“St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

"St. Clive:" An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

TL;DR

In this book, a brilliant Eastern Orthodox apologist looks back at C.S. Lewis as a formative influence, then up into Holy Orthodoxy.

C.S. Lewis fans will love “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback).

A Very Scripted Dialogue

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  • “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback)

    What People Are Saying

    The Midwest Book Review

    “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

    C.J.S. Hayward

    C.J.S. Hayward Publications

    9781794669956 $9.99 Kindle / $49.99 paperback

    Website/Ordering Links:
    cjshayward.com/st-clive (homepage)
    cjshayward.com/st-clive-kindle (Kindle)
    cjshayward.com/st-clive-paperback (paperback)

    “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis adopts an unusual perspective because most examinations of the spirituality of C.S. Lewis come from Western spiritual perspectives, and few adopt the approach of C.J.S. Hayward, who opens his book with a Lewis-type series of letters to a guardian angel, The Angelic Letters, a Heavenly analogue to The Screwtape Letters. The book is even more distinctive in reflecting back on Lewis from a perspective meant to be thoroughly Orthodox.

    Readers might anticipate a dry analytical style typical of too many Lewis analysis and assessments, but Hayward includes a wry sense of observational humor, evident in the first lines of his survey where a reflection on scholarly footnote traditions ventures into comedic cultural inspection: As it is now solidly established practice to add an a footnote skittishly defending one’s own choices regarding “gendered pronouns,” I would like to quote a couple of tweets. In response to a fellow user tweeting, “Nobody is safe in today’s society, man. It’s like walking on eggshells constantly. Someone will be offended, will be out to get you. It’s exhausting… and, I think somewhat that social media is to blame,” Titania McGrath coolly answered, “The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ is a microaggression against vegans. Reported and blocked. [Emoji depicting a white woman tending to her nails.]”

    This said, Lewis was a huge influence on Hayward’s Evangelical upbringing and religious perspectives and the starting point to his “pilgrimage from Narnia” (as one of his poems is titled) into Orthodoxy. St. Clive is not to be considered another scholarly inspection rehashing familiar spiritual pathways, but a unique compilation of Lewis-like reflections steeped in Orthodox beliefs and inspections for everyday readers. It produces a compilation of pieces that attempt to sound like Lewis himself, but which are original works meant to directly address these reflections and beliefs. This book is exciting, almost as if a hitherto unknown book of original works by C.S. Lewis had suddenly come to light.

    The writings are presented in four sections that hold distinctly different tones and objectives. The first “…quotes him, builds on him, and challenges him to draw conclusions he may not have liked.” The second focuses more on Hayward’s writings and style, but with a nod to Lewis’ influence. The third section addresses Lewis’ affection for the book The Consolation of Philosophy and offers perspectives from Hayward on how its ideas and Lewis’s expand different aspects of spiritual reflection; while the fourth section offers bibliographic keys to further pieces in the Lewis/Hayward tradition for newcomers who may be piqued by this collection’s lively inspections, and who want more insights from other sources.

    As far as the contentions themselves, “St. Clive” is a journeyman’s venture into the traditions of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to mysticism. It provides a lively set of discourses considering such varied topics as the failure of Christianity to superimpose itself on the pagan custom of Halloween and the notion that science is just one of the “winnowing forks” available for denoting pathways beneficial to mankind (natural selection being yet another; especially as it applies to diet choices).

    By now it should be evident that a series of dichotomies exist surrounding this effort, which is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ but a delightful compendium of reflections that represent something new. It’s not a scholarly work per se, but its language will appeal to many in the scholarly community (particularly since any discussions of Lewis usually embrace this community more or less exclusively). It’s also not an attempt to channel Lewis’ approach and tone, though these reflective pieces are certainly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. And it’s not a singular examination of spiritual perspectives, but offers a wider-ranging series of discussions that defy pat categorization.

    Indeed, this is one of the unique aspects of “St. Clive.” What other treatise holds the ability to reach lay and scholarly audiences alike, creates a wider-ranging series of connections between his works and similar writings, and expands upon many concepts with an astute hand to spiritual, philosophical, and social reflection?

    None: and this not only sets “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis apart from any other considerations, but makes it accessible to a lay audience that might have only a minimal familiarity with Lewis or the Orthodox Way.

    Go on and buy “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback)!

The Retortion Principle

In a mailing list, I wrote of the list’s beloved and missed founder, Graham Clinton:

I am in the process of remastering my paperback books, and came across the article at [A Strange Archaeological Find].

You can say that it’s a work of art, but the reason I’m posting this is because after writing it, with repeated allegations of ironic hypocrisy, and asked him permission to post the whole work (including the posting of his that I replied to), he said, “I don’t want toadies.” In other words, he forcefully put something he really meant, and then responded majestically to a work picking his work apart from bit to bit.

I miss that.

The basic principle I was appealing might be called “the retortion principle” or “the self-referential incoherence principle.” This principle is a theoretically modest principle, without the messianic fantasies of other winnowing forks, but it is pronounced in its effect and what it can winnow.

The now-unpopular “verification principle” says that we should only accept is verifiable from empirical data or by bare logic. And if we follow retortion, we find that the principle calls for its own rejection. It is, after something like a century, something we have no known way to verify apart from its standards.

If I may provide a pair of fictitious examples, compare the following two statements a Christian might make:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation.

And:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation (1 Cor 4:6).

There is a big difference between these two. The second example may or may not be true and it may or may not be a good and responsible analysis. I do not affirm its truth. But it does not disqualify itself.

By contrast, the first disqualifies itself immediately and without any need to check any external reference.

And I have seen many, many things that fail this winnowing fork, modest and limited as it may appear to be.

To provide one example, let me dismiss a couple of distractions for my purposes here, before showing an example C.S. Lewis seemed to be alarmed that others had so much difficulty seeing.

  1. First objection not really analyzed here: The theory of evolution, which is no longer a theory of evolution, has new features developing in geological eyeblinks in ways that make no statistical sense that is apparently reconcilable to the fossil records. Once evolutionists mocked a “God of the gaps,” where God lives in the areas unilluminated by present science. Now we have a “mechanism of producing new life forms of the gaps,” that seem to find the generation of new life-forms only in the gaps of our understanding of the fossil record.
  2. Second objection not really analyzed here: Some life-forms show mechanisms that are at least partly irreducible in their complexity, and it does not make sense statistically to assert that the basic Darwinian mechanism produces irreducibly complex biological mechanisms.

I do not ask you to avoid either objection; speaking as a mathematician, none of the people who have tried to convince me of today’s “theory of evolution” have found a way to assert their claims in a way that is statistically believable. However, I am mentioning these to ask that they be put aside as irrelevant to C.S. Lewis’s concern with any form of Darwinian evolution.

C.S. Lewis’s concern is essentially that if, as common biology implies, our thoughts and emotions and such all boil down to the biochemical, then we have reason to assert we have brains good enough to find food, but not reason to assert that we have brains good enough to find out the theory of evolution. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, true. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, false. A biological reaction is a biological reaction that is mistakenly classified as a sort of thing that can be “true” or “false.” Romantic love is just biochemical, and the same razor that slices through romantic love cuts itself on the backswing. The explanation explains away all explanation, including itself.

This is to me, a subtle and harder-to-see case of the same principle of retortion, that we should reject blades that cut themselves off in the backswing. The verification principle is self-referentially incoherent. In regards to postmodernism, neat analysis may be easier once postmodernism has been dead for centuries, but it has been commented broadly that relativism is always relativism for others’ principles, not one’s own. In a footnote, C.S. Lewis’s discussion of “The Green Book” in The Abolition of Man, discusses the authors’ own values and assumptions, documented by repeated quotes, as being just what was fashionable in certain social circles at a particular time. The authors have cut off values and assumptions, and this in principle and not just practice, but they are free to let assertion of those opinions concretely trump the principle they have asserted, which cuts up all values into meaninglessness.

In a philosophical theology class, I mentioned some argument of retortion, and the professor commented that thesis are often known to use retortion. He did not say exactly why that may be, but one possible reason, perhaps tacit, is a gentlemen’s agreement that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This leaves at least some theists free to throw stones, because some theists themselves live in thick-walled steel fortresses, at least as far as retortion is concerned. Right or wrong as theism may be, you do not need to contradict yourself from the start if you are to believe in the Christian God. You do need to contradict yourself from the start to be a materialist, because if materialism is true, no human biochemical state can in principle ever be true, and that includes belief in materialism.

I mention as possible a gentleman’s agreement; I wish to go further and say that people with self-referentially incoherent beliefs have a vested interest in not having self-referential incoherence be the sort of thing one brings up in polite company. It is attractive to have a sweeping principle that cuts through all nonsense to a core of real, genuine truth, and there is something very grand in sentiment in saying we should only believe what is demonstrated from sensory data (no comments from the peanut gallery about how we believe in an external world that extends beyond a solipsistic self, please), or logic itself. That sounds grand, striking, strong. Meanwhile, asking “Does it make a special exception in its own case?” is a much humbler-sounding question, not striking, not grand, but nonetheless a useful winnowing fork.

I would not make this argument central to any theism, and not to my own. I am Eastern Orthodox, and the Orthodox Way is much more about debugging one’s own vices than debugging poor philosophy. But I would propose, as a footnote deeply buried in the main text, that we might not be justified as adulating something so grand as the verification principle, but in apologetics and engagement with people who believe differently, this footnote might be worth looking up.

The Consolation of Theology

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Author’s Note

This work is an intentional variation on Boethius’s little gem of a classic: The Consolation of Philosophy (modern translation, old translation, another (old) translation online, wiki). It is like Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?, but more deliberately divergent. This book is meant both to stand on its own and to take a road less travelled for the reader already acquainted with Boethius. For that matter, it is also intended in the tradition of another, lesser author following How Shall We Then Live?, following it with How Now Shall We Live?, and another author following Leviathan with Behemoth, and indeed how The Consolation of Philosophy has already been followed with The Consolations of Philosophy.

If you like to curl up with a good book, this is included in the collection The Best of Jonathan’s Corner (Kindle, paperback), and I strongly encourage you to read the whole collection, perhaps starting with this piece.

Song I.

The Author’s Complaint.

The Gospel was new,
When one saint stopped his ears,
And said, ‘Good God!
That thou hast allowed me,
To live at such a time.

Jihadists act not in aught of vacuum:
Atheislam welcometh captors;
Founded by the greatest Christian heresiarch,
Who tore Incarnation and icons away from all things Christian,
The dragon next to whom,
Arius, father of heretics,
Is but a fangless worm.
Their ‘surrender’ is practically furthest as could be,
From, ‘God and the Son of God,
Became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men,
Might become Gods and the Sons of God,

By contrast, eviscerating the reality of man.
The wonder of holy marriage,
Tortured and torn from limb to limb,
In progressive installments old and new,
Technology a secular occult is made,
Well I wrote a volume,
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And in once-hallowed halls of learning,
Is taught a ‘theology,’
Such as one would seek of Monty Python.
And of my own life; what of it?
A monk still I try to be;
Many things have I tried in life,
And betimes met spectacular success,
And betimes found doors slammed in my face.
Even in work in technology,
Though the time be an economic boom for the work,
Still the boom shut me out or knocked me out,
And not only in the Church’s teaching,
In tale as ancient as Cain and Abel,
Of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
And why I must now accomplish so little,
To pale next to glorious days,
When a-fighting cancer,
I switched discipline to theology,
And first at Cambridge then at Fordham,
Wished to form priests,
But a wish that never came true?

I.

And ere I moped a man appeared, quite short of stature but looking great enough to touch a star. In ancient gold he was clad, yet the golden vestments of a Partiarch were infinitely eclipsed by his Golden Mouth, by a tongue of liquid, living gold. Emblazoned on his bosom were the Greek letters Χ, and Α. I crossed myself thrice, wary of devils, and he crossed himself thrice, and he looked at me with eyes aflame and said, ‘Child, hast thou not written, and then outside the bounds of Holy Orthodoxy, a koan?’:

A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

He spoke again. ‘Child, repent of thine own multitude of grievous sins, not the sins of others. Knowest thou not the words, spoken by the great St. Isaac and taken up without the faintest interval by the great St. Seraphim, “Make peace with thyself and ten thousand around thee shall be saved?” Or that if everyone were to repent, Heaven would come to earth?

‘Thou seemest on paper to live thy conviction that every human life is a life worth living, but lacking the true strength that is behind that position. Hast thou not read my Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself? How the three children, my son, in a pagan court, with every lechery around them, were graced not to defile themselves in what they ate, but won the moral victory of not bowing to an idol beyond monstrous stature? And the angel bedewed them in external victory after they let all else go in internal and eternal triumph?

‘It is possible at all times and every place to find salvation. Now thou knowest that marriage or monasticism is needful; and out of that knowledge you went out to monasteries, to the grand monastery of Holy Cross Hermitage, to Mount Athos itself, and thou couldst not stay. What of it? Before God thou art already a monk. Keep on seeking monasticism, without end, and whether thou crossest the threshold of death a layman or a monk, if thou hast sought monasticism for the rest of thy days, and seekest such repentance as thou canst, who knows if thou mightest appear a monk in lifelong repentance when thou answerest before the Dread Judgement-Throne of Christ?

‘Perhaps it is that God has given thee such good things as were lawful for God to give but unlawful and immature for thou to seek for thyself. Thou hast acquired a scholar’s knowledge of academic theology, and a heresiologist’s formation, but thou writest for the common man. Canst not thou imagine that this may excel such narrow writing, read by so few, in the confines of scholarship? And that as thou hast been graced to walk the long narrow road of affliction, thou art free now to sit in thy parents’ splendid house, given a roof when thou art homeless before the law whilst thou seekest monasticism, and writest for as long as thou art able? That wert wrong and immature to seek, sitting under your parents’ roof and writing as much as it were wrong and immature to seek years’ training in academic theology and heresy and give not a day’s tribute to the professorial ascesis of pride and vainglory (thou hadst enough of thine own). Though this be not an issue of morality apart from ascesis, thou knewest the settled judgement that real publication is traditional publication and vanity press is what self-publication is. Yet without knowing, without choosing, without even guessing, thou wert again & time again in the right place, at the right time, amongst the manifold shifts of technology, and now, though thou profitest not in great measure from thy books, yet have ye written many more creative works than thou couldst bogging with editors. Thou knowest far better to say, “Wisdom is justified by her children,” of thyself in stead of saying such of God, but none the less thou hadst impact. Yet God hath granted thee the three, unsought and unwanted though thou mayest have found them.’

I stood in silence, all abashed.

Song II.

His Despondency.

The Saint spoke thus:
‘What then? How is this man,
A second rich young ruler become?
He who bore not a watch on principle,
Even before he’d scarce more than
Heard of Holy Orthodoxy,
Weareth a watch built to stand out,
Even among later Apple Watches.
He who declined a mobile phone,
Has carried out an iPhone,
And is displeased to accept,
A less fancy phone,
From a state program to provide,
Cell phones to those at poverty.
Up! Out! This will not do,
Not that he hath lost an item of luxury,
But that when it happened, he were sad.
For the rich young ruler lied,
When said he that he had kept,
All commandments from his youth,
For unless he were an idolater,
The loss of possessions itself,
Could not suffice to make him sad.
This man hast lost a cellphone,
And for that alone he grieveth.
Knoweth he not that money maketh not one glad?
Would that he would recall,
The heights from which he hath fallen,
Even from outside the Orthodox Church.’

II.

Then the great Saint said, ‘But the time calls for something deeper than lamentation. Art thou not the man who sayedst that we cannot achieve the Holy Grail, nor even find it: for the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail? Not that the Orthodox Church tradeth in such idle romances as Arthurian legend; as late as the nineteenth century, Saint IGNATIUS (Brianchaninov) gaveth warnings against reading novels, which His Eminence KALLISTOS curiously gave embarrassed explanations. Today the warning should be greatly extended to technological entertainment. But I would call thy words to mind none the less, and bid thee to become the Holy Grail. And indeed, when thou thou receivest the Holy Mysteries, thou receivest Christ as thy Lord and Saviour, thou art transformed by the supreme medicine, as thou tastest of the Fount of Immortality?

‘Thou wert surprised to learn, and that outside the Orthodox Church, that when the Apostle bade you to put on the whole armour of Christ, the armour of Christ wert not merely armour owned by Christ, or armour given by Christ: it were such armour as God himself wears to war: the prophet Isaiah tells us that the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are God’s own armour which he weareth to war.

‘Thou art asleep, my son and my child; awaken thou thyself! There is silver under the tarnishment that maketh all seem corrupt: take thou what God hath bestowed, rouse and waken thyself, and find the treasure with which thy God hath surrounded thee.’

Song III.

A Clearer Eye.

‘We suffer more in imagination than reality,’
Said Seneca the Younger,
Quoted in rediscovery of Stoicism,
That full and ancient philosophy,
Can speak, act, and help today,
Among athletes and business men,
And not only scholars reading dusty tomes.
And if thus much is in a school of mere philosophy,
An individualist pursuit deepenening division,
What of the greatest philosophy in monasticism,
What of the philosophy,
Whose Teacher and God are One and the Same?
I stood amazed at God,
Trying to count my blessings,
Ere quickly I lost count.

III.

Then said I, ‘I see much truth in thy words, but my fortunes have not been those of success. I went to Cambridge, with strategy of passing all my classes, and shining brightly on my thesis as I could; the Faculty of Divinity decided two thirds of the way through the year that my promptly declared dissertation topic was unfit for Philosophy of Religion, and made me choose another dissertation topic completely. I received no credit nor recognition for the half of my hardest work. That pales in comparison with Fordham, where I were pushed into informal office as ersatz counselour for my professors’ insecurities, and the man in whom I had set my hopes met one gesture of friendship after another with one retaliation after another. Then I returned to the clumsy fit of programming, taken over by Agile models which require something I cannot do: becoming an interchangeable part of a hive mind. I have essayed work in User eXperience, but no work has yet crystallised, and the economy is adverse. What can I rightly expect from here?’

Ere he answered me, ‘Whence askest thou the future? It is wondrous. And why speakest thou of thy fortune? Of a troth, no man hath ever had fortune. It were an impossibility.’

I sat a-right, a-listening.

He continued, ‘Whilst at Fordham, in incompetent medical care, thou wert stressed to the point of nausea, for weeks on end. Thy worry wert not, “Will I be graced by the noble honourific of Doctor?” though that were far too dear to thee, but, “Will there be a place for me?” And thus far, this hath been in example “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” For though what thou fearest hath happened, what be its sting?

‘Thou seekedst a better fit than as a computer programmer, and triedst, and God hath provided other than the success you imagined. What of it? Thou hast remained in the house of thy parents, a shameful thing for a man to seek, but right honourable for God to bestow if thou hast sought sufficiency and independence. Thou knowest that we are reckoned come Judgement on our performance of due diligence and not results achieved: that due diligence often carrieth happy results may be true, but it is nothing to the point. Thou art not only provided for even in this decline; thou hast luxuries that thou needest not.

‘There is no such thing as fortune: only an often-mysterious Providence. God has a care each and all over men, and for that matter over stones, and naught that happeneth in the world escapeth God’s cunning net. As thou hast quoted the Philokalia:

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvellous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

‘And again:

He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?

Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, whilst the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.

‘Thou hast earned scores in math contests, yea even scores of math contests, ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Now thou hast suffered various things and hast not the limelight which thou hadst, or believeth thou hadst, which be much the same thing. Again, what of it? God hath provided for thee, and if thou hast been fruitless in a secular arena, thou seekest virtue, and hast borne some fruit. Moreover thou graspest, in part, virtue that thou knewest not to seek when thou barest the ascesis of a mathematician or a member of the Ultranet. Thou seekest without end that thou mayest become humble, and knowest not that to earnestly seek humility is nobler than being the chiefest among mathematicians in history?

‘The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, hath written,

Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.

All these things were from Me.

‘The doctors have decided that thy consumption of one vital medication is taken to excess, and they are determined to bring it down to an approved level, for thy safety, and for thy safety accept the consequence of thy having a string of hospitalizations and declining health, and have so far taken every pain to protect thee, and will do so even if their care slay thee.

‘What of it? Thy purity of conscience is in no manner contingent on what others decide in their dealings with thee. It may be that the change in thy medicaments be less dangerous than it beseemeth thee. It may be unlawful to the utmost degree for thou to seek thine own demise: yet it is full lawful, and possible, for our God and the Author and Finisher of our faith to give thee a life complete and full even if it were cut short to the morrow.

‘Never mind that thou seest not what the Lord may provide; thou hast been often enough surprised by the boons God hath granted thee. Thou hast written Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and thou knowest that repentance itself eclipseth the pleasure of sin. Know also that grievous men, and the devil himself, are all ever used by God according to his design, by the God who worketh all for all.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

‘Know and remember also that happiness comes from within. Stop chasing after external circumstances. External circumstances are but a training ground for God to build strength within. Wittest thou not that thou art a man, and as man art constituted by the image of God? If therefore thou art constituted in the divine image, why lookest thou half to things soulless and dead for thy happiness?’

Song IV.

Virtue Unconquerable.

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
And with my eyes yet shall I see God,
But what a painful road it has been,
What a gesture of friendship has met a knife in my back.
Is there grandeur in me for my fortitude?
I only think so in moments of pride,
With my grandeur only in repentance.
And the circumstances around me,
When I work, have met with a knife in the back.

IV.

The Golden-Mouthed said, ‘Child, I know thy pains without your telling, aye, and more besides: Church politics ain’t no place for a Saint! Thou knowest how I pursued justice, and regarded not the face of man, drove out slothful servants, and spoke in boldness to the Empress. I paid with my life for the enemies I made in my service. You have a full kitchen’s worth of knives in your back: I have an armory! I know well thy pains from within.

‘But let us take a step back, far back.

‘Happiness is of particular concern to you and to many, and if words in the eighteenth century spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” now there are many people who make the pursuit of happiness all but a full-time occupation.

‘In ages past a question of such import would be entrusted to enquiry and dialogue philosophic. So one might argue, in brief, that true happiness is a supreme thing, and God is a supreme thing, and since there can not be two separate supreme essences, happiness and God are the same, a point which could be argued at much greater length and eloquence. And likewise how the happy man is happy not because he is propped up from without, by external circumstance, but has chosen virtue and goodness inside. And many other things.

‘But, and this says much of today and its berzerkly grown science, in which the crowning jewel of superstring theory hath abdicated from science’s bedrock of experiment, happiness is such a thing as one would naturally approach through psychology, because psychology is, to people of a certain bent, the only conceivable tool to best study to understand men.

‘One can always critique some detail, such as the import of what psychology calls “flow” as optimal experience. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, outlined three versions of the good life: the Pleasant Life, which is the life of pleasure and the shallowest of the three; the Engaged Life, or the life of flow, called optimal experience, and the Meaningful Life, meaning in some wise the life of virtue.

‘He says of the Pleasant Life that it is like vanilla ice cream: the first bite tastes delicious, but by the time you reach the fifth or sixth bite, you can’t taste it any more. And here is something close to the Orthodox advice that a surplus of pleasures and luxuries, worldly honours and so on, do not make you happy. I tell you that one can be lacking in the most basic necessities and be happy: but let this slide.

‘Of the Meaningful Life, it is the deepest of the three, but it is but a first fumbling in the dark of what the Orthodox Church has curated in the light of day. Things like kindness and mercy have built in to the baseline, curated since Christ or rather the Garden of Eden, so Orthodox need not add some extra practice to their faith to obtain kindness or gratitude. Really, the number of things the Orthodox Church has learned about the Meaningful Life far eclipse the Philokalia: the fount is inexhaustible.

‘But my chief concern is with the Engaged Life, the life of flow. For flow is not “the psychology of optimal experience,” or if it is, the theology of optimal experience hath a different base. Flow is legitimate and it is a wonder: but it is not additionally fit to be a normative baseline for mankind as a whole.

Flow, as it occurs, is something exotic and obscure. It has been studied in virtuosos who are expert performers in many different domains. Once someone of surpassing talent has something like a decade of performance, it is possible when a man of this superb talent and training is so engrossed in a performance of whatever domain, that sits pretty much at the highest level of performance where essentially the virtuoso’s entire attention is absorbed in the performance, and time flies because no attention is left to observe the passage of time or almost any other thing of which most of us are aware when we are awake.

‘It seemeth difficult to me to market flow for mass consumption: doing such is nigh unto calling God an elitist, and making the foundation of a happy life all but impossible for the masses. You can be a subjectivist if you like and say that genuis is five thousand hours’ practice, but it is trained virtuoso talent and not seniority that even gets you through flow’s door. For that matter, it is also well nigh impossible for the few to experience until they have placed years into virtuoso performance in their craft. Where many more are capable of being monastics. Monastics, those of you who are not monastics may rightly surmise, have experiences which monastics call it a disaster to share with you. That may be legitimate, but novices would do well not to expect a stream of uninterrupted exotic experiences, not when they start and perhaps not when they have long since taken monastic vows. A novice who seeth matters in terms of “drudgework” would do well to expect nothing but what the West calls “drudgework” for a long, long time. (And if all goeth well and thou incorporatest other obediences to the diminution of drudgery, thou wilt at first lament the change!) A monastic, if all goes well, will do simple manual labour, but freed from relating to such labour as drudgery: forasmuch as monastics and monastic clergy recall “novices’ obediences”, it is with nostalgia, as a yoke that is unusually easy and a burden unusually light.

‘And there is a similitude between the ancient monastic obedience that was par excellence the bread and butter of monastic manual labour, and the modern obedience. For in ancient times monks wove baskets to earn their keep, and in modern times monks craft incense. And do not say that the modern obedience is nobler, for if anything you sense a temptation, and a humbler obedience is perhaps to be preferred.

‘But in basket making or incense making alike, there is a repetitive manual labour. There are, of course, any number of other manual obediences in a monastery today. However, when monasticism has leeway, its choice seems to be in favour of a repetitive manual labour that gives the hands a regular cycle of motion whilst the heart is left free for the Jesus Prayer, and the mind in the heart practices a monk’s watchfulness or nipsis, an observer role that traineth thee to notice and put out temptations when they are a barely noticeable spark, rather than heedlessly letting the first temptation grow towards acts of sin and waiting until thy room be afire before fightest thou the blaze. This watchfulness is the best optimal experience the Orthodox Church gives us in which to abide, and ’tis no accident that the full and unabridged title of the Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. If either of these simple manual endeavours is unfamiliar or makes the performer back up in thought, this is a growing pain, not the intended long-term effect. And what is proposed is proposed to everybody in monasticism and really God-honoured marriage too, in force now that the Philokalia hath come in full blossom among Orthodox in the world, that optimum experience is for everyone, including sinners seeking the haven of monasticism, and not something exotic for very few.

‘And remember how thou wast admonished by a monk, perhaps in echo of St. James the Brother of God who said, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.” For thou wert in the trapeza, with the monk and with a janitorial lady, and he told the janitorial lady that she was fortunate, for her manual labour left her free to pray with her mind, and thou, a computer programmer at the time, wert unfortunate because thy work demanded thy full mental attention.

‘Forsooth! If thou canst have optimal experience, the Jesus Prayer in thy heart as the metronome of silence, if thy business were to weave baskets or craft incense, why not indeed can one attend to the Jesus Prayer, rising as incense before God, in mopping a floor or cleaning windows? For however great monasticism may be, it hath not aught of monopoly in meditative work and prayer before God. Marriage is the older instrument of salvation. The door is open, if thou canst do some manual labour, to do so in prayer to God. And monks are not alone permitted prayerful manual labour: monasticism is but the rudiments of the Gospel, and if monasticism seeketh out perhaps a boon in prayerful manual labour, this is hardly a barbed wire fence with a sign saying that prayerful manual labour is reserved only for monastics.

‘Let us say that this is true, and the theology of optimum experience is virtually accepted for the sake of argument, or if thou preferest, thou mayest answer it “Yes” and “Amen.” Still, I say it is a quibble, compared to the darker import. Let us set the point aside, and with good reason.’

Then he paused, and ere a moment resumed explaining. ‘If I may pull a rare note from the wreckage postmodern, there is the concept of a semiotic frame, perhaps a myth, that determines a society’s possibles et pensables, that which is understood to be possible in a society, and that which is found to even be thinkable. The knife cuts well against some radicals. And people are in blinders about activism and psychology.

‘Think of thy feminist theology professor, who said both right and full that she believed in Tradition, and in the same breath placed Arius, the father of heretics, alongside St. Athanasius as equally full representatives of that Tradition. When in your theological anthropology class she picked two texts for disability, the obvious agenda, the one and only thing to do for autism (as her agenda fell) was to engage some activist political advocacy for to make conditions in some wise more favourable for that particular victim class. No expression of love was possible save additional political activism. And I would say, and thou wouldst say, that she were too political in her response, and not nearly political enough. (For when all is civil warfare carried on by other means, real concern for the life of the polis but starves.)

‘Yet one of these reading assignments contained what she did not grasp. Of the two, one was what could be straightforwardly be called either or both of political ideology and identity politics, and it was complete with the standard, footnoteless, boilerplate opening assertion that no one else in the whole wide world could possibly have suffering that could be compared to that of one’s own poor, miserable demographic.

‘But the other text was different in many ways. It was entitled “Love Without Boundaries,” and it was a text about love written by the father of a severely autistic son. This latter text did not come close to calling for agitation or plans for a better future: far from it—on these points it is silent. What it did do, however, was take an approach in ascesis, and learn to love without limits. The father did not and could not cure his son, but whether or not the father’s love transformed his son, the love the father expressed transformed the father. His love was cut from the same cloth as the peace with oneself which St. Isaac and St. Seraphim with one voice exhort us to acquire, and the love the father expressed rendered him Godlike, in a humble, everyday, ordinary fashion.

‘And in like wise to how thy professor automatically jumped to political activism as how one might exhibit right care for the severely autistic and other disabled, in this day and age the go-to discipline for understanding humans is psychology, and a psychology fashioning itself after hard science, introducing itself by what might be called the physics envy declaration: psychologists-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

‘It is a side point that psychologists treat subjects as less-than-human: a near-universal feature of psychological experiment is some stripe of guile, because psychological experimental value would be ruined under normal conditions of intelligent and informed cooperation between fellow men. (Though the enterprise may be named “psychology”, the name were oafishly or treacherously applied: for the name be drawn from the Greek for the study that understands the psyche or soul, a psyche or soul is precisely what the discipline will not countenance in man.) Forsooth! Men running experiments think and make decisions; subjects in experiments are governed by laws. Moreover, since physics hath worked long and hard to de-anthropomorphise what it studies, physics envy biddeth psychology to seek well a de-anthropomorphised theory of ανθροπος (anthropos), man.

‘It hath been noted, as psychology reinvent more of religion, that classical clinical psychology can raise a person suffering from some mental illness to be as normal, but nought more. And so positive psychology chaseth after means of enhancement and excellence, to best make use of giftedness. Meanwhilst, whilst this invention is brand new, it is well over a millennium since monasticism was at one stroke a hospital for repentant sinners and an academy for excellence.

‘The point primarily to be held is that psychology is not the ultimate real way, but one among many ways, of understanding how people work, and one that hath stopped its ear to our being created in the image of God. All great Christian doctrines are rendered untranslatable. The article form of what is also thine advisor’s thesis hath as its subtitle “From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,” and it discusseth the formation of psychology as an emergent secular realm which hath displaced older candidates. But in the West before the reign of psychology there were pastoral paradigms for understanding the human person, and thou knowest that one of the first technical terms Orthodoxy asketh its converts to learn is “passion:” and if the passions thine advisor hath discussed are not point-for-point identical to the passions repented of in Eastern Orthodoxy, still they be by far closer than any of the several emergent framings and meanings of “emotion” as pushed for in the discipline of psychology.

‘That there be a common term for psychology, and more dubiously one for what it replaced, is of little import for us. The term “pneumatology” may have existed and named practitioners from an older tradition; but such were under religious auspices. The study and field of communication is, among fields of enquiry studied in the academy, of vintage historically recent: yet it would be right stunning to deny that people communicated, and tried better to communicate, before the change when a university department door now heralded and announced, “Department of Communication.”

‘And what has psychology done since being established as a secular arena? Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land gets on very quickly to utterly dismissing marriage. But no sooner does Michael stop flailing marriage’s lifeless corpse, but he hath made a gaping hole and buildeth up a bond of water brotherhood that is meant to be every bit as heroic, beautiful, and magnificent, that the only remaining way to make water brotherhood truly more wondrous and amazing were to enlarge it until it grew to become true marriage.

‘Psychology, whilst being secular, in its completion offers ersatz religion that, though meant to be value-free, provides a secular mystical theology. That this secular religion, fit for all religions and patients, uses guided imagery allegedly from some generic copy-paste of Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American traditions, and goeth back to Graeco-Roman times; mindfulness from Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path; and yoga from Hinduism is but an illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s observation: the man who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing; he believes anything. But put this aside and take psychology’s claim of secularity at face value. The Philokalia is scarcely but a library of collected works about how to rightly live the inner life. It is not in the main concerned with pleasure or joy: but it has an infinite amount to say about repenting from sins that bear Hell each and every one. Psychology does not trade in temptation, sin, or passion: but it too offers a rudder for one’s inner life, and if it teacheth not the extirpation of things that sully the soul’s purity, it has infinite reach in a battleplan to not be conquered by negative emotion.

‘And if I may speak to thee of TED talks, there is probably a TED talk to be made, “The Trouble with TED,” for they exacerbate this. As thou knowest, one talk gave the staggering announcement that after decades of each generation having higher self-esteem than the last, and the lamented consequence arising that our youth in particular reach record levels of narcissism. Well might she announce that if thou sprayest fuel around and throwest lighted matches on the fuel, sooner or sooner thou wilt have a blaze about thee.

‘She also talked about self-touch, about it being soothing to place thy hand over thy heart. Forsooth! This is placed among the same general heading of making love without a partner. Not a whisper was heard mentioning affection towards another person, or for that matter a pet; the remedy stepped not an inch away from solipsism. Monks as thou knowest are admonished to refrain from embraces: be that as it may, it would be healthier for a monk to embrace another than to embrace himself.’

I said, ‘What is the trouble with TED? For I sense something askance, yet to put a finger on it is hard.’

His All Holiness answered me and said, ‘All world religions have grandeur, and for an analysis secular all world religions represent a way that a society can live together and persevere. Hinduism is not the sort of thing one uses up, whether across years, lifetimes, or centuries even; its spiritual paths are millennia old, and to destroy it would likely take nuclear war or an apocalyptic event. By contrast, remember thou how thou hast said, “No form of feminism that has yet emerged is stable:” easily enough one finds the living force of body image feminism today, whilst it would scarce be live in the academy in fifty years. Thy friend answered thy remark of something called “Christian feminism,” which articulates how traditional Christianity cares for, and seeks, the good of women: for an example, it takes politically incorrect words about husbands and wives and offers the breathtaking change of addressing women as moral agents, and never telling husbands to keep wives in line. That is if anything the exception that proves the rule: for it may bear the external label of “feminism,” but its core be much slower to decay than any feminism at all, for it is not feminism at all. In thy feminist theology class one author said that in feminist theology, “all the central terms are up for grabs.” Meanwhilst, remember thy superior when thou wert an assistant at a bookstore. He hath told thee that books of liberal theology have a shelf life; after five years, perhaps, they are hard to sell. Meanwhilst, his shop published and sold Puritan sermons three centuries old. Thou mayest have a care that they are heterodox: but do not have a care that they will go out of fashion, or if they do go out of fashion, it will not be because the sermons lost their appeal to future Protestants seeking Biblical faith, but something else hath changed features of Protestantism that have survived since the Reformation.

‘Thou needest not refute TED talks; a few years and a given talk will likely be out of fashion. There is something in the structure of TED that is liberal, even if many talks say nothing overtly political: forasmuch, there is more to say than that they are self-contained, controlled, plastic things, where world religions are something organic that may or may not have a central prophet, but never have a central planner. TED is a sort of evolving, synthetic religion, and it cannot fill true spiritual hunger.

‘But let us return to psychology, or rather treat psychology and TED talks, for psychology hath of ages hoped for a Newton who would lead them into the Promised Land full status of being scientists. The study of Rocks and Nothing is the exemplar after which to pattern the study of Man. Forsooth! The problems in psychology are not so much where psychology has failed to understand Man on the ensaumple of empirical science. The real concerns are for where they have succeeded.

‘In a forum discussion thou readst, a conversation crystallised on care for diabetes, and cardinally important advice not to seek a book-smart nurse, but a diabetic nurse. For it is the case with empirical science that it entirely lacketh in empirical character. In psychology, as oft in other disciplines, a sufficiently skilled practitioner can pick up a book about part of the subject he does not yet understand, and understand well enough what there is to understand. Understanding were never nursed on the practice of direct experience, and understanding here is malnourished.

‘However, the Orthodox Church with monasticism as its heart has genuine empiricism as its spine; you know with the knowing by which Adam knew Eve. All else is rumour and idle chatter. If there are qualifications to being a spiritual father, one of the chief of these must be that he speaks and acts out of first-hand encounter and first-hand knowledge, not that he learned by rumour and distortion. Dost wish that thou be healed by a spiritual physician? Seek thou then a man which will care for thee as a diabetic nurse.’

Song V.

O Holy Mother!

O Holy Mother! Art Thou the Myst’ry?
Art Thou the Myst’ry untold?
For I have written much,
And spent much care,
In The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And looked all the whilst,
Down the wrong end,
Of the best telescope far and away that I could find.
I have written of man and creation defiled,
Yet for all my concerns,
Of so-called ‘space-conquering technologies,’
Which it beseemeth me ‘body-conquering technologies,’
Sidestepping the God-given and holy bounds,
Of our embodied state,
Where better to seek healing,
For an occult-free simulation,
Of the unnatural vice of magick arts,
Than in the perfect creaturely response,
‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.’
Then, the gates, nay, the foundations,
The foundations of Hell began a-crumbling,
The New Eve, the Heavenly Mother,
Whom Christ told the Disciple,
‘Behold thy Mother!’
In Her is the microcosm of Creation aright,
And She is the Friend and Comfort,
Of the outcast, and the poor:
My money, my property, I stand to lose:
But no man can take from me,
A Treasure vaster than the Heavens;
Perhaps I would do well,
To say little else of technologies progressively degrading humanity,
And pray an Akathist to the Theotokos,
And put a trust in Her that is proto-Antiochian,
Rather than proto-Alexandrian,
And give Her a trust in the great Story,
Diminished not one whit,
If She happeneth not to be a teacher,
Offering such ideas as philosophers like:
Her place in the Great Story is far greater than that:
And such it is also,
With illuminèd teachers,
Who offer worship to God as their teaching,
And are in travail,
Until Christ be formed in their disciples.

V.

He said, ‘But let us return to the pursuit of happiness, which hath scathingly been called “the silliest idea in the history of mankind.” And that for a junior grade of pursuing happiness, not the clone of a systematic science which worketh out a combination of activities and practices, an America’s Test Kitchen for enjoying life, studying ways of manipulating oneself to produce pleasure and happiness.

‘It were several years ago that thou tookest a Fluxx deck to play with friends, and the group included five adults and one very little boy. So the adults took turns, not just in their moves, but (for a player who had just played a move) in paying attention to the little one, so that he were not looking on a social meeting that excluded him.

‘When it were thy turn to look after the boy, thou liftedst him to thy shoulders and walkedst slowly, gingerly, towards the kitchen, because thou wishedst to enter the kitchen, but thou wert not sure thou couldst walk under the kitchen’s lower ceiling without striking his head.

‘Shortly after, thou realizedst three things: firstly, that the boy in fact had not struck his head on the kitchen ceiling, even though you had advanced well into the kitchen area; secondly, that the boy was dragging his fingers on the ceiling; and thirdly and finally, that he was laughing and laughing, full of joy.

‘That wert a source of pleasure that completely eclipsed the game of Fluxx, though it were then a favourite game. And when thou askedst if it were time for thy next move, it were told thee that the game was won.

‘In the conversation afterwards, thou wert told a couple of things worthy of mention.

‘First, and perhaps of no great import, thou gavest the boy a pleasure that neither of his parents could offer. The boy’s father wert a few inches taller than thee, and were he to attempt what thou attemptedst, he in fact would have struck his son’s head against the ceiling. The boy’s mother could not either have offered the favour to her son; whether because her thin arms were weaker, or something else: God wot.

‘Second of all, as mentioned by an undergraduate psychologist, it gives people joy to give real pleasure to another person, and the case of children is special. She did not comment or offer comparison between knowing thou hast given pleasure to any age in childhood and knowing thou hast given pleasure to an adult, but she did comment, and her comment were this: the boy were guileless: too young to just be polite, too young for convincing guile, perhaps too young for any guile worthy of the name. That meant, whether or not thou thoughtest on such terms, that his ongoing and delighted laughter were only, and could only be, from unvarnished candour. Wherewith thou hadst no question of “Does he enjoy what I am doing with him, or is he just being polite?” Just being polite were off the table.

‘And this is not even only true for the royal race of men. Thou hast not right circumstance to lawfully and responsibly own a pet, but without faintest compromise of principle, thou visitest a pet shelter nearby to thine own home, and at the shelter also, guile is off the agenda, at least for the pets. A cat can purr, or if it hath had enough human attention for the nonce and thou hast perhaps not attended to its swishing tail, a light nip and swipe of claw is alike of unvarnished candour. Whereby thou knowest of a truth what a cat desireth and conveyeth if it purreth and perchance licketh thine hand.

‘Which were subsumed under a general troth, that it is better to serve than to be served, and it is better to give than receive. What is more, the most concentrated teaching about who be truly happy is enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount, and enshrined again as the shorthand version of that great Sermon chanted in the Divine Liturgy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

‘The word translated, “blessed,” μακαριος (makarios, hath what we would count as at least two meanings in English: “blessed,” and “happy.” Among English Bible translations there are some, but a few, translations which render the word as “happy,” including Young’s Literal Translation:

Happy the poor in spirit — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness — because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers — because they shall be called Sons of God.

Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake — Rejoice ye
and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

‘In English this is usually, but not always, found in more free translations; the Amplified Bible naturally shines in cases like these as an deliberately unusual translation style intended to render two or more faces of an ambiguity or a phrase bearing multiple meanings. Other languages can be different; in French, for instance, there are separate words béni and heureux which respectively mean “blessed” and “happy,” but heureux appears to be the term of choice in French translation of the Beatitudes.

‘Here, though, the Gospel hath aught in common with Plato. Plato investigated happiness, and the Greek term used was ευδαιμονια, eudaimonia, almost exactly a literal equivalent to “in good spirits,” but the literal sense was taken much more seriously and much farther. It was a primary term for happiness, but what was seen as true happiness was having one’s spirit in good health. This happiness would not be easily confused by counterfeit pleasures such as one can immediately procure with narcotics; and the point is not that real-world narcotics create addiction and horrible misery. The happiness would be just as counterfeit in the pleasure of a person unhealthy in spirit to take some imaginary narcotic that created intense and endless pleasure, without either addiction or the misery that loom in the grievous backswing of narcotic pleasure.

‘Thou rememberest thy surprise, when reading thine undergraduate psychology text, when thou readedst what wert said of the pleasure principle. For the pleasure principle art an artifact of bad philosophy, which noting perchance that most of our actions bring some pleasure or pleasing result, assumes and defines that every action anyone ever takes is that which is calculated to bring thee the most pleasure. In settings less far back, thou hast listened to people saying that the only motivation anyone takes for any action is that it is calculated to bring them the greatest economic profit, and thou hast borrowed an answer, to say that several people have essayed to convince thee of this as truth, and so far as thou knewest, not one of them stood to gain financial profit from convincing thyself of this purported truth.

‘Thy textbook, like those who try to convince with a charming smile where a reasoned argument is ordinarily polite to offer, said that it were more a virtue than a vice to show kindnesses to others because one enjoyed the feelings it gave, and thou hadst two answers in thy heart: first of all, past the sugar-coating of “more a virtue than a vice” lies an assertion that virtue is impossible in principle, and secondly, that the only theoretical possibility thou couldst care for the poor in order to help thy fellow men is if one received absolutely no pleasure or consolation in any stripe or dimension to care for the poor out of a geniune motive of benefitting others and not whatever probable pleasures their generosity and service might come back their way. That appalling price tag reaches beyond exorbitant. And thou desirest to speak of a “masochism principle” or “pain principle” whereby all decisions and all actions at all times by all men are whatever is calculated to bring them the greatest sufferings, alike useless to assert for any philosopher worthy of the name. It is hardly to be denied that most decisions bring some pain or have some downside on the part of the persons who make them, so a pain principle mirroring a pleasure principle is alike unprovable, and alike unfalsifiable, an untestable guess that hath not any place in science and scarcely more any place in disciplines seeking to be established as science. It was not until later that thou readst a competent philosopher who said that the existence of pleasure and a reward does not in and of itself make any action which brings pleasure to be motivated solely as a means to obtain pleasure. The thought-experiment were posed, that a man who gives to the poor and enjoys doing so were offered a pill which would give him the full pleasure and benefits of his generosity, but do nothing at all for the practical needs of the poor, would be in but rare cases utterly spurned as a right empty and worthless counterfeit.

Song VI.

Crossing the Great Threshold.

The tale were told,
Of a child starkly scant of mind,
Who receivèd a glittering package, a gift,
And kept the glittering package,
Indeed taking it with him well nigh everywhere,
And after long time,
When the disposable wrapping paper,
Were well battered and now dingy,
An adult asked,
‘Aren’t you going to open the package?’
The child exclaimed with joy,
Once the toy emerged from the tatters,
And squealed with joy, saying,
“Oh, there’s another present!”
My Lord and my God!
Perhaps I will never open,
The Sermon on the Mount.

VI.

I said myself then, ‘O John! O glorious Saint John! Canst thou lead me on a path into the The Sermon on the Mount? For I have trod the path of self-direction, and it well nigh destroyed me.’

Then the Saint said to me, ‘Thanks to thee, son, for thy request. I awaited that thou mightest ask, for that thou mightest have the Heavenly reward for asking.

‘That which you ask were a work of years or lifetimes; let me chase a humbler quarry: unfolding the first verse only of that great Sermon, which declareth the poor in spirit to be blessed and happy. I will speak to you of the riches of poverty but not the heights of humility, though they be one and the same. Though I may call on other verses to tell what riches are in poverty, I will make no attempt to unfold these other Beatitudes, though to them that which declared the blessedness of poverty that wert one and the same. And I tell thee, through thine interests, that to be poor in spirit is to be no self-sufficient solipsist; rather, it is utterly dependent on the infinite riches of God, and that it is royal: for kings are forbidden to touch money, and in another sense all Christians and especially all monastics are forbidden to touch aught possession, not solely money, in stead of grasping as did the rich young ruler. But poverty be the unstopping of yon Sermon, an unstopping of virtue in which flowing fount eclipseth flowing fount.

That true poverty extendeth beyond a lack of possessions is taught by calling those blessed who are “poor in spirit,” beyond mere poverty of the body, and it is taught that the monastic vow of poverty includeth the other two: for a monk is bereft of the normal blessing of holy matrimony, and even of his own self-will. That thou knowest as treasure, for thou wishest to trade thine own idiorrythmic self-direction for a coenobetic monastery, and to speak even more plainly, the direction of an abbot.

‘In the Sermon on the Mount, poverty beseemeth to be special, for there are two passages: that which commendeth the storing treasures up in Heaven and rejecting the storing up of treasures on earth, then discussion of the eye as the lamp of the body, then exhortation to take no thought for the morrow, for God knoweth and willeth to care for our needs. And when thou hast wealth, be merciful to others, and thou wilt be repaid at great usury by thy true Debtor, God.

‘In fact there is one passage and topic, the longest though length in verses is a trivial measure. The tri-unity is harder to see in modern translations that translate something out to be accessible; one reads of one’s eye being “healthy” or “sound”. The King James version rightly renders “single”, for an undivided wholeness. Fr. Thomas Hopko hath said, before the surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness, “Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.” This attentiveness and full presence is the operation of an activity that is single, that neither layeth up possessions, nor defendeth them in worry, nor doubteth that the God who provideth will overlook thee in His care. In all these is dispersal and dissipation. Poverty of spirit maketh for singleness of eye, and a singleness destroyed by so many of the technologies you trade in.

‘It has from ancient times been reckoned that if thou givest to the poor, God is thy Debtor, and under what you would call third world living conditions, I told married Christians to leave to their children brothers rather than things. This too is poverty of spirit, even if it belong only in marriage, in a condition monks renounce. Thou hast read of those who suggest that thou asketh not, “Can I afford what I need?” but “Do I need what I can afford?”

‘It is monastic poverty that monastics do not defend themselves, not only by force, but even with words, showing the power that terrified Pontius Pilate. It is monastic poverty not to struggle again over any temporal matter. It is poverty of spirit not to have plans, nor, in the modern sense, an identity. For in ancient times, Christians who were martyred, answered when asked their names, none other than “Christian.” And beyond this further layers yet beckon. Poverty is not an absence of treasures; it is a positive, active, thing that slices sharper than any two-edged sword. And monks who renounce property sometimes have something to say beyond “Good riddance!” The force of the rejection, and the freedom that is gained in letting riches go, is more like the obscene and thundering announcement: “I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!”

‘Thou readedst a church sign saying, “Who is rich? The person who is content.” And I tell thee that thou canst purchase by poverty of spirit many times and layers more than contentment with what thou possessest now. I have not even scratched the surface of experiences of monastics who were poor in spirit to a profound degree, but thou knowest that there are limits to what is lawful for me to utter to thee, and thou knowest that thou art not bidden to chase after experiences, but seek to repent of thy sins for the rest of thy life, which thou knowest to reckon as monastic privilege.’

Song VII.

I Sing a Song to my Apple.

Betimes my salad days were right begun,
I programmed an Apple ][,
In gradeschool adventure games and a 4D maze,
Simple arithmetic- and trigonometric-powered animations.
My father a computer scientist,
Who shared with me his joy,
And in high school a Unix system administrator became.
My family got, and still hath the carcass,
Of one original ‘fat Mac’,
So named because it had an available maximum 512k of RAM.
My calculator in high school,
On which I programmed computer-generated art,
And a simple video game, had as much.
Ere my salad days were dwindled,
I remained a Unix programmer,
And judged Mac OSX my preferred flavor of Unix.
Later I had iPhones,
And for the first time in my life,
Owned a computer where I lacked root privilege.
Along the way I got an Apple Watch,
My desire increased as I read about it,
And vanished when I learned it were,
Bereft of such things as even a web browser.
I gave it to my brother,
Who later gave it back before it broke.
I sing a song to my Apple,
A peerless 17″ MacBook Pro,
Which through minor design flaw,
Burned through video cards oft enough,
And when the Apple Store stopped receiving those cards,
So with it went any hope of keeping my Mac without frequent $500 repairs.
And along the way,
With the sweetness of a Linux virtual machine,
Realized that OSX had grown monstrous as a version of Unix.
When I asked about one cardinally important open source project,
I were told that Apple had removed parts of the operating system,
That the project needed to run,
But information technology work in my Linux virtual machine,
Was the command line equivalent of point and click.
It were a discovery as if I had returned to Paradise.
I sing a song to Apple’s technical support,
For when I asked a question,
About command-line-driven Apache configuration,
It took escalations up to level 3 technical support,
Before a Genius knew that Macs have a command line.
I purchased a computer meant to last many years.
I sing a song to my late iPhone,
Bewailed by men who made the Mac great,
Which slipped a pocket near a food bank,
Booted my laptop into Windows and found,
That Find My iPhone was now rendered useless.
I went to see an Apple Store,
And received a followup call,
Giving a good ten days before I could access my iPhone,
And found out also that Macs were as useless,
As my computer booted into Windows,
To Find My iPhone.
Once I had one from each four,
Offerings for Apple computers:
A laptop one, an iPad one,
An iPhone one, an Apple Watch one;
And ere I were negotiating,
For to buy a replacement iPhone on eBay,
I said that there were many Android devices within my budget,
And whilst in bed realized,
I wanted full well that the negotiation fail.
Apple’s indirect gift to desktops may be Windows,
And Apple’s indirect gift to smartphones may be Android;
For surely no iPhone killer before Android even came close.
Certainly Windows Mobile answered the wrong question.
But even if one may argue, legitimately,
That a Mac and a PC have grown remarkably similar,
And iOS and Android are also more alike than different,
I was not poisoned by technical merits.
I was poisoned by the corporate mindset,
That all but killed my prospects,
Of finding my iPhone before the battery were drained completely,
And when I called my iPhone to perchance find it in my car,
I went to voicemail immediately:
My iPhone’s battery wert already dead.
I had known, but not paid attention earlier,
To Steve Jobs as beyond toxic, as a boss;
Screaming and abusive,
To employees he had every reason to cherish,
And after a technical fumble,
Publicly fired an Apple technician,
At an employee motivational event.
And I believed it.
More disturbed I was,
When I read of Jobs’s spiritual practices,
Such as an Orthodox might interpret,
As opening the mind to listen,
And draw the milk of dragons.
Technology does things for us,
Though I have found that when I shared my iOS devices with children,
Squabble and squabble ensued.
Technology does things for us,
But this Trojan horse does things for devils also,
Who cannot give exquisitely beneficial gifts,
Even wert they to try.
The power of devils is real but limited:
Such teaches the Philokalia,
Which though it be filled with love of the beautiful,
Says more about the operations and activities of devils,
Than aught else that I have read.
And one thing it sayeth,
Through Orthodox Christian Tradition,
Says that devils can tell a man’s spiritual state,
And try to inject venomous thoughts in temptation,
Where men have free will, still,
The devils cannot read minds,
Even if they by ruse give one man certain thoughts,
Sting another that the thoughts are in the first man,
And behold, they speak and art deceived,
That devils can read people’s minds.
Devilish predictions are called guesses,
Which are sometimes wrong,
The devils see a man walking to journey,
And guess that he travels to visit another specific man,
But ’tis guesswork; devils can well enough be wrong.
St. Nilus’s alleged prophecies are dubious at present,
But we may not yet be in the clear.
And if the U.S. has been called “One nation under surveillance,”
Where No Such Agency has received every email,
It is now clear and open knowledge,
To those that will reflect,
That among most most Americans,
‘Every breath and step Americans take,’
Is monitored by Big Brother,
But perhaps it is not just human agencies,
That reap the information collected.
++ungood
(Did anyone besides my most reverend Archbishop mention that it used to be that you had to seek out pornography, and leave your car in front of a store with papered-over windows, and wear your trenchcoat disguise for the mission, whereas now pornography seeks you?
It is something like a water cooler that hath three faucets,
Serving cold water, hot water, and antifreeze,
And the handles perplexing in their similitude.)

VII.

The Saint turned to me and said, ‘I would remind thee of Fr. Thomas’s famous 55 maxims:

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person
    regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for
    themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and
    caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last
    breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness,
    temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s
    mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The Saint continued: ‘Wouldst thou agree that we are in a high noon of secret societies?’

I answered, ‘Of a troth.’

He asked, ‘Wouldst thou agree that those societies are corrosive?’

I answered, ‘As a rule, yes, and I wit that Orthodox are forbidden on pain of excommunication to join the Freemasons.’

He spoke again and asked me, ‘And hast thou an opinion about the assassination of JFK, whether it wert a conspiracy?’

I said, ‘A friend whose judgement I respect in matters political hath told me an opinion that there in fact was a conspiracy, and it were driven by LBJ.’

He said, ‘And hast thou spent five full minutes in worrying about either in the past year?’

I said, ‘Nay.’

He said, ‘Thou hast secular intelligence if thou canst ask if “surveillance from Hell” in an obviously figurative sense might also be “surveillance from Hell” far more literally speaking, but such intelligence as this does not help one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The devils each and every one are on a leash, and as thy priest hath said many times, every thing that happeneth to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that God hath allowed for our strengthening. Wherefore whether the devils have more information than in ages past, thou wert still best to live:

Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.

Song VIII.

A Hymn to Arrogance.

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
‘There be no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not ere were created,
The royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of peace,
And pray, a-stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the bodiless hosts,
Said but his name, “Michael,”
Which is, being interpreted,
“Who is like God?”
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
They remain to sharpen the faithful,
God useth them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

Therefore be not dismayed,
If one book of Holy Scripture state,
That the Devil incited King David to a census,
And another sayeth that God did so,
For God permitted it to happen by the Devil,
As he that heweth lifteth an axe,
And God gave to David a second opportunity,
In the holy words of Joab.
Think thou not that God and the Devil are equal,
Learnest thou enough of doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And hath neither equal nor opposite,
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared him not well.
The dragon wert as a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that wert the greatest harm,
That he saweth how to do.
The Orthodox Church knoweth well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read thou well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the devils aren’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God alloweth temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
“It is just the demons.
Pay it no mind,” came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
Wherefore be thou not arrogant towards men,
But be ever more arrogant towards devils and the Devil himself:
“Blow, and spit on him.”‘

VIII.

I told St. John, ‘I have just read the panikhida service, and it appeareth cut from the same cloth as the divine services in general.’

He said, ‘Doth that surprise thee?’

I said, ‘Perhaps it should not. But the Philokalia describes a contrast between life and death: for instance, in the image of an inn, where lodgers come for a night, bearing whatever they possess; some sleep on beds, some sleep on the floor, but come daybreak, all of them pick up their belongings and walk on hence.’

He said, ‘How readest thou that parable?’

I said, ‘In this life, some live in riches, and some in poverty, but all alike leave this life carrying only their deeds with them. The last English homily I heard, the priest quoted someone who said, “I have never seen a trailer attached to a hearse.” Which were, “You can’t take it with you,” save that terrifying tale of a monk who died with over a hundred gold pieces. (‘Twas said he was not avaricious, but merely stingy.) When he died, the community discussed what to do with his nigh incalculable sum of wealth: some suggested a building or other capital project, others some kindness to the poor. And when all was discussed, they buried all the gold with him, a costly, potent reminder to monastics that they should not want to be buried with even one gold piece. But the monk could not take the gold with him ere it were buried with him.’

The Saint told me, ‘Thou hast read part of Prayers by the Lake, in which St. Nikolai says that birth and death are an inch apart, but the ticker tape goes on forever.

‘Rememberest thou also that in the Philokalia we read that those who wish one suffering to die were like one holding a deeply confused hope hope that a doctor would break up the bed of a sick man? For our passions we take with us beyond death, which passions the body mediateth to some degree.’

I said, ‘May I comment something? Which soundeth as a boast?’

He said, ‘Speak on.’

I said, ‘I am mindful that I am mortal, and that I am the chief of sinners. But the day of my death be more real to me than my salvation, and that I be the chief of sinners eclipseth that God be merciful. I have needed the reminder of the core promise in For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thus there be twain of deep pairs, and I have of the twain grasped each one the lesser alone.’

He said, ‘Hast thou not been astonished at God’s perfect Providence of years betimes?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘What thou sayest resoundeth not as boasting in my ears, but many people have wished for the remembrance of death and not reached it, no, not in monasticism even.’

I asked, ‘Will I reach monasticism?’

He smiled at me, and said, ‘Whither askest thou the future? It is wondrous.’

He said, ‘Remembrance of death doeth not to drain life. It is a reminder that life is not a dress rehearsal: or rather that it is a dress rehearsal, and our performance in this rehearsal determineth what we will meet the Resurrection having rehearsed.

‘With death cometh a realization of, “I shall not pass this wise again.”

‘Such death as we have giveth life a significance eternal in its import. For thou knowest that all ye in the Church Militant stand as it were in an arena before God and His Christ, before all the saints and angels and even devils, as God’s champions summoned to vindicate God as St. Job the Much-Suffering and others vindicate God. And whereinever thou triumphest, Christ triumpheth in thee.

‘Knowest thou not that the saints who have run the race and be adorned with an imperishable and incorruptible crown stand about all ye, the Church Triumphant cheering on the Church Militant until every last one hath crossed the finish line in triumph?

‘Knowest thou not that every saint and angel, the Mother of God and Christ enthroned on high, all cheer ye who still run the course, each and every one?

‘The times preceding the Second Coming of Christ are not only apocalyptic; they are the very thing which giveth the term “apocalyptic” its meaning in thy day. And they be trials and tribulations which perhaps will happen in ages later on, and perhaps may already be begun. But in the end Christ will triumph, and all alike who are faithful. And if thou art alive for the Second Coming of Christ, or if not, God hath provided and will provide a way for thee. Be thou faithful, and remember, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”‘

I said, ‘I should like to know where God will lead me. I can guess promises of good, but I am happier at least leaving a vessel open for God to fill.’

The Saint’s face began to glow, and he said, ‘In my day, I said something you may have met in the Reformers: that the age of miracles was no more, or in crasser tongue, “God wrote the book and retired.” So I called “opening the eyes of the blind” to be cleansing eyes from lust, which wert a fair claim in any case, and in particular if there miracles are no more. Thou, it seemeth, art in another age of miracles, or perhaps the age of miracles has never stopped from before the Nativity of Christ, but hath merely hid from time to time. Thou knowest thyself not to be the Orthodox Church’s fourth Theologian, but thou hast known some beginnings of theology already, and hath seen more miracles in thine earthly pilgrimage than have I. I perchance engaged in rhetorical discourse about God, and never on earth saw the Uncreated Light. Thou hast seen icons like and thou hast also seen a photograph of inside an altar, where paten and chalice glowed purest white, and unlike mine own self, thou hast been anointed with more than one miraculous oil, dear Christos…’

Then he bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before me, and his face glowed brightly, brightly, ten thousand times brighter than the sun and yet hurt not my mortal eyes, and he asked of me, ‘Friend, wherewith askest thou the future? It is wondrous.’

Then there was a scintillating flash of light, beyond intense, and the Saint was gone.

I wept until I realized I was the happiest I had been in my life.

Song 1: The Author’s Complaint

The Gospel was new,
When one saint covered his ears,
And said, “Good God!
That you have allowed me,
To live at such a time!

Jihadists do not act in a vacuum:
Atheislam welcomes conquerors,
Founded by the greatest Christian arch-heretic,
Who uprooted Incarnation and icons from all that was Christian,
The dragon next to whom,
Arius, the father of heretics,
Is only a worm, with no fangs.
Their “surrender” is about as far as you can get,
From, “God and the Son of God,
Became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men,
Might become Gods and the Sons of God,

Instead denying the genuine reality of man.
The wonder of holy marriage,
Is tortured and torn from limb to limb,
On the installment plan.
Technology is made a secular occult,
I was right enough to write a volume,
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And in formerly sacred halls of learning,
People teach a “theology,”
Such as one would expect of Monty Python.
And what about all the things of my life?
I still seek monasticism.
I have tried many things in life,
Sometimes meeting spectacular success,
And sometimes found doors slammed in my face.
Even in work in technology,
Though the time be an economic boom for my field,
I was still shut out or knocked out from the boom.
It wasn’t just in the Church’s teaching,
In a story as old as Cain and Abel,
Of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
Why am I spinning my wheels?
When I was fighting cancer,
I switched my academic discipline to theology.
At Cambridge and then Fordham,
I wished to form priests,
A wish that never came true.

And while I was moping about, a man appeared. He was quite short, but something in him was great enough to touch a star. He was wearing ancient garments with a golden shimmer, but the golden garments of a Patriarch were completely outclassed by his Golden Mouth, with a liquid, living golden tongue. The Greek letters Chi and Alpha were sewn upon his chest: the initials to “Christ is risen!” in Greek. I crossed myself three times, cautious about demons, and he crossed himself three times. He looked at me with blazing eyes, and said, “Child, didn’t you write, and for that matter outside of Holy Orthodoxy, a koan?”:

A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

He spoke again. “Child, repent of your own many and serious sins, not other people’s sins. Do you not know the words, first spoken by the great St. Isaac the Syrian and fully endorsed by the great St. Seraphim of Sarov, ‘Make peace with yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved?’ Or that if everyone were to repent, Heaven would come to earth?

“It looks like you have, on paper, a conviction that every human life is a life worth living, but you lack the true strength that is behind it. Have you not read my Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself? How the three youths, my son, in a decadent pagan court, did not defile themselves by eating defiled foods, but won the moral victory of not bowing to an enormous statue? And the angel gave them coolness and refreshed them with dew in external victory after they let everything else go in internal and eternal triumph?

“You can find salvation at all times and in every place. Now you know that marriage or monasticism is necessary; and out of that knowledge you went out to monasteries. You went to the grand Holy Cross Hermitage and Mount Athos itself, and you were not allowed to stay. So what? You are already a monk in God’s eyes. Keep on seeking monasticism, without ever stopping, and whether you pass away as a layman or a monk, if you have sought monasticism for the rest of your days, and seek such repentance as you can, who knows if you might appear a monk in lifelong repentance when you answer before the Dread Judgment-Seat of Christ?

“Perhaps God has given you good things that were entirely legitimate for God to give to you, but immature for you to seek for yourself. You have a scholar’s knowledge of academic theology, and an excellent foundation for fighting some heresies, but you write for the public. Can’t you imagine that this may be more than such narrow writing, with so few readers, in scholarship’s confinement? As you have been given grace to walk the long, narrow road of suffering, you are free now to sit in your parents’ splendid house, given a roof over your head when you are legally homeless, and write as much as you can?
That would be quite wrong and immature to seek, sitting under your parents’ roof and writing, as much as it would be wrong and immature to seek years’ training in academic theology and heresy without giving back one single day to the professor’s ascesis of seeking proud distinction. And there’s more. Even though this is not an issue of morality apart from ascesis, you knew the settled judgment that real publication is traditional publication and self-publication is vanity press. But without knowing, choosing, or even guessing, you were at the right place, in the right time, among the many shiftings of technology, again and again. Now, even though you don’t get any money worth mentioning from your books, you have written many creative works than you could if you were “discovered” and your creative process bogged down with the standard editorial process. You know better than to say “Wisdom is justified by her children,” about yourself instead of God, but none the less you have made an impact. But God has granted all three of these to you, even though they may have come to you unsought and unwanted.

I stood in bashful silence.

Song 2: His Despondency

The saint said,
“How’s that?
How has this man,
Become a second Rich Young Ruler?
The man who didn’t wear a watch on principle,
Even before he’d scarcely even
Heard of Holy Orthodoxy,
Wears a watch built to stand out,
Even among later Apple Watches.
He who declined a mobile phone,
Has carried out an iPhone,
A less fancy phone,
From a state program to provide,
Cell phones to those at poverty.
Up! Out! This will not do,
Not that he hath lost an item of luxury,
But when it happened, he were sad.
For the Rich Young Ruler lied,
When he said that he had kept,
All commandments from his youth,
For unless he were an idolater,
The loss of possessions itself,
Could not suffice to make him sad.
This man hath lost a cellphone.
And for that alone he grieveth.
Doesn’t he know that money doesn’t make you happy?
I wish he would remember,
The heights he has fallen from,
Even from outside the Orthodox Church.

Then the great Saint said, “But we need something bigger than mourning now. Aren’t you the man who said that we cannot achieve the Holy Grail, and not even find it: the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail? Now the Orthodox Church doesn’t trade in “idle romances” like Arthurian lengends. As late as the nineteenth century, Saint IGNATIUS (Briandhanov) gave warnings about reading just novels, which His Eminence KALLISTOS oddly gave embarrassed explanations. Today the warning should extend to quite a lot of technological entertainment. But I would still call your words to mind, and ask you to become the Holy Grail. For that matter, when you receive the Holy Mistories, you receive Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you are transformed by the supreme medicine, when you taste from the Fount of Immortality?

“You were surprised to learn, and even this outside the Orthodox Church, that when the Apostle told you to put on the whole armor of God, the armor of God was not merely armor owned by God, or armor given by God. It was in fact the armor that God himself wears to war. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the breastplace of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are God’s own armor which he wears to war.

“You are sleeping, my son and my child. Wake up! There is silver under the tarnish that makes it look like the whole thing is corroded. Take what God has bestowed, wake up, and see all the treasure God has surrounded with.”

Song 3: A Clearer Eye

Seneca the Younger said,
“We suffer more in imagination than reality,”
Quoted in today’s rediscovery of Stoicism,
Discovering that ancient philosophy,
Can speak, act and help today,
Among athletes and in the business world,
And not only antiquarians reading dusty old books.
And if this holds for a mere school of philosophy,
Now cast in the academy’s mould of distinguishing oneself,
What of the greatest philosophy, monasticism,
Whose Teacher and God are One and the Same?
I stood amazed at God,
Trying to count my blessings,
But I quickly lost count.

Then I said, “I see a lot of truth in what you say, but my fortunes haven’t been very successful. I went to Cambridge, with a strategy of passing all my classes and going for broke on my thesis. The Faculty of Divinity decided, two thirds of the way through the schoolyear, that the thesis topic I declared at the beginning of the year did not belong in Philosophy of Religion, and made me choose another dissertation topic completely. I didn’t get any credit or recognition for half my hardest work! That pales in comparison with Fordham, where I had to cope with my professor’s insecurities, and a professor I really tried to reach out to met one gesture of friendship after another with retaliation. So when that door was shut, I returned to the clumsy fit of programming, a world since taken over by Agile models which make sense but require something I cannot do: becoming an interchangeable part in a hivemind. I’ve tried to break in to User eXperience, but nothing has come together yet, and the economy isn’t helping. What can I rightly expect from where I am now?”

He said, “Why do you ask the future? It is wonderful. And why do you speak of your fortune? Truly, no man has ever had fortune. It is an impossibility.”

I sat, listening.

He continued, “When at Fordham, under incompetent medical care, you were stressed to the point of nausea for weeks on end. You did not worry about ‘Will I be graced by the noble honorific of Doctor?’ even though you wanted that too much, but, ‘Will there be a place for me?‘ So far, this has been an example of, ‘We suffer more in imagination than in reality.’ For although the unemployment you feared has caught up with you, what is its sting?

“You sought a better fit than as a web developer, and tried, and God has provided something else besides the success you imagined. So what? You have stayed with your parents, a shameful thing for a man to seek, but honorable for God to bestow if you have sought sufficiency and independence. You know that on Judgment Day we are held to the standard of due diligence and not results produced: that due diligence often gets results is simply beside the point. You are not only provided for now; you have luxuries you do not need.

“There is no such things as fortune; only an often-mysterious Providence. God cares for each and for all mankind, and for that matter over sparrows and stones, and nothing in the world escapes God’s cunning net.

“As you have quoted the Philokalia:

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvellous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

“And again:

He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?

Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.

“You have earned scores in math contests; for that matter you have ranked in scores of math contests, ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Now you have suffered various things and have been deprived of your earlier limelight. So what? God has provided for you, and if you have been fruitless in some secular matters, you still seek virtue and have borne some fruit. What is more, you grasp in part virtue that you did not know to seek when you bore the ascesis of a mathematician or a member of the Ultranet. You unendingly seek humility now. Don’t you know that even the seeking of humility is nobler than being the greatest mathematician in history?

“The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, wrote,

Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.

All these things were from Me.

“The doctors have decided that your consumption of one vital medication is excessive, and they want to bring it down to an FDA-approved level, for your safety, and for your safety they accept the consequences of your having a string of hospitalizations and declining health, and have so far taken every pain to protect you, and will do so even if their care KILLS you.

“So what? Your purity of conscience does not automatically depend in any way, shape, or form, on others’ decisions. It may be that the change in your medications is less dangerous than it appears. It is completely out of the question for you to seek your own demise: but is entirely legitimate, and entirely possible, for our God and the Author and Finisher of our faith to give you a full and complete life even if you are killed tomorrow.

“Never mind that you do not see what the Lord may provide; you have often enough been surprised with the blessings God has given you. You have written Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and you know that repentance itself eclipses the pleasure ofsin. You should also know that people who act unhelpfully, and the Devil himself, are always and everywhere used by God according to his design, by the God who works all for all.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

“Know and remember as well that happiness comes from our kingdom within. Stop chasing after external circumstances. External circumstances are but a training ground for God to build internal strengths. Don’t you know that you are a man, and as man are constituted by the image of God? Then if you are constituted as being in the divine image, why spend half your time looking to soulless and dead things to make you happy?”

Song 4: Virtue Unconquerable.

I know that my Redeemer lives,
And I shall see God with my eyes,
But what a painful road it has been,
What a gesture of friendship has met a knife in my back.
Is there gradeur in me for my fortitude?
I only think so in moments of pride,
With my grandeur only in repentance.
And the circumstances around me,
When I work, have met with a knife in the back.

The Golden-Mouthed said, “Child, I know your pains without needing you to tell me, and I have suffered more: Church politics ain’t no place for a Saint! You know how I impartially pursued justice, drove out morally incompetent leaders, and spoke boldly to the Empress. I paid with my life for the enemies I made in my service. You have a full kitchen’s worth of knives in your back: I have a department store’s worth. I know your pains from inside.

“But let us take a step back, far back.

“You and many others are particularly concerned with happiness, and if eighteenth-century documents spoke of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ now your country has taken this to the next level. Or worse.

“In another day and age such an important question would be inquired about in philosophical dialogue. So one might argue, in brief, that since true happiness is a supreme thing, and God is a supreme thing, and there can’t be two separate supreme essences, happiness and God are the same, a point which could be argued at much greater length and eloquence. And likewise how the happy man is not happy because he is propped up from without, by external circumstances, but has chosen virtue and goodness inside. And many other things.

“However, and this says a lot about today and our berzerkly grown science, in which physics’ crown jewel of superstring has abdicated from science’s bedrock of experiment, happiness is such a thing as one would naturally approach through the attempted science of psychology, because psychology is, to people of a certain bent, the only conceivable tool to best study and understand humans as such.

“One can always nitpick some detail, such as the significance of what psychology calls “flow” as optimal experience. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, outlined three versions of the good life: the Pleasant Life, which is the life of pleasure and the shallowest of the three; the Engaged Life, or the life of “flow,” called optimal experience, and the Meaningful Life, meaning in some sense the life of virtue.

“He says of the Pleasant Life that it is like vanilla ice cream: the first bite tastes delicious, but by the time you reach the fifth or sixth bite, you no longer taste it. Here is something close to the Orthododx insisting that a surplus of pleasures and luxuries, worldly honors and so on, do not make you happy. I tell you that one can be lacking in the most basic necessities and be happy: but let this slide.

“Of the Meaningful Life, it is the deepest of the three, but it is a only a first fumbling in the dark of what the Orthodox has curated in the light of day time out of mind. Things like kindness and mercy have been built into the baseline, curated since Christ or more properly hte Garden of Eden, so Orthodox have no need to add some extra practice to their faith to obtain kindness or gratitude. Honestly, the number of things the Orthodox knows about the happy Meaningful Life outstrips the Philokalia: the fountain is inexhaustible.

“But my chief concern is with the Engaged Life, the life of flow. For flow is not the “psychology of optimal experience,” or if it is, the theology of optimal experience comes from somewhere else. Flow is legitimate, and it is a wonder: but it is not, in addition to being legitimate and wonder, a good idea to prescribe to the general public.

Flow, as it occurs, is something exotic and obscure. It has been studied in virtuosos who are expert performers in many different domains. Once a practitioner of surpassing talent has something like a decade of performance, it is possible when a performer of this superb talent and training is so engrossed in a performance of whatever chosen domain, that sits pretty much at the highest level of performance that absorbs the virtuoso’s attention so completely that time flies because no attention is left to passage of time or almost any other thing of which most of us are aware when we are awake.

“It looks difficult to me to market flow for mass consumption: doing this is tantamount to calling God an elitist, and making the foundation of a happy life all but impossible for the masses. You can be a subjectivist if you like and say that genius is ten thousand hours of practice, but it is trained virtuoso talent and not seniority alone that even gets you through flow’s door. For that matter, it is also almost impossible for the lucky few to experience until they have placed years into virtuoso performance in their craft. (Many more are capable of being monastics). Monastics, those of you who are not monastics may well enough guess, have experiences which monastics consider it disastrous to share with laity. This much may be legitimate, but novices would do well not to expect a stream of uninterrupted exotic experiences, not when they start and probably not when they have long since taken monastic vows. A novice who sees things in terms of “drudgework” would do well to expect nothing but what the West calls “drudgework” for a long, long time. (And if all goes well and you get along far enough that the drudgework is diluted by more responsible obediences, you will at first lament the change!)

“There is still a striking similarity between the ancient monastic obedience that was par excellence the bread and butter of monastic manual labor, and the more modern obediences. In ancient times, monks supported themselves by weaving baskets, and in modern times they craft incense. Do not say that the modern obedience is nobler: if anything it is a temptation, and maybe it’s better to have the humbler obedience.

“But basketweaving and making incense are both repetitive manual labor. There are, of course, any number of other manual obediences in a monastery today. However, when monasticism has its leeway, its choice seems to be in favor of a repetitive manual labor that gives the hands a regular cycle of the motion while the heart is free for the Jesus Prayer, and the mind in the heart practices a monk’s watchfulness or nipsis, an observer role that conditions you to notice and put out temptations when they are but a barely noticeable spark, rather than heedlessly letting the first spark of temptation grow until one is strongly tempted to external sin, and waiting for your whole room to be on fire before you start to put it out. This watchfulness is the best baseline for optimal experience that the Orthodox Church gives us in which to abide, and ’tis no accident that the full and unabridged title of the Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. If either of these simple manual project is unfamiliar or makes the performer back up in thought, this is a growing pain, not the intended long-term effect. And now that the jewel of the monastic Philokalia has been discovered by mainstream Orthodoxy and read by many with utmost attention, watchfulness is practiced by many people living in the world today.

“And remember how a monk advised you, perhaps in conscious echo of St. James the Brother of God who said, ‘Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.’ For you were in the dining hall with the monk and a cleaning lady, and he told the cleaning lady that she was fortunate, because her manual labor left her free to pray with her, and you, a computer programmer, at the time, were unfortunate to have work that demanded your full mental attention.

“If you can have optimal experience, with the Jesus Prayers in your heart as the metronome of silence, if your business is to weave baskets or craft incense, why couldn’t you also attend to the Jesus Prayer, rising as incense before God, by mopping a floor or cleaning windows? For however great monasticism may be, it has no monopoly in meditative work or prayer before God, and marriage is the original instrument of salvation. The door is open, if you can do some manual labor, to do so in prayer to God. Furthermore, monks are not alone permitted prayerful manual labor: monasticism is but the rudiments of the Gospel, and if monasticism perhaps seeks out a boon in prayerful manual labor, there is no sign of the door saying ‘Monastics alone.’

“Let’s say this is true, and the theology of optimum experience is virtually accepted for the sake of argument alone, or if you want, you may answer ‘Yes and amen.’ Still, the entire point is a quibble compared to the more profound matter to discuss. Let us, with good reason, set this point aside.”

Then he paused, and after a moment resumed his explanation. “If I may pull a rare note from postmodern wreckage, there is the concept of a semiotic frame, perhaps a frame that is additionally a myth, which determine’s a society’s possibles et pensables, that which is understood to be possible in a society, and that which is found, or not, to be even thinkable The analytic knife cuts well here, where we as a society wear pretty impressive blinders about both activism and society.

“Think of your feminist theology professor, who said with full force that she believed in Tradition, and in the same breath placed Arius, the father of heretics, alongside St. Athanasius as equally full representatives of that Tradition. When, in your theological anthropology class, she picked two texts for disability, the obvious agenda to her, the one and only love possible towards (in this) the disabled, was to engage some activist political advocacy for to make external conditions better in some way for that particular victim class. No expression of love was possible save more political activism. I would say, and I’m pretty sure you would say, that she was too political in her response, and not nearly political enough. (For when all is civil warfare carried on by other means, real concern for the deeper life of the city or nation all but starves.)

“One of the two reading assignments had something she couldn’t grasp. The other assignment was political ideology and/or identity politics. It was complete with the standard, footnoteless, boilerplate opening assertion that no one else in the whole wide world could possibly have suffering that could possibly compared to the suffering of one’s poor, downtrodden, miserable demographic.

“But the first text was fundamentally different. It was entitled ‘Love Without Boundaries,’ and it was a text about love written by the father of a severely autistic son. This latter text did not come close to calling for agitation or plans for a better future. Far from it! It was silent on these points. What the text did do, however, was to reflect an approach in ascesis, and learning to love without limits. The father did not and could not cure his son, but whether or not the father’s love transformed his son, the love the father expressed transformed the father. His love was cut from the same cloth as the peace with oneself which St. Isaac and St. Seraphim with one voice exhort Orthodox to acquire. The love the father expressed rendered him Godlike, in a humble, everyday, ordinary fashion.

“Much as your professor automatically jumped to a conclusion from ‘disabled people’ to ‘activist agitation’, today we jump from a conclusion from ‘need to understand the human heart’ to ‘psychology’. Yes, the psychology taught in schools, the psychology fashioning itself after hard science, the psychology that introduces itself by the physics envy declaration: psychologists-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

“It is a side point that psychologists treat subjects as less than human. A near-universal feature of psychological experiment is some stripe of guile, because psychological experimental value would be ruined under normal conditions of intelligent and informed cooperation between adult human beings. (Though the enterprise may be named “psychology,” the name itself is either clumsy or treacherous: “psyche” means “soul,” and the existence of a real, non-materialist soul is precisely what psychology will not even consider.) Psychologists running experiments act as thinking human beings: they think and make decisions. The people they study are governed by laws. Furthermore, since physics originally did quite a lot of work to de-anthropomorphize Nature, psychology tries to follow suit by offering a de-anthropomorphized picture of anthropos, humans.

“It has been noticed, as psychology reinvents more of religions, that classical psychology can take a person who is mentally ill to reach a normal state, but nothing better. Positive psychology tries to move beyond what preachers have called ‘a theology of sin management,’ and push to enhance excellence and well-being, and develop gifts. Meanwhile, for over a millenium, monasticism has been at one stroke a hospital for penitent sinners and an academy for ever-reaching excellence.

“The main point is that understanding how people work neither begins nor ends with psychology, a discipline that has blinded itself to our being made in the image of God. All the great Christian doctrines are untranslatable on psychology’s secular terms. The article version of your advisor’s thesis is subtitled, ‘From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,’ and it discusses the formation of psychology as an emergent secular realms which displaced older candidates. However, in the West before psychology began to come together, there were religious and pastoral paradigms for understanding the human person, and you know that one of the first technical terms Orthodoxy asks its converts to learn is ‘passion.’ If the passions your advisor discussed are not point-for-point identical to the passions repented of in Orthodoxy, they are still far closer than any of the multiple emergent framings and meanings of ’emotion’ as pushed for in the formation of psychology as a discipline.

“That there may be a common term for psychology today, and more dubiously a term for what that common term replaced, doesn’t really matter that much. The term ‘pneumatology’ may have existed and named practitioners from an older tradition; but these were under religious auspices. The study and field of communication is relatively new among major academic disciplines, but it would be quite strange to deny that people communicated, and tried to communicate, before the day that universities now tended to have a door heralding, ‘Department of Communication.’

“And what has psychology done since being established as a secular arena? Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land gets on very quickly to utterly dismissing marriage. But no sooner does Michael stop flailing marriage’s lifeless corpse, but he senses that he has made a great gaping hole, and builds up a bond of water brotherhood that is meant to be every bit as heroic, beautiful, and magnificent, so that the only way really remaining to make water brotherhood truly more wonderful and amazing is to enlarge it until it becomes true marriage.

“While psychology is secular, its complete form offers an ersatz religion that, though it is meant to be value-free, provides a secular mystical theology. That this secular religion, fit for all religions and patients, uses guided imagery allegedly from some generic copy-paste of Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American traditions, and may go back to Greco-Roman times; mindfulness from Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path; and yoga from Hinduism, is but an illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s observation: the person who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing; the person who does not believe in God believes anything. But let us put this aside and take psychology’s claim of secularity at face value. The Philokalia is scarcely anything but a library of collected works about how to rightly live the inner life. It is not in the main concerned narrowly with pleasure or joy: but it has an infinite amount to say about sins that are all, in the end, ways to taste Hell. Psychology does not trade in temptation, sin, or passion: but it too offers a rudder for your inner life, and if it does not talk about cleansing the soul from moral stains, it has quite an impressive battleplan to not be conquered by negative emotion. Alcoholics Anonymous has reclaimed or reinvented quite a lot.

“And if I can put in a word about TED talks, there is probably a TED talk to be made, ‘The Trouble with TED,’ for they exacerbate this. You know well enough that one talk gave the staggering announcement that after decades of each generation having higher self-esteem than the last, and then the lamented finding that by consequence we, and our youth, have reached record levels of narcissism. She might well enough have announced that if you spray fuel around and throw lighted matches into the fuel, sooner or sooner you will be surrounded by fire.

“She talked about it being soothing to place your hand over your heart. Honestly! This is just another way of, how can I put this delicately, ‘making love without a partner.’ Not a word was whispered about affectionate touch to another person, or for that matter a pet; the remedy did not step an inch away from solipsism. You know that monks are admonished to refrain from embraces; however, it is better for a monk to embrace another than to embrace himself.”

I said, “What is the trouble with TED? For I sense something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

His All Holiness answered me and said, “All world religions have grandeur, and for a secular analysis all world religions represent a way that a society can live together and persevere. Hinduism is not the sort of thing one uses up, whether across years, lifetimes, or even centuries. Its paths are millenia old, and to destroy it would likely take something like a nuclear war or an apocalyptic event. By contrast, remember how you said, ‘No form of feminism that has yet emerged is stable:’ it’s very easy to meet the force of body image feminism today, while it would scarcely be live in the academy in fifty years. Your friend answered this remark with a nominal exception in what is called ‘Christian feminism,’ which articulates how traditional Christianity cares for, and seeks, the good of women: for an example, it takes politically incorrect words about husbands and wives and offers the breathtaking change of addressing women as moral agents, and never telling husbands to keep their wives in line. That is, if anything, the exception that proves the rule! It might externally be called feminism, but its core is much slower to decay than any feminism at all, because it is not feminism at all. In your feminist theology class one autho said that in feminist theology, “all the central terms are up for grabs.” Meanwile, remember your boss at the bookstore. He commented that books of liberal theology have a shelf life; after a few years a title becomes hard to sell. However, his shop published three hundred year old Puritan sermons and sold them on an ongoing basis. You might concerned about whether they are heterodox, but don’t worry about them going out of fashion, or if they do go out of fashion, it will not be because the Puritan sermons lost their appeal to future Protestants seeking Biblical faith, but something else wound up changing features of Protestant Christianity that have survived intact since the Reformation.

“You do not need to refute TED talks; a few years and a given talk will probably have fallen out of fashion. There is something in the structure of TED that is liberal, even if many talks say nothing political. There more to say than that they are self-contained, controlled, plastic things, where world religions are something organic that may or may not have a central prophet, but never have a central social engineer. TED is a sort of evolving, synthetic religion, and spiritual tofu cannot truly fill true spiritual hunger.

“Let’s get back to psychology, or better, take a look at psychology and TED talks, for psychology has for ages hoped for a Newton who the Promised Land’s full status of being scientists. The study of Rocks and Nothing is the exemplar after which to pattern the study of Man. Really! The problems in psychology are not so much where psychology has failed to understand humanity on the example of empirical science. The real concerns are for where they have succeeded.

“In a forum discussion you read, one conversation crystallized on proper care for diabetes. The central lesson from the discussion is that if you have diabetes, you don’t want a book-smart nurse. You want a diabetic nurse. In psychology, along with other disciplines, a sufficiently skilled practitioner can pick up a book about part of the subject he does not yet understand, and understand well enough what there is to understood. Understanding was never nursed on the foundation of direct experience, and here understanding is malnourished.

“However, the Orthodox Church with monasticism as its heart has a deeper, more true empiricism as its spine; you know things with the same kind of ‘knowing’ by which Adam knew Eve. All else is rumor and idle talk. If there are qualifications to being a spiritual father, one of the most important qualifications must be that he speaks and acts out of first-hand encounter and first-hand knowledge, and not that he learned by rumor and distortion. Do you want to be healed by a spiritual physician? Then look for a man who will care for you as a diabetic nurse.”

Song 5: O Holy Mother!

O Holy Mother! Are You the Mystery?
Are you the untold Mystery?
For I have written much,
And taken great care,
In The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And looked all the while,
Down the wrong end,
Of the best telescope far and away that I could find.
I have written of mankind and creation defiled,
Yet for all of my concerns,
Of so-called “space-conquering technologies,”
Which seemed to me to be “body-conquering technologies,”
Sidestepping God-given and holy bounds,
Of our incarnate state.
Where better to seek healing,
From an occult-free simulation,
Of the unnnatural vice of magic arts,
(For there are several unnatural vices:
“Unnatural vice” is an umbrella term),
Than in the perfect creaturely response,
“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.”
Then, the gates, and even the foundations,
The foundations of Hell began crumbling.
The New Eve, the Heavenly Mother,
Of Whom Christ told the Disciple,
“Beholy thy Mother!”
In Her is the microcosm of Creation done right,
And She is the Friend and Comfort,
Of the poor and the outcast.
I can lose my money and my property,
But no one can take from me,
A Treasure vaster than the Heavens;
Perhaps I would do well,
To say little else of technologies progressively degrading humanity,
And pray an Akathist to the Theotokos,
And put a trust in Her that is proto-Antiochian,
Rather than proto-Alexandrian,
And give Her a trust in the great Story,
Not diminished at all,
If She happens not to be a teacher,
Offering such ideas as philosophers like:
Her place in the Great Story is far greater than that:
And such it is also,
With illumined teachers,
Who offer worship to God as their teaching,
And are in the pains of labor,
Until Christ be formed in their disciples.

He said, “But let us return to the pursuit of happiness, which has scathingly been called ‘the silliest idea in the history of mankind.’ And that is for a junior grade of pursuing happiness compared to today’s dose, not the clone of a systematic science which works out a combination of activities and practices, an America’s Test Kitchen for enjoying life, studying ways of manipulating oneself to maximize pleasure and happiness.

“It was several years ago that you took a Fluxx deck to play with friends, and the group included five adults and one very little boy. So the adults took turns, not just in their moves, but the player who had just played a move would pay attention to the little kiddie, so that he wouldn’t be left out socially.

“When it was your turn to care for the boy, you put him on your shoulders and walked slowly, delicately, towards the kitchen, because you wanted to go in, but you weren’t sure whether you’d end up hitting his head on the lower ceiling.

“Not long after, you realized three things. First, the boy had not bonked his head. Second, the boy was dragging his fingers on the ceiling. Third and finally, he was laughing and laughing.

“That was a source of pleasure to you far beyond the game of Fluxx, even though it was then your favorite game. And when you asked if it were time for your next move, they told me game was over.

“In the conversation afterwards, you were told a couple of things worth mentioning.

“First, and perhaps not particularly important, you happened to have given the child a pleasure that neither of his parents could offer. The boy’s father was a few inches taller than you, and if he were to try what you tried, he in fact would have hit his son’s head on the ceiling. The boy’s mother could not do this either, whether due to lack of physical strength or some other reason.

“Secondly, as a psychology major mentioned to you, it gives people joy to give real pleasure to another person, and young children are a special case. She didn’t talk about whether there is a difference between knowing you’ve given pleasure to a young child and knowing you’ve given pleasure to an adult, but she did point out that the child, who was really quite very small, was too young to act like he was having fun because he was just being polite. He was too young for convincing guile and perhaps even the most transparent of guile. That meant, whether or not you were thinking about it, that his delighted laughter could only be from unvarnished candor. So you did not have any question about, “Does he enjoy what I am doing with him, or is he just being polite?” Just being polite was off the table.

“And this is not even only true for the royal race of mankind. You still aren’t in a position to adopt a furry pet, but without compromise of any principle you visit a pet shelter near your home, and at the shelter as well, guile is off the agenda, at least for the pets. A cat can purr, or if it’s had enough and you’ve not paid attention to its swishing tell, a light nip and a swipe of the claw equally represents unvarnished candor. So you really know what is conveyed if a cat purrs and starts licking your hand.

“This is part of a larger truth, that it is better to serve than to be served, and it is better to give than to receive. What is more, the most concentrated teaching about who is truly happy is enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount, and enshrined to the next level by being chanted in the Divine Liturgy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

“The word translated, ‘blessed,’ has what would be counted as at least two meanings in English: ‘blessed,’ and ‘happy.’ Among English Bible translations, there are a few that translate the word as ‘happy.’ including Young’s Literal Translation:

Happy the poor in spirit — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness — because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers — because they shall be called Sons of God.

Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake — Rejoice ye and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

“In English this is usually, but not always, found in more free translations; the Amplified Bible naturally shines in cases like these as a deliberately unusual style of translation intended to present two or more faces of an ambiguity or a phrase that bears multiple meanings. Other languages can be different; in French, for instance, there are separate words béni and heureux which respectively mean ‘blessed’ and ‘happy,’ but heureux appears to be the term of choice in French translation of the Beatitudes.

“Here, though, is a point of contact with Plato. Plato investigated happiness, and the Greek term was almost exactly a literal equivalent to ‘in good spirits,’ but the literal sense was taken much more seriously and taken much further. It was a primary term for happiness, but what was seen as true happiness was having one’s soul in good health. This happiness would not be easily confused by counterfeit pleasures such as one can immediately procure with narcotics, and the point is not just that real-world narcotics create addiction and horrible misery. The happiness would be just as counterfeit in the pleasure of a person unhealthy in soul to take some imaginary narcotic that created intense and endless pleasure, without either the addiction or the misery that loom in the nasty backswing of real-world narcotics.

“Remember how surprised you were, when you were reading your undergraduate psychology text and saw what it said of the pleasure principle. For the pleasure principle is an artifact of bad philosophy, which perhaps notes that most of our actions bring some kind of pleasure or pleasing result, assumes and defines that every action anyone ever takes is that which is calculated to bring you the most pleasures. In more recent settings, you have listened to people saying that the only motivation anyone ever takes for any action is that it is calculated to bring them the greatest economic profit, and you repeated another’s answer, to say that several people have tried to convince you this was true, and so far as you knew, not even one of them stood to gain financial profit from convincing you this was true.

“Your textbook, like someone who tries to persuade by offering a charming smile in lieu of reasoned argument, consoled the reader that it was more a virtue than a vice to show kindnesses to others because you enjoyed the feelings it gave, and you had two answers in your thoughts. First, past the sugar-coating of ‘more a virtue than a vice’ lies an assertion that virtue is in principle impossible; and secondly, that the only theoretical possibility that you could care for the poor in order to help fellow humans was if you received absolutely no pleasure, consolation, or reward, in any stripe or dimension, to care for the poor out of a genuine motive of benefitting others and not whatever pleasures or rewards might follow. And that’s setting the price tag far too high. So you wanted to speak of a ‘pain principle’ or ‘masochism principle’ where all decisions and actions at all times by all people are whatever is calculated to bring them the greatest sufferings, alike useless to assert for any philosopher worthy of the name. It is hardly to be denied that most decisions bring some pain or have some downside on the part of the persons who make them, so a pain principle mirroring a pleasure principle is alike unprovable, and alike unfalsifiable, an untestable guess that has no place whatever in science and scarcely more a place in disciplines seeking to be established as science. It was not until later that you read a worthy and competent philosopher who wrote that the existence of pleasure and a reward does not in and of make any action which brings pleasure to be motivated solely as a means to obtain pleasure. The thought experiment was posed, that someone who gives to the poor and enjoys doing so were offered a pill that would give the full pleasure and benefits of being generous, but do nothing whatsoever for poor people’s practical needs, would in but rare cases be spurned as an empty and worthless counterfeit.

Song 6: Crossing the Great Threshold

The tale was told,
Of a child of little mind,
Who received a glittering package, a gift,
And kept the glittering pack,
Taking it with him almost everywhere.
And after a long time,
When the disposable wrapping paper,
Was quite battered and dingy,
An adult asked,
“Aren’t you going to open the package?”
The child exclaimed with joy,
Once the toy emerged from the tatters,
And squealed with you, saying,
“Oh, there’s another present!”
My Lord and my God!
Perhaps I will never open,
The Sermon on the Mount.

Then I said, “O John! O Glorious Saint John! Can you lead me on a path into The Sermon on the Mount? For I have long walked the path of self-direction, and it almost destroyed me.”

Then the Saint said to me, “Thank you, my son, for your request! I was waiting for you to ask, so that you might have the Heavenly reward for asking.

“What you are asking for is a work of years of lifetimes; let’s chase something smaller: unfolding, partly, only the first verse, which declares the poor in spirit to be blessed and happy. I will speak to you of the poverty’s riches but not humility’s heights, even though they are one and the same and true poverty contains everything that you seek in humility. Though I may call on other verses to tell what riches are in poverty, I will make no attempt to unfold these other Beatitudes, though to them which declared the blessedness of poverty that was the same thing. I also tell you, through your interests, that to be poor in spirit is to be no self-sufficient solipsist; rather, it is utterly dependent on the infinite riches of God, and that it is royal: for kings are forbidden to touch money, and in another sense all Christians and especially all monastics are forbidden to touch any wealth or possession, and grasp at things like the rich young ruler did. But poverty is the unstopping of the The Sermon on the Mount, an unstopping of virtue in which flowing fountain surpasses flowing fountain.

“Calling blessed those who are ‘poor in spirit’ extends beyond a merely bodily poverty. It is taught that true poverty extends beyond a lack of possessions, much like it is taught that the monastic vow of poverty includes the other two: for a monk abstains from the normal and God-blessed estate of holy marriage, and relinquishes claim to even his own self-will. You know that as treasure, for you want to exchange self-direction for a monastic community under the direction of an abbot.

“In the The Sermon on the Mount, poverty seems to hold a special place, for there are two passages which build most clearly poverty, and build most clearly on poverty. One commends storing treasures in Heaven and rejects storing treasures on earth; then an apparent digression about the eye as the lamp of the body, then exhortation not to worry about even tomorrow, for God knows and will care for our needs. And when you have wealth, be merciful to others, and you will be repaid many times over by your true Debtor, God.

“In fact there are not two passages and one digression, but one passage and no digression. The miniature tri-unity is harder to see in modern translations that translate something out to be more readily understood; one reads of one’s eye being ‘healthy’ or ‘sound.’ Fr. Thomas Hopko has said, before the surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness, “Be awake and attentive, fullly present where you are.” This attentiveness and full presence is the operation of an activity that is single, that neither layeth up possessions, nor defendeth them in worry, nor doubteth that God who provides will overlook you in His care. All of this dissipates an eye that is single. Poverty of spirit makes for singleness of eye, and a singleness destroyed by so many of the technologies you trade in.

“It has been considered from ancient times that if you give to the poor, God is your Debtor, and under what you would consider third world living conditions, I told married Christians to leave brothers and sisters to their children instead of things. This too is poverty of spirit, even if it belongs only in marriage, in a setting monks renounce. You have read those who do not ask, ‘Can I afford what I need?’ but ‘Do I need what I can afford?’

“It is monastic poverty that monastics do not defend themselves, not only by force, but even with words, showing the power that terrified Pontius Pilate. It is monastic poverty of spirit not to have plans nor, in the modern sense, an identity. For in ancient times Christians who were martyred, answered when asked their names, nothing other than ‘Christian.’ Beyond this, further layers yet beckon. Poverty is not an absence of treasures; it is a positive, active thing that slices sharper than any two-edged sword. And monks who renounce property have much more to say than a mere, ‘Good riddance!’ The force of the rejection they give, and the freedom that is gained in letting riches go, is more like the obscene and thundering announcement: ‘I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!’

“You read a church sign that said, ‘Who is rich? The person who is content.’ And I tell you that you can purchase by poverty of spirit many times and layers more than contentment with what thou possessent now. I have not even scratched the surface of experiences of monastics who were profoundly poor in spirit, but you know there are limits to what I can rightly tell you, and you know that you are not invited to chase after experiences, but seek to repent of your sins for the rest of your life, which you recognize as monastic privilege.”

Song 7: I Sing a Song to my Apple.

Before I had even reached youth proper,
I programmed an Apple II,
In gradeschool adventure games and a 4D maze,
Simple arithmetic- and trigonometric-powered animations.
My father a computer scientist,
Who shared his joy with me,
In high school I became a Unix system administrator.
My family purchased, and still has the remains,
Of one original “fat Mac”,
So named because it had the maximum available RAM: 512k.
My calculator in high school,
On which I programmed computer-generated art,
And a simple video game, had as much.
Before my youth had dwindled,
I remained a Unix programmer,
And judged Mac OSX my preferred flavor of Unix.
Later I had iPhones,
And for the first time in my life,
Owned a computer where I lacked root privilege.
Along the way I got an Apple Watch,
My desire increased as I read about it,
And vanished when I learned it were,
Bereft of such things as even a web browser.
I gave it to my brother,
Who later gave it back to me,
Then it fell apart.
I sing a song to my Apple,
A peerless 17″ MacBook Pro,
Which through an ever-so-minor design flaw,
Burned through video cards often,
And when the Apple Store stopped stocking those cards,
So with it went any hope of keeping my Mac without frequent $500 repairs.
And along the way,
With the sweetness of a Linux virtual machine,
Realized that OSX had grown monstrous as a version of Unix.
When I asked about one cardinally important open source project,
I was told that Apple had removed parts of the OS,
That the project needed to run,
But information technology work in my Linux virtual machine,
Was the command line equivalent of point and click.
It were a discovery as if I had returned to Paradise.
I sing a song to Apple’s technical support,
For when I asked a question,
About command-line-driven Apache configuration,
It took escalations up to level 3 Technical support,
Before a Genius knew that Macs have a command line.
I purchased a computer meant to last years.
I sing a song to my late iPhone,
Bewailed by men who made the Mac great,
Which slipped out a pocket near a food bank,
Booted my laptop into Windows and found,
That Windows Find my iPhone was now rendered all but useless.
I went to see an Apple Store,
And received a followup call,
Giving a good ten days before I could access my iPhone,
And found out also that Macs were as useless,
As my Linux box booted into Windows,
To Find My iPhone.
Once I had one from each four,
Offerings for Apple computers:
A laptop one, an iPad one,
An iPhone one, an Apple Watch one;
And ere I were negotiating,
For to buy a replacement iPhone on eBay,
I said that there were many Android devices within my budget,
And while in bed that night realized,
I wanted full well that the negotiation fail.
Apple’s indirect gift to desktops may be Windows and part of Linux,
And Apple’s indirect gift to smartphones may be Android;
For surely no iPhone killer before Android,
Even came close.
Certainly Windows Mobile answered the wrong question.
But even if one may argue, legitimately,
That a Mac and a PC have grown remarkably similar,
And iOS and Android are also more alike than different to use,
I was not poisoned by technnical merits.
I was poisoned by Apple’s corporate mindset,
That all but killed my prospects,
Of finding my iPhone before the battery were drained completely.
And when I called my iPhone to perhaps find it in my car,
I went to voicemail immediately:
My iPhone’s battery was already dead.
I had known, but not paid attention earlier,
To Steve Jobs as beyond toxic, as a boss;
Screaming and abusive,
To employees he had every reason to cherish,
And after seeing a technical fumble,
Publicly fired an Apple technician,
At an employee motivational event,
And I believed it.
I was more disturbed,
When I read of Jobs’s spiritual practices,
Such as an Orthodox mind might interpret,
As opening the mind to listen,
And draw the milk of dragons.
Technology does things for us,
Though I have found that when I’ve shared children my iPhone or iPad,
There have been squabbles and squabbles.
But this Trojan horse does things for devils also,
Who cannot give exquisitely beneficial gifts,
Even if they were to try.
The power of demons is real but limited:
Such teaches the Philokalia,
Which though it be filled with love of the beautiful,
Says more about the activities and operations of demons,
Than anything else I have read.
And one thing it says,
Through Orthodox Christian Tradition,
Says that demons can tell a man’s spiritual state,
And try to inject venomous thoughts in temptation,
Where men have free will, still,
The demons cannot read minds,
Even if by ruse they give one monk certain thoughts,
Sting another that the thoughts are in the first man,
They talk and are deceived,
That demons can read people’s minds.
Demonic predictions are called guesses,
Which are sometimes wrong,
The demons see a man beginning to walk a journey,
And guess that he travels to visit another specific man,
But ’tis guesswork; demons can well enough be wrong.
St. Nilus’s alleged prophecies are dubious at present,
But we may not yet be in the clear.
And if the U.S. has been called “One nation under surveillance,”
Where No Such Agency has received every email,
It is now clear and open knowledge,
To those who will reflect,
That among most Americans,
“Every breath and step Americans take,”
Is monitored by Big Brother,
But perhaps it is not just human agencies,
That reap the information collected.
++ungood
(Did anyone besides my most reverend Archbishop mention that porn may always have been available, but it used to be that you had to seek out porn, and leave your car in front of a store with papered-over windows, and wear your trenchcoat disguise, while now porn seeks out you?
It is something like a water cooler that has three faucets
Serving cold water, hot water, and antifreeze,
And the handles are confusingly similar.)

The Saint turned to me and said, “I would remind you of Fr. Thomas’s famous 55 maxims:

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person
    regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for
    themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and
    caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last
    breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness,
    temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s
    mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The Saint continued, “Would you agree that we are at a high noon of secret societies?”

I answered, “Absolutely.”

He asked, “Would you agree that such societies are corrosive?”

I answered, “As a rule, yes, and I know that Orthodox are forbidden on pain of excommunication to join the Freemasons.”

He asked, “And do you have an opinion about the JFK assassination, whether it was a conspiracy?”

I said, “I accept the opinion of a friend whose judgment I respect as regards politics gave me an opinion that there in fact was a conspiracy, and it was driven by LBJ.”

He said, “And have you spent five full minutes in worrying about either in the past year?”

I said, “No, not really.”

He said, “You have secular intelligence if you can ask if ‘surveillance from Hell’ in an obviously figurative sense might also be ‘surveillance from Hell’ in a far more literal sense, but such intelligence as this does not help one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Every demon and the Devil himself is on a leash, and as your priest has said many times, everything that happens to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that God has allowed for our strengthening. So whether or not the demons have more information than in ages past, you would still be best advised to live:

Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.

Song 8: A Hymn to Arrogance

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
“There is no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not before the creation,
Of the royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of Peace,
And pray, stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the angelic warriors,
Said only his name, ‘Michael,’
Which is, translated,
‘Who is like God?’
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
The remain to sharpen the faithful;
God uses them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

So don’t be dismayed,
If one book of the Bible says,
That Satan tempted David into taking a census,
And another says God did so,
For God allowed it to happen by the Devil,
As he who chops lifts an axe,
And God gave David a second chance,
In the holy words of Joab.
Do not think that God and the Devil are equal,
Learn enough doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And can have no equal or even opposite.
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared not so well.
The dragon was like a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that was the greatest harm,
That he could see how to do.
The Orthodox Church knows well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the demons ain’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God allows temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
‘It is just the demons.
Don’t pay any attention to it,’ came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
So don’t be arrogant towards other people,
But be ever more arrogant towards demons and the Devil himself:
‘Blow, and spit on him.'”

I told St. John, “I have just read the panikhida service, and it seems to be cut from the same cloth as Church services in general.”

He said, “Does that surprise you?”

I said, “Perhaps it should not. But the Philokalia describes a contrast between life and death: for instance, in the image of an inn, where travelers come for a night, carrying whatever they have; some sleep on beds, some sleep on the floor, but when day comes, all of them pick up their belongings and resume their journey.”

He says, “How do you understand that parable?”

I said, “In this life, some live in riches, and some in poverty, but all of these leave life carrying only (Grace and) their deeds with them. The last English homily I heard, the priest quoted someone who said, ‘I have never seen a trailer attached to a hearse.’ That is, ‘You can’t take it with you,’ save that terrifying tale of a monk who died with over a hundred gold pieces. (It was said he wasn’t greedy, just remarkably stingy.) When he died, the community talked about what to do with this incredible sum of wealth: some suggested a new building or another capital project, others some great kindness to the poor. And when all was said and done, they buried the gold with him, an industrial strength reminder to monks that you don’t want to be buried with even one gold piece. But even then, the monk couldn’t take the gold with him.”

The Saint told me, “You have read part of Prayers by the Lake, in which St. Nikolai says that birth and death are an inch apart, but the ticker tape goes on forever.

“Also remember that in the Philokalia we read that those who wish one suffering to die are like someone holding a deeply confused hope that a doctor would break up the bed of a sick man? For we take our passions with us beyond death, passions which the body mediates to some degree.”

I said, “May I comment on something? Which will sound like a boast?”

He said, “Speak on.”

I said, “I know that I am mortal, and that I am the chief of sinners. But the day of my death is more real to me than my salvation, and in me the knowledge that I am the chief of sinners surpasses my knowledge that God is merciful. I have needed the reminder of the core promise in For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. So there are two deep pairs, and I have of the two properly recognized only the lesser element.”

He said, “Have you not been astonished at God’s perfect Providence in years past?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “What you have said doesn’t sound like boasting to me. Many people have wished for the remembrance of death and not reached it, not even in monasticism.”

I asked, “Will I reach monasticism?”

He smiled at me, and said, “Why do you ask the future? It is wonderful.”

He said, “Remembrance of death does not drain life. It is a reminder that life is not a dress rehearsal: or rather that is a dress rehearsal, and our performance in this rehearsal determines what we will meet the Resurrection having rehearsed.

“With death comes a realization of, ‘I shall not pass this way again.’

“Such death as we have gives an eternal significance to life in its importance. For you know that all you in the Church Militant stand in something like an arena before God and His Christ, before all the saints and angels and even devils and the Devil himself, as God’s champions summoned to justify God as St. Job the Much-Suffering and others justify God. And whatever triumph you have is Christ’s triumph in you.

“Don’t you know that the saints who have run the race and are adorned with an imperishable and incorruptible crown stand all about you, the Church Triumphant cheering on the Church Militant until every last member has crossed the finish line in triumph?

“Don’t you know that every saint and angel, the Mother of God and Christ enthroned on high, all cheer each and every one of you who are still running the race?

“The times preceding the Second Coming of Christ are not only apocalyptic; they are the very thing which gives the term ‘apocalyptic’ its meaning in your day. And there are trials and tribulations which perhaps will happen in ages later on, and perhaps may already have begun. But in the end Christ will triumph, and all alike who are faithful. And if you are alive for the Second Coming of Christ, or if not, God has provided and will provide a way for thee. Remain faithful, and remember, ‘The righteous will live by his faith.'”

I said, “I should where God will lead me. I can guess promises of good, but I am happier at least leaving a vessel open for God to fill.”

The Saint’s face began to glow, and he said, “In my day, I made a claim you may have met in the Reformers, that the age of miracles had passed: in blunt terms, ‘God wrote the book and retired.’ So I called ‘opening the eyes of the blind’ to be cleansing eyes from lust, which was a fair claim in any case, and particular if there are no more miracles. You, it seems, are in another age of miracles, or perhaps the age of miracles has never stopped from before the Nativity of Christ, but has merely hid from time to time. You know that you are not the Orthodox Church’s fourth Theologian, but you have already known some beginnings of theology beyond the printed page, and have seen miracles in your earthly pilgrimage such as I have not. I perhaps engaged in rhetorical discourse about God, and never on earth saw the Uncreated Light. You have seen icons like me and you have also seen a photograph from inside an altar, where paten and chalice glowed purest white. Unlike me, you have been anointed with more than one miraculous oil, dear Christos…”

Then he bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before me, and his face glowed brightly, brightly, ten thousand times brighter than the sun and yet did not hurt my mortal eyes, and he asked me, “Friend, why do you ask the future? It is wonderful.”

Then there was a scintillating flash of light that was beyond intense, and the Saint was gone.

I wept until I realized that I was the happiest I had been in my life.

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Alchemy: Fool’s Gold in Today’s World

Introduction: Alchemy and Questionable Moral Character

I would like to open with a disturbing passage from Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. I might briefly mention that Midgley is no feminist; she is a conservative whose chief influences are Plato and Aristotle.

We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).

Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.

Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.

Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.

(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)

Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?

In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.

My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.

Alchemy in the Limelight

Some time over ten years back, and much to my later chagrin, I wanted to illustrate a point and deliberately chose alchemy, as a jarring image, to illustrate it.

Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)

Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.

Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work

Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.

I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.

Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.

There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!

I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.

I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)

There was an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book The Alchemist which on the back had a quote from ?Bill Clinton? saying something like, “When I read it I felt like I was awake and the whole world was asleep.” Friends, you do not want to feel like that. One of the usual signs you are coming to a spiritual breakthrough is that you are repenting.

Alchemy Is Deeper Than Hinduism? Huh?

In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”

I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.

But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.

Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development

But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.

Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin

Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.

Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.

Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.

Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.

I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.

Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.

Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.

How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
Deified.

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumble

In the present Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule, Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein is quoted as saying, “‘do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely. But not a single one of these versions of the golden rule requires a God“. Yet months after I lodged a protest about this at least depending on where your quote from the Gospel begins and ends, the chaplain’s pristine wording still summarizes a list of quotes from the New Testament that begins and ends where some would expect it to. (In the other two parallel passages, Christ is quoted as saying explicitly that the duty to love one’s neighbor was like the duty to love God.) As quoted earlier in the very same Wikipedia article:

A similar passage, a parallel to the Great Commandment, is Luke 10:25-28

25And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”

26What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” 27He answered, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” 28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”.

After the point where the quote is ended as cited here, Christ is asked an evasive question and drives home his point with an answer that is absolutely ludicrous and is meant to make his interlocutor pointedly uncomfortable. Though the absolute love for God is not treated as up for debate here, trying to love your neighbor as yourself without loving the Lord with your entire being is a chicken with its head cut off.

For now, I do not want to go into the unquoted followup to a question about where our obligations stop. I wish instead to say quite specifically here what the text quoted in the Wikipedia says. What it says, in essence, that “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a spillover to an absolute obligation to love God with your whole being. The obligation to love one’s neighbor is, in mathematical language, a corollary to an obligation to love God. It’s a consequence of the first stated imperative. Whilst one can cut the beginning and ending of the quotation so that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is all that survives the abbreviation, the obligation to love one’s neighbor is but a brilliant shadow cast by the infinite obligation to love God. There is some degree of confusion in the suggestion that this gem, shared by Jew and Christian, works just as well if “Love your neighbor as yourself” is stripped of its foundation of, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.” There is considerable insensitivity in seeing the two but failing to recognize them as connected.

While Eastern Orthodoxy may have a rich and many-layered understanding of holy icons and experience a rich interconnectedness between the theology of holy icons on the one hand, and a human race created in the image and likeness of God as stated in the very opening chapter of the Bible, it is not just Eastern Orthodox who have reason to see an implied, too-obvious-to-need-stating connection between loving God and loving people who are made in the image of God. You cannot be cruel to a child without paining that child’s healthy parent, and it is confusion to try to love God without implications for loving one’s neighbor. I am not aware of C.S. Lewis articulating any particularly interesting theology of icon as such, but the rising crescendo that closes The Weight of Glory could hardly be clearer: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” We are to love God entirely, and this love must unfold to loving God in the person of every neighbor who bears God’s divine image. Only a Harvard humanist chaplain could make a blanket statement for all world religions and let slip something so foundational to the plain, old New Testament. You know, the text from which we learned John 3:16 as Bible-believing kids.


Having said such, I would like to go over some rules and variations related to the Golden Rule, before explaining why I believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” is far more interesting than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

A Fool’s Golden Rule: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out!

There is a bit of social wisdom, legitimate enough in itself, that is a sort of spurious version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t tease others beyond the point where you can handle them returning the same.” It may be wise enough to observe in practice, as it’s really best not to get into waters deeper than you can swim, but in itself doesn’t shed much light on whether teasing should really be avoided (a position that has adherents), or teasing is a legitimate and important dimension to any particularly strong personal connection (another position with adherents).

Of greater concern is this: different people have different tolerances for how much they can enjoy banter. Perhaps others will present less of a confusing situation if they also follow this Fool’s Golden Rule, but it is desirable, and in the spirit of a real Golden Rule, to avoid teasing others beyond what they can handle.

If we go with an expectation that some people avoid getting into waters beyond what they can swim in, and some are less perspective, there is an element of self-care in making sure you don’t invite more teasing than you can handle, and self-care can be perfectly legitimate. However, it doesn’t address how to approach banter legitimately, and without dishing out needless pain. Perhaps one pair of options are either to mostly avoid teasing, indefinitely, or to start very lightly, gradually escalate with a question mark in your eyes, and stop immediately and later on tone things down a bit on any social cue that the other person has had enough. I believe this suggestion is arguably appropriate, but runs somewhat independently of the Golden Rule, and is even based on recognition that knowing what “you would have others do unto you” does not fully answer everything essential. Teasing within people’s tolerances is an area where knowing only your own limits is not enough.

However, this would provide a nuance some have explored in relation to the Golden Rule. If you are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a friend with a deadly peanut allergy walks by, perhaps you might show social respect, but there is neither any faintest obligation of hospitality nor the Golden Rule to knowingly give your special-needs friend food containing a large amount of peanut ingredients. If you’re having beef stew and a vegetarian friend walks by, one obvious level of interpreting the Golden Rule is to offer some social salute and, depending on how rushed the friend is, invite the friend to join the conversation but not, under any ordinary circumstance, offer a bowl of beef stew. A classic comic has a father taking a son to a restaurant and bowling to celebrate, and in the last frame the mother tells the son, “I know; we also did all the things he likes for my birthday too.”

I might note that some Orthodox authors have challenged this nuance (or, perhaps, nuanced the nuance). The essential argument is that if you’re spiritually healthy, you will probably be at least sometimes seeking for yourself things that are good and genuinely in your best interest. If you are trying to show kindness to someone in the grip of passions, that person will be seeking to indulge passion and not what is in his best interests. The correct gift is, for that person, one that in some minor way, and without invading and assuming command, what you would want in the sense of something in one’s own best interest, and not what the other person would want in the sense of serving one’s sinful passions.

The Silver Rule: “Do Not Do Things to Others That You Would Not Have Them Do to You

Figures in multiple religious traditions have summarized ethics in a commandment not to do things you wouldn’t want other people to do to you. It is unmistakable that “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” has received devoted attention in Judaism for millennia. However, certain scholars who represent landmarks in the Talmud have summarized the Golden Rule in a more diluted form: they tell people only to refrain from doing things to others that they wouldn’t want others to do to them. This is a lower bar.

I would like to put a word in to puzzled Christians wondering why master scholars of the Jewish Bible would choose what is essentially an ethical consolation prize, and a negative morality rather than a positive morality.

My best guess here is that Talumidic scholars didn’t choose the easier of two serious options. That is, they did not line up “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated” and “Don’t do things to other people you wouldn’t want them to do to you,” and go for the less demanding option. The Old Testament thunders “Thou shalt not,” and not in just the Ten Commandments. It includes “Love your neighbor as yourself” but not, as stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” It took me a long time to understand what a Lawgiver was years back, because I thought of rules as unhelpful and constricting. But I would call to mind a medievalist conference that talked about law in Western Europe, and said in essence that law had captivated the public imagination, and fascinated people as being, among other things, a way for people to resolve conflicts without attacking each other physically. Perhaps even the word “lawyer” has slimy connotations today and we think litigation is completely out of control, but to many in the medieval West, people thought litigation was a live and better alternative to an ongoing and deadly feud. Law was seen as a peaceful way to avoid violence. St. Moses was a Lawgiver, and a great deal of that Law was devoted to forbidding people from engaging in destructive practices. There is brilliance in condensing the entirety of the Law to “Do not do things to other people that you would not do unto you,” and I would suggest it is an anachronism to criticize Rabbi ben Hillel and others like them because they chose the Silver Rule over the Golden Rule. (I see no reason to believe that they did anything of the sort.)

Whether or not the Silver Rule is not as good as the full-fledged Golden Rule, it shares the strengths that make the Golden Rule so important. The Silver Rule and the Golden Rule both alike are short, simple directives that offer broad and far-reaching guidance. They might not replace longer and more detailed treatment of what is right and wrong, but a treatment of ethical details alone presents a danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. The Silver and Golden Rules help people see the forest very quickly, and then be in a better position to see the trees situated in the forest when it’s time to study the trees. And, as has been pointed out, in U.S. educational culture the most important lessons are not introduced in graduate meta-ethics seminars; they’re taught in kindergarten, with the Golden Rule often given a place of prominence. The “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” poster that was ubiquitous some decades back reflects important choices made in U.S. educational culture, whatever other flaws it may have. The most important ethical lessons are placed at the very beginning of formal education itself.

I would also like to comment on a the terms “negative morality” and “positive morality.” The language is loaded. It doesn’t mean, or at least not at first glance, that negative morality is bad and positive morality is good. I might mention what the term “progressive cancer” means. “Progressive” is not here loaded language complimenting someone for being sufficiently far to the left; a “progressive” cancer is a cancer that continues to grow and grow, and be more and more destructive despite every treatment that’s thrown at it. Returning to “negative” and “positive” morality, a negative morality essentially says, “Here’s a shortlist of things you shouldn’t do. You’re free to do anything else.” A positive morality dictates your options far more narrowly: “This is what you should do.” And I would make a pointed remark about positive moralities: if you are going to choose a positive morality, choose very, very carefully. Every single one of the twentieth century Utopias that racked up over a million innocent lives in its body count was driven by a positive morality!

I ultimately side with a positive morality, if “morality” is really the term; as Orthodox I use the term “moral” / “morality” primarily with non-Orthodox because the way Orthodoxy covers terrain there are spiritual disciplines and there is divinization, but there is not really a separate category of morality as such. However, it is usually not helpful to ask people to grapple with an oblong concept like that if it can be avoided.

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I wish to comment quite briefly about the Golden Rule as classically worded that it appears exactly once in the Bible, that Christ states it in the most important homily the Orthodox Church can offer, and that Christ himself endorses it as a complete summary of the Scriptures that existed then. The Golden Rule itself is the least in need of introduction of all these variations: asking the man on the street, “What’s the Silver Rule?” or “What’s the Platinum Rule?” should often elicit a perhaps puzzled, “I don’t know.” If you ask, “What’s the Golden Rule?” people may not be able to rattle off the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but they should usually immediately recognize the reference and instantly recall the point, gist and basic concern whether or not they can quote (or misquote) the classic formulation.

The Platinum Rule: “Do unto others better than you would have them do unto you

I would briefly comment that the Platinum Rule is more a curiosity of discussion of ethics than a point in any live community’s ethical system that I am aware of. For reasons to be discussed below, I believe the Law of Love represents a far more valuable way to go beyond the Golden Rule than simply upping the ante for what one is expected to give others.

However, while I am not aware of religions teaching the Platinum Rule (even in ethics it seems to me to only come up in academic discussions), it does seem to come up in practice even if it is not enjoined. The first job I had was at a rental yard, where assignments ranged from assembling tents for a celebration to scrubbing burnt-on crud off steel to putting away sewer snakes. It was not a glamorous position. However, I noticed that the worst and most disgusting jobs (such as cleaning up a port-a-potty after a wild and wet trailer ride) were always done personally by a manager. Always. In a traditional marriage and family, feminists may claim that the husband and father occupies the position of greatest privilege. This is possibly so, but under the live definition of privilege, his privilege includes taking an ailing pet to the vet for the last time. In the business world, there is the manager who from time to time skips lunch during crunch mode, but would never arrange a schedule so that one of her subordinates was asked to miss a meal. Goodwill, whether or not it is an organization of goodwill towards its employees’ financial interests, asks people whether a donation is good enough to give a friend, and I would comment on that point that there are some pockets where people are generous and giving towards others, but continue to personally use worn or damaged possessions themselves that they would be mortified to give to someone else, especially someone lower than them socially. For a concluding example, anti-smoking advocates found that they met limited success with anti-smoking messages that said, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to yourself!” (Dads seemed not to be terribly concerned.) Then they shifted the center of the message to, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to your kids!” and, Wow! was there a change.

The Platinum Rule may or may not be preached anywhere outside of academia. It does, however, appear to be something people practice of themselves in situations where they have been brought up to respect the Golden Rule.

And now I will show you a more excellent way

One patristic claim has been that the Old Testament purifies what is done externally in the hands, and the New Testament purifies what is done inwardly in the heart. That may be painting things with broad strokes, and someone who doesn’t know the Bible well may still point out that as prominently as in the Ten Commandments the Old Testament forbids coveting in one’s heart, and the New Testament has numerous passages condemning concrete actions as sin. I don’t know the Talmud, but I’m pretty sure that a good Talmud scholar could point out numerous passages rejecting sins committed, at least at first, only in the heart. However, it is helpful to understand here that the relationship between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is really not a relationship between “First installment” and “Second installment: more of the same.”

One core aspect of “Road to Emmaus” passage that winds up Luke’s Gospel is, “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” “Scriptures” does not here refer to any part of the New Testament; there is only one place, in 2 Peter, that any part of the New Testament is called Scripture. Furthermore, at the time reported in this Gospel passage, none of the New Testament had been written. The basic model of Scripture in this passage, which remained live for a surprisingly long time, was that the Scriptures were the Old Testament and represented a locked treasure hoard, and the New Testament contained the key to unlock the Old Testament Scriptures. Fr. John Behr commented in a class that the worst thing that happened to the Church was the canonization of the New Testament. He was perhaps speaking provocatively, but he was driving home a patristic enough point that the Old and New Testaments should not be identified as a first installment and a second installment of the same.

At least in the Wikipedia, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is treated as a wording or formulation of the Golden Rule. I would like to draw an increasingly sharp distinction, and from here, I will use the terms Golden Rule to strictly mean paraphrases or repetitions of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Law of Love to mean “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with or without explicitly stating the commandment to love God from which it arises.

In my own experience, I was surprised by what was apparently obvious enough to the article authors that there seemed no perceived need to establish or defend: that the Law of Love was a wording of the Golden Rule, apparently interchangeable with others.

The first, relatively superficial objection I had was that the Golden Rule uses one’s own desires as a guideline for what action to take. The Law of Love does not directly state what actions to take, and the implied line of action I would see (others might nominate other candidates) is an obligation to seek others’ best interests. It is long religious experience that we often do not seek our own best interests, but finely gilt spiritual potholes, and the Christ who commands love for one’s enemies might perhaps leave room to believe that someone who meets forgiving love with ongoing hostility might, perhaps, be even further from seeking what is genuinely beneficial to them. In the Golden Rule the yardstick of action, at least on a rule of thumb level, is one’s own desires. My personal impression, as someone who has problematic desires, is that the yardstick for action, besides love which I will come to in a minute, is that it is the other person’s best interests.

The second, more serious objection I can think of, has to do with virtue. One basic distinction has been made between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based morality. At the heart of Confucianism, for instance, is not any calculus of required, permitted, and forbidden actions; the highest goal is to become a person who embodies certain virtues, such as a filial piety. The Philokalia draws on certain Greek philosophy, carefully and selectively. The greatest debt I can see to a feature of Greek philosophy in the whole collection is in the cardinally important place that is given to virtues. The concept may be adapted for Christian use at points, but any reasonably sensitive reading would recognize that virtue, from wherever the authors acquired it, is extremely important in the text. As regards the Golden Rule, it is a strictly rule-based guideline and need not perturb a rule-based morality. As regards the Law of Love, “love” may appear as a verb and not a noun, but the commandment is to exercise virtue. Now there are feedback and reinforcement between what is in your heart and what you do with your hands; someone who is honest is more likely to tell the truth, but conversely telling the truth is a practice that also builds the virtue of honesty. However, the Law of Love takes the action from the Golden Rule’s playing field of (potentially) rule-based morality, and puts us on turf where virtue at least looms large.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on the shortlist of Orthodox classics, and Orthodox monastics traditionally read it each Lent. It has various steps of virtues to acquire and vices to surrender, amounting to thirty steps in total. And elements of Greek philosophy may be present; the step that is second from the top is “Dispassion”, a Holy Grail sought in the same philosophical currents that had the authors of the Philokalia think so much in terms of virtue. However, the very, very top rung of all in the great Ladder is the “Faith, Hope, and Love” in an industrial-strength allusion to one of the favorite chapters of the Bible the world around:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

And there is further to go than virtue-based morality.

Beyond even virtue-based morality

The concepts “You need right action” and “You need to be in the right moral state”, taken together, cover many of the world’s ethical systems, and for that matter cover most of what I have said so far.

I would like to push further.

Your actions are in some sense something you possess, and your virtues are in some sense something you possess. Perhaps neither one nor the other is an item you can put on your desk next to your car keys, but they can appear, so to speak, as self-contained. Which they are not.

I was rebuked, when I was newly minted as Orthodox, for asking a question entirely framed by the Reformation schema of nature, sin, and grace, and given very good pastoral advice to stay out of 16th century Reformation concerns for a while. I am grateful for this. That stated, the Reformers were not the first people to see grace, and our need for grace, in that faith whose book is the Bible. But the Philokalia has titles like the in-depth “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works,” and stern warnings that you may only take credit for those achievements you pulled off before you were born (an exception could be made disqualifying the handful of places in the saints’ lives where an unborn child cries or speaks from within the womb). This is not exactly a teaching of grace alone, in that there is a sense of synergy in relation to a divinization where we contribute, but the relevant Fathers are here as clear as any of the Reformers that however much we seek virtue and right actions, we should take no credit before God. Even if, as it turns out, on Judgment Day the saved who take no credit for their works are given full credit for these works by God.

The whole of how we are created is for a divine dance, where we are part of a larger picture and God is calling the shots. Had I raised another Protestant question about discerning God’s will for my life, I might have gotten an equally helpful rebuke. Christ has all but sworn that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, all God’s Providence will follow, including career paths, material needs, and so on and so forth, perhaps even without our needing to try to seek God’s will for our lives. God’s Providence may have plans for the course of our lives, which will be given if we seek first God’s Kingdom, but the New Testament doesn’t have a word about seeking God’s will for our lives. When it discusses God’s will, it discusses God’s will for Creation and the like. Nowhere do the Pauline letters discuss a discernment of what course is intended for your life, or mine.

Sometimes pagan custom ain’t so great

I was in England and on a Cambridge tour was excitedly shown, in a church building no longer live as a place of worship, pagan symbols such as two-tailed mermaids on the baptismal font. What I wanted to ask, instead of just holding my tongue, was whether she had anything to say about Christian symbols in the building. But I held my tongue.

There is an ambiance of mystery and the alluring today surrounding pagan customs, and someone who reads some of the same books I’ve read may read, for instance, about a heirarch who wisely decided to try to wean a newly-illumined people from pagan practices across a few generations, or that some particular detail of observance was in origin an exotic pagan custom that was incorporated into the Church’s intricate practices. And, in general, I’ve read that some leniency was observed in relation to pagan custom. What may be the first written account of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Flame in the Snow, seems unblushing about recording a preserved pagan custom here and there.

But may I say something about pagan custom in relation to my own milieu, and one intended to be not enticing, but banal?

We have bank accounts and general financial planning and don’t let a good deal of what the Sermon on the Mount says about providence and God’s generosity get past our filters. We want endowments, or in short, we want the financial infrastructure to what is, in the end, Hell.

This may be a much less exotic and enticing than the chasing and catching game in the great St. Seraphim’s life, but I really mean it. Forget every sexy connotation that vaguely rises up at the thought of being allowed to practice a pagan custom. One of the great pagan customs in our world is wealth management, and here I write not as someone without slaves who calls for the abandonment of slavery, but someone with fewer slaves who calls for the abolition of slavery. We need, by God’s grace to wean ourselves from the violation of the Sermon on the Mount that forever tries to create our own providence, administered by nothing wiser than our own hand. That is (among the) pagan customs that should come to mind when we think of the Church trying by degrees to free generations of converts from pagan custom, ancestral or otherwise.

The story is told of a little girl who saw, in a vending machine, a metal necklace with gold wash. She asked her Dad, but he discouraged her. But she insisted, and he bought the necklace. That night at bedtime, he asked her, “Do you love me?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Give me the necklace,” but she didn’t. The next night, the same thing happened. Many nights later, with tears in her eyes, she reached out and set her necklace in his hand, the gold wash all but gone. He, also with tears, reached out with his other hand, and gave her a necklace of solid gold.

What we are invited to is God’s Providence, but we can opt out by trying to get our own ersatz providence and not really need God’s intervention. (One of the names for this is, ”Hell.”) We are instead summoned to the Great Dance, where many people weave together in intricate motion and in unfolding glory, and things end up better than we could have imagined if we had everything our way. (Or we can insist on trying to have our way; one of the names for this is, “Hell.”) Or we can stop fighting, and work with God as he draws us into a larger world and opened our eyes to what was there all along, but still more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our financial planning.

And, incidentally, trying to live on a basis of what pseudo-providence you can get for yourself is not a new pagan custom: while admittedly some of our financial instruments were not available then, Christ calls the basic practice a pagan custom as much as anyone else has: “For after all these things the [pagans] seek.” Christ never denies that we need food, water, clothing, etc., but he does try to give people a clue that the God who has loved them from eternity already knows the needs he has built in to their constitution, and has every desire to provide everything necessary to people who are seeking what really is worth seeking.

(Similar remarks could be made for other ways we isolate ourselves from patristic submission to the Sermon on the Mount in favor of pagan customs.)

In depth: If thine eye be single…

St. Philaret of Moscow, possibly a rare instance of a Metropolitan named after a layman, wrote a famed prayer for the acceptance of God’s will:

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for the sake of Thy great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

And this humility opens up a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest Orthodox homily in history, and possibly the most politically incorrect:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the [pagans] seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

“If thine eye be single”: this part appears to be a digression, even an intrusion. It is not. Most translations translate away a term like “single” to mean “healthy” or “sound”, and while an aspect of “single” is indeed “healthy” or “sound”, the direct and unusual rendering tells more. St. Paul describes one decisive advantage of celibacy: that the celibate can focus on God with an undivided, single attention, where the married Orthodox must needs live out a divided attention where effort is split between God and one’s spouse. This is no heretical rejection of sacred, holy marriage, where St. Paul elsewhere says forcefully, “…marriage, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth…”; he is simply advising people that he wishes to spare them the trouble, however holy marriage itself may be.

But here celibate and married are both summoned to an eye that is single: an eye that rests its gaze purely on God, instead of dividing attention between God and stupid money. It may be honorable to divide attention between God and a wife given as an icon by whom to love and serve God: but nowhere does the New Testament endorse it as also acceptable to divide attention between God and a lifeless, subhuman wealth that is utterly unworthy of human love.

The seeming digression ups the stakes for trying to serve both God and mammon. The cost of chasing after wealth is a fragmented and divided spiritual vision. There are several places in the Sermon on the Mount where advice about a divided attention could appropriately be placed: for example, if you look in lust, your eye is not single, and is not single in a much more obvious sense. However, Christ sandwiches the warning in a passage debunking the apparent and seemingly self-evident goodness of wealth. And this passage, like others in the Sermon on the Mount, opens up a larger world.

A third basis for morality beyond rules and virtues

In the philosophy class where a professor introduced a distinction between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based reality, I looked and rightly or wrongly drew a conclusion for a Holy Spirit-based morality that is productive of virtues as virtues are productive of right actions. The key verse I drew on was Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

I’m a little cautious about saying tout court that this musing is fully patristic. Some people have made a subtle but important distinction between virtues and “graces”, where a virtue is the sort of thing you build with God’s help but by your own action, and “graces”, which are also by God’s help but the divine generosity greatly exceeds the contribution you would normally need to build up a virtue. Possibly there are other adjustments needed; because it is my own musing, I think that it would best be endorsed as Orthodox by someone else besides me.

However, what I believe more legitimate for me to endorse is this. In The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, mentioned above, speaks with a layman who has essentially spent his life trying to understand, in Western terms, the meaning of life. St. Seraphim receives him with great respect, and lays out the answer: the central point of life is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

As mentioned, I’m a little cautious about saying that my own formulation that Christianity has a Spirit-driven morality that reaches higher than virtue-based morality as virtue-based morality is higher than rule-based morality. It hasn’t stood the test of time so far as I am aware. However, what I think has stood the test of time is that, while thoughts, actions, and virtues are all very important in the New Testament and the Philokalia, it is even more, more important to focus on a God who infinitely eclipses the greatest virtue. I’ve heard Orthodox raise a question of, “Then why am I here?” and assert that the reception of grace is synergistic, where the reception of grace includes our active cooperation with Christ in us, the hope of glory. But, whatever other differences may exist between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, I have never heard an Orthodox complain that Martin Luther, or any other figure, overstated the importance of grace. (For that matter, I have never heard an Orthodox Christian state that it is possible to overstate the importance of grace.)

The surprise I hadn’t mentioned

There was a surprise I met with the Wikipedia article that I haven’t mentioned. I was surprised that the Law of Love was classified as an articulation of the Golden Rule at all. After numerous readings of the Bible, it was settled in my mind that the Golden Rule’s explicit presence in the entire Bible amounted to part of a single verse of the Sermon on the Mount. It was not just that I preferred the Law of Love to other things that were called phrasings of the Golden Rule. To me they were so different that I never made the connection.

The Golden Rule is great partly because it offers direct prescriptions for action. If we avoid getting bogged down too much in special cases, if I wish others to show me such courtesies as saying “Please” and “Thank you,” that’s probably a sign I should seek to extend those courtesies to others. If I prefer not to be needlessly interrupted, in most cases I should probably avoid needlessly interrupting others. If I prefer that others’ communications with me be straightforward, that is probably a sign I should usually be straightforward with others. The Golden Rule may be stated in a sentence, but it covers an enormous territory.

The Law of Love dictates virtue, not action, and is far more ambiguous as far as action goes. There is respected precedent in monastic literature to what may be an assumption that the actions most fitting to the Law of Love are those that seek the complete best interests of the other. The point of monasticism, including the point of its many unpleasant parts, is to advance your best interests, which are never trumped by treating people the way they would like to be treated.

Let me give one example. At least some monastic rules state that “Monastery guests are to be treated as Christ himself,” and even without that implication the third parable of Matthew 25 provides excellent and chilling warrant to all Orthodox to treat all others as Christ. Good Abbots meet visitors with infinite respect. And for all this, monastics, including Abbots, are normally very sparing with compliments. (And they sometimes shock visitors by trying to dodge social compliments.)

There is no contradiction to this. In many cultures, compliments are given freely and are a staple of managing mood in the other. The Philokalia speaks of foul plants of spiritual sickness as being (as rendered in the polite English translation) “manured by praise.” The Philokalia is not generally foul-mouthed, and to the best of my knowledge human praise is the only thing that the entire collection metaphorically compares to excrement.

Marriage is also an institution for self-transcendence; some have said that marriage is not a place for children to grow up, but for parents to grow up. Marriage is also a vessel of holiness and salvation, but things are perhaps sharper and perhaps easier to see in monasticism. If insults and cleaning latrines are what it will take for a novice to gain the precious treasure of humility, then the love of an Abbot will be expressed in that nasty way. And monasticism above marriage highlights the difference between a nuanced understanding of the Golden Rule that will treat other people the way they want to be treated on the one hand, and on the other hand a nuanced understanding of the Law of Love as seeking the other’s best interests. We should best not treat ourselves as honorary Abbots and authorities above others, but seeking the other’s total best interest is more important than being pleasing to others.

Conclusion: A doorway to the divine

If I may quote Lewis again, this time from The Abolition of Man, “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” It is further St. Paul, the Apostle, who tells us that the Law is a tutor meant to train us up until we are ready for greater things.

I might suggest that the Golden Rule, at least in the forms I have seen it, be given a place similar to what place the Apostle gives to the Law, and in one aspect the place Church Fathers give to the Old Testament as addressing outer righteousness until the New Testament could train us in inner righteousness.

That is to say that we should keep the Golden Rule, perhaps at some level of sophistication and nuance so we don’t knowingly offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a friend who has a deadly peanut allergy. And furthermore we should recognize its significance in that world religious traditions are immeasurably different in immeasurable ways, yet precious few fail to offer some form of the Golden Rule. That speaks for a profound significance even beyond that a moral directive that covers an incredible amount of ground with something in a nutshell. Even a good subset of these credentials properly qualify the Golden Rule as astonishing and arresting.

Yet, for all of this, neither the Platinum Rule, nor the Golden Rule, nor the Silver Rule, nor this article’s nomination for a Fool’s Golden Rule speak a whisper about inner state or virtue, and on this account they must be seen as outer righteousness as Church Fathers have received the Old Testament as a tutor in outer righteousness. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules may progressively escalate the action that is specified in their demand towards our neighbor: but even the Platinum Rule does not show the faintest hint of a request for virtue. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules push further forward in the same plane: not one of them rises higher to draw our eyes towards virtue.

The Law of Love does, and here I am not especially interested in the fact that on the level of action it is possible to rise from pleasing people to seeking their best interests as best we can in a given situation. The Law of Love is a summons to virtue, and more. It moves beyond outer action alone to inner state, and here I might mention that contrary to today’s psychological framing of “inner”, figures such as Augustine held the inner realm to hold the things themselves for spiritual realities: or as condensed in homilectics, Heaven and Hell are inside us. I do not claim any Orthodox or Christian monopoly on inner concerns; the desire for inner virtue may be found in innumerable world religions and age-old philosophies. However, the Law of Love says something that was missed in the Silver Rule. Even if Ben Hillel probably knew both summonses to love, by heart.

Furthermore, the Law of Love implies something that I am not aware of in any formulation of the Golden Rule, and though I am hesitant to quote someone I’ve just critiqued as an authority, is something that a certain Harvard chaplain did not at least notice anywhere else: the box is open at the top.

Nothing hinders a materialist from seeking to act by the Golden Rule, and it may be seen as needlessly insulting to question whether a materialist might take guidance from that beacon. For that matter, you can be in your actions halfway to being a solipsist and still seek to obey the Golden Rule, even if you might end up being hampered by your habits because you are trying to act beyond what your philosophical reserves will afford you. There is nothing in any standard formulation of the Silver, Golden, or Platinum Rule that forbids you from being, and seeing yourself as, self-contained. One can of course subscribe to the Golden Rule and be open to things vaster than the Heavens: Christ himself did as much, and it’s hard to see what stronger warrant one could ask to say that a practitioner of the Golden Rule might be open. However, if we hear that chaplain say, “None of these versions requires a God,” then we might see circumstantial evidence that, as magnificent and really astonishing as the Golden Rule may be, it does not reach high enough to bid us seek a box that is open at the top.

The Law of Love is more and different compared to this. It really does say, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, and I want to show them to you.” It summons us to leave the Hell of self. Its overwhelming impulse that bids us exercise the highest of all virtues, love itself, is a surge from the heart of a command to render an even higher, absolute love to a God who is infinitely beyond. A hymn tells the Theotokos, “When you gave birth, you tore all the philosopher’s nets;” along with that is all possibility of enclosure by anything less than God. I have quoted from the Sermon on the Mount; it is important enough in Orthodoxy that even in the shorter forms of the Divine Liturgy it is quoted in shorthand by chanting its opening Beatitudes. It is characterized by a fundamental openness that is needed as an exegesis of the right and proper love to God, and if you try to love God and live a self-contained life, you may find God responding to you by offering you help to repent of your sin and begin to enjoy a larger world.

I wish to conclude by quoting a poem I wrote, Open:

How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?

And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.

God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?

Simplicity Beyond Complexity

If you look on the web, you can find a lot of interesting quotes about what is simple and what is complex. These quotes are often interesting. They are sometimes contradictory. Some say reality is simple. Some say reality is complex. One of the most famous quotes is, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

Probably the most interesting claim I read was, “Complexity goes before simplicity.” And that sounds strange. In biology complex organisms originally come from simple life forms. Programmers have repeated, “Every complex system that works is found to have evolved from a simple system that works.” However, I insist that the claim “Complexity goes before simplicity” is true, and furthermore that this claim unfolds the words, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would given my life for the simplicity on other side of complexity.”

When I read The Twitter Job Search Book, something struck me as odd. One Twitter user said, “If you can’t make your case in 140 characters, having more space won’t help.” The author underscored this point. However, that was not what struck me as odd. What struck me as odd was that the quote was broken across three long tweets because it couldn’t fit anywhere near 140 characters. Twitter may serve legitimate purposes. Books and articles are still not obsolete.

Every U.S. presidential candidate in recent races, whether they are from the the left, right, or center, has something that they stand for. That “something” is usually big enough that even loyal followers can’t put all of it in words. But they also have a slogan. This slogan is often not even a complete sentence. The slogan may be just a short sentence fragment. And yet, at least to loyal followers, those few words put everything the candidate stands for in a very short nutshell. But the simple slogan comes after the big ideas a candidate stands for. The big ideas never stem from the slogan.

In the Gospel, Christ is asked which of the commandments is greatest out of the Law that opens the Bible, and answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Someone familiar with the culture would recognize both the question and answer as stemming from an established and important tradition. Let me put the question in modern terms: “Out of all the commandments in the Law, can you put the whole thing in a nutshell?”

The response Christ gave wasn’t the only possible answer. There were several other accepted answers, such as “He has shown you, man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” However, the answer Christ gave was considered the greatest of all such answers. And there is a crucial point. You need to appreciate something of the Old Testament Law’s six hundred and thirteen commandments at some level before you understand why all of them fit in that nutshell. Reading a couple of sentences’ nutshell version is no substitute for knowing the Law in its long and complex form. Only then can you properly understand the nutshell.

Among the Great Teachers, the Golden Rule keeps resurfacing. People who have said giant things about ethics often say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar, and the Law of Love, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is considered an expression of the Golden Rule. However, it is lunacy to keep the text of the Golden Rule and simply drop the other 99% of what moral teachers have written. We need help fleshing things out.

People who are at the top of their game can put tremendously complex things into a nutshell. They can communicate with extreme simplicity. For instance, in Congressional hearings after the Challenger disaster, people were endlessly discussing whether O-rings could be brittle under cold conditions. People hemmed and hawed and said almost every perspective imaginable on the topic. Then Richard Feynman took a piece of an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went Snap! and was suddenly holding broken shards of O-ring. The discussion was over.

However, this isn’t because e.g. physics is simple and any physicist who can’t explain it simply doesn’t really understand. It says more about the talent that can reach mastery. Physics is not easy to master. It takes years for even very bright people to understand physics. The “Feynman lectures” are considered top masterpieces in scientific communication. They are noted for their simplicity. They are also simple for their subject and are not any kind of fluffy read. Let’s look at a related discipline. There was an uproar after Mattel released a speaking Barbie doll that might say, “Math is hard!” But the comment I remember from other math students was, “Umm… but math is hard!” Mathematicians consider doing something simply to be elegant and desirable given a correct solution, but math is is still hard. On that point I quote Einstein: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are greater still.”

Let me close with one illustration that closed an argument with something really beyond simplicity. In the “letters to the editor” section of a senior-oriented publication, one member wrote an article saying, in essence, “I have attended church such-and-such many years and during that time, I estimate that I have heard such-and-such many thousand sermons. I cannot however remember any of the sermons. I know that pastors work very hard on their sermons, but I wonder if their time might be better spent.”

Here, too, people hemmed and hawed, and made ongoing arguments in different discussions, until finally another member wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I met my wife such-and-such many years ago, and we have been happily married for such-and-such years. During that time, I estimate that my wife has made me such-and-such many tens of thousands of meals. I do not remember the recipe to any of the meals, but I am on the whole in good health and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook all those meals.”

The discussion was over.

Simplicity is good, but it is not the only good. And “Simplicity comes after complexity.”

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One brief note

I was not happy with this when it was new, and think that something in it still isn’t quite right. However, I still think there is much in it that’s worth reading.

As a child of perhaps ten, I told friends that I was going to make a martial art, made up a name that sounded Asian to me (“Tong Fior”), and got into an argument about it with a classmate (nowhere near physical blows). The preferred term for this in the academy is the highly abrasive term “Orientalism,” although the better tempered anthropologists would regard it as the normal and natural contact when any one culture starts to meet another, and is really the same Orientalism by which the nationalistic Independence Day movie enjoyed tremendous popularity well outside of U.S. political borders. In the one kind of Orientalism, there are people in the West who want to be some romanticized image of the East; in the other there are people in the East who want to be some romanticized image of the West. I have difficulty finding much of any real difference between these instances of “diffusion” as the term is understood in an anthropology department.

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Obligatory quotation from G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, in a passage that is politically incorrect enough today, wrote,

I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not suddenly of pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is in the very worst spirit of the East. But there is no force so hard to defeat as the force which is easy enough for conquer; the force that always yields and then returns.

But hold that thought for a second, and I speak as a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun for ages. (And not just for that one single Google AdWords ad impression that changed eBay’s AdWords presence forever: “Buy Japanese sushi on eBay! New and Used.“)

Someone said, in response to a Quora question about whether anyone had regretted getting a PhD, and one of few PhD’s to say “yes” said basically that you don’t get a doctorate to get a superhuman high social status and be addressed as “Doctor”; he said “a PhD is just a paper that comes along the way as you are doing something you love.”

The personalities of martial arts

Something very much like that related to what what we now understand as a belt system. A martial artist wouldn’t be awarded a blackbelt (or anything else besides a white belt) on the grounds of a formalized test. When you started, you got a white belt that would be slowly blackened by the practice involved in developing expertise for years and years and years. And I believe that most of the better martial artists today would say that the older approach is still foundational in better practices today; it’s just obscured and harder to discern, and certain entirely justified concessions to societal needs have been made.

I remember being offended when I saw how parts of Aikido in Aiki Ninjutsu work; it brought up memories of very frustrating matters of conversation, where a friend (and I do really mean friend) gave infuriating claims of agreement where he would say “I agree with you that [fill in the blank]”, and the beginning, middle, and end of every such “agreement” was to wrench some belief of my mine out of context, placing himself as someone in a position to understand, interpret and explain my beliefs far better than I could, and use it as a sledgehammer against something else that were just as foundational to those beliefs. During those years, he never claimed agreement except as the presentation of an attack. And that is specifically what I saw in physical form in how to respond to an opponent’s punch. You grabbed your opponent’s arm, and so to speak “corrected” the direction it was moving, and add exaggerated force to what your revision of the punch has become. This was disappointing enough to be offensive after reading the tale of a martial art founded by a legendary, great O Sensei who stood unarmed and kept dodging a master swordsman until the attacking swordsman collapsed from fatigue.

I’d be a little cautious about glibly identifying this as “Aikido,” which etymology means something close to “Way with harmony and energy,” as Aiki Ninjutsu represents a new fusion that draws on several older sources and has modern elements. The fusion may not particularly Western elements, but it has a Creed (with an apparently deliberate uppercase ‘C’ as in “Craptastic”), with the Creed beginning with “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals,” and when I started to give a thinking Christian’s objections to believing in oneself (see Chesterton’s take below), I saw in verbal form the foundational lesson of “Become the center.” What I never heard was so much as lip service to “harmony between opponents” that is a leitmotif in so many genuine martial arts. The technique associated with “Become the center” forces all else to resolve around oneself, and the teacher seemed a bit “become the center” in that he spoke with decisive authority and I was not allowed to even contribute anything to the conversation beyond accepting decisive authority.

G.K. Chesterton incidentally has something to say about “become the center” or rather just believing in yourself. The sting with which he opens chapter 2 of his book Heretics make the stinging remarks of Sumo wrestling quoted above almost sound like praise:

THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the name of the lunatic asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

Enough of Chesterton; like The Onion, he has something to offend every palate. (He was beyond being dismissive of the thought of his joining the Orthodox Church.

Some people might be surprised by remarks above; my memberships in 3-4 martial arts lasted for a few months, and while I have had some successes (Kuk Sool Won and the local Shokotan paired me with blackbelts or blackbelt candidates by the end, and one fellow Karate student was getting very infuriated when I responded to him about a quarter second earlier than expected; I moved to meet him as he was moving, not after, without the faintest interval between the two), I found that spirituality was very dry until I repented of it as sin (a mistake I should have made once, if even that). And just to be clear, everyone I’ve heard of in any martial art at all says that you improve after a couple of months, but real mastery takes years and years and years. (I think my case was simply not how things work normally.)

God practices Ju-Jutsu, and we should too, as an act of submission

Perhaps the single greatest illustration of Jiu-Jutsu in the Bible is where a Saul burning with wrath and destruction, trying in overweening pride to annihilate the Church, was stopped cold by the uncreated Light of Heaven, the Light who strikes terror in those not indwelt by It, and provides what may be the only place in the Bible where the Lord quotes a pagan Greek source: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The action of an Orthodox Christian is not, on the balance, to invade another’s mind and straighten it out. It is not, on the balance, either our place to really defend ourselves. It is to, in the words of a Protestant hymn, “Keep your eyes on Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face / And the things of this world will grow strangely dim / In the light of his glory and grace,” and remember that you too are a sinner and try to be merciful and forgiving as others join you as you continue kicking against the goads.

Furthermore, the more you are in trouble, the more stress you are in, the more conflict or worse, the more more essential that you grow beyond any abilities you know in deiform love to forgive, to have mercy, to pray, to turn the other cheek. The Sermon on the Mount is not an ornament for the beings of some mythical world more perfect than Star Trash. It is a battleplan for those of us who live in a world of conflict and violence.

The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount.

De-mythologizing done right

Bultmann is a foundational character in the academy, enough so to have provoked C.S. Lewis to write The Elephant and the Fern-Seed. Bultmann came up with a new way of moving beyond mythological trappings found in the Bible and theology. Or at least that is how his progressive circles understood their stance; I’m not completely sure how an Orthodox might best respond, whether “You have a valid enough point, but why does it loom so suffocatingly large to you?” or, “Um, you ARE aware that your fresh and new discovery is a recycled version of a topic that an Orthodox Christian worked out with power, well over a millennium earlier than you, and by a canonized saint at that, and the saint did a profoundly better job than you?”, or extending an invitation for the distinguished scholar to simply become a catechumen!

However, I would like to take up Bultmann’s point, or rather that of the canonized saint of over a thousand years before (Pseudo-Dionysius), or rather God’s point. A standard illustration is, as we repeatedly read in Exodus, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This claim should not be taken literally; I’ve yet to read even someone very wrong read the text as meaning that God stiffened Pharaoh’s cardiac muscle (heart) the same way an arm or leg or back muscle stiffens with a cramp. But it goes deeper. The claim that God changed Pharoah at all is too crude. Pharaoh hardened his own heart with Satan’s help. God (and the image of Jiujutsu must eventually be dropped as well) exercised Jiujutsu and let Pharaoh reach destruction by the only way that Hell can ever be reached: by his own steam.

I now remember once feeling particularly squeamish about a mailing list conversation where one Orthodox sympathizer clarified, in perfect sincerity, that where Genesis 1 repeats, “And God said,” that was such a human way of speaking that it meant that God spoke, in her words, “with lips and a tongue” as one would expect of mortal man. And I made no effort to assume command of the situation and straighten out her mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, even if her assertion was analytically wrong enough to fill me with squeamishness, unless she is troubling others (in which case someone well above my pay grade should be laying down the law), it is not my place to use my book-learning to take away the little that is held by someone who is not even a member of the Orthodox Church. But that is just for practice. The beam in my eye has to with believing I need to have my way, that I should be in power or in control, or anything else. She might have thought it helpful to give Pharaoh an intake appointment at a cardiologist’s. I do much worse.

How?

Perhaps one way of putting that is this: we are inclined to believe that God violated the free will of Satan and Judas, because they killed the Son of Man and He came back to life triumphant. But a slightly closer image is that he was on higher ground, he let their free will be as sordid as they chose, and in a way beyond Jiujutsu the God who is beyond motion met them fully and attentively, with a heart full of love, and the evil that cannot grasp love tried to give its strongest and most venomous strike, they struck where the everywhere-present God is not and the full force of their blow slammed into a brick wall and their sting was inflicted only on themselves.

But be careful:

One subtle note to those who find alluring the image of Satan slamming his horns full force into an adamant wall next to which diamond is as as a crumbling dust: if you find the image attractive, beware of adopting Satan’s ever-seductive, ever-destructive pride.

One joke good or bad that I heard many, many times as a child ran:

There were two morons working in a hot pit enduring the heat while their boss sat in a cool air-conditioned building outside of the pit on the ground above, not doing much of anything.

One day the morons got to talking and said, “How come we do all the work and our boss gets to sit in an air conditioned building? So the first moron got up from the pit and asked, “How come we work in a hot messy pit all day, and you’re in this office getting nearly all the money?”

The boss said, “Because I’m smarter than you.”

The moron asked, “Why?”

The boss walked over to a thick tree and held his hand in front of the trunk. “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”

The moron swung his best, and the boss deftly pulled his hand away, leaving the moron to slam the full force of his punch into the rugged trunk of the tree.

After he had stopped crying, the first moron climbed back into the pit.

The second moron said, “What did you find out?”

The first moron said, “I’m smarter than you.”

The second moron said, “Why?”

The first moron put his hand in front of his face and said, “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”

There are two, and no more than two, essential options to us. One is to join hands in the Church and dance with the Lord not only of men but of angels and eagles, cultures and corporate worlds, a vast universe held in the heart of a God so small as to be without parts, and join in the unfolding mystery of the Lord of the Dance in whom alone the Divine Providence unfurls. The other option is to help Satan rearrange your face. There is no inconsistent option which lets you remain impenitent in pride and yet remain impossibly free from Satan’s clutches. And more could be said than that: as Fr. Thomas Hopko famously crystallized, Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.

This is also the point expressed in what may be the most piercingly beautiful of St. Nicolas’ Prayers by the Lake in which, as I would offer images Hope is praised, the Hope Who is eternal, the Hope which glimmers in young children who race out of bed on Christmas morning in all the pageantry of the Great Dance and can’t wait to open the first present but hasn’t the faintest idea of what the first present may be. But there also hopes, with an ‘s’ as in “Shit“, hopes that have certainly plagued me enough hopes really that God will obey the plan that you have worked out to him, and set expections that God is to jump to your plan, and in the event of any problems, he should contact you immediately for further orders or instructions. It is, on reflection, an act of mercy that God sometimes says, “No” to people who give the most meticulously drafted orders, and perhaps work with people who order him around for decades to teach them, just a little, how to live a life that is dancing the Great Dance.

Gandhi and satyagraha

Having tried to underscore the absolute necessity of humility, I would like to move on to the next order of business and compare myself to Gandhi.

Gandhi was a Hindu, in one of three world religions that took its genesis in India. It is my considered judgment that Gandhi’s achievements could have been made solely within resources directly provided by his native Hinduism. However, that sounds like an outsider’s guess to anyone who understands this figure in history; however rich Hinduism may be, Gandhi through whatever reason chose to draw on outside sources.

The most shame I have ever felt about being a Christian was when a pastor in church explained that Gandhi wanted with his whole heart to become a Christian, and when he sought out a Christian evangelist, the racist evangelist rejected him for the color of his skin alone. That experience soured Gandhi enough that he was never again open to being a Christian, but please look at this closely.

I would draw out four decisive influences on Gandhi:

  1. Gandhi’s native Hinduism about which I will now only say that it is deep as an ocean.
  2. The “purer than the pure” Jainism from which he took profound inspiration without also membership (we proverbially say that someone “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, while to this day Jain monastics sweep the ground in front of them with peacock feathers to avoid accidentally stepping on a bug, as Jainism is also a world religion that came from India.
  3. Christianity: this was the religion of the British colonists, and Gandhi spoke and acted warmly towards his sharpest critics. Gandhi also said things that would astonish people for a speaker who wasn’t Christian: “Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” He elsewhere states that his three heroes are Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates, all of whom saw their lives as nothing next to the salvation of their souls. And finally:
  4. Western-style political activism: (Well, I suppose we all have to be wrong about something.)

I do not know how to explain Gandhi’s towering stature in actively trying to adopt the strengths of Christianity and activism. True, he was soured by personally rejected by a Christian evangelist who was beyond moronic, but what I would ordinarily expect is for Gandhi to grind an axe against the English and Christians for the rest of his life, with an anger transparently visible to everyone else besides him, all the way icily insisting, “I am not angry!” As it was, he kept reaching out in love to English and other people who met him with total hatred, and by what is called “satyagraha” purchased the freedom of the one nation in history that achieved its from colonial domination by nonviolence rather than war, and remains the one nation in the world that I am aware of where rah-rah nationalism express itself by the study of nonviolence rather than by celebrating victory through warriors’ killing of others. And this is in a religion where the crowning jewel, the Sermon on the Mount, is a tale of epic heroism where God appears in human semblance and encourages and exhorts a prince who is so devoid of laziness that perhaps he doesn’t even sleep, to rise up in full power and annihilate all those marked for destruction. And Gandhi does nothing to downplay the text; he instead contributed yet one more commentary to the vast collection (and the Hindu preference, at least today, seems to be never give this crowning jewel without opening it up by commentary). And now we are in a position to drill down slightly.

Gandhi said very emphatically, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” And I would take this as entirely without sloppiness or guile. However, I would like to delve into a word he used. For the purpose of this section, I will treat Gandhi’s use of “nonviolence” and “satyagraha” as two sides of the same coin, or even closer. The term “satyagraha” is not taken from Hindi (which is, along with English, India’s modern national language), but from the classical Sanskrit, classical in India as Latin and Greek are European classical languages. My best understanding both as a historian and also as an author is that Gandhi went on a word hunt, searching to find the perfect word to crystallize the consuming quest, as Madeleine l’Engle found a word “kythe”, a Scottish word if I remember correctly, that originally meant something like “to truly come to be”, and became the central term in her classic A Wind in the Door. Madeleine l’Engle did not use the word as anyone before her did, and Gandhi seized on a word that had previously not been a term about violence or its absence, a term that meant something like “steadfastly holding on to the Truth no matter what.

And there is no either-or between Gandhi’s embarking on a quest that ended with a deep term from classical Sanskrit, and his full and direct assertion that truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. The key to this is found in Christ’s words: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” A study of Gandhi’s use of the term “satyagraha” is a study of bringing forth out of a treasure things new and old which are one on the same.

I freely enough compare myself to Gandhi as an author. I do not feel the need to compare myself to Gandhi on forgiveness or anything else truly important besides that we are both made in the image of God, and both sinners.

What is pain? What is yielding?

Here I will not discuss what the image of God is at length, nor dissect that the highest command is to love God with one’s whole being and the second which is like it is to love your neighbor as yourself. However, I will say that the God who defines health is the model for healthily function and life, and Jujutsu is not just how God acts, it’s how we act if we’re doing right. It means that even in the most intense conflict or combat one is looking up for light. The U.S. in World War II referred to the Japanese Jiujutsu as “chop-socky”, and for all their following the universal wartime rules of due diligence in demonizing the enemy, the most patriotic U.S. foot soldiers learned very, very quickly that their Western boxing completely fell to pieces when it ran into “chop-socky.”

It is said by at least some martial artists and athletes that “Pain is weakness exiting the body.” It should equally be said by Orthodox Christians not only that repentance is sin exiting the soul, but that repentance is misery exiting the soul, if there is any difference at all: repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. And the struggle with anger that is called forgiveness, when we reach victory, is also misery exiting the soul.

Jiu-jutsu is a word meaning “yielding”, and comparisons with Jiu-jutsu should not be pushed too far, as may be admitted. It is one image among others and one not present in Scripture. But there is a distinction in Asian martial arts (and perhaps Capoiera, for instance), between “-jutsu” and “-do” that is well understood. “Jutsu” means a technique or skill, like woodworking, and “do” means a philosophical or spiritual path. The Western tradition (apart from when Asian martial arts came to be a substantial influence) is entirely “-jutsu”. This is true with a couple of bumps, as Jiu-jutsu is of an ancient provenance, the art of Samurai who had not even their weapons, while Judo may be seen as a modern attempt to simplify and cleanse Jiu-Jutsu into a simpler art that would be effective self-defense while eliminating locks and other destructive features. And all of the martial arts have their own personalities and characteristics, some better than others, but none yet let the stillness of Orthodox hesychasm or silence eclipse the meditation that is structural to internal martial arts.

Dojos

So when am I going to start opening dojos? The answer I am hoping for is, “Never.” The one possible exception I see is that if the Church is really, really scraping the bottom of the barrel and makes me a bishop in some vague sense, or even worse a real bishop charged with fully competent administration, love, and care of a diocese, instead of the nominal formality, the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” concession of being honored on paper as the more-than-a-bishop of some long-lost city without a second living representative. If I bear the heavy cross and heavy crown of thorns of a real bishop, then I would have the right to start opening dojos, except that wouldn’t be the right way of thinking of it at all: most people would call it “the responsibility to continue opening parishes.”

Color

I winced when I heard Exodus International was closing its doors… until I found out why, and it was a concern that I held since I first heard of it, no matter how much I respected its mission. Exodus International was trying alone to shoulder a responsibility that belonged to the entire ecosystem of the Church. And one question I had already been asking before I saw the Gay Nineties taking over was why on earth that class of sin was its own world, a separate detached from the rainbow fragments forgiven by Christ at Sinners Anonymous, or as it is more often called, the Church. The reason for the coming of the Son of God was to destroy the Devil’s work, and then to keep on pushing for bonus points well past when people can go Heaven: but for starters, let us to say to take each broken fragment of a fractured rainbow, whether pride or envy or the occult or drunkenness or any shard of lust whether gay or straight, and take these broken fragments and restore them to the to the pure, whole, white, bright, radiant, scintillating Light beyond beauty of the uncreated Son.

The Void

The martial arts classic A Book of Five Rings, in a brevity comparable to the Sermon on the Mount, covers five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and the void. The chapter about the void is by far the most terse: all else is summarized and transcended.

I have come to nearly the end of writing what I wanted to write, and I have covered almost everything on topic to cover except one thing: the original, central point that motivated the construction of the work. It would not be strange to call the topic “satyagraha:” I do not complain that others may do so, but I would rather look at hagiography.

The canonized saints trample on the rules of nature again, and again, and again. Saints walk on water; one monk, the only one on a monastic coast worthy to retrieve an icon miraculously floating on water, when he absolutely had to do so, crawled on top of the surface of the water on all fours like a dog, because in his great humility he considered himself utterly unworthy to stand up normally and walk on top of the water like Christ did. Saints pass through fire unharmed, although not every time. Many saints have been burned to death as martyrs, but it seems to happen that when the fire went out the martyrs looked as if they were merely sleeping, with a smile on their faces, and without a thread of their clothes or a hair on their heads singed or the faintest scent of smoke. In the lives, it seems that the only way that persecutors can get certain saints to die and stay dead is to behead them (hello, ISIS?), and even then, the saints occasionally pick up their heads, walk over to their preferred resting place, and there set down their severed heads and only then give their consent to really die.

Furthermore the God who works in the heart of hearts to giants among the saints is also works in the hearts of the faithful. Monastic giants trample on scorpions with bare feet; many more faithful trample on pride. Majestic saints open the eyes of the blind; and men reject lust and find their sight truly opened. St. Paul the Apostle raised the dead more than once, and innumerable more among the faithful, across many centuries, have fed the hungry; and furthermore, in a point that many, many officially canonized saints have driven home across the centuries, feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. The term “saint” referred originally to every member of the Church without exception, and one and the same God works in every stripe of saint to ultimately transcend the chasm between what is created, and what is uncreated. The wall between God and we who are merely created is there so that we may rise above it.

And in all this, the inner struggle of the Philokalia is vibrant in its nature. Its watchfulness or inner “nipsis” acts in moral and ascetical character like an author searching from just the perfect word, ever attentive, never hurrying, never impatient, always expecting. It is like the great Noah, who followed God’s command to build a huge boat in the middle of the desert, and was then the sole survivor from a deluge. It is like a diligent martial artist, who lives by the words, “The more you bleed in the dojo, the less you will bleed in the street.” It claims no exemption from suffering, nor entitlement to wishes fulfilled: if the Measure by whom all saints are measured was the great King who only wore a crown once, and then only a crown of twisted thorns, then we are advised to properly take up our crosses in this earthly vale while we can still repent, because once our life has gone, the opportunity to repent will vanish forevermore.  But sometimes there is an an inner struggle of building a boat in the desert, and trusting the Lord of the Dance to know that he knows what is the right order and that if your next step is to leap before you look and only find out why after you have leapt. For those of us who are children at least, God shows us the reason why just after we have leapt because he knows that out of our weakness we will not exercise faith if he presents us with the reason beforehand, and identically knows that out of our weakness we will not maintain faith if too great a delay comes between the obedience and reward: in all things he meets our weakness that we might meet his strength. And all of this has every connection to how we can be entangled in our world’s conflicts, get hurt again and again, and meet a joy that is beyond any of the conflicts and hurts.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy talks about “ego-reading”; reading to push through a text, or as the problem appears among hiking, rushing to get to a point as forcefully and as quickly as possible. He points out that paradoxically those who rush to just get something done tend to not arrive at the intended destination at all. People who make progress in one activity or the other are, although I do not recall if they are stated in these terms, are people who have something in mind other than forcing their way to an external goal. Had the book been written later, it might have used the term “auto-telic”, which describes an activity that is its own goal. Where martial arts like Aikido are called “goalless” by practitioners, it would be more literal, at some loss of striking contrast, to use a presently preferred term of auto-telic and say that an Aikidoko is not worrying about if he as a student will reach black belt, or on a much lower scale how interminably long it will take to master what should be a simple technique, or whether there will be enough progress in managing anger or weight, or anything else. A proper practitioner of Aikido’s attention is fixed on Aikido itself, rather than paralysis by analysis over whether Aikido can be successfully used as a bridge to something external. You practice Aikido in order to practice Aikido.

The Philokalia offers something that seems much less but ends by being much more. The basic framing of work is different, and quite at odds with today’s conception of interesting work. The usual physical craft of self-supporting monks in the ancient world was basket weaving, cynically understood by some in academia today as a legal fiction to let high-value football players keep the alumni without needing to perform proper academic work. The most common craft of self-supporting monasteries today is crafting incense, which at least supplies something elevated to Orthodox parishes. But this way of thinking misses the point for both the ancient and the modern arrangement, which I personally only understood when watching my brother’s Mythbusters show and hear Adam gush at how “meditative” the repeated monotonous physical action of weaving a braided kangaroo leather bullwhip was. The chief merit of basket weaving and incense making alike is that they are repetitive motions that occupy the hands, and it is not clear to me that it is particularly helpful to think of incense as a high-status thing. The ancient and modern monasticism alike the preferred obedience is something that engages the hands while the heart pursues purity. That is the center of gravity. And in modern monasteries, there may be some non-meditative work that needs to be done, but the general pattern is to have most monks heavily engaged in meditative labors for the benefit of the monks themselves in a setting where people do not distinguish sacred from secular or work from prayer. The work is there to help prayer reach perfection. And really, cleaning toilets is more often mentioned as the standard example of honorable obediences than making incense.

But the same center of gravity applies outside of the monastery; it can just be frustratingly more difficult. One monk commented to a cleaning lady that she had a more fortunate position, and I as a programmer and knowledge worker had a less fortunate position, because it is entirely possible to be engaged in prayer while scrubbing tables, but significantly harder to be absorbed in prayer while your mind is chasing bugs in a computer program. And no, this was not a matter of the monk being gracious to someone with lower status and knowing that I would not be hurt or offended by the suggestion. It was unvarnished candor.

What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!

One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror. Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.

But God has ordained things, and monastic and non-monastic alike need struggle, which often takes the form of conflicts, of things that we don’t think belong in our lives but God knows they do. And joy does not consist in being exempt from struggle. It consists of growing in struggle. It consists of having a good struggle. And if you earnestly engage your struggle you may experience the power in the final crescendo of Fr. Thomas’s crystallization:

Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

In all these things and more, the Sermon on the Mount as it unfolds including the Philokalia, like as the Mishnah and Talmud, acts as a stone from Heaven of inexhaustible wealth:

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

These things slip through our fingers. They are simple, simpler than breathing, and we in our weakened state need some great systematic theology with slippery concepts we can pin down to grasp. So God meets in our weakness and gives the Philokalia to meticulously assess every detail of internal struggle and the eight demons that became the seven deadly sins in the West. “Do not store up treasures on earth” is a simple commandment; it does not only tell us we do not need Rolls-Royces to experience true blessedness, nor do we need our health (saints have lived to great spiritual heights amidst great illness, and not just because they were extraordinarily good), nor do we need our thoughts, or plans for our future in days or minutes, or an identity such as we try to have in the West, or “My Opinions”. We are to chase instead of the treasures that we can eat from today and forever, and come to that place where every drop of blood we bleed in the dojo eclipses a galaxy of diamond in its worth on the streets of Heaven.

Cooldown: The Alchemist

The Alchemist, like many favorite picks on Oprah, is the sort of thing that makes me nostalgic for when my brother still had a beautiful tropical bird as a pet, and moreover makes me positively yearn for the days the house still had a birdcage that still needed lining. None the less, there is a vignette that I would like to draw out.

The teacher-figure in the course is the towering alchemical figure of Melchizedek, who is immortal, can turn lead into gold, can already turn himself into wind, and presumably has numerous and extraordinary other cosmic powers not explored in the text, and teaches the student-figure after making a sweeping dismissal of all the other traditions in all the world’s other religions, and even a Western scholar whose heart was in the wrong place along with alchemy being dismissed for rhetorical weight.

The student figure never becomes immortal, never gains abilities to change metals personally, has no idea how to turn himself into wind (at least to start off with; the quest where he learns to make this self-transformation is core to the book’s plot), and ends up after a long heroic journey to and back finds out that there had been an enormous quantity of gold lying buried under his back yard right where he started.

But a major point is this: both Master and student are equally alchemists, or at very least at the end. The student does not have all the master’s cosmic powers, and even after he has turned himself to wind it is debatable whether he has any cosmic powers, but the question of whether they have identical arsenals of cosmic powers matters no more than whether their eyes are of the same color. Both are equally alchemists; the student follows his teacher in delving deeper into a pride that destroys all capacity for any joy, and an occult mindset that destroys the sanity of all those who practice it in the real world. They are both alchemists, master and pupil, and both participate fully in the tradition, on their own paths. That the teacher’s path includes having the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and the student does not, and the teacher can transmute lead to gold and the student cannot, is neither here nor there. Teacher and student both follow their personal paths within alchemy. Perhaps it would have been fundamentally humbler for the student to keep on asking that the teacher give him a sole drop of the Elixir of Life and induct him into turning lead to gold.

(By the way, did I mention that there is a way to obtain gold that is purer than 24 karats, such as alchemists did not reach high enough to quest for?)

With all of the above efforts to rip The Alchemist to shreds, and others I’ve held my tongue on, I still wish to make one point clear: The book’s way of looking at difference is less than you think. The further you reach the Kingdom of Heaven, the less it matters that you have precious little money or gold. In fact wealth properly understood is a liability and a handicap more than really being much of any asset that puts you in a better position. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher and apologist who helped me along the way to Orthodoxy, found one great spiritual advantage to money: it doesn’t make you happy. If you are perennially struggling financially, and you see Break My Window around you on the street when your beater breaks down frequently, it’s awfully, awfully hard to avoid thinking that so many things would be better if you had a good bit of money. If, on the other hand, you have a top-notch chauffeur for a Rolls-Royce, and you’re still miserable, a great deal of the sting has been taken away from the temptation that just having more money is all you need. You can still be greedy and covet things, but it becomes a far weaker temptation to think that your spiritual emptiness actually comes from the fact that you are not in a position to have Michelangelo’s David in your garden and the Mona Lisa in your living room.

The martial artist I respect most was asked in class how many times he had had to use his martial arts skills. And he slowly, gently, humbly said, that he had really been fortunate and hadn’t needed to use his his martial art, even though there were a couple of awfully close calls [during years and years of study].

And I submit that his answer, as stated, is wrong, or at least his wording was deceptive and misleading.

He was at the time a third-degree blackbelt. I don’t know what he is now. For non-martial artists, as far as sparring goes, a first-degree blackbelt is a third-degree blackbelt’s chewtoy. He is past the point where people are said to be able to kill a tiger with their bare hands. I am all but certain that in every one of those close calls, he could have killed the other person immediately. His teacher, at a martial arts show, stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and then the teacher was simultanously attacked by five blackbelts with swords, and an instant later the teacher stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and all around him were five blackbelts, on the ground, crying.

The martial artist I most respect said, humbly, gently, modestly, that even in the close calls, he had said, “You’re the tough guy,” and backed down, or run away, or almost anything possible (whatever it took), coming out the loser in every social confrontation, and he went on to say, “Most people who think they want to fight don’t really want to fight.” And I submit that the proof of his profound mastery of his art was this: he has passed through minefield after minefield after minefield such as I almost certainly could not, without stepping on a mine even once. The point is not that he happened to be carrying a first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The point is not that he was carrying a very, very good first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The proof of his mastery is that, as of my last knowledge, he had never needed to open his first aid kit, not even once. And indeed martial artists often defuse a potential fight before most outsiders would recognize there was anything going out of the ordinary going on.

Incidentally, though there was no question of my ever wanting to give a physical attack when I was in his class, I was quite the jackass and quite the belligerent student, and he only ever answered me with humility and gentleness. In the end, his gentleness conquered me.

What about what I have somewhat whimsically called “Tong Fior”? In my own opinion, my credentials make for an pretty impressive parody of martial arts, unless you want to go through the ha, ha, only serious route. I’ve lifted weights (and lifted weight machines, and broken weight machines by applying too much force), climbed with devotion, in riflery went from no rank to Sharpshooter, Bar VIII in one week, punched at bags, dipped a finger in a few martial arts, made my own approximation of ninjutsu stealth (and unintendedly got a stunned “Whaaaaa?” when these skills came out in campers’ response to games in nature with me as their camp counselor, asking, “Did you go to some special Daniel Boone school [to be able to move so silently and be sensitive to sounds that were apparently around 0 dB]?”), and am gifted to the degree that professionals say “You’re smarter than most geniuses” or “The average Harvard Ph.D. has never met someone as talented as you” (the gifts are not magic powers but for some purposes they might as well be), and other things which should be preferably viewed as ornamental at best. One question outsiders ask of martial artists is how well they’d do in a real fight; the question comes perhaps with hope at a training that would make the asker all but invincible, the basic response to that question is “HTTP Error 404: Missing Page”: if you’re not already the one and only Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s “sword-saint”, no martial art can change that at all. I would show respect for Kuk Sool Won by saying that one second degree black belt said, “I would give myself one chance in two. But the more chances you give yourself, the less you have.” I’ve had experienced the martial arts practicality, as one martial artist’s parody ad said, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” There is one point where I expect victory would come, and that is if the Spirit of the Lord comes on me. Orthodox priests should not employ physical violence, and in the profound story of Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, people are flabbergasted when the weakened and aged monk Fr. Arseny steps where a fight has broken out and strikes a forceful blow. Possibly if the Spirit of the Lord falls on me, I might blast through a 9th kyu, or possibly for that matter a 9th dan. In all other cases it is not my concern.

The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount, and the struggles I now wrestle with are not flesh and blood, though they have brought me through mortal danger more than once. Kuk Sool Won in every school but one says, “We need more practice!” The Kuk Sa Bo Nim (Grandmaster)’s headquarters school says, “You need more practice!” I’ll go with “We need more practice!”, please, or better “I need more practice!”, or if I can bring it even closer to my true needs, “Lord, give me more time to repent.”

(And a true monk leaves us both in the dust. Though extraordinarily many married Orthodox perfectly well without any of the structure by which God condescends to meet monks.)

(This article is dedicated to the great warrior-martyr St. Mercurius, who destroyed the impious emperor Julian the Apostate from beyond the grave.)

Theory of Alien Minds: A UX Copernican Shift

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.

The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing normally goes well beyond what is needed for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.

Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.

Theory of other minds,
Split into “theory of like minds”, and:
“theory of alien minds”:
A Copernican shift

One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.

Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.

For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.

The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.

“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”

“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.

This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.

So what does a “theory of alien minds” really look like?

Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:

Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.

Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…

…but few guess how much.

The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.

Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.

In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.

When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.

Some time later, Hayward realized two things.

First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)

Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.

Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”

Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…

And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.

When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.

Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.

In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.

No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…

But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.

No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.

But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consultant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”

Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.

What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?

Everything.

I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.

Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology. Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.

Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:

One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.

What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insiders.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.

What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.

Veni, Vidi, Vomi: A Look at “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

A Socratic dialogue triggered by The Labyrinth

Trimmed slightly, but “minimally processed” from an email conversation following The Labyrinth:

Author: P.S. My brother showed me the following video as cool. He didn’t see why I found it a bit of a horror: “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”

Visitor: Oh gosh, that’s just layers and layers of sad. It’s all about the experience, but the message is kept just this side of tolerable (“nerds are the new sexy” – the reversal of a supposed stigmatization) so it can function as an excuse for the experience. At least that’s my analysis.

Author: Thanks. I just hotlinked a line of Labyrinth to Avatar…

…and added a tooltip of, “Veni, vidi, vomi”.

Visitor: (Laughs) You have me completely mystified on this one, sorry.

However, you are welcome. And I’m glad to see that you’re cracking jokes. (I think.)

No seriously, laughing out loud. Even though I don’t exactly know why.

Is ‘vomi’ a made-up word? Men… when it comes right down to it you all have the same basic sense of humor. (I think.)

Author: Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Veni, vidi, vomi: I came, I saw, I puked.

Visitor: Yep… the basic masculine sense of humor, cloaked in Latin. I’m ever so honored you let me in on this. If the world were completely fair, someone would be there right now to punch your shoulder for me… this is my favorite form of discipline for my brother in law when he gets out of line.

But what’s Avatar… and hotlink and tooltip?

Author: The link to “Do you want to date my Avatar?” Hotlink is a synonym for link; tooltip, what displays if you leave your mouse hovering over it.

Visitor: Oh dear, I really didn’t understand what you were telling me; I was just in good spirits.

OK, I find that funny – and appropriate.

Author: Which do you think works better (i.e. The Labyrinth with or without images):

Visitor: I have some doubts about the video showing up in the text.

Author: Ok; I’ll leave it out. Thanks.

Visitor: Welcome.

I did like the Christ image where you had it. It encouraged a sober pause at the right place in the meditation.

Author: Thank you; I’ve put it in slightly differently.

Visitor: I like that.

Author: Thank you.

I’ve also put the video (link) in a slightly different place than originally. I think it also works better there.

Visitor: Taking a risk of butting in… Would this be a more apropos place?

The true raison d’être was known to desert monks,
Ancient and today,
And by these fathers is called,
Temptation, passion, demon,
Of escaping the world.

Unless I’ve misunderstood some things and that’s always possible. (laughs) I never did ask you your analysis of what, in particular, horrified you about the video. But it seems like a perfect illustration not of pornography simple but of the underlying identity between the particular kind of lust expressed in pornography (not the same as wanting a person) and escapism, and that’s the place in the poem where you are talking about that identification.

Author:: Thank you. I’ve moved it.

In That Hideous Strength, towards the end, Lewis writes:

“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 accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.

Pp. 270/271 are in fantasy imagery what has become quite literally true decades later.

Visitor: Yes, that would be what I was missing… that fantasy banquet at the end of the video feels particularly creepy now.

However the girl I was telling you about had among other things watched a show where a “doctor” talked about giving seminars where women learn to experience the full physical effects of intercourse, using their minds only. (Gets into feminism, no?)

That’s why I was trying to tell her that “richter scale” measurements aren’t everything…

In this hatred of the body, in putting unhealthy barriers between genders, and in seeing the body as basically a tool for sexual experience, fundamentalist Christianity and cutting edge worldliness are really alike. (I had a pastor once who forbade the girls in the church school to wear sandals because they might tempt the boys with their “toe cleavage.”)

Author: I would be wary of discounting monastic experience; I as a single man, prudish by American standards, probably have more interaction with women than most married men in the patristic era.

But in the image… “eating” is not just eating. In the initial still image in the embedded version of “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, I made a connection. The sword is meant as a phallic symbol, and not just as half of a large category of items are a phallic symbol in some very elastic sense. It’s very direct. Queer sex and orgy are implied, even though everything directly portrayed seems “straight”, or at least straight as defined against the gender rainbow (as opposed, perhaps, to a “technology rainbow”).

Visitor: Yes, I see what you are saying. I suppose the opening shots in the video would also imply self-abuse. I was seeing those images and the ones you mention as just icky in themselves without thinking about them implying something else.

Author: P.S. My brother who introduced it to me, as something cool, explained to me that this is part of the main performer’s effort to work her way into mainstream television. She demonstrates, in terms of a prospect for work in television, that she can look beautiful, act, sing, dance, and be enticing while in a video that is demure in its surface effect as far as music videos go. (And she has carefully chosen a viral video to prove herself as talent.)

Not sure if that makes it even more disturbing; I didn’t mention it with any conscious intent to be as disturbing as I could, just wanted to give you a concrete snapshot of the culture and context for why I put what I put in The Labyrinth.

Visitor: It’s making a lot more sense now.

I’m not remembering the significance of the technology rainbow.

Author: As far as “technology rainbow”:

In contrast to “hetero-centrism” is advocated a gender rainbow where one live person may have any kind of arrangement with other live people, as long as everyone’s of age, and a binary “male and female” is replaced by a rainbow of variety that is beyond shades of gray.

I was speaking by analogy: a “technology rainbow”, in contrast to “face-to-face-centrism”, would seek as normative any creative possibility, again excluding child pornography, where face-to-face relationships are only one part of a “technology rainbow”.

It might also help make the point that internet-enabled expressions of sexuality, for most of the men, aren’t exactly straight. They do not involve same-sex attraction, nor animals or anything like that, but they depart from being straight in a slightly different trajectory from face-to-face relationships where heterosexuality is only one option.

Neither member of this conversation had anything more to say.

See the video again

On humor

A Pet Owner’s Rules

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Yonder