I’m a developer and other things, and I take a particular interest in implementing intranets. I refereed a book on building intranets, and authored two technical titles with Packt Publications, the first of which built the world’s first open source employee intranet photo directory, and the second of which built a dashboard.
One recommended practice is not to build an intranet for the sake of building an intranet or using a sweet tool. Instead, come up with a business motive and objective that can be addressed by building an intranet, and build an intranet that is a tool for meeting that goal.
With that stated, there are some pretty sweet tools that I can fairly easily put on an intranet. These include:
Drupal is a multipurpose content management system.
WordPress isn’t just for blogs. It’s a content management system, although internal blogs can be helpful.
I can put your selection(s) from these on a virtual machine that a sufficiently powerful computer can run from your network, for $50 per system included. I can also do additional custom work to customize an intranet built for your needs.
I am a sinful, imperfect, and very unworthy layman of the Orthodox Church, seeking to enter monasticism to repent of my sins for the rest of my life. (However, I’ve written some pretty good stuff, and if you buy something you might help me along my way.)
What people are saying about this collection
“A collection of joyful, challenging, insightful, intelligent, mirthful, and jarring essays written by an Eastern Orthodox author who is much too wise for his years.”
—Joseph Donovan, Amazon
“Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.
Fans of C.S. Lewis and similar Christian thinkers will find The Best of Jonathan’s Corner an absolute delight.”
—Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
“When I read C. S. Lewis, A. W. Tozer, or G. K. Chesterton, there is a deep ache for both the times and the men that made honor, wisdom, and clarity a thing of such beauty and strength. We wonder what they would say of our time, and why, with so many more people and better communication, we don’t see more of them.
Hayward is such a person of wisdom and depth. I do not say this lightly or flatteringly. He and I don’t agree on everything, but when we contrast, it will never be his side of the issue that is lacking in depth, beauty, or elegance. He’s Orthodox, yes (I’m not). But I suspect all sides will claim him as they do Lewis and Chesterton.”
—Kent Nebergall, Amazon
“The Sign of the Grail is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top recommendation for academia and the non-specialist reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are C.J.S. Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries, compilations and anthologies: Yonder, Firestorm 2034, A Cord of Seven Strands, The Steel Orb, The Christmas Tales, and Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary [the other six Hayward titles then in print].”
—John Burroughs, Midwest Book Review
“Divinely inspired for our day and age’s spiritually thirsty fellows.”
—Colleen Woods, Amazon
“The work that stands out most among the creative pieces, perhaps among all of them, is that which opens the book, The Angelic Letters. I have had the pleasure of reading nearly all of Hayward’s writings, and I was delighted that he undertook to write such a work. Readers who are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters will recognize at once that it is the very book which that author desired, but felt unable, to write in order to balance the demonic correspondence. It is a mark of Hayward’s skill, knowledge, and spiritual insight that he has successfully written something that such a theologian as Lewis did not wish to attempt. He has of course accomplished this work with God’s help, but one must realize the spiritual struggle, mental effort, careful study, and deep prayer that has gone into every piece in this anthology… This author has gathered pearls for us, and may we gladly look upon them. They hold glimmers that can reflect our lives.”
—Sydney “Nicoletta” Freedman, in the Foreword to The Best of Jonathan’s Corner.
This is the piece of which the Midwest Book Review wrote, “Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.
In other words, it enchants as a Swiss Army Knife enchants, and individual works are as distinctive as blades on a Swiss Army Knife..
This is the flagship of my works, both in theology and writing as a whole, and there’s a lot there.
Among the critiques I’ve made, The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts has had a pretty broad and effective reach, in particular for a work that has numerous vitriolic one star reviews. This title, by contrast, contains another significant critique. The “Humane Tech” movement achieves some things, but I would recall a common misquote allegedly from Einstein: “Our problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Humane Tech looks at how technology experts can work within today’s technical paradigms to soften some of technology’s rough spots. The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written across ages to step much further outside the box, and the light adaptation of Plato in Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? has been called deep, perhaps because it was a light touch to a masterpiece.
I mentioned in conversation with a previous parish priest that I would jump at an opportunity to do a homily, and when I asked for him to do a homily on something briefly touched on in previous opportunities, he invited me to give such a homily myself. I did, and it was the one time in my life that people burst out clapping after a homily. He was a great encourager, and it is my loss that he has moved to another state.
It’s not just that they’re both about a foot thick. The thickness comes from a numerous and varied set of tools: 87 implements with 141 functions for the Wenger Giant, compared with 230 separate works (as of the time of this writing) in the Kindle collection. Furthermore, if you search Amazon for my dozens of titles you will see something a bit like the many Swiss Army Knives you can search from above.
Even Bjarne Stroustrup has some sense that there is indeed a smaller and more elegant language struggling to get out of C++. He is right that that language is not Java or C#, but I would suggest that this more elegant language has been right under our noses the whole time:
Now if we could turn back the clock on MacOS
I used to think that OSX was my favorite flavor of Unix. Now I think that the Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch may be preferred for nontechnical users on all counts, but Apple has been more and more going its own way, and the result has made an environment that is more and more hostile to Unix / Linux gurus. Some of this is discussed further in Macs are now Super.Computer.s running “IRIX,” a Super.Computer. OS!:
I have narrated above the breakage that shipped to me with OSX 12.2.4; the breakage that shipped with the OSX 12.2.2 update was Terminal.app crashing on a regular basis. And while I don’t wish to patronize developers who work with graphical IDE’s, the two most heavily used applications I have are Google Chrome and Terminal. When I poked around, I was pointed to an Apple developer bug first posted in 2016 that has 147 “I have this problem too” votes… I wish they had done something more polite to Unix users than breaking and not fixing Terminal, like setting a Terminal.app background image of someone flipping the bird at command-line Unix / Linux types. Really, flipping the bird would be markedly more polite.
In conversations with technical support about malfunctioning in Apple’s version of Apache, it took me an escalation all the way to level 3 support before I spoke with someone who knew that the Macintosh had a command line (let alone having any idea what that meant). And I was told that Apple supported GUI use of e.g. webservers, but not command line.
More broadly, it’s been harder and harder by the year to get things working and I was astonished after initial difficulties installing SuiteCRM what my research turned up: Apple has removed parts of the OS that that project needed to run.
An even bigger shock
A much bigger shock came when I created a Linux VM to install some open source software projects I had meant to install natively.
I was shocked about how easy it was.
It was the command line version of “Point and click”.
I realized that over the years I had become more and more accustomed to installing open source software under MacOS being like out-stubborning an obscure and crufty flavor of Unix (such as Irix on NCSA supercomputers, with a general comment of “Nothing works on Irix!“). And working on installing major open source projects recalls a favorite xkcd comic about the joy of first meeting Python:
Tolerating upgrades that break software: Do you remember how people used to just accept the forever close at hand BSOD?
Before Windows XP came out, I remember trying to make a point to a non-hacker friend that “Computers are logical but not rational.” Meaning that from a programming standpoint they ideally do neither more nor less than what the logic in a computer program called for, but state-of-the-art AI could not make sense of the basics of a children’s “I Can Read” book. (For that matter, computers cannot understand the gist of a program. They may execute the program, but only programmers understand the gist.)
She said, “I disagree. What if you’re using a computer and the mouse freezes?”
In the ensuing conversation, I failed completely in my efforts to communicate that incessant crashes on par with the Blue Screen of Death were simply not an automatic feature of how computers act, and that my Linux box did not malfunction at anywhere near the violence of Windows, on which point I quote Tad Phetteplace:
In a surprise announcement today, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer revealed that the Redmond-based company will allow computer resellers and end-users to customize the appearance of the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), the screen that displays when the Windows operating system crashes.
The move comes as the result of numerous focus groups and customer surveys done by Microsoft. Thousands of Microsoft customers were asked, “What do you spend the most time doing on your computer?”
A surprising number of respondents said, “Staring at a Blue Screen of Death.” At 54 percent, it was the top answer, beating the second place answer “Downloading XXXScans” by an easy 12 points.
“We immediately recognized this as a great opportunity for ourselves, our channel partners, and especially our customers,” explained the excited Ballmer to a room full of reporters.
Immense video displays were used to show images of the new customizable BSOD screen side-by-side with the older static version. Users can select from a collection of “BSOD Themes,” allowing them to instead have a Mauve Screen of Death or even a Paisley Screen of Death. Graphics and multimedia content can now be incorporated into the screen, making the BSOD the perfect conduit for delivering product information and entertainment to Windows users.
The BSOD is by far the most recognized feature of the Windows operating system, and as a result, Microsoft has historically insisted on total control over its look and feel. This recent departure from that policy reflects Microsoft’s recognition of the Windows desktop itself as the “ultimate information portal.” By default, the new BSOD will be configured to show a random selection of Microsoft product information whenever the system crashes. Microsoft channel partners can negotiate with Microsoft for the right to customize the BSOD on systems they ship.
Major computer resellers such as Compaq, Gateway, and Dell are already lining up for premier placement on the new and improved BSOD.
Ballmer concluded by getting a dig in against the Open Source community. “This just goes to show that Microsoft continues to innovate at a much faster pace than open source. I have yet to see any evidence that Linux even has a BSOD, let alone a customizable one.”
Most of the software upgrades I have purchased in over a decade of Mac ownership have been because an OSX upgrade broke them completely.
On this point I would distinguish between Windows and Mac on the one hand, and Linux on the other. Microsoft and Apple both need to make changes that people have to buy different software over time; Linux may include mistakes but there is no built-in need to radically change everything on a regular basis. Now some Linux programming may change quickly: front-end web developers face a very volatile list of technologies they should know. However, something said about Unix applies to Linux to a degree that is simply unparalleled in Windows or Mac: “Unix has a steep learning curve, but you only have to climb it once.”
OSX admittedly has better UX than Linux, and possibly it make sense for open source types to buy a Mac, run VMware Fusion in Unity mode, and do Linux development and open source software use from a Linux Mint VM. (My own choice is just to do Linux, with Windows VM’s for compatibility.) However, for Unix and Linux wizards, the container is one that occasionally gives a nasty surprise.
Beautiful things work better: An interesting solution
I’ve given a once-over to Linux Mint Sonya, to address UX tweaks and to echo some of that old glory. As is appropriate to an appliance, passwords are not needed (though the usual root methods of assigning a Linux password work better). The desktop and background are laid out to be truly beautiful!
To pick one little example of improved UX: copy is Control-C, and paste is Control-V, with gnome-terminal or without; if you want to send a literal Control-C, then Shift-Control-C will do that, and likewise for Control-V. This cuts down on frustrating attempts to remember, “In this context, will I copy by typing Control-C, or Control-Shift-C?” There are other little touches. For instance, Chrome is already installed, and the default Firefox search engine is configured out of the box to be, drum roll please… Google!”
Mint comes with a search engine that in my experience only have SERPs with ads above the fold that are formatted exactly or almost exactly like real organic search results. And not only is Google not the main search engine: it is FUDded, banished to a list options that are either not monetizable to Mint’s makers, or are considered problematic and potentially unsafe. (Mint’s FUDding does not distinguish which is which; it is set up to make Google look seedy.)
Perhaps you don’t like the Aqua interface; it is if nothing else the gold star that North Korea’s One Star Linux Red Star Linux offers, and people seem interested in an Aqua-themed Linux enough to write HOWTO’s to get a root shell and migrate to English. Even if they advise against serious use, not because a fresh install has software that’s years obsolete software, but because the entire environment could be described not so much as having spyware, but being spyware.
Or perhaps it might served as a change of scenery, a virtual vacation of a virtual machine.
This is a virtual machine from VMware Workstation Player. If you have not used virtualization software before, you may need to turn on hardware virtualization on your BIOS.
You can likely find instructions to do this by searching for “bios enable hardware virtualization” and adding the manufacturer and model for your machine. If you aren’t feeling brave, just ask for help from the local teenage computer guru.
Having trouble trying to keep track of nested parentheses in a page-long SQL query or PHP/Perl/Python etc. conditionals? Type or paste in code you have that has so many layers of parenthesis that you struggle to keep on top of the tangled depth of the code.
Security-conscious? This code doesn’t send your code snippet to the server: all calculations are handled in the browser. However, if you want that extra level of assurance, you are welcome to capture the source and make sure everything’s on the up-and-up before you use it. This code is dual-licensed, available to you under your choice of the terms of MIT and GPLv3 license.
This page is link-ware. If you like it, you are invited to put a link to CJSHayward.com.
Please read the article below for a note on animal lovers who are not in a position to responsibly own a pet and don’t want to put a companion animal in solitary confinement throughout business hours.
If you’re just looking for links about what to buy, Tribbles were the best thing I knew of when this article was originally written. Since then, there are Furreal Friends, which seem designed to give pleasure to children, and Joy for All Silver Cat with White Mitts appears specifically created for the pleasure of adult animal lovers.
Years back, one friend, Cynthia, explained why she will never own a furry pet. An editor, her work often allows her to be in her apartment building during business hours, and when she walks through the halls, she hears so many whimperings, whinings, barks, and the like, every one of them saying, “Will you come in and be with me?”
That conversation made an impression on me. I am an animal lover. I grew up with a dog about the house, kept kind and gentle care of a lab even when her barking cut into my sleep, and when I am visiting my brother Joe’s house, I love to see his cats. And I would love to have a furry cubicle pet. But the options there are somewhat limited, and not only because bosses sometimes have to say “No” to eccentric behavior. Though there have been workplaces where employees were welcome to bring well-behaved dogs, (see, for a rare example, Dreaming in Code), bringing a pet to work beyond a fish appropriately would include either transporting the pet with you or leaving your pet unattended for sixty or so hours straight each weekend, keeping the animal in an enclosed space without freedom to wander or explore, and so on. Now hamsters are solitary creatures and for what I know now, it might be possible to keep a hamster cage in a cubicle, leaving only problems like pet dander irritating other employees’ allergies. But on the whole, the question of how to keep an office pet without cruelty is a difficult question.
And, up to a point at least, for a single person to keep a pet at home is dodgy. Families and people who work out of their homes are a separate case, and two or more cats may be able to keep each other company, but if you have a fulltime job or serve as a consultant, the question of how to keep a pet without cruelty may be a bit of a challenge.
Some common and respected practices are in fact cruel. My brother has taken in rescue cats which were already declawed, but he and my sister-in-law have never declawed a cat they owned. The common statement is that even front declawing a kitten is like cutting a baby’s fingers off at the knuckles. My brother added that declawed cats are not, in fact, safer for owners to deal with: for a cat with front claws, the first line of defense is a swipe with claws which is only an abrasion, while for a declawed cat the first line of defense is abite, which is a puncture wound. Not only is that a more serious wound, but the puncture wound exposes you to whatever bacteria live in the cat’s mouth, and mouths tend to have lots of infectious bacteria. Strange as it may sound, if you have a cat, you want the cat to be able to swipe its claws at you if it’s cornered, angry, or afraid. It’s better than a declawed cat’s bite.
I have swing-mounted horses, and I would happily do so now if the opportunity offered to me. To swing-mount a horse, you crouch down, get a good grip of the horse’s mane with both hands, and leap up, pulling yourself up by the mane, and ideally land squarely on the horse’s back, and this is not cruel. Different species have different thresholds of pain, and a lot of animals are tougher than us; the average horse’s threshold of pain is seven times higher than the average human. This means, for instance, that you can grab a good bit of a horse’s mane in your hand and pull as hard as you can, and not only will it not injure the horse, it won’t cause pain or even really annoyance for the horse. Now horses can be skittish around people and may not be used to you, but if a horse is comfortable with your presence, yanking on its mane doesn’t mean anything.
And different thresholds of pain apply to dogs, too. The dog I had growing up would leap and dance for joy when she saw a famiy member starting to reach for her leash, because she knew that meant she would go for a walk outside. Years later, a dog a few months old would leap and dance for joy when he saw me reaching for a specific pair of workgloves, because he knew that meant he could bite me significantly harder when we were playing. He had a very high threshold of pain, unusual for even a dog, and he expected me to have the same high threshold of pain, and so things felt more natural and pleasant for him when I wore gloves and allowed him to bite me harder. And there’s no way those Thin gloves would have protected me if he were really trying to hurt me; if he had been trying to dodamage, he could have easily sliced through my gloves and cut me to the bone. He was pulling his punches with me, even when I was wearing gloves and I allowed him to bite me much harder. (It really was just horseplay.) Seeing as he didn’t draw blood on me, chances are pretty good it was just friendly horseplay to him. (Although dogs do not eat a meat-only diet, both cats and dogs are predators with powerful jaws, and both are well strong enough to cut to the bone.) And really, from my perspective those interactions with the puppy were pleasant play, and from his perspective they were nice, friendly horseplay. I have felt no inclination to bite any of my pets, but if I had started nipping at him with equal force, his enjoyment would probably have been so much the better. Nothing says love like a playful nip and ten or twenty slobbery kisses.
That is part of why I am puzzled when I occasionally hear of a man who was training dogs, and as something the dogs would relate to, bit the dogs for discipline, and he was rightly arrested for cruelty to animals. Part of my response was, “Um… why? Was he biting the dogs too hard? Did he draw blood? Did he misunderstand some detail of how an adult dog would use biting to discipline a younger dog? Did the police enforcing the anti-cruelty laws for animals have any idea of what normal social interaction between dogs looks like?” I thought of wearing gloves with that one puppy because I found his playful nips more painful than I wanted, but I can say in general of cats and dogs, that if it nips or bites you and it doesn’t draw blood, it almost certainly wasn’t trying to hurt you. Even if, perhaps, we need to draw lines and train dogs that they need to restrain their natural playfulness when horsing around with people, which most dogs purchased as pets can do well enough.
But more broadly than cats and claws, the question of how a single working person can responsibly own a furry pet without cruelty is difficult (I do not say necessarily impossible: but at least difficult). And I’ve explored a few things, starting when I was in grad school in 2007.
For reasons I don’t completely understand, people have made electronic pets that you wouldn’t want to pet; there is a whole line of artificial cats, dogs, etc. that are usually not furry and do not look like something you’d want to pet. Just search for something like robot pet and look at the pictures.
But by accident, that’s not the whole picture. I managed to get a Furby 2.0, and it seemed to be very well-done for its target audience of children, but have unnerving “uncanny valley”-like effects on me as an adult. I got my money’s worth out of the purchase; I gave it to a friend’s two-year-old where it became an almost instant hit and may have become his favorite toy. (Before letting it go, I quite deliberately gave it a fresh set of batteries, and showed both his parents where the “Off” switch was.)
Cue Star Trek. I am not the world’s biggest Star Trek fan personally speaking; there was one conversation when cell phones had recently become a common thing to have, and a friend was gushing about Star Trek, and said, “And cell phones! What would our society be like today if there were no Star Trek?” (My response: “We would have had much better science fiction?“) But Star Trek has many devoted fans, enough that when conditions would support it, it was economically viable to sell live, robotic, spayed-and-neutered Tribbles.
There is a large variety of Tribble merchandise; I have had medium and small Tribbles, and the small ones have been much less interactive. But for a cubicle pet and for people like me who would like to own something furry but aren’t in a position to take on a live pet responsibly and without cruelty in solitary confinement or whatnot, a Tribble may be the nicest thing out there.
If you’d like something vaguely furry without worrying if you are treating a pet cruelly, I would recommend one of the following:
This project works with archaic browsers, like FireFox 3 or (shudder) Internet Explorer 6. It does not seem to work well with current browser versions, and it is being left partly as a historical detail, with a clear reference implementation of how one would do this with today’s browser.
The basic enhancement of allowing this for e.g. Gnome Terminal appears to be in the Gnome Terminal bug tracker, and so this functionality may be available someday in standard terminal programs by setting one’s font to Verdana.
Design, typography, and terminals: Not-so-good, better, best
Those of us involved in web design and usability know that fonts are not created equal. The first incarnation of my own website used fixed-width fonts for almost everything, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Since then, I’ve joined the rest of the web in recognizing the benefits of using a font optimized for on-screen reading.
In the spirit of the sort of makeover done by Tufte in books like Envisioning Information, I would like to look at three different terms; the last one is the one offered here.
This is a (cropped) screenshot of the default term (xterm) that shipped with my EeePC. It has a black background, like ancient VT100’s:
What this is optimized for is densely packing information into a tight space, and for serious coding this is seriously answering the wrong question.
Let’s look at a terminal that shows much better typography and design:
This has a more readable font, and it makes productive use of space: more specifically, it uses space to enhance usability and readability, not cram in as many bits per pixel as can still technically be read. The font, unlike even the Mac Terminal, is deftly anti-aliased, and to a designer the font appears to have been clearly designed for usability.
But we can do better by breaking out of the grid and using web-based typography as a starting point, and tweak the spacing for reading code:
I’ve looked at a lot of code this way, and the difference is remarkable. If your code is formatted well, it is easier to read and you can tell more at a glance and then zero in on what you need. It has just a little of the magic of of moving from find/grep/xargs to ack, ordiscovering Python. Having tried it, I really don’t want to go back.
How did I do that? By standing on Antoine Lesuisse’s shoulders with Ajaxterm (download). A few CSS tweaks, and there is a terminal that takes advantage of the web’s advances in typography and usability.
License: All changes from Ajaxterm 0.10 are free software in the hopes that they may be useful but with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY, WITHOUT EVEN THE IMPLIED WARRANTY OF MERCHANTIBILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, available under your choice of the Artistic, GPL, and MIT licenses. If you like this software, you are invited to consider linking to CJSHayward.com. Ajaxterm itself is not my work, but is in the public domain, except for its included Sarissa materials, which are LGPL.
(These instructions are for Unix/Linux/Mac; on Windows, I would try Cygwin.)
If you have trouble logging in, and this makes sense in your security situation (by default, Ajaxterm listens on localhost, and firewalls can block 8022 from access by other machines ensuring Ajaxterm is only available locally), you can pass ./ajaxterm.py the argument “–command=bash” and possibly have connections to http://localhost:8022/ simply served bash as the user running ./ajaxterm.py.
Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, “No picnic is complete without ants.” So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for “ascesis” (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ’s name, and Christ’s answer was: “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven.” The reality of the disciples’ names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God’s grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and money,” it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, “No man can serve two masters” all the more needed in our day.
Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. “No man can serve two masters” is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:
Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.
Hobbes: That must have been scary!
Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!
But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.
There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan “astrological” calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn’t able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike… or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
No technology is permanently exotic.
When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called “a Utopia of spoiled children.” It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological “progress” often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, “We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!”
Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to “support” weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special “safety” features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one’s priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call “space-conquering technologies” might more aptly be titled, “body-conquering technologies,” because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
Today, “everybody knows” that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one’s spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that “proved” that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck’s gas tank (see analysis).
St. John Chrysostom wrote,
Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well… Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.
The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul’s blistering words about forbidding marriage:
Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage’s fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one’s health.
Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for “pull and pray.” (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—”medicine men” one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple’s hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they “simply cannot afford any more children”—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, “Take control of your life!” For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one’s elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;” they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
One classic attitude to wine was not “We forbid drinking wine,” or even “It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage,” but goes beyond saying, “The pleasure of wine was given by God as good” to saying: “Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying ‘when’ and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape.”
The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person’s life and pursuits.)
The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company’s success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn’t think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
Good to Great leadership saw their companies’ success in terms of people.
There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
In Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a “man” with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of “water brothers” who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to “push the envelope” of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is “functioning the way a human being was organized to function.”
People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its “good news” of an escape from the miserable here and now is “good news” as misery would want it. Today’s Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics’ bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: “Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk,” in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, “Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!”
What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business’s website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another’s death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one’s own life.
An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people’s Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people’s Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn’t a soul in the place!
Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
“Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
“Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, “Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!” Less witty complaints about the younger generation’s immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today’s older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. “The youth these days” have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
When they were young, the older generation’s ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its “cool” is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
The Liturgy prays, “Pierce our souls with longing for Thee.” Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as “space-conquering,” it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
“The demons always fast:” such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body’s limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos’s virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, “Isn’t there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?”, the answer is, “Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle.” In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures’ best interests.
People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology’s use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one’s watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee’s attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, “watchfulness.”
The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
Nepsis is a watchfulness over one’s heart, including the mind.
Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one’s thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one’s senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”
Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
That “something better” is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.
It has become fashionable to say a bit of nuance when something is compared to a Swiss Army Knife: a Swiss Army Knife is a collection of second-rate tools: the can opener may be better than nothing, but it is a surrogate for a real can opener. At least it seems to be sophisticated nuance, but I write after having opened a can with my Swiss Army Knife when a “real” can opener was right in the drawer in front of me.
A spider’s web is small, flimsy, easy to overlook, and in houses something people sweep away as a nuisance. Yet none of these faults are brought to mind when something is compared to the world wide web, or someone discussing history compares the 19th century establishment of nationwide railways crossing the U.S. to the establishment of the web. For that matter, there is a positive connotation to the spider’s web that we do not evoke: a spider’s web is what provides spiders something to eat, and some of us (including yours truly) are privileged to make a living from the web. The web is an intricate mesh of cross-linking, and the idea of one node connected to the other is the prime metaphor evoked when we speak of the “web.”
I carry four Swiss Army Knives, or at least material Swiss Army Knives, besides my wallet.
The first is a Swisschamp my parents got for me in England when we traveled when I was a teen, and I’ve made a couple of custom modifications to it: I filed away at part of the metal saw/nail file/metal file to make a harder-than-steel blade for cutting at screens, and I also narrowed the end of the tweezers to try and make it work better as a splinter tweezers. I’ve stopped carrying it once or twice, but so far at least I have gotten back to carrying it again. I know its features by heart: large blade, small blade, metal saw, metal file, nail file, nail cleaner, added harder-than-steel blade, wood saw, scissors, magnifying glass, Phillips screwdriver, pliers, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweler’s screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, additional slotted screwdriver, hook, reamer, pen, toothpick, tweezers (sadly replaced with a regular tweezers when I sent it in for repairs—I’m sure they meant it well).
The second Swiss Army Knife I carry is one that I purchased in a moment of “sacramental shopping” against my best judgment: my watch was having problems, but I already had a perfectly useful way to tell time. I had quite vulgarly agreed with the contents of my spam folder to believe that I needed an extra special watch and it would make me special. And so I purchased a Casio Pathfinder watch, water resistant to 100 meters, and besides the normal time, five alarms, stopwatch, and timer one might expect of a digital watch, it has a compass, barometer/altimeter, a surprisingly useless thermometer, tells time in other time zones, is set each night by a signal from an atomic clock and is probably within a second of the “official” absolute time without my ever setting it, and recharges by solar power even when I do nothing to make sure it gets light. It has never been below the highest level of charge. Oh, and its color is a military olive green with black highlight, so it fits in with my green and earth tone wardrobe. I have, as it turns out, used the compass, and I do hope it lasts me a while, but I regard the purchase as an ersatz sacrament, vulgar as a “replica luxury watch” hawked in spam.
The third Swiss Army Knife I carry is an iPhone; I upgraded in the recent past from my iPhone 1 to an iPhone 4 because AT&T’s rate limiting was getting to be a quite practical limitation; sending a thank-you note after a job interview was like breathing through a straw. I have not upgraded to the 4 S; it sounds impressive, but my present iPhone 4 works as nicely today as when I got it, good enough that the fact that something better is out there does not concern me.
(No, not Android; I’ve tried Android and didn’t like it. I’ve wished I knew enough video editing to take one of the initial commercials, which said things like “iDon’t have a real keyboard”, to say all but the last “iDon’t”, and then edit in, “iDon’t have a second-rate user interface,” and then let the commercial give its final, “Droid does!”)
My fourth Swiss Army Knife, which I use rarely, is/was (it is lost now) an Ubuntu USB key: it can store files and it can boot (or install) Ubuntu Linux. While I use thend as someone answered a forum question, “I’ve installed Linux, now where I can get some games,” and answered, “Linux is the game!” other three Swiss Army Knives all the time, this one is there but there are not too many situations to use it. I did install Linux at a friend’s house when he requested it and there was no question of going somewhere else to get media, but the way life moves today I spend little time using it; there may be students storing all their homework on a USB key, but I don’t find myself using it often.
Part of the reasons people compare things to Swiss Army Knives (and call Perl “Unix’s Swiss Army Chainsaw”, Python being a lightsabre that cuts like a hot knife through butter), is that there is a mystique to this one bit of Swiss machinecraft that can do so many things. As a relatively young boy, I believe after addictively watching MacGyver, I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and said I wanted a Swiss Army Knife, and my Mom, who would not have been making the choice out of financial constraint, purchased me a wooden-handled pocketknife with two (literal) blades, and said, “See, I got you a Swiss Army Knife!” I tried to contain my disappointment; it was as if I had asked for a bacon cheeseburger, and imagined a good sit-down restaurant bacon cheeseburger piled high with toppings, and was told in perfect sincerity, “Here’s the hamburger you asked for,” and been given a tiny White Castle burger.
It was perhaps out of this experience that I made a purchase for a boy at church: his parents had told him, perhaps not strangely, that he could own a pocketknife (I believe he owns a couple), but he could not carry anything dangerous. I think sometime back I had given him a vaguely Swiss Army-like folding tool, but more recently I found out there was a Leatherman expressly designed to be able to be taken through airport security, having been cleared approval with the TSA and 315 airports, and they had rather ingeniously made a mechanical folding pliers that was a bit small, but folded out to a pliers, scissors, nail file, carabiner, and (I believe) a screwdriver designed to work with either slotted or Phillips screws, and a tweezers, but all of this without being like a weapon. And he thanked me for it, once initially as one would expect from politeness, and once a week later (and he showed me its features!). The gift had scored home with him, and I believe my actions were conditioned (though I did not think of it at the time) by my disappointment when my parents admittedly entrusted me with a blade, but did not give the abounding mechanical clockwork-like coolness that motivated my request for a Swiss Army Knife.
Is Orthodoxy a Swiss Army Knife? (Is God?)
The liturgical flow of day and year is intricate, with its ebb and flow and nooks and crannies, and the exact combination of songs, musical tones, readings, and so on for a Divine Liturgy are something that may not be exactly repeated for hundreds of years. And a certain sense you can say that God is a Swiss Army Knife, and the saints are his blades—or, really, the whole race of mankind.
But on a deeper level the image does not fit, and here we run into a basic difficulty in theology. There are two basic modes of theology in talking about God, and they are opposite. One mode, the cataphatic, is to say that God is described by the images of his Creation, that he is King and Father, and so on. And there is some element of truth even in comparing HE WHO IS to solid stone: “Blessed be my rock,” the Psalmist bard proclaims. But in a deeper sense these images all ultimately fail, as loudly proclaims apophatic theology. The image of God as stone fails more quickly, but ultimately even the images of a Father and King run dry.
And HE WHO IS, one God in Trinity, is utterly and completely simple, and simple beyond any created simplicity. The beauty of a Swiss Army Knife is that it is amny things folded into its handle; it is a beauty of multiplicity that falls infinitely short of God. God may be seen in many saints, but they are all brought to his oneness. And this oneness reflects down: the virtues may look like a Swiss Army Knife of the soul, and they indeed are in a certain sense, but on a more profound level there is a unity to the virtues (and the vices). The deepest virtue is only one virtue, and indeed Christ names one virtue as the foundation of all Scripture:
Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The spiritual life is one of simplicity, praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and the Swiss-like clockwork of the liturgy is paradoxically an entryway into this simplicity.