How Shall We Live This Instant?

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Quest: So your use of ‘orthodoxy’ is not, strictly speaking, ‘mere Christianity’ as defined by C.S. Lewis, or any of its close kin.

Targe: It is not.

Quest: Then what is it? You have already said that it was not Thomas Owen’s “postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christian.”

Targe: The failure is interesting.

Quest: How so?

Targe: Well, one definition proposed as coinciding with postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christians is, “someone who can say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.” And the politically correct “their” is significant; I’ll get to that in a moment. But what I would point out that Baptists in their version of the Creed add a footnote to “Catholic” stating that it means “universal,” which of course it does, but the Protestant who says that is crossing fingers, or what is much the same thing, using the same words to mean different things: hence ‘Church’ means a purely invisible Church, the entire conception of which is as foreign to the Bible as it has been to ages of Orthodoxy. For another example of crossing fingers by saying the same thing but meaning something different, a Mormon can say most or possibly all of the Creed, but they mean something different by it: hence their saying, “As the Father is, so shall we be; as we are, so the Father was.” Part of the Catholic-Orthodox understanding of the Creed, for instance, is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are absolute in perfection from before there was time. And it’s crossing fingers to say you believe in God, the Father Almighty, and mean that a limited being became what we now call God the Father Almighty. And the connection is questionable at least between Mormon and Orthodox understandings of ‘deification’; the same word has two different and what might as well be unrelated meanings.

Quest: So you would throw it out?

Targe: The Spirit Spirits where He wills. Some have said, “We can say where the Church is, but not where it isn’t,” and others have said, “Not even that.” In that sense there really is an invisible Church, and those who are most insistent on necessity of being a faithful members of the Orthodox Church must needs acknowledge that there are Hindus and ancient pagans who will be saved, and there are members of the Orthodox Church who will be damned. His Eminence KALLISTOS, perhaps of concern to some Orthodox as dancing too close to the edge, none the less has an “all-purpose anecdote” (as he calls it) that anybody not caught in the trap of “True” Orthodoxy must recognize, tells a story about a woman who was severe in her fasting and observance of spiritual practices:

Once there was an old woman and she died. And somewhat to her surprise, she woke to find herself in a lake of fire. Looking out she saw her guardian angel walking on the shore. And she called out, “There has been some mistake. I am a very respectable old lady and I should not be here in this lake of fire.”

“Oh,” said the guardian angel, “do you ever remember a time when you helped someone else?”

And the old woman thought for some time and she said, “Yes. Once I was gardening and a beggar came by and I gave her an onion.”

“Excellent,” said the angel, “I happen to have that very onion with me now.” And he reached into his robes and he produced it. And he said to her, “Let us see what the onion will do. You take the other end and I will pull.” Perhaps it was not an onion but a shallot.

Gradually then, the angel, with the help of the onion, began to pull the old woman out of the lake of fire. But she was not the only person there. When the others saw what was happening they crowded round her and hung on in the hope of being pulled out as well. This did not please the old woman at all. She began to kick and to cry out, “Let go! Let go! It’s not you who’s being pulled out it’s me! It’s not your onion, it’s mine!”

And when she said, “It’s mine!” the onion split in two and she fell back into the lake of fire and there, so I’m told, she still is.

And His Eminence KALLISTOS obtained the story from Dostoevsky, who recorded it from someone else.

Quest: But what does that have to do with “postmodern”?

Targe: Well, if we accept the usual definition of postmodern—which Oden is not exactly trying to subvert, but claim “We were here first” competition—it is misleading at best to say, “If you were born in these centuries, you are a modern; if you are born in these decades, you are a postmodern.” There are engineers, large number of engineers who are moderns and who are aware of postmodernism as something that is out there, but aware with the kind of awareness one holds of fashions in faroff countries. And they may understand it well or, more often, not so well. Quite possibly they do not know a postmodern (in the usual sense).

Quest: How does Oden’s usage of “postmodern” differ from the more run of the mill version?

Targe: We have more a coincidence of names. What is usually called post-modernism is really a further unfolding of the damned backswing in the inner logic of modernism. René DesCartes fills the classic sociological definition of a pariah among postmodern authors in that attacks on him do not need justification (just read refereed academic journals and books where an attack on DesCartes is rarely accompanied by a footnote), but he began a program of tearing things up that was a precursor to deconstructionism. And it is from his patronage and country that Derrida came, and I’ve tried a few things to understand Derrida in any constructive way. I fairly quickly tried reading Derrida in the original. (It didn’t help.) And Oden’s claim, rightly enough, is that this should really be called “hyper-modernism.” There are other things it could be called, like “modernism 2.0” or “modernism on steroids” or “the inner (il)logic of modernism further unfolding”, but Oden’s suggestion is appropriate enough. And what he means by “post-modernism”, when it does not mean “hyper-modernism,” is people who have tried the modernist project and rejected it, like an engineer with a T-shirt that says, “Been there, wrecked that.” And in that sense postmodernism regards modernism and hypermodism as a vacation from reality and, perhaps with some archaeological interest or perhaps not, sees something like ancient or medieval life as still open to us. It may be noted, perhaps with excitement, that the Orthodox Church does not view the Church Fathers as a closed canon; perhaps a Catholic might not be inclined to say that there are medieval theologians still writing, but there is much room for Orthodox to say that patristic writing has not stopped and will not stop until the Lord returns.

Quest: So there are people writing now you would identify as Church Fathers?

Targe: Probably.

Quest: You do not introduce someone as a living saint; some have ascended to the third heaven and still been damned. There is a story of a saint who at the end of life set one foot in Paradise, and the demons praised him, saying, “Glory to you; you have defeated us!” and the saint said, “Not yet, I haven’t!” and pulled the other foot into Paradise. There are saints whose relics are incorrupt but it is the general wisdom of the Orthodox Church to allow some time for the dust to settle on a saint’s tomb. And I believe there are future saints that are alive, and some that will be recognized as Church Fathers who delivered living patristic theology, but we should not seek them out. We have recognized saints and Church Fathers from ages before; let us sit at their feet and learn from their life.

Thomas Oden’s version of postmodernism is tangled though.

Targe: How do you mean?

It is an attempt to be part of the Orthodox Church without being part of the Orthodox Church. Now this endeavor has happened before; one could argue that the Reformation was an attempt at (paleo-)Orthodoxy. And more recent efforts like Radical Orthodoxy start by having Protestant authors greatly appreciate pre-Protestant theologians, and not just the Blessed St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and yet somehow Radical Orthodoxy ends up producing articles that speak of “the incestuous, homosexual union of the Father and the Son” and be as deliberately lewd as academic theology which has no pretensions to any Orthodox label. It’s a wasteland.

Quest: Do you believe all of Oden’s “postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christians” are judged by that standard?

Targe: God help us, no. People who try such things may be very virtuous indeed. But—no, I need to put that off again—but consider well the three-fold comparison of natural sciences, academic theology, and Orthodox theology in “Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.” Something remarkably similar may be said of Oden’s hypermodern, Oden’s postmodern, and Orthodoxy’s patristic. That is, you can make a threefold comparison between hypermodern, postmodern, and patristic as you can with science, academic theology, and patristic theology. Let us look some at Wittgenstein’s forms of life: Wittgenstein as a philosopher was dead wrong about many things and the phrase “after Wittgenstein” is itself a warning label, but in patristic Orthodoxy across the centuries and millenia, there is a cycle of day and night and though candles may give a little light, you act during the day and wind down at night. For the hypermodern and the postmodern by contrast, things are very different from the Orthodox patristic norm, when the sun goes down you usually turn on lights, and though scrupulous Jews may leave by sunset to avoid work on the Sabbath, it is not the rule for offices or factories to close just because of a sunset. For those living before modern times, there existed such a thing as an “epistolary relationship,” in some arrangement of pen pals, but to the hypermodern and postmodern, it is more prevalent among the youth than among adults to have relationships increasingly mediated by shifting sands of computer technologies, by social networks and ten thousand other things. Overall it may be true that liberals use technology better than conservatives: “My Barack Obama” in Obama’s first campaigns used some of the best technology has to offer, and while Django is freely offered to conservatives too, the power base for conservatism is not suburban or urban middle class, and a great many Republican votes come from the kind of people torn up in Deer Hunting with Jesus. To that basic observation, I may respond that the way new technologies are adapted and used works more like a liberal process than a conservative conservation. In some sense conservatives who use technology skillfully might be considered “virtual liberals”: yes, their votes may be to the right, and yes, their views and voices may be to the right, but they are skilled at negotiating a liberal style of waters. If conservatives use technology a little more clumsily, this is because the inner workings continue in some sense to preserve their character. One translates between Italian and Spanish more easily than one translates between Italian and Russian: and here the relation between technology and liberalism is like that between Italian and Spanish, and the relation between technology and conservatism is like that between Italian and Russian. The mere incompetence of some conservatives with technology is a sign of a strength somewhere else. But compared to any previous century, a conservative or postmodern (Oden-style) looks remarkably more like a liberal or hypermodern (Oden-style), or the vast number of mostly liberal people who run TV and popular blogs. The Paleo movement, which has perhaps appropriately been called a lifestyle (although Paleo Hacks discusses lifestyle far less than diet or exercise), is remarkable because it is exceptional. It looks at one aspect of life, diet—or maybe two, diet and exercise, plus a few other details—and says that what we have done with food since the industrial revolution is morbid. And it looks at how best to recover the strengths of the basic human hunter-gatherer style of diet (and of life) with what we have in front of us. But diet and exercise are two out of a hundred aspects of human life and living, two out of very many layers, and if conservatives like Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis complained about newfangled light available whenever you flick a switch, or cars that annihilated God-given space, or talked about refusing to eat tinned food, this was a blip even for conservatives. Neither C.S. Lewis nor Dorothy Sayers complained about the ease of putting pen to paper, easing the physical side of writing to be economically cheap and physically effortless compared to medieval standards C.S. Lewis would have known well, where writing was comparred to ploughing a furrow and unambiguously classified as a form of (strenuous) manual labor.

Today, rural adults volunteer to keep cinemas alive and providing movies to children and youth. In days past cautious Christians avoided movies; now it is a conservative move to keep cinemas alive as a piece of history not to be lost. Technology progresses along its own inner rules, and it unfolds and its damned backswing unfurls.

It is a common preference in the U.S. to choose retrieving information over owning it. The development of computers has followed this preference, and most of what you do that is most interesting is to retrieve new, fresh information. We live in digital dark ages where the cascade of technologies, one largely displacing another, will leave future archaeologists and historians thirsty for an understanding of what we have, and we have reached the point, and long passed it, that curators of computational museums have physical storage media that they believe to be mostly or completely intact, and to contain real information, but they are at a loss for how to read it. The Air Force started a program to purchase one of every type of storage device, printer, etc. so that they would be able to prevent this from happening. But there was a kink along the way; some of the printers they purchased, left to sit for months, had rubber parts turn to gum. The Air Force saw and specifically took countermeasures to curate and keep the means of reading any form of computer storage, and while a museum may have come out of it, the original goal is all but impossible. Perhaps they could have gotten farther by actively maintaining all of their inventory, but there comes a point when you cannot obtain what you need to maintain old equipment, no matter how skilled you are at making repairs or how much you can pay.

Those who understand such thing said that when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, he toppled the first domino in a chain that will make netbooks, notebooks, and desktops go the way of the landline or horse: a rarity, at least. And when Microsoft revealed Windows 8, they basically said, “We agree. We’ll go further than you, Apple. You let Macs continue to run on MacOS, without any effort to convert them to iOS devices. We’ll make a version of Windows optimized for mobile users, and we’ll release that as the desktop version as well as the mobile version.” Whether that move was right or not, time will tell. But Microsoft and Apple have declared an agreement that the tablet is the wave of the future and the desktop, even the Mac, is the wave of the past.

There is a science fiction short story, from when computers first entered the public consciousness, of a monastery of some religion which was involved in writing down all of the names of God to bring about the end of the world. They purchased a computer to help them do this task much faster. The ending of the story had the salesman getting on an airplane, noting, “They should be reaching the end of their calculation now,” and looking out the window and seeing a star vanish. There is already a star that has vanished: Apple has not rolled out Retina display to 17″ MacBook Pros; instead, Apple has retired the top of the line, its 17″ MacBook Pros. If you don’t have a 17″ MacBook and you want one, time for creative internet shopping!

And the damned backswing unfurls economically. The 1950’s drew unprecedented levels of wealth and an ersatz civic virtue of keeping up with the Joneses; compare the appliances and possessions of a 1990’s house with a 1950’s house and some have said that we were no longer keeping up with the Joneses: we were keeping up with the Trumps. So the longer and longer we go, the richer we get? Um, not exactly; we are being cut by the damned backswing. We indeed possess luxuries and possessions never before available in the history or prehistory of the race of men. But these luxuries, which we may not be able to keep hold of, do not our dreams of riches all come true. To quote an investment billboard, “My wild dream of retirement? Actually retiring!” The Damned Backswing that gave us newfangled forms of luxury is now cutting and delivering poverty well below a 1950’s “keeping up with the Joneses” standard of living.

Quest: Guess things were better in the fifties?

Targe: I’d like to visit a point with G.K. Chesterton, whether or not Chesterton sees eye to eye with Orthodoxy on this point. In discussing Francis of Assisi’s aspirations as a soldier, Chesterton says that loving other people and fighting them is perfectly consistent. And in Orthodoxy, unlike Catholic theology, there is no real concept of a just war. Orthodox are allowed to be soldiers, and there are saints who were soldiers. But a soldier who has tried to kill cannot become a priest, and regardless of what might have been the cause of war, Orthodox soldiers are expected to do years of penitence after their combat. Orthodoxy may have soldiers as much as Catholicism, but the concept of a just war is foreign to it.

But I still wish to visit one of Chesterton’s points, besides his saying that Francis of Assisi was perfectly right to go to fight in war against a neighboring city-state. He commented that if two such city-states were to fight continually against each other for a century, it might come within some remote distance of the body count of one of our modern scientific wars. And here I would like to make a comment about firearms and the Iran-Iraq war.

Modern Western firearms did not create the Iran-Iraq war; but we have come to possess modern assault rifles at the end of a process of change and military obsolescence, where generals and military leaders have adapted and adopted new tactics for centuries. The development of weapons may be easier for an outsider to see than shifts in tactics and strategy but alongside one gamechanger of a weapon after another has been a shift in tactics to try and achieve victory with a minimum of losses from among one’s own troops, and really also an attempt to kill as few as the enemy as you reasonably can while achieving your objective. One World War II sailor talked about how his ship sunk an enemy ship, and then, with tears, explained that the smell of a certain oil burning wafted into their craft, and he and the other sailors were absolutely disgusted, not because what they were smelling was vile (but it was vile), but because they realized that meant that men from the other ship, their enemies, were dying with that obscene stench in their nostrils. And the soldier, crying, said, “You can’t hate him. He’s another sailor, just like yourself!”

It is possible for a soldier to love his enemies, and in Arab culture, before Western armaments were dropped in, men fought all the time, just like St. Francis, but there was something about their fighting that was almost like sparring or horseplay. Killing men outright was not the rule, and it was not desired. And then, without much precedent, 20th century weapons were dumped on, by Western standards, 12th or 13th century military strategy, and there were none of the West’s slow learning over the centuries how to handle increasingly more destructive weapons while trying to accomplish goals with less casualties on both sides.

Quest: It should seem then that you should welcome the fifties.

Targe: The fifties came after World War II. One of the definitions of a modern war is a war that ends at the exhaustion of one side’s resource: a war of attrition, such as when part of the U.S. made a second Declaration of Independence, another part decided it non-negotiable that the United States be a single country, and neither side pulled back when blood flowed like a river, deep and wide. As to World War II, on essentially every side it was several notches removed from what I have tried to call orthodoxy, even though making what it means clear is hard. Even the traditional Arab raiding and lightweight fighting was a longstanding departure from what I call orthodoxy, but it was in the same ballpark. It did not go too far from the Garden of Eden. But warfare in its modern sense—the inventor of what we now know as a modern machine gun had almost pacifist intentions; he thought that when that invention was brought into war, people would be so horrified and disgusted that they would stop using guns, or at least machine guns, into war, and apparently horrified at the nation that would use such a vile weapon and horrified at using guns on people. But though an early machine gun may have been called “the Devil’s paintbrush,” automatic assault rifles are standard in infantry combat for anyone who is serious about war. There has been a long history of weapons that were expected to be too horrible to use: several Popes tried unsuccessfully to ban crossbows in their day’s version of the Geneva Conventions, and the machine gun just mentioned, and the battleship, and most recently nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. For now at least we have stopped using them. But whether or not warfare as such is “orthodox”, modest and small wars by modern standards depart from orthodoxy much further than Francis of Assisi going to fight another city-state with dreams of soldierly glory.

Now to return to the 1950’s. In the course of the greatest industrial war so far, America developed very well optimized industrial production to fuel the war. People may well have been Spartan enough in what they were doing and how they were living (ration books and all that), but when the war ended, the gears of factories started out turning other things besides munitions, and advertising became more manipulative and seductive, and people began to keep up with the Joneses. This may be better than the river of blood in world war, but there is something about spend, spend, spend to keep the factories spewing out goods that is further from orthodoxy than the sacrifice of a war effort which gave as much of one’s sap and soul with no personal benefit in the progress, than consuming the output of factories spewing consumer goods on the level of materials for war. Dorothy Sayers’s The Other Six Deadly Sins comes to mind, readily to mind. Sayers outlined a door to orthodoxy open to post-war Europe, but Europe did not choose that route.

Quest: And now we have shifted gears further: calling the 1950’s sexist has given way to attacking whether religion may act against queer interests, it would seem.

Targe: There is an instance of a pattern of people saying, “You are making a mountain out of a molehill. You should give in here.” To make an extremely offensive comparison, this is a bit like the molester’s message, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s OK.” Both parts of the message are internalized by the person addressed. It’s the same warped character that said, “Voting for Bush because you oppose gay marriage is a bit like buying a ticket to England because you like the salted nuts the airline stewardesses serve on the flight.”

I have never seen someone who says “You are making a mountain out of a molehill. You should give in,” treat the ‘molehill’ as a molehill that is readily conceded to focus on more important points. I have never heard of someone who calls an opponent’s position a molehill ever give in on that point. And here actions speak louder that words: the rhetorical move of “your position is a molehill; you should give it up and do things our way” is always, always accompanied by actions treating the “molehill” as a non-negotiablemountain.

One of those molehills concerns the ordination of women. Gender or Giftedness? one promoted title asks. And it is begging the question; it assumes giftedness has nothing to do with gender when gender provides much of the concrete shape by which God has gifted all of mankind.

There is someone who said that all of the Luddites were right; all describe something of mankind dying. Plato took a Luddite approach to writing, saying in a famous passage in Phaedrus, let me look it up…

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.

And anyone who thinks this is a mere hiccough would be well advised to remember that Orthodoxy preserves alive the character of an oral tradition. Perhaps this is not the most important truth about Orthodoxy. Mount Athos preserves a great many age-old forms of life, but it would be a serious misunderstanding to make that one’s primary reason to visit the Holy Mountain.

Quest: Is there any hope? Any way to turn back the clock? It seems we have departed from the natural operating conditions of Homo sapiens quite a bit.

Targe: In more ways than we can name. We have lost a primal stillness; even Lao Tzu in the fifth century B.C. knew a primal stillness had then been lost among his people; he was concerned people had become noisy, complicated where peace is simple. He is said to have been a keeper of some royal library, but he did not turn to books for our salvation.

Quest: Then where is hope to be found?

Targe: Here and now. There was one hieromonk who reflected back on his time in a Soviet, Marxist concentration camp, and simply said, “God was so present there.” There, in the midst of everything the Devil might do, was God. He had been tortured to the point of breaking all of his fingers, and he simply remembered that God was there.

Quest: He must have been quite a monk.

And yet I wonder… um, maybe it’s better not to mention…

Targe: Yes?

Quest: Um…

Targe: Yes?

Quest: Orthodoxy and Paleo both say things about diet, and they don’t say the same thing. Can we benefit from both?

Targe: That is an excellent question to discuss with your priest.

Quest: And beyond that?

Targe: That is still an excellent question to discuss with your priest.

Strictly speaking, Orthodox fasting and Paleo diet are compatible. Nothing in Orthodox fasting rules dictates that one eats bread every day, or rice or noodles. During a fasting period, you may eat seafood and an abundance of vegetables, and for that matter possibly more variety than keeping the fast without Paleo. Have you ever gone through a fast and exhausted the possibilities of just vegetables available in grocery stores?

But let’s look at fasting in the extreme. The reconciliation I gave above, saying there is an area where the two dietary rules intersect, is a bit of a decoy. If you read the lives of the saints, they walk on water, or enter fire without being burnt. Saints give to God above what nature provides, and often, though not always, saints who work great wonders live on a diet that would seem to produce all manner of weakness. But these are spiritual athletes. Now the ascesis of fasting or something like it is normative, but in considering Orthodoxy and the Paleo diet, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. One’s priest, and perhaps also one’s doctor, is really the kind of person one should seek help from. In general, the rule in Orthodoxy is, Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Attempts to turn back the clock keep moving us further from the source. Don’t look back. Look up!

There is something false in things as we have been looking at them, in saying that Luddites since the time of Plato have mourned losses that came with technological gains, in talking about food and drink: the Kingdom of Heaven is not a matter of food and drink. Now the choices we make may matter, but the true way of looking at things is not from the material up to the spiritual, but from the spiritual down to the material. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well. This was true in the first century, when the Sermon on the Mount was given, but the truth is as old as humanity.

And it is also the answer to the question, “how we shall live in this instant?

Profoundly Gifted Magazine: An Interview with Maximos Planos

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Profoundly Gifted: You did some amazing things and some impressive actions when you were a child prodigy; have you been up to anything since then?

Maximos: Quite a lot, really; I’ve settled into work as a usability / user interface / user experience professional with a humble boss. And I’ve gotten married; my wife Mary and I have seven daughters, all of them with the middle name of Abigail, or “Father’s Joy.”

Profoundly Gifted: That’s it? You haven’t studied languages, for instance?

Maximos: Much water will not be able to quench love, and rivers shall not drown it; that is the important one, but yes; other languages are a bit like Scotch. One is just getting started; two is just about perfect; three is not nearly half enough.

Profoundly Gifted: So you’re not just a husband and father: you’re also a philologist—how many languages do you know?

Maximos: You are paying attention to trivialities if you gloss over my fatherhood to ask a question about my love of languages that I really can’t answer.

Profoundly Gifted:What can’t you answer about how many languages your love of languages includes?

Maximos: You aren’t a philologist when you speak two languages, or four, or twelve, or eight. You’re a philologist when someone asks you how many languages you know, and you have no idea how to answer.

Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?

Maximos: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes?

Maximos: Asperger’s Syndrome.

Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?

Maximos: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…

I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!

The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.

Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appropriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.

The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invader, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)

Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?

Maximos: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”

Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”

A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; to pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.

The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.

Profoundly Gifted: So your parents’ policy of non-interference and the Law of the Jungle was too romantic to teach you to be safe?

Maximos: More romantic than real life, perhaps, and putting me into a regular kindergarten, sink or swim, is neither more nor less realistic as putting a rabbit in the midst of coyotes, sink or swim. There was a real solution, but it was more romantic, and I fear being misunderstood. I certainly found it by accident.

Profoundly Gifted: What is it?

Maximos: A woman has kept a goldfish for years longer than goldfish usually live, in a fishbowl, just by talking to it in Mommy-to-baby love. Years back, hospitals which were ever concerned with sanitation witnessed a dramatic drop in infant mortality when they took the “unsanitary” step of having old women cuddle them.

Profoundly Gifted: And how does this relate to bullying?

Maximos: Let me raise and address another question first. We raise and send constant signals which are often met with escalation. When we are angry with someone, or wish for a way out of our job, or anything else, we war against others in our thoughts. That warfare is powerful. Often it comes back amplified; we can feed a corrective to the loop by responding meekly and with meek thoughts to a blast of anger. Some martial artists have talked about how few people really want to fight; such people are much less common than people who want to be the unchallenged tough guy. It does happen that there are some people want to do wrong; however, much more common are people who are disarmed when all three claims in Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger. The submissive answer to domineering anger is difficult, but it is possible, and it is a route that a quest for life by the Law of the Jungle will never find.

And bullying isn’t just for in the classroom. It’s also in professional life. The top quality I search for in a boss is humility. There is something aggravating about high talent. It is common practice to have sent multiple C&D letters, or equivalent, when harassment has continued after being repeatedly told, “No.” This is unfortunate, but it is a non-negotiable feature of the landscape.

And, like other things that are never the victim’s fault, harassment is never the victim’s fault; no matter how good or bad a person’s social skills many be, it is never justified to continue harassment until the person being harassed says, “CEASE AND DESIST.”

It is possible, in good faith, to do one’s best work as the privilege of the inferior before the superior to be praised, in the purest thoughts of respect, and instead be met with anger and retaliation to a perceived challenge. But if this is a live danger if we meet our bosses with thoughts of peacefulness, what on earth is to be done when we throw down work with warfare in our thoughts?

Profoundly Gifted: But don’t we all do best to avoid needlessly stepping on other people’s feet, especially our bosses’?

Maximos: Yes and NO.

Profoundly Gifted: Yes and NO?

Maximos: Have you ever spent a winter in the Midwest, perhaps Illinois? And drove after a heavy snowfall, three to four inches of packing snow?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes; it was a bit harrowing, but I made a bit of extra effort and was overall pretty safe.

Maximos: What made you safe?

Profoundly Gifted: I drove slowly, left plenty of space, and made allowances for skidding. That was enough to have me relatively safe.

Maximos: Ever driven in that kind of snowstorm in Georgia and the US South? The same three or four inches?

Profoundly Gifted: Not really; it never snowed like that when I was there.

Maximos: Years back, Georgia responded to a snowstorm three or four inches deep, and decided, “We will not be caught off guard like this again.” And then the next snowstorm the slowplows were rusted to the point of being unusuable, and you would have been sharing the road with people who don’t have even an Illinois familiarity with driving under heavy snow. Would you consider yourself safe all the same, because you need to drive in snow?

Profoundly Gifted: Aah.

Maximos: Get used to driving in a blizzard with other people not used to driving in any snow, if you want to be profoundly gifted. The approach that is usually safe sharing the road with drivers who can handle snow, more or less, does not even compare to trying to be safe hanling a road with people who just don’t know how to drive heavy snow.

And it feels awfully good to be told more than once, “You are the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” but suppose you are so bright that the average Oxford PhD has never met someone as talented as you? You may be trying to drive safely yourself at least, but you’re sharing the road with people who are driving on a complete snow-packed terra incognita to them.

Profoundly Gifted: This sounds like a lonely and sad life.

Maximos: That was not my point at all, but what life is sad and lonely when one is searching for humility?

But let me give another detail.

You know, probably ad nauseum, about Leta Hollingsworth’s conception of “socially optimum intelligence”. The top end of the range varies somewhat depending on who you ask, but it runs something like 120 to 150. At that point you have powers to speak of, but you’re still running on the same chassis. And people who are properly above the range are rare, enough to really be exotic or a purple squirrel or something else few people have seen. The powers that come seem almost magical, but the price tag is hefty; the real advantage and the real privilege is at the heart of the gifted range, not the upper extreme.

I found James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child to be a treasure chest and a gold mine. One part of it says that children with an IQ above 170 don’t have peeps; the way that the book says this is that “children with an IQ above 170 tend to feel like they don’t fit in anywhere…”

…But there is another shoe to drop. There is another level, exact IQ unknown, where people are able to make peeps out of anyone. They develop a theory of alien minds so far that the distinction between the theory of like minds and the theory of alien minds no longer matters so much…

…And that is how I have found employment as the local usability and user experience guru. One of the first things people are taught for usability research is “You are not a user,” meaning that however much theory-of-like-minds knowledge you have of how software is meant to be used, you need to grasp a theory-of-alien-minds understanding of how everybody but the software developers understands it…

…Maybe you think I should be doing something more exalted in academia, and maybe I should be, but a humble and gentle boss is a treasure worth gold, and turf wars are just a little less than with academic bullies. Right now I have my wife and our seven daughters, and a steady job, and godliness with contentment is great gain.

Profoundly Gifted: Well, that about says it.

Maximus: Or not.

Profoundly Gifted: Or not?

Maximos: Or not.

Sweet lord, I have played thee false.

You don’t know how I was at a rich kids’ school, and the one and only chapel message I heard on theology of play was students who had gone through internships in third world nations, and theology of joy and play was writ large: a girl asked how you talk about germ theory to a runny-nosed little girl who offered you a lick of her lollipop. And really, how can you to people who are poor enough to be happy?

You do not know the time when I was deathly ill and was healed You do not know when I met every earthly betrayal and dishonor, and none to my own credit knew Heavenly honor next to which the summit of earthly honor is but pale and shadow. You do not know the sound of men weeping when the sleeper awakes, and the dreams are gone: the apprenticeship is finished and the godhead begins. You know I have felt sorrows above anything mentioned here, but they are not worth comparing with the glory to come, or even for the glory that exists here now in the the vast, vast open freedom of forgiveness, the utter nakedness of standing open before God, and the priceless vale of humility that is so low that no man can fall from it.

We, like social Gospel and the liberal left, believe in life before death. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which here now God worketh in hidden transcendent glory for those who love him.

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The Damned Backswing

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Kaine: What do you mean and what is the “damned backswing”?

Vetus: Where to start? Are you familiar with category theory?

Kaine: I have heard the term; explain.

Vetus: Category theory is the name of a branch of mathematics, but on a meta level, so to speak. Algebraists study the things of algebra, and number theorists study the things of number theory—an arrangement that holds almost completely. But category theory studies common patterns in other branches of mathematics, and it is the atypical, rare branch of mathematics that studies all branches of mathematics. And, though this is not to my point exactly, it is abstract and difficult: one list of insults to give to pet languages is that you must understand category theory to write even the simplest of all programs.

The achievements of category theory should ideally be juxtaposed with Bourbaki, the pseudonym of a mathematician or group of mathematicians who tried to systamatize all of mathematics. What came out of their efforts is that trying to systematize mathematics is like trying to step on a water balloon and pin it down; mathematicians consider their discipline perhaps the most systematic of disciplines in academia, but the discipline itself cannot be systematized.

But the fact that Bourbaki’s work engendered a realization that you cannot completely systematize even the most systematic of disciplines does not mean that there are patterns and trends that one can observe, and the basic insight in category theory is that patterns recur and these patterns are not limited to any one branch of mathematics. Even if it does not represent a total success of doing what Bourbaki tried and failed to do, it is far from a total loss: category theory legitimately observes patterns and trends that transcend the confines of individual subdisciplines in mathematics.

Kaine: So the “damned backswing” is like something from category theory, cutting across disciplines?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: And why did you choose the term of a damned backswing?

Vetus: Let me comment on something first. C.S. Lewis, in a footnote in Mere Christianity, says that some people complained about his light swearing in referring to certain ideas as “damned nonsense.” And he explained that he did not intend to lightly swear at all; he meant that the ideas were incoherent and nonsense, and they and anyone who believed in them were damned or accursed. And I do not intend to swear lightly either; I intend to use the term “damned” in its proper sense. Instead there is a recurring trend, where some seemingly good things have quite the nasty backswing.

Kaine: And what would an example be?

Vetus: In the U.S., starting in the 1950’s there was an incredibly high standard of living; everything seemed to be getting better all the time. And now we are being cut by the backswing: the former great economic prosperity, and the present great and increasing economic meltdown, are cut from the same cloth; they are connected. There was a time of bait, and we sprung for it and are now experiencing the damned backswing.

Kaine: So the damned backswing begins with bait of sorts, and ends in misery? In the loss of much more than the former gain? Do you also mean like addiction to alcohol or street drugs?

Vetus: Yes, indeed; for a while drinking all the time seems an effective way to solve problems. But that is not the last word. The same goes from rationalism to any number of things.

Kaine: Do you see postmodern trends as the backswing of modern rationalism?

Vetus: All that and less.

Kaine: What do you mean by “and less”?

Vetus: The damned backswing did not start with Derrida. The understanding of “reason” that was held before the Enlightenment was a multifaceted thing that meant much more than logic; even as Reason was enthroned (or an actress/prostitute), Reason was pared down to a hollowed-out husk of what reason encompassed in the West before then. It would be like celebrating “cars”, but making it clear that when the rubber hits the road, the truly essential part of “a set of wheels” is the wheel—and enthroning the wheel while quietly, deftly stripping away the rest of the car, including not just the frame but engine, and seats. The Damned Backswing of rationalism was already at work in the Enlightenment stripping and enthroning reason. And the damned backswing was already at work in economic boom times in the West, saying that yes, indeed, man can live by bread alone.

And perhaps the strongest and most visible facet of the damned backswing occurs in technology. There are other areas: a country erected on freedoms moves towards despotism, just as Plato said in his list of governments, moving from the best to the worst. But in technology, we seem to be able to be so much more, but the matrix of technology we live in is, among other things, a surveillance system, and something we are dependent on, so that we are vulnerable if someone decides to shut things off. Man does not live by bread alone, but it is better for a man to try to live by bread alone than live by SecondWife alone, or any or all the array of techologies and gadgetry. The new reality man has created does not compare to the God-given reality we have spurned to embrace the new, and some have said that the end will come when we no longer make paths to our neighbors because we are entirely engrossed in technology and gadgetry.

Kaine: And are there other areas?

Vetus: There are other areas; but I would rather not belabor the point. Does this make sense?

Kaine: Yes, but may I say something strange?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, and in full.

Vetus: You’re not telling me something.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, but I do not believe that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

Vetus: What? Do you mean that you partly believe in the damned backswing, and partly not? Do you believe in the damned backswing “is true, from a certain point of view”?

Kaine: I understand your concern but I reject the practice of agreeing with everyone to make them feel better. If I believed in the damned backswing up to a point, I would call it such.

Vetus: How do you believe it, if you reject that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?

Kaine: Let me ask: do Calvinists believe in the Sovereignty of God?

Vetus: Is the Pope Catholic? (I mean besides John XXIII.)

Kaine: Let me suggest that the Reformed view of Divine Sovereignty could go further than it actually does.

Vetus: How? They are the most adamant advocates of Divine Sovereignty, and write books like No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism.

Kaine: There’s an awfully strong clue in the title.

Vetus: That the author believes so strongly in the Divine Sovereignty that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom?

Kaine: Not quite.

Vetus: Then what is the clue? I don’t want to guess.

Kaine: The clue is that the author believes in the Divine Sovereignty so weakly that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom, and that if there is one iota of creaturely freedom, there is not one iota of Divine Sovereignty.

His is a fragile Divine Sovereignty, when in actual fact God’s Sovereignty is absolute, with the last word after every exercise of creaturely freedom. There is no exercise of freedom you can make that will impede the exercise of the Divine Sovereignty.

Vetus: I could sin. In fact, I do sin, and I keep on sinning.

Kaine: Yes, but God is still Sovereign and can have the last world where there is sin. To get back to Lewis for a second, “All of us, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Satan and Judas as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” The Divine Sovereignty is the Alpha and the Omega, the Founder of the beginning, and works in and through all: “even Gollum may have something yet to do.”

Vetus: But what?

Kaine: “But what?”, you ask?

For starters, there is Christmas. Good slips in unnoticed. God slips in unnoticed. True, it will become one of the most celebrated holidays in the Western world, and true, the Western world will undertake the nonsensical task of keeping a warm, fuzzy Christmas without Christ or Christmas mentioned once. But us lay aside both Christian bloggers speaking in defense of a secularized Christmas, and bloggers telling retailers, “You need Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t need you.” You speak of the damned backswing coming from an unexpected place; this is nothing next to God slipping in unnoticed.

There will be a time when God will be noticed by all. At the first Christmas, angel hosts announced good news to a few shepherds. When Christ returns, he will be seen by all, riding on the clouds with rank upon rank of angels. At the first Christmas, a lone star heralded it to the Magi. When he returns, the sky will recede as a vanishing scroll. At the first Christmas, a few knees bowed. When he returns, every knee will bow. And the seed for this victory is planted in Christmas.

And the same seeds of glory are quietly planted in our lives. You are not wrong to see the damned backswing and see that it is real: but one would be wrong to see it and think it is most real. Open one eye, and you may see the damned backswing at work. Open both eyes wide, and you may see God at work, changing the game.

And God will work a new thing in you. Not, perhaps, by taking you out of your sufferings or other things that you may pray for; that is at his good pleasure. But you have heard the saying, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us.” Whole worlds open up with forgiveness, or repentance, or any virtue. If you are moulded as clay in the potter’s hands, unsought goods come along the way. The Best Things in Life are Free, and what is hard to understand is that this is not just a friend’s smile, but suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. It was spiritual eyes wide open that left the apostles rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame [and violence] for Christ’s name. And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” This newness begins here and now, and it comes when in circumstances we would not choose God works to give us a larger share in the real world. We enter a larger world, or rather we become larger ourselves and more able to take in God’s reality. And all of this is like the first Christmas, a new thing and unexpected. We are summoned and do not dare disobey: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth. And it is this whole world with angels, butterflies, the Church, dandylions, energetic work, friends, family, and forgiveness, the Gospel, holiness, the I that God has made, jewels, kairos, love, mothers, newborn babes, ostriches, preaching, repentance from sins, singing, technology, unquestioning obedience, variety, wit and wisdom, xylophones, youth and age, and zebras.

The damned backswing is only a weak parody of the power of God the Gamechanger.

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The Law of Attraction: A Dialogue with an Eastern Orthodox Christian Mystic

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Paidion: I found some really interesting stuff about the Law of Attraction.

Aneer: What is it that you have found?

Paidion: This wonderful secret, the Law of Attraction, is a secret where if you understand how you attract what you think about… then you have the key to happiness!

Aneer: Have you seen what else the Law of Attraction could be?

Paidion: You mean the Law of Attraction could be more?

Aneer: Let me think about how to explain this…

Paidion: Did the Church Fathers say anything about the Law of Attraction? Or did the Bible?

Aneer: Where to start, where to start—the Law of Attraction says our thoughts are important, and that is true. Not just a little bit true, but deeper than a whale can dive. The Apostle writes:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Paidion: And there is something about “ask, seek, knock?”

Aneer: Yes, indeed:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

It is part of the Sermon on the Mount. But there is something that you may be missing about what is in the Sermon on the Mount, and something you may be missing about the Law of Attraction.

Paidion: Why? Is there anything relevant besides the Sermon on the Mount?

Aneer: Yes indeed, from the first pages of Genesis:

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath God said, “Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'”

And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”

And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat,

The Law of Attraction is here. The very heart of the Law of Attraction is here. Have you read The Magician’s Nephew?

Paidion: It is one of my favorite books.

Aneer: Do you remember what Jadis stole?

Paidion: How could Jadis steal anything? She was a queen!

Aneer: Then you have forgotten the verse when Jadis met a garden enclosed:

“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”

The story gives a glimpse of the Queen Jadis finding her heart’s desire: undying years, and undying strength. She found everything the Law of Attraction promises. If the Law of Attraction does anything, you can see it unfold in Eve choosing to be attracted to the fruit, or Jadis.

But undying strength was not the only thing in the picture. When Jadis ate that apple, she might never age or die, but neither could she ever live again. She cheated death, perhaps, but at the expense of Life. Which is to say that she didn’t really cheat Death at all. And she damned herself to a “living” death that was hollow compared to her previous life she so eagerly threw away.

Paidion: So you think Eve was like Jadis? Halfway to being a vampire?

Aneer: Paidion, you’re big on imagining. I want you to imagine the Garden of Eden for just a moment. Adam and Eve have been created immortal, glorious, lord and lady of all nature, and Eve tastes an exhilirating rush that has something very vampiric about it: a moment passed, and the woman who had never known pain found the seed of death deep inside her. And in a flash of insight, she realized something.

Paidion: What is it she realized?

Aneer: She had the seed of death eating away at her. Nothing could stop her from dying. And her deathless husband would watch her die.

Paidion: A sad end to the story.

Aneer: What do you mean?

Paidion: But it’s a tragedy!

Aneer: It may be tragic, but how is it an end to Adam’s story?

Adam was still deathless. He would live on; did you assume he would be celibate, or that Eve envisioned God to never provide him a wife to share in blessed happiness?

Paidion: Look, this is all very impressive, but is any of this really part of the ancient story?

Aneer: I cut off the story before its usual end. The end goes surprisingly fast:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Paidion: Why? Is this just Eve’s… solution… to… the… problem… of… Adam’s… [shudder]

Aneer: Do you think your generation is the first to invent jealousy?

Paidion: But can’t the Law of Attraction be used for good?

Aneer: When people speak of the Law of Attraction, it always sounds like the unearthing of the key to happiness.

Paidion: But what else could it be once we are attracting the right thoughts?

Aneer: What, exactly, are the right thoughts might be something interesting to discuss someday. But for now let me suggest that the Law of Attraction might be something very different, at its core, from the key to happiness: it could be the bait to a trap.

The Sermon on the Mount truly does say,

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

but only after saying something that is cut from the same cloth:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

The Sermon on the Mount finds it unworthy of the children of a loving and providing God to chase after food and clothing—or cars and iPods or whatever—as if they have to do so because their Heavenly Father has forgotten their needs. God knows our needs before we begin to ask, and it’s a distraction for us to be so terribly concerned about the things that will be added to us if we put first things first and last things last.

Paidion: But what is wrong with wanting abundance?

Aneer: Have you read Plato’s Republic?

Paidion: No.

Aneer: Did you know that royalty do not touch money?

Paidion: Why not? It would seem that a king should have the most right to touch money.

Aneer: Well, let us leave discussion of rights for another day. But there’s something in the Republic where Plato knows something about gold, and it is the reason why royalty do not touch money.

Paidion: And that is?

Aneer: Plato is describing the guardians, the highest rulers of an ideal city. And what he says about them is that they have true gold in their character: they have a truer gold than gold itself, and they are set apart for something high enough that they would only be distracted by handling the kind of gold that is dug up from the earth like something dead.

Paidion: But kings have palaces and jewels and such!

Aneer: Not in Plato’s Republic they don’t. The life of a ruler, of a king, in Plato is something like the life of a monk. It’s not about having palaces of gold any more than being President is all about being able to watch cartoons all day!

Paidion: Ok, but for the rest of us who may not be royalty, can’t we at least want abundance as a consolation prize?

Aneer: “The rest of us who may not be royalty?”

What can you possibly mean?

Paidion: Um…

Aneer: All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. All of us are created in the divine image, made to grow into the likeness of Christ and—

Paidion: So we are all made to rule as kings?

Aneer: Read the Fathers and you will find that the real rule of royalty is when we rule over God’s creation as royal emblems, as the image of God. For people to rule other people is not just not the only kind of royal rule: it’s almost like a necessary evil. Do you know of the ritual anointing of kings? In the Bible, a man is made king when he is anointed with oil. Such anointing still takes place in England, for instance. And when a person receives the responsibility for sacred work in the Orthodox Church, he is anointed—chrismated—and in this anointing, the Orthodox Church has always seen the sacred anointing of prophet, priest, and king.

Paidion: But this is just for priests, right?

Aneer: Paidion, every one of us is created for spiritual priesthood. Perhaps I wasn’t clear: the anointing of prophet, priest, and king is for every faithful member of the Church, not just a few spiritual Marines. Chrismation, or royal anointing, is administered alongside baptism to all the faithful.

Paidion: And it’s part of this royal dignity not to touch money?

Aneer: There is a very real sense in which Christians may not touch money. Not literally, perhaps; many Christians touch coins or other items, and so on and so forth. But there is a real sense in which Christians never have what you search for in abundance, because they have something better.

Paidion: Are you saying half a loaf is better than an abundance of loaves?

Aneer: I know a number of people who have found that an abundance of loaves is not the solution to all of life’s problems. Easy access to an abundance of loaves can lead to weight issues, or worse.

May I suggest what it is that you fear losing? It isn’t exactly abundance, even if you think it is.

Paidion: So am I mistaken when I think I want shrimp and lobster as often as I wish?

Aneer: Maybe you are right that you want shrimp and lobster, but you don’t only want shrimp and lobster. You want to be able to choose.

Remember in Star Wars, how Luke and Ben Kenobi are travelling in the Millenium Falcoln, and Kenobi puts a helmet on Luke’s head that has a large shield completely blocking his eyesight? And Luke protests and says, “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?” And then something happens, and Luke starts to learn that he can fight even without seeing what was in front of him, and Kenobi says, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”?

What you want is to have your ducks in a row and be able to see that you can have shrimp and lobster as often as you want.

What the Sermon on the Mount says is better than a way to do a better job of having your next meal right where you can see it. It says to put the blast shield down…

And take your first step into a larger world.

Paidion: I’m sure for a man of faith like you—

Aneer: Why call me a man of faith? I may not have all my ducks lined up in a row, but I have always known where my next meal is coming from.

Paidion: Well sure, but that’s

Aneer: Maybe everybody you know has that privilege, but a great many people in the world do not.

Paidion: That may be, but I still want abundance.

Aneer: May I suggest that you are reaching for abundance on a higher plane?

Paidion: Like what? What is this larger world?

Aneer: When you have the blast shield down over your eyes, what you receive is part of a life of communion with God. When you don’t see where your next meal is coming from, and God still feeds you, you get a gift covered with God’s fingerprints. You’re living part of a dance and you are beckoned to reach for much deeper treasures. If you are asked to let go of treasures on earth, it is so your hands can open all the wider to grasp treasures in Heaven.

Paidion: Maybe for super-spiritual people like you, but when I’ve tried anything like that, I’ve only met disappointments.

Aneer: I’ve had a lot of disappointments. Like marriage, for instance.

Paidion: You? You’ve always seemed—

Aneer: My wife and I are very happily married. We’ve been married for years, and as the years turn into decades we are more happily married—more in love. But our marriage has been a disappointment on any number of counts.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The marriage succeeds because the honeymoon fails.” Part of our marriage is that it’s not just a honeymoon; my wife is not some bit of putty I can inflate to the contours of my fantasies about the perfect wife; she is a real person with real desires and real needs and real virtues and real flaws and a real story. She is infinitely more than some figment of my imagination. She has disappointed me time and time again—thank God!—and God has given me something much better in her than if she was some piece of putty that somehow fit my imagination perfectly. By giving me a real woman—what a woman!—God is challenging me to dig deeper into being a real man.

Paidion: So all disappointments make for a happy marriage? Because…

Aneer: I’m not completely sure how to answer that. We miss something about life if we think we can only have a happy marriage when we don’t get any disappointments. Read the Gospel and it seems that Christ himself dealt with disappointments; his life on earth built to the disappointment of the Cross which he could not escape no matter how hard he prayed. But the Apostle Paul wrote about this disappointment:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is part of his glory.

If you have a disappointment, you have one problem. If you have a disappointment and you think that with such a disappointment you can’t really be where you should be, you have two problems. Disappointments sting like ninety, but they can be drawn into something deeper and a richer life.

Paidion: So you’d rather be disappointed in life than get your way.

Aneer: Yes.

When I haven’t gotten my way, that has been a stepping stone for a refinement on more than one level, a refinement in what I sought and what I wanted. I’ve gotten better things than if I always had a magic key that gave me what I thought I wanted. St. Paul said, “When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.”

Paidion: Am I being childish if I wish the Law of Attraction could get me what I want? If I dream?

Aneer: What the Law of Attraction is a way to satisfy the kind of things childish people set their hearts on. Always getting your way is not an unattainable dream. Always getting your way is not a dream at all. Always getting your way is a nightmare. It is the nightmare of succeeding at being a spoiled brat where others have grown up in all the disappointments you hope to dodge.

Paidion: Is virtue its own reward?

Or is it just the consolation prize when you do the right thing even if you don’t get a real reward?

Aneer: Let us return to Plato again.

Elsewhere in the Republic, some people say some questionable things about goodness. Someone says, for instance, that what is good is whatever the stronger group wants, or something like that. And so someone asks if there’s anything a good man has that the evil man does not.

Actually, the question is put much more strongly than that. We are asked to suppose that an evil man has every worldly benefit—a good name, wealth, good children, everything in life going his way. And let us suppose that the good man gets quite the opposite: he is slandered and betrayed, loses everything, is tortured, and is finally crucified. Can we still say that the good man has anything the evil one does not?

Paidion: If that is the case, it’s hard to see that the good man has anything valuable that the evil man does not.

Aneer: He has goodness.

Paidion: Well, yes, but besides

Aneer: Paidion, how would you like to have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it?

Paidion: No thanks!

Aneer: Meaning that on those terms, no man in his right mind would choose any amount of wealth!

Paidion: Sure, if you have to spend all the money on doctor bills…

Aneer: All right.

Let’s suppose you don’t have to spend any of it on doctor bills. Suppose you’re a billionaire with all kinds of free medical care, and with your billions of dollars comes the worst of health and the most atrocious suffering for the rest of your mercifully short life. Billions of dollars must be worth that, right?

Paidion: Does this relate to Plato?

Aneer: Yes—

Paidion: Are you saying that the evil man had bad health? You didn’t mention that at first.

Aneer: Well, that depends on what you mean by health. Externally, he had the best of health, I suppose, and the good man had terrible diseases. But the condition of being evil is the spiritual condition of being diseased, twisted, and shrunken. Even our English words like “twisted” and “sick” are signs of ancient recognition of evil as a spiritual disease. The evil man with worldly glory is the man who has all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it—and the good man is the man who has nothing but his health. He has the one thing the evil man does not: his health!

Paidion: Is this about Heaven and Hell? Because however impressive they may be, we aren’t there yet.

Aneer: Wrong. Heaven and Hell begin in this life. The eternal tree that forever stands in Heaven or Hell is planted and nourished in this life. The connection between this life and the next is a closer connection than you can imagine.

Paidion: All this sounds very wonderful, and I could wish it were true. For people like you who have faith, at least. I don’t…

Aneer: Paidion, there was something that happened in The Magician’s Nephew, before Queen Jadis attracted to her the deathless strength that she desired. Something happened before then. Do you remember what?

Paidion: I’m not sure what.

Aneer: It’s quite memorable, and it has quite a lot to do with the Law of Attraction.

Paidion: I am afraid to ask.

Aneer: Let me quote the Queen, then.

…That was the secret of secrets. It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water…

The last great battle raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that led up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could not see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, “Victory.” “Yes,” said I, “Victory, but not yours.” Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.

Paidion: Are you saying that the Law of Attraction is like the Deplorable Word?

Aneer: The Law of Attraction is described in glowing terms but what is described so glowingly is that there’s you, your thoughts, and a giant mirror called the universe… and that’s it. Everything else is killed. Not literally, perhaps, but in a still very real sense. The reason you have not succeeded at getting what you want couldn’t be because a powerful man, with his own thoughts and motives, is refusing something you want, much less that God loves you and knows that what you want isn’t really in your best interests. The powerful man is just part of the great mirror, as is God, if there is anything to God besides you. The only possible reason for you to not have something, the only thing that is not killed, is your thoughts.

And how I wish you could enter a vast, vast world which is not a mirror focused on you, where even the people who meet and know you have many other concerns besides thinking about you, who have their own thoughts and wishes and which is ruled by an infinitely transcendent God who is infinitely more than you even if you were made for the entire purpose of becoming divine, and perhaps even more divine than if you are the only thing you do not lump into the great mirror reflecting your thoughts.

Paidion: But how shall I then live? It seemed, for a moment, like things got better when I paid attention to my thoughts, and things in my life—

Aneer: If you think it seems like your thoughts matter, perhaps that’s because your thoughts really are important, possibly more important than you can even dream of. Perhaps there are other things going on in the world, but it is your thoughts that stand at the root of everything you contribute to the tree that will stand eternally in Heaven or as Hell. I don’t know how to tell you how important it is to attend to your thoughts, nor how to tell you that what you think of as morality is something which all the wise go upstream and deal with at the source, in the unseen warfare of vigilant attention to one’s thoughts. Little thoughts build to big thoughts and big thoughts build to actions, and spiritual discipline or “ascesis” moves from the hard battle of actions to the harder battle of thoughts. And thoughts aren’t just about concepts; when I’ve had trouble getting a thought of doing something I shouldn’t out of my head, sometimes I’ve reminded myself that what is not truly desired doesn’t really last long. The Philokalia there, my point is that it is a lifetime’s endeavor to learn how to pay proper attention to one’s thoughts.

Paidion: Um… uh… did you say I was made to be divine? Did you mean it?

Aneer: Paidion, if being divine just means that there isn’t anything that much bigger than us, then that’s a rather pathetic idea of the divine, and I wouldn’t give twopence for it. But if we really and truly understand how utterly God dwarfs us, if we understand what it means that God is the Creator and we are his creatures, and the infinite chasm between Creator and creature is then transcended so that we his creatures can become by grace what God is by nature—then that is really something and I would give my life for that way of being divine!

There is a hymn, of ancient age, that says, “Adam, wanting to be divine, failed to be divine. Christ became man that he might make Adam divine.” Christ’s life is an example of what it means to be divine: as a child he was a refugee, then grew up as a blue-collar worker, then lived as a homeless man, and died a slave’s death so vile its name was a curse word. This is a tremendous clue-by-four about what true glory is. This is a divine clue-by-four about what Adam missed when he decided that reigning as immortal king and lord of paradise and following only one simple rule wasn’t good enough for him.

And it is in this messy life we live, with so many situations beyond our control and so many things we would not choose, that God can transform us so that we become by grace what he is by nature.

Paidion: Aneer, can I ever enter the vast world you live in? It seems I have, well…

Aneer: Well?

Paidion: Chosen to live in an awfully small world, thinking I was doing something big.

Aneer: All of us have. It’s called sin. Not a popular word today, but realizing you are in sin is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Before you repent, you are afraid to let go of something that seems, like the Ring to Gollum, “my precious.” Afterwards you find that what you dropped was torment and Hell, and you are awakening to a larger world.

Paidion: But when can I do something this deep? My schedule this week is pretty full, and little of it meshes well with—

Aneer: The only time you can ever repent is now.