I had simply assumed, while on a train and seeing a minor use an iPhone to rapidly switch between screens and splitting his attention between that and two friends he was talking with, that the sort of technological acid trip I was unintendedly eavesdropping was simply a rich kid’s syndrome. It is nothing of the sort!
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: The Past Writes Back to Humane Tech! discusses what I’ve found about abstaining from some technologies I can abstain from, and how to make abstemenious use of technologies we use. I don’t have any games on my iPhone, or at least none for my own use (I have a few train games for my nephews 4 and 6, and I prefer not to let them use it because it just seems to fester squabbles). I use it for utilitarian purposes, and try to minimize any other use, especially as a canned treatment for boredom. Also, while the watch I have is spectacular (when purchased it was the top of the line for digital Casio Pathfinder watches, and has a compass and the moon phase among other features), but it is not an Apple Watch and does not report to Big Brother on every heartbeat I make (the N.I.C.E. the N.S.A. will have to content itself with knowing every step I take). By the way, did I mention that I put duct tape on the inside surface of a now broken Apple Watch, blocking view of my bloodstream?
That Hideous Strength seems to always have on its cover an accolade from Time: “Well-written, fast-paced satirical fantasy.” It is a commonplace that real life outpaces satire, but there are many ways that his text reads as a fairly accurate prediction of today. If anything, it seems dated. To quote the dialogue between Ransom and Merlin:
“Since you have knowledge, answer me three questions, if you dare.”
“I will answer them, if I can. But as for daring, we shall see.”
“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”
Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. The other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.”
A year or two ago, Men’s Health had a cover story, “The Sex Robots Are Coming!” (That’s, um, quite a bit of wordplay!) When I tried to get a copy of the cover in images, I caught a glimpse of the story: sex robots were perhaps never going to be mainstream, but they interviewed someone who had “lived with” a sex robot for two years and who said, “I never knew vaginas could be so varied!” (Fortunately, I did not ingest more.)
This literal fulfillment of Lewis’s image is almost beside the point of the fact that marriage is under attack and we are moving in multiple ways away from it. We have now crossed the point where a standard utility puts pornography within easy reach. On another front, we have the gay rights movement. And the concept of a marriage as being between two humans is in some ways hazy. One friend mentioned to me a website, to people whom he, and I, have a lot in common, but on the point of marriage advocated one’s choice of quite ceremony with one’s choice of non-living object as spouse, and not even a non-living object made as a sex toy!
It has been suggested that Romans 1 could read as an indictment about today whose ink is scarcely dry (Rom 1:18-32 NIV):
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
I’ve read a ?19th century? text speak of “these days of final apostasy.” There is an apostasy even from being human. Come to think of it (no pun intended), the Apostle’s words seem a bit of an understatement if we apply them today.
Part of the present generation gap is in trends of not wanting to learn to drive, and living with their parents and not pursuing employment. Now I did not want to drive; instead of my generation’s “My wheels are my freedom,” I was sucked into, and administering, a technological precursor to social networks. And I live with my parents now; I have repeatedly tried and failed to find employment in corporate America, I am trying as hard as I can to get to one monastery. (You may decide if it is hypocritical to write this while I am living at my parents’ house or not.)
One other brief note: I am as I write sitting in the parking lot of the cat shelter, where I stand among the cats as some sort of king and lord, in the truest sense of the word. On the way here, I saw a large dog which had a bit of a leash or a lead dangling from its collar. However, I did not try to make friends with it. I parked, called the police, and told them I had seen a loose dog near two streets. I didn’t attempt anything impressive beyond giving what little knowledge I had so animal control could catch the dog and return it to owners.
I have seen an “Old English prophecy” quoted in Orthodox signatures:
When pictures seem alive with movements free
When boats like fishes swim beneath the sea,
When men like birds shall scour the sky
Then half the world, deep drenched in blood shall die.
There are a couple of things to be said here.
First, a brief search will turn up that this is not an Orthodox prophecy. It is part of “Mother Shipton”‘s output. Second, “Mother Shipton” is not any kind of Orthodox monastic, but an English fortune teller. Third, “Mother Shipton” is in fact a complete hoax: a woman who never existed, with after-the-fact, made-up predictions for the most part. All of these first three points are easily found on first-page search results. Fourthly and finally, if you go through enough alleged prophecies from an occult figure, which I have not knowingly done and do not endorse, it’s usually not too long before you’ll find one that is spooky in its apparent accuracy. The demons gather information in ways not open to us, but they do not know the future, which (the Philokalia tells us) is why their (educated) guesses about the future are sometimes wrong. (Note that demons may have known what they intended for the future.) Orthodox simply do not have business endorsing this kind of “prophecy.”
Now for a thornier matter: the Prophecies of St. Nilus.
The Plight of the World and the Church during the 20th Century
By SAINT NILUS (d. circa AD 430)
After the year 1900, toward the middle of the 20th century, the people of that time will become unrecognizable. When the time for the Advent of the Antichrist approaches, people’s minds will grow cloudy from carnal passions, and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger. Then the world will become unrecognizable.
People’s appearances will change, and it will be impossible to distinguish men from women due to their shamelessness in dress and style of hair. These people will be cruel and will be like wild animals because of the temptations of the Antichrist. There will be no respect for parents and elders, love will disappear, and Christian pastors, bishops, and priests will become vain men, completely failing to distinguish the right-hand way from the left.
At that time the morals and traditions of Christians and of the Church will change. People will abandon modesty, and dissipation will reign. Falsehood and greed will attain great proportions, and woe to those who pile up treasures. Lust, adultery, homosexuality, secret deeds and murder will rule in society.
At that future time, due to the power of such great crimes and licentiousness, people will be deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which they received in Holy Baptism and equally of remorse. The Churches of God will be deprived of God-fearing and pious pastors, and woe to the Christians remaining in the world at that time; they will completely lose their faith because they will lack the opportunity of seeing the light of knowledge from anyone at all. Then they will separate themselves out of the world in holy refuges in search of lightening their spiritual sufferings, but everywhere they will meet obstacles and constraints.
And all this will result from the fact that the Antichrist wants to be Lord over everything and become the ruler of the whole universe, and he will produce miracles and fantastic signs. He will also give depraved wisdom to an unhappy man so that he will discover a way by which one man can carry on a conversation with another from one end of the earth to the other.
At that time men will also fly through the air like birds and descend to the bottom of the sea like fish. And when they have achieved all this, these unhappy people will spend their lives in comfort without knowing, poor souls, that it is deceit of the Antichrist.
And, the impious one!—he will so complete science with vanity that it will go off the right path and lead people to lose faith in the existence of God in three hypostases. Then the All-good God will see the downfall of the human race and will shorten the days for the sake of those few who are being saved, because the enemy wants to lead even the chosen into temptation, if that is possible… then the sword of chastisement will suddenly appear and kill the perverter and his servants.
The OrthodoxWiki points out certain problems and concludes the alleged prophecy is a forgery, the first objection being that Orthodox did not begin dating from the number of years since Christ’s birth until the century after Saint Nilus allegedly died. Other objections include that implied age of the Antichrist appears, according to this prophecy, to have been around for over half a century. And to my historian’s eye, I assert that much of this appears to be after-the-fact predictions, almost as bad as the “Mother Shipton” predictions themselves.
However, I believe the prophecy is genuine at least as a historic document, and here’s why.
Please note that, as someone with some background in history, I am not commenting on whether the document is genuine prophecy; I am commenting on whether it is apparently an old historic document possibly written by a saint who died in 1651 century (not the year 430). I am not arguing that St. Nilus’s prophecies are genuine prophecies; I am explain why I believe they represent genuinely old historic documents, and would read as old historic documents to a historian or historical theologian.
The OCA Saints page includes a St. Nilus said to predict the future as commemorated on November 12 (New Style):
Venerable Nilus the Myrrhgusher of Mt Athos
Saint Nilus the Myrrh-Gusher of Mt Athos was born in Greece, in a village named for Saint Peter, in the Zakoneia diocese. He was raised by his uncle, the hieromonk Macarius. Having attained the age of maturity, he received monastic tonsure and was found waorthy of ordination to hierodeacon, and then to hieromonk.
The desire for greater monastic struggles brought uncle and nephew to Mt Athos, where Macarius and Nilus lived in asceticism at a place called the Holy Rocks. Upon the repose of Saint Macarius, the venerable Nilus, aflame with zeal for even more intense spiritual efforts, found an isolated place almost inaccessible for any living thing. Upon his departure to the Lord in 1651, Saint Nilus was glorified by an abundant flow of curative myrrh, for which Christians journeyed from the most distant lands of the East.
Saint Nilus has left a remarkably accurate prophecy concerning the state of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, and a description of the people of that time. Among the inventions he predicted are the telephone, airplane, and submarine. He also warned that people’s minds would be clouded by carnal passions, “and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger.” Men would not be distinguishable from women because of their “shamelessness of dress and style of hair.” Saint Nilus lamented that Christian pastors, bishops and priests, would become vain men, and that the morals and traditions of the Church would change. Few pious and God-fearing pastors would remain, and many people would stray from the right path because no one would instruct them.
After seeing that, I dug long and hard on the Internet, and I found what I believe is an authentic historic document, barnacled over in later versions but stemming from a document that seems real enough to my own historical instinct. I now deeply regret that I did not preserve the fruit of that research. The urban legend version reads straightforwardly as a retelling of St. Nilus’s life, and it omits something important that the life omits: the actual text of the Mark of the Beast. This is something that is extremey unlikely to be dropped in an urban legend retelling, but logically would not be present in a retelling of a saint’s life that originally omitted mention of these details.
For one reason why I trust it, it didn’t seem to contain any sort of dating or timeline, at least that I could recognize. Possibly it gave a timeline along some system that I am not familiar with, and the saint’s life here says that St. Nilus’s predictions accurately describe the people of the mid-twentieth century. But that could just be from someone writing the saint’s life, possibly during the Silly Sixties and the Sexual Revolution, and finding things uncomfortably pointed as a remark about his specific time. Furthermore, I would quite specifically point out that while the life of St. Nilus provided by the OCA gives a timeline of the middle of the 20th century, this is never alleged to be a date predicted within the text itself. The OCA life is consistent with the belief that the Prophecies never name a date, and the person writing the saint’s life and giving a date never believed St. Nilus’s Prophecies themselves to predict the date. The rumor mill appears to have incorporated the dating of the saint’s life and inlined them to allegedly be part of the Prophecies themselves.
Second, this version did comment that men would grow long hair and become indistinguishable from the women, but it didn’t simply list the sexual vices we did today. Presumably a particular point is being made about effeminacy, but the original contained no vice lists such as St. Paul is wont to do.
Third, my recollection is that the OCA site used to say that St. Nilus predicted the radio and did not mention the telephone. The text of his prophecy said that some party would be given “wisdom” (parts of the rumor mill version say “depraved wisdom”) that one man could speak and be heard on the other side of the world. This is from a technological perspective ambiguous, although I might comment that Larchet Jean-Claudet in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul understands distinctions within technology perfectly well but is inclined to lump them together, especially as regards their implications for morals. Today the list of technologies that fit the bill include the radio, television, telephones, internet telephony, Skype, video chat, and more. More may be invented.
Fourth, it is a characteristic of prophecy, at least in the Bible, to include together related things that do not happen at the same time but fit the same pattern. St. Nilus’s prediction regarding technology has been fading in, perhaps first with the radio. His remarks about effeminacy have also been fading in. My father used to joke, in a spirit of humor that was nothing at all literal, that when he said he had a twin sister and people asked if they were identical, he would say, “Yes, I had a sex change.” I would not joke about such things now. Never mind just the long hair. Cross-dressing already is mainstream, and gender reassignment surgery already is mainstream. I believe this is fading in further.
Fifth, my recollection is that the original version contained information that I have not found since. More specifically, I recall a chilling account of what I believe was presented as the full inscription in the Mark of the Beast. I regrettably do not remember all of it, but part of what I rememeber is, “…Of my own ?free? will I accept ?this?…” in admitting total and voluntary consent.
Now if you are concerned that I am relying on my memory, I’d mention that on one IQ test my memory subscore was one of the highest, at 188. (On another incident, bizarrely enough, the psychologist found that I had dropped 118 points to a memory score of 70, and he was holding on to that intellectually disabled score for dear life, without budging an inch when I said, “My writing, including recent writing, is at complexity, and my speech is at complexity.”) Pick whichever one you want to believe.
My verdict is that St. Nilus wrote prophecies that are probably preserved, and it has attained an extraordinary collection of urban legend barnacles on top of barnacles, but the seed of the whole thing is real.
The disenchantment of magic
Q: How many Wiccan fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Why on earth would Mary Daly want light?!?
Wicca is called the Old Religion, and its original self-account is that this was the ancient religion to return to. Since some scholarly controversies, it has become unmistakably clear that unless you are going to steel yourself out of all evidence, Wicca is in fact a feature of 19th century spiritualism, and most people accept the historical conclusions while holding original Wiccan accounts of its history and pre-history to be inspiring stories, with a few insisting in the face of evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Wicca’s claims are true, called by other Wiccans an extremely pejorative “Wiccan fundamentalists.”
The Old Religion is not Wicca; the Old Religion is in fact Orthodoxy, and it began in eternity, present with Creation itself, present with Adam and Eve, and it retains the perfection of classical paganism; C.S. Lewis’s favorite old book, The Consolation of Philosophy, is the fully Christian work of a philosopher who has after extraordinarily good fortune been exiled far from Rome and faces eventual execution, and without contradiction consoles himself from the very best that classical paganism has to offer. As I have said elsewhere, Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-paganism isn’t.
Most Wiccans, I imagine, have gotten over the blow that someone seeking the real and true Old Religion would be well-advised to look elsewhere from Wicca.
Here, I have a deeper cut to offer.
One major selling point in Wicca, and one major consideration, is harmony with nature. And I have to say that if you want harmony with nature you should abandon Wicca.
Role playing games as I have played them offer a weaker form of the same drug: it lets you override the Providence of God the Spiritual Father’s decisions about where you are and what circumstances you are in. Magic is not content with grounding. It wants to circumvent or override what nature is and how it normally works, and it is a step into a smaller world. The fact that some people go mad after practicing the occult stems from a fissure that began, perhaps, with seeking to do things by magic. Seeking power to correct what God did wrong is wrong whether it is done in gender reassignment surgery or occult practice.
I have long been drawn to the occult, and pornography, and they have both seemed like innocent things I should not be denied. However, those who have their heads clear of the siren songs see something very different with harmony with God and nature in occult endeavor. And those people closest to God (and with Him, nature) find magic an abomination. On this point I trust them.
“More evil than Satan himself”
Some years back, some people made the firstGoogle bombing so that the #1 organic search result for “more evil than Satan himself” was Microsoft’s homepage. Since then, Google has had hard feelings when Microsoft artificially set Bing’s search for “more evil than Satan himself” to be the number Google is named after, which can be written, as Bing did, “10^100”.
Nazi Germany was wrong because it embraced what seemed one of the most progressive ideas at all time, eugenics. Google is not Nazi in any sense, but it has embraced Eugenics 2.0: Transhumanism. While eugenics wanted most people out of the gene pool (more specifically, those who were not Aryans, and Aryans who were not enough of a perfect specimen), transhumanism wants everybody out of the gene pool: phasing out the entire human race itself, in favor of the kind of technological creation I critiqued in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics.
Amazon has been critiqued; it wants to destroy paper booksellers, and it is another terrible megacorporation. FaecesBook FaceBook is just as bad. All the megacorporations I’ve really heard research on, from Apple to Wal-Mart, are in their own way the N.I.C.E. that is the corporate villain-figure in That Hideous Strength. It is essentially non-optional to patronize N.I.C.E.s, and I say that as an author with books on Amazon. Kindle books are there because Amazon wants to phase out printed books.
All this is true, but we are advised to take a cue from another powerhouse brand: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
Are we in the end times?
Eastern Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation in all its sundry implications, and that is why an icon of Christ, perhaps with his holy Mother, is the best possible picture an Orthodox Christian can have: witness the Orthodox love of icons, such as the profoundly cherished icon to the left.
Islam categorically denies the Incarnation in all its sundry implications, and that is why an a picture of Mohammed is the worst possible picture to a Muslim: witness the reaction to the Danish cartoons. The Muslim community was so deeply offended to see the their Prophet depicted on such terms that they repeatedly tried to assassinate the person who drew the Danish cartoons (plus over two hundred deaths)!
I believe that we are in the end times, but figuring out when Christ will return remains completely off-limits.
The earliest I can remember reading someone saying that the Second Coming is immanent is not St. John Chrysostom; it is the Apostle. You may think St. Nilus’s eschatological prophecies were wrongly grasped in the mid-twentieth century; but here we are 70 years later, and we’ve been hit by a stronger dose, but the times and dates God intends are still beyond us. I believe we are in the end times, and I do not feel qualified to contradict that people are throwing things at the wall and seeing if it will stick, to pave the way for the Antichrist. Some people have said that the Antichrist will be a Muslim. I don’t know if this is prophecy or mere rumor, but St. John the Evangelist’s definition of being an anti-Christ is denying that Jesus came in the flesh, and Islam works out on a capital scale what you get if you take Christianity and you systematically remove all trace of the Incarnation. Furthermore, there are, I have heard, over a hundred organizations trying to establish a world Muslim Caliphate. I don’t know whether I will die, or be alive when Christ comes, but my obligation is the same in either case.
Conclusion: “Hogwarts for Hackers”—Wired
Wired ran a piece on the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as Hogwarts for Hackers. I spent way too much time reading Arthurian legends, and at IMSA, I had barely opened a page of Arthurian legends (I remember the spelling “swerde” for “sword,” and I was not then a philologist), and one of the Class of 1992’s senior class awards was apparently made for me: “Most likely to be on IMSAsun [the Unix social network I administered] in the year 2020.” The award was given to me as Jonathan “Merlin” Hayward, as I was then much drawn to the character of Merlin, and it was immortalized in my senior award.
(I remember one time when I was a student, someone asked if I was the local “Unix wizard,” and when I showed extreme hesitance, a much-loved alum, Scott Swanson, answered, “Yes.” And in fact I was, at IMSA, a 15 year old Unix system administrator. And I have in fact long traded in a power that is not considered literal wizardry but seems enmeshed in magical metaphor; I have traded in what is called “intuitive thinking” and “intuitive feeling” exercise of power, even if exercise of the latter power does not come across as an exercise of power. “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our head to our heart,” and I have found something liberating in letting go of some of my “intuitive thinking” power.)
I am puzzled, personally, that Wired gave press coverage for someome who edited the source to be a better “DikuLOSER” (as the term for DikuMUD players was when I was at IMSA). I also edited the source code there, for my favorite game, in the same computer language, but I don’t particularly think it merits at least positive attention. But Avery Coonley School and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy represent a starting point in a strong identification with mathematics (I ranked 7th in the nation in a math contest as a kid), to being a Renaissance man in an almost classical style, to (God willing) making the journey from my head to my heart, and repenting before and in monastic repentance. I would say that I want with all my heart to go to Kursk Root Hermitage, but that is not quite true. My deepest will is to do as God wills, and seeking monasticism wholeheartedly is a step of obedience I make in pursuit of that goal. I am seeking that self-transcendent theosis or divinisation that is alike the goal of marriage and monasticism, in whatever form God wills.