Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day

Let me begin by sharing my favorite For Better or for Worse strip. On a night that is dark, wet, and probably quite cold, John Patterson steps into a cab and says, “What a miserable day!” The cabby surprises him by saying, “Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.”

John is surprised, but the cabby explains. “You see,” he says, “I am from Sudan. I have seen my friends shot and killed. I have a wife whom I have not seen in two years, and a son whom I have never seen. But every day I save a little, and I am that much closer to bringing them here.” At the end of the trip, John rather pensively pays and tips the cabby.

Then he steps in the door—it is still dark, wet, and probably rather cold—and his wife says, “What a miserable day!”

John simply puts his arms around her and their little girl, and said, “Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.”

This is a good vignette to be mindful of, and if economic times are rougher now than when these words first appeared, it does not diminish their truth in the least. To me, it is a very good day.

To me, it is a very good day.

And let me explain what I mean.

One of my goals in life has been to be a scholar, and I’ve tried hard to earn credentials to teach in theology. Given the difficulties Ph.D. holders have getting a job, it seemed to me to be rather silly to apply for a job without getting the standard “union card:” a Ph.D.

I became a graduate student in theology while overcoming cancer, and earned a master’s in theology under Cambridge’s philosophy of religion seminar. And, after some time to recover, I entered a Ph.D. program. And…

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for a way to explain what happened in the Ph.D. program. Eventually, I began to suspect that I might be having such difficulty finding an appropriate way to explain those events because they are not the kind of thing that can be explained appropriately.

So let me say the following.

  • I’m a pretty bright guy. Ranked 7th in a nationwide math contest. Did an independent study of calculus in middle school. Studied over a dozen languages. And so on.
  • I honestly found more than one thing at the university to be worse than suffering chemo. (And chemotherapy included the worst hour of merely physical pain in my life.)
  • The university is not budging in their position that, as my GPA in all that happened was 3.386/4.0 and a 3.5 was required, I have washed out of their Ph.D. program.

And I’m not sure, after an experience like that, that I’m really in the best position to apply to another program: references are important, and it would show a profound naïveté to tell a professor, “I know you retaliated for my gestures of friendship, but you’ll still be kind and give me a good letter of reference, right?” I am not in the best position to apply to another Ph.D. program. And I wish to very clearly say, today is a very good day to me.

The goals I was pursuing are a privilege and not a right. For that matter, the job I have now is not something to be taken for granted. I have a job that is meeting all my basic expenses. Most jobs you have at least one pest to deal with. Not this one; there is not a single person at my job that I would rather not deal with. They’re all decent people.

If I had my way and got my Ph.D., there are other things that probably would not have happened, including my books being published. And I am quite glad for that. And even in theology, I may never be involved with theology on the terms I envisioned, but that is not nearly so final as it sounds, and I would like to be clear about that.

A Christian in the West may or may not find it strange to place theology in the category of “academic disciplines.” In Orthodoxy the placement is strange indeed, because theology, even in its treatment of texts, is much more a spiritual discipline of prayer than a technical discipline of analysis. And in that sense, the door to theology is as open to me as it ever was: it is a door that I can enter through repentance, and is as open to me now as much as any time.

To me, it is a very good day.

And perhaps I may well leave behind something value, but perhaps God did not intend it to be scholarship. Perhaps I was just meant to write.

And on that note, I would like to share some snippets, some highlights, from my books.

The books include several shorter works building up to a long piece; The Sign of the Grail tells the story of a young man whose world begins to deepen when he discovers, in his college dorm room, a book of Arthurian legends:

After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:

Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.

Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.

Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.

Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.

Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.

Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”

Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.

George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.

George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.

George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.

Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.

He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.

And the story of this nightmare is part of the story of how he begins questing for the Holy Grail and ultimately wakes up in life.

A short story builds up in The Christmas Tales:

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

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

Where to go?

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

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

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

This story, incidentally, is set in a real place. I have been there.

One of the medium-sized works in A Cord of Seven Strands is a narrative as of a dream:

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

There is a time of rest and stillness; all is at a deep and serene peace. The slow motion of the waves, the dancing lights below and above, the supple bending of the plants, all form part of a stillness. It is soothing, like the soft, smooth notes of a lullaby.

Your eyes slowly close, and you feel even more the warm sunlight, and the gentle caresses of the sea. And, in your rest, you become more aware of a silent presence. You were not unaware of it before, but you are more aware of it now. It is there:








Like a tree with water slowly flowing in, through roots hidden deep within the earth, and filling it from the inside out, you abide in the presence. It is a moment spent, not in time, but in eternity.

Firestorm 2034 tells the story of a brilliant medieval traveler transported to some twenty or thirty years in our future. It’s a little like a story told more compactly and more like a dream:

It was late in the day, and my feet were hurting.

I had spent the past three hours on the winding path up the foothills, and you will excuse me if I was not paying attention to the beauty around me.

I saw it, and then wondered how I had not seen it—an alabaster palace rising out of the dark rock around it, hidden in a niche as foothill became mountain. After I saw it, I realized—I could not tell if the plants around me were wild or garden, but there was a grassy spot around it. Some of my fatigue eased as I looked into a pond and saw koi and goldfish swimming.

I looked around and saw the Gothic buildings, the trees, the stone path and walkways. I was beginning to relax, when I heard a voice say, “Good evening,” and looked, and realized there was a man on the bench in front of me.

He was wearing a grey-green monk’s robe, and cleaning a gun. He looked at me for a moment, tucked the gun into a shack, and welcomed me in.

Outside, the sun was setting. At the time, I thought of the last rays of the dying sun—but it was not that, so much as day giving birth to night. We passed inside to a hallway, with wooden chairs and a round wooden table. It seemed brightly enough lit, if by torchlight.

My guide disappeared into a hallway, and returned with two silver chalices, and set one before me. He raised his chalice, and took a sip.

The wine was a dry white wine—refreshing and cold as ice. It must have gone to my head faster than I expected; I gave a long list of complaints, about how inaccessible this place was, and how hard the road. He listened silently, and I burst out, “Can you get the master of this place to come to me? I need to see him personally.”

The servant softly replied, “He knows you are coming, and he will see you before you leave. In the mean time, may I show you around his corner of the world?”

I felt anger flaring within me; I am a busy man, and do not like to waste my time with subordinates. If it was only one of his underlings who would be available, I would have sent a subordinate myself. As I thought this, I was surprised to hear myself say, “Please.”

We set down the chalices, and started walking through a maze of passageways. He took a small oil lamp, one that seemed to burn brightly, and we passed through a few doors before stepping into a massive room.

The room blazed with intense brilliance; I covered my eyes, and wondered how they made a flame to burn so bright. Then I realized that the chandaliers were lit with incandescent light. The shelves had illuminated manuscripts next to books with plastic covers—computer science next to bestiaries. My guide went over by one place, tapped with his finger—and I realized that he was at a computer.

Perhaps reading the look on my face, my guide told me, “The master uses computers as much as you do. Do you need to check your e-mail?”

I asked, “Why are there torches in the room you left me in, and electric light here?”

He said, “Is a person not permitted to use both? The master, as you call him, believes that technology is like alcohol—good within proper limits—and not something you have to use as much as you can. There are electric lights here because their brilliance makes reading easier on the eyes. Other rooms have torches, or nothing at all, because a flame has a different meaning, one that we prefer. Never mind; I can get you a flashlight if you like. Oh, and you can take off your watch now. It won’t work here.”

“It won’t work? Look, it keeps track of time to the second, and it is working as we speak!”

The man studied my watch, though I think he was humoring me, and said, “It will give a number as well here as anywhere else. But that number means very little here, and you would do just as well to put it in your pocket.”

I looked at my watch, and kept it on. He asked, “What time is it?”

I looked, and said, “19:58.”

“Is that all?”

I told him the seconds, and then the date and year, and added, “But it doesn’t feel like the 21st century here.” I was beginning to feel a little nervous.

He said, “What century do you think it is here?”

I said, “Like a medieval time that someone’s taken a scissors to. You have a garden with perfect gothic architecture, and you in a monk’s robe, holding an expensive-looking rifle. And a computer in a library that doesn’t even try to organize books by subject or time.”

I looked around on the wall, and noticed a hunting trophy. Or at least that’s what I took it for at first. There was a large sheild-shaped piece of wood, such as would come with a beautiful stag—but no animal’s head. Instead, there were hundreds upon hundreds of bullet holes in the wood—enough that the wood should have shattered. I walked over, and read the glass plate: “This magnificent deer shot 1-4-98 in Wisconsin with an AK-47. God bless the NRA.”

I laughed a minute, and said, “What is this doing in here?”

The servant said, “What is anything doing here? Does it surprise you?”

I said, “From what I have heard, the master of this place is very serious about life.”

My guide said, “Of course he is. And he cherishes laughter.”

I looked around a bit, but could not understand why the other things were there—only be puzzled at how anyone could arrange a computer and other oddments to make a room that felt unmistably medieval. Or was it? “What time is it here? To you?”

My guide said, “Every time and no time. We do not measure time by numbers here; to the extent that time is ‘measured’, we ‘measure’ by what fills it—something qualitative and not quantiative. Your culture measures a place’s niche in history by how many physical years have passed before it; we understand that well enough, but we reckon time, not by its place in the march of seconds, but by the content of its character. You may think of this place as medieval if you want; others view it as ancient, and not a small part is postmodern—more than the computer is contemporary.”

I looked at my watch. Only five minutes had passed. I felt frustration and puzzlement, and wondered how long this could go on.

“When can we move on from here?”

“When you are ready. You aren’t ready yet.”

I looked at my watch. Not even ten seconds had passed. The second hand seemed to be moving very slowly.

I felt something moving in the back of my mind, but I tried to push it back. The second hand continued on its lazy journey, and then—I took off my watch and put it in my pocket.

My guide stood up and said, “Walk this way, please.”

He led me to a doorway, opening a door, and warning me not to step over the threshold. I looked, and saw why—there was a drop of about a foot, into a pool of water. The walls were blue, and there was sand at the far end. Two children—a little boy and a little girl—were making sand castles.

He led me through the mazelike passages to rooms I cannot describe. One room had mechanical devices in all stages of assembly and disassembly. Another was bare and clean. The kitchen had pepperoni and peppers hanging, and was filled with an orange glow that was more than torchlight. There was a deserted classroom filled with flickering blue light, and then we walked into a theatre.

The chamber was small, and this theatre had more than the usual slanted floor. The best way I could describe it is to say that it was a wall, at times vertical, with handholds and outcroppings. There were three women and two men on the stage, but not standing—or sitting, for that matter. They were climbing, shifting about as they talked.

I could not understand their language, but there was something about it that fascinated me. I was surprised to find myself listening to it. I was even more surprised to realize that, if I could not understand the words, I could no less grasp the story. It was a story of friendship, and there is something important in that words melted into song, and climbing into dance.

I watched to the end. The actors and actresses did not disappear backstage, but simply climbed down into the audience, and began talking with people. I could not tell if the conversation was part of the act, or if they were just seeing friends. I wondered if it really made any difference—and then realized, with a flash, that I had caught a glimpse into how this place worked.

When I wanted to go, the servant led me to a room filled with pipes. He cranked a wheel, and I heard gears turning, and began to see the jet black keys of an organ. He played a musical fragment; it sounded incomplete.

He said, “Play.”

I closed my eyes and said, “I don’t know how to play any instrument.”

He repeated the fragment and said, “That doesn’t matter. Play.”

There followed a game of question and answer—he would improvise a snatch of music, and I would follow. I would say that it was beautiful, but I couldn’t really put it that way. It would be better to say that his music was mediocre, and mine didn’t quite reach that standard.

We walked out into a cloister. I gasped. There was a sheltered pathway around a grassy court and a pool stirred by fish. It was illumined by moon and star, and the brilliance was dazzling.

We walked around, and I looked. In my mind’s eye I could see white marble statues of saints praying—I wasn’t sure, but I made up my mind to suggest that to the master. After a time we stopped walking on the grass, and entered another door.

Not too far into the hallway, he turned, set the oil lamp into a small alcove, and began to rise up the wall. Shortly before disappearing into the blackness above, he said, “Climb.”

I learn a little, I think. I did not protest; I put my hands and feet on the wall, and felt nothing. I leaned against it, and felt something give way—something yielding to give a handhold. Then I started climbing. I fell a couple of times, but reached the shadows where he disappeared. He took me by the hand and began to lead me along a path.

I could feel a wall on either side, and then nothing, save his hand and my feet. Where was I? I said, “I can’t see!”

A woman’s voice said, “No one can see here. Eyes aren’t needed.” I felt an arm around my waist, and a gentle squeeze.

I felt that warmth, and said, “I came to this place because I wanted to see the master of this house, and I wanted to see him personally. Now—I am ready to leave without seeing him. I have seen enough, and I no longer want to trouble him.”

I felt my guide’s hand on my shoulder, and heard his voice as he said, “You have seen me personally, and you are not troubling me. You are here at my invitation. You will always be welcome here.”

When I first entered the house, I would have been stunned. Now, it seemed the last puzzle piece in something I had been gathering since I started hiking.

The conversation was deep, and I cannot tell you what was said. I don’t mean that I forgot it—I remember it clearly enough. I don’t really mean that it would be a breach of confidence—it might be that as well. What I mean is that there was something special in that room, and it would not make much sense to you even if I could explain it. If I were to say that we talked in a room without light, where you had to feel around to move about—it would be literally true, but beside the point. When I remember the room, I do not think about what wasn’t there, but what was there. I was glad I took off my watch—but I cannot say why. The best thing I can say is that if you can figure out how a person could be aware of a succession of moments, and at the same time have time sense that is not entirely linear—or at very least not just linear—you have a glimpse of what I found in that room.

We talked long, and it was late into the next day when I got up from a perfectly ordinary guestroom, packed, and left. I put on my watch, returned to my business, and started working on the backlog of invoices and meetings that accumulated in my absence. I’m still pretty busy, but I have never left that room.

Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary is a thin volume for a dictionary, but then it works a little unlike the more standard dictionary one uses to look things up:

Form, n. A piece of paper used by administrations to deter people from using their services. It is the opinion of this lexicographer that the following form could be of the utmost assistance in helping bureaucracies more effectively serve those under their care.


Form to Request Information in the Form of a Form


Section 1: Personal Information

Name: ___________________________ Sex: [ ]M [ ]F Date of Birth: __/__/__
Social Security Number: ___-__-____
Driver’s License Number: ____-____-____
VISA/MasterCard Number: ____-____-____-____
Mailing Address, Business:
Street:_____________________________ City:________________ State:__ ZIP Code:_____
Mailing Address, Home:
Street:_____________________________ City:________________ State:__ ZIP Code:_____
Telephone, Work: (___)___-____, Ext. ____
Telephone, Home: (___)___-____
Telephone, Car: (___)___-____
Beeper: (___)___-____ Chicago High School: [ ]Y [ ]N
E-mail Address: ____________________________________________________ (if address is in domain or, please explain on a separate sheet of paper)
Height: _’, __” Weight: ___# Hair: ______ Eyes: _____ Blood type: __ IQ: __
Political Affiliation: [ ]Federalist [ ]Republican [ ]Democrat [ ]Libertarian [ ]Monarchist [ ]Socialist [ ]Marxist [ ]Communist [ ]Nazi [ ]Fascist [ ]Anarchist [ ]Other (Please specify:_____________)
Citizenship: [ ]United States, including Canada and other territories [ ]Mexico [ ]California [ ]Other (Please specify:_____________________)
Race: [ ]Caucasian/Pigmentally Challenged [ ]African [ ]Asian [ ]Hispanic/Latino [ ]Amerindian [ ]Heinz-57 [ ]Other (Please specify: __________________) [ ]An athletic event where people run around an oval again and again and again.

Page 1 * End of Section 1 of 3

Section 2: Form Description

Length of Form, in Characters: _____
Number of Questions or Required Data: ____
Expected Time to Complete: __ Hours, __ Minutes, __ Seconds.
Expected Mental Effort Required to Complete: __________________________ (if form would insult the intelligence of a senile hamster, please explain on a separate sheet of paper)
Expected number of questions judged to be annoying, unnecessary, and/or personally offensive: __
Expected time wasted on questions judged to be annoying, unnecessary, and/or personally offensive: __ Hours, __ Minutes, __ Seconds.
Expected blood pressure increase while filling out form: __ mmHg systolic, __ mmHg diastolic.

If further contemplation has led you to believe that some of the questions asked are not strictly necessary to provide the service that you offer upon completion of said form, please enclose revised prototype here.

Page 2 * End of Section 2 of 3

Section 3: Essay Questions

Please explain, in 500 words or less, your philosophy concerning the use of forms.

Please explain, in 200 words or less, why you designed this form as you did.

Please explain, in 300 words or less, why you believe that this form is necessary. If you are in a service oriented sector and desire to require the form of people you serve, please explain why you believe that requiring people to fill out forms constitutes a service to them.

When this form is completed, please return to the address provided. The Committee for Selecting Forms will carefully examine your case and delegate responsibility to an appropriate subcommittee.

Please allow approximately six to eight weeks for the appointed subcommittee to lose your file in a paper shuffle.

Page 3 * End of Section 3 of 3

But many of the definitions are shorter: “Christmas, n. An annual holiday celebrating the coming of the chief Deity of Western civilization: Mammon.”

Yonder is a shorter work, like the others can be mischievous and iconoclastic, and opens with a fictitious news article heralding the discovery of an inclusive language manuscript for a good chunk of the Greek New Testament. The culminating work is a Socratic dialogue, set in a science fiction thoughtscape that paints a terrifying silhouette and asks a terrifying question, “What if we really didn’t have the things about a world of men and women and all the things that we chafe at?” Along the way to that work comes a moment of rest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.

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

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

“There is music even in your wail.”

“I loathe music.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some other passages that I would like to quote, but I’ll stop with one more, from The Steel Orb, which ends with a paired science fiction short work and a fantasy novella. Both of those works share in this paean’s joy:

With what words
shall I hymn the Lord of Heaven and Earth,
the Creator of all things visible and invisible?
Shall I indeed meditate
on the beauty of his Creation?

As I pray to Thee, Lord,
what words shall I use,
and how shall I render Thee praise?

Shall I thank thee for the living tapestry,
oak and maple and ivy and grass,
that I see before me
as I go to return to Thee at Church?

Shall I thank Thee for Zappy,
and for her long life—
eighteen years old and still catching mice?
Shall I thank thee for her tiger stripes,
the color of pepper?
Shall I thank thee for her kindness,
and the warmth of her purr?

Shall I thank Thee for a starry sapphire orb
hung with a million million diamonds, where
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Day to day utters speech,
and night to night proclaims knowledge.
There are no speeches or words,
in which their voices are not heard.
Their voice is gone out into all the earth,
and their words to the end of the earth.
In the sun he has set his tabernacle;
and he comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber: he will exult as a giant to run his course.”?

Shall I thank Thee for the river of time,
now flowing quickly,
now flowing slowly,
now narrow,
now deep,
now flowing straight and clear,
now swirling in eddies that dance?

Shall I thank Thee for the hymns and songs,
the chant at Church, when we praise Thee in the head of Creation, the vanguard of Creation that has come from Thee in Thy splendor and to Thee returns in reverence?

Shall I thank thee for the Chalice:
an image,
an icon,
a shadow of,
a participation in,
a re-embodiment of,
the Holy Grail?

Shall I forget how the Holy Grail itself
is but the shadow,
the impact,
the golden surface reflecting the light,
secondary reflection to the primeval light,
the wrapping paper that disintegrates next to the Gift it holds:
that which is
mystically and really
the body and the blood of Christ:
the family of saints
for me to be united to,
and the divine Life?

Shall I meditate
on how I am fed
by the divine generosity
and the divine gift
of the divine energies?

Shall I thank Thee for a stew I am making,
or for a body nourished by food?

Shall I indeed muse that there is
nothing else I could be nourished by,
for spaghetti and bread and beer
are from a whole cosmos
illuminated by the divine light,
a candle next to the sun,
a beeswax candle,
where the sun’s energy filters through plants
and the work of bees
and the work of men
to deliver light and energy from the sun,
and as candle to sun,
so too is the bread of earth
to the Bread that came from Heaven,
the work of plants and men,
the firstfruits of Earth
returned to Heaven,
that they may become
the firstfruits of Heaven
returned to earth?

Shall I muse on the royal “we,”
where the kings and queens
said not of themselves”I”, but “we”
while Christians are called to say “we”
and learn that the “I” is to be transformed,
made luminous,
when we move beyond “Me, me, me,”
to learn to say, “we”?

And the royal priesthood is one in which we are called to be
a royal priesthood,
a chosen people,
more than conquerors,
a Church of God’s eclecticism,
made divine,
a family of little Christs,
sons to God and brothers to Christ,
the ornament of the visible Creation,
of rocks and trees and stars and seas,
and the spiritual Creation as well:
seraphim, cherubim, thrones
dominions, principalities, authorities,
powers, archangels, angels,
rank on rank of angels,
singing before the presence of God,
and without whom no one can plumb the depths
of the world that can be seen and touched.

For to which of the angels did God say,
“You make my Creation complete,” or
“My whole Creation, visible and invisible,
is encapsulated in you,
summed up in your human race?”

To which of the angels
did the divine Word say,
“I am become what you are
that you may become what I am?”

To which of the angels did the Light say,
“Thou art my Son; today I have adopted Thee,”
and then turn to say,
“You are my sons; today I have adopted you;
because I AM WHO I AM,
you are who you are.”?

So I am called to learn to say, “we”,
and when we learn to say we,
that “we” means,
a royal priesthood,
a chosen people,
more than conquerors,
a Church of God’s eclecticism,
a family of little Christs,
made divine,
the ornament of Creation, visible and invisible,
called to lead the whole Creation
loved into being by God,
to be in love
that to God they may return.

And when we worship thus,
it cannot be only us, for
apples and alligators,
boulders and bears,
creeks and crystals,
dolphins and dragonflies,
eggplants and emeralds,
fog and furballs,
galaxies and grapes,
horses and habaneros,
ice and icicles,
jacinth and jade,
kangaroos and knots,
lightning and light,
meadows and mist,
nebulas and neutrons,
oaks and octupi,
porcupines and petunias,
quails and quarks,
rocks and rivers,
skies and seas,
toads and trees,
ukeleles and umber umbrellas,
wine and weirs,
xylophones and X-rays,
yuccas and yaks,
zebras and zebrawood,
are all called to join us before Thy throne
in the Divine Liturgy:

Praise ye the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord from the heavens:
praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his angels:
praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon:
praise him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded, and they were created.
He hath also stablished them for ever and ever:
he hath made a decree which shall not pass.
Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours;
stormy wind fulfilling his word:
Mountains, and all hills;
fruitful trees, and all cedars:
Beasts, and all cattle;
creeping things, and flying fowl:
Kings of the earth, and all people;
princes, and all judges of the earth:
Both young men, and maidens;
old men, and children:
Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is excellent;
his glory is above the earth and heaven.
He also exalteth the horn of his people,
the praise of all his saints;
even of the children of Israel,
a people near unto him.
Praise ye the Lord.

And my blessings are not just that, unlike the cab driver, I have not seen my friends shot and killed. Nor is it just that I have a job in a time when having a job shouldn’t be taken for granted—working with kind co-workers, and a good boss, to boot. I’ve received my first major book review—and, I hope, not the last:

Down through the centuries, the Legend of King Arthur has been used as an icon for so many literary works in the western world. “The Sign of the Grail” is a collection of memorable literary works by CJS Hayward centering around the Holy Grail and what it means to orthodox religion, as well as those who follow those teachings. Tackling diverse subjects such as iconography and an earthly paradise, he pulls no punches when dealing with many of the topics laid out through the legends. “The Sign of the Grail” is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top reccommendation for academia and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are CJS Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries compilations and anthologies: “Yonder” (9780615202174, $40.00); “Firestorm 2034” (9780615202167, $40.00), “A Cord of Seven Strands” (9780615202174, $40.00), “The Steel Orb” (9780615193618, $40.00), “The Christmas Tales” (9780615193632, $40.00), and “Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary” (9780615193625, $40.00).

John Burroughs
[The Midwest Book Review]

Actually, to Me, It Is a Very Good Day.

Seven-Sided Gem

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

This lecture was given Oct. 26, 2001 during the Midwestern Mensa regional gathering, at the Arlington Heights Sheraton.

Introductory remarks by Dr. Mike Doyle, CEO and Founder of Eolas Technologies: I first met CJS Hayward on the MegaList about a year and a half ago. I was impressed enough by his abilities to hire him at the first opportunity, and he now works as a software developer for Eolas Technologies. Jonathan, in one year, did an independent study of calculus, programmed a four-dimensional maze, and ranked 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Then he turned 14 and turned his attention to deeper challenges. He has studied at Wheaton College, the Sorbonne, and the University of Illinois. Like many profoundly gifted, Jonathan moves among a wide range of interests. He is now focused on writing. He has been published in Ubiquity, Noesis, Inner Sanctum, Perfection, and nowVidya, with Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement. Please welcome him as he speaks about his experiences as a profoundly gifted individual.

Jonathan: Thank you. It is a privelege to be here; I have been looking forward to this night, a time when we can connect and share—not only through our costumes. More on my costume later. Before I begin my speech proper, I’d like to deal with a couple of preliminaries. I have a slight speech impediment; I’ll try to speak clearly, but you may have to work a little harder to understand me. Second, I’d like to review the seven points of my speech, the seven facets of the seven-sided gem:

  • Metaculture: a term which I coined and which I’ll explain.
  • Ages and cultures: by ‘ages’ I mean different temporal ages, not how old a person is.
  • Beyond the Binet-Simon: alternative approaches to intelligence estimation.
  • Inside the glass wall: a private symbol I’ll explain.
  • A musing life: Do I mean a life that is amusing or a life that has musing? I’ll explain that.
  • Thinking inside the box: lessons learned from living among IQ normals.
  • Mystic, Artist, Christian.

Don’t talk about the things you’re interested in with someone you’ve just met. Never mind that, to you, abstract conversation is a staple of acquaintanceship and friendship. To the other person, it may be boring, unpleasant, or a sign of unwanted romantic interest.

Never mind that you have five points of great subtlety and complexity. Pick one, and when you have simplified past the point of distortion, be ready for the other person to say, “Excuse me. Could you say that in English?”

Don’t assume that the person in authority believes, “The rules exist for the betterment of the community and are therefore negotiable when they do not contribute to that end.” Even if the rules do not consider your case, even if they end up hurting you, expect, “The rules are the rules and I am not here to make exceptions.”

Never mind that you can shift your culture at will, or that it is something you must do to connect with others. Don’t try explaining it to others, and whatever you do don’t ask them to do so. If you do, they will experience culture shock and react accordingly. Never mind that to you, foreign cultures are familiar and familiar cultures foreign. Don’t try to explain this either. It asks them to do something completely unfair.

Be very careful in sharing accomplishments, or even things you don’t think of as accomplishments, just cherished moments. To the other person, they may well be intimidating to the point of alienation.

Grieve a thousand wounds, but don’t fall prey to the worst wound of all. Don’t come to believe, “I will never connect with them, and they will never understand me.” If you do, you will find yourself in a sort of Hell—not in the world to come, but here on earth. You will be in a Hell of isolation, an alien in an alien land.

They can joke. That’s why you’re frustrated they don’t understand your humor. They can think. That’s why you’re hurt and upset when they never fathom your deepest thoughts. To those separated by the greatest chasm, is given the greatest ability to bridge chasms.

Perhaps it is harder than doing calculus in middle school or creating a language. It is still something you can do. That intellect that leaves people dazed is the intellect you can use to communicate—connect—in ways that aren’t open to them. That burning intensity that’s gotten you into so much trouble can put fire in your friendships such as many of your friends would never have otherwise known. That unique inner world, that you’ve closed the doors to, after being burned time and time again, is a place you may learn to draw people into. I cannot tell you how, but with a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, a lot of humility, a lot of forgiveness given and received, you may come to a point of synergy past the point where you wished you were not quite so gifted.

An anthropologist at this point might make the case that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the already very bright minds associated with Mensa, and the severely gifted. I’d rather say something different. I’d rather say the severely gifted experience is a crystallization of many things that make the Mensa experience distinctive, and there is a common bond of giftedness as well as the bond of being human. I’d rather say that what gap does exist is one that can be bridged. That is the premise this whole talk is based on.

A much better speaker than I am might be able to explain, in the abstract and in entirety, what the inner world and experience of the severely gifted is like. I can’t do that, but I have my sights set on a much more modest goal: to share something of my own inner world and experience, and light a candle of illumination.

When I was a student at Wheaton College, there was a chapel where students lined up and shared some of the, ahem, interesting questions they’d been asked: “You grew up in Japan? Say something in Chinese!” “Say something in African!” “What did it feel like growing up in Finland?” (Uh, I don’t know. Slight tingling sensation around the toes?) The chapel was given by missionary’s kids/third culture kids, sometimes abbreviated MK/TCK. A third culture kid is a kid who grows up surrounded by one host culture—let us say, blue—to parents who belong to another culture—let us say, yellow. They are neither properly blue nor properly yellow, but create a third culture that draws on both. This is not a simple average of the two cultures; there are common similarities, whether it’s a U.S. kid growing up in Kenya, or a Japanese growing up in the U.S. It is a different mode of experience, a different way of being human. Third culture kids tend to have a tremendous ability to adapt to new cultures, but at times a cost: the price of never being completely at home in a culture, as a fish in water. When I heard that chapel, I said, “That’s me!”

It is the characteristic of very creative minds to hit a very large nail not quite on the head. I am not literally a third culture kid; by the time I heard that chapel, I had not lived abroad. There was something deep that resonated, however. The best way I can describe it is that a third culture kid creates a third culture after being shaped by the outer forces of the host culture on one hand and his parents on the other, and a severely gifted individual is shaped by the outer forces of an IQ-normal world and an inner world from a different kind of mind: the higher you go on the IQ spectrum, there is less and less more of the same intelligence, and more and more of a different kind of intelligence altogether. I coined the term ‘metaculture’ to refer to the commonality of experience, a way of not ever being in a culture as a fish is in water. It brings pain, a sense of never fitting in, and at the same time a freedom from some of the blindnesses others can’t escape.

In talking about cultures, I’m hesitant to say that they’ve left an imprint on me, because the metaphor is deficient. It evokes an image of an active, solid, definite culture that leaves a mark on hot wax which is simply there to receive an imprint. The truth is much more interesting: the cultures are themselves, yes, but I am actively drawing, discerning, seeing what in them is of interest to me and can be drawn into myself. Anyone who knows cultures knows that conveying even one culture in five hours is impossible; I hope not to convey the cultures I visited, so much as give a sense of what sort of thing is interesting.

The summer after that chapel, I lived in Malaysia. My father spent the year teaching, and the rest of the family lived there. I got to spend the summer. I understand why my Mom said it was the best year of her life.

In American culture, there is always a clock tick-tick-ticking. It’s not just there when you look down at your watch; it may be more present when you’re not looking: when you’re visiting your friend and distracted with twenty other things to do that day, or on the road where you move faster than any human athlete can run, and one second’s needless delay is one second’s torment. In Malaysia, the clock’s constant ticking stops. This is not unique to Malaysia; those of you familiar with African cultures, or Latin American, will know something similar, but it is at any rate different from the U.S. It’s not exactly true that the Malaysians perceive time slowly where we perceive it quickly, as that the U.S. is conscious of time where Malaysians are conscious of other things. I have continued to shape my sense of time after leaving Malaysia, and come to focus not on time but on people, creation, and some work. If I try to spend a half an hour on my third novel, what will dominate is the half hour, not the novel; I try to give focused presence to what I am doing now and not have a clock cut up my emotions. It is a tremendous boon in writing, or being with people. I try to keep enough of an American time sense to not be needlessly rude by being late to appointments, but on the inside I seek a different time, and I believe my friendships and my creations are the better for it. Dost thou love life? Then do not quantize time, for numbers are not the stuff life’s made of.

Some time after that, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne. It was a wonderful time; part of my heart is still there. During my time as a student, I acquired a taste for alcohol. One thing I realized rather quickly is that five ounces of wine is not much. If I had a glass of wine with dinner and tossed it back after my first bites, I could have another… and another… and another… and become rather quickly inebriated. Or I could simply not have any more wine. Or—there is an alternative—I could sip my wine, savor it.

In doing that, I tasted wine as I had not tasted any beverage before. Because there was so little, I learned to be present and enjoy much more than absently having a hazy awareness that something I liked was passing through my mouth. My absent awareness of sodas was not a bad thing; one thing I learned upon returning is that American soft drinks are not intended to be consumed that way. If you sip a small glass of Mountain Don’t, you will soon learn that Mountain Don’t isn’t meant to be so sipped. I learned to be present, not just to wine and non-alcoholic beverages like fruit drinks and Mocha, but also to food, and to a much broader circle. If I am in a public place, and music I like comes across the air, it is transient; it is fleeting. I cannot make it last any longer, but I can be present to it in the short time it does last. When a friend comes from out of town, in all likelihood her visit will be over before it has begun—but I can be present in that time as well. This presence has added something to my life complimentary to the time sense I acquired from Malaysia.

What’s the last culture? One that will take a bit more explaining, as I have to swim upstream against more than one thread of American culture. What is it that I have to swim up against? “This is an idea whose time has come.” “It’s the wave of the future.” “We’re entering the third millenium.”

If I were to speak of “an idea whose time has come, and gone,” or “the wave of the past,” it would be less clear that I was speaking a compliment. If I were to say, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude.”, you’d have every right to accuse me of a non sequitur. I believe that “We’re entering the third millenium.” is also a non sequitur, even though it is spoken as a statement of great significance.

There are two ideas closely intertwined: the doctrine of progress, which says we are better, nobler, wiser people than those who came before—a temporal version of ethnocentrism, which says that ideas like machines grow rust and need to be replaced—and period awareness, which goes beyond the historicist observation that all of us, past and present, exist in a historical-cultural context and are affected by it; period awareness fixes an unbridgeable chasm between the people who walked before and us; they are in a hermetically sealed box. The net respect is to believe that the peoples of the past cannot talk with us: we can point out how they were less enlightened times, but they certainly cannot criticize us.

My second novel, Firestorm 2034, is the story of a medieval in 21st century America. In the course of researching medieval culture, thinking about it, and trying to convey it, it left a mark on me in many ways similar to Malaysia and France. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a masterpiece of humor that is often mistaken for a reasonable treatment of medieval culture; my novel reverses it in more ways than one. Not only is it a medieval in America, but more deeply I reject the belief that the most significant difference between the medievals and us is that we have better technology. There is a wealth of culture and wisdom that has been largely lost.

What is one such area? The present issue of My Generation, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, has a cover story about “Jeff Bridges: Beautiful Dreamer.” On the cover, he has black hair tinged with silver, although I would forgive you if you glanced and said it was brown. It’s a few inches longer than mine. He’s curled up, slouching, with his arms over his knees, wearing faded jeans, white socks, and tennis shoes. The man looks like a teenager. This is not an accident. I have never seen a My Generationcover with a woman who looks old enough to be admitted to the AARP, and when I first saw that periodical, I mistook it for a GenX magazine.

Why? The core idea is that there is a short period of glory—I’ll say from fifteen to twenty-five years, although some of you might place the beginning and end a little differently—and before that point, you’re only a child, meaning curiously enough that you don’t have access to adult pleasures; you can’t drink, you can’t drive—and after that point, you’re a has-been. This message is ubiquitous, present not only in children’s TV shows but equally in a magazine for retired people. And, in a certain manner, it makes perfect sense.

It makes perfect sense if there is nothing more to have in life than physical pleasure. Before fifteen, you can’t acquire as much pleasure as someone with adult resources; after twenty-five, your capacity for youthful pleasure diminishes. And so, if one starts by assuming that the whole point of life is to have pleasure, that the point of science is to create a Utopia of spoiled children, then it follows quite simply that a child is nothing much and someone past the age of thirty is a has-been. It follows quite simply for us, but the medievals saw it differently.

The medievals believed that the entire purpose of this life is as a preparation, an apprenticeship, a beginning, to an eternity gazing on God’s glory. It means that, even in this life, there is infinitely more to seek than physical pleasure. There is more to desire. There is virtue, both earthly, natural virtues, and the merry, heavenly, deiform virtues. One can begin to be a heavenly person, enjoy Heaven’s joys, and know God.

The words, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,” voice a pessimistic philosophy: enjoy pleasure because there’s nothing more and we have a grim life. The medieval view sought much more than pleasure, and in following it, I want to grow more. I don’t believe I’m leaving the time when I can enjoy the only good in life, pleasure. I believe I have different fruits in season coming. Some people dread their thirtieth birthday. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to turning thirty, forty, fifty, to when my hair turns tweed and then white. I’m looking forward to growing in wisdom: the interesting part of my life isn’t ending, but just beginning.

What about intelligence testing? I like Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door; it’s a children’s book with a little boy, Charles Wallace, whose IQ is “so high it’s untestable by normal means.” I like the story and Charles Wallace; I identify with him, and in reference to that passage began to wish the same were true of me, that my IQ were so high it was untestable by normal means. I even tried to convince myself, in moments of pride, that this was true.

It came as a great disappointment to learn not only was this literally true, that my IQ was literally so high as to be untestable by normal means, but that the threshold was so low. If the authors of the Binet-Simon test, paradigm example of the good IQ test, were to be told, “This test you’ve made, doesn’t really distinguish average from below average, but shows a remarkably fine discrimination at the upper strata of human intelligence,” they would have regarded the test as a failure, pure and simple. The Binet-Simon test is a test for inferiority. Sources I’ve seen differ as to why; one gently states that it was meant to identify special needs people and give them that extra boost of special education they need to function in life. Another says, less charitably, that it’s to identify certain people as inferior: exclude them; stop ‘wasting’ resources on them. In either case, it is less than clear to me that this is the model of test for organizations like Mensa.

Some other high-IQ societies use an adjusted model of test, where they take off the time limit, because they recognize that rushing people doesn’t get best behavior, and put all the problems on anabolic steroids. This can probably boost the ceiling a little, but it has its own problems. It’s a bit like taking an office where work isn’t getting done, and making everybody work twenty more hours a week: if work isn’t getting done, five more hours might help a little, but twenty won’t fix the problem. Howard Gardner, multiple intelligence theorist, spends most of Extraordinary Minds arguing for a multiplicity of genius; in the beginning, he asks if there’s anything common to all kinds of genius, and says, yes, he’d identify three things:

  • There is some domain of performance.
  • There is a community that appreciates the genius’s performance in this domain.
  • Failures.

According to Gardner, a genius fails more, and more spectacularly, than an average person.

This notwithstanding, if you’re trying to get into Mega Society East, what counts on the test is not what you get right; it’s what you get wrong. It’s not the absolutely brilliant answers you had to questions two, five, and seven; it’s the fact that you missed something on questions one, four, and nine. Given the cognitive diversity at the upper end of the spectrum, there are limitations to even high-ceiling tests.

Is there any alternative? I would say yes, and I believe a hint of it comes from a story about a high school physics student. After the unit covering air pressure, the teacher wrote on an exam, “Explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student wrote, “Tie a rope around the barometer, lower it from the top of the building until it hits the ground, make a mark on the rope, pull it up, and measure the length of the rope. (There are other ways of doing this.)”

This put the teacher in a bit of a bind. He called in one of his colleagues, and explained what had happened. The colleague said, “In a way that demonstrates your knowledge of physics, explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student said, “Go to the top of the building with a barometer and a stopwatch. Drop the barometer, and measure the time before the barometer splatters on the ground beneath. Then use the formula y = 1/2 at2 to calculate the height of the building.” The teachers conferred and gave him almost full credit.

The teacher asked what some of the other ways were: “Go outside on a sunny day, and measure the height of the barometer, the length of the barometer’s shadow, and the length of the building’s shadows, and use ratios to determine the height of the building.” “This probably isn’t the best way, but go into the basement, knock on the superintendent’s door, and say, ‘Mr. Superintendent! I have a fine barometer for you if you will only tell me the height of the building!'”

What this story screams out to me is not just that the student is bright enough that he could see the desired answer about calculating from the difference in air pressure. I’m positive of that. It’s not just that he could give several alternate approaches. It’s that he would. It’s that he behaved like a gifted mind does when it’s been completely insulted.

That gives a hint of an indirect approach: don’t try IQ-normal-style cognitive strain questions, but look for a very different kind of thinking, and the effects of living in a world where most other people are two, three, four, five sigma below you. I wrote up the basic ideas, and e-mailed Paul Cooijmans, head of Giga and Glia. He suggested I start my own high-IQ society. I thought that was a little more ambitious than I wanted to take on now, but I did create a test. I wrote it up, gave it to heads of some high-IQ societies to distribute, received very kind responses from Gina LoSasso of the Mega Foundation and Nik Lygeros of the Pi Society… and have gotten two tests filled out, which I haven’t looked at because I want to read them together. The test may turn out to be nothing more than an interesting fizzle. Even then, I thought it might be interesting enough to share.

What about the glass wall? The symbol relates to me to three layers, or levels, of maturity in dealing with others. The first layer is not recognizing there is a difference. In childhood, even when I scored high in the MathCounts competition, I might have realized there was something called intelligence and I had more of it, but not that I thought all that differently: I treated others as if they were the same as me underneath. That is a recipe for giving and receiving hurt.

When I finally let myself see that there were differences, I tried to fit in through blending in. In the short run, that’s much better; there are far fewer incidents. Over time, it costs—the cost of a false self. There were some things in myself I wasn’t showing anyone, not even myself.

After that, I began to erect a glass wall about myself, something that would keep things out of view before I was confident people were ready, but not permanently—and would let me draw others in. I don’t think this is a final resting place—in fact, I’m almost positive itisn’t—but it seems a definite step ahead of the other two steps.

What’s inside the glass wall? Much of this speech hints at things inside the glass wall, but I’d like to give one concrete example.

In the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Phillip Yancey helps draw out stories and insights from Paul Brand, the doctor who discovered that leprosy ravages the body by destroying the sense of touch, and with it the ability to feel pain. In one of these stories, Dr. Brand tells how he left a speaking engagement sick, sat hunched in the corner of a train car, wishing the interminable train ride would be over, and finally staggered to his hotel room. He began to undress, and realized to his horror that there was no feeling in his left heel.

He pricked himself with a pin and felt nothing. He jabbed himself harder, watched a drop of blood form, and moaned for the pain that would not come. That night, he lay dressed on his bed. He knew that sulfone drugs would probably stop the spread of the disease quite quickly, but he still could not help imagine it spreading to his hands, his feet. As a doctor who worked with patients who’d lost their sense of touch, he cherished the feel of earth in his fingers, the feel of a puppy’s fur, the affection of a friend. His career as a surgeon would soon end. What’s more, what would become of his movement? He, their leader, had assured others that leprosy was the least contagious of all communicable diseases, and careful hygeine could almost ensure that they would not get it. What would it mean if he, their leader, was a leper? That ugly word he’d banished from his vocabulary rose like a monster with new strength.

After a long and sleepless night, Dr. Brand got up, and took a pin to face the gristly task of mapping out the affected area. He took a breath, jabbed himself—and roared in pain. Nothing had ever felt so delicious to him as that one electric jolt of pain.

He realized what had happened. He was sick, with something mundane, and as a sick traveller had forgone his usual motion. His foot had fallen asleep. Dr. Brand was for a time too ashamed to recount that dismal experience, but I’m glad he did. The experience changed his life, and the story has impacted me.

As far as perception goes, I’m not sure if my sense of touch is more perceptive than most people’s. Probably a little bit. I can say that it is integrated with other senses. There was one time I was at the supermarket, and the woman in front of me in the checkout line dropped a soda bottle a short distance. Being bored, I gently pinched the bottle, and then made a comment that seemed to me almost too obvious to be worth saying: if you pinch a soda bottle, you can tell if it’s safe to open. A bottle that can be safely opened will give slightly to moderate pressure; a bottle that’s shaken up is firm as a rock. Her reply, “Oh, is that the trick that you use?” caught me off guard. Feeling a shaken soda bottle like that is no more a trick to me than looking at the stove for dancing orange spots is a trick to see if I’ve started a grease fire.

As an American who’s lived in France, I like to give my friends hugs and kisses. I’m careful how and when I ask, particularly about a kiss on the cheek, and I listen to people with my intuition before asking those questions… but that invitation (accepted or not) is usually tied to when I pull someone inside the glass wall.

What about a musing life? Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business talks about the dark side of television’s effects on culture. Without going into a full analysis of Plato’s Allegory of the Television, I will say that television blinds the inner eye by stimulating the surface and starving the depths. A home without a television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.

Without television, what happens? At times, you get bored, and then more bored, and then you come to a place on the other side of boredom with renewed creativity, sensitivity, and insight. I try to live there; like my time sense and the presence learned through wine, it gives focus to musings, such as this talk was woven from. It is a sort of fast for the mind, and makes room for a considerable degree of depth.

What is my interest in thinking inside the box? There’s been a lot of homage paid to the many virtues of thinking outside the box. Perhaps many of you have stories to tell of a time when someone was extolling the many virtues of thinking outside the box, but that’s not where I’m going. The praises of thinking outside the box are sung because thinking inside and outside the box complement each other, and most people are so often inside the box that it’s hard for them to step out. With severely gifted individuals, the real challenge is not thinking outside the box, but thinking inside the box.

There are many times that it’s better to think inside the box. Driving to work, for instance. More deeply, communicating and negotiating requires one to understand and think like the other person, and for many people, this means thinking inside the box. I’d also like to give one very concrete example of where it’s important to think inside the box: manners.

Manners are an arbitrary collection of rules, and there is no unifying principle that everything else flows from. Respecting and valuing the person will not tell you why you should hold a fork like a pen instead of how a little boy wants to hold a knife. Something that meaningless may be very difficult for you and me to learn, but it is important. Why? To many people, manners are the very foundation of civilized interaction, and it presents them with a needless and pointless obstacle if you say, “I respect you and I do not feel the need to observe manners in your presence.” It’s been said, “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance;” if people are going to walk away from you offended, let them be offended by something of substance, not by crude manners.

And lastly: mystic, artist, Christian. Why do I group these together? Does being a mystic make one an artist and a Christian? No; nothing like that holds directly, but there is a common thread. It’s illuminated by a conversation I had with one friend, where I said that pragmatism was a philosophical disease. I learned shortly thereafter that pragmatism was quite important to her.

Why would I say something like that? In one conversation a few years earlier, at Calvin College, one of my friends asked me why I wanted something, and didn’t like my response. A little probing, and I knew why: while the words he used were, “Why do you want it?”, what he meant by it, the only thing he could mean at that time, was, “What do you find it useful for?” The item, whatever it was (I don’t remember), was not something I wanted for its usefulness in letting me get something else; it was something I valued in itself. He couldn’t see that.

So I asked him, “Do you value having that arm on your body?” “Uh, yes…” “Why?” “Because if I have an arm, I can grab an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I grab an apple, I can eat an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I eat an apple, I can live and not die!” “Why do you want that?” At that point, he gave the response I’d been waiting for: an impassioned explanation that living and not dying was not simply valued as a means to something else, but something he wanted for itself.

Pragmatism and utilitarianism have a very small circle of things that are valued outside of their usefulness to something else: the Oxford Companion to Philosophy lists only pleasure, which seems a dismally small selection to me. Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts talks about the insipid banality in the Christian art tradition: the tradition that once produced Dante and Bach has now produced “John’s Christian Stores”, and a large part of that is because Christians sold their birthright to embrace pragmatism. Where pragmatism draws a small circle of things that are embraced, Christianity, mysticism, and art draw a much larger circle: there’s something there that isn’t in Dewey and Mill’s practical world.

Madeleine l’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, tells of a time in college when her professor asked on a test how Chaucer chose a particular literary device in a passage, and she wrote in a white heat of fury that Chaucer did not “choose a literary device;” that’s not how an artist works at all! I had a loosely similar experience, if not involving anger; I was sharing something I was writing with a new acquaintance, and she complimented my use of personification at a specific point. I had to reread the passage more than once to see what she meant; she made a straightforward statement, but I had not thought in those terms. A good artist may have excellent technique, but the technique is there because the art is good; the art is not good just because of the technique. Good art comes through something much more, and much more interesting, than technique: listening to the work, serving it, cooperating with it, helping an unformed idea have a shape that others can see.

What about mysticism? There is a problem here; you might say that insofar as mysticism can be explained, it is not mysticism. I will say that the characters I identify with most in literature have been characters who’ve had a foot in another world. Charles Wallace from Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not the boy genius, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, an abstract personification of intelligence; he is a very real and believable person. He is open to another world, not surprised to think he’s seen dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden, and he kythes; that is, he has a real and present communication, something beyond communication, with others. You can read about kything in the 100 ways of kything on my webpage.

In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is born as a baby boy on Mars, orphaned by all human travellers, raised on Mars by Martians in Martian culture, and brought to earth as a young man. Let’s talk about culture shock for a moment. Smith causes and receives quite a lot of it, as the story narrates his progression from a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man to a character who is both human and Martian. There are quite a few stumbling points along the way to this. At one point, early in the story, someone asks Michael what is intended to be a very routine question, but Michael doesn’t get it. He has heard the words before, but he’s a bit like a top-notch English professor trying to decipher a math paper: even with a glossary to all the symbol, there’s a whole way of thinking that goes with the strange words, and Michael doesn’t understand it. Heinlein says that half a million years’ wildly alien abstractions raced through his mind. I don’t have half a million years’ worth of much of anything, but I do have wildly alien abstractions. I first became a philosopher as a boy, too young to touch any of my thoughts in language; one of the questions I thought of was, “Am I human?”, or, “Am I a being of the same class as those I observe around me?” I observed that my parents were linguistic creatures who moved naturally in language, that I was not linguistic in any comparable way, and concluded that I was not human. Another question I pondered was a short, simple question that could be rendered, “Can there be a perpetual motion machine, and if so, how can it be started?” The second part of the question was tied to the first; the best way I can explain it is that, given time-symmetric laws of physics, if there’s a machine that will keep on going forever, then the other side of the coin is that it has been going on forever, and there’s no way to start it. In middle school, I started French at about the age of ten, and in a few years was able to think more fluently in French than in English. My accent sounded more typical of a native Parisian French speaker than a Midwestern American English speaker. Why? There are a couple of reasons, differences in how the two languages were taught, but one of the basic ones is that English was here, French was there, and my way of thinking was way out there, and happened to be closer to French than English.

Blajeny, also from A Wind in the Door, is a Teacher from another galaxy, and the lessons he brings are sometimes difficult: not as, “Face your worst fear ever,” but as different from what they’d expect. He tells the children they will be in his class, and Meg is elated that her brother Charles will never have to go to the red schoolhouse again; then he says something that leaves her wondering where his classroom is. Blajeny retreats inside himself, and when she’s decided he won’t answer, he says, “Here, there, everywhere. In the schoolyard in first-grade recess. With the cherubim and seraphim. Among the farandolae.” I am wearing the costume you see me in because of how I identify with Blajeny, because there’s something of me that shines through him.

Last, what about being a Christian? There’s one music professor who said that, rather than thinking that we sing a song one and then it’s over, and we sing it later, and so on, we should rather thing that as long as there have been created beings, there is an eternal song rising before God, a song rising as incense that will never go out, and that when we sing we step into that song. Christianity is the foundation this whole edifice of thought is built upon, and its crowning jewel. It is the soil in which other things grow, and the thoughts I have given are an example of how Christians may think.

So now in this brief time I have shared a little bit about myself; I have answered a few questions and raised many more. Come visit my website, at CJS Hayward; it’s in your program. Of course I’d like to hear from an editor who’d like me to write something, or would like an existing manuscript, or someone who’d like to hear me speak, or someone who’d like a website built, but more than any of that I have given this talk for the same reason I’ve built my website: to connect. What have I left you wondering about?

After the speech, two hours’ worth of discussion followed. That night, after the speech, Jonathan was invited to speak at the next conference, and invited to two other engagements. He is available.

Two Decisive Moments

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”

I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.

Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.

It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!

What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!

Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.

An Orthodox icon of the Resurrection.
An icon of the Resurrection.

Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.

Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!

Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”

Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.

That is a decisive moment, but decisive moments are not some kind of special exception to Christian life. Christian history and the Christian spiritual walk alike take their pace from decisive moments. I would like to look at the decisive moment in the Gospel reading.

In that reading, the people who have gathered to listen to Jesus went beyond a “standing room only” crowd to being so packed you couldn’t get near the door. Some very faithful friends of a paralytic did the only thing they could have done. They climbed on the roof and started digging through it. I suspect that the homeowner didn’t like the idea. But they dug in, and lowered him, hoping this teacher will heal him.

Jesus saw their faith and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And people were shocked—there was a very good reason for this! If I have two friends, and one owes the other money, I can’t tell the first one, “Your debt is forgiven. It’s wiped clean.” That’s not my place. Sin is not a debt, or a crime, or even a disease. It’s worse. And Christ told a man who owed an infinite debt to God that his slate was wiped clean and his sins were forgiven. And the reason people were saying, “This man blasphemes! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” was that they understood exactly how significant it was for Jesus to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Maybe they failed to recognize Christ as God (it is very rare that anyone but the demons identified him as the Son of God), but they were absolutely right when they said that Jesus was saying something that only God had the authority to say.

They were murmuring, and Christ knew why. So he asked them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Arise. Take up your mat and walk.'” Everybody knew the answer, that forgiving sins was an infinitely weightier matter, but Jesus was about to give a lesser demonstration of the exact same authority by which he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” He said to the paralytic, “Arise. Take up your mat and walk.” And the paralytic did exactly that.

That is authority. That is the authority that commands the blind to gaze on the light of the Transfiguration, the deaf to listen to the song of angels, the mute to sing with God’s angels, the lame to dance for joy, and what is greater than all of these, command you and me, sinners, to be freed from our sins.

Great and rare as the restoration of one paralytic may be, everybody knew that that was less important than the forgiveness of his sins. The story of that healing is a decisive moment.

But it’s not the only decisive moment, and there is another decisive moment that may be much less rare, much less something we want to write home about, but is profoundly important, especially in Lent. I am talking about repentance.

When the Holy Spirit convicts me of my sin, there are two responses I give, both of which I ought to be ashamed of. The first response is to tell God that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Now of course I am not blunt enough to tell God, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” (Perhaps it would be better if I did.) What I say instead is something like, “I can see where you’re coming from, and I can see that you have a point. But I’ve given it a little thought and I’d like you to consider a suggestion that is much better for everyone involved. Would you consider this consolation prize?” Now again, perhaps it would be better if I were honest enough to simply tell God, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Not only is it not good that I do that, but it is spurning the grace of God.

When a mother takes a knife or a sharp pair of scissors from a little boy, this is not because the mother wants a pair of scissors and is too lazy or inconsiderate to go get her own pair: her motivation is entirely for the child’s welfare. God doesn’t need our repentance or our sin. When he commands us through his Spirit to let go of our sin, is this for our sake or for his need? It is entirely for our own benefit, and not something God was lacking, that we are commanded to repent from sin. And this has a deeper implication. If God convicts us from our sin and asks our surrender to him in the unconditional surrender for repentance, then that is how we will be healed from our sin: it is the best medicine chosen by the Great Physician, and it is out of his mercy that the Great Physician refuses all of our consolation prizes that will cut us off from his healing love. Repentance is terrifying at times; it is letting go of the one thing we least want to give over to God, and it is only once we have let go that our eyes are opened and we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” The more we understand repentance the more we understand that it is a decisive moment when God is at work.

The second response I give to the Holy Spirit is even more an affront to the decisive now in which the Lord meets me. I say, “Well, I think you’re right, and I need to repent of it, only now isn’t the best time for me. I’d like to deal with it at another time.” Here, also, things might be better if I were at least honest enough to acknowledge I was telling God, “Your timing is far from perfect.” God lives outside of time, and yet he has all the time there is. There is never reason for him to say with a sheepish grin, “I know this really isn’t the best time for you, but I only have two minutes right now, and I’m going to ask for you to deal with this now even though this isn’t the best time.” When he comes and tells us to repent, now, the reason for that is not that some point later on we may feel more like repenting and that is a better time; the reason is that by the time I am struggling against God’s Spirit I have already entered the decisive moment when I can choose either to be cleansed and freed of my sin, or keep on fumbling for the snooze button while God tells me, “Enough sleep! It is time for you to arise!”

Let us repent, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.