I am a sinful, imperfect, and very unworthy layman of the Orthodox Church, seeking to enter monasticism to repent of my sins for the rest of my life. (However, I’ve written some pretty good stuff, and if you buy something you might help me along my way.)
What people are saying about this collection
“A collection of joyful, challenging, insightful, intelligent, mirthful, and jarring essays written by an Eastern Orthodox author who is much too wise for his years.”
—Joseph Donovan, Amazon
“Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.
Fans of C.S. Lewis and similar Christian thinkers will find The Best of Jonathan’s Corner an absolute delight.”
—Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
“When I read C. S. Lewis, A. W. Tozer, or G. K. Chesterton, there is a deep ache for both the times and the men that made honor, wisdom, and clarity a thing of such beauty and strength. We wonder what they would say of our time, and why, with so many more people and better communication, we don’t see more of them.
Hayward is such a person of wisdom and depth. I do not say this lightly or flatteringly. He and I don’t agree on everything, but when we contrast, it will never be his side of the issue that is lacking in depth, beauty, or elegance. He’s Orthodox, yes (I’m not). But I suspect all sides will claim him as they do Lewis and Chesterton.”
—Kent Nebergall, Amazon
“The Sign of the Grail is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top recommendation for academia and the non-specialist reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are C.J.S. Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries, compilations and anthologies: Yonder, Firestorm 2034, A Cord of Seven Strands, The Steel Orb, The Christmas Tales, and Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary [the other six Hayward titles then in print].”
—John Burroughs, Midwest Book Review
“Divinely inspired for our day and age’s spiritually thirsty fellows.”
—Colleen Woods, Amazon
“The work that stands out most among the creative pieces, perhaps among all of them, is that which opens the book, The Angelic Letters. I have had the pleasure of reading nearly all of Hayward’s writings, and I was delighted that he undertook to write such a work. Readers who are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters will recognize at once that it is the very book which that author desired, but felt unable, to write in order to balance the demonic correspondence. It is a mark of Hayward’s skill, knowledge, and spiritual insight that he has successfully written something that such a theologian as Lewis did not wish to attempt. He has of course accomplished this work with God’s help, but one must realize the spiritual struggle, mental effort, careful study, and deep prayer that has gone into every piece in this anthology… This author has gathered pearls for us, and may we gladly look upon them. They hold glimmers that can reflect our lives.”
—Sydney “Nicoletta” Freedman, in the Foreword to The Best of Jonathan’s Corner.
This is the piece of which the Midwest Book Review wrote, “Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.
In other words, it enchants as a Swiss Army Knife enchants, and individual works are as distinctive as blades on a Swiss Army Knife..
This is the flagship of my works, both in theology and writing as a whole, and there’s a lot there.
Among the critiques I’ve made, The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts has had a pretty broad and effective reach, in particular for a work that has numerous vitriolic one star reviews. This title, by contrast, contains another significant critique. The “Humane Tech” movement achieves some things, but I would recall a common misquote allegedly from Einstein: “Our problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Humane Tech looks at how technology experts can work within today’s technical paradigms to soften some of technology’s rough spots. The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written across ages to step much further outside the box, and the light adaptation of Plato in Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? has been called deep, perhaps because it was a light touch to a masterpiece.
I mentioned in conversation with a previous parish priest that I would jump at an opportunity to do a homily, and when I asked for him to do a homily on something briefly touched on in previous opportunities, he invited me to give such a homily myself. I did, and it was the one time in my life that people burst out clapping after a homily. He was a great encourager, and it is my loss that he has moved to another state.
It’s not just that they’re both about a foot thick. The thickness comes from a numerous and varied set of tools: 87 implements with 141 functions for the Wenger Giant, compared with 230 separate works (as of the time of this writing) in the Kindle collection. Furthermore, if you search Amazon for my dozens of titles you will see something a bit like the many Swiss Army Knives you can search from above.
Thomas Dixon in Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions, offers a model of societal secularization intended to be a more robust than just seeing “theology vs. anti-theology,” “theology vs. theology in disguise,” or “theology vs. anti-theology in disguise.” He argues for a process that begins with full-blooded theism, such as offered by almost any strain of classic Christianity, and then moves to “thin theism,” such as Paley (today think Higher Powers), then “anti-theology” that is directly hostile to theism, then “atheology” which is alienated from theological roots but is merely un-theological, “in much the same way as a recipe in a cookery book is un-theological.”
Dixon, like a good scholar, provides a good case study explored at greater length in his dissertation, and I am very interested in the case study he chose. He looks at the formation of a secular category of psychology, and the steps that have been taken to depart from older religious understandings situating the concept of passions, to a secular concept of emotions. The development of the secular category of emotions serves as a microcosm of a study of a society’s apostasy (a term Dixon does not use in his article) from understanding aspects of life as features of religion, to covering similar territory in terms of what is explained, but understanding things on secular terms, disconnected from religion. (Much prior to the transition Dixon documents, it’s difficult to see what the West would make of psychobabble about “Feelings aren’t right. They aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.“)
If I may summarize Dixon’s account of the apostasy, while moving the endpoints out a bit, in the Philokalia, passions are loosely sin viewed as a state, with inner experience (and sometimes outer) related to how we live and struggle with our passions. Orthodox Christians have quite an earful to give (and sometimes the maturity not to give it) if someone from the West asks, “What are your passions?” In an Orthodox understanding, taken literally, that question has nothing to do with activities we enjoy and get excited about (unless they are wrong for us to engage in). It is more the matter of a habit of sin that has defaced their spiritual condition and that they are, or should be, repenting of. That is one of the more “Western-like” points we can take from the Philokalia; another foundational concept is that many of the thoughts we think are our own, and make our own (such as authentic handling of non-straight sexuality as is broadly understood today), are the unending attempted venomous injections of demons and we need to watchfully keep guard and destroy what seems to be our own thoughts. This is not present, nor would be particularly expected, in Dixon’s account. However, the “before” in Dixon’s “before and after” clearly situates what would today be considered feelings as markers and features of spiritual struggle, spiritual triumph, and spiritual defeat. The oldest so-to-speak “non-influence” figure Dixon attends to lived his life well after the Orthodox eight demons, that attack us from without, were revised to become our own internal seven deadly sins.
The first alternative Dixon studies is a concept of emotion that is paper-thin. The specific text he studies, which is remarkably accurately named, is Charles Darwin’s The Expressions of Emotion in Man and the Animals. The title does not directly herald a study of emotion, but the expressions of emotion, with an a priori that diminishes or removes consideration of human emotional life being distinctive (contrast Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation; she believes very much that animals have a psyche, but takes a sledgehammer to all-too-easy anthromorphization of animal psyches). Furthermore, an emotion is something you feel. Emotion is not really about something, and emotional habits are not envisioned. Darwin’s study was a study of physiologically what was going on with human and animal bodies approached as what was really going on in emotion.
Later on, when atheology has progressed, this begins to change. After a certain point people could conceive that emotions are about something; another threshold crossed, and you could speak of emotional habits; another threshold crossed, and you could regard a person’s emotional landscape as healthy or unhealthy. All of this fits Dixon’s category of atheology if one is using his framework. There remain important differences from either the Philokalia or the earliest models Dixon studies: it is today believed that you should let emotions wash through you until they have run their course, an opinion not endorsed by any framing of passions that I know. However, I would recall G.K. Chesterton on why it was not provocative for him to call the Protestant Reformation the shipwreck of Christianity: the proof is that, like Robinson Crusoe, Protestants keep on retrieving things from the Catholic ship.
Perhaps the fullest atheological rediscovery of the concept of a passion I am aware of is the disease model of alcoholism lived out in Alcoholics Anonymous. The passions are, in the Philokalia, spiritual wounds or diseases of some sort, and the dominant metaphor for a father confessor is that of a physician or healer. While the important term “repent” is not included in the wording of the twelve steps, the twelve steps paint in powerful and stark relief what repentance looks like when it puts on work gloves. The community is in many ways like a church or perhaps is a church. Steps may be taken to qualify strict doctrine, but the teaching and resources are a sort of practical theology to help people defeat the bottle. (One thinks of Pannenberg’s essay “How to Think About Secularism” suggests that secularism did not arise from people grinding an axe against all religion; it arose from people wanting to live in peace at a time when it was mainstream to wish that people on the other side of the divide would be burned at the stake.) There is a bit of haziness about “God as I understand him,” but this is decidedly not the result of hazy thinking. The biggest difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Orthodox Church may be that Alcoholics Anonymous helps with one primary disease or passion, and the Church, which could be called Sinners Anonymous, doesn’t say, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It believes, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m the worst sinner in history.”
Where is the Orthodox Church in all of Dixon’s study?
At a glance, there may not be much visible. The Orthodox Church is not mentioned as such, the text seems to focus on English-speaking figures from the 17th century onwards, and the only figure claimed by the Orthodox Church is the Blessed Augustine, who is first mentioned in a perfunctory list of influences upon authors who retained significant grounding in older tradition. (The next stop seems to jump centuries forward to reach Thomas Aquinas.) The text does not seem to have even a serious pretension to treat Orthodoxy as far as the case study goes. Furthermore, while passions were and are considered important in Orthodoxy, the theological affections that counterbalance theological passions in the “before” part of “before and after” are obscure or nonexistant in Orthodox faith.
However, there is something that would feel familiar to Orthodox. To the Orthodox student in a Roman university, there may be the repeated effect of a Catholic student conspiratorially explain that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing that was daft and wrong, but now Rome is getting its act together, has progressed, and has something genuinely better to offer. To Orthodox, this whole topos heralds something specific; it heralds the dismantling of one more continuity that Rome used to have with Holy Orthodoxy. And while Dixon does not discuss “Catholic” or “Protestant” as such and does not even have pretensions of treating Orthodoxy, he offers a first-class account of Western figures dismantling one more continuity with Holy Orthodoxy. To many Orthodox, the tune sounds all too familiar.
In Orthodoxy, all theology is “mystical theology”, meaning what is practically lived in the practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Systematic theology is off-limits, as a kind of formal book exercise that is not animated by the blood of mystical theology.
Clinical psychology offers what Dixon terms quasi-theology, and I would more specifically term quasi-mystical theology. Not all psychologists are clinical practitioners; there are a good number of academic research psychologists who explore things beyond the bounds of what a counselor would ordinarily bring up. For instance, academic psychology has developed theories of memory, including what different kinds of memory there are, how they work, and how they fit together. These are not only more detailed than common-sense understandings, but different: learning a skill is considered a type of memory, and while it makes sense on reflection, the common, everyday use of “memory” does not draw such a connection.
This is a legitimate finding of research psychology, but it falls outside of common counseling practice unless the client has some kind of condition where this information is useful. Clinical practitioners attempt to inculcate aspects of psychology that will help clients with their inner state, how to handle difficulties, and (it is hoped) live a happier life. All of this is atheology that is doing something comparable to theology, and more specifically mystical theology; the speculative end is left for academics, or at least not given to clients who don’t need the added information. In Dixon’s framing, some atheology is additionally quasi-theological, meaning that it offers e.g. overarching narratives of life and the cosmos; he mentions science-as-worldview as one point. Clinical psychology offers a different, humbler, and vastly more powerful quasi-theological project. It offers an attempt at a secular common ground that will let people live their lives with the kind of resources that have been traditionally sought under religious auspices. As far as the Philokalia as the Orthodox masterwork for the science of spiritual struggle goes, at times the content of clinical psychology runs parallel to the Philokalia and at times it veers in a different and unrelated direction from the Philokalia, but it is almost a constant that clinical psychology is intended to do Philokalia work that will help overcome bad thoughts, preventable misery, regrettable actions, being emotionally poisoned by people who are emotionally poisonous, etc. There is of course an additional difference in that the works in the Philokalia are concerned with building people up for eternal glory, but clinical psychology is meant to build people up for a positive life, and that much is common ground.
What is a religion? Can religion be secular?
Q> With so many religions [in India], how do you stay united ?
The term “religion” etymologically comes from Latin, “religare”, which means to bind. It is the same root as in “ligament” in the human body, which do a job of connecting bones to each other. And while the FAQ list contains some astonishingly silly questions, there is some degree of insight reflected in a realization of many religions in India leading to a question of, “How do you stay united?”
I bristled when I read scholars saying that courtly love and chivalry was the real religion of knights and nobles late in the Middle Ages, but some years later, the claim makes a lot more sense to me. The medieval versions of Arthurian legend I read before and during The Sign of the Grail repeatedly talked about how people didn’t love (in courtly fashion) anything like the days of King Arthur, which is a signal warning that courtly love was present in a sense that was unthinkable in the claimed days of King Arthur’s court. The first widespread version of Arthurian legends outside of Celtic legend were in the twelfth century; the dates reported, with mention of St. Augustine of Canterbury, put Arthur as being in the sixth century. The number of intervening centuries is roughly the same as the number of years between our time and the tail end of the medieval world.
Furthermore, I have not read Harry Potter but I would offer some contrasts. First of all, Harry Potter is produced, offered, and among the more mentally stable members of the fan base, received as a work of fiction. The version of King Arthur that first swept through mainland Europe was a work of pseudohistory produced mostly out of thin air, but was presented and received as literal history. Secondary, Harry Potter mania is not expected to be a fixture for all of a long lifetime: the cultural place we have is like nothing else in its heyday, but it is a candidate for a limelight that shone on many other things before it and is expected to shine on many things after it. The Arthurian legends were more of a Harry Potter without competition. Today one can walk in the bookstore and see fantasy novels representing many worlds; Arthurian legends tended to absorb anything beside them that was out there (like the story of Tristan and Yseult, included in Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). It might be pointed out that the present Pope as of this writing is named after a medieval Western saint, Francis of Assisi, who was named under the inspiration of France and more specifically French troubadours. I am not sure where the troubadors’ lyrics began and ended, but Arthurian legends entered the vulgar (i.e. common, instead of Latin) tongue in France and troubadours were part and parcel to what spread. Notwithstanding that the Arthurian legends take place in England, they are to this day as well-known, or better-known, in France, than the story of the (French) Roland and his paladins. The Roman Catholic Church forbade reading “idle romances,” meaning, essentially, all Arthurian literature, but it seems that, in the circles of courtly love, the active endeavors of chivalry were much more on the front burner with Christianity assumed to be on the back burner, and chivalry was more of one’s real religion to knights and nobles than Christianity.
One Orthodox student, perhaps not making himself particularly well-liked in a theology program by complaining about Karl Rahner’s reliance on Western analytic philosophy (one particularly memorable cart-before-the-horse heading was “The presence of Christ in an evolutionary worldview”), and was answered by saying that it was to reach the unbeliever. He responded and said that he did not see why the common ground between all world religions was Western analytic philosophy. The professor said that it was to reach the unbeliever in us. The student said that Western analytic philosophy did not speak to the unbeliever in him. (The conversation moved on from there, but without uncovering any particular reason why Western analytic philosophy should fit the job description Rahner was conscripting it to do.)
In psychology today, the common ground that is legitimately given the job of a secular and artificial religion in a sense of what common ground binds us together is material derived by Buddhism and Hinduism (whether or not their incarnations would be recognized by the religious communities). Jainism is omitted perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with Indian religion. (The term “yoga,” for instance, means a spiritual path, in which sense it would be natural for a Christian to claim to be practicing the Christian yoga, but yoga in the usual sense is lifted from Hinduism. As to whether Orthodox may practice yoga, as always, ask your priest; I do not see why Christians need yoga, but many priests are much more lenient than I would be.) What is presented in psychology today is a secular religion, not specifically requiring one to reverence certain deities or providing as complete a moral code as world religions, and for that matter expected to be markedly different than the secular religions offered ten years in the past and ten years in the future, and no less meant to do a religion’s job because it is concocted.
Why are we seeking mindfulness from the East?
Perhaps because we because we have dismantled it in the West.
Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “55 Maxims for the Christian Life”:
Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
Practice silence, inner and outer.
Sit in silence 20 or 30 minutes a day.
Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
Live a day, or even part of a day, at a time.
Listen when people talk to you.
Be awake and attentive, fully present wherever you are.
Flee imagination, analysis, fantasy, figuring things out.
34 is not the only item that exhorts us to be mindful.
But we are rediscovering mindfulness after having dismantled it at home. One friend talked about how his grandmother complained about Walkmans, that if you are running through natural surroundings and listening to music, you are not paying due attention to your surroundings. There has been a stream of technologies, from humble, tape-eating Walkmans to the iPod’s apotheosis in an iPhone and Apple Watch pairing, whose marketing proposition is to provide an ever-easier, ever-more-seductive, ever-more-compelling alternative to mindfulness. Now an iPhone can be awfully useful (I have a still-working iPhone 7), but using technology ascetically and rightly is harder than not using it at all, and Humane Tech only reaches so far.
One CEO talked about how she wanted to share one single hack, and the hack she wanted to share was that her mother gave you her full attention no matter who you were or what you were doing. And evidently this was something the CEO considered important both to do and to invite others to do. However, her mother’s behavior, however virtuous, and virtuously mindful, was nothing distinctive in her generation, nor was it presented as such. Even with no concept of mindfulness as such, people in her mother’s generation were taught in life, faith, and manners to give mindful attention to everyone you dealt with.
G.K. Chesterton exposes the sadness of laboring in the prison of one idea, and something similar might be said by laboring in the prison of one virtue, especially if that is not a cardinal virtue that opens to a vista of other virtues. Mindfulness, for instance, is much more worthy of attention when viewed as part of an Eightfold Noble Path of interlocking virtues. A TED talk about what makes people beat the odds, presented as original research to a virtue the presenter calls “grit,” which (however much research is done) is quickly recognizable as the standard virtue of perseverance.
There may be hope for a TED talk about an interlocking family of virtues. Tim Ferris’s talk about Stoicism does not discuss virtue as such, but does introduce the oblong concept that life lessons learned in ancient times can be relevant and useful today, and discusses Stoicism as the substance of a play George Washington used to strengthen his troops, and discovered as a kind of ultimate power tool by some of the top coaches in the NFL.
The first book of the Philokalia, moved to an appendix by formerly Protestant editors, was misattributed to one saint and the stated reason for its banishment was that it was spiritually insightful but not written by a Christian; it was Stoic and not Christian in certain respects. That may be true, but the Philokalia is universally human and its authors have usually been quick to borrow from, and respect, Stoic virtue philosophy.
One influential book from the West is Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. C.S. Lewis gives its reception a cardinal place in The Discarded Image, and contests a tendency to have to choose between Boethius’s Christianity and his philosophy. Both should be taken seriously, and the book, among other excellences, shows a Christian who has profited from the best pagan philosophy had to offer, including important Stoic elements.
We’ve seen a TED talk that doesn’t name virtues but shows enthusiasm for ancient philosophy in which virtues were important. Perhaps someday we may have a TED talk about an ancient or modern family of virtues.
“Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is fundammentally not an “affirmation.”
I would like to look at the phrase, “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” to dismiss two ideas that might already be obviously ridiculous.
The first is that it’s sadistic, Alcoholics Anonymous rubbing member’s noses into the dirt because of some cruel glee. The practice of introducing yourself as an alcocholic is part and parcel of a big picture intended to free alcoholics from a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, perhaps reminding members that someone who has been fifteen years sober can return to bondage to alcohol. Furthermore, the main intended beneficiary of saying “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is simply the alcoholic who says it.
The second is that it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps there are some confused people who believe that it would be nice to be drunk all the time and drink more and more. However, for someone who knows the incredibly destructive suffering alcoholism inflicts on oneself and those one loves, it is an absurdity to think of “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” as a way to talk something into being, for someone who’s been stone cold sober lifelong to wish to be in cruel slavery to alcohol. “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” being an “affirmation” of wishful thinking belongs in a Monty Python sketch. The introduction as an alcoholic falls under the heading of facing already present reality.
“Here is a trustworthy saying which deserves acceptance: Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Such said St. Paul, and such is enshrined in two brief prayers before communion. Confessing oneself the chief of sinners is not a positive affirmation: but it is a handmaiden to being one Christ died for, and another saying which has rumbled down the ages, “The vilest of human sins is but a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.” The confession as the chief of sinners is not an endpoint. It is a signpost lighting up the way to, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” However vile the sins one owns up to, they are outclassed in every possible way by the Lord who is addressed in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (“Mercy” is said to translate chesed, a Hebrew word usually translated as “lovingkindness.”)
How do modern psychological affirmations look to a theist? A bit like trying to nourish yourself by eating cotton candy, but I’d really like to give more of an argument than an unflattering comparison. The introduction to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describe a shift in wisdom literature (written and other materials about how to live life well; the concept heavily overlaps both theology and psychology). The shift is from a character ethic, which says that you get ahead by moral character or moral virtue, to a personality ethic which does not call for submitting to inner transformation, and whose hallmarks include exhortations to “Believe in yourself.” (Since Covey wrote his introduction, the jobhunting world is not the only arena to undergo a second fall into a personal brand ethic, but affirmations have not gotten to that point, or at least not that I’m aware of.)
Spirituality and organized religion
One Orthodox priest mentioned, for people who want to be spiritual but express distrust of organized religion, “If you don’t like organized religion, you’ll love Orthodoxy. We’re about as disorganized as you can get.” But he also had a deeper point to make.
That deeper point is that “objection to organized religion” is usually at its core “objection to someone else holding authority over me.” And that is deadly, because someone else having authority over you is the gateway to much of spiritual growth.
Spirituality that is offered as neutral, and has been castrated enough not to visibly trample any mainstream demographic’s religious and spiritual sensitivities, may have some effect, but true growth takes place outside of such spiritual confines.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World almost opens on “spirituality.” He discusses its vacuity, and how it exacerbates an already secular enough life. The reader is directed to him for what one might have that is better than taking a secular life and adding spirituality.
For lack of knowledge my people perish
I would like to take a moment to talk about mental illness.
One bugbear that needs to be addressed is the idea that if you are suffering from mental illness, you need more faith, and/or you just need to snap out of it. Now all of us really need more faith, and if you suffer from a mental illness, you obviously should pray. However, trying to pray hard enough to make it go away may not work any better than trying to snap out of it.
Now, with caveats, I would recommend Orthodox Christians with mental illness to see a psychiatrist and/or a counselor. Their methods can be very effective, and for all my writing about ersatz religion, they can significantly reduce suffering.
The caveat I would give is not theologically motivated. It is that there are excellent psychiatrists and counselors, but psychology is a minefield, with counselors who will tell you to use pornography and masturbate. If I were looking for a provider, I would do research and/or ask someone you trust to do research for you (if, for instance, you are depressed enough that it’s difficult to get out of bed). And if your provider seems to be acting inappropriately or displaying incompetence, it may be the entirely right decision to switch providers.
However, there is one piece more that the secular category of psychology does not understand. Mental illness can improve dramatically when you delve into new layers of repentance. While it doesn’t work to just try harder to have more faith, as you walk the Orthodox journey of repentance you will see things to repent of, and some of that repentance can slowly help untangle the knot of passions that the Fathers of the Philokalia knew, and St. Isaac the Syrian, a saint who has benefitted many mentally ill people.
The reason this section is titled “For lack of knowledge my people perish” is that we usually don’t see what we need to repent of to work at that level. We don’t know the steps. The solution I would expect is to work hard to repent, and make your confession include that one sin that you are wishing to forget when you confess. But walk on the journey of repentance: Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Monasticism is rightly called repentance, but the treasure of repentance is for everyone.
For those for whom this is a live option, the care of a spiritual director receives a central endorsement in Orthodox Psychotherapy, a classic which says that if patristic spiritual direction were to be introduced today, it would not likely be classified as religion so much as a therapeutic science. A good, experienced spiritual director who is familiar with mental illness as understood in Orthodoxy can be a much better alternative to fumbling around until you find out what sin you need to repent of and reject to turn your back on a particular point of mental illness. “For lack of knowledge my people perish” can be greatly alleviated by a spiritual director who understands classic Orthodox teaching on mental illness.
One more thing: a wise Orthodox protopresbyter said, “Avoid amateur psychologists. They usually have more problems than the rest of us!”
There are other things I do not wish to treat in detail. After it has been observed that clinical psychology often takes a person who is miserable and raise that person to feeling OK, but not rise above feeling OK, there has been a “positive psychology” meant for everyone, to help people rise above OK and make use of great talents. I would comment briefly that monasticism is both a supreme medicine for those of us who need some extra structure, and a school for positive excellence, and the latter is more central than the former.
In terms of “Christian psychology,” Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No is consistently violent to Biblical texts in the process of presenting secular boundaries as Christian. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is ludicrous hyperbole, and not properly understood until it is recognized as ludicrous hyperbole, in which the Good Samaritan goes through a road infested by brigands, gambles with his life when he gives in to what would ordinarily be the bait to brigands’ oldest and deadliest trick in the book, and so on. It was made to make the listener who asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” profoundly uncomfortable. Cloud and Townsend, however, present the Good Samaritan as giving a moderate and measured response, and asks us to imagine the rescued victim asking the Samaritan to give even more, and the Good Samaritan wisely saying, “No.”
If you have to be that violent to the Bible to make it agree with you, you’re almost certainly wrong.
And there are other things. I’m not going to try to detail life without thinking in terms of boundaries, beyond saying that Christianity, and almost certainly not only Christianity, has a concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself” that unfolds into right relations with other people, but without psychology’s concept of boundaries.
Let me mention one more point.
Perhaps most striking of all was a session under the heading of honesty, and showed a TED talk where a psychiatrist shared (in retrospect and in context, this seems like a deliberate name-drop) that he was named after his father, a Baptist minister. Then he came out as an illegitimate child, and I would like to repeat why my own parents do not like the term “bastard.”
While they wanted to teach polite language, my parents did not object to the term “bastard” because it is forceful enough to be a rude word. They objected to the term “bastard” because the term refers to someone who did not and could not have any say or any agency in a wrong decision. If there is a term forceful enough to be a rude word in this context, and the relevant act was consensual, the abrasive word should refer to the parents and not the child. And now that we’ve mostly retired the use of words like “adulterer” and “fornicator”, we have an abrasive term for the victim who had no choice in a matter and not those who made the victimhood and the victim. If the worst TMI delivery in the TED talk was that the psychiatrist was an illegitimate child, one could have answered, “Well, Christ was also born from a scandalous pregnancy.” But in fact this is not all the TMI psychiatrist was “sharing.”
Back to the TED talk. Coming out as a bastard was a softening up of the audience for behavior in which the psychiatrist genuinely did have agency. He then came out as a philanderer; he did not use any negative terms, but talked about honesty and authenticity when he opened up to his wife, now his 2nd ex-wife whom he presents as not really harmed, and shared to her, of himself, that he was both married and dating. It was, to adapt a striking phrase from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a confession with total absence of contrition or repentance.
No light bulbs went on above staff members’ heads when patients complained that this was the most autistic version of honesty they had yet seen endorsed by a mental health professional, and explained that you don’t open a coat and say “Here’s all there is to see, whether or not seeing it will help you,” or that you don’t bleed all over a casual acquaintance who asks “How are you?” in passing; as sometimes has to be explained to the autistic patient, it is rarely a shirking of due honesty to withhold a full-strength informational answer in responding to a merely social question.
And perhaps no light bulbs should have gone on over staff heads because the session on honesty had nothing to do with honesty. Staff members were in fact not ignorant of the major concept of “negative politeness” and that right speech usually both conceals and reveals. Ostensible “honesty” was just how an unrelated payload was delivered.
To spell it out, the payload is that whatever sexual practices you find yourself most drawn to pursue, and others pursue, is your real, authentic self, and honesty takes that as a non-negotiable foundation. The lecture was devoid of any clear or even vague reference to any stripe of queers (or whatever they are called this week), and if the speaker’s philarendering tried out dating a guy, he did not disclose this point. But as much as coming out as an illegitimate child paved the way for coming out as a philanderer, accepting his coming out as a philanderer on the terms he presented was masterfully crafted to pave the way to saying the only real payload to that TED talk: “The sexual practices you are most drawn to engage in are your real, authentic self, and authenticity starts with accepting these practices as its foundation,” and if one labors under the delusion that a successful straight marriage is what happens when one man, and one woman, lay the reins on the horse’s neck, one is in a position that has little to no ground to dissent from a position of, “If you allow straight marriage to be authentic, you have to give queers the same right too.”
The entire session ostensibly offered to teach honesty was itself treacherously dishonest.
(Queer advocacy has long since been baked into the societal common ground that psychology deems inoffensive to all religions.)
Conclusion: Beyond solipsism
The goal and lesson of psychology is quite often solipsistic. There are exceptions: positive psychology may cover three versions of the good life, the last and deepest version being the meaningful life, a non-solipsistic life of service to others. (Though this is seldom covered in psychology, service to others gives a real happiness). However, a session on boundaries covers how to establish and maintain our own boundaries, but probably does not cover respecting other boundaries, including when someone draws a boundary when you think it would be so much better not to establish the boundaries. The further you go, the tightest the constriction of solipsistic self-care. The endgame approached by most pillars of counseling psychology is a client with self-contained happiness.
In Orthodoxy, we do one better: “Only God and I exist.”
“Only God and I exist.” What does that mean? In a nutshell, the only standing that ultimately matters is your standing before God. Now the Orthodox Church has various forms of mediated grace, and that mediation may be included. However, the only one you need seek to please is God; if you are pleasing God, it doesn’t matter what people may do, or even the demons. Arrogance has a place; we are summoned to be rightly and properly arrogant of the demons in pleasing God. And trample them.
One major difference between ancient Judaism and its neighbors was that, as God’s people knew, there was only one God, and our problem before him was sin; if one has sinned, the one and only necessary remedy was atonement. The polytheistic neighbors believed in something much less rational, not to mention far less humane, was that one could do things that offended one or more gods, and the solution to this situation was to appease the offended deity, but unfortunately what appeased one deity could offend another. The unfortunate picture was much like the fool’s errand of being on friendly terms with everyone in a bickering junior high.
St. Moses is in fact one who confessed what Orthodox believe as “Only God and I exist.”
Once one has crossed that ground, and found that there is only one God to serve and offer our repentance, we move beyond the junior high of our life circumstances… and find that the one God is in fact the Lord of the Dance and the Orchestrator of all Creation. And this time everything besides onself again becomes real, but not ultimately real. There are billions of people in the world whom we should love, and we should show virtue and politeness to all we meet, but in the end only God has the last word.
Psychology offers a narrower and narrower constriction if you take it a guide to living with others. “Only God and I exist,” by contrast, opens wider and wider and wider, in a solipsism that is vaster than the Heavens that it, also, embraces. It is a solipsism in which you are summoned to dance the Great Dance with your neighbors and all Creation!
If you need psychology and psychiatry, by all means, use them. But remember that only God and you exist!
I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.
Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: It’s an occult book!
I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.
The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.
This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.
If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.
“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”
Wounded by “Wounded by Love:” Monastic TMI!
There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.
But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:
The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).
Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.
Beware of all fashions
Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.
The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.
One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.
A dark memorial, and a warning sign
I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.
There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.
The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.
And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.
There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.
The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing normally goes well beyond what is needed for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.
Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds“. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.
Theory of other minds,
Split into “theory of like minds”, and:
“theory of alien minds”:
A Copernican shift
One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.
Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.
For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.
The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.
“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”
“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.
This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.
So what does a “theory of alien minds” really look like?
Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:
Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.
Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…
…but few guess how much.
The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.
Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.
In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.
When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.
Some time later, Hayward realized two things.
First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)
Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.
Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”
Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…
And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.
When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.
Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.
In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.
No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…
But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.
No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.
But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consultant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”
Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.
What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?
I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.
Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology.Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.
Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:
One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.
What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insiders.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.
What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.
2: Remember that nothing can injure the man who does not harm himself. St. Job the Much-Suffering may have suffered terribly, but there was only one thing that could do him final harm: his own sin, and he would have been lost if he yielded to his wife’s temptation, “Curse God and die.” St. Job suffered terribly, and unlike us, the readers of his story, he is never told that he has served as God’s champion. However, everything the Devil did added jewels to St. Job’s royal and Heavenly crown.
3: Know that Satan is on a leash.People of the Lie, in many ways a perceptive book, argues that evil is terribly out of control, and that is understandable for a psychiatrist who faces full force a kind of evil in a profession where the very belief in a Devil is rare enough to be exotic. But God help us if that were the case; none could be saved if we were tempted as much as the devils want. The Philokalia talks about how, if we know what burdens a beast of burden can bear, God knows and cares all the more what we can bear.Everything that happens is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that has allowed for our strengthening; the concept of a temptation, rightly understood, encompasses both things that make sin look attractive, and trials and tribulations, or something where both contribute to a single nasty whole. In medieval theology that I haven’t been able to trace, Satan is called God’s jester, because his foolishness with us is something that God takes up in glory, and a glory that can work in us.
To pick one example of what might be called thick-headedness for people who do not understand that “the prophet sees through a glass, darkly, while the archivist sees through a microscope, sharply,” we have in retrospect that Christ gave decisively clear predictions of his death and resurrection. However, St. Mary Magdalene came to Christ’s tomb for one and only one reason: to offer a last, singularly miserable service to a man dear to her, by embalming his body with aromatics. She was shocked at the empty tomb, and the only thing in her mind was disappointment that someone had seemingly stolen Christ’s body and was depriving her even of that last painful service she came to offer Christ. What had actually happened was utterly beyond her reckoning, but the Truth came to her: the grave was empty, defeated, with Christ resurrected beyond all earthly triumph. Much the same is true on the road to Emmaus, when Christ was quickening his disciples all along the way, and when their eyes were finally ready to be open to him, he vanished. Between the Resurrection and Ascension Christ was weaning his faithful to new ways of relating to him, ever beyond their initial reach. And even before then, he was trying to wean people off expectations of a political savior and an earthly king. He came to offer something fundamentally deeper than his disciples (or we) could look for.
I remember one couple who unhappily introduced their three-year-old boy as “an accident”, and complained about how hard it was to live their lives the way they wanted with him in the picture. I wanted to ask them, “Why must you look on the means of your deification as a curse?” Having children, whether we intend what God intends, is an opportunity for self-transcendence, where people who have transcended selfishness enough to love another are now given opportunity to transcend a selfishness of two. We may see a lot of other things that violate rights we think we have, and wonder where God is in all of this, but God is present all along; some have said that he is more visibly present in hard times than times of ease. Even if hard times shock us.
5. Love and respect others. “Blessed is the man who loves all men equally,” said St. Maximus Confessor. We are missing something if we say that some have given themselves to good deeds and some have given themselves to evil: all of us can make an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell because we are made in the image of God, and the most disfigured of us cannot completely exterminate the original beauty. All of us are constituted by the presence of God in the image. There is no shallow obligation to think the best of everyone, let alone whitewash sins. However, even when all sin is taken into account, we are members of the royal race. What sins a person may be rightly judged for are God’s concern, and God has not asked our help judging anyone. What divine image, and room for divine transformation, may exist in the vilest other are ours to respect and pray for.
Children who have been taught to respect adults may be more pleasant for adults to deal with, but the point of teaching children to respect adults really is not for the sake of adults, but for the sake of children to be able to benefit from adults. Ecclesiastical title and robes also don’t really exist for the wearer’s sake. Calling a priest ‘Father’ and the connected respect helps laity towards a position where they can benefit from clergy and their role.
6. Don’t wait on living until you have it all together. You probably never will. Abdicate from being in control of things. If there is a term for being in complete control of your life, it is probably “Hell” or “Gehenna”. The Sermon on the Mount speaks at length about being as the birds of the air or the grass of the field, and we, of the royal race, are of inestimably more value than plants and animals, venerable as they may be. There is only one Life: you’re in Him, or you’re not, and being in self-contained control over your life even if you can achieve it is not just dubiously achievable: it is dubiously desirable because you want to be independent of the one Life. The alternative is to dance the Great Dance, or as the Sermon on the Mount addresses our much more basic interests:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller!
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Christ speaks and assures us of our most basic material needs. There are other and more interesting needs, the need to grow in the divine Life and be freed from domination by our passions. But Christ here highlights things on a more basic level: not only does God wish to lead us in the Great Dance, but he also knows we need food and drink and offers practical care on his terms. The one petition out of the seven petitions in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread”, is exaggeratedly modest, or seems such: “Hallowed be thy name” is an earth-shaking desire, as is “Forgive us our trespasses.” Asking for just enough providence for today is in fact more significant than asking, “Set providence for my whole life before me now.” The smallness of the request is like the Virgin’s womb: it is more spacious than the Heavens because it contained One that the Heavens of Heavens cannot contain.
7. Guard your heart. The Fathers talked about the importance of working, and monastics have worked to support their own needs, or even made baskets that were burned at the end of the year so that they would not be idle. In ancient times, the preferred handicraft for monastics was basketweaving; in modern times, apart from writing icons, one preferred handicraft for monastics is making incense. In both cases, it may be missing the point to say that it is menial work, and monastics humbled themselves to do menial work. Though I have tried my hand at neither craft, the simple repetitive motions involved appear to be deeply meditative, a project of choice to employ the hands while the heart is at prayer. Now monastics can and have chosen the worst that was available to them in their humility, but the constant basketweaving of the Fathers may have been a best known option to occupy the hands while drawing the heart further into prayer.
In any case, and not just for monastics, one tenth of what we do is external action, and nine tenths of the work is guarding a heart at prayer. Today’s respected forms of work like computer programming may present a bigger challenge to do prayerfully than tasks like janitorial work that are looked down on, but people in either line of work should make 9/10ths their effort to be at peace and at prayer, and 1/10th the external deliverable.
Furthermore, we should beware of all temptation, which starts as a spark and end, if not stopped, as a raging fire. Love keeps no record of wrongs, and remembrance of wrong is a self-torment; we make what was painful when we went through it to be present to us all again. In this case it may be helpful to silently pray the Jesus Prayer and attend to that rather than leave things to their course and re-attend painful memories.
8. Expect a road of pain and loss. Fr. Thomas said, “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.” Christ’s own comment cuts deeper into why: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” There can and should be other things beyond temptation and loss; God is good, and it’s meaningless or awfully close to meaningless to say that because God is good any evil that could possibly happen to us is harmless. However, if we “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath” and “Do the most difficult and painful things first,” and recognize that we have no rights, the very letters will begin to shimmer and change. If we recognize that we do not have rights, instead of seeing rights of ours that are violated we may begin to see graces extended to us that we have no right to expect. If we have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to our last breath, we may recognize graces contrary to these expectations. The pain and the loss are real, and we may be shocked at times by what painful things God allows us. But the journey is purifying, and the God who prunes us does so that we may bear more fruit, and with it a fuller joy.
9. Observe Orthodox mystagogy, at least on one lesser point. There is such a thing as a book, or a teaching, that is above one’s present pay grade. Maybe it will be in reach later; it is not in reach now. There are classic books that open with exhortations to literary secrecy; far from an author today hoping to reach as broad an audience as possible, they say “Read this but keep it in secret from the many who would not profit from it.”
This is not the same point exactly, but there is a much lesser mystagogy than writing a book and asking that it be given a closed circulation. It is, as explained to me, if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if you tell it, you hold your tongue instead of trying to argue the other person into accepting the truth. I’m not saying that we’re all really emotion and arguments do not persuade; arguments can persuade. This piece is in part argument, and it is legitimately meant to persuade by reasoning about the truth. But if you are dealing with a gay rights advocate or someone who is thoroughly convinced that Islam is a religion of peace, or whatever company may join them in the future, you do not try to argue them into a truth you know they will reject. When Judgment Day comes, it will better for the other person because they did not reject the truth. And it will also be better for you because you did not set them up for that sin. This is far from the full extent of Orthodox mystagogy; some people have advocated asking a priest or spiritual father to pick out books from them for a time, or said that they weren’t ready to read a book first but came back after they had grown spiritually and then found immense profit in the book. There is another thread of mystagogy in that monastics do not parade their mystical experiences for all the world or even all the faithful to see. Mystagogy is foundational to Orthodoxy even if it is pitifully observed now, but it still applies now in that you don’t try to use logical arguments to make people accept truths their hearts reject.
There is an alternative to compelling by arguing the truth: compelling by living the Truth. If we embrace a Truth who is ever so much more than right opinion, other people will pick up on it, the same as if we fully respect the image of God in another person, right or wrong. If we grow enough spiritually, people will sense something. Possibly this may create a teachable moment; possibly it won’t, but it will reach people’s hearts as a logical jackhammer cannot. St. Paul advises believing wives to win over unbelieving husbands without a word; but this is not an exception to an argumentative norm so much as an example that is almost supreme in character. The basic phenomenon reaches from one heart to another.
10. Read nourishing books in keeping with the Orthodox Church’s character as an oral tradition. There is a wealth of good books at the hands of the Orthodox Church; the collection of the Fathers over the centuries is like an encyclopedia in its length, and the Bible is indispensible. None the less, the Orthodox Church is at heart an oral tradition, and for most Orthodox Christians, being patristic is not achieved by quasi-academic reading of copious books, but by being in church where the priest mediates Tradition. There is oral tradition implied by the written tradition of the Philokalia, which is less properly a book than a library with different texts at different levels. It’s not meant to be read cover to cover, although that may also be permitted; it’s intended for a spiritual guide to pull selections for someone under guidance. And treat this text, too, as written property of oral tradition; use it (or not) as your priest or spiritual father guides you.
11. Banish two thoughts, and retain two thoughts. Abandon the thoughts, “I am a saint,” and “I will be damned.” Instead, think both “I am a great sinner,” and “God is merciful.” Repentance needs no despair; the worst of earthly sins are like a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.
12. In conjunction with your spiritual father, know your limits and don’t try to be perfect. If someone is harassing you, and both not responding and repeated requests to stop harassment are being answered with harassment, it’s time to involve social media or email authorities, or possibly the police, or just block someone on Facebook much earlier. It may be the case that some superspiritual saint could serenely shine through the worst of the harassment, but that is not the case for you and me. We aren’t there, at least not yet, and your priest or spiritual father may have very practical words about how mountains are moved here on earth.
Trimmed slightly, but “minimally processed” from an email conversation following The Labyrinth:
Author: P.S. My brother showed me the following video as cool. He didn’t see why I found it a bit of a horror: “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”
Visitor: Oh gosh, that’s just layers and layers of sad. It’s all about the experience, but the message is kept just this side of tolerable (“nerds are the new sexy” – the reversal of a supposed stigmatization) so it can function as an excuse for the experience. At least that’s my analysis.
Author: Thanks. I just hotlinked a line of Labyrinth to Avatar…
…and added a tooltip of, “Veni, vidi, vomui”.
Visitor: (Laughs) You have me completely mystified on this one, sorry.
However, you are welcome. And I’m glad to see that you’re cracking jokes. (I think.)
No seriously, laughing out loud. Even though I don’t exactly know why.
Is ‘vomui’ a made-up word? Men… when it comes right down to it you all have the same basic sense of humor. (I think.)
Author: Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.
Veni, vidi, vomui: I came, I saw, I puked.
Visitor: Yep… the basic masculine sense of humor, cloaked in Latin. I’m ever so honored you let me in on this. If the world were completely fair, someone would be there right now to punch your shoulder for me… this is my favorite form of discipline for my brother in law when he gets out of line.
But what’s Avatar… and hotlink and tooltip?
Author: The link to “Do you want to date my Avatar?” Hotlink is a synonym for link; tooltip, what displays if you leave your mouse hovering over it.
Visitor: Oh dear, I really didn’t understand what you were telling me; I was just in good spirits.
OK, I find that funny – and appropriate.
Author: Which do you think works better (i.e. The Labyrinth with or without images):
Visitor: I have some doubts about the video showing up in the text.
Author: Ok; I’ll leave it out. Thanks.
I did like the Christ image where you had it. It encouraged a sober pause at the right place in the meditation.
Author: Thank you; I’ve put it in slightly differently.
Visitor: I like that.
Author: Thank you.
I’ve also put the video (link) in a slightly different place than originally. I think it also works better there.
Visitor: Taking a risk of butting in… Would this be a more apropos place?
The true raison d’être was known to desert monks,
Ancient and today,
And by these fathers is called,
Temptation, passion, demon,
Of escaping the world.
Unless I’ve misunderstood some things and that’s always possible. (laughs) I never did ask you your analysis of what, in particular, horrified you about the video. But it seems like a perfect illustration not of pornography simple but of the underlying identity between the particular kind of lust expressed in pornography (not the same as wanting a person) and escapism, and that’s the place in the poem where you are talking about that identification.
“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”
Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.
Pp. 270/271 are in fantasy imagery what has become quite literally true decades later.
Visitor: Yes, that would be what I was missing… that fantasy banquet at the end of the video feels particularly creepy now.
However the girl I was telling you about had among other things watched a show where a “doctor” talked about giving seminars where women learn to experience the full physical effects of intercourse, using their minds only. (Gets into feminism, no?)
That’s why I was trying to tell her that “richter scale” measurements aren’t everything…
In this hatred of the body, in putting unhealthy barriers between genders, and in seeing the body as basically a tool for sexual experience, fundamentalist Christianity and cutting edge worldliness are really alike. (I had a pastor once who forbade the girls in the church school to wear sandals because they might tempt the boys with their “toe cleavage.”)
Author: I would be wary of discounting monastic experience; I as a single man, prudish by American standards, probably have more interaction with women than most married men in the patristic era.
But in the image… “eating” is not just eating. In the initial still image in the embedded version of “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, I made a connection. The sword is meant as a phallic symbol, and not just as half of a large category of items are a phallic symbol in some very elastic sense. It’s very direct. Queer sex and orgy are implied, even though everything directly portrayed seems “straight”, or at least straight as defined against the gender rainbow (as opposed, perhaps, to a “technology rainbow”).
Visitor: Yes, I see what you are saying. I suppose the opening shots in the video would also imply self-abuse. I was seeing those images and the ones you mention as just icky in themselves without thinking about them implying something else.
Author: P.S. My brother who introduced it to me, as something cool, explained to me that this is part of the main performer’s effort to work her way into mainstream television. She demonstrates, in terms of a prospect for work in television, that she can look beautiful, act, sing, dance, and be enticing while in a video that is demure in its surface effect as far as music videos go. (And she has carefully chosen a viral video to prove herself as talent.)
Not sure if that makes it even more disturbing; I didn’t mention it with any conscious intent to be as disturbing as I could, just wanted to give you a concrete snapshot of the culture and context for why I put what I put in The Labyrinth.
Visitor: It’s making a lot more sense now.
I’m not remembering the significance of the technology rainbow.
Author: As far as “technology rainbow”:
In contrast to “hetero-centrism” is advocated a gender rainbow where one live person may have any kind of arrangement with other live people, as long as everyone’s of age, and a binary “male and female” is replaced by a rainbow of variety that is beyond shades of gray.
I was speaking by analogy: a “technology rainbow”, in contrast to “face-to-face-centrism”, would seek as normative any creative possibility, again excluding child pornography, where face-to-face relationships are only one part of a “technology rainbow”.
It might also help make the point that internet-enabled expressions of sexuality, for most of the men, aren’t exactly straight. They do not involve same-sex attraction, nor animals or anything like that, but they depart from being straight in a slightly different trajectory from face-to-face relationships where heterosexuality is only one option.
Neither member of this conversation had anything more to say.
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
I learned some pretty big things during the Y2k scare, and some of them have every relevance to how to survive an economic depression.
When year 2000 was approaching, I was part of the doomsday camp. I believed, wrongly, that technology would fail and everything around me would start to fall apart. But did a lot of digging and I think I learned something about what makes people survive really rough situations–and how to survive an economic depression. The economy is in deep trouble, and what I found out then has every relevance now that we are worried about how to survive an economic depression.
When Y2k was approaching, I found a lot of materials on physicalpreparation for such an event, but very little on psychological preparation. The most that I can remember reading about that was that when I said on a newsgroup that a Y2k doomsday would be psychologically as well as physically difficult, someone said that I was right and suggested that Y2k preparations include stocking up on board games and condoms.
That answer seemed, to put it politely, not up to snuff. As far as mental preparation goes, that was the equivalent of saying, “If bad things happen on January 1 2000, be prepared for great physical danger. Alwaysremember to look both ways before you cross the street!”
After failing to find something more informative on newsgroups, I went to the library, to look for more information on psychological survival in difficult situations. I did a lot of digging, reading whatever seemed like it might shed light, but finding very little of an answer anywhere that I looked. Even a book on psychology and the military said almost nothing about how either soldiers or civilians stood up psychologically to disaster, or what enables a survivor to overcome an incredibly difficult situation.
It was only after a lot of digging that I realized the answer was almost staring me in the face. What makes a survivor is not exactly psychological. It is spiritual. There was something spiritual about, for instance, people who had survived incredibly hostile situations as hostages and prisoners. It is not exactly that they had some special talent, or drew on some special mind trick or had developed what we would imagine as spiritual powers. It was something almost pedestrian.
It had something to do with religious devotion. Faith has something to do with how to survive an economic depression.
I imagine I may raise some eyebrows by suggesting faith has something to do with how to survive a disaster. But faith was how many people survived the Great Depression. Perhaps a great many survivors survived despite their useless faith, or maybe it was a crutch, but if it seems obvious to you that faith could have nothing to do with how people survived the Great Depression, then I would ask you to entertain a possibility you might not have considered. Maybe they know something we have forgotten.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Much of the Bible comes from disastrous times. In the Bible’s book ofHabakkuk, there is a prophet who sees great evil about him. He cries out to the Lord, and the Lord gives an answer that leaves the prophet stunned: the Lord will punish the wickedness of Israel by having an army of terrorists conquer their land. This was a disaster that might be worse than economic collapse. The prophet asks the Lord a question: how can a righteous God look on such wickedness? And the Lord responds without really answering the prophet’s question: the Lord responds without giving the prophet what he wants. But tucked away in the Lord’s response are some very significant words: “…the righteous shall live by faith.”
Those words were taken up in the New Testament and became a rallying-cry against rigid legalism. But they are more than a response to people who turn religion into a bunch of rules; they speak also in situations where legalism is simply not the issue. The prophet cried out to the Lord about rampant violence. The issue was not really legalism at all. And this is when the words were first spoken: “The righteous shall live by faith.” These words were given in terrifying times.
“The righteous shall live by faith” is a non-answer, and a quite deliberate non-answer. The prophet asked how such a pure God could allow such wickedness to exist, and God does not give the answer he is looking for. The Lord doesn’t really answer the prophet’s question at all. It’s almost like:
Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”
The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”
The Lord doesn’t tell the prophet what he wants. He gives him something much better; these brief words say, “I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do, and you may not look past the protecting veil that enshrouds me. But in the disastrous times you face, know this: the righteous shall live by faith.”
God doesn’t just refuse to tell the prophet what he wants. He gives Habakkuk something fundamentally richer and deeper. He tells the prophet what he needs. What God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith,” is a luminous thread appearing throughout Scripture, woven into the fabric of Proverbs and woven through and through in the Sermon on the Mount. This luminous, radiant thread declares that God is sovereign, in hard times as well as good, and that his divine providence is with his faithful no less. Even if we are in a depression, God can watch out for us.(Perhape especially if we are in a depression. The surprising report from many survivors is that God’s help is much more obvious in hard times than when things are easy.) Just witness this luminous thread in the Sermon on the Mount:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is there not more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add one hour to his span of life? (You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot and a half taller!) And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither work nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as gloriously as one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For people without faith seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own things to worry about. Each day has enough worries of its own.
The righteous shall live by faith, and the Sermon on the Mount has a great deal to say about exactly how the righteous shall live by faith. The radiant thread unfolds, unfurls, beams, “Money is unworthy of your trust: put your trust in God. Live in the security of faith. Have the true security of faith in God who provides, not the ersatz providence of what you can arrange for yourself. Do not spend your life building a sandcastle for your home and trying to keep it from collapsing. I offer you a way to build a solid house, built on the rock.”
And this is not just a statement about how we should not worry about the future when we have it easy. The Sermon on the Mount closes with words that are entirely relevant to surviving the storms of life when we wonder how to survive an economic depression:
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and its collapse was great.
These are not words about nothing more than how to relax and enjoy life when it is easy. These are words about how to prepare for hard times, and how to survive in a disaster. In other words, they are words about how to survive an economic depression.
In hard times as well as good, the righteous shall live by faith. Indeed, the words “the righteous shall live by faith” originally come from times with an industrial-strength disaster on the horizon!
The Apostle Paul: Portrait of a survivor!
Who can survive stress like an industrial-strength disaster? The Bible paints a picture of one person who survived a lot of really rough times, and not only survived, but genuinely thrived.
When I was in college, part of the general “foundations of wellness” class was taking the “Holmes Stress Point Scale,” which assigns points for stressful events to add up to a rough estimate of how stressful your life is. You get a certain number of points for each stressful experience you’ve been through, and they add up to your total score for how stressful the past year of your life is. The events include:
Death of a close friend…
Outstanding personal achievement…
Minor violation of the law…
The higher a score from stressful events, the more stressful your life is. The scale’s explanation is: If your score is 300 or more, you are at a very high stress level and probably run a major risk of illness in the next year. If your score is 200 to 299, your stress and illness risk are moderate, and if your score is between 150 to 200, your stress and risk are mild.
My teacher mentioned that one student had computed such a score for a year in the life of the Apostle Paul, who went through a number of events that should score major points for stress:
Attacked by a frenzied mob…
Shipwrecked in the mother of all storms…
Clandestine escape from a city when people were trying to kill him…
Physically assaulted by soldiers…
Survived an assassination attempt…
The student calculated a staggering 675 points for one year in the life of St. Paul!
But the odd thing is that if you read the Book of Acts, St. Paul does not really come across as someone we should pity. We read that some of his colleagues were harassed, beaten, and afterwards were rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of their Lord. When I read the accounts of these events, I walk away with a sense, not that these suffering heroes are poor and pitiable, but that they are giants and they utterly dwarf me. There is something greater in the Apostle, far greater, than a whopping 675 points worth of externally stressful events.
It is the same thing, really, as with people who survived a long time being hostages for terrorists. They had dug deep and built their house on the rock, and when stormwinds battered their house, it survived and stood firm. It is the same thing for the bedrock of how people survived the Great Depression. And if we may be battered by hard economic times, we would like our houses to stand firm as well.
Suffering and sonship
It may be that what we fear that in a potential disaster is that we will lose what is good for us. We may fear getting sidetracked when none of our dreams seem to come true. We may fear that God cannot really provide our good if our recession becomes a depression or even an economic collapse–that the Sermon on the Mount is presumably about how to live in easy times but wouldn’t be quite so helpful when we’re in a depression. But there is something we are missing. Some of the things that we fear may have a surprisingly positive place in a well-lived life. There is something we are missing in all this.
Suffering has a place in the divine discipleship—the divine sonship—that the Sermon on the Mount is all about. “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God,” as C.S. Lewis echoed the ancient wisdom, a wisdom that plays out in discipleship. Discipleship, service to God in difficulties, providence, and ascetical or spiritual practices all come together: God provides for us and disciples us in hard times as well as good. Sometimes he provides more plainly when we have nothing than when we have everything. In the Philokalia, we hear the words of St. Makarios as he explains the place of suffering in discipleship:
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?
Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.
The story is told of a woman who was told the Lord would be with her, and afterwards found herself an incredibly painful situation. When she cried out to the Lord and asked how this could be, the Lord answered: “I never said it would be easy. I said I’d be with you.” God’s way, it seems, is not to make things easy for us, but to strengthen us for greatness in what are often hard situations, and sometimes disasters. He gives us mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.
And we can climb mountains even if we are in an economic depression. Perhaps especially if we are in an economic recession. God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering. Not even if we’re really good Christians—especially not if we’re really good Christians! If you read the saints’ lives (see the links on the natural cycle clock), you will see that even with all the wondrous providence God provides for the saints, the saints in fact suffer much more than the rest of us; they know sufferings worse than most of us have ever been through.
There are saints whose prayers healed others—but who were for themselves never healed of their own major illnesses. If this sounds ironic, remember that Christ also was told, “Physician, heal thyself.” Christ is pre-eminent as one who saved others but could not save himself, and “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” is one way of defining God’s kingdom. Part of how people survived the Great Depression was that they carried the spirit of God’s kingdom and worked to save others, and not just themselves. Communities of people survived the Great Depression because, even if no one could save “Me! Me! Me!”, perhaps each one could help save others.
God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering, but he works with us in our suffering, often to do things with us that could never happen if we had things our way. It may be precisely on the mountain, in the act of climbing, that God gives us the strength to climb!
Sometimes God works with us despite our best efforts to fix things so we can have things our way. Wise people rightly tells us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and “You can’t always get what you want.” And perhaps if we did get what we wanted, we wouldn’t get what God wanted for us. Some of us may try to fix our problems and pray to God to take them away—when his plan is to use our problems to build us up. St. Makarios above quotes Hebrews, and in fact Hebrews is one of the clearest books of the Bible that God works with us in suffering—in fact, that Christ himself was perfected by suffering (source):
But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.
…But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.
Our view of suffering is often that if we are suffering, then we cannot be where we should be. It often seems we can only be where we should be when we are out of a difficult situation). It seems that we are sidetracked, and will only stop being sidetracked when we have things our way. But that is absolutely false. God worked with Christ in suffering. God worked with the saints in suffering. God worked with us in suffering. And that means that we can be in suffering and in pain, with our godly plans failing, and we are still just where God wants us: we may not see it, but sometimes our earthly failure is a heavenly victory. If God allows us to be in an economic collapse, he may be doing things with us, good things, that we might never happen if we had the comfort we seem to need. The last words above, about suffering and failure, lead directly into the famous “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.
What may be happening in our sufferings is that God is building us into greater people than if we succeed in getting what we want. Including if we are in an economic depression. This is a basic lesson of people growing up: many young people have big dreams for themselves, but grow by middle age into living for others, growing into something that could never happen if all their youthful dreams came true. And suffering has a place in this—and a greater and deeper value. The Son of God was made perfect through suffering. Innocent suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ: Christ’s suffering is made perfect in his people. St. Paul, the survivor who went through terrible suffering, wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col 1.24 RSV)
Suffering is not getting off-track, nor does it force us out of God’s plans, so that we only get into God’s providence as soon as things are the way we would like. What some of us fear in suffering is that if we are in difficult circumstances, then that must mean we are spiritual failures as well as failing on earth. If we are faithful and still fail in our plans, this does not mean that either God’s plans or providence have failed. Often he is working at us when we are suffering and we are so far afield from anything that makes sense to us.
Everything we meet is either a blessing from God, or a trial that God allows for our strengthening. You may say that there is something evil in your trials, and you would be entirely right: there is something evil, and perhaps demonic, in our trials and afflictions. Perhaps you may say that there seems to be something almost demonic about an economic collapse, and you would still be right. But, as C.S. Lewis observes, all of us do the will of God. We may do the will of God as Satan and Judas did, asinstruments, or we may do the will of God as Peter and John did, as sons. But all of us do the will of God, and ultimately Satan and may be no more than a hammer in God’s hand. And even if God allows rough trials, he allows them for our strengthening. St. Makarios is very clear: “The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to.” Evil is on a leash. Let us be faithful. Every move the Devil plays is one move closer to his loss and God’s victory, and ours if we are faithful.
I am not saying that the future holds much suffering. You or I may have a lot of suffering, or actually not that much. I am, however, saying that however much suffering God allows, he can still work with us. He can still work with us in an economic depression. (And that is even without going into how a great many people have been in situations they dreaded, and found life to still be beautiful.) As St. Paul, a survivor, closed Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Building a house on the rock—it’s not all about you!
Ascesis refers to disciplined spiritual practice. It’s a part of building a house on the rock. In the Orthodox tradition, these include sacraments, church attendance and daily liturgical prayers, reading and listening to Scripture, working to keep the Jesus prayer in your heart (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), growing into the liturgical seasons and internal and external fasting, hospitality, service, thanksgiving, repentance, giving to others who ask your help, cutting back on selfish pleasures, including icons in your prayer, solitude, community, and other practices. All of these can offer different help in growing to spiritual maturity.
But there comes a crucial caveat. None of these, if they are working correctly, are all about us. However essential they are to building a house on the rock, they are infinitely more than tools for how to survive an economic depression. They are tools to living in communion with God and being transformed by his grace. These disciplines, used rightly, can clear away obstacles to our growing in discipleship under God, but if they are used wrongly, they can be extremely harmful.
[Piglet picked some violets, decided to give them to Eeyore, and went to visit him.]
“Oh, Eeyore,” began Piglet a little nervously, because Eeyore was busy.
“To-morrow,” said Eeyore. “Or the next day.” Piglet came a little closer to see what it was. Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.
“Oh, Eeyore,” he began again, “I just—”
“Is that little Piglet?” said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.
“Yes, Eeyore, and I—”
“Do you know what this is?”
“No,” said Piglet.
“It’s an A.”
“Oh,” said Piglet.
“Not O—A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?”
“Yes,” said Piglet. “No,” said Piglet very quickly, and he came closer still.
“Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is—until somebody treads on it,” Eeyore added sternly.
Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.
“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”
“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”
“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”
“Oh,” said Piglet again. “I mean, does it?” he explained quickly.
“I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated—mark this, little Piglet—to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,” he added, “just something that anybody can come and breathe on.”
Piglet stepped back nervously, and looked round for help.
“Here’s Rabbit,” he said gladly. “Hallo, Rabbit.”
Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, “Ah, Eeyore,” in the voice of one who would be saying “Good-bye” in about two more minutes.
“There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?”
“What’s this that I’m looking at?” said Eeyore, still looking at it.
“Three sticks,” said Rabbit promptly.
“You see?” said Eeyore to Piglet. He turned to Rabbit. “I will now answer your question,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you,” said Rabbit.
“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becones Educated. He instigorates—I think that is the word he mentioned, but I may be referring to something else—he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way, I also, if I have the word right, am—am doing what he does. That, doe instance is?”
“An A,” said Rabbit, “but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.”
Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.
“What did Rabbit say it was?” he asked.
“An A,” said Piglet.
“Did you tell him?”
“No, Eeyore, I didn’t. I expect he just knew.”
“He knew? You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?”
“Yes, Eeyore. He’s very clever, Rabbit is.”
“Clever!” said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. “Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. “A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!”
We need to avoid being Eeyores with our spiritual discipline, or our spirituality, or our faith, or our religion. Letters serve a greater purpose, and so do ascetical practices: we should not, like Eeyore, stare at an A and tell ourselves that it is our Education and Learning, or Prayers and Church Attendance as the case may be.
The point of ascetical practices is to be steps of the Great Dance: living the life that God shares, and becoming one of the sons of God. It’s not merely a set of survival skills that work in an economic recession or depression, or even an economic collapse, even if “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is quite practical advice. The point is to seek first the kingdom of a God who knows our survival needs: as God told Habakkuk before a disaster, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The luminous thread beams brightly because it is more than just a white thread. It shines, and it shines with the light of Heaven, a light of divine love that illumines Creation.
What Eeyore doesn’t get about the luminous thread is that it is the light of Heaven shining on earth.
Better than an endowment
Some years before I became Orthodox, I was at a class where someone was commenting on Proverbs, and its texts that say, in essence, “Put your trust in God, not money.” (“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death,” Prov 11:4 RSV.) One point he made that particularly surprised me was, “Endowments aren’t so great.”
He asked a question: if we want to be independently wealthy, who do we want the “independently” to mean we are independent from? The answer he gave: “Independent from God.” If we want to be independently wealthy, we may want something more than mere luxuries. The basic fantasy of life as we imagine ourselves being independently wealthy, is a life that is in control and unlike the actual messiness of our real lives with so many things that are simply beyond our control. And his suggestion, based on real life as well as Proverbs, is that it is actually not good for us to have an endowment that we can trust.
One kind of person counselors work with is the person who cannot be happy without being in control of everyone around them. The basic problem is that a person who needs to be in control is a tragically shrunken person, and part of what a counselor will try to give a person is an opportunity to step into a larger world. If you believe, “I can’t be happy unless I’m in control of everyone I’m involved with,” that will set you up for a lot of unhappiness.
This is not just because it is really hard to control everyone else. A few people who want to control others really do manage to control others around them, but they are really as unhappy as others who want the same thing but don’t manage the control over others they always want to establish. As Chesterton observed, there may be some desires which are not achievable, but there are some desires which are not desirable.
If you want the world to be small enough that there is nothing outside your control, you want to live in a small and terribly shrunken world. If you let go of that kind of control, you may find that you have let yourself into a much bigger world than if you were the biggest thing around, and in the process you become bigger yourself. Instead of being a tin god ruling a world as cramped as a cubicle, you become servant in God’s vast mansions. And being one of many of these servants is a much better position to be in than dominating as a tin god.
And there is more to this larger world, the larger world of serving in God’s great mansions. The words, “The righteous shall live by faith” were given, in full force, when a brutal invasion was coming. Those words may not originally have been about how to survive an economic depression. They were originally more about how to survive something worse: your country being taken over by terrorists!
The words, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and the Sermon on the Mount, apply to some pretty rough situations, including an economic recession, economic depression, or economic collapse. Christ’s words about not worrying do not apply just to privileged people who have nothing seriously worth worrying about; many of the people who first heard theSermon on the Mount were on the bottom of the totem pole and would see less material comfort than the kind of person most Americans would imagine as a homeless person.
The model prayer Christ would give is not a prayer for something nicer for people stuck on a nasty diet of burgers and KFC; the one physical request is for bread—by American standards, quite a dull thing to eat day in and day out, and possibly poorer nutritional fare than fast food—and it is in thiscontext that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, beckons us to store up treasure in Heaven, and invites us to a spiritual feast that unfurls in hard times as well as when everything meets our expectations. He invites us to the spiritual feast, the larger world, that is at the heart of spirituality and religion and is unlocked by faith. The Sermon on the Mount neither assumes nor needs a high standard of living to have real treasure.
The invitation to dance the Great Dance is open to us now as ever. All of us are invited to the Great Feast. Even if we’ve snubbed words like, “Money doesn’t make you happy,” and, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” not only do those truths remain open to us, but the Divine Providence is no less open. If our external circumstances remove all the luxuries that serve us, we may discover that not only is it better to give than receive, but it is also better to serve and be served. We might take a tip from how people survived the Great Depression. If we are unemployed, we might serve others and find something that technologies and luxuries can’t give, and if our 401(k) plan becomes a 404(k) and vanishes, we might lean on God’s providence and discover that God’s providence gives us more than money could.
There’s a sign that was seen around my hometown that says, “Money may not do everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch!” And I wonder if that is precisely what we gain if we do not know what will meet our needs in the future: our material needs can “keep the kids in touch” for God. Especially in an economy in shambles. And if that happens, we have something no money could buy: keeping in touch with God in a way that is ultimately a Heavenly transformation.
There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the husks that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
Today, one of the ways parents might give money to children is letting them “borrow against their inheritance:” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back, but they lose that much of their inheritance when their parents die. And this is considered a fairly normal arrangement.
This isn’t what is going on here. The younger son’s request telegraphs something loud and clear: “I wish you were dead!”
We see a first glimpse of God’s love—a love to the point of madness. Out of all responses the father could have to this affront, he gave every last penny he was asked for. The love to the point of madness may be easier to see later on, but it is already present in the gift by which he answers the ludicrously inappropriate request.
The son goes off to live life the way he wants to. And living life the way he wants to hits rock bottom. The big party he imagined he’d make for himself turns into famine and dire straits that leave him coveting the unappepetizing husks that he is feeding to unclean, vile swine. He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots, not his father.
He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots. Just like some of us here. We don’t want to have to wait under the authority of a Father who calls the shots. We want money and control, with things lined up here and now. What is it we are telling God if we ask him to give us money and control on our terms? Something a bit like, “I wish you were dead.”
The younger son has discovered that life with his father out of the picture is not so glorious and wonderful. And he realizes the extent of his fall. So he resolves to go back and beg, not even for forgiveness, but possibly his father might even contain his wounded resentment enough to let him work for pay and be able to buy bread. (Who knows? Maybe a long shot, but what real alternative did he have?)
What was the father doing in all of this?
When husbands have gone off to war, there have been wives who have stood by the path of the doorway, looking for some hope that their husbands may return, looking and waiting, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… never giving up! And the father in our story was doing exactly that.
The father was looking, waiting, and saw his son far off, and completely cast off his upper-class dignity to run and embrace him. Love to the point of madness! He didn’t even wait for an apology before embracing him and kissing him!
And when the son made a full confession, hoping maybe to toil for his father’s scraps, the father pulls out all the stops: the best robe, a ring for his finger, and the best food possible for a royal feast. This is love to the point of madness!
But the story continues on to a more sobering note (source):
Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father, `Look, I have served you for all of these years, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf!’
And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
We have an Eeyore here.
This story has been called the parable of the two prodigals, meaning that not only did the one son tragically fall, but the other, elder son also tragically falls from the glory his father would have wished for him. At the beginning, the younger son wished that his father was dead. At the end, did the older son wish his father was dead?
The older son is a tragic spiritual Eeyore.
His statement could have come from a very different angle. For all of the years the older son was in his father’s service, he toiled, and he may not have had rich party food—only solid, nourishing, ordinary food day by day. For all these many years, he worked hard in the context of the father training him, and drawing him into mature manhood. In the meantime, his brother has been ripping up his own soul, losing even what he thought he had at the mercy of merciless people with no one else who cared for his well-being. The brother who all but told his father, “I wish you were dead,” was in every sense save the literal, himself dead.
If it is painful to lose one’s parents, it is another level of pain to lose one’s child, and the father had seen one of his sons—not to mention the older son’s only brother—die a living death. Now he was back, and in every sense including the literal, alive. Was killing the fatted calf even enough of a celebration?
The older son didn’t get it. How well did his service to his father work? Not very well; it went badly enough that instead of sharing in his father’s joy at a lost son who “was dead, and is alive again,” acts bitterly affronted and indicts his father searingly. Which is to say, the son’s hard work didn’twork, any more than Eeyore’s laborious staring at his three sticks achieved the true heart of “Learning” and “Education.”
The point, though, is not really the tragedy of the older son. The point is that God welcomes people who turn to him, and welcomes them with open arms. It is only one step to turn to God, even if you think you are ten thousand steps away. But when are we ready?
It is easy enough to wait for life to really begin. When? Maybe when the present illness is gone, or when we get that promotion, or maybe just when we get a job in the first place, or when someone we deal with will become not quite so difficult a person, or when we have something paid off, or when Washington gets its act together. When something big or small changes, then maybe we will be in God’s blessing. St. Herman of Alaska met some people who were waiting for their lives to really begin (source):
Father Herman gave them all one general question: “Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?” Various answers were offered… Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. “Is it not true,” Father Herman said to them concerning this, “that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?” They all answered, “Yes, that is so!” He then continued, “Would you not say, ‘Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men?’ Should we not then love God above everything, desire Him more than anything, and search him out?”
All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “If we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they did not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” continued the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”
The time for God is not at some indefinite point in the future when things will fit our hopes better. The time to work with God, in a sense the only time we should be concerned with, is now. Not later, now.
More precious than gold
When I was a child, I remembered a story about a fearsome dragon who told a knight that if the knight would tickle the dragon’s throat with a sword, he would have a great treasure. The knight rode up on his horse and approached the dragon, already afraid, and asked if the treasure was as good as a good horse and a good suit of armor. It was more, the dragon said. The knight asked if the treasure was as good as a silver suit of armor, and shield and sword to match. It was, the dragon assured him. The knight then asked if the treasure was better than gold. The dragon answered that it was more precious than rooms full of gold. So the terrified knight trembled and tickled the dragon’s throat with his sword, and asked what the treasure was. And the dragon turned and ripped the knight’s sword out of his hand, breathing out a tremendous deluge of fire and smoke and roared, “Your life!” And the terrified knight, having lost his sword, fled as best he could, and grasped a treasure far more precious than rooms and rooms full of gold.
Hard times may still let us know what is truly important, and what is truly treasure.
Even if we are in an economic depression, we have a treasure worth more than rooms and rooms full of gold: our lives.
For the righteous who walk by faith, hard times may even turn out to be good times.
St. John Chrysostom once wrote to people who think they are somebody if they conspicuously ride on a horse and have an armed servant clear the way before them, and told them that they were missing something and have all the wrong priorities. These words seem like they have nothing to do with how to survive in an economic depression—but on a very deep level, they have everything to do with how to survive in an economic depression where we may lose any number of things that seem so essential. St. John Chrysostom wrote (source):
And I know that I am disgusting my hearers. But what can I do? I have set my mind on this and will not stop saying these things, whether or not anything comes of it. For what is the point of having someone clear the way before you in the marketplace? Are you walking among wild beasts so that you need to drive away those who meet you? Do not be afraid of the people who approach you and walk near you; none of them bite. But why do you consider it an insult to walk alongside other people? What craziness is this, what ludicrous folly, when you don’t mind having a horse follow close behind you, but if it is a person, you think you are disgraced unless the person is driven a hundred miles away. And why do you have servants to carry horse ____, using the free as slaves, or rather yourself living more dishonorably than any slave? For truly, anyone who bears so much pride is more repulsive than any slave.
Therefore people who have enslaved themselves to this vile habit will never come within sight of true liberty. No, if you must drive away and clear away anything, do not let it be those who come near you, but your own pride. Do not do this by your servant, but by yourself, not by this material weapon, but by the spiritual one. Since now your servant drives away those who walk alongside you, but you yourself are driven from your rightful place by your own self-will, more disgracefully than any servant can drive your neighbor. But if, descending from your horse, you will drive away pride by humility, you will sit higher and place yourself in greater honor, without needing any servant to do this for you. I mean that when you have become modest and walk on the ground, you will be seated on the horse-drawn carriage of humility which carries you up to the very heavens, the carriage with winged steeds: but if falling from the horse-drawn carriage of heaven, you pass into that of arrogance, you will be in no better state than crippled beggars who are carried along the ground—no, much more wretched and pathetic than they are: since they are carried because of their bodies’ weakness, but you because of the disease of your own arrogance.
Some of us also need the carriage of humility, even if we are not even in a position to make everybody get out of our way. And some of us might benefit from the loving interdependence that was how people survived the Great Depression.
In tough times—and in tougher times—we may lose things we have set our hearts on, but it may be that however much we resist, God will give us something better. What if I lose my car, for instance? How could I get something better? But it is entirely possible that I could get something better than my present car. I might get something better than my own Rolls Royce, even better than my own private jet. I might get more inter-dependence, where I do not get around by what I do by my car. I may still be able to go places, but now by the love of my friends and family.
In that case, if I get some groceries, or a ride to church, I am not getting it as something run by me, me, me; I am riding on community and love. And the love of another who cares about me is a much bigger thing than economic self-sufficiency. It’s the same thing as food tasting better if it is prepared with love for hospitality—then it isn’t just food. You are, in a very real sense, eating a friend’s love, and that is a richer and deeper kind of sustenance—and a richer, deeper, and fuller goodness!
Who knows? I might ride even higher than this if my car is taken from me. Perhaps I might respond to the humiliation of losing my car by starting to let Christ chauffer me to Heaven in the flying Rolls-Royce of humility. Maybe I might even start being grateful, and be carried by the car of gratitude, and look for ways that I might launch into the heavens on the immense celestial starship of service to others.
And it is the starship of service to others—of saving others even though I cannot save myself—that shines with celestial glory. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”—the Sermon on the Mount again. Perhaps I might stop thinking about my own survival and instead think about how I can save others even though I cannot save myself. Some people did not just survive the Great Depression; they learned that life is beautiful. They stopped being tin gods trying to rule over a shrunken world and became servants of God and each other in the vast mansions of a glorious God. In the Great Depression, they did not have gold, but they grasped a treasure vaster than rooms and rooms full of gold. For some, the Great Depression was a wakeup call to what is truly important in life.
And that is true wealth.
Why are some of us not living this way already? Repentance is terrifying. In the tale of the prodigal son, the son who had devoured his father’s property was in far from his father’s house, and had real work to get back. He had to travel in a much rougher sense than taking a plane, train, or bus, and faced much nastier dangers than “Dinner in New York, breakfast in London, luggage in Sydney.”
Our word “travel” comes from the French travailler, referring to work, and not exactly easy work: with slightly different spelling, the same word appears in English as “travail,” meaning a mother’s struggle in childbirth. Travel was hard, gruelling, and dangerous labor, and not for the faint of heart. And the prodigal son undertook travel with far less of the strength—not to mention absolutely none of the wealth—by which he had gotten there. The feat would have been comparable to running a marathon, or at least a marathon where your path might well go through the turf of thugs lying in wait and quite willing to kill anyone who would travail into their ambush.
And yet this is exactly what the prodigal son did. His brother may have done the ascetical work of prayers and fasting; but the younger son undertook something much tougher: repentance which is, in a spiritual sense, what the younger son did to return home.
Repentance has been called unconditional surrender. It has been called other things as well, and it terrifies: it is a decision to return home and beg for mercy when you have no grounds to expect to be treated like anything but the vilest of the scum of the earth. Perhaps the Father’s love to the point of madness may respond otherwise when we have repented. Perhaps we when we surrender conditionally and expect to be razed to the ground, we find ourselves walking away triumphant victors whose refusal to surrender was holding on to defeat for dear life, terrified to let go of our defeat because we think it helps us. Perhaps we have nothing, really, to lose but our misery. But that isn’t our concern when we need to repent.
But if we can repent—for all of us have much to repent of—and step into the Sermon on the Mount and begin to live by faith, then the Father’s love will answer, and give us something better than whatever we grasp for in our forgetfulness that a provident God already knows our needs just as well in an economic depression as any other time. In an economic depression as much as any other time, the Father’s love can meet these needs much better than we will if we control our inheritance ourselves.
In hard times in the past the Lord’s arm and providence have shown more plainly than they sometimes do here. Do you want to know how to survive an economic depression? The answer is very simple. It’s not a matter of what you arrange. It’s a matter of what God provides. When there is no natural hope of God’s saints being taken care of, it may be a supernatural provideence that we don’t see as often when we have easy times.
In hard times as well as easy, the luminous thread woven throughout Scripture, appearing in one place in the words, “the just shall live by faith,” and another place in a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”—this luminous thread is at the heart of faith, spirituality, and religion—and this luminous thread is more. It is a participation in the life of a God of love to the point of madness.
The luminous thread is spun by a God of love to the point of madness.
It may be in hard times that we fear that in hard times we will lose what is good for us.
But it may be that hard times, whether a recession, depression, or economic collapse, serve as a divinely given clue-by-four when we discover that the Father’s love to the point of madness knows, and will give, what is much better for us. And on that point, I would like to quote a praise song about what is truly more precious than gold: the words go:
Lord, you are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.
In one variant, these words answer:
And the Father said:
“Child, you are more precious than silver.
Child, you are more costly than gold.
Child, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.”
These are the words of divine love to the point of madness, of a God who loves saints and sinners alike, of a God who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent. And this is a God who loves us in hard times as well as good, a God of providence who seeks our highest good whenever we turn to him.