The Voyage

I

He kicked the can, which skittered across the sidewalk. Shards of glass bounced off, their razor sharp edges gleaming in the light. Jason sat down on a park bench, and glared at the old man sitting on the other end. He looked decrepit and stupid, with a moronic smile. The man was feeding pigeons. The geezer probably didn’t even own a TV. A boring man doing a boring thing in a boring place on a boring day.

Jason liked to verbally spar with people. He liked to free them from their deceptions, their illusions. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and he would rather be hated as a gadfly than loved as a demagogue.

As Jason sat thinking, the old man said, “It’s a beautiful, sunny day, isn’t it?”

“The Poet Wordsworth aptly called it ‘the dreary light of common day.’ It is a dull surface, under which ferments a world of evil. Did you know, for instance, that Hitler’s Holocaust was only one of many massive genocides this century that killed over a million people? Did you know that even Hitler’s Jews are dwarfed by the fifty million who died in Stalin’s purges?”

The smile disappeared from the old man’s face. “No, I did not.”

“You who say that it’s a beautiful day — what do you know about suffering?”

The old man’s face quivered, ever so slightly, for a moment. “My best friend, when I was a boy, was named Abraham. He died at Auschwitz. My eldest brother, on the other hand, was swept up by the Nazi propaganda and became a concentration camp guard. He was never convicted of war crimes, but he hanged himself a week after I was married. I am now a widower.”

Jason was silent for a moment. He was struck with respect at this man’s suffering — and watched as a tear gathered in his eyes, and slowly trickled down his wrinkled cheek. As he looked, he saw part of why the old man looked so ugly to him — his face bore scars of chemical burns.

A sense of discomfort and unease began to fill the young man. He shifted slightly, and began to talk about something else.

“I have read many books about knights and ladies, about wizards and dragons. In those stories, there is magic and wonder; there are fairies who grant wishes. The hero wins, and the story is beautiful. This world is so bleak and desolate and gray next to those worlds. If only there were another world. If only there were a way to get in.”

“How do you know that there isn’t?”

The young man looked with puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

“How do you know that this fantasy isn’t true?”

“I have never had any reason to believe in it.”

“When you were a little boy, did you believe in the Holocaust?”

“I hadn’t even heard of it, let alone having reason to believe in it.”

“But was it true?”

The young man looked as if he was about to answer, and then said, “Do you really believe in another world, in magic and wonder?”

“I might.”

“Tell me about it.”

“I cannot now explain it in any words that would make sense to you. I could try, but it would sound like complete nonsense.”

“Try.”

“Pretend that I am blind. Explain to me the colors.”

Jason opened his mouth, paused for a second, and then closed it.

“Am I to believe that you are some sort of great wizard, and that you have a gift of seeing into and travelling to another world?”

“Maybe.”

The old man spoke in enigmas and riddles, and yet there was something about him… He did not seem to be lying — and if he was, he was a far better liar than most. He was a puzzle, and Jason liked puzzles. He had been tricked and manipulated many times, and it might at least break the tedium to be tricked and manipulated by someone who was more interesting than he looked. So he decided to play along.

“Do you think that I could make my way into another world?”

“Maybe.”

“Is it hard?”

“It is very hard, and very easy. How much do you want to do it?”

“Very much.”

“If I send you on great and difficult tests, to meet many trials, will you do it?”

“I will.”

“If I tell you to spend long hours studying spell books and grimoires, finding potions and amulets, are you ready for that?”

“I am.”

“And if I set before you tasks more difficult and strange, and send you to do battles against monsters more evil than assassins and more deadly than dragons, can you do that?”

“I will try.”

“Can you trust me?”

For a moment, Jason’s mask slipped. He stalled. A minute passed — a minute that seemed like a year. Finally, he croaked, “I don’t know.”

The old man nodded, and said, “I understand.” He looked at the young man; there was something in his eyes that the young man could not identify.

“The way is difficult, with many trials, and the last one is the most difficult of them all. I cannot tell you what they will all be like, or even their number. When we next meet, I will be ready to give you the first.”

“When do you want to meet next?”

“No matter when; we will meet.”

“Can you help me?”

“I cannot do your tasks for you. But I give you this.”

The old man placed his hand on the young man’s head, his palm atop the skull, fingers and thumb spreading out across his scalp. He closed his eyes — and Jason felt that it would be proper to do the same. He sat in absolute silence and stillness. A moment passed.

Finally the old man removed his hand. Picking up his cane, he stood up, and slowly began to walk away, leaving Jason sitting and pondering.

II

The next day, doubts filled Jason’s mind. Had he dreamed the encounter? Why would there be such a bizarre old man? If he really had the powers and knew the wonders he hinted at, why on earth would he be sitting in a park and feeding pigeons? Each city had its share of eccentrics, but still…

As he went about his studies and activities for the next few days, he was nagged by thoughts about the man. He loved fantasy, from childhood games of make-believe to reading books and watching movies — but all of his yearning would not make it com true. He felt that he could neither believe nor trust the old man. Yet their interaction had excited, not quite a hope, but at least a desire that it could be true. He believed in fairies as a child, and he wondered if there might be a time to believe in fairies again.

He didn’t talk with anyone about it; others would probably think him a fool. He was sitting in a diner, sipping a cup of coffee and pondering, when a familiar voice said, “May I join you?”

He looked up, startled, and then said, “Please.” As the old man sat down, Jason asked, “I forgot to ask your name.”

“Senex. And yours?”

“Jason.”

“The name of a hero, if I am remembering my mythology correctly,” Senex said.

Jason had been thinking of how dull and common his name sounded next to ‘Senex’, and was again slightly startled. The man still looked old, wrinkled, and ugly — and yet there now seemed to be the faintest hint of something regal about his appearance. After a time, Jason asked, “Do you really have quests for me?”

“Yes, I do. They will help prepare you to enter, and receive the gift and the power.”

“And what is the first?”

Senex reached, with both hands, into his pocket. He moved his hands for a little while, as if grasping something slippery, and then brought forth a loosely closed hand. He held his hand over the table, and opened it.

“What do you see?”

“I see nothing. Your hand is empty.”

“Do you really see nothing in my hand?”

“Nothing.”

“Look closer.”

“I still see nothing.”

“Wait.”

Senex turned his hand, slowly, slightly, from side to side. At last, a tiny gleam of light caught Jason’s eye. He immediately bent over to look more closely.

“What do you see?”

“I see a tiny grain of sand.”

“Take it.”

Jason picked up the grain of sand, and looked at it for a second. “What is my first quest?”

“You have already embarked on your first quest.”

“When will I be done?”

“I don’t know.”

The old man stood up, and walked out of the diner.

III

Back in his room, Jason took the grain of sand out of the napkin he had wrapped it in, and placed in on a white handkerchief on his desk.

It was small, and barely visible. It did not quite look the yellow of beaches — more like a tiny, oddly shaped pebble.

He pulled out a pin, and began to push it about. It rolled irregularly, like a tiny football. As it turned about, it gleamed every now and then. He pulled out a magnifying glass through which to look at it. Magnified, it appeared a small, bulbous crystal, which turned light and dark as it rolled over the fibers of the cloth.

“I wonder if…” He wrapped it up and went to a jeweler, to see if it might be a diamond or some other precious stone.

He came back, disappointed. It was sand, the same as untold numbers of other grains on beaches and in children’s sand boxes. It puzzled him. Was it more precious than diamond, a key to a magical portal? It did not scream out, “I am magical!”; it did not glow in the dark, or levitate in the air, or shock him as he touched it. If there was something special about it, it was more subtle than that. But how would Jason unlock the secret? Time passed, and he began to doubt that there was any secret at all — that it was anything more than a common grain of sand.

It was in one of these moments of doubt that he again encountered Senex in the diner, drinking a cup of coffee.

“I don’t get it,” Jason said, sitting down. Senex still looked into his coffee, sipping it. “What don’t you get?”

“You hint at a world of wonders, and then give me a common grain of sand. Are you playing games with me?”

Senex set down his coffee, and looked into Jason’s eyes. “What do you think?”

Jason looked at the old man. He began to open his mouth, and then swallowed. “I cannot say that you seem cruel, but neither can I say that your words and actions make any sense to me.”

“And?”

After Jason said nothing, the old man said, “What were you looking for?”

“Something great. Something awesome. Something mysterious. A storm of light, maybe. Turgid forces. Ritual magic.”

“And what did you find?”

“A common grain of sand.”

“Is that all?”

Jason pulled the napkin from his pocket, and unfolded the grain of sand. “All I see is a common grain of sand. Maybe there is something else, but it is invisible to me.” He looked at the old man in puzzlement, and saw a look of knowledge in Senex’s eyes. “Can you see something else, something that is invisible to me?”

“I can.”

“What?”

“Tell me everything that you know about it. What is it?”

“It is something that is found on beaches.”

“That is where it is found. What is it?”

“It is an odd-shaped, bulbous thing, very tiny.”

“That is its size and shape. What is it?”

“The jeweler said that it is not diamond, or quartz, or anything else like that.”

“That is what it is not. What is it?”

“The jeweler said that it is a crystal of silicon and oxygen atoms.”

“That is its scientific structure and constituency. What is it?”

“Is it all of these things?”

“All of these things are true of it. What is it?”

Jason drew a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”

“Make it into a rabbit.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“If you can’t do that, make it into something else. A fish, perhaps.”

“I can’t.”

“Destroy it.”

Jason placed the grain of sand between a knife and a spoon, and crushed it to dust.

“You have broken it into smaller pieces. Now destroy it.”

Jason dropped the spoon and knife; the fragments that were the grain of sand, settled on the table. “I can’t.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Jason looked into the old man’s eyes, expecting to see a look of sadistic pleasure. Instead, he saw the look of greatest compassion.

Jason said, “It is a mystery.”

The old man smiled.

Jason gathered the fragments into his napkin, and walked away.

IV

Jason began to think about stones and crystals. The exquisitely rare crystals, the diamond as their queen, were prized, not only because they were beautiful, but because they were rare. Quartz and other crystals, in their luminous beauty, were no surprise to be said to be magical. So it was not too surprising that there should also be a hidden, tiny beauty to the stone and crystal commonly called a grain of sand. Few people owned these gems, not because they were hidden deep within the earth, but because they were hidden from people’s notice. When entering another world, Jason would like to be ready to appreciate its beauty — and who knows? Perhaps sand was a treasure imported en masse from that world. In the mean time, he would enjoy his newfound crystalline treasure.

V

Jason asked Senex, “Am I prepared to enter another world, the world from which crystals come?”

Senex answered, “You have begun to begin.”

Jason asked, “Are there wonders which make sand pale in comparison?”

Senex answered, “There are wonders which make sand look very bright by the light they shine on it.”

VI

Senex lit a candle. Jason watched, waiting for an explanation.

The flame danced and spun. It filled the white column of wax beneath it with a soft glow that melted into the darkness. The flame itself, divided into tongues, danced and jumped again and again into the air, looking as if it just might fly. All around, it illuminated the surrounding forms with a golden light; shadows loomed on the walls and melted into the surroundings.

As Jason watched, a thin layer of clear, molten wax began to form atop the candle. As the flame burned, the heat began to seep into the wax, and the tiny pool grew deeper. A drop, like a tear, began to form on one side of the pool. The molten wax flowed, the stream carrying an indentation in the top of the wax column. The flame jumped and blazed, then settled down as, one by one, drops of molten wax trickled down the side.

The candle was tapered and thin, and it seemed to Jason only a minute until it burned all the way down, and a tiny red glow in the wick rested at the base of an ascending, twisting, turning stream of wispy smoke. Jason sat in peace, enjoying a sense of calm and fullness, digesting the beauty he had watched.

Senex’s voice broke the silence. “You have passed your second test, Jason.”

VII

The old man had helped Jason open his eyes to one part of the natural world, and he began to explore, with the wonder of a child, the magic all around him.

He discovered that there was one type of item which was the easiest thing in the world to cut with a knife — but, as soon as you had cut it, the cut would instantly heal; there it would be, as whole as ever! It would shape itself around whatever you put it in, and could squeeze through even the tiny holes in cloth — but he had to be careful, because it would also climb the cloth like a ladder. It was quite mischievous — there were some things, which resembled grains of sound, which it would take and make completely invisible.

There were other things that would hide behind, and yet mimic the people and the trees. They were like marionettes, except that they exaggerated and distorted the profiles of whatever they were making fun of. They also played hide and seek with the light, and were very quick — whenever the light would peek to see if it would find them, they would already be hidden somewhere else.

He saw great, massive citadels with vaults beneath, storing hoards of gold and gems deep within, under protections that a dragon’s fire could not scratch. Those citadels were decorated, so that even those who dare not break in, would yet come and visit, seeing the gay streamers and the skittish sentinels.

There was another creature that Jason could not see, but was forever sneaking up and tackling him. It never knocked him over, but always wanted to play — it would tousle people’s hair, and tickle the little children. It played with the other creatures, too — it jumped around on the grass, and danced and spun with the leaves.

There were other strange creatures that skittered around timidly — some jumped along the ground; some climbed trees and buildings; some swam like fish through the air. Most fled at his approach, but a few would let him touch them — and they were soft and warm.

Even greater than his joy at this beauty was a sense that, beautiful as these things were, they also hinted at something else, a deeper magic. Jason tried to see what it might be, but it always eluded him.

VIII

Enthralled as he was, Jason could not shut out a sense that the beauty was not alone — that there was also something dark and perverse as well. With such beauty, Jason thought in his most enthralled moments that this surely must be the best of all possible worlds. But they he was shocked by ugly realities that forced themselves upon his consciousness: robberies and rapes, children being treated cruelly, and children treating others cruelly. The beauty made him feel as if, somehow, if he opened his eyes wide enough to see all the beauty there was, everything would be perfect — but, try as he might, it didn’t work. It was like smelling the softest lilac fragrance on the breeze — and then being punched in the stomach.

It was sinking into a darker mood that he again met Senex, this time on a street littered with garbage. He greeted the old man harshly: “Wave your magic wand, old man, and make this refuse turn into flowers. Open my eyes, so that I may see that all suffering is an illusion, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.”

“Suffering is not an illusion, and we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”

“What of the world you said I had begun preparing to enter? Is it not an escape from suffering?”

“Do you not remember the very first question you asked me? Do you not remember the answer?” Tears began to gather in Senex’s eyes.

Jason savored a thrill of pleasure at watching the old man suffer, and knowing that the same darkness tormented them both. Then he realized what he was doing, and felt a sense of shame and revulsion at himself. He hated himself and the old man for what he felt.

“If you were going to attack a dragon,” the old man finally began, “would you rush at it with neither weapon nor armor nor training? Or would you take at least a little preparation before setting out to attack a leviathan that has slain many heroes far greater than yourself?”

Jason said nothing.

“The questions you ask are big questions, and they must be faced. I wrestle with them, too. And I fear. I do not blame you at all for asking them, though your attitude in asking pierces me.” A tear trickled down Senex’s cheek.

Jason felt a black hole of shame inside his heart. The darkness he saw, and hated in the world around him — Jason now realized that it was inside him, too. It was like a worm, attacking from outside, and gnawing from within.

He wanted to die.

“Jason,” the old man’s voice said. “Jason, look at me.”

Jason stared at the ground.

“Please.”

Jason looked up and cringed, expecting a storm of fury. He looked up, waiting for his punishment. But his gaze was met by teary eyes — and compassion.

“I forgive you.”

IX

It was with a certain heaviness that Jason awaited the coming lessons. Not that they doubted that they were good — he was sure of that. But up ahead loomed a fierce battle. The worst part of it was that he knew that the enemy, the worm, was not only lurking at large. It was also inside his heart.

Yet dark as the darkness was, it could never put the light out. And Senex was showing him new things at each meeting.

Senex had with him a book. He said, “Close your eyes and imagine.” He opened its dusty leaves, and began to read:

“You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling on your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.”

Senex began to lead Jason through mathematics, history, philosophy, literature — and Jason began to behind a new and different beauty, a beauty that cannot be seen with the eye, nor touched with the hand, but only grasped with the mind. He began to explore imagination, and ideas, and metaphors. He saw light dance in the poetry Senex read; he saw the beauty of order and reason in the philosophers Senex cited. The connections, the play, the dance of ideas was wonderful. Together they explored ideas, and it was an awesome beauty. Jason had a razor sharp mind, and he began to make connections that surprised even Senex.

X

“I still wish that I were a fairy,” Jason said, “or that I could become one.”

“What do you think you are?”

A searing pain, a pain of dark memory, flashed through Jason’s soul. “I don’t know,” he said. “I hate myself.”

“Do you believe that there are some things for everyone to enjoy?”

“Of course. You have shown me what I was blind to — that, outside of us, there are rocks, and stars, and the sky, and trees, and blades of grass, and snails, and stags, and chipmunks, and fish, and eagles, and logs, and mountains, and clouds, and wind, and rain, and the moon, and silence, and music, and beauty, and artwork, and poetry, and stories, and theorems, and arguments, and logic, and intuition, and laughter, and happiness, and books, and subtlety, and metaphors, and words, and st—”

Senex cut him off. “Do you believe that any of it has been given specifically to you?”

Jason looked down at his feet.

“What are you looking at, Jason?”

Jason mumbled, “My feet.”

“What are your feet?”

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing for a moment. Then he continued, “I don’t know where they are from, but they move about at my command, like two strange servants, carrying me wherever I want to go.”

“What do they carry?”

“A house that has eyes to see, and hands to let me touch and move things, and innards that support and let me live.” He paused for a second, and then said, “It is a clockwork masterpiece.”

“What lives in this house.”

“Well, there is at least a mind that can learn, and think, and explore, and feel.”

“Is that rubbish?”

Jason begrudgingly admitted, “No.”

“Jason, why are you so downcast?”?

“Because that is not all. Because there is a worm. It roams the world, and it lives deep inside of me.”

“I know.”

Jason drew back in fear. “What are you going to do to me?”

“What do you think?”

“You must hate me.”

“I hate the worm inside of you with all my heart. But I do not hate you.”

“You don’t?”

“Jason, I love you.”

Jason looked up. His face quivered, and tears began to slide down his cheeks. “You do?”

“Jason, may I give you a hug?”

Jason nodded his head.

The tears flowed from deep within. They were tears of sorrow, but yet they were different from the bitter tears he had fought before. They were painful, yet also tears of cleansing and healing.

XI

“In the stories I read, I believe that there are people like us, and also strange and wonderful people like fairies, and elves, and dwarves, and gnomes. I wish I could know them.”

“I believe that there are people like us, and also strange and wonderful people like blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans. And I count myself the richer for the friendships I have shared with such people.”

Senex paused, and then continued. “I believe that you have seen much of the beauty that can be perceived with the body and with the mind, and also that you are beginning to appreciate your body and mind — yes, I know that you still wonder why they were given you. You are close to being ready to enter the other world now.

Jason suddenly looked up. “There’s more?”

“There is much more, my friend. I think that you are ready for the last trial before entering. The challenge is this: that you must make a friend.”

“So I can enter after I make a friend?”

“Yes, but you can’t make a friend in order to get in. You must make a friend for the sake of making a friend.

“Does it matter which race?”

“It matters a great deal, but not in the way that you are thinking. You will be blessed by a friend of any race; the difference is not the amount of blessing, but what kind.”

XII

Jason was walking along a sidewalk, and saw some children playing in the street, kicking a ball around. Then he watched in horror

a truck comes along

a child kicks the ball

a little girl runs after it

in front of the car

girl trips

brakes screech

Time seemed to slow down; Jason watched everything in horrible slowness.

Then Jason realized he was lying on his side, on the opposite sidewalk. The little girl was in his arms, screaming and holding her knee. The ball was still in the street — flat as a pancake.

Adults began to come out of the building. A young woman ran over to the girl, yelling, “My baby!”

An older woman, with wrinkled walnut skin and silvery skin, walked up to him and said, “Son, you wanna come in? You bleedin’.”

Jason looked down. There was a rough abrasion on his elbow, and his shoulder hurt.

Inside the apartment, he was in the same room as the little girl. Her mother was gently wiping her skinned knee with a warm, wet washcloth; the girl was screaming bloody murder. He also had a cloth washing over his elbow; it stung sharply. The children had come in, and were simultaneously and very quickly trying to explain what happened.

The chaos subsided; the children were calmed, and (the children speaking more slowly, and one at a time) the adults understood what happened. “You gonna be soah t’marrah” — and he was.

The family invited Jason for dinner, and told him that he was welcome any time. They were very warm and friendly; at first Jason thought this was because he had saved their little girl. The family was grateful, extremely so, but…

He started to visit from time to time, and he saw the same warm welcome extend to anybody who came in. The family was warm, and emotional, and playful, and as time passed, Jason began to know the specific people —

Emma, the matron who had first invited in, was wise, gentle, and motherly. She was a big woman with an even bigger heart, that seemed to have ample room for anybody who came into the house. She was the person most in charge.

Harold, her younger brother, was full of stories and jokes. He was the life of gatherings, and often had people laughing. He was the person who had travelled the most throughout the United States, and seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the nation — how it had changed, how it had stayed the same, throughout the years.

Jane was Edna’s eldest daughter, and the mother of the little girl whom Jason saved. All of the people in the family had an easy-going, warm, welcoming manner — it really was not long before Jason felt as if he were one of the family — but the welcome seemed to crystallize in Jane. She took the most effort to include Jason, and asked him the most questions.

Alfred was Jane’s husband. He worked at a factory, and was quite the musician; he played several instruments, and often managed to get the whole family singing and dancing.

Anne was Edna’s second daughter, and was perhaps most actively involved in race relations and the womanist movement. Through him, Jason saw a kind of feminism which was completely different; what most struck Jason was that, in its adamant advocacy of womanhood and motherhood, neither Anne nor any of her other womanist friends found any need for abortion, or regarded children as an inconvenience.

Erica, the little girl whom Jason saved, was a little ball of life. She was insatiably curious and inquisitive; more than once, she managed to put Jason somewhat on the spot: “Why you a comin’ heah? Da other white folk doan come heah much, like they afraid of us, o’ sumthin’.” — but she asked in perfect innocence and sincerity, and the open warmth of the others (especially Jane) defused the tension. She was also quite a cuddlebug, and (Jason eventually discovered) more than a little bit ticklish.

Steve, Alfred and Edna’s second child, wanted to be a scientist; he was somewhat quiet, and a bookworm. Jason was sometimes amazed by his intelligence, and was able to talk with him about some of the things he had learned from Senex.

Ronald, the baby of Alfred and Edna’s family, was full of energy, and energy, and energy, and energy. He would run around the house all day long, and it did not take long for Jason to learn what was Ron’s favorite word: “Again!” He seemed to have a tireless enjoyment of the things he knew.

Monica had been adopted by the family, and (in a sense) was Anne’s baby. The two of them were quite close, and she seemed to be able to learn very quickly anything Anne told her.

There were also a number of neighborhood children going in and out of the house; the family treasured them, and seemed to welcome them as if they were their own. James wanted to be a pilot; Michael was very much interested in fire, and loved the Fourth of July; Desiree loved to dance with anyone and everyone; Edward chased the other children around.

Jason cherished his moments visiting the apartment, and grew especially fond of Erica. She would often sit on his lap and try to understand the things Jason was talking about (though Jason tended to too often talk about things that were rather complex to reasonably expect a child to understand), and would often playfully tell him how funny he was. Jason came to love the music, the dancing, the laughter, the emotion. He was struck by how different the family was — and how human.

As he came out of the apartment, he saw Senex walking towards him, and tipping his hat. “I am pleased,” Senex said, “and I think that you are ready to enter.”

XIII

Senex said, “Are you ready to hear a story?”

Jason said, “I think I am.”

Senex said, “This is the most important story that I will ever tell you.”

Jason said, “I am listening.”

Senex began, “Once upon a time, there was a coruscating Light, a surge of power, a rock greater than a mountain. And from this Light was begotten… another facet of the same eternal Eternal essence. Father and Son. Between them shot a fire of love and energy. In and among and from them were glory, majesty, light, power, love, goodness.

“And the Light spoke, and star upon star upon star upon star poured fourth, pulsing with life. They all joined in the great Dance, and spun and turned in wheel within wheel within wheel within wheel. As they danced the great Dance and sung the great Song, the Light and all of the stars revelled in the glory and beauty.

“The first and most glorious of the stars that were formed, held a place in the dance that was second only to the Light itself. The very least of the stars held a place of glory to contemplate for a lifetime, and this was the greatest.

“Then the first star turned, and stepped out of the harmony of the dance, and spoke to the Light. He demanded to be placed above the Light, to lead the Dance himself. ‘I am the greatest of the stars; I am greater and wiser and more glorious than you. Cede to me my rightful place.'”

There was something about the demand that jarred Jason, filling him with revulsion to the very core. In it, he saw the essence of everything that is perverse and vile and impure. He wondered why the Light did not blast the star out of existence right there.

“The Light paused, and then said, ‘You believe that you are better than me.

“‘You believe that you are wiser than me.

“‘Prove it.

“‘You and your glory were the beginning of my plan; you are not the end of it. I have a plan deep within my heart. You may form whatever plan your wisdom may find for you. And we will let the plans play out, and we will see whose plan is the wiser – yours or mine.’

“And then the star screamed out his blasphemous accord, screamed a scream that tore the very fabric of space. And a third of the stars joined him in his rebellion, and became dragons, and serpents, and worms.

“Thus began a cosmic war.

“The Light again created, a creation that was vivid and new and detailed and wondrous. Slowly, with the patience of an artist, he formed rocks, mountains, and trees. The smallest blade of grass was perfect. He formed a great rock surrounded by lights, then plants which live, then animals which move, then finally men in his own image, likeness, and glory. When he stopped to rest, all of the stars stood watching in awe.

“Then the darkened star came, in the form of a serpent, and beguiled man, to do the one thing that is accursed. And the man and woman, created as immortal gods, bore in them a curse, and began to die from the inside out. They, also, stepped out of the harmony of the dance and out of the source of health; their spirits rotted in vice and evil, and the worm began to infest and grow inside their hearts. There was perversity after perversity after perversity after perversity. One generation after the first sin, came the first murder: brother murdered brother. And the people were quick to embrace evil and forget what is good, even the Light himself.

“And all of the dragons, and serpents, and worms, cackled and screeched with unholy laughter, and the stars winced in pain. The first of Dragons taunted the Light: ‘Your plan? Your glorious and wise plan? You have indeed made a fine creation for me to soil. Thank you; I very much enjoy watching the curses grow and multiply.’

“And the men grow wicked, so that they all deserved to die.

“All but one.

“One man walked in the Light.

“And the Light called out to the one man. ‘You. You there in the desert, where neither rain nor mist dampen the earth.’

“And the man answered, ‘Yes?’

“And the Light commanded, ‘Build an immense boat.’

“And the dragons and worms cackled and jeered.

“And the man, ridiculed and cursed by even his friends, built an immense boat.

“And the great Dragon said, ‘One candle? You hope by lighting one single candle to vanquish a whole world of darkness? Come, old fool; it doesn’t work that way.’

“And the Light remained silent.

“Then the Light called to a man, and told him, ‘Leave your kin, your land, your family, everything that is dear to you, and I will give you a son, and make you into a great nation.’

“And the man took up his belongings and left.

“And the Light gave the man a son, and the son grew and matured.

“Then the Light told the man, ‘Take your son, whom you love, and sacrifice him to me.’

“And the man obeyed, taking the son up on the mountain to sacrifice. He raises his arm, knife in hand, to strike the child dead.

“And the Light, quick as lightning, sent a star to say, ‘Stop. Because you have not withheld from me even your son, I will bless you richly.’

“And the Dragon says, ‘What’s the point of this? Do you call one or two righteous men to help us see how evil all the rest are? Or could it just be that you are unwilling to admit defeat?’

“And the Light remained silent.

“And in the great Dragon, was the faintest tremor of fear.

“Then the Light called another man, and told him to forsake riches and luxury to free his people from slavery. The man hesitated, shied away from the task before him – and ultimately obeyed.

“Then the great dragon said, ‘Can’t you just end it now? I know that you’ve lost, but I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable.’

“And the Light continues his work.

“Through the man, the Light gave a law, showing what is right and what is wrong. And the people – staggeringly, and with many misgivings – started to obey.

“Then the Dragon came to the Light, and the Light said of another man, ‘Have you seen this servant of mine? He is upright and blameless.’

“The Dragon scoffed and said, ‘Well, of course! Look at all the prosperity you have given him. That is why he worships you. Take it away, and he will curse you to your face.’

“The Light said, ‘Prove it. I give you permission to take away everything that he holds dear to him – only do not touch his body.’

“The Dragon breathed fire, and destroys the man’s livestock, his possessions, his children. And the man wept in misery. He was told to curse the Light and die. In agony, he screamed in pain and cursed even the day of his birth – but refuses to curse the Light.

“Then the Dragon said, “You know, a man will give everything he owns for his health. You have given this man abundant health – and he is still healthy. Only take that away, and he will curse you to your face.’

“And again, the Light gave permission, only requiring that the dragon not slay him. And the man was covered in painful sores from head to toe, his body wracked with pain, tortured. He was in agony. When three of his friends came, they sat with him for a week in silence because his pain is so great. And still, the man refused to curse the Light.

“The friends then talked, insisting that the man had done wrong, yet he does not even accept their claim. Finally the Light came and spoke through a storm, healing the man and restoring what was lost twice over.

“And the stars rejoiced.

“Then the Light pulled another corner of the veil off of his plan. The Light begotten was sent, and became a man himself, suffering and walking the dust of the fallen world. He called people, telling them to abandon net and boat to follow him – and they obeyed. He healed the sick, diseased, and injured; he casts out fallen stars who have taken possession of people. The dragon attacked again again, trying to have him killed, and tempting him in every way. And yet the Light in earth remained pure and blameless. He began to call people about him, and teach them.

“Then one of the Light’s closest friends betrayed him, and the Light himself was hung out and exposed to die. And when the Light died, darkness reigned.

“And the dragons, and serpents, and worms, jeered and cackled. And the great Dragon taunts, ‘Your great and wise plan gave me an even greater victory than I had hoped for. I set about to destroy your creation – and now I have destroyed your uncreated Son.’

“And tears flowed.

“Then a surge of light and power flowed, and the begotten Light was alive, transformed, coursing with the power of an indestructible life, and bearing with him the cure for the curse. And the fire of love and energy flowing among and in and from the Light flowed into his followers, too. The Light ascends back into Heaven from whence he came – and dwelt inside them.

“And in the community of those who believe and accept his cure, heroes and martyrs stand for the truth and fought, alongside the stars, against the darkness. And as all were watching — the Light, the stars, and also the dead, that is those who walked before, and now stood cheering those who walk now as they continue in the battle — the wisdom of the plan formed by the Light was revealed in the community of those who believe. In this community, in those whom the Light again draws into the great Dance, was

“A large family of many children for the Light
Mother, and brother, and sister for the begotten Light
A body for the begotten Light to live in
A dwelling place and temple for the eternal fire of love and energy
A witness to the world
A moral preserver and purifier to the world
A servant to the world
A warrior against the great Dragon

“With all of its faults and foibles, the community reached out, and invited others also to step into the Dance.

“Then, as the begotten Light left the world, he returned – in full, unveiled glory and majesty, with all of the stars with him. The dead and the living members of the community were imbued with the same life as he has, their bodies transformed, and shared in the divine nature. The earth was destroyed in a great apocalypse, then remade even better than before. All — the living and the dead alike — were brought forth, and brought to account for their life and deeds; those who had chosen a curse were accursed, and those who had chosen were imbued with life beyond intense. And it was before the renewed, regenerated, transformed community of believers that the Dragon stood, and saw the wisdom of the plan. And it was below their feet that the Light crushed the Dragon, before casting it and all of its minions into a lake of fire. And all of those watching saw in full, not only that the Light is more powerful, but also the immeasurably greater wisdom.”

After a time, Jason said, “That is the most beautiful story I have ever heard.”

Senex said, “Would you like to have slain the worm that is inside your heart? Would you like to dance the great Dance?”

Jason said, “Yes, I would.”

Senex said, “The story is true, and we are now living between the first and second comings of the Light. And he bears with him the cure for the curse — and, if you ask him, he will help you slay the worm that is inside your heart, and let you join his forces to fight the darkness that is in the world.”

“How do I do that?”

Senex said, “You must pray a prayer, something like,

“‘Lord Jesus, come into my heart.
Forgive my sins.
Draw me into your Light.
Fill me with your Life.
Make me your own.
I give myself to you,
And accept you giving yourself to me.'”

A look of surprise crossed Jason’s face. “Is this Christianity?”

“Yes.”

Jason’s surprise turned to disgust. “But Christianity is narrow-minded and intolerant and repressive and archaic and — You deceived me, and tricked me into thinking it was something beautiful!”

“Jason, have you ever heard Plato’s allegory of the cave?”

“No.”

“Plato made an allegory, which was more or less as follows:

“Imagine that there is a cave. In this cave are prisoners who have been there from birth. They are shackled, and held in place.

“Behind the prisoners is a wall, and behind the wall a fire.

“People carry things back and forth, above the wall, so that they cast great, flickering shadows on the wall. And as these prisoners grow up, they will never see what a chair, or a book, or a sword looks like. They will only see the shadows on the wall.

“And they will become very good at identifying and recognizing the shadows, and think that they are the realities themselves. They won’t think that a pot is a pot. They will think that the shadow is a pot.

“Now imagine that one of these prisoners is brought out of the cave, into the world. He will first be blinded by the light, and then only slowly be able to see. He will see nothing he will recognize, and he will curse those who brought him out.

“But, eventually, he will learn to see — and he will see things infinitely fuller, and richer, and more real than ever before. He will see the realities that cast the shadows.

“Now imagine that he is taken back in the cave again. At first, he won’t be able to see anything in the darkness; the others in the cave will believe that he is blind. When he does adjust, he will begin to speak of realities beyond the shadows, which are far greater than what is seen — and the other people will think him mad as well as blind. They will vow to kill anyone who should take anyone else up out of what they believe is reality, into the light.”

Senex paused a moment, and then continued.

“There are two things which I would like to say.

“The first is that there are a lot of evil Christians, and Christians have done a lot of bad things. I have been bored by a lot of dull Christians, and hurt by a lot of hypocritical Christians. And I am ashamed of a great deal of what has been done in the name of Christ.”

“The second is that what you have seen called ‘Christianity’ is only a shadow cast in bad light. What I have been doing is helping you to see the reality itself, in the light of the sun.”

“But why didn’t you tell me it was Christianity to begin with? Wasn’t that deceptive?”

“I did not tell you for a reason. I wanted to un-deceive you, and show you the reality itself. If I told you that I wanted to show you Christianity, you would have thought I meant the ugly shadow that is called Christianity — and would you have wanted to know anything about it?”

Jason begrudgingly said, “No.”

After a time, Senex said, “I can see by your face that you have more questions. What are they?”

“They are questions you won’t like.”

“Ask them.”

“What about the Inquisition? What about the intolerance? What about saying that all those other people’s religions are wrong? What about saying that everyone else is damned to Hell?”

“The Inquisition was one of the darkest moments in Christian history, and it has done damage that hurts people down to this day. It, along with the Crusades has fractured the relationships Christians have with Muslims and Jews to this day. And it does another, even deeper damage. It makes people believe that standing for the truth is evil.”

“But what about not accepting other religions? What about Hell?”

“Jason, do you know the worm inside your heart?”

“Yes.”

“The worm is inside my heart, too. It is in everybody’s heart. And it needs to be killed again and again and again. And, if you do not fight it to the death, it will kill you.”

“But… I still don’t see why you have to be so intolerant.”

“Jason, if I am shot in the arm, can a doctor help me?”

“Yes. He can help stitch you up, so your body can heal.”

“What if I refuse to be stitched up? What if I shoot myself again and again, and insist that the doctor heal me without stitching me up or stopping me from shooting myself?”

“But… the doctor can’t help you because you won’t let him.”

“That’s right, Jason. A doctor can’t help you if you choose injury over medicine. And Jesus is a doctor with the only medicine that works.

“I don’t believe in Hell because I want to think about people dying. I believe in Hell for the same reason I believe that shooting yourself is bad for your health — because that’s the way it is. I know that other religions are things people put a lot of work into, and take very seriously. But they are not the doctor’s medicine, and the cold, harsh reality is that taking the medicine — all of it — is the only way to be healed.”

“What about homosexuals? Can’t they be Christians like everyone else?”

“Homosexuals can be Christians just like everyone else, the exact same way that everyone else is a Christian. Namely, by letting the doctor heal all of their injuries. All of us have different wounds, and they all need to be healed. I have wounds that most homosexuals don’t. I am a recovering alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink for sixteen years now, but I spent twenty years of my life as a drunkard. Whatever wounds we have, be they homosexual lust, or drinking too much alcohol, or pride, or any of ten thousand other sins, we need to have them to be healed. All of them.”

Jason thought for a while, and then said, “This is the most difficult thing that anyone has ever asked me. I don’t know if I can do it.”

Senex said, “I know it’s difficult, and I can’t do it by myself. But there is help. It is a difficult path, but the Light will give you the strength, and give me the strength. And remember the community in the story? They will help you, as they help me.”

Jason leaned back, and thought for a time. Then he closed his eyes, trembled, and prayed,

“Lord Jesus, come into my heart.
Forgive my sins.
Draw me into your Light.
Fill me with your Life.
Make me your own.
I give myself to you,
And accept you giving yourself to me.”

And angels rejoiced.

And Jason entered another world.

Unashamed

Cover for Yonder

The day his daughter Abigail was born was the best day of Abraham’s life. Like father, like daughter, they said in the village, and especially of them. He was an accomplished musician, and she breathed music.

He taught her a music that was simple, pure, powerful. It had only one voice; it needed only one voice. It moved slowly, unhurriedly, and had a force that was spellbinding. Abraham taught Abigail many songs, and as she grew, she began to make songs of her own. Abigail knew nothing of polyphony, nor of hurried technical complexity; her songs needed nothing of them. Her songs came from an unhurried time out of time, gentle as lapping waves, and mighty as an ocean.

One day a visitor came, a young man in a white suit. He said, “Before your father comes, I would like you to see what you have been missing.” He took out a music player, and began to play.

Abby at first covered her ears; she was in turn stunned, shocked, and intrigued. The music had many voices, weaving in and out of each other quickly, intricately. She heard wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels of complexity. She began to try, began to think in polyphony — and the man said, “I will come to you later. It is time for your music with your father.”

Every time in her life, sitting down at a keyboard with her father was the highlight of her day. Every day but this day. This day, she could only think about how simple and plain the music was, how lacking in complexity. Abraham stopped his song and looked at his daughter. “Who have you been listening to, Abigail?”

Something had been gnawing at Abby’s heart; the music seemed bleak, grey. It was as if she had beheld the world in fair moonlight, and then a blast of eerie light assaulted her eyes — and now she could see nothing. She felt embarrassed by her music, ashamed to have dared to approach her father with anything so terribly unsophisticated. Crying, she gathered up her skirts and ran as if there were no tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and the day after; it was a miserable day, after sleeping in a gutter. Abigail began to beg, and it was over a year before another beggar let her play on his keyboard. Abby learned to play in many voices; she was so successful that she forgot that she was missing something. She occupied herself so fully with intricate music that in another year she was asked to give concerts and performances. Her music was rich and full, and her heart was poor and empty.

Years passed, and Abigail gave the performance of her career. It was before a sold-out audience, and it was written about in the papers. She walked out after the performance and the reception, with moonlight falling over soft grass and fireflies dancing, and something happened.

Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.

In the wind, Abigail heard music, and in the wind and the music Abigail heard all the things she had lost in her childhood. It was as if she had looked in an image and asked, “What is that wretched thing?” — and realized she was looking into a mirror. No, it was not quite that; it was as if in an instant her whole world was turned upside down, and her musical complexity she could not bear. She heard all over again the words, “Who have you been listening to?” — only, this time, she did not think them the words of a jealous monster, but words of concern, words of “Who has struck a blow against you?” She saw that she was blind and heard that she was deaf: that the hearing of complexity had not simply been an opening of her ears, but a wounding, a smiting, after which she could not know the concentrated presence a child had known, no matter how complex — or how simple — the music became. The sword cut deeper when she tried to sing songs from her childhood, at first could remember none, then could remember one — and it sounded empty — and she knew that the song was not empty. It was her. She lay down and wailed.

Suddenly, she realized she was not alone. An old man was watching her. Abigail looked around in fright; there was nowhere to run to hide. “What do you want?” she said.

“There is music even in your wail.”

“I loathe music.”

There was a time of silence, a time that drew uncomfortably long, and Abigail asked, “What is your name?”

The man said, “Look into my eyes. You know my name.”

Abigail stood, poised like a man balancing on the edge of a sword, a chasm to either side. She did not — Abigail shrieked with joy. “Daddy!

“It has been a long time since we’ve sat down at music, sweet daughter.”

“You don’t want to hear my music. I was ashamed of what we used to play, and I am now ashamed of it all.”

“Oh, child! Yes, I do. I will never be ashamed of you. Will you come and walk with me? I have a keyboard.”

As Abby’s fingers began to dance, she first felt as if she were being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The self-consciousness she had finally managed to banish in her playing was now there — ugly, repulsive — and then she was through it. She made a horrible mistake, and then another, and then laughed, and Abraham laughed with her. Abby began to play and then sing, serious, inconsequential, silly, and delightful in the presence of her father. It was as if shackles fell from her wrists, her tongue loosed — she thought for a moment that she was like a little girl again, playing at her father’s side, and then knew that it was better. What could she compare it to? She couldn’t. She was at a simplicity beyond complexity, and her father called forth from her music that she could never have done without her trouble. The music seemed like dance, like laughter; it was under and around and through her, connecting her with her father, a moment out of time.

After they had both sung and laughed and cried, Abraham said, “Abby, will you come home with me? My house has never been the same without you.”

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Stephanos

Buy The Spectacles: A Collection of Short Stories on Amazon.

The crown of Earth is the temple,
and the crown of the temple is Heaven.

Stephan ran to get away from his pesky sister—if nothing else he could at least outrun her!

Where to go?

One place seemed best, and his legs carried him to the chapel—or, better to say, the temple. The chapel was a building which seemed larger from the inside than the outside, and (though this is less remarkable than it sounds) it is shaped like an octagon on the outside and a cross on the inside.

Stephan slowed down to a walk. This place, so vast and open and full of light on the inside—a mystically hearted architect who read The Timeless Way of Building might have said that it breathed—and Stephan did not think of why he felt so much at home, but if he did he would have thought of the congregation worshipping with the skies and the seas, the rocks and the trees, and choir after choir of angels, and perhaps he would have thought of this place not only as a crown to earth but a room of Heaven.

What he was thinking of was the Icon that adorns the Icon stand, and for that matter adorns the whole temple. It had not only the Icons, but the relics of (from left to right) Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great. His mother had told Stephan that they were very old, and Stephan looked at her and said, “Older than email? Now that is old!” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them she smiled. “Older than email,” she said, “and electric lights, and cars, and a great many of the kinds of things in our house, and our country, and…” her voice trailed off. He said, “Was it as old as King Arthur?” She said, “It is older than even the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”

As he had kissed the relics, he had begun to understand that what made them important was something deeper than their old age. But he could not say what.

But now he opened the doors to the temple, smelled the faint but fragrant smell of incense—frankincense—and was surprised to see another Icon on the stand. (Oh, wait, he thought. There were frequently other Icons.) The Icon was Saint Mary of Egypt. (This Icon did not have any relics.) He looked at the Icon, and began to look into it. What was her story? He remembered the part of her story he liked best—when, very far from being a saint at the beginning of her life, she came to a church and couldn’t go in. An invisible force barred her, and a saint, the Mother of God, spoke to her through an Icon. Stephan vaguely remembered Father saying something about how it was also important how after years of fasting from everything but bread or vegetables, she was discovered but refused to go back to places that would still have been a temptation to her.

She was very gaunt, and yet that gauntness held fierce power. When he had looked into the Icon—or through it, as one looks through a window—he kissed her hand and looked at the royal doors, light doors with a kind of wooden mesh (it was beautiful) and a tower of three Icons each. The royal doors were at the center of the low, open wall that guarded the holy of holies within the temple, a special place crowned by the altar. The top two Icons told the place, not of the Annunciation to the Mother of God, but the Annunciation of the Mother of God. He looked into the pictures and saw the Annunciation of the Mother of God: not when the Archangel said, “Hail, O favored One! The Lord is with you,” but when the Virgin listened and replied, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

The spine of Eve’s sin was snapped.

Death and Hell had already begun to crumble.

After looking through these pictures—it was not enough to say that he simply looked at them, though it was hard to explain why—he turned around and was absorbed into the Icon painted as a mural on the sloped ceiling that was now before him.

If that was the answer to Eve’s sin, this was the answer to Adam’s sin.

The Icon was an Icon the color of sunrise—or was it sunset? Then he saw something he hadn’t seen before, even though this was one of his favorite Icons. It was an Icon of the Crucifixion, and he saw Christ at the center with rocks below—obedience in a garden of desolation had answered disobedience in a garden of delights—and beyond the rocks, the Holy City, and beyond the Holy City a sky with bands and whorls of light the color of sunrise. Now he saw for the first time that where Christ’s body met the sky there was a band of purest light around it. Christ had a halo that was white at the center and orange and red at the sides—fitting for the Christ who passed through the earth like a flame.

The flame made him think of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. This God sent his Son, who was also the One Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. In his teaching, in his friendship, in his healing the sick and raising the dead, every step he made was a step closer to this, the Cross. And yet he did this willingly.

Stephan turned, and for a moment was drawn to the mural to the right, which was also breathtakingly beautiful. Two women bore myrrh (the oil that newly chrismated Orthodox have just been anointed with) to perform a last service—the last service they could perform—to a dearly loved friend. And yet they found an empty tomb, and a majestic angel announcing news they would not have dared to hope: the Firstborn of the Dead entered death and death could not hold him. Its power had more than begun to crumble. But then Stephan turned back, almost sharply. Yes, this was glory. This was glory and majesty and beauty. But Stephan was looking for the beginning of triumph…

…and that was right there in the Icon the color of sunrise. The Cross in itself was the victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. However much it cost him, he never let go of his plan or his grace. Christ knew he could call for more than twelve legions of angels—but he never did. He walked the path the Father set before him to the very end.

Stephan stood, his whole being transported to the foot of the Cross. However long he spent there he did not know, and I do not know either. He looked through the Icon, and saw—tasted—the full victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around.

When he did look away, it was in the Light of that God. Everything now bore that Light. He went over to the relics of the patron saints of his land, and though they were much newer than the relics of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great, that didn’t seem to matter. It was like dust from another world—precious grains of sand from Heaven—and the Icon of Saint Herman of Alaska and Saint Innocent holding up a tiny building was richly colorful—”like a rainbow that has grown up,” he heard one of the grown-ups say.

Then he walked over to the Icon of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, holding a scroll that was open partway, with his letter to the Romans: “Let me be given to the wild beasts, for by their means I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the beasts, so that I may an”—but here the quotation stopped, leaving him wondering. That Icon itself was one of several old-looking, yellowed Icons—though not nearly the oldest around—held in a deep, rich brown wooden frame carved with grapevines and bunches of grapes, as many things in that room were carved (though some had intricate interwoven knots). Stephan said, “I want to be a martyr just like you, Saint Ignatius. Pray for me.”

Then he walked over to an Icon that was much smaller, but showed a man standing besides a rustic settlement with an outer wall and turrets and doors and buildings inside. It looked medieval to him, and he wished he could enter that world. It was darkened and yellowed and had a gold leaf sky, and something was written at the top, but he couldn’t read it because it was in a very old language: Old Slavonic.

Right by that Icon was Saint Anthony, the father of all monastics. He had a piercing gaze, and Stephan had the feeling he needed to confess something—but he couldn’t think of anything besides his bout with his sister, and she had been a pest. He looked away.

Stephan looked at the Icon on the left of the wall, and saw the prince, Saint Vladimir, with buildings and spires behind him that looked like they were having a party.

Then Stephan stood in front of the main Icon of the Mother of God holding God the Son, though he stood some distance back. The background was gold, and this drew him in a different way than the Icon of Saint Vladimir. This more than any other did not work like a photograph. (Or at least he was more aware of this now.) It might look odd to people who were just used to photographs, but you could say that a photograph was just a picture, but to say this was just a picture would show that you missed what kind of a picture you were looking at. But he had trouble thinking of how. He didn’t so much sense that he was looking inot the Icon as that the Mother of God and the Son of God were looking at him. He didn’t even think of the Icon being the Icon of the Incarnation and First Coming.

Then he looked at the Icon of the Last Judgment, where Christ the King and Lord and Judge returns holding a book of judgment, a book that is closed because there is nothing left to determine.

He thought intensely. The First Coming of Christ was in a stable, in a cave, and a single choir of angels sung his glory. The Second and Glorious Coming he will ride on the clouds, with legion on legion of angels with him. The First Coming was a mystery, one you could choose to disbelieve—as many people did. There will be no mistaking the Second Coming. In the First Coming, a few knees bowed. In the Second Coming, every knee will bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, some in bliss and rapture and others in utter defeat. At the First Coming, a lone star in the sky heralded Christ’s birth. At the Second Coming, the stars will fall to earth like overripe figs and the sky recede as a vanishing scroll.

What were those chilling, terrifying words of Christ? “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, lacking clothes and you did not give me the dignity of having clothes to wear.” Then the condemned will say, “Where did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty or sick or in prison and not take care of you?” And the King and Lord and Judge will say, “I most solemnly tell you, as much as you did not do it for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did not do it for me.”

Stephan looked at the Icon and said, “I wish Dad would let me give money to beggars when I see…” Then his voice trailed off. The words didn’t feel right in his mouth. He looked at the solemn love in the Icon, and then his mind was filled with the memory of his sister in tears.

He slowly backed down from the Icon, feeling the gaze of the King and Lord and Judge. He turned to almost run—he was in too holy of a place to run, and…

Something stopped him from leaving. After struggling inside, he looked around, and his eyes came to rest on the Icon of the Crucifixion that was the color of sunrise. Now he had not noticed them earlier this time, but he saw the Mother of God on one side and the beloved disciple on the earth. What had he just heard in church on Sunday? “Christ said to the beloved disciple, who is not here named because he is the image of every disciple, ‘Behold your Mother,’ and to his Mother, ‘Behold your Son.’ Listen to me very carefully. He did not say, ‘Behold another man who is also your son,’ but something much stranger and more powerful: ‘Behold your Son,’ because to be Orthodox is to become Christ.” Stephan started to think, “Gold for kingship, incense for divinity, myrrh for suffering—these are Christ’s gifts but he shares them with the Church, doesn’t he?” He looked up, and then looked down.

“But I need to go and apologize for hurting my sister.”

Then Christ’s icon walked out the door.

Within the Steel Orb

Surgeon General’s Warning

Part of the books behind the title had a reviewer say, “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise,” and possibly the same could be said of this dialogue, but it is laced with the spiritual poison of escape.

This title has its merits, enough so not to delete. However, I would warn that its spice is spiritual MSG.

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

The car pulled up on the dark cobblestones and stopped by the darker castle. The vehicle was silver-grey, low to the ground, and sleek. A—let us call him a man—opened the driver’s door on the right, and stood up, tall, dark, clad in a robe the color of the sky at midnight. Around the car he went, opened the door for his passenger, and once the passenger stepped out, made one swift motion and had two bags on his shoulder. The bags were large, but he moved as if he were accustomed to carrying far heavier fare. It was starlight out, and the moon was visible as moonlight rippled across a pool.

The guest reached for the bags. “Those are heavy. Let me—”

The host smiled darkly. “Do not worry about the weight of your bags.”

The host opened a solid greyblack door, of unearthly smoothness, and walked swiftly down a granite hallway, allowing his guest to follow. “You’ve had a long day. Let me get you something to drink.” He turned a door, poured something into two iridescent titanium mugs, and turned through another corridor and opened a door on its side. Inside the room were two deep armchairs and a low table.

“This is my first time traveling between worlds—how am I to address you?”

The host smiled. “Why do you wish to know more of my name? It is enough for you to call me Oinos. Please enjoy our welcome.”

The guest sipped his drink. “Cider?”

The host said, “You may call it that; it is a juice, which has not had artificial things done to make it taste like it just came out of its fruit regardless of how much it should have aged by the time you taste it. It is juice where time has been allowed to do its work.” He was holding a steel orb. “You are welcome here, Art.” Then—he barely seemed to move—there was a spark, and Oinos pulled a candle from the wall and set it on the table.

Art said, “Why not a fluorescent light to really light the room up?”

The host said, “For the same reason that you either do not offer your guests mocha at all, or else give them real mocha and not a mix of hot water, instant coffee, and hot cocoa powder. In our world, we can turn the room bright as day any time, but we do not often do so.”

“Aah. We have a lot to learn from you about getting back to nature.”

“Really? What do you mean by ‘getting back to nature’? What do you do to try to ‘get back to nature’?”

“Um, I don’t know what to really do. Maybe try to be in touch with the trees, not being cooped up inside all the time, if I were doing a better job of it…”

“If that is getting back in touch with nature, then we pay little attention to getting in touch with nature. And nature, as we understand it, is about something fundamentally beyond dancing on hills or sitting and watching waves. I don’t criticize you if you do them, but there is really something more. And I can talk with you about drinking juice without touching the natural processes that make cider or what have you, and I can talk with you about natural cycles and why we don’t have imitation daylight any time it would seem convenient. But I would like you to walk away with something more, and more interesting, than how we keep technology from being too disruptive to natural processes. That isn’t really the point. It’s almost what you might call a side effect.”

“But you do an awfully impressive job of putting technology in its place and not getting too involved with it.”

Oinos said, “Have you had enough chance to stretch out and rest and quench your thirst? Would you like to see something?”

“Yes.”

Oinos stood, and led the way down some stairs to a room that seemed to be filled with odd devices. He pushed some things aside, then walked up to a device with a square in the center, and pushed one side. Chains and gears moved, and another square replaced it.

“This is my workshop, with various items that I have worked on. You can come over here and play with this little labyrinth; it’s not completely working, but you can explore it if you take the time to figure it out. Come on over. It’s what I’ve been working on most recently.”

Art looked around, somewhat amazed, and walked over to the ‘labyrinth.’

Oinos said, “In your world, in classical Greek, the same word, ‘techne,’ means both ‘art’ and ‘technology.’ You misunderstand my kindred if you think we aren’t especially interested in technology; we have a great interest in technology, as with other kinds of art. But just as you can travel a long distance to see the Mona Lisa without needing a mass-produced Mona Lisa to hang in your bathroom, we enjoy and appreciate technologies without making them conveniences we need to have available every single day.”

Art pressed a square and the labyrinth shifted. “Have I come here to see technologies?”

Oinos paused. “I would not advise it. You see our technologies, or how we use them, because that is what you are most ready to see. Visitors from some other worlds hardly notice them, even if they are astonished when they are pointed out.”

Art said, “Then why don’t we go back to the other room?”

Oinos turned. “Excellent.” They went back, and Art sat down in his chair.

Art, after a long pause, said, “I still find it puzzling why, if you appreciate technology, you don’t want to have more of it.”

Oinos said, “Why do you find it so puzzling?”

“Technology does seem to add a lot to the body.”

“That is a very misleading way to put it. The effect of most technologies that you think of as adding to the body is in fact to undercut the body. The technologies that you call ‘space-conquering’ might be appropriately called ‘body-conquering.'”

“So the telephone is a body-conquering device? Does it make my body less real?”

“Once upon a time, long ago from your perspective, news and information could not really travel faster than a person could travel. If you were talking with a person, that person had to be pretty close, and it was awkward and inconvenient to communicate with those who were far away. That meant that the people you talked with were probably people from your local community.”

“So you were deprived of easy access to people far away?”

“Let me put it this way. It mattered where you were, meaning where your body was. Now, on the telephone, or instant messages, or the web, nothing and no one is really anywhere, and that means profound things for what communities are. And are not. You may have read about ‘close-knit rural communities’ which have become something exotic and esoteric to most of your world’s city dwellers… but when space conquering technologies had not come in, and another space-conquering technology, modern roads allowing easy moving so that people would have to say goodbye to face-to-face friendships every few years… It’s a very different way of relating. A close-knit rural community is exotic to you because it is a body-based community in ways that tend not to happen when people make heavy use of body-conquering, or space-conquering, or whatever you want to call them, technologies.”

“But isn’t there more than a lack of technologies to close-knit communities?”

“Yes, indeed… but… spiritual discipline is about much more than the body, but a lot of spiritual discipline can only shape people when people are running into the body’s limitations. The disciplines—worship, prayer, fasting, silence, almsgiving, and so on—only mean something if there are bodily limits you are bumping into. If you can take a pill that takes away your body’s discomfort in fasting, or standing through worship, then the body-conquering technology of that pill has cut you off from the spiritual benefit of that practice.”

“Aren’t spiritual practices about more than the body?”

“Yes indeed, but you won’t get there if you have something less than the body.”

Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”

Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”

Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”

Art hesitated, and began to sit up.

Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”

Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.

Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”

Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”

Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”

“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”

“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.

“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the minute difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”

“Um, I don’t know…”

“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”

“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”

“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”

“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”

“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”

“Would you explain relativity to me so that I can discuss its implications?”

“I really think there might be more productive ways to use your visit.”

“But you have a scientist’s understanding of relativity.”

“I am not sure I’d say that.”

“Why? You seem to understand relativity a lot more like a scientist than I do.”

“Let’s talk about biology for a moment. Do you remember the theory of spontaneous generation? You know, the theory that life just emerges from appropriate material?”

“I think so.”

“But your world’s scientists haven’t believed in spontaneous generation since over a century before you were born. Why would you be taught that theory—I’m assuming you learned this in a science class and not digging into history?”

“My science course explained the theory in covering historical background, even though scientists no longer believe that bread spontaneously generates mold.”

“Let me ask what may seem like a non-sequitur. I assume you’re familiar with people who are working to get even more of religion taken out of public schools?”

“Yes.”

“They are very concerned about official prayers at school events, right? About having schools endorse even the occasional religious practice?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Let me ask what may seem like a strange question. Have these ‘separation of Church and state’ advocates also advocated that geometry be taken out of the classroom?”

Art closed his eyes, and then looked at Oinos as if he had two heads. “It seems you don’t know everything about my world.”

“I don’t. But please understand that geometry did not originate as a secular technical practice. You migth have heard this mentioned. Geometry began its life as a ‘sacred science,’ or a religious practice, and to its founders the idea that geometry does not have religious content would have struck them as worse than saying that prayer does not have religious content.”

“Ok, I think I remember that being mentioned. So to speak, my math teacher taught about geometry the ‘sacred science’ the way that my biology teacher taught about the past theory of spontaneous generation.”

Oinos focused his eyes on Art. “In our schools, and in our training, physics, biology, and chemistry are ‘taught’ as ‘secular sciences’ the same way, in your school, spontaneous generation is taught as ‘past science’, or even better, the ‘sacred science’ of geometry is ‘taught’ in the course of getting on to a modern understanding of geometry.”

Art said, “So the idea that the terrain we call ‘biology’ is to you—”

Oinos continued: “As much something peered at through a glass bell as the idea that the terrain of regular polygons belongs to a secularized mathematics.”

“What is a sacred science?”

Oinos sat back. “If a science is about understanding something as self-contained whose explanations do not involve God, and it is an attempt to understand as physics understand, and the scientist understands as a detached observer, looking in through a window, then you have a secular science—the kind that reeks of the occult to us. Or that may sound strange, because in your world people proclaiming sacred sciences are proclaiming the occult. But let me deal with that later. A sacred science does not try to understand objects as something that can be explained without reference to God. A sacred science is first and foremost about God, not about objects. When it understands objects, it understands them out of God, and tries to see God shining through them. A sacred science has its home base in the understanding of God, not of inanimate matter, and its understanding of things bears the imprint of God. If you want the nature of its knowing in an image, do not think of someone looking in and observing, detached, through a window, but someone drinking something in.”

“Is everything a sacred science to you? And what is a sacred science? Astrology?”

“Something like that, except that I use the term ‘sacred science’ by way of accommodation. Our own term is one that has no good translation in your language. But let us turn to the stars.”

“Astrology is right in this: a star is more than a ball of plasma. Even in the Bible there is not always such a distinction between the ranks of angels and the stars as someone raised on materialist science might think.” He rose, and began to walk, gesturing for Art to follow him. In the passage, they turned and entered a door. Oinos lit a lamp next to an icon on the wall.

The icon looked like starlight. It showed angels praying at the left, and then the studded sapphiric canopy of the night sky behind a land with herbs shooting from the earth, and on the right an immense Man—if he was a Man—standing, his hand raised in benediction. All around the sapphire dome were some majestic figures, soaring aloft in two of their six wings. Art paused to drink it in.

“What are those symbols?”

“They are Greek letters. You are looking at an icon of the creation of the stars, but the text is not the text for that day; it is from another book, telling of the angels thunderously shouting for joy when the stars were created. So the stars are connected with the angels.”

“Is this astrology?”

“No, because the stars and angels both point to God. The influences in astrology point beyond matter to something else, but they do not point far enough beyond themselves. If you can use something to make a forecast that way, it doesn’t point far enough beyond itself.”

“Why not?”

“One definition to distinguish religion from magic—one used by anthropologists—is that religion is trying to come into contact with the divine, and magic is trying to control the divine. God cannot be controlled, and there is something of control in trying to foretell a future that God holds in mystery. A real God cannot be pried into by a skill. Astrology departs from a science that can only see stars as so much plasma, but it doesn’t go far enough to lead people to look into the stars and see a shadow of their Creator. To be a sacred science, it is not enough to point to something more than matter as secular science understands it; as the term is used in our language, one can only be a sacred science by pointing to God.”

“Then what is a sacred science? Which branches of learning as you break them up? Can they even be translated into my language?”

“You seem to think that if astrology is not a sacred science then sacred sciences must be something much more hidden. Not so. Farming is a sacred science, as is hunting, or inventing, or writing. When a monk makes incense, it is not about how much incense he can make per unit of time; his making incense is the active part of living contemplatively, and his prayer shows itself in physical labor. His act is more than material production; it is a sacred science, or sacred art or sacred endeavor, and what goes into and what comes out of the activity is prayer. Nor is it simply a matter that he is praying while he acts; his prayers matter for the incense. There are many lands from your world’s Desert Fathers to Mexico in your own day where people have a sense that it matters what state people cook in, and that cooking with love puts something into a dish that no money can buy. Perhaps you will not look at me askance when I say that not only monks in their monasteries exotically making incense for worship are performing a sacred science, but cooking, for people who may be low on the totem pole and who are not considered exotic, as much as for anyone else, can and should be a sacred science. Like the great work that will stay up with a sick child all night.”

“Hmm…” Art said, and then finished his tankard. “Have you traveled much?”

“I have not reached one in five of the galaxies with inhabited worlds. I can introduce you to people who have some traveling experience, but I am not an experienced traveler. Still, I have met sites worth visiting. I have met, learned, worshiped. Traveling in this castle I have drunk the blood of gems. There are worlds where there is nothing to see, for all is music, and song does everything that words do for you. I have beheld a star as it formed, and I have been part of an invention that moves forward as a thousand races in their laboratories add their devices. I have read books, and what is more I have spoken with members of different worlds and races. There seems to be no shortage of wonders, and I have even been to your own world, with people who write fantasy that continues to astonish us—”

“My son-in-law is big into fantasy—he got me to see a Lord of the whatever-it-was movie—but I don’t fancy them much myself.”

“We know about Tolkein, but he is not considered a source of astonishing fantasy to us.”

“Um…” Art took a long time to recall a name, and Oinos waited patiently. “Lewis?”

“If you’re looking for names you would have heard of, Voltaire and Jung are two of the fantasy authors we consider essential. Tolkein and Lewis are merely imaginative. It is Voltaire and Jung who are truly fantasy authors. But there are innumerable others in your world.”

Art said, “Um… what do you mean by ‘fantasy author’?”

Oinos turned. “I’m sorry; there is a discrepancy between how your language uses ‘fantasy author’ and ours. We have two separate words that your ‘fantasy’ translates, and the words stand for very different concepts. One refers to works of imagination that are set in another world that is not confused with reality. The other refers to a fundamental confusion that can cost a terrible price. Our world does not produce fiction; we do appreciate the fiction of other worlds, but we do not draw a particularly strong line between fiction where only the characters and events are imagined, and fiction where the whole world is imagined. But we do pay considerable attention to the second kind of fantasy, and our study of fantasy authors is not a study of imagination but a study of works that lead people into unreality. ‘Fantasy author’ is one of the more important terms in understanding your world and its history.”

Art failed to conceal his reaction.

“Or perhaps I was being too blunt. But, unfashionable as it may be, there is such a thing as evil in your world, and the ways in which people live, including what they believe, has something to do with it. Not everything, but something.”

Oinos waited for a time. Then, when Art remained silent, he said, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” He opened a door on the other side of the room, and went into the next room. The room was lit by diffuse moonlight, and there was a ledge around the room and water which Oinos stirred with his hand to light a phosphorescent glow. When Art had stepped in, Oinos stepped up, balancing on a steel cable, and stood silent for a while. “Is there anything here that you can focus on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Step up on this cable and take my hand.”

“What if I fall into the water?”

Art tried to balance, but it seemed even more difficult in the dark. For a while, he tried to keep his balance with Oinos’s help, but he seemed barely up. He overcompensated twice in opposite directions, began flying into the water, and was stopped at last by Oinos’s grip, strong as steel, on his arm.

“I can’t do this,” Art said.

“Very well.” Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.

“What is it?”

“A telescope, not too different from those of your world.”

Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, “Do you see that body?”

“What is it?”

“A small moon.”

Oinos said, “I want you to look at it as closely as you can,” and then pulled something on the telescope.

“It’s moving out of sight.”

“That’s right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them.”

“Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?”

“This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation.”

Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.

Art said, “This is a hard telescope to control.”

Oinos said, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

“Can you turn the tracking back on?”

Oinos merely repeated, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view… and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.

Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.

“Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?”

“We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it’s not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly.”

“Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?”

“Maybe you aren’t pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?”

Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.

Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn’t have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.

He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.

It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.

Then Art realized he was exhausted, and began to sit down; Oinos pulled him to a bench.

After closing his eyes for a while, Art said, “This was a magnificent break from your teaching.”

“A break from teaching? What would you mean?”

Art sat, opened his mouth, and then closed it. After a while, he said, “I was thinking about what you said about fantasy authors… do you think there is anything that can help?”

Oinos said, “Let me show you.” He led Art into a long corridor with smooth walls and a round arch at top. A faint blue glow followed them, vanishing at the edges. Art said, “Do you think it will be long before our world has full artificial intelligence?”

Oinos said, “Hmm… Programming artificial intelligence on a computer is not that much more complex than getting a stone to lay an egg.”

Art said, “But our scientists are making progress. Your advanced world has artificial intelligence, right?”

Oinos said, “Why on earth would we be able to do that? Why would that even be a goal?”

“You have computers, right?”

“Yes, indeed; the table that I used to call up a scientific calculator works on the same principle as your world’s computers. I could almost say that inventing a new kind of computer is a rite of passage among serious inventors, or at least that’s the closest term your world would have.”

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

“I know that computers don’t have emotions yet, but they seem to have rationality down cold.”

“Do they?”

“Are you actually going to tell me that computers, with their math and logic, aren’t rational?”

“Let me ask you a question. Would you say that the thing you can hold, a thing that you call a book, can make an argument?”

“Yes; I’ve seen some pretty good ones.”

“Really? How do paper and ink think out their position?”

Art hesitated, and said, “Um, if you’re going to nitpick…”

“I’m not nitpicking. A book is a tool of intelligent communication, and they are part of how people read author’s stories, or explanation of how to do things, or poetry, or ideas. But the physical thing is not thereby intelligent. However much you think of a book as making an argument, the book is incapable of knowing what an argument is, and for that matter the paper and ink have no idea of whether they contain the world’s best classic, or something mediocre, or incoherent accusations that world leaders are secretly planning to turn your world to dog drool, or randomly generated material that is absolute gibberish. The book may be meaningful to you, but the paper with ink on it is not the sort of thing that can understand what you recognize through the book.

“This might ordinarily be nitpicking, but it says something important about computers. One of the most difficult things for computer science instructors in your world to pound through people’s heads is that a computer does not get the gist of what you are asking it to do and overlook minor mistakes, because the computer has no sense of what you are doing and no way to discern what were trying to get it to do from a mistake where you wrote in a bug by telling it to do something slightly different from what you meant. The computer has no sense that a programmer meant anything. A computer follows instructions, one after another, whether or not they make sense, and indeed without being able to wonder whether they make sense. To you, a program may be a tool that acts as an electronic shopping cart to let you order things through the web, but the web server no more understands that it is being used as a web server than a humor book understands that it is meant to make people laugh. Now most or all of the books you see are meant to say something—there’s not much market for a paperback volume filled with random gibberish—but a computer can’t understand that it is running a program written for a purpose any more than a book can understand that the ink on its pages is intended for people to read.”

Art said, “You don’t think artificial intelligence is making real progress? They seem to keep making new achievements.”

Oinos said, “The rhetoric of ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now; we’re on the verge of full artificial intelligence, and with what we’re achieving, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner’ is not new: people have been saying that full artificial intelligence is just around the corner since before you were born. But breeding a better and better kind of apple tree is not progress towards growing oranges. Computer science, and not just artificial intelligence, has gotten good at getting computers to function better as computers. But human intelligence is something else… and it is profoundly missing the point to only realize that the computer is missing a crucial ingredient of the most computer-like activity of human rational analysis. Even if asking a computer to recognize a program’s purpose reflects a fundamental error—you’re barking up the wrong telephone pole. Some people from your world say that when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The most interesting thing about the mind is not that it can do something more complete when it pounds in computer-style nails. It’s something else entirely.”

“But what?”

“When things are going well, the ‘computer’ that performs calculating analysis is like your moon: a satellite, that reflects light from something greater. Its light is useful, but there is something more to be had. The sun, as it were, is that the mind is like an altar, or even something better. It takes long struggles and work, but you need to understand that the heart of the mind is at once practical and spiritual, and that its greatest fruit comes not in speech but in silence.”

Art was silent for a long time.

Oinos stopped, tapped a wall once, and waited as an opening appeared in the black stone. Inside an alcove was a small piece of rough hewn obsidian; Oinos reached in, took it, and turned it to reveal another side, finely machined, with a series of concentric ridged grooves centered around a tiny niche. “You asked what a kairometer was, and this is a kairometer, although it would take you some time to understand exactly what it is.”

“Is it one of the other types of computers in your world?”

“Yes. I would call it information technology, although not like the information technology you know. It is something people come back to, something by which people get something more than they had, but it does this not so much according to its current state as to our state in the moment we are using it. It does not change.” Oinos placed the object in Art’s hands.

Art slowly turned it. “Will our world have anything like this?”

Oinos took the kairometer back and returned it to its niche; when he withdrew his hand, the opening closed with a faint whine. “I will leave you to find that yourself.”

Oinos began walking, and they soon reached the end of the corridor. Art followed Oinos through the doorway at the end and gasped.

Through the doorway was something that left Art trying to figure out whether or not it was a room. It was a massive place, lit by a crystalline blue light. As Art looked around, he began to make sense of his surroundings: there were some bright things, lower down, in an immense room with rounded arches and a dome at the top, made of pure glass. Starlight streamed in. Art stepped through the doorway and sunk down a couple of inches.

Oinos stooped for a moment, and then said, “Take off your shoes. They are not needed here.” Art did so, and found that he was walking on a floor of velveteen softness. In the far heart of the room a thin plume of smoke arose. Art could not tell whether he smelled a fragrance, but he realized there was a piercing chant. Art asked, “What is the chant saying?”

Oinos did not answer.

What was the occasion? Art continued to look, to listen, and began trying to drink it in. It almost sounded as if they were preparing to receive a person of considerable importance. There was majesty in the air.

Oinos seemed to have slipped away.

Art turned and saw an icon behind him, hanging on the glass. There was something about it he couldn’t describe. The icon was dark, and the colors were bright, almost luminous. A man lay dreaming at the bottom, and something reached up to a light hidden in the clouds—was it a ladder? Art told himself the artistic effect was impressive, but there was something that seemed amiss in that way of looking at it.

What bothered him about saying the icon had good artistic effect? Was the artistry bad? That didn’t seem to be it. He looked at a couple of areas of artistic technique, but it was difficult to do so; such analysis felt like a foreign intrusion. He thought about his mood, but that seemed to be the wrong place to look, and almost the same kind of intrusion. There seemed to be something shining through the icon; looking at it was like other things he had done in this world, only moreso. He was looking through the icon and not around it, but… Art had some sense of what it was, but it was not something he could fit into words.

After being absorbed in the icon, Art looked around. There must have been hundreds of icons around, and lights, and people; he saw what seemed like a sparse number of people—of Oinos’s kind—spread out through the vast space. There was a chant of some kind that changed from time to time, but seemed to somehow be part of the same flow. Things seemed to move very slowly—or move in a different time, as if clock time were turned on its side, or perhaps as if he had known clock time as it was turned on its side and now it was right side up—but Art never had the sense of nothing going on. There seemed to always be something more going on than he could grasp.

Art shifted about, having stood for what seemed like too long, sat down for a time, and stood up. The place seemed chaotic, in a way cluttered, yet when he looked at the “clutter,” there was something shining through, clean as ice, majestic as starlight, resonant as silence, full of life as the power beneath the surface of a river, and ordered with an order that no rectangular grid could match. He did not understand any of the details of the brilliant dazzling darkness… but they spoke to him none the less.

After long hours of listening to the chant, Art realized with a start that the fingers of dawn had stolen all around him, and he saw stone and verdant forest about the glass walls until the sunlight began to blaze. He thought, he though he could understand the song even as its words remained beyond his reach, and he wished the light would grow stronger so he could see more. There was a crescendo all about him, and—

Oinos was before him. Perhaps for some time.

“I almost understand it,” Art said. “I have started to taste this world.”

Oinos bowed deeply. “It is time for you to leave.”

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Spirit

Links: Read anything good lately?

Dexios: An article that tries to catch you by beginning, “They really should have put it into my contract: I, the undersigned, hereby agree to spend one-half to three-quarters of all class time explaining why watching Dawson’s Creek and thinking vague thoughts about God is not a valid substitute for attending mass.” The students weren’t affected by the usual exhortations, until she happened on a visit to monastic worship.

Links: …And?

Dexios: The students were perfectly welcome, but the monks were there worshipping God and the students were welcome to join the monks worshipping God. And that got their attention when a whole legion of ill-starred attempts to get their attention failed. One student said, “With all the other masses, it’s like it was all about me or something. With this mass, I got the feeling it was about God.” And that succeeded where words about “It’s commanded,” or “It’s good for you,” failed.

The students weren’t really asking “Why should I go to mass?” at all; they said that because they couldn’t form the words to ask what they really meant.

Links: And that was…?

Dexios: “Why should I go to that mass?”

Links: Wow. I’m surprised you’re siding with a bunch of rebellious—how old are they?

Dexios: Students at a Catholic high school. And as to rebellious—teenagers are likely to rebel and be rebels without a cause if they have too much trouble finding a good enough cause, but there’s something that has to do with spirit that isn’t rebellious at all. They rejected counterfeit coin.

Links: “Spirit?” As in—

Dexios: Um, as in—[pause]

Links: —as in something you’re thinking about?

Dexios: Yes.

Links: So you’re saying these students were super spiritual?

Dexios: Yes. No. Saying that they’re super spiritual is an answer to the wrong question. Sure, I’d love to bring two (or however many it was) busloads of kids to our parish and show them how Orthodox worship is taken seriously even if you’re not monks, but if you’re thinking of spirit as some special quality that has an incense rising up from the best people’s heads, that’s exactly what it’s not. I would say it’s natural, if people hadn’t heard a million voices saying that appetite is the only thing that’s natural about us. These kids weren’t showing spirit because they were being urged to be spirit enough to want real worship and not a show—if anything, they were spirit enough for that despite people urging them that shows dressed up as worship were good enough for them. And the author of the article didn’t say that every now and then she sees a kid with a halo and that kid wants a real worship service, and is so spiritually snobbish that only a monastic service will satisfy him. (She said the services were “relaxed, by monastic standards,” whatever that means.) What she was saying was that everyday, normal kids kept asking her why they should go to mass until she showed them…

A real mass. Or rather, one where monks were there to worship God and other people were quite welcome to join them in worshipping God.

Links: [pause] In Spirit and in Truth.

Dexios: In Spirit and in Truth. And I realized just now that the article has more going on in it than just spirit. It has a million other substitutes for spirit that people aren’t happy with. Maybe it wasn’t just spirit that resonated with me.

Links: Where else?

Dexios: Maybe your art history education simply talked about different eras and cultures choosing different strengths to develop—

Links: —it did—

Dexios: —but in mine there was a story of progress: at first medieval art was crude, and then changes began in medieval art that resulted in art getting better and better at being like a photograph until eventually artists weren’t an expensive substitute for a photograph. The history of Western art was a history of progress, starting with medieval art that didn’t look like a good photograph up to Enlightenment neo-classicism that could give a good photograph a run for its money. Which is exactly right, except that it’s backwards.

Links: Let me guess. You’re going to say that the medieval art was spiritual, or spirit?

Dexios: Something like that, because the baseline for medieval art was similar to icons. They hadn’t gone to such scientific lengths to get a scientifically correct rendition of the human body for the mirror image of why pastors get their science illustrations wrong. Pastors and theologians get their science wrong because their focus is on theology and just a little science is brought in to make a point—and the fact that the science is usually wrong shows that their hearts are in the right place. But scientific art, unlike medieval art but like “The Oaths of the Horatii” by Jacques Louis David, for which he sketched first skeletons and then muscles and then bodies and only then painted bodies complete with clothes, represents a fall from a spiritual center of gravity.

Links: But the material world is good, and understanding it is good.

Dexios: Um…

Links: Which of those do you want to deny?

Dexios: Do you believe I have to deny that the material world is good? Or, alternately, that understanding the material world is good?

Links: Unless you want to say some very strange things about science.

Dexios: Ugh, I was hoping to avoid saying strange things about science. But first of all, you seem to be treating “understanding the natural world” and “science” as interchangeable, so that it is inconceivable what “understanding the human body” could mean besides “learning scientific facts about the body.”

Links: And how exactly would I learn about the body apart from science?

Dexios: Let’s see, you could look Appreciate art that portrays the human form, or discover how your body behaves by playing Baseball, or have a Chiropractic massage, if there is such a thing, or Dance, or—

Links: —didn’t you say something about “alignment of the stars, alignment of the bones…” yesterday?

Dexios: You interrupted me! I was hoping to work my way up to something profound. But let’s put massage under ‘M‘ and forget about the alignment of the bones. I don’t want to get into alternative medicine, besides saying that it seems a hint that people have some sense that their bodies have to have more to do with spirit than the almost mechanical view of “Western medicine”, which is powerful and yet considered narrow in some circles.

And now for something related to the other horn for your dilemma.

Having enough to eat is good. So is having clothing, and a roof over your head in nasty weather. But the Sermon on the Mount tells us not to seek after these things: yes, we need them, and the Heavenly Father knows this well enough. But we are to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and his perfect righteousness, making our center of gravity there, and making a spiritual center of gravity. Oh, and by the way, the other things will be given to us as well, even though that isn’t the point. The point, if I may use slightly non-Sermon-on-the-Mount language, is to have a spiritual center of gravity.

Links: But aren’t you changing the subject of the Sermon on the Mount? Unless you talk about being poor in spirit, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t use the word “spirit.”

Dexios: Matthew’s Gospel talks about the Kingdom of Heaven and John’s talks about abundant or eternal Life. As concepts they are not identical but you cannot treat them as dealing with separate realities, which would make the crudest fallacy. The Sermon on the Mount barely uses the word “spirit,” but nothing from the ages is a better resource on living as spirit. And the distinction between ‘Spirit’, big ‘S’, and ‘spirit’, little ‘s’, is not what you think.

Links: What do you mean?

Dexios: The distinction doesn’t exist in Greek, or at least is not forced in that if you write “spirit” you have to decide if it has a big or little ‘s’. A lot of people think they need to place a vast chasm between big ‘S’ spirit and little ‘s’ spirit so that it’s almost two different words. But body is not so much the opposite of spirit as where spirit unfurls, and our spirits, little ‘s’, are not so much the opposite of the Holy Spirit as where God’s Spirit unfurls.

But this is a minor point. Nitpicking about a little or big ‘S’ on “Spirit”, I mean. Body is profoundly important. Far from being a mere enemy of spirit, it is a proper counterpart, and that means that when you know the proper meaning of body, you know that it is where spirit unfurls, and the difference between a holy icon and secular art is not that secular art takes a high view of the body in contrast to holy icons, but icons take a high view of the body by letting it get inspired by spirit. Literally and figuratively, body is meant to be where spirit unfurls, and the monk who lives a life of “contemplation” and the “secular” Christian who lives contemplation in the world are both spirit at work. But may I make a more concrete illustration of spirit? In social ethics, perhaps?

Links: What are Orthodox social ethics?

Dexios: “Our social program is the Trinity,” as Orthodox seem to not be able to stop repeating. I’m not sure you have to say “Trinity” instead of, say, plugging in spirit, but what it is becomes clearer by contrast with Catholic social ethics. Catholic social ethics addresses a question that isn’t addressed in the Bible, or at least looks at its question in a very different light.

Links: What did they see? A better way to solve an old problem?

Dexios: Well, that would at least be their interpretation, and when they present things their way, it’s kind of hard to see any other way of seeing it.

Links: What is the basic question?

Dexios: The basic question they address is, “What should be done about the poor,” and the way they interpret that question is, “What societal structures should be erected so that poverty isn’t the same sort of issue?”

Links: But isn’t that how the problem is approached today?

Dexios: Maybe, but its differences from how the Gospel interprets the problem are profound. If you look in the Bible, poverty looms large. Where the Old Testament theocracy had done things by force, the New Testament calls people to responsibility and generosity. “Give to the one who asks of you” and all that. But nowhere in the Gospel is there an agenda for societal reform. There are no quasi-statist outlines for how the government should take from the rich and redistribute to the poor: Christians are told what they should do, not how the government should approach things differently.

It is not, in terms of the Gospel precepts, an improvement to go from people learning to be sons of God and in their sonship exercising almsgiving and generosity as profound and powerful spiritual discipline, to coercion that transfers other people’s resources while denying them the power to choose and all but snatching from their hand most opportunities to be generous. It is apparently perceived that by thinking in the terms of secular ideologies in imitation of various secular and anti-Christian movements, the Catholic Church is growing enough to take an effective approach that will make a real difference. Or perhaps it is not growth but a failure to understand what exactly is going on in Christ’s movement.

Links: But the New Testament is not pure capitalism.

Dexios: Indeed not. I operate within a capitalist system because that is where God has placed me; but that doesn’t mean that I have to make capitalism my God.

Links: I’ve read that in the ancient Church there were some rather communist people who were big into selling lands and liquidating property.

Dexios: Yes, and they are not a support for imposing communism.

Links: They seem pretty communist in what they chose to me.

Dexios: They seem pretty communist in what they chose to me too. The Bible has high praise for people who in their sonship choose to give away everything that makes them wealthy. I’ve heard today about one man who gave away his Ferrari to become a monk. That discipleship is singularly beautiful, and it is not the same thing as imposing a plan that takes away other people’s wealth and the opportunity to even be generous in giving it away. There are few things a capitalist community needs more than the salt and light of people who show that there are bigger things in life than wealth.

But that does not mean that the high virtue of selling one’s property and giving away the proceeds should be forced and have its virtue and power flattened out. The story of Ananias and Sapphira seems to have a clear point. Ananias and Sapphira owned their property and were under no obligation to sell it. When they did sell it, although they pretended to lay all of the money at the apostles’ feet they were under no obligation to donate any of it, let alone all of it. Their sin was in lying to God and saying that they had given everything when they kept something back. For that sin alone God struck them both dead. Even if the story implies something deeper about selling one’s property and laying the proceeds about the apostles’ point, it gets to that point by explicitly saying that there is no obligation to give. Which perhaps suggests that giving at its best is not a matter of what is required but the deiform, Christian, flowing, free virtue of generosity which is infinitely more than duty.

Links: I think I am beginning to see what’s wrong with thinking Acts encourages communism.

Dexios: I should hastily clarify that most of the Catholic social teaching I’ve read does not endorse communism; they take somewhat different positions but the general drift is that even though the encyclicals adopt features of socialism, socialism and communism were off limits to Catholics.

Links: Then why try so hard to show that the New Testament endorses voluntary giving rather than involuntary communism?

Dexios: Because people trying to get you to see things the Catholic social ethics say, in effect, “Why are you fussing so much about us asking for a few coercive measures to give from the rich to the poor? Can’t you see that the New Testament waxes eloquent about the glory of Early Church communism, which goes much further than the modest and sensible measures we happen to ask for?” But it doesn’t—perhaps Christians in their discipleship and giving went further than these social reforms would ask for; they went further in that. But the “communism” in the New Testament was a matter of voluntary discipleship and generosity, not coercion. And therefore the New Testament is a profound warrant to rising above greed and giving up possessions, but that passage at least is not a warrant for the kind of social reform it is used to endorse.

Links: If I can sum up what you’re saying, you’re saying, “Care for the poor in the Gospel is an aspect of spirit and discipleship, and by trying to institute compulsory programs that destroy the opportunity for voluntary generosity, you’re destroying the opportunity for spiritual discipleship.” Correct?

Dexios: That is correct.

Links: Then what do they say to that objection? Or do they not address it?

Dexios: Um… that is hard to unravel. Do you want me to try?

Links: At least try.

Dexios: Are you familiar with behaviorism? Behaviorism’s fallen out of favor, but it is a psychological school that dealt with how people behave after reward and punishment—but with no acknowledgment of emotions, beliefs, or other internal states—

Links: How does that draw people?

Dexios: That’s not clear to me, but it was influential. At any rate, and this is the analogy I’m trying to draw, that in behaviorist teaching, people do not say, “There is no soul,” but they draw the student to look at things so that the possibility of a soul is never even considered. This was said to introduce Michael Polanyi, a philosopher who worked with tacit and personal scientific knowledge. Similarly, the Catholic social ethics sources I’ve read do not raise the objection of sonship and voluntary giving to explicitly rebut it, but rather frame things so that concept is never even thought of or considered.

There are a couple of ways of doing this, but besides not considering it, they quote Biblical and patristic praise for voluntary giving as a straightforward example for why we should support coercive social programs. No explanation is offered; no acknowledgment is given that giving as a matter of New Testament spiritual discipleship could be something other than a support for institutional and partly statist programs that work by coercion. Most readers, I expect, will look at things the way they’re supposed to see, and think that New Testament praise of giving applies to giving through social programs.

One thing that did surprise me was that it wasn’t just conservatives who were offering criticism. There were apparently some people on the left who were all for social programs and planning, but weren’t entirely thrilled that the Pope was entering their domain. It might have come across as an intrusion from another domain, like advice to mathematicians on how to solve the 3x+1 problem.

Links: The 3x+1 problem? What’s that?

Dexios: Take a counting number; if it’s even, divide by two, but if it’s odd, multiply by three and add one. If you get a calculator and keep doing this, you’ll see that any number you try gives 4, then 2, then 1, then cycles back to 4, 2, 1, etc. But even though if you’ll do this many times and the same thing keeps happening, it’s proven obnoxiously hard to prove that the thing that happens every time you try does, in fact, happen no matter what number you start with. A lot of mathematicians have spent a lot of effort without solving it, but actually solving the problem has proven as elusive as designing a society without problems, or at least without major ones. Solving the problem will be an incredibly big deal, maybe the mathematical event of the century, should it ever be solved.

But can you imagine how the mathematical community would respond if the Vatican tried to advise it on the most productive way to try to solve the 3x+1 problem?

Links: Um… but the Papacy is not ordinarily associated with authority in mathematics. Isn’t ethics a little less unusual of a thing for the Vatican to be talking about?

Dexios: It’s not strange that a Pope was talking about ethics; the surprising thing is that the Pope was answering a question that has little in the way of spirit. Almost every little question and every specific answer in these encyclicals is about what is to be coerced. The encyclicals manage to talk about care for the poor without almost ever exhorting Catholics and the rich to be generous. The idea that caring for the poor could be an occasion for virtue has remnants here and there, but the basic substance of the answer was in terms of what coercive mechanisms should take of those who have, not how the rich should voluntarily give or how people should grow in virtue.

Spirit is not something abstract from daily decisions; it is present, among other things, in being generous to beggars and allowing your money and what you do with it to be progressively transformed into spirit. When the question of caring for the poor becomes something where one person’s generosity is ridiculed and the question is framed as what should be coercively taken from people and made as a coerced gift without generosity, then an area that has much room for spirit to be manifest is drained of spirit.

Other criticisms came that papal teaching was Utopian, that it was a thinly disguised Marxism, and I forget what else—there was one encyclical entitled “Mater et Magistra”, “Mother and Teacher”, and one pundit said there was something making the rounds about “Mother, yes; teacher, no.” Usually the critiques came from conservatives, but there were liberals who wished the Vatican would proclaim the Gospel. Maybe I’m being naive, but it doesn’t seem impossible to me that atheists who are big into social planning, and who do not believe in the Gospel, none the less think that the Pope can give something by preaching the Gospel that they with their social plans cannot. I think there’s a lot of respect in that. What I would suggest is running through most, if not necessarily all, is that once upon a time the Pope used his authority to make saints, and now he seems to be exchanging his birthright for something much less, making social blueprints.

Links: But you must acknowledge that society is better off for such efforts, right?

Dexios: There is a certain set of blind spots that accompanies those assumptions; it is blind spots, I suggest, that has people look at pre-Vatican-II Catholics living in terms of spirit, giving to the world as saints, and caring for the poor in their generosity, and treat that as something murky and confused that Catholics have outgrown in the progress since Vatican II.

One of the things that comes with the social prescriptions, alongside a coercive character that stunts generosity, is that whatever the solution is, the answer is an institution, perhaps a state organization or something done by it. And no one questions whether this is the best way to do things; one would think it was the only way conceivable. But in fact it is not the only way.

In the ancient world, a great many things that have today been transformed into big, impersonal institutions—charity, hospitality, medicine, what would today be insurance, manufacture and production, commerce, and so on and so forth—were handled by smaller and more personal institutions. I might comment by the way that it’s lost on most people today is that when women were associated with the home that meant they were associated with the beating heart of charity, hospitality, manufacture, and many other things, so that the image of the depressed housewife with no company and nothing but housework to do is as anachronous to read into the ancient world as telephones or the internet: what feminism is reacting to is not the traditional society’s place for women, but what is left of it after that place, and most of what is connected to it, is torn to shreds.

Even today there are some things we do not relegate to impersonal institutions—romantic love and friendship, for instance. And I don’t know if there is a resurgence of home business due to the internet—perhaps certain modern changes cannot represent the last word.

But when Popes started to decide they needed a social teaching to fill out a deficiency, everything besides being coerced is filtered through impersonal institutions. And though one may see a pause once or twice to make fun of people being generous to beggars the way they did on the ancient world, the vision of progress does not stop to question whether filtering everything through a big institution was a big idea. I haven’t read through all the sources, but I haven’t read anything yet that stopped to explain “Here’s why John 3:16 did not say, ‘For God so loved the world that he formed a sanitized, impersonal organization.'”

Perhaps I am asking society to open a door that was forever closed; the earliest encyclicals tried to resurrect medieval-style guilds, and it is not clear to me why other sources mock this decision to try to resurrect a vibrant institution that worked long and well in one time in favor of speculation about institutions not proven to work in any time. My point is not that many things are done by impersonal organization today but that when the Catholic Church opens its mouth for social teaching, no one seems to consider that anything besides an impersonal organization powered by coercion could be desirable. By contrast, our social program is spirit: God so continues to love the world that he continues to send his saints, his sons, that whosoever believes through their life of spirit and their divine love might have eternal life from his only-begotten Son. (And a million smaller and less eternal changes, too.)

Links: So then another way to get at the point of “Our social program is the Trinity” is to say, “The Orthodox Church’s approach to living socially does not need a Utopian blueprint for society.”

Would I be correct in hearing queer quotes when you use the word “progress”?

Dexios: I usually hear “fashions” when I read a Catholic social ethicist writing about progress. It is progress given the assumptions of a particular perspective, and (usually) given a lack of understanding of what was moving away. Again to return to my example of depracating pre-Vatican-II days when Catholics tried to become saints and, I would say, benefit society by becoming spirit—and the “progress” to an activist approach to society—what we have is not a movement from the less advanced to the more advanced but a fashion shift from something that has fallen out of favor to something that will presumably fall out of favor. And in this case, a step back.

Links: What do you mean?

Dexios: To borrow an image which Catholic author Peter Kreeft borrowed from C.S. Lewis, ancient ethics asked three ethical questions while modern ethics answers one (usually, but maybe two). To visualize these questions with the image of a fleet of ships at sea, the first question is how the ships can avoid bumping into each other, and this question is shared by ancient and modern ethics. The second question is how the ships can keep shipshape and maintain themselves inside, and even though this question cannot really be separated from the first question, only some modern ethics addresses it. The third question, which is the most important one, is why the ships are out at sea in the first place.

If we look at the depracated, Orthodox model of becoming saints and being Heavenly minded enough to be of earthly good, then on a proper understanding that approach is something that says something to answer each of these questions; on that count at least, it is robust. If we look at the activist model, then things are reduced to one question, how the ships can be kept from bumping into each other, perhaps forcibly. It does reasonably well given that narrowing of focus, but it only answers that one question.

Now I would suggest that it is dubiously a moral advance to addressing three major questions to addressing one. Perhaps moral depth cannot always be settled by counting questions addressed, but this moral “advance” has been achieved by almost completely shutting off two out of three substantial questions. Which would appear to be not progress, but impoverishment.

Links: I think I can see how when you see the word “progress” you want to supply an English translation of “fashion”. Or would you rather say “regress”?

Dexios: I don’t want to analyze whether “regress” would be true, but I would rather speak of “fashion.” When fashions shift, people go from emphasizing some things to others. People become sensitized to some things and blinded to others. And, perhaps, sometimes, there will be real regress some times and real progress others. But there is a tendency for a fashion to see its waxing popular as progress, and I wish people could have the ability to say, “Maybe this is progress, maybe this is regress, and maybe this is just a fashion shift that, like most fashion shifts, looks like genuine progress once you adopt its peculiar sharp sensitivities and its pecular blind spots.” And no fashion shift is devoid of spirit, but if you are looking for where spirit is to be found, the house of fashion delivers less than it promises.

Links: It seems to me that Utopian dreams have never been fully realized but they have been realized somewhat, and that makes a big difference. You know that the wealthy nations may owe some of their wealth to oppression but some of it is due to the Utopian dreams of Adam Smith among others, who have discovered Midas’s secret?

Dexios: Don’t you mean Midas’s curse?

Links: Don’t you mean Midas’s blessing?

Dexios: In the story of Midas, Midas gained the “blessing” of turning everything he touched to gold. And it was wonderful, or it seemed wonderful, to kick pebbles and watch gold nuggets fall to earth. But then food turned to inedible gold, and drink likewise, and if I understand the story correctly he embraced his daughter only to have her reduced to nothing but a golden statue. Then he began to be blessed, and spiritual gold was forged when he realized that maybe turning everything to gold wasn’t such a good idea. Unfortunately, we haven’t gained the same transformation to spiritual gold when we are bombarded by advertisements.

Malcolm Muggeridge said that nothing proves “Man does not live by bread alone” like discovering the secret of mass-producing bread, and we have not only enough bread for everybody but enough meat for most beggars to eat meat regularly. People say, “I’m not rich; I’m in debt,” and have no idea that they can purchase a month’s food without suffering real financial injury. Which, to a great many people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, might as well be the ability to buy a BMW without facing any real financial obstacles. It seems for many of us by definition rich means “having more money than us because we couldn’t possibly be rich.”

Links: What’s the downside?

Dexios: One U.S. woman was visiting a woman in Central America, I forget where. They were having coffee when she looked around her hostess’s kitchen and met a dawning realization… “There isn’t any food on your shelves.”

“No… but there will be… and it’s a good thing that I don’t have any food now, because if I had it, why would I need to trust God for? But I will have food later…”

Links: We’re spiritual kindergardeners, aren’t we?

Dexios: If even that. That woman is spirit. She is sonship and sainthood. She is the Sermon on the Mount, and if we patronize her when we patronize “those less fortunate than ourselves,” we might also patronize St. Francis of Assisi for not knowing how to make a difference in the world. Not that I envy her poverty. But I envy her finding the Sermon on the Mount in her poverty, and it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to have what she has.

If capitalism is the most effective Utopian vision, it produces a Utopia for spoiled children. It may well deliver what the Utopian specifics in Catholic social teaching wouldn’t get working, but what capitalism delivers and what much Catholic Utopianism tries to deliver does not make people better, or nobler, or wiser. In the particular classically liberal capitalist socities I know, most people have about as many creature comforts as we know how to make—air conditioning in Habitat for Humanity houses, meat for the homeless, television for everyone who’s not homeless—and medicine and safety push back suffering and death so that you have a good chance of not dying young, and many, many people die segregated off in nursing homes so the rest of society does not have to be visibly reminded that people grow old and die. Utopia is not something that may someday exist if social planners someday get things right; it exists here and now because social planners got what they were trying to do right.

Links: But is suffering good? Does the Bible ever talk about wonderful suffering?

Dexios: Let me quote:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Rom 5.3-4. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Rom 8.18-9. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. I Cor 1.5-7. …that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Phil 3.10. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Col 1.24. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. Heb 2.10. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. I Pet 4.13.

At least for people like us who live in Utopia, you can think that all the things a spoiled child wants are your right and if you are really suffering—maybe you won’t be so crass as to say that any suffering is God’s punishment, but you’ll still think it’s an interruption that keeps you from the normal course of Christian life. But honoring God in suffering is the normal course of Christian life. Besides what I quoted, there’s the book of Job where God lays his honor on the line based on what Job will do when he has miserable suffering. I don’t know how to capture all the complexity of the Biblical views on suffering, but if suffering is praised as a sharing in the sufferings of the Son who was made perfect through suffering, then maybe it’s not doing the world a favor to engineer away suffering, even if that is possible.

It’s not just that the Gospel works best without suffering and now we may have good enough social plans to get the Gospel to where it works best. I fear Catholic social plans if they botch and have weird side effects like social plans sometimes do, but I fear them even more if they achieve what they want. Perhaps this is easy to say from Utopia, but having what Utopia provides, I have real doubts about whether it makes me spirit. In those things that most make me a mature man, I think Utopia is overrated. I may have some maturity through the discipline of going against the flow, but there’s a way where comfort can make faith lukewarm where intense persecution would make it stronger.

Catholic social planning is trying to make good that is only available to a majority available to everyone. I wish they had a somewhat bigger version of good to be sharing.

Links: So you are suspicious of efforts to help the poor.

Dexios: I am suspicious of some efforts and participate in others. I try to feed the hungry, and besides directly showing kindness to beggars I support charities—but these charities provide more than a spoiled child would want. They support people’s spiritual needs, like churches. I don’t believe education needs to be put on quite as high a pedestal as some people give it, but I support education.

I guess I need to clarify. My point wasn’t to say exactly what everybody in the world should have; when someone speaks to me out of pain, I rarely talk about pain as occasion for spiritual growth. But in Catholic social teaching people seemed to be saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if people had this, and this, and this,” and listed a number of things that for the most part do not make people better, or nobler, or wiser. There may be a discussion of duties alongside rights, but much of the encyclicals were about how much it would be better to have such things, and living in a society where most people do have those sort of things, I needed to say, “This is not what you think it is.”

Links: Is there anything specific that you would say that you want for the poor, and that you would try to help them come to it?

Dexios: Absolutely.

I want them to become spirit in as full a sense as possible. I want them to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I want them to live the life of Heaven that is meant to be here and now and not just after our resurrection. I want them to be transfigured, spirit, soul, and body, into the likeness of Christ, and to be little Christs. I want them to become divine, partakers of the divine nature. I want them to own the Kingdom of Heaven and live the Divine Life. And maybe it would be nice if some of them could send missionaries to the first world, to share some of their riches. And I would like the world to profit from their wealth as the poor are chosen to shame the rich. And not just to follow the vogues of the first world.

Links: Question: What do you think about non-Christian texts, like the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita, or Gospel of Thomas?

Dexios: Um…

Links: You’re going to say something nasty about Eastern religions, aren’t you?

Dexios: Asking what I think about non-Christian texts like the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Gospel of Thomas is like asking what I think about different forms of indoor exercise, like weightlifting, aerobics, and sticking your face in the fan.

The Tao Te Ching is spirit, and indeed words can be spirit, not just Christian words. So is the Bhagavad-Gita. From all I have heard, they are deep, deeper than a whale can dive, and they have taught healthy communities what it means to be human for thousands of years.

But a society that embraces Gnosticism sticks its face in the fan. Gnosticism unlike Hinduism and Taoism comes up again and again and each time it’s a downward spiral that does not give spirit to a society that embraces it the way Hinduism and Taoism do.

Links: I’ve read some Gnostic sacred texts and they engaged my spirit like almost nothing else; they drew me in.

Dexios: I’m not surprised. Gnostic scripture is spiritual porn. Sorry to use that image, but…

Links: Are you just calling names, or is there a substantive reason for that unflattering comparison?

Dexios: Marriage is spirit, and it incorporates a number of things into its partnership, including what repeated studies have found is the best environment to enjoy sex. But no marriage that’s lasted much longer the honeymoon has got there simply by sailing on pleasure; marriage is a crown of thorns, like monasticism, and part of the benefit it provides is not just an environment for children to grow up, but an environment for the parents to grow up. The best marriages are not a Utopia for spoiled children but a little Utopia for mature adults.

Marriage is like spirit and spirit is like marriage, including what can be misunderstood as the spiritual erotic, a haunting, exotic factor that belongs there even if it is ultimately beyond the erotic. But that doesn’t mean that exotic haunting all day long is what you should be getting. It doesn’t mean, in other words, that Gnosticism is the best way to be spirit.

Links: Have you read the Gnostic Scriptures?

Dexios: I’ve read a good number of Gnostic sacred texts.

There are a lot of people today who’ve heard that the Gnostic scriptures show the human face of Jesus, and the canonical Gospels make him seem so divine he’s not human. I’ve heard some people say that the best way to rebut that is to actually get people to read the Gnostic sacred texts, because the Gnostic sacred texts give some people what other people try to get from LSD, and their Christ is exotic and spiritual and several other things that do not include being human, not like the Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ death and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane with sweat like drops of blood—something medical that occasionally happens when people are too stressed out to possibly describe and that we do not need to explain away.

Links: So if people actually READ the texts they’ll stop saying “Here at last is the human face of Jesus.”?

Um, from the look on your face, you don’t like that question.

Dexios: Let me draw an analogy. There was one time when some art was displayed at a coffeeshop, and some people thought it was a big deal because it showed nudity. It struck me as… maybe I haven’t always been chaste in looking at nude artwork, but I honestly didn’t see what the big deal others saw. In a sense it wasn’t any more exciting than a cartoonish schematic diagram; it didn’t pose a problem to me because I didn’t understand how the art worked.

Then… I had been looking at the art and not understanding it, and suddenly something clicked and I did understand it, and when it communicated to me… Other artwork can just celebrate the human form, if this was like a schematic diagram it was schematic and focused attention on the sexual. When it clicked, the artwork went from simply being weird to being much more seductive than what we’re told a “celebration of the human form” is supposed to be.

And that is exactly what happened when I read enough Gnostic scripture. I read a little and it seemed weird. I read more and it clicked and I felt its pull. And I have been changed somewhat, and not entirely for the better.

Links: How could it change you?

Dexios: Once you have drunk from a well, you thirst for it.

Links: Do you really think that Gnosticism and The da Vinci Code are such a bad well to thirst for, such a bad spirit? There’s more spirit in The da Vinci Code, though maybe not as you’re using the term, than anything else to hit the shelves for a while. And it’s well-written.

Dexios: I know it’s well-written; after reading a bunch of Christian reports accusing it of being garbage literature, I feel its pull. I read it and to my consternation I want Mary Magdalene to be the Grail, and I seem to want to exchange a eucharistic Cup by which the Lord’s blood pulses in believer’s veins to believing that there is a very dilute royal bloodline alive in a few people I haven’t met, which is an exchange of gold for copper, but still something the book left me wanting. There is indeed a lot of spirit in it; it makes a good lure.

Links: Calling the book’s good points a “lure” is harsh, if the only real thing you’re going to acknowledge it is—what is it that this “lure” points to?

Dexios: Despair.

I was quite struck when I read a book entitled Against the Protestant Gnostics, written by a Protestant, by the way, and it said that Gnosticism besides being an a-historical phenomenon entirely hinged on one mood: despair.

The hope Dan Brown offers in The da Vinci Code is a hope of despair. It’s a hope that there’s some sexy secret to be had behind appearances, behind the here and now, and whatever else he may have wrong about earlier forms of Gnosticism being lovely and humane, he’s dead right about digging for something deeply hidden. You may have heard that some Gnostics taught that the world around us was made by an impotent, inferior, evil God and is evil. Even if not everybody said that in so many words the here and now that God gives us is something despicable. It is something to despair in and try to get around for some good that maybe more spiritual people can find. Is this good news?

Links: Hmm. I’d just assumed that the worst thing about Dan Brown was his anti-Catholicism. But you’re pretty critical of the Catholic Church too.

Dexios: Indeed, because it misses the mark. It comes close in some ways, but it misses the mark. But Dan Brown doesn’t seem hostile to the Catholic Church because of where it misses the mark, because of where it hits it. Whatever its imperfections may be, the Catholic Church has for about two thousand years been teaching people to be human and live lives of spirit, and live them in the here and now. Whatever other fussing I may make of the Catholic Church, it would be strange of me to deny that the Catholic Church offers something better than despair. Maybe I could wish they would do a better job of it, but the Catholic Church offers hope, and not just because a recent Pope had some very uplifting words about living in hope. Hope is a very deep root in the Catholic Church, and it lends shape to all sorts of other things.

Links: So maybe Dan Brown doesn’t offer the purest form of spirit, or maybe people would be better off if they could get to spirit in not such a despairing way. But doesn’t Dan Brown deserve credit for at least getting people to devote attention to matters of spirit?

Dexios: There’s a story where a princess is having a dreamlike meeting with her fairy grandmother many generations removed. Her nurse doesn’t believe the princess’s extraordinary tales about the grandmother, and when the princess wants to know, “Is it naughty of Nurse to not believe in you?” the grandmother only says, “It would be naughty of you.”

Quite probably there are people for whom Dan Brown is a step up, who move from unspiritual despair to spiritual despair. Quite certainly there are people learning from better sources, such as Taoism and Hinduism again, and are brought into spirit. And certainly I am glad that the high school students who ask, “Why go to mass?” can join monastic Catholic worship, not so much because it is monastic as because it is worship worthy of human beings. But I as Orthodox could not join them.

Links: Why not?

Dexios: Because however God deals with other people, it would be naughty of us.

God can move through non-Orthodox resources, and non-Christian ones. But when he places someone in full communion with his Church, the Orthodox Church, things that are permissible under partial communion are no longer permissible: though I am loth to speak of communion as a resource, God will work through other resources in a genuine way to people who only have those other resources, but when we have the opportunity to drink from the pure source we are not to take our substance from downstream. And it would be naughty of us, whether or not it would be naughty of others, to refuse to recognize the Orthodox Church of Christ as the fountain from which we drink.

Links: It would be depriving spirit of flourishing in body, wouldn’t it?

Dexios: I know that I’d say that for Dan Brown and other people who think that being Gnostic is the hidden root of spirituality. Against these I say that spirit is a great banner that when it unfurls gives shade to people-watching, travelling, listening to music, Starbuck’s—

Links: Starbuck’s? Doesn’t that, well—

Dexios: If you mean to purchase your identity at Starbuck’s then it will run short. But if you learn to enjoy things in the spirit, if you know there is more to life than food and drink, then an occasional treat can include Starbuck’s. Stewardship isn’t tight-fisted, and if you don’t need commercial products like some kind of sacrament, you are freed to truly enjoy them.

Links: But what if the way people are naturally led to approach Starbuck’s is as a sacrament?

Dexios: What if? So we live in a wealthy society. So when someone asks, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” people just hit the snooze button. So advertising is an abominable manipulation to make people covet things they don’t need. If you are to live a life of spirit, then that means living a life of spirit in this economy, living simply and generously, and not laying the reins on the horse’s neck. Your responsibility is to let what you buy be body where your life of spirit is manifest, and if Starbuck’s tries to sell you an identity, and that identity is inimical to living a life of spirit, your responsibility is still to life a life of spirit that unfurls itself in how you use wealth.

Links: This makes sense now that you say it, but where did you get that?

Dexios: That is one of the things that may, or may not, be added to us if we seek first the Kingdom of God, and it is not essential for everyone.

Links: Then what is essential?

Dexios: Spirit. Contemplation. Don’t ask where to strike the balance between action and contemplation. Pursue contemplation, and don’t be surprised if after a time the way God tells you to contemplate is to plant a tree.

Links: Where did you get “plant a tree” from?

Dexios: Martin Luther. When he was asked what he would do if he knew the Lord were returning tomorrow, instead of talking about praying long prayers or wailing about his sins, he simply said what he was planning on doing, which was to plant a tree. If it was really OK for him to plan to plant a tree, as he did, then there’s no particular reason that if the Lord were returning the next day he should be suddenly embarrassed about legitimate, spiritual activity and try to be super-spiritual.

Contemplation seems to include a lot of planting a tree. It can mean entering a monastery, but it can also mean working a job, making friendships, shooting hoops, and playing with the neighbor’s children. If we go to church, or try to cultivate a discipline of quiet, that means quite a lot of “secular” things, a “secular” body for spirit to be manifest in. And people who give up on doing big things for God often end up doing tremendous things for God as part of their contemplation.

Links: Huh? How does that work? Or are you just being down on activists?

Dexios: Ever hear about a Wesley boy trying to do serious work for God?

Links: No.

Dexios: One of the Wesley brothers believed that missionaries were the biggest super-Christians, and so got everything arranged to be a big missionary for God.

And then he hit rock bottom. He failed as a missionary, returned a failure, and then fell lower than rock bottom when, on the ship, there was a terrible storm, and he was afraid for his life and puzzled about why there were men on deck singing. When he asked them if they were afraid, they said that no, they were not afraid, because they believed in Jesus. That finished him.

Only after that happened did he become one of the biggest forces in American Christianity.

Links: You make God sound cruel.

Dexios: If you expect God to share an activist mentality then God looks very cruel, but God isn’t a secular activist. This wasn’t even a social justice issue; Wesley said “God, I’ll be a really good hammer and do really impressive work,” and if anything, God said, “I don’t want a hammer. I want a son.” People who try to be activists sometimes make the best sons after they fail as activists, but the reason God didn’t endorse Wesley’s plan about how he was going to make a difference was that God makes a difference through people, and however big and important the work is that needs to be done, God makes sons first and foremost, and never circumvents sonship to “cut to the chase” and get to the important part, because to him sonship is the important part, and he can equip people to do results once they fail as hammers if need be.

There’s a big difference between “I’ll do the best I can” and “I’ll lay myself before God and work as he is at work.” The difference is whether your power is a matter of spirit. There was a visiting African pastor who came to the U.S. and said, “It’s amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit;” that stinging compliment is one God’s sons need not hear. The Sermon on the Mount says more about where our power should come from than what we should achieve; the Gospel is about trusting God, not just about the fate of our souls but getting things done here on earth. It’s challenging and it becomes all the more challenging when you realize how broken of a world we live in.

And perhaps God also does things through people who think they know how mountains are moved here on earth and try to short-circuit God’s call to become a son like his Son. God could still work with them if they more fully spirit. Spirit has its own power in God.

Links: Let me change the subject, or maybe I’m not changing the subject. Where do the seven sacraments fit into this?

Dexios: Baptism, Holy Communion, Holy Matrimony, the Sign of the Cross, reverently Bowing, the Holy Kiss, and the Blessing of Fruit—

Links: —that’s a rather strange list of seven sacraments!

Dexios: It seems perfectly natural to me. If it seems strange to you, then perhaps there’s something you don’t understand about the usual list. Holy Communion, Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination, Marriage, and Unction for Healing are not the Seven Exceptions. They may be the biggest seven—but you don’t understand them until you realize that there’s either one sacrament or a thousand, and that a thousand little things in our piety are the same sort of thing as The Big Seven. Like blessing fruit to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration!

Links: But why bless fruit then? Do you also bless candles to celebrate the Annunciation?

Dexios: I’d have to look up when we bless candles, but it does not seem strange to me to bless fruit. The Transfiguration is not just when the Son of God shone, but it is specifically when his body, the first of the material world to be drawn into spirit, shone. It was a first taste of the Transfiguration when the rest of his kingdom comes in force, and the Holy Transfiguration of Christ ultimately becomes the holy transfiguration of the whole Creation, and its fruits. Today people might pick something else to represent Creation’s productivity, but grapes and fruit come from Creation and are a part of it, and in a sense by blessing fruit on the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration we know what it means, that it’s not just something way back when that’s only about Christ, but about something that is meant to expand through the whole Creation of which Christ is head. Just as Christ is to be the first of many sons and draw mankind into him, so his body is the first case of matter drawn into the divine, of body that is spirit, and his coming was the beginning of a shockwave that keeps reaching out.

Links: So is the Transfiguration a big enough deal that it’s worth adorning with a sacrament, like many other holidays.

Dexios: That makes it sound like something external. The spirit of the Transfiguration is the spirit of sacrament, and of icons. I’ve said earlier that spirit transforms body, or should; now I’ll go further and say that God makes us spirit through body. If you try to understand Holy Communion and ask the wrong questions, you’re in danger of stopping at learning what happens after the priest has consecrated the elements, even though it’s important that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of Christ they represent. That’s only half the story. The rest of the story is when this bread and wine that have become the body and blood of Christ are partaken by the faithful, and the faithful are transformed. Our bodies are not a mere ornament as we partake of the divine nature; we partake of the Church and Creation, and the divine life, precisely when we receive what has been transformed that it may transform us. God makes us spirit through not only our bodies but his material creation: the Word became flesh, and the flesh became Word, and the Word keeps becoming flesh, and the flesh keeps becoming Word, and the shockwave ever reaches outward.

Links: And the Church has a lot of blessings, from a traveller’s blessing to blessing Pascha baskets, doesn’t it? And there are many sacred actions as we say our prayers, aren’t there? I imagine if you counted all the sacramental rites and sacred actions you’d actually wind up with more than the figure of one thousand that you grabbed.

Dexios: But the nature of a sacrament doesn’t really end up there. Ultimately the world is icon and sacrament. A man is the microcosm of the universe, but you have to understand that the “universe” is the spiritual as well as physical world, and that “microcosm” means that the spiritual and physical are all bound up in miniature. In a man who is spirit, they are more tightly bound together: you can look at most people’s faces and if they’re not masking then you can see into their spirit; spirit and body do not war against each other. And if you understand how our bodies are in fact the bodies of our spirits, and our spirits are the spirits of our bodies, then you understand that in “man writ large”, the universe that is the opposite of man the microcosm, then matter is pregnant with spirit.

Perhaps the crowning jewel is the kind of rite over which a priest presides. It is a crowning jewel of the warp and woof of “mundane” life, if life is ever “mundane” properly understood. For one example, you may have heard of the clergy shortage in Alaska: something like a third of the state population is Orthodox but there are precious few priests. And a congregation asked the bishop what to do as they cannot often have a priest to worship. The bishop said only two things. One of them I will not mention. The other was to eat together.

Holy Communion casts a long shadow. Part of this means that a priest can bless fruit and anyone can partake of it, and maybe there’s a blessing even if it’s not a big deal as the Eucharist. But you’re missing something if that’s the only place you look.

A meal with other people is part of the Eucharist unfurling. It’s not directly the Eucharist, but if you understand what the Eucharist is then a common meal stands in its luminous shadow. The bishop’s advice was not simply a substitute for imperfect times; even when there is a priest it is good for the Eucharist to unfurl into a common meal, and however nice it is for the priest to bless the food that’s not all that is going on. Table fellowship is common communion and “common” conceals a wealth of majesty. It’s not a really different thing from the Eucharist.

Links: [pause] It seems like I want to learn it all. What else is there to learn?

Dexios: Not to learn everything. You can learn about the priest, whose role I haven’t covered, but what I’ve said about us needing monks applies even more strongly to one person given over to be spirit in a way that helps others be spirit. There is spiritual discipline, which almost as many different shapes as sacrament—I haven’t talked about fasting: the demons always fast but only someone like us with body and spirit can be transformed and have his body become spirit by fasting. I haven’t talked about—

If you want to become more spirit, why don’t you think of an act of spirit and do that?

The Spectacles

I got up, washed my face in the fountain, and put out the fire. The fountain was carved of yellow marble, set in the wall and adorned with bas-relief sculptures and dark moss. I moved through the labyrinth, not distracting myself with a lamp, not thinking about the organ, whose pipes ranged from 8′ to 128′ and could shake a cathedral to its foundation. Climbing iron rungs, I emerged from the recesses of a cluttered shed.

I was wearing a T-shirt advertising some random product, jeans which were worn at the cuffs, and fairly new tennis shoes. I would have liked to think I gave no hint of anything unusual: an ordinary man, with a messy house stocked with the usual array of mundane items. I blended in with the Illusion.

I drove over to Benjamin’s house. As I walked in, I said, “Benjamin, I’m impressed. You’ve done a nice job of patching this place since the last explosion.”

“Shut up, Morgan.”

“By the way, my nephews are coming to visit in two weeks, Friday afternoon. Would you be willing to tinker in your laboratory when they come? Their favorite thing in the world is a good fireworks display.”

“Which reminds me, there was one spice that I wanted to give you. It makes any food taste better, and the more you add, the better the food tastes. Pay no attention to the label on the bottle which says ‘arsenic’. If you’ll excuse me one moment…” He began to stand up, and I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down into the chair.

“How are you, Benjamin?”

“How are you, Morgan?”

I sat silent for a while. When Benjamin remained silent, I said, “I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library. The sense one gets when contemplating an artistic masterwork is concentrated in looking at what effect The Mystical Theology had on a thousand years of wonder.”

He said, “You miss the Middle Ages, don’t you?”

I said, “They’re still around—a bit here, a piece there. On one hand, it’s very romantic to hold something small in your hand and say that it is all that is left of a once great realm. On the other hand, it’s only romantic: it is not the same thing as finding that glory all about you.

“The pain is all the worse when you not only come from a forgotten realm, but you must reckon with the Illusion. It’s like there’s a filter which turns everything grey. It’s not exactly that there’s a sinister hand that forces cooperation with the Illusion and tortures you if you don’t; in some ways things would be simpler if there were. Of course you’re asking for trouble if you show an anachronism in the way you dress, or if you’re so gauche as to speak honestly out of the wisdom of another world and push one of the hot buttons of whatever today’s hot issues are. But beyond that, you don’t have to intentionally cooperate with the Illusion; you can ‘non-conform freely’ and the Illusion freely conforms itself to you. It’s a terribly isolating feeling.”

Benjamin stood up, walked over to a bookshelf, and pulled out an ivory tube. “I have something for you, Morgan. A pair of spectacles.”

“Did you make these?”

“I’m not saying.”

“Why are you giving me eyeglasses? My eyes are fine.”

“Your eyes are weaker than you think.” He waited a moment, and then said, “And these spectacles have a virtue.”

“What is their virtue? What is their power?”

“Please forgive me. As one who has struggled with the Illusion, you know well enough what it means to deeply want to convey something and know that you can’t. Please believe me when I say that I would like to express the answer to your question, but I cannot.”

I left, taking the glasses and both hoping that I was concealing my anger from Benjamin and knowing that I wasn’t.


I arrived at home and disappeared into the labyrinth. A bright lamp, I hoped, would help me understand the spectacles’ power. Had I been in a different frame of mind, I might have enjoyed it; I read an ancient and mostly complete Greek manuscript to The Symbolic Theology to see if it might reveal new insights. My eyes lingered for a moment over the words:

That symbol, as most, has two layers. Yet a symbol could have an infinite number of layers and still be smaller than what is without layer at all.

I had a deep insight of some sort over these words, and the insight is forever lost because I cared only about one thing, finding out what magic power the spectacles held. I tried to read a cuneiform tablet; as usual, the language gave me an embarrassing amount of trouble, and there was something strange about what it said that completely lacked the allure of being exotic. Wishing I had a better command of languages, I moved about from one serpentine passageway to another, looking at places, even improvising on the organ, and enjoying none of it. Everything looked exactly as if I were looking through a children’s toy. Had Benjamin been watching too much Dumbo and given me a magic feather?

After a long and fruitless search, I went up into my house, put the spectacles in your pocket, and sat in my chair, the lights off, fatigued in mind and body. I do not recall know how long I stayed there. I only know that I jumped when the doorbell rang.

It was Amber. She said, “The supermarket had a really good sale on strawberries, and I thought you might like some.”

“Do you have a moment to to come in? I have Coke in the fridge.”

I had to stifle my urge to ask her opinion about the spectacles’ virtue. I did not know her to be more than meets the eye (at least not in the sense that could be said of Benjamin or me), but the Illusion was much weaker in her than in most people, and she seemed to pick up on things that I wished others would as well. We talked for a little while; she described how she took her family to a pizza restaurant and her son “walked up to a soda machine, pushed one of the levers you’re supposed to put your cup against, jumped in startlement when soda fell on his hand, and then began to lick the soda off.”

“I’ve got to get home and get dinner on, but—ooh, you have new glasses in your pocket. Put them on for a moment.”

I put my spectacles on, and she said something to me, but I have no idea what she said. It’s not because I was drained: I was quite drained when she came, but her charm had left me interested in life again. The reason I have no idea what she said to me is that I was stunned at what I saw when I looked at her through the spectacles.

I saw beauty such as I had not begun to guess at. She was clad in a shimmering robe of scintillating colors. In one hand, she was holding a kaliedoscope, which had not semi-opaque colored chips but tiny glass spheres and prisms inside. The other hand embraced a child on her lap, with love so real it could be seen.

After she left, I took the spectacles off, put them in their case, and after miscellaneous nightly activities, went to bed and dreamed dreams both brilliant and intense.


When I woke up, I tried to think about why I had not recognized Amber’s identity before. I closed my eyes and filtered through memories; Amber had given signals of something interesting that I had not picked up on—and she had picked up on things I had given. I thought of myself as one above the Illusion—and here I had accepted the Illusion’s picture of her. Might there be others who were more than meets the eye?

I came to carry the spectacles with me, and look around for a sign of something out of the ordinary. Several days later, I met a tall man with cornrowed greying hair. When I asked him what he studied in college, he first commented on the arbitrariness of divisions between disciplines, before explaining that his discipline of record was philosophy. His thought was a textbook example of postmodernism, but when I put my spectacles on, I saw many translucent layers: each layer, like a ring of an oak, carried a remnant of a bygone age. Then I listened, and his words sounded no less postmodern, but echoes of the Middle Ages were everywhere.

I began to find these people more and more frequently, and require less and less blatant cues.


I sat in the living room, waiting with cans of Coca-Cola. I enjoy travelling in my nephews’ realms; at a prior visit, Nathan discovered a whole realm behind my staircase, and it is my loss that I can only get in when I am with him. Brandon and Nathan had come for the fair that weekend, and I told them I had something neat-looking to show them before I took them to the fair.

I didn’t realize my mistake until they insisted that I wear the spectacles at the fair.


I didn’t mind the charge of public drunkenness that much. It was humiliating, perhaps, but I think at least some humiliations are necessary in life. And I didn’t mind too much that my nephews’ visit was a bummer for them. Perhaps that was unfortunate, but that has long been smoothed over. There were, however, two things that were not of small consequence to me.

The first thing that left me staggered was something in addition to the majesty I saw. I saw a knight, clad in armor forged of solid light, and I saw deep scars he earned warring against dragons. I saw a fair lady who looked beautiful at the skin when seen without the spectacles, and beautiful in layer after layer below the skin when seen with them. The something else I saw in addition to that majesty was that this beauty was something that was not just in a few people, or even many. It was in every single person without exception. That drunken beggar everyone avoided, the one with a stench like a brewery next to a horse stable—I saw his deep and loyal friendships. I saw his generosity with other beggars—please believe me that if you were another beggar, what’s his was yours. I saw the quests he made in his youth. I saw his dreams. I saw his story. Beyond all that, I saw something deeper than any of these, a glory underneath and beneath these things. This glory, however disfigured by his bondage to alcohol, filled me with wonder.

The reason the police kept me in the drunk tank for so long was that I was stunned and reeling. I had always known that I was more than what the Illusion says a person is, and struggled to convey my something more to other people… but I never looked to see how other people could be more than the grey mask the Illusion put on their faces. When I was in the drunk tank, I looked at the other men in wonder and asked myself what magic lay in them, what my spectacles would tell me. The old man with an anchor tattooed to his arm: was he a sailor? Where had he sailed on the seven seas? Had he met mermaids? I almost asked him if he’d found Atlantis, when I decided I didn’t want to prolong the time the police officer thought I was drunk.

This brings me to the second disturbing find, which was that my spectacles were not with me. I assumed this was because the police had locked them away, but even after I was released, determined inquiry found no one who had seen them. They looked interesting, oddly shaped lenses with thick gold frames; had a thief taken them when I was stunned and before the police picked me up?

The next day I began preparing for a quest.


It filled me with excitement to begin searching the black market, both because I hoped to find the spectacles, and because I knew I would experience these people in a completely new light.

I had dealings with the black market before, but it had always been unpleasant: not (let me be clear) because I did not know how to defend myself, or was in too much danger of getting suckered into something dangerous, but because I approached its people concealing the emotions I’d feel touching some kind of fetid slime. Now… I still saw that, but I tried to look and see what I would see if I were wearing my spectacles.

I didn’t find anything that seemed significant. The next leg of my journey entailed a change of venue: I dressed nicely and mingled with the world of jewellers and antique dealers. Nada.

I began to search high and low; I brainstormed about what exotic places it might be, and I found interesting people along the way. The laborers whom I hired to help me search the city dump almost made me forget that I was searching for something, and over time I chose to look for my spectacles in places that would bring me into contact with people I wanted to meet…

Some years later, I was returning from one of my voyages and realized it had been long (too long) since I had spoken with Benjamin. I came and visited him, and told him about the people I’d met. After I had talked for an hour, he put his hand on my mouth and said, “Can I get a word in edgewise?”

I said, “Mmmph mph mmmph mmph.”

He took his hand off my mouth, and I said, “That depends on whether you’re rude enough to put your hand over my mouth in mid-sentence.”

“That depends on whether you’re rude enough to talk for an hour without letting your host get a word in edgewise.”

I stuck my tongue out at him.

He stuck his tongue out at me.

Benjamin opened a box on his desk, opened the ivory case inside the box, and pulled out my spectacles. “I believe these might interest you.” He handed them to me.

I sat in silence. The clock’s ticking seemed to grow louder, until it chimed and we both jumped. Then I looked at him and said, “What in Heaven’s name would I need them for?”

Singularity

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Herodotus: And what say thou of these people? Why callest thou them the Singularity, Merlin?

John: Mine illuminèd name is John, and John shall ye call me each and every one.

Herodotus: But the Singularity is such as only a Merlin could have unravelled.

John: Perchance: but the world is one of which only an illuminèd one may speak aright. Call thou me as one illuminèd, if thou wouldst hear me speak.

Herodotus: Of illumination speakest thou. Thou sawest with the eye of the hawk: now seest thou with the eye of the eagle.

John: If that be, speak thou me as an eagle?

Herodotus: A point well taken, excellent John, excellent John. What speakest thou of the Singularity?

John: A realm untold, to speak is hard. But of an icon will I speak: inscribed were words:

‘Waitress, is this coffee or tea?’

‘What does it taste like?’

‘IT TASTES LIKE DIESEL FUEL.’

‘That’s the coffee. The tea tastes like transmission fluid.’

Herodotus: Upon what manner of veneration were this icon worshipped?

John: That were a matter right subtle, too far to tell.

Herodotus: And of the inscription? That too be subtle to grasp.

John: Like as a plant hath sap, so a subtle engine by their philosophy wrought which needeth diesel fuel and transmission fluid.

Herodotus: [laughs] Then ’twere a joke, a jape! ‘Tis well enough told!

John: You perceive it yet?

Herodotus: A joke, a jape indeed, of a fool who could not tell, two different plants were he not to taste of their sap! Well spoke! Well spoke!

John: Thou hast grasped it afault, my fair lord. For the subtle engine hath many different saps, no two alike.

Herodotus: And what ambrosia be in their saps?

John: Heaven save us! The saps be a right unnatural fare; their substance from rotted carcasses of monsters from aeons past, then by the wisdom of their philosophy transmogrified, of the subtle engine.

Herodotus: Then they are masters of Alchemy?

John: Masters of an offscouring of all Alchemy, of the lowest toe of that depravèd ascetical enterprise, chopped off, severed from even the limb, made hollow, and then growen beyond all reason, into the head of reason.

Herodotus: Let us leave off this and speak of the icon. The icon were for veneration of such subtle philosophy?

John: No wonder, no awe, greeteth he who regardest this icon and receive it as is wont.

Herodotus: As is wont?

John: As is wanton. For veneration and icons are forcèd secrets; so there is an antithesis of the sacra pagina, and upon its light pages the greatest pages come upon the most filled with lightness, the icons of a world that knoweth icons not.

Let me make another essay.

The phrase ‘harmony with nature’ is of popular use, yet a deep slice of the Singularity, or what those inside the Singularity can see of it, might be called, ‘harmony with technology’.

Herodotus: These be mystics of technology.

John: They live in an artificial jungle of technology, or rather an artificial not-jungle of technology, an artificial anti-jungle of technology. For one example, what do you call the natural use of wood?

Herodotus: A bundle of wood is of course for burning.

John: And they know of using wood for burning, but it is an exotic, rare case to them; say ‘wood’ and precious few will think of gathering wood to burn.

Herodotus: Then what on earth do they use wood for? Do they eat it when food is scarce or something like that?

John: Say ‘wood’ and not exotic ‘firewood’, and they will think of building a house.

Herodotus: So then they are right dexterous, if they can build out of a bundle of gathered sticks instead of burning it.

John: They do not gather sticks such as you imagine. They fell great trees, and cut the heartwood into rectangular box shapes, which they fit together in geometrical fashion. And when it is done, they make a box, or many boxes, and take rectangles hotly fused sand to fill a window. And they add other philosophy on top of that, so that if the house is well-built, the air inside will be pleasant and still, unless they take a philosophical machine to push air, and whatever temperature the people please, and it will remain dry though the heavens be opened in rain. And most of their time is spent in houses, or other ‘buildings’ like a house in this respect.

Herodotus: What a fantastical enterprise! When do they enter such buildings?

John: When do they rather go out of them? They consider it normal to spend less than an hour a day outside of such shelters; the subtle machine mentioned earlier moves but it is like a house built out of metal in that it is an environment entirely contrived by philosophy and artifice to, in this case, convey people from one place to another.

Herodotus: How large is this machine? It would seem to have to be very big to convey all their people.

John: But this is a point where their ‘technology’ departs from the art that is implicit in τεχνη: it is in fact not a lovingly crafted work of art, shaped out of the spirit of that position ye call ‘inventor’ or ‘artist’, but poured out by the thousands by gigantical machines yet more subtle, and in the wealth of the Singularity, well nigh unto each hath his own machine.

Herodotus: And how many can each machine can convey? Perchance a thousand?

John: Five, or six, or two peradventure, but the question is what they would call ‘academical’: the most common use is to convey one.

Herodotus: They must be grateful for such property and such philosophy!

John: A few are very grateful, but the prayer, ‘Let us remember those less fortunate than ourselves’ breathes an odor that sounds truly archaical. It sounds old, old enough to perhaps make half the span of a man’s life. And such basic technology, though they should be very much upset to lose them, never presents itself to their mind’s eye when they hear the word ‘technology’. And indeed, why should it present itself to the mind his eye?

Herodotus: I strain to grasp thy thread.

John: To be thought of under the heading of ‘technology’, two things must hold. First, it must be possessed of an artificial unlife, not unlike the unlife of their folklore’s ghouls and vampires and zombies. And second, it must be of recent vintage, something not to be had until a time that is barely past. Most of the technologies they imagine provide artificially processed moving images, some of which are extremely old—again, by something like half the span of a man’s life—while some are new. Each newer version seemeth yet more potent. To those not satisfied with the artificial environment of an up-to-date building, regarded by them as something from time immemorial, there are unlife images of a completely imaginary artificial world where their saying ‘when pigs can fly’ meaning never is in fact one of innumerable things that happen in the imaginary world portrayed by the technology. ‘SecondLife’ offers a second alternative to human life, or so it would seem, until ‘something better comes along.’

Herodotus: My mind, it reeleth.

John: Well it reeleth. But this be but a sliver.

For life to them is keeping one’s balance on shifting sand; they have great museums of different products, as many as the herbs of the field. But herein lies a difference: we know the herbs of the field, which have virtues, and what the right use is. They know as many items produced by philosophy, but they are scarce worse for the deal when they encounter an item they have never met before. For while the herbs of the field be steady across generations and generations, the items belched forth by their subtle philosophy change not only within the span of a man’s life; they change year to year; perchance moon to moon.

Herodotus: Thou sayest that they can navigate a field they know not?

John: Aye, and more. The goal at which their catechism aims is to ‘learn how to learn’; the appearance and disappearance of kinds of items is a commonplace to them. And indeed this is not only for the items we use as the elements of our habitat: catechists attempt to prepare people for roles that exist not yet even as the students are being taught.

Though this be sinking sand they live in, they keep balance, of a sort, and do not find this strange. And they adapt to the changes they are given.

Herodotus: It beseemeth me that thou speakest as of a race of Gods.

John: A race of Gods? Forsooth! Thou knowest not half of the whole if thou speakest thus.

Herodotus: What remaineth?

John: They no longer think of making love as an action that in particular must needeth include an other.

Herodotus: I am stunned.

John: And the same is true writ large or writ small. A storyteller of a faintly smaller degree, living to them in ages past, placed me in an icon:

The Stranger mused for a few seconds, then, speaking in a slightly singsong voice, as though he repeated an old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:

‘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. Her 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 accursede 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 move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.’

The storyteller saw and saw not his future. ‘Tis rare in the Singularity to fabricate children ‘by vile arts in a secret place’. But the storyteller plays us false when he assumes their interest would be in a ‘cunningly fashioned image of the other’. Truer it would be to say that the men, by the fruits of philosophy, jump from one libidinous dream to another whilest awake.

Herodotus: Forsooth!

John: A prophet told them, the end will come when no man maketh a road to his neighbors. And what has happened to marriage has happened, by different means but by the same spirit, to friendship. Your most distant acquaintanceship to a fellow member is more permanent than their marriage; it is routine before the breakable God-created covenant of marriage to make unbreakable man-made covenants about what to do if, as planned for, the marriage ends in divorce. And if that is to be said of divorce, still less is the bond of friendship. Their own people have talked about how ‘permanent relationships’, including marriage and friendship, being replaced by ‘disposable relationships’ which can be dissolved for any and every reason, and by ‘disposable relationships’ to ‘transactional relationships’, which indeed have not even the pretension of being something that can be kept beyond a short transaction for any and every reason.

And the visits have been eviscerated, from a conversation where voice is delivered and vision is stripped out, to a conversation where words alone are transmitted without even hand writing; from a conversation where mental presence is normative to a conversation where split attention is expected. ‘Tis yet rarely worth the bother to make a physical trail, though they yet visit. And their philosophy, as it groweth yet more subtle, groweth yet more delicate. ‘Twould scarcely require much to ‘unplug’ it. And then, perhaps, the end will come?

Herodotus: Then there be a tragic beauty to these people.

John: A tragic beauty indeed.

Herodotus: What else hast thou to tell of them?

John: Let me give a little vignette:

Several men and women are in a room; all are fulfilling the same role, and they are swathed with clothing that covers much of their skin. And the differences between what the men wear, and what most of the women wear, are subtle enough that most of them do not perceive a difference.

Herodotus: Can they not perceive the difference between a man and a woman?

John: The sensitivity is dulled in some, but it is something they try to overlook. But I have not gotten to the core of this vignette:

One of them indicateth that had they be living several thousand years ago they would not have had need of clothing, not for modesty at least, and there are nods of agreement to her. And they all imagine such tribal times to be times of freedom, and their own to be of artificial restriction.

And they fail to see, by quite some measure, that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than being without clothing; or that their buildings deaden all of a million sources of natural awareness: the breeze blowing and the herbs waving in the wind; scents and odours as they appear; song of crickets’ kin chirping and song of bird, the sun as it shines through cloud; animals as they move about, and the subtleties and differences in the forest as one passes through it. They deaden all of these sensitivities and variations, until there is only one form of life that provides stimulation: the others who are working in one’s office. Small wonder, then, that to a man one woman demurely covered in an office has an effect that a dozen women wearing vines in a jungle would never have. But the libertines see themselves as repressed, and those they compare themselves to as, persay, emancipated.

Herodotus: At least they have the option of dressing modestly. What else hast thou?

John: There is infinitely more, and there is nothing more. Marriage is not thought of as open to children; it can be dissolved in divorce; it need not be intrinsically exclusive; a further installment in the package, played something like a pawn in a game of theirs, is that marriage need not be between a man and a woman. And if it is going to be dismantled to the previous portion, why not? They try to have a world without marriage, by their changes to marriage. The Singularity is a disintegration; it grows more and more, and what is said for marriage could be said for each of the eight devils: intertwined with this is pride, and it is only a peripheral point that those who further undefine marriage speak of ‘gay pride’. A generation before, not mavericks but the baseline of people were told they needed a ‘high self-esteem’, and religious leaders who warned about pride as a sin, perhaps as the sin by which the Devil fell from Heaven, raised no hue and cry that children were being raised to embrace pride as a necessary ascesis. And religion itself is officially permitted some role, but a private role: not that which fulfills the definition of religare in binding a society together. It is in some measure like saying, ‘You can speak any language you want, as long as you utter not a word in public discourse’: the true religion of the Singularity is such ersatz religion as the Singularity provides. Real religion is expected to wither in private.

The Singularity sings a song of progress, and it was giving new and different kinds of property; even now it continues. But its heart of ice showeth yet. For the march of new technologies continues, and with them poverty: cracks begin to appear, and the writing on the wall be harder to ignore. What is given with one hand is not-so-subtly taken away with the other. The Singularity is as needful to its dwellers as forest or plain to its dwellers, and if it crumbles, precious few will become new tribal clans taking all necessities from the land.

Herodotus: Then it beseemeth the tragedy outweigheth the beauty, or rather there is a shell of beauty under a heart of ice.

John: But there are weeds.

Herodotus: What is a weed?

John: It is a plant.

Herodotus: What kind of plant is a weed? Are the plants around us weeds?

John: They are not.

Herodotus: Then what kinds of plants are weeds?

John: In the Singularity, there is a distinction between ‘rural’, ‘suburban’, and ‘urban’: the ‘rural’ has deliberately set plants covering great tracts of land, the ‘suburban’ has fewer plants, if still perhaps green all around, and the ‘urban’ has but the scattered ensconced tree. But in all of them are weeds, in an urban area plants growing where the artificial stone has cracked. And among the natural philosophers there are some who study the life that cannot be extinguished even in an urban city; their specialty is called ‘urban ecology’. The definition of a weed is simply, ‘A plant I do not want.’ We do not have weeds because we do not seek an artificial envionment with plants only present when we have put them there. But when people seek to conform the environment to wishes and plans, even in the tight discipline of planned urban areas, weeds are remarkably persistent.

And in that regard, weeds are a tiny sliver of something magnificent.

Herodotus: What would that be?

John: The durability of Life that is writ small in a weed here in the urban, there in the suburban is but a shadow of the durabiity of Life that lives on in the sons of men. Mothers still sing lullabyes to their dear little children; friendships form and believers pray at church far more than happened in the age where my story was told, a story dwarfed by what was called the ‘age of faith’. The intensity of the attacks on the Church in a cruel social witness are compelled to bear unwilling witness to the vitality of the Church whose death has been greatly exaggerated: and indeed that Church is surging with vitality after surviving the attacks. The story told seems to tell of Life being, in their idiom, ‘dealt a card off every side of the deck’—and answering, ‘Checkmate, I win.’ I have told of the differences, but there are excellent similarities, and excellent differences. For a knight whoso commandeth a wild and unbridled horse receiveth greater commendation than a knight whoso commandeth a well-bred and gentle steed.

Herodotus: The wind bloweth where it listeth. The just shall live by his faith. Your cell, though it be wholly artificial, will teach you everything you need to know.

John: Thou hast eagerly grasped it; beyond beauty, tragedy, and beyond tragedy, beauty. Thou hast grasped it true.

[Here ends the manuscript]

Read more of The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology on Amazon!

The Royal Letters

My dear son;

About your last letter, all that you say is true, but the way it is put together is missing something profound.

You say, “Are we not royalty?” Yes, indeed, and there is more to say. We will judge angels. To be human is to be made in a royal image. The oil we are anointed with is cut from the same cloth as the sacred oil anointing prophets, priests, and kings. In English we can say “Sir” and in koine Greek the same word means “Mister” and “Lord.” The royal gifts of the Magi, gold an emblem of kingship, frankincense an emblem of divinity, and myrrh an emblem of suffering, are given to Christ and in him extend to the Church. We are indeed royalty, and we are more than royalty.

Now moving on to your second question, “Am I pushing this too far?” That question from you has a guilty-feeling fear to it, awaiting for me to give the real correction. And my answer to that is certain. You are not pushing it too far; you are not pushing it far enough by half. You wonder about being addressed as Your Majesty, and it is my duty to inform Your Royal Highness of something buried in the Ladder, when it says: “Some stand weaponless and without armor before the kings of earth, while others hold insignia of office, shields, and swords. The former are vastly superior to the latter since they are regularly the personal relations of the king and members of the royal household.”

You stand weaponless and without armor, and wish for insignia, shield, and sword. You do not understand that you have more and pine for less. And I long for the day when you wish to be addressed, not as “Your Majesty,” but as “you,” with no insignia needed.

With love,
Your father, Oswald


My dear, dear son;

Regarding the question you raised in your last letter, I would remind you of the King of Kings.

Two of his disciples, who had been training for years, asked for as much royal honor as there was to have: to be seated at his right and left hand. And he tries to tell them that he doesn’t get it. He, the King of Kings, will never wear royal purple on earth except when he is mocked and abused by brutal soldiers; he will never wear a crown except for a twisted crown of thorns. He asks them if they can bear the sufferings of his kingship, and they blindly assure them that they can. Then he holds an example up to them and says that whoever wishes to be great must be a servant and whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all.

What people miss in their quest for honor is the greatest gem in the crown: humility. St. Dorotheos advises people to build up their spiritual houses with all different kinds of stone: a stone of prayer here, a stone of almsgiving there, a stone of courage still there. But humility is not one more stone; it is the slime which serves as mortar and cements everything together. And this royal dignity is the bedrock that people miss hoping for royal honors, for something to feed their narcissism. Real honor is not having your narcissism fed; it is humbly rejecting narcissism. Real, industrial strength royal honor is found in the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and God of Gods:

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If you want to know where the glory at the end comes from, look nowhere but the humility at the beginning. If humility is good enough for Christ, let us not consider ourselves too good for it.

Your dearly affectionate father,
Oswald


My dear son Basil;

Now I wish to show you a more excellent way.

St. Athanasios wrote of the dignity of man in On the Incarnation: “You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all…” Pay attention to how St. Athanasios proclaims the dignity of the human race! The King of Kings is the King for whom every King in Heaven and earth is named. If there is a measure of truth to say that man is the king and priest of Creation, this is because we are created in God’s image, and it is the fullness of Truth to know Christ God as King and Lord. It is no accident and no error that the prayers of the Church address God as King, for such he is, incomparably more than any man on earth. Men and kings are as the moon with its reflected light; Christ God is the original Sun, shining in its full glory. If it is a wonder to know men as kings, incomparably greater is it to know Christ God as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The Revelation to St. John tells of glorious creatures at the height of creature glory: “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold… The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that lives for ever and ever…” My dear Basil, you are a king, and I hope that Your Majesty can throw his crown before the throne of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Writing with deepest fatherly affection,
Your father,
Oswald

Pope Makes Historic Ecumenical Bid to Woo Eastern Rite Catholics

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.

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Rome (AP). His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has made a historic ecumenical bid to woo Eastern Rite Catholics and stop treating them as second class citizens. Eastern Rite Catholics are essentially Eastern Orthodox Christians who were received into full communion with the Catholic Church under an an agreement intended to let them to preserve their Orthodox liturgy and faith. In the centuries since this historic agreement, Eastern Rite Catholics have found themselves not exactly treated as first-class citizens by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the nineteenth century, the Eastern Rite Catholic priest Alexis Toth entered the U.S. and found that Archbishop Ireland rejected him as a Catholic, not recognizing his Orthodox rite nor even recognizing him or his bishop as clergy, but demanding Roman behavior and Roman rites, nor accepting that Toth quoted chapter and verse demonstrating that he was allowed to continue his traditional practices as an Eastern Rite Catholic priest. Alexis Toth, regarded today as a saint by the Orthodox Church, was a leader among those moving from being treated as second-class citizens by Rome to come home to the Orthodox Church.

Today, Eastern Rite Catholics enjoy somewhat better treatment, but it is a matter of some debate how much better today’s treatment really is. In Rome, priests are basically required to be celibate; in Orthodoxy, prospective priests are usually expected to be married before they are ordained to the priesthood, and Rome respects this by allowing married Eastern Rite Catholics to be ordained priests. However, given the state of U.S. Catholic church politics, Rome is very reluctant to let married men be ordained priest on U.S. soil: Eastern Rite Catholic bishops from the U.S. may only ordain married men to the priesthood if they have special, case-by-case permission to ordain that particular man, and this is actually an improvement: not long ago, Eastern Rite Catholics had to be flown be flown to another continent entirely if married men were to be ordained to the priesthood. This is how Rome allows Eastern Rite Catholics to preserve their Orthodox tradition and practices. (Rumor has it this is not the only rough point of how Rome treats its Eastern Rite Catholics today.)

But the Pope is very keen on restoring communion and seeing that all Eastern Orthodox become Eastern Rite Catholics, or rather restore communion with Rome, if that is really any different. Now that Anglicans have been offered full communion with Rome while keeping a great deal of their liturgy and faith, the Pope is now tackling the ambitious task of allowing Eastern Rite Catholics to keep their liturgy and faith as first-class members within the Roman communion. Some sources suggest the move may be intended to ease Eastern Orthodox apprehensions about being under papal authority implied in restoring communion with Rome.

At present, details remain sketchy about how the Pope intends to improve Eastern Rite Catholics’ standing. Perhaps only time will tell what it is like to be in full communion with Rome while preserving your tradition’s liturgy and faith.

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Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

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Socrates: And now, let me give an illustration to show how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! a human being in a darkened den, who has a slack jaw towards only source of light in the den; this is where he has gravitated since his childhood, and though his legs and neck are not chained or restrained any way, yet he scarcely turns round his head. In front of him are images from faroff, projected onto a flickering screen. And others whom he cannot see, from behind their walls, control the images like marionette players manipulating puppets. And there are many people in such dens, some isolated one way, some another.

Glaucon: I see.

Socrates: And do you see, I said, the flickering screen showing men, and all sorts of vessels, and statues and collectible animals made of wood and stone and various materials, and all sorts of commercial products which appear on the screen? Some of them are talking, and there is rarely silence.

Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Socrates: Much like us. And they see only their own images, or the images of one another, as they appear on the screen opposite them?

Glaucon: True, he said; how could they see anything but the images if they never chose to look anywhere else?

Socrates: And they would know nothing about a product they buy, except for what brand it is?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: And if they were able to converse with one another, wouldn’t they think that they were discussing what mattered?

Glaucon: Very true.

Socrates: And suppose further that the screen had sounds which came from its side, wouldn’t they imagine that they were simply hearing what people said?

Glaucon: No question.

Socrates: To them, the truth would be literally nothing but those shadowy things we call the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

Socrates: And now look again, and see what naturally happens next: the prisoners are released and are shown the truth. At first, when any of them is liberated and required to suddenly stand up and turn his neck around, and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the images; and then imagine someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is asking him to things, not as they are captured on the screen, but in living color -will he not be perplexed? Won’t he imagine that the version which he used to see on the screen are better and more real than the objects which are shown to him in real life?

Glaucon: Far better.

Socrates: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

Glaucon: True, he now will.

Socrates: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and hindered in his self-seeking until he’s forced to think about someone besides himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? He will find that he cannot simply live life as he sees fit, and he will not have even the illusion of finding comfort by living for himself.

Glaucon: Not all in a moment, he said.

Socrates: He will require time and practice to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the billboards best, next the product lines he has seen advertised, and then things which are not commodities; then he will talk with adults and children, and will he know greater joy in having services done to him, or will he prefer to do something for someone else?

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: Last of he will be able to search for the One who is greatest, reflected in each person on earth, but he will seek him for himself, and not in another; and he will live to contemplate him.

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and is absolutely the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Glaucon: Clearly, he said, his mind would be on God and his reasoning towards those things that come from him.

Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Glaucon: Certainly, he would.

Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe what was happening in the world of brands and what new features were marketed, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master” than to reign as king of this Hell, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Glaucon: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness, and seem simply not to get it?

Glaucon: To be sure.

Socrates: And in conversations, and he had to compete in one-upsmanship of knowing the coolest brands with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went with his eyes and down he came without them; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would give him an extremely heavy cross to bear.

Glaucon: No question. Then is the saying, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king,” in fact false?

Socrates: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is crucified. Dear Glaucon, you may now add this entire allegory to the discussion around a matter; the den arranged around a flickering screen is deeply connected to the world of living to serve your pleasures, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the spiritual transformation which alike may happen in the monk keeping vigil or the mother caring for children, the ascent of the soul into the world of spiritual realities according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the Source of goodness appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

Glaucon: I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.

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