The day his daughter Abigail was born was the best day of Abraham’s life. Like father, like daughter, they said in the village, and especially of them. He was an accomplished musician, and she breathed music.
He taught her a music that was simple, pure, powerful. It had only one voice; it needed only one voice. It moved slowly, unhurriedly, and had a force that was spellbinding. Abraham taught Abigail many songs, and as she grew, she began to make songs of her own. Abigail knew nothing of polyphony, nor of hurried technical complexity; her songs needed nothing of them. Her songs came from an unhurried time out of time, gentle as lapping waves, and mighty as an ocean.
One day a visitor came, a young man in a white suit. He said, “Before your father comes, I would like you to see what you have been missing.” He took out a music player, and began to play.
Abby at first covered her ears; she was in turn stunned, shocked, and intrigued. The music had many voices, weaving in and out of each other quickly, intricately. She heard wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels of complexity. She began to try, began to think in polyphony — and the man said, “I will come to you later. It is time for your music with your father.”
Every time in her life, sitting down at a keyboard with her father was the highlight of her day. Every day but this day. This day, she could only think about how simple and plain the music was, how lacking in complexity. Abraham stopped his song and looked at his daughter. “Who have you been listening to, Abigail?”
Something had been gnawing at Abby’s heart; the music seemed bleak, grey. It was as if she had beheld the world in fair moonlight, and then a blast of eerie light assaulted her eyes — and now she could see nothing. She felt embarrassed by her music, ashamed to have dared to approach her father with anything so terribly unsophisticated. Crying, she gathered up her skirts and ran as if there were no tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and the day after; it was a miserable day, after sleeping in a gutter. Abigail began to beg, and it was over a year before another beggar let her play on his keyboard. Abby learned to play in many voices; she was so successful that she forgot that she was missing something. She occupied herself so fully with intricate music that in another year she was asked to give concerts and performances. Her music was rich and full, and her heart was poor and empty.
Years passed, and Abigail gave the performance of her career. It was before a sold-out audience, and it was written about in the papers. She walked out after the performance and the reception, with moonlight falling over soft grass and fireflies dancing, and something happened.
Abby heard the wind blowing in the trees.
In the wind, Abigail heard music, and in the wind and the music Abigail heard all the things she had lost in her childhood. It was as if she had looked in an image and asked, “What is that wretched thing?” — and realized she was looking into a mirror. No, it was not quite that; it was as if in an instant her whole world was turned upside down, and her musical complexity she could not bear. She heard all over again the words, “Who have you been listening to?” — only, this time, she did not think them the words of a jealous monster, but words of concern, words of “Who has struck a blow against you?” She saw that she was blind and heard that she was deaf: that the hearing of complexity had not simply been an opening of her ears, but a wounding, a smiting, after which she could not know the concentrated presence a child had known, no matter how complex — or how simple — the music became. The sword cut deeper when she tried to sing songs from her childhood, at first could remember none, then could remember one — and it sounded empty — and she knew that the song was not empty. It was her. She lay down and wailed.
Suddenly, she realized she was not alone. An old man was watching her. Abigail looked around in fright; there was nowhere to run to hide. “What do you want?” she said.
“There is music even in your wail.”
“I loathe music.”
There was a time of silence, a time that drew uncomfortably long, and Abigail asked, “What is your name?”
The man said, “Look into my eyes. You know my name.”
Abigail stood, poised like a man balancing on the edge of a sword, a chasm to either side. She did not — Abigail shrieked with joy. “Daddy!”
“It has been a long time since we’ve sat down at music, sweet daughter.”
“You don’t want to hear my music. I was ashamed of what we used to play, and I am now ashamed of it all.”
“Oh, child! Yes, I do. I will never be ashamed of you. Will you come and walk with me? I have a keyboard.”
As Abby’s fingers began to dance, she first felt as if she were being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The self-consciousness she had finally managed to banish in her playing was now there — ugly, repulsive — and then she was through it. She made a horrible mistake, and then another, and then laughed, and Abraham laughed with her. Abby began to play and then sing, serious, inconsequential, silly, and delightful in the presence of her father. It was as if shackles fell from her wrists, her tongue loosed — she thought for a moment that she was like a little girl again, playing at her father’s side, and then knew that it was better. What could she compare it to? She couldn’t. She was at a simplicity beyond complexity, and her father called forth from her music that she could never have done without her trouble. The music seemed like dance, like laughter; it was under and around and through her, connecting her with her father, a moment out of time.
After they had both sung and laughed and cried, Abraham said, “Abby, will you come home with me? My house has never been the same without you.”
I would like to begin by telling a story. I was in a medical waiting room for a medical test, when a mother came in, pulling along a little girl by the hand, and taking care of the paperwork. The child had, by the looks of it, slammed her thumb in a door or something similar: there was a dark purple bulge under her thumbnail. I remembered when that had happened to me, and I was not a happy camper. No wonder the little girl was bawling her eyes out!
She was sitting in a chair, and I thought things might be better if she were engaged in a conversation. So, gently and softly, I told her a joke: “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” and answered, “A trombone.” She didn’t get it. So I tried to talk about several other things, trying and failing to engage her in conversation. After a few minutes, I had still managed an absolute zero percent success rate at making age-appropriate conversation that would allow her to contribute her half of the conversation. But I realized something: she was looking at me, and she was not crying. I had obtained her rapt attention, and for the moment she had completely stopped crying.
I was called and politely took my leave; a few minutes later, after my blood draw, I came out and the mother was giving TLC and comforting her daughter. The mother said, “You have a very gentle way about you.” I thanked her, shook the daughter’s hand, and told her, “I have to leave now, but I’m glad I met you.” The mother repeated once or twice, “You have a very gentle way about you.” And she caressed her little one.
This is a tale of treasure, and it arose in my heart, perhaps, because none of it is measured with dollars. My blood test cost money, of course, and the treatment of the child’s thumb presumably also cost money, of course, but the treasure is not measured in dollars. If the treasure were of gold, or some other material item, one could equate treasure with a high dollar value, but for the mother to pay me money, or for me to ask for it, would have been a crass way of defacing a treasure. There was joy and a lesson in it for me, and pain relief and a pleasant meeting for the child, but this, this treasure, falls under the heading of “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
By contrat, I would tell a joke:
I was trying to help a friend’s son look into colleges, and yesterday he handed me the phone, really excited, and said, “You have got to speak with these guys.” I fumbled the phone, picked it up, and heard, “—online. We offer perhaps the best-rounded of degrees, and from day one our students are equipped with a top-of-the-line Dell running up-to-the-minute Vista. We address back-end issues, giving students a grounding in Visual Basic .NET, striking the right balance between ‘reach’ and ‘rich,’ and a thorough groundings in Flash-based design and web design optimized for the latest version of Internet Explorer. Throw in an MCSE, and marketing-based communication instruction that harnesses the full power of PowerPoint and covers the most effective ways to make use of animated pop-ups, opt-in subscriber lists, and—”
I interrupted. “Excuse me, but what is your institution called?”
For those of you who have been spared the joke, there is a classic off-color joke where a group of performers approach a theatre owner or the like, are asked what they do and describe an X-rated show that is grosser than gross (bestiality, necrophilia, …), and when asked what they are called, say, “The Aristocrats.”
The fork off that joke above is that all of these mostly technological items, however expensive, are false treasure at best. The original “The Aristocrats” is plain in advertising anti-treasure; the latter take, in a Unix chauvinist’s way, has things that appear to be treasure but are really false treasure, anti-treasure that calls for the grosser-than-gross punch line. And perhaps more than one of those jokes is false treasure, but we won’t go into that.
My reason for mentioning treasure that is free, like the best things in life, and expensive anti-treasure, is to say that while many treasures may be worth money, and bigger treasures can be worth more money, real treasure is beyond money. The Best Things in Life are Free,as the saying goes.
Living for treasure
I live to create treasure. Actually I live to contemplate God, and worship his glory, but there are a million concrete ways one can contemplate God, and one of them is creating treasure. My website at CJSHayward.com is created to be a treasure, or a treasurehouse of treasures, and while there are pieces you could look at and say, “You botched this and that,” my intent is still to create a treasure. There are other areas where I try to create treasure (a picturebook of loved ones for a hospitalized child), but the greatest success I receive is to finish something and find it has been a treasure to the person who has received it.
And if ever there is treasure, he is God. Mankind and angels are treasures; there is a discussion in the Gospel where Christ is asked if it is lawful to pay a tax or not, asks to see the coin used to pay the tax, and asked whose image and superscription it was. “Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God;” thus Jesus Christ appealed to a principle that whoever coins money has the authority to tax that money. Augustine picks up on this: “Caesar seeketh his image; render it; God seeketh his image; render it. Let not Caesar lose from you his coin: let not God lose in you His coin.” He explores it, and there is the suggestion at least that we are God’s coins: first and foremost by being struck with his image, but it cannot be too far from mind that coins could be struck on precious metal, that a coin is treasure. Augustine attends to the minor point, that the mere earthly coin with Caesar’s image is due to Caesar, but all the much more the coin imprinted in the image of God and nothing less, is due to God: a parish of faithful followers is much more a treasury than a room with chests of silver coins.
The Lord God Almighty and the Uncreated Light reigns over all; the Uncreated Light illumines the cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels: the glory and treasure of the Lord thunder through rank on rank of angel host. The Mother of God bore God in her womb and exchanged with her Son: she gave him his humanity, and he gave to her from his divinity, leaving her as a treasure eclipsing all the angels. The treasure unfurls and unfolds on earth: the sacramental priesthood and the spiritual priesthood, songs, liturgy, angels, and ten thousand other treasures. And treasure is close to the heart of the treasure of the Church: a Church saying says, “If you have two small coins, you use one to buy bread for the altar, and the other to buy flowers for the icons.”
The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed from available data. Our authority is the Bible: Isaiah 30:26 reads, Moreover the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days. Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun and in addition seven times seven (forty-nine) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or fifty times in all. The light we receive from the Moon is a ten-thousandth of the light we receive from the sun, so we can ignore that. With these data we can compute the temperature of Heaven. The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat lost by radiation. Using the Stefan-Boltzmann fourth power law for radiation and where H is the temperature of Heaven, E that of the Earth – 300 K – we have
(H/E)4 = 50.
This gives H as 798 K or 525°C.
The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed but it must be less than 444.6°C, the temperature at which brimstone or sulphur changes from a liquid to a gas. Revelations 21:8: But the fearful, and unbelieving . . . shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. A lake of molten brimstone means that its temperature must be below the boiling point, which is 444.6°C.
We have, then, temperature of Heaven, 525°C. Temperature of Hell, less than 445°C. Therefore, Heaven is hotter than Hell.
Applied Optics, 11, A14 (1972)
One brief remark before continuing: one man I knew was in an elevator on a sweltering hot day, when a profusely sweating jogger stepped into the elevator and said, “It’s hotter ‘n Hell out there!” and he replied, slowly, “No, it isn’t.” There is something amiss with the humorous quote above, and Mark Twain, the great humorist, wrote, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” There is a sense in Orthodoxy that humor does not belong in the holiest places, and devout Orthodox I know have a deep joy but laugh little. The connotations of “humorless” do not describe them; they are not sour, nor joyless, nor rigid, nor quick to take offense, but they are luminous with the Light of a Heaven that needs no humor.
But the physicist quoted above underscores something: words are inadequate to capture Heaven. There are situations in life where words fail us: people say, “Words cannot express how grateful I am.” And if words fail us for expressing gratitude, for instance, or romantic love, they fail all the more in describing Heaven and God. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, heart has not conceived, what God has prepared for them that love him:” words cannot express Heaven, nor God.
In classical theology this is spoken of as God’s transcendence: God is infinitely far beyond any created thing. He is reflected in a million ways in our created world, but the hidden transcendent God is beyond all of them. In a book of profound influence but only a few pages long, The Mystical Theology, St. Dionysius writes of ascending towards God:
The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. He is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. He is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. He is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. He suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. He is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. He endures no deprivation of light. He passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. He is not soul or mind, nor does he possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is he speech per se, understanding per se. He cannot be spoken of and he cannot be grasped by understanding. He is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. He is not immovable, moving, or at rest. He has no power, he is not power, nor is he light. He does not live nor is he life. He is not a substance, nor is he eternity or time. He cannot be grasped by the understanding since he is neither knowledge nor truth. He is not kingship. He is not wisdom. He is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is he a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. He is not sonship or fatherhood and he is nothing known to us or to any other being. He falls neither within the predicate of nonbehing nor of being. Existing beings do not know him as he actually is and he does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of him, nor name nor knowledge of him. Darkness and light, error and truth—he is none of these. He is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to him, but never of him, for he is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; he is also beyond every denial.
Over a millenium before a Bultmann would go on a program of saying that the images we have in Scripture are inadequate, the Orthodox Church would do one better. Her saints would tell of the hidden transcendent God who transcends everything we might say of him. And better than this can be said. God transcends his own transcendence, and transcends transcendence itself. And here we must leave Bultmann completely behind as not having gone far enough.
God transcends his own transcendence, and the transcendent God so far transcends his own transcendence that not only is he infinitesmally close to the Creation, immanent to all Creation, but he entered his Creation: God became man. And the reason God became man is that man might become divine. And there is never a sharp separation between Christ coming to save mankind and Christ coming to save the whole Creation: the transcendent God so far transcends his own incomparable transcendence that he is at work to deify men, and ultimately the whole Creation. In Christ there is no male nor female, paradise nor inhabitated world, heaven nor earth, spiritual nor material, uncreated nor created, but Christ is all, and in all, and transcends all, and in him all these differences are to be transcended. The transcendent Christ God transcends his Creation and transcends his own transcendence, and he returns to his Father in victory, bearing deified men and Creation as trophies who share in his transcendent victory. There is no distinction between male and female, paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, spiritual and material, uncreated God and created creation, for the same transcendent Lord is Lord of all and bestows riches upon all who call him, and makes all one in Christ Jesus.
And this Lord who infinitely transcends his creation shouts through it. He shouts through icons, through every human love, through music, through storm and star. He is a God who so far transcends his Creation that he can enter into it, and a failure to love our neighbor is a failure to love God. Consider the parable of the sheep and the goats:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?”
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
This transcendent God transcends his own Creation and transcends his own transcendence that his image is imprinted in every man, woman, and child, and we cannot fail to love our neighbor without failing ot love Christ God; we cannot mistreat our neighbor without mistreating Christ God. Christ so far transcends his own transcendence that there is not the faintest gap between our treatment of our least neighbors and our treatment of Christ God himself. The Pope is not Christ’s vicar on earth; our neighbor is Christ’s vicar on earth, and how we treat our neighbor is vicariously how we treat the Christ we will answer to on Judgment Day.
And who is our neighbor? Let’s have a slightly updated answer with disturbing clarity:
A certain religious scholar stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal Life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the heart of the Bible? How do you read it?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your inward being, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered, “A certain man, an American, went into the worst part of town at night and was held up by thugs who took not only took his valuables but beat him and left him for dead, throwing him deep into a dark alley.
“By chance a police officer was walking down that way. When he saw the man, he gave the alley a wide berth and ran along.
“In the same way a boy scout passed through the place and gave the alley a wide berth.
“But when it got to the wee hours of the morning, he heard footsteps and a terrorist came along, and the man called out ‘Help me!’ from the dark alley in the worst part of town. And the terrorist was viscerally moved with compassion, came to him, and bandaged his wounds, using some of his clothing, and carried him to an emergency room.
“When the terrorist left, he took all of the money that he had with him, and gave it to the hospital, and said, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond what I have given you, I will repay.’
“Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”
He said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Do you believe God is transcendent? Go and do likewise to the transcendent Christ who approaches you in you neighbor.
Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, “No picnic is complete without ants.” So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for “ascesis” (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ’s name, and Christ’s answer was: “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven.” The reality of the disciples’ names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God’s grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and money,” it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, “No man can serve two masters” all the more needed in our day.
Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. “No man can serve two masters” is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:
Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.
Hobbes: That must have been scary!
Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!
But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.
There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan “astrological” calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn’t able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike… or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
No technology is permanently exotic.
When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called “a Utopia of spoiled children.” It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological “progress” often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, “We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!”
Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to “support” weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special “safety” features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one’s priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call “space-conquering technologies” might more aptly be titled, “body-conquering technologies,” because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
Today, “everybody knows” that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one’s spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that “proved” that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck’s gas tank (see analysis).
St. John Chrysostom wrote,
Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well… Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.
The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul’s blistering words about forbidding marriage:
Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage’s fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one’s health.
Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for “pull and pray.” (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—”medicine men” one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple’s hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they “simply cannot afford any more children”—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, “Take control of your life!” For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one’s elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;” they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
One classic attitude to wine was not “We forbid drinking wine,” or even “It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage,” but goes beyond saying, “The pleasure of wine was given by God as good” to saying: “Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying ‘when’ and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape.”
The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person’s life and pursuits.)
The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company’s success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn’t think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
Good to Great leadership saw their companies’ success in terms of people.
There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
In Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a “man” with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of “water brothers” who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to “push the envelope” of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is “functioning the way a human being was organized to function.”
People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its “good news” of an escape from the miserable here and now is “good news” as misery would want it. Today’s Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics’ bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: “Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk,” in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, “Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!”
What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business’s website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another’s death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one’s own life.
An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people’s Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people’s Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn’t a soul in the place!
Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
“Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
“Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, “Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!” Less witty complaints about the younger generation’s immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today’s older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. “The youth these days” have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
When they were young, the older generation’s ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its “cool” is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
The Liturgy prays, “Pierce our souls with longing for Thee.” Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as “space-conquering,” it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
“The demons always fast:” such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body’s limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos’s virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, “Isn’t there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?”, the answer is, “Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle.” In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures’ best interests.
People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology’s use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one’s watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee’s attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, “watchfulness.”
The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
Nepsis is a watchfulness over one’s heart, including the mind.
Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one’s thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one’s senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”
Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
That “something better” is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.
The crown of Earth is the temple,
and the crown of the temple is Heaven.
Stephan ran to get away from his pesky sister—if nothing else he could at least outrun her!
Where to go?
One place seemed best, and his legs carried him to the chapel—or, better to say, the temple. The chapel was a building which seemed larger from the inside than the outside, and (though this is less remarkable than it sounds) it is shaped like an octagon on the outside and a cross on the inside.
Stephan slowed down to a walk. This place, so vast and open and full of light on the inside—a mystically hearted architect who read The Timeless Way of Building might have said that it breathed—and Stephan did not think of why he felt so much at home, but if he did he would have thought of the congregation worshipping with the skies and the seas, the rocks and the trees, and choir after choir of angels, and perhaps he would have thought of this place not only as a crown to earth but a room of Heaven.
What he was thinking of was the Icon that adorns the Icon stand, and for that matter adorns the whole temple. It had not only the Icons, but the relics of (from left to right) Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great. His mother had told Stephan that they were very old, and Stephan looked at her and said, “Older than email? Now that is old!” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them she smiled. “Older than email,” she said, “and electric lights, and cars, and a great many of the kinds of things in our house, and our country, and…” her voice trailed off. He said, “Was it as old as King Arthur?” She said, “It is older than even the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.”
As he had kissed the relics, he had begun to understand that what made them important was something deeper than their old age. But he could not say what.
But now he opened the doors to the temple, smelled the faint but fragrant smell of incense—frankincense—and was surprised to see another Icon on the stand. (Oh, wait, he thought. There were frequently other Icons.) The Icon was Saint Mary of Egypt. (This Icon did not have any relics.) He looked at the Icon, and began to look into it. What was her story? He remembered the part of her story he liked best—when, very far from being a saint at the beginning of her life, she came to a church and couldn’t go in. An invisible force barred her, and a saint, the Mother of God, spoke to her through an Icon. Stephan vaguely remembered Father saying something about how it was also important how after years of fasting from everything but bread or vegetables, she was discovered but refused to go back to places that would still have been a temptation to her.
She was very gaunt, and yet that gauntness held fierce power. When he had looked into the Icon—or through it, as one looks through a window—he kissed her hand and looked at the royal doors, light doors with a kind of wooden mesh (it was beautiful) and a tower of three Icons each. The royal doors were at the center of the low, open wall that guarded the holy of holies within the temple, a special place crowned by the altar. The top two Icons told the place, not of the Annunciation to the Mother of God, but the Annunciation of the Mother of God. He looked into the pictures and saw the Annunciation of the Mother of God: not when the Archangel said, “Hail, O favored One! The Lord is with you,” but when the Virgin listened and replied, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The spine of Eve’s sin was snapped.
Death and Hell had already begun to crumble.
After looking through these pictures—it was not enough to say that he simply looked at them, though it was hard to explain why—he turned around and was absorbed into the Icon painted as a mural on the sloped ceiling that was now before him.
If that was the answer to Eve’s sin, this was the answer to Adam’s sin.
The Icon was an Icon the color of sunrise—or was it sunset? Then he saw something he hadn’t seen before, even though this was one of his favorite Icons. It was an Icon of the Crucifixion, and he saw Christ at the center with rocks below—obedience in a garden of desolation had answered disobedience in a garden of delights—and beyond the rocks, the Holy City, and beyond the Holy City a sky with bands and whorls of light the color of sunrise. Now he saw for the first time that where Christ’s body met the sky there was a band of purest light around it. Christ had a halo that was white at the center and orange and red at the sides—fitting for the Christ who passed through the earth like a flame.
The flame made him think of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. This God sent his Son, who was also the One Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. In his teaching, in his friendship, in his healing the sick and raising the dead, every step he made was a step closer to this, the Cross. And yet he did this willingly.
Stephan turned, and for a moment was drawn to the mural to the right, which was also breathtakingly beautiful. Two women bore myrrh (the oil that newly chrismated Orthodox have just been anointed with) to perform a last service—the last service they could perform—to a dearly loved friend. And yet they found an empty tomb, and a majestic angel announcing news they would not have dared to hope: the Firstborn of the Dead entered death and death could not hold him. Its power had more than begun to crumble. But then Stephan turned back, almost sharply. Yes, this was glory. This was glory and majesty and beauty. But Stephan was looking for the beginning of triumph…
…and that was right there in the Icon the color of sunrise. The Cross in itself was the victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around. However much it cost him, he never let go of his plan or his grace. Christ knew he could call for more than twelve legions of angels—but he never did. He walked the path the Father set before him to the very end.
Stephan stood, his whole being transported to the foot of the Cross. However long he spent there he did not know, and I do not know either. He looked through the Icon, and saw—tasted—the full victory of the God Who Cannot Be Pushed Around.
When he did look away, it was in the Light of that God. Everything now bore that Light. He went over to the relics of the patron saints of his land, and though they were much newer than the relics of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Basil the Great, that didn’t seem to matter. It was like dust from another world—precious grains of sand from Heaven—and the Icon of Saint Herman of Alaska and Saint Innocent holding up a tiny building was richly colorful—”like a rainbow that has grown up,” he heard one of the grown-ups say.
Then he walked over to the Icon of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, holding a scroll that was open partway, with his letter to the Romans: “Let me be given to the wild beasts, for by their means I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the beasts, so that I may an”—but here the quotation stopped, leaving him wondering. That Icon itself was one of several old-looking, yellowed Icons—though not nearly the oldest around—held in a deep, rich brown wooden frame carved with grapevines and bunches of grapes, as many things in that room were carved (though some had intricate interwoven knots). Stephan said, “I want to be a martyr just like you, Saint Ignatius. Pray for me.”
Then he walked over to an Icon that was much smaller, but showed a man standing besides a rustic settlement with an outer wall and turrets and doors and buildings inside. It looked medieval to him, and he wished he could enter that world. It was darkened and yellowed and had a gold leaf sky, and something was written at the top, but he couldn’t read it because it was in a very old language: Old Slavonic.
Right by that Icon was Saint Anthony, the father of all monastics. He had a piercing gaze, and Stephan had the feeling he needed to confess something—but he couldn’t think of anything besides his bout with his sister, and she had been a pest. He looked away.
Stephan looked at the Icon on the left of the wall, and saw the prince, Saint Vladimir, with buildings and spires behind him that looked like they were having a party.
Then Stephan stood in front of the main Icon of the Mother of God holding God the Son, though he stood some distance back. The background was gold, and this drew him in a different way than the Icon of Saint Vladimir. This more than any other did not work like a photograph. (Or at least he was more aware of this now.) It might look odd to people who were just used to photographs, but you could say that a photograph was just a picture, but to say this was just a picture would show that you missed what kind of a picture you were looking at. But he had trouble thinking of how. He didn’t so much sense that he was looking inot the Icon as that the Mother of God and the Son of God were looking at him. He didn’t even think of the Icon being the Icon of the Incarnation and First Coming.
Then he looked at the Icon of the Last Judgment, where Christ the King and Lord and Judge returns holding a book of judgment, a book that is closed because there is nothing left to determine.
He thought intensely. The First Coming of Christ was in a stable, in a cave, and a single choir of angels sung his glory. The Second and Glorious Coming he will ride on the clouds, with legion on legion of angels with him. The First Coming was a mystery, one you could choose to disbelieve—as many people did. There will be no mistaking the Second Coming. In the First Coming, a few knees bowed. In the Second Coming, every knee will bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, some in bliss and rapture and others in utter defeat. At the First Coming, a lone star in the sky heralded Christ’s birth. At the Second Coming, the stars will fall to earth like overripe figs and the sky recede as a vanishing scroll.
What were those chilling, terrifying words of Christ? “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, lacking clothes and you did not give me the dignity of having clothes to wear.” Then the condemned will say, “Where did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty or sick or in prison and not take care of you?” And the King and Lord and Judge will say, “I most solemnly tell you, as much as you did not do it for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did not do it for me.”
Stephan looked at the Icon and said, “I wish Dad would let me give money to beggars when I see…” Then his voice trailed off. The words didn’t feel right in his mouth. He looked at the solemn love in the Icon, and then his mind was filled with the memory of his sister in tears.
He slowly backed down from the Icon, feeling the gaze of the King and Lord and Judge. He turned to almost run—he was in too holy of a place to run, and…
Something stopped him from leaving. After struggling inside, he looked around, and his eyes came to rest on the Icon of the Crucifixion that was the color of sunrise. Now he had not noticed them earlier this time, but he saw the Mother of God on one side and the beloved disciple on the earth. What had he just heard in church on Sunday? “Christ said to the beloved disciple, who is not here named because he is the image of every disciple, ‘Behold your Mother,’ and to his Mother, ‘Behold your Son.’ Listen to me very carefully. He did not say, ‘Behold another man who is also your son,’ but something much stranger and more powerful: ‘Behold your Son,’ because to be Orthodox is to become Christ.” Stephan started to think, “Gold for kingship, incense for divinity, myrrh for suffering—these are Christ’s gifts but he shares them with the Church, doesn’t he?” He looked up, and then looked down.
“But I need to go and apologize for hurting my sister.”
I got up, washed my face in the fountain, and put out the fire. The fountain was carved of yellow marble, set in the wall and adorned with bas-relief sculptures and dark moss. I moved through the labyrinth, not distracting myself with a lamp, not thinking about the organ, whose pipes ranged from 8′ to 128′ and could shake a cathedral to its foundation. Climbing iron rungs, I emerged from the recesses of a cluttered shed.
I was wearing a T-shirt advertising some random product, jeans which were worn at the cuffs, and fairly new tennis shoes. I would have liked to think I gave no hint of anything unusual: an ordinary man, with a messy house stocked with the usual array of mundane items. I blended in with the Illusion.
I drove over to Benjamin’s house. As I walked in, I said, “Benjamin, I’m impressed. You’ve done a nice job of patching this place since the last explosion.”
“Shut up, Morgan.”
“By the way, my nephews are coming to visit in two weeks, Friday afternoon. Would you be willing to tinker in your laboratory when they come? Their favorite thing in the world is a good fireworks display.”
“Which reminds me, there was one spice that I wanted to give you. It makes any food taste better, and the more you add, the better the food tastes. Pay no attention to the label on the bottle which says ‘arsenic’. If you’ll excuse me one moment…” He began to stand up, and I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down into the chair.
“How are you, Benjamin?”
“How are you, Morgan?”
I sat silent for a while. When Benjamin remained silent, I said, “I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library. The sense one gets when contemplating an artistic masterwork is concentrated in looking at what effect The Mystical Theology had on a thousand years of wonder.”
He said, “You miss the Middle Ages, don’t you?”
I said, “They’re still around—a bit here, a piece there. On one hand, it’s very romantic to hold something small in your hand and say that it is all that is left of a once great realm. On the other hand, it’s only romantic: it is not the same thing as finding that glory all about you.
“The pain is all the worse when you not only come from a forgotten realm, but you must reckon with the Illusion. It’s like there’s a filter which turns everything grey. It’s not exactly that there’s a sinister hand that forces cooperation with the Illusion and tortures you if you don’t; in some ways things would be simpler if there were. Of course you’re asking for trouble if you show an anachronism in the way you dress, or if you’re so gauche as to speak honestly out of the wisdom of another world and push one of the hot buttons of whatever today’s hot issues are. But beyond that, you don’t have to intentionally cooperate with the Illusion; you can ‘non-conform freely’ and the Illusion freely conforms itself to you. It’s a terribly isolating feeling.”
Benjamin stood up, walked over to a bookshelf, and pulled out an ivory tube. “I have something for you, Morgan. A pair of spectacles.”
“Did you make these?”
“I’m not saying.”
“Why are you giving me eyeglasses? My eyes are fine.”
“Your eyes are weaker than you think.” He waited a moment, and then said, “And these spectacles have a virtue.”
“What is their virtue? What is their power?”
“Please forgive me. As one who has struggled with the Illusion, you know well enough what it means to deeply want to convey something and know that you can’t. Please believe me when I say that I would like to express the answer to your question, but I cannot.”
I left, taking the glasses and both hoping that I was concealing my anger from Benjamin and knowing that I wasn’t.
I arrived at home and disappeared into the labyrinth. A bright lamp, I hoped, would help me understand the spectacles’ power. Had I been in a different frame of mind, I might have enjoyed it; I read an ancient and mostly complete Greek manuscript to The Symbolic Theology to see if it might reveal new insights. My eyes lingered for a moment over the words:
That symbol, as most, has two layers. Yet a symbol could have an infinite number of layers and still be smaller than what is without layer at all.
I had a deep insight of some sort over these words, and the insight is forever lost because I cared only about one thing, finding out what magic power the spectacles held. I tried to read a cuneiform tablet; as usual, the language gave me an embarrassing amount of trouble, and there was something strange about what it said that completely lacked the allure of being exotic. Wishing I had a better command of languages, I moved about from one serpentine passageway to another, looking at places, even improvising on the organ, and enjoying none of it. Everything looked exactly as if I were looking through a children’s toy. Had Benjamin been watching too much Dumbo and given me a magic feather?
After a long and fruitless search, I went up into my house, put the spectacles in your pocket, and sat in my chair, the lights off, fatigued in mind and body. I do not recall know how long I stayed there. I only know that I jumped when the doorbell rang.
It was Amber. She said, “The supermarket had a really good sale on strawberries, and I thought you might like some.”
“Do you have a moment to to come in? I have Coke in the fridge.”
I had to stifle my urge to ask her opinion about the spectacles’ virtue. I did not know her to be more than meets the eye (at least not in the sense that could be said of Benjamin or me), but the Illusion was much weaker in her than in most people, and she seemed to pick up on things that I wished others would as well. We talked for a little while; she described how she took her family to a pizza restaurant and her son “walked up to a soda machine, pushed one of the levers you’re supposed to put your cup against, jumped in startlement when soda fell on his hand, and then began to lick the soda off.”
“I’ve got to get home and get dinner on, but—ooh, you have new glasses in your pocket. Put them on for a moment.”
I put my spectacles on, and she said something to me, but I have no idea what she said. It’s not because I was drained: I was quite drained when she came, but her charm had left me interested in life again. The reason I have no idea what she said to me is that I was stunned at what I saw when I looked at her through the spectacles.
I saw beauty such as I had not begun to guess at. She was clad in a shimmering robe of scintillating colors. In one hand, she was holding a kaliedoscope, which had not semi-opaque colored chips but tiny glass spheres and prisms inside. The other hand embraced a child on her lap, with love so real it could be seen.
After she left, I took the spectacles off, put them in their case, and after miscellaneous nightly activities, went to bed and dreamed dreams both brilliant and intense.
When I woke up, I tried to think about why I had not recognized Amber’s identity before. I closed my eyes and filtered through memories; Amber had given signals of something interesting that I had not picked up on—and she had picked up on things I had given. I thought of myself as one above the Illusion—and here I had accepted the Illusion’s picture of her. Might there be others who were more than meets the eye?
I came to carry the spectacles with me, and look around for a sign of something out of the ordinary. Several days later, I met a tall man with cornrowed greying hair. When I asked him what he studied in college, he first commented on the arbitrariness of divisions between disciplines, before explaining that his discipline of record was philosophy. His thought was a textbook example of postmodernism, but when I put my spectacles on, I saw many translucent layers: each layer, like a ring of an oak, carried a remnant of a bygone age. Then I listened, and his words sounded no less postmodern, but echoes of the Middle Ages were everywhere.
I began to find these people more and more frequently, and require less and less blatant cues.
I sat in the living room, waiting with cans of Coca-Cola. I enjoy travelling in my nephews’ realms; at a prior visit, Nathan discovered a whole realm behind my staircase, and it is my loss that I can only get in when I am with him. Brandon and Nathan had come for the fair that weekend, and I told them I had something neat-looking to show them before I took them to the fair.
I didn’t realize my mistake until they insisted that I wear the spectacles at the fair.
I didn’t mind the charge of public drunkenness that much. It was humiliating, perhaps, but I think at least some humiliations are necessary in life. And I didn’t mind too much that my nephews’ visit was a bummer for them. Perhaps that was unfortunate, but that has long been smoothed over. There were, however, two things that were not of small consequence to me.
The first thing that left me staggered was something in addition to the majesty I saw. I saw a knight, clad in armor forged of solid light, and I saw deep scars he earned warring against dragons. I saw a fair lady who looked beautiful at the skin when seen without the spectacles, and beautiful in layer after layer below the skin when seen with them. The something else I saw in addition to that majesty was that this beauty was something that was not just in a few people, or even many. It was in every single person without exception. That drunken beggar everyone avoided, the one with a stench like a brewery next to a horse stable—I saw his deep and loyal friendships. I saw his generosity with other beggars—please believe me that if you were another beggar, what’s his was yours. I saw the quests he made in his youth. I saw his dreams. I saw his story. Beyond all that, I saw something deeper than any of these, a glory underneath and beneath these things. This glory, however disfigured by his bondage to alcohol, filled me with wonder.
The reason the police kept me in the drunk tank for so long was that I was stunned and reeling. I had always known that I was more than what the Illusion says a person is, and struggled to convey my something more to other people… but I never looked to see how other people could be more than the grey mask the Illusion put on their faces. When I was in the drunk tank, I looked at the other men in wonder and asked myself what magic lay in them, what my spectacles would tell me. The old man with an anchor tattooed to his arm: was he a sailor? Where had he sailed on the seven seas? Had he met mermaids? I almost asked him if he’d found Atlantis, when I decided I didn’t want to prolong the time the police officer thought I was drunk.
This brings me to the second disturbing find, which was that my spectacles were not with me. I assumed this was because the police had locked them away, but even after I was released, determined inquiry found no one who had seen them. They looked interesting, oddly shaped lenses with thick gold frames; had a thief taken them when I was stunned and before the police picked me up?
The next day I began preparing for a quest.
It filled me with excitement to begin searching the black market, both because I hoped to find the spectacles, and because I knew I would experience these people in a completely new light.
I had dealings with the black market before, but it had always been unpleasant: not (let me be clear) because I did not know how to defend myself, or was in too much danger of getting suckered into something dangerous, but because I approached its people concealing the emotions I’d feel touching some kind of fetid slime. Now… I still saw that, but I tried to look and see what I would see if I were wearing my spectacles.
I didn’t find anything that seemed significant. The next leg of my journey entailed a change of venue: I dressed nicely and mingled with the world of jewellers and antique dealers. Nada.
I began to search high and low; I brainstormed about what exotic places it might be, and I found interesting people along the way. The laborers whom I hired to help me search the city dump almost made me forget that I was searching for something, and over time I chose to look for my spectacles in places that would bring me into contact with people I wanted to meet…
Some years later, I was returning from one of my voyages and realized it had been long (too long) since I had spoken with Benjamin. I came and visited him, and told him about the people I’d met. After I had talked for an hour, he put his hand on my mouth and said, “Can I get a word in edgewise?”
I said, “Mmmph mph mmmph mmph.”
He took his hand off my mouth, and I said, “That depends on whether you’re rude enough to put your hand over my mouth in mid-sentence.”
“That depends on whether you’re rude enough to talk for an hour without letting your host get a word in edgewise.”
I stuck my tongue out at him.
He stuck his tongue out at me.
Benjamin opened a box on his desk, opened the ivory case inside the box, and pulled out my spectacles. “I believe these might interest you.” He handed them to me.
I sat in silence. The clock’s ticking seemed to grow louder, until it chimed and we both jumped. Then I looked at him and said, “What in Heaven’s name would I need them for?”
Herodotus: And what say thou of these people? Why callest thou them the Singularity, Merlin?
John: Mine illuminèd name is John, and John shall ye call me each and every one.
Herodotus: But the Singularity is such as only a Merlin could have unravelled.
John: Perchance: but the world is one of which only an illuminèd one may speak aright. Call thou me as one illuminèd, if thou wouldst hear me speak.
Herodotus: Of illumination speakest thou. Thou sawest with the eye of the hawk: now seest thou with the eye of the eagle.
John: If that be, speak thou me as an eagle?
Herodotus: A point well taken, excellent John, excellent John. What speakest thou of the Singularity?
John: A realm untold, to speak is hard. But of an icon will I speak: inscribed were words:
‘Waitress, is this coffee or tea?’
‘What does it taste like?’
‘IT TASTES LIKE DIESEL FUEL.’
‘That’s the coffee. The tea tastes like transmission fluid.’
Herodotus: Upon what manner of veneration were this icon worshipped?
John: That were a matter right subtle, too far to tell.
Herodotus: And of the inscription? That too be subtle to grasp.
John: Like as a plant hath sap, so a subtle engine by their philosophy wrought which needeth diesel fuel and transmission fluid.
Herodotus: [laughs] Then ’twere a joke, a jape! ‘Tis well enough told!
John: You perceive it yet?
Herodotus: A joke, a jape indeed, of a fool who could not tell, two different plants were he not to taste of their sap! Well spoke! Well spoke!
John: Thou hast grasped it afault, my fair lord. For the subtle engine hath many different saps, no two alike.
Herodotus: And what ambrosia be in their saps?
John: Heaven save us! The saps be a right unnatural fare; their substance from rotted carcasses of monsters from aeons past, then by the wisdom of their philosophy transmogrified, of the subtle engine.
Herodotus: Then they are masters of Alchemy?
John: Masters of an offscouring of all Alchemy, of the lowest toe of that depravèd ascetical enterprise, chopped off, severed from even the limb, made hollow, and then growen beyond all reason, into the head of reason.
Herodotus: Let us leave off this and speak of the icon. The icon were for veneration of such subtle philosophy?
John: No wonder, no awe, greeteth he who regardest this icon and receive it as is wont.
Herodotus: As is wont?
John: As is wanton. For veneration and icons are forcèd secrets; so there is an antithesis of the sacra pagina, and upon its light pages the greatest pages come upon the most filled with lightness, the icons of a world that knoweth icons not.
Let me make another essay.
The phrase ‘harmony with nature’ is of popular use, yet a deep slice of the Singularity, or what those inside the Singularity can see of it, might be called, ‘harmony with technology’.
Herodotus: These be mystics of technology.
John: They live in an artificial jungle of technology, or rather an artificial not-jungle of technology, an artificial anti-jungle of technology. For one example, what do you call the natural use of wood?
Herodotus: A bundle of wood is of course for burning.
John: And they know of using wood for burning, but it is an exotic, rare case to them; say ‘wood’ and precious few will think of gathering wood to burn.
Herodotus: Then what on earth do they use wood for? Do they eat it when food is scarce or something like that?
John: Say ‘wood’ and not exotic ‘firewood’, and they will think of building a house.
Herodotus: So then they are right dexterous, if they can build out of a bundle of gathered sticks instead of burning it.
John: They do not gather sticks such as you imagine. They fell great trees, and cut the heartwood into rectangular box shapes, which they fit together in geometrical fashion. And when it is done, they make a box, or many boxes, and take rectangles hotly fused sand to fill a window. And they add other philosophy on top of that, so that if the house is well-built, the air inside will be pleasant and still, unless they take a philosophical machine to push air, and whatever temperature the people please, and it will remain dry though the heavens be opened in rain. And most of their time is spent in houses, or other ‘buildings’ like a house in this respect.
Herodotus: What a fantastical enterprise! When do they enter such buildings?
John: When do they rather go out of them? They consider it normal to spend less than an hour a day outside of such shelters; the subtle machine mentioned earlier moves but it is like a house built out of metal in that it is an environment entirely contrived by philosophy and artifice to, in this case, convey people from one place to another.
Herodotus: How large is this machine? It would seem to have to be very big to convey all their people.
John: But this is a point where their ‘technology’ departs from the art that is implicit in τεχνη: it is in fact not a lovingly crafted work of art, shaped out of the spirit of that position ye call ‘inventor’ or ‘artist’, but poured out by the thousands by gigantical machines yet more subtle, and in the wealth of the Singularity, well nigh unto each hath his own machine.
Herodotus: And how many can each machine can convey? Perchance a thousand?
John: Five, or six, or two peradventure, but the question is what they would call ‘academical’: the most common use is to convey one.
Herodotus: They must be grateful for such property and such philosophy!
John: A few are very grateful, but the prayer, ‘Let us remember those less fortunate than ourselves’ breathes an odor that sounds truly archaical. It sounds old, old enough to perhaps make half the span of a man’s life. And such basic technology, though they should be very much upset to lose them, never presents itself to their mind’s eye when they hear the word ‘technology’. And indeed, why should it present itself to the mind his eye?
Herodotus: I strain to grasp thy thread.
John: To be thought of under the heading of ‘technology’, two things must hold. First, it must be possessed of an artificial unlife, not unlike the unlife of their folklore’s ghouls and vampires and zombies. And second, it must be of recent vintage, something not to be had until a time that is barely past. Most of the technologies they imagine provide artificially processed moving images, some of which are extremely old—again, by something like half the span of a man’s life—while some are new. Each newer version seemeth yet more potent. To those not satisfied with the artificial environment of an up-to-date building, regarded by them as something from time immemorial, there are unlife images of a completely imaginary artificial world where their saying ‘when pigs can fly’ meaning never is in fact one of innumerable things that happen in the imaginary world portrayed by the technology. ‘SecondLife’ offers a second alternative to human life, or so it would seem, until ‘something better comes along.’
Herodotus: My mind, it reeleth.
John: Well it reeleth. But this be but a sliver.
For life to them is keeping one’s balance on shifting sand; they have great museums of different products, as many as the herbs of the field. But herein lies a difference: we know the herbs of the field, which have virtues, and what the right use is. They know as many items produced by philosophy, but they are scarce worse for the deal when they encounter an item they have never met before. For while the herbs of the field be steady across generations and generations, the items belched forth by their subtle philosophy change not only within the span of a man’s life; they change year to year; perchance moon to moon.
Herodotus: Thou sayest that they can navigate a field they know not?
John: Aye, and more. The goal at which their catechism aims is to ‘learn how to learn’; the appearance and disappearance of kinds of items is a commonplace to them. And indeed this is not only for the items we use as the elements of our habitat: catechists attempt to prepare people for roles that exist not yet even as the students are being taught.
Though this be sinking sand they live in, they keep balance, of a sort, and do not find this strange. And they adapt to the changes they are given.
Herodotus: It beseemeth me that thou speakest as of a race of Gods.
John: A race of Gods? Forsooth! Thou knowest not half of the whole if thou speakest thus.
Herodotus: What remaineth?
John: They no longer think of making love as an action that in particular must needeth include an other.
Herodotus: I am stunned.
John: And the same is true writ large or writ small. A storyteller of a faintly smaller degree, living to them in ages past, placed me in an icon:
The Stranger mused for a few seconds, then, speaking in a slightly singsong voice, as though he repeated an old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:
‘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 accursede 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 in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.’
The storyteller saw and saw not his future. ‘Tis rare in the Singularity to fabricate children ‘by vile arts in a secret place’. But the storyteller plays us false when he assumes their interest would be in a ‘cunningly fashioned image of the other’. Truer it would be to say that the men, by the fruits of philosophy, jump from one libidinous dream to another whilest awake.
John: A prophet told them, the end will come when no man maketh a road to his neighbors. And what has happened to marriage has happened, by different means but by the same spirit, to friendship. Your most distant acquaintanceship to a fellow member is more permanent than their marriage; it is routine before the breakable God-created covenant of marriage to make unbreakable man-made covenants about what to do if, as planned for, the marriage ends in divorce. And if that is to be said of divorce, still less is the bond of friendship. Their own people have talked about how ‘permanent relationships’, including marriage and friendship, being replaced by ‘disposable relationships’ which can be dissolved for any and every reason, and by ‘disposable relationships’ to ‘transactional relationships’, which indeed have not even the pretension of being something that can be kept beyond a short transaction for any and every reason.
And the visits have been eviscerated, from a conversation where voice is delivered and vision is stripped out, to a conversation where words alone are transmitted without even hand writing; from a conversation where mental presence is normative to a conversation where split attention is expected. ‘Tis yet rarely worth the bother to make a physical trail, though they yet visit. And their philosophy, as it groweth yet more subtle, groweth yet more delicate. ‘Twould scarcely require much to ‘unplug’ it. And then, perhaps, the end will come?
Herodotus: Then there be a tragic beauty to these people.
John: A tragic beauty indeed.
Herodotus: What else hast thou to tell of them?
John: Let me give a little vignette:
Several men and women are in a room; all are fulfilling the same role, and they are swathed with clothing that covers much of their skin. And the differences between what the men wear, and what most of the women wear, are subtle enough that most of them do not perceive a difference.
Herodotus: Can they not perceive the difference between a man and a woman?
John: The sensitivity is dulled in some, but it is something they try to overlook. But I have not gotten to the core of this vignette:
One of them indicateth that had they be living several thousand years ago they would not have had need of clothing, not for modesty at least, and there are nods of agreement to her. And they all imagine such tribal times to be times of freedom, and their own to be of artificial restriction.
And they fail to see, by quite some measure, that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than being without clothing; or that their buildings deaden all of a million sources of natural awareness: the breeze blowing and the herbs waving in the wind; scents and odours as they appear; song of crickets’ kin chirping and song of bird, the sun as it shines through cloud; animals as they move about, and the subtleties and differences in the forest as one passes through it. They deaden all of these sensitivities and variations, until there is only one form of life that provides stimulation: the others who are working in one’s office. Small wonder, then, that to a man one woman demurely covered in an office has an effect that a dozen women wearing vines in a jungle would never have. But the libertines see themselves as repressed, and those they compare themselves to as, persay, emancipated.
Herodotus: At least they have the option of dressing modestly. What else hast thou?
John: There is infinitely more, and there is nothing more. Marriage is not thought of as open to children; it can be dissolved in divorce; it need not be intrinsically exclusive; a further installment in the package, played something like a pawn in a game of theirs, is that marriage need not be between a man and a woman. And if it is going to be dismantled to the previous portion, why not? They try to have a world without marriage, by their changes to marriage. The Singularity is a disintegration; it grows more and more, and what is said for marriage could be said for each of the eight devils: intertwined with this is pride, and it is only a peripheral point that those who further undefine marriage speak of ‘gay pride’. A generation before, not mavericks but the baseline of people were told they needed a ‘high self-esteem’, and religious leaders who warned about pride as a sin, perhaps as the sin by which the Devil fell from Heaven, raised no hue and cry that children were being raised to embrace pride as a necessary ascesis. And religion itself is officially permitted some role, but a private role: not that which fulfills the definition of religare in binding a society together. It is in some measure like saying, ‘You can speak any language you want, as long as you utter not a word in public discourse’: the true religion of the Singularity is such ersatz religion as the Singularity provides. Real religion is expected to wither in private.
The Singularity sings a song of progress, and it was giving new and different kinds of property; even now it continues. But its heart of ice showeth yet. For the march of new technologies continues, and with them poverty: cracks begin to appear, and the writing on the wall be harder to ignore. What is given with one hand is not-so-subtly taken away with the other. The Singularity is as needful to its dwellers as forest or plain to its dwellers, and if it crumbles, precious few will become new tribal clans taking all necessities from the land.
Herodotus: Then it beseemeth the tragedy outweigheth the beauty, or rather there is a shell of beauty under a heart of ice.
John:But there are weeds.
Herodotus: What is a weed?
John: It is a plant.
Herodotus: What kind of plant is a weed? Are the plants around us weeds?
John: They are not.
Herodotus: Then what kinds of plants are weeds?
John: In the Singularity, there is a distinction between ‘rural’, ‘suburban’, and ‘urban’: the ‘rural’ has deliberately set plants covering great tracts of land, the ‘suburban’ has fewer plants, if still perhaps green all around, and the ‘urban’ has but the scattered ensconced tree. But in all of them are weeds, in an urban area plants growing where the artificial stone has cracked. And among the natural philosophers there are some who study the life that cannot be extinguished even in an urban city; their specialty is called ‘urban ecology’. The definition of a weed is simply, ‘A plant I do not want.’ We do not have weeds because we do not seek an artificial envionment with plants only present when we have put them there. But when people seek to conform the environment to wishes and plans, even in the tight discipline of planned urban areas, weeds are remarkably persistent.
And in that regard, weeds are a tiny sliver of something magnificent.
Herodotus: What would that be?
John: The durability of Life that is writ small in a weed here in the urban, there in the suburban is but a shadow of the durabiity of Life that lives on in the sons of men. Mothers still sing lullabyes to their dear little children; friendships form and believers pray at church far more than happened in the age where my story was told, a story dwarfed by what was called the ‘age of faith’. The intensity of the attacks on the Church in a cruel social witness are compelled to bear unwilling witness to the vitality of the Church whose death has been greatly exaggerated: and indeed that Church is surging with vitality after surviving the attacks. The story told seems to tell of Life being, in their idiom, ‘dealt a card off every side of the deck’—and answering, ‘Checkmate, I win.’ I have told of the differences, but there are excellent similarities, and excellent differences. For a knight whoso commandeth a wild and unbridled horse receiveth greater commendation than a knight whoso commandeth a well-bred and gentle steed.
Herodotus: The wind bloweth where it listeth. The just shall live by his faith. Your cell, though it be wholly artificial, will teach you everything you need to know.
John: Thou hast eagerly grasped it; beyond beauty, tragedy, and beyond tragedy, beauty. Thou hast grasped it true.
We are concerned today about our food,
and that is good:
sweet fruit and honey are truly good and better than raw sugar,
raw sugar not as bad as refined sugar,
refined sugar less wrong than corn syrup,
and corn syrup less vile than Splenda.
But whatever may be said for eating the right foods,
this is nothing compared to the diet we give our soul.
The ancient organic spiritual diet
is simple yet different in its appearances:
those who know its holy stillness
and grasp in their hearts the silence of the holy rhythm, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,
grasp the spiritual diet by their heart,
by its heart,
by God’s heart.
What treasure looks good next to it?
It is said that many would rather be rich and unhappy
than poor and happy,
stranger still than thinking riches will make you happy:
Blessed stillness is a treasure,
and next to this treasure,
gold and technology are but passing shadows,
no better to satisfy hunger than pictures of rich food,
no better to satisfy thirst than a shimmering mirage,
for like the best organic food,
a diet of stillness gives what we deeply hungered for,
but deeply missed even seeking
in our untiring quest to quench our thirst with mirages.
And we have been adept at building mirages:
anything to keep us from stillness.
Perhaps technology, SecondLife or the humble car,
perhaps romance or conversation,
perhaps philosophy or hobbies,
not always bad in themselves,
but always bad when pressed into service
to help us in our flight from silence,
which is to say,
used the only way many of us know how.
There is a mystery,
not so much hard to find as hard to want:
humble yourself and you will be lifted up,
empty yourself and you will be filled;
become still and of a quiet heart,
and you will become home to the Word.
“But my life is hard,” you say,
“You might be able to afford luxuries like these,
but I can’t.”
Take courage. Read the lives of the saints,
and find that stillness grows,
not on the path that is spacious and easy to walk,
but the way that is narrow and hard:
strength is not found
in ease and comfort,
but among athletes with no choice but to strive.
We believe in life before death:
we live the life of Heaven here on earth,
and those things in life that seem like Hell
are our stepping stones:
“she shall be saved in childbearing:”
from the politically incorrect Bible.
Can’t women have something more equitable?
But the truth is even more politically incorrect.
That is how all of us are saved:
in suffering and in struggle,
such as God gives us,
and not when dream,
and by our power
we make our dreams come true.
Weston Price fans,
who say that an ancient diet nourishes
far better than modern foods
manipulated like plastic,
newfangled corn and sunflower oil,
gone rancid then masked by chemical wizardry,
marketed as health food in lieu of wholesome butter,
could be wrong in their words
how we need ancient nourishment and not plastic foods.
They could be wrong about our needs,
but it is a capital mistake to say,
“That may have worked in golden ages,
but we need a diet that will work
for us now in our third millenium.”
If Weston Price’s movement is right,
then we need the nourishment of timeless traditions,
now more than ever.
Saying “No, we need something that will work today,”
is like saying, “No, we’re very sick,
we are weak and we must focus on essentials:
healthy people may visit a doctor, but not us.”
But even if the food we eat matters, and matters much,
the question of what we feed our body
is dwarfed by the question of what we feed our souls,
and over the centuries
our spiritual diet has turned
from something organic and nourishing
to something that might almost be plastic:
inorganic, yet made from what spiritual leaders call rancid.
The right use of technology is in the service of spiritual wisdom,
but the attractive use of technology is to dodge spiritual wisdom,
for one current example,
cell phones and texting not only a way to connect,
but a way to dodge silence,
a way to avoid simply being present to your surroundings,
and this is toxic spiritual food.
Cell phones have good uses,
and some wise people use them,
but the marketing lure of the iPhone and Droid,
is the lure of a bottomless bag:
a bottomless bag of spiritual junk food:
portable entertainment systems,
which is to say,
portable “avoid spiritual work” systems.
Someone has said,
“Orthodoxy is not conservative:
it is radical,”
which is striking but strange politically:
if Orthodoxy is not captured by a Western understanding of conservatism,
further off the mark is it to try to capture it with any Western idea of radicalism.
but there is another sense in which it is true:
not in our design to transform the world,
but in God’s design to transform us.
I thought I was a man of silence.
I avoid television, occasionally listen to music,
but never as a half-ignored backdrop.
Recently I learned,
by the grace of a God who is radical,
that I did not know the beginning of silence.
“Hesychasm,” in the Orthodox term,
described by a rhythm of praying, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,
in the Church under the authority of a good priest,
an authority for your sake and mine,
is a doorway to strip off layers of noise,
and maybe a portal to joy.
So small-looking on the outside,
and so spacious if you will step in.
Concerned about organized religion?
Eastern Orthodoxy is quite disorganized, some have said,
but we won’t go into that.
Negativity about organized religion
is part of the toxic spiritual diet
it is so hard to avoid.
Some have said that people concerned about organized religion
are really concerned about someone else having authority over them.
Though I am self-taught in some things,
an author with a few letters after his name
but not even a high school course in non-academic writing,
Aristotle’s words are apropos:
“He who teaches himself has a fool for a master.”
There are always choices we must make for ourselves,
Orthodoxy actually having wisdom to help free us in these choices,
but trying to progress spiritually without obedience to a spiritual guide who can tell you “No,”
is like trying to be healthier without paying attention to stress in your life, or what you eat, or exercise.
I speak from experience:
I still trip in the light,
but I do not want to go back to how I tripped in the dark.
“Keep your eyes on Jesus,
look full in his wonderful face,
and the things of this world
will grow strangely dim
in the light of his glory and grace,”
says the cherished Protestant hymn:
but it does not say how,
and silence is how.
Do you long for honors the world bestows,
and are never satisfied with what you have?
Mirages look good,
but the place of a mirage is always outside our grasp,
something it looks like we might reach tomorrow,
not something that is open to us right now.
And it is not until we let go of the mirage we want so much
that we see right next to us
of living water
that can quench our thirst now.
Pride, lust, anger and rememberance of wrongs, envy, wanting to use people—
all of these urge us to look away
wanting to quench our thirst on mirages
and blind our eyes
to the chalice
of living water
that we are offered,
and offered here and now.
And it isn’t until you rest and taste the waters,
the living waters of the chalice that is always at hand,
that you realize how exhausting it is
to chase after mirages.
The Church prays through the Psalm,
“But I have quieted and calmed my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast,
like a child that is quieted is my soul.”
When a child quieted at its mother’s breast,
cares melt away,
and to the soul that knows silence,
the silence of Heaven,
for Heaven itself is silent
and true silence is Heavenly,
the things of this world grow strangely dim.
Do you worry? Is it terribly hard
to get all your ducks in a row,
to get yourself to a secure place
where you have prepared for what might happen?
Or does it look like you might lose your job,
if you still have one? The Sermon on the Mount
urges people to pray,
“Give us this day our daily bread,”
in an economy
when unlike many homeless in the U.S. today,
it was not obvious to many
where they would get their next meal.
And yet it was this Sermon on the Mount
that tells us our Heavenly Father will provide for us,
and tells us not to worry:
what we miss
if we find this a bit puzzling,
we who may have bank accounts, insurance, investments
even if they are jeopardized right now,
is that we are like a child with some clay,
trying to satisfy ourselves by making a clay horse,
with clay that never cooperates, never looks right,
and obsessed with clay that is never good enough,
we ignore and maybe fear
the finger tapping us on our shoulder
until with great trepidation we turn,
and listen to the voice say,
“Stop trying so hard. Let it go,”
and follow our father
as he gives us a warhorse.
If you have a bank account, or insurance, or investments,
you may be better at making your clay statue,
better than the people who heard the Sermon on the Mount,
but the Lord says to us as much as them,
“Let your worries be quieted
as you enter silence,”
to give us a warhorse.
And when we let go of taking on God’s job,
of taking care of every aspect of our future,
we find that he gives us better than we knew to seek:
if we thirst for worldly honor to make us feel significant,
if we covet luxuries to make us feel better,
and we learn holy silence,
the things of the world grow strangely dim.
People hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.
Repentance is terrifying,
because it seems beforehand
that repentance means you will forever lose some shining part of yourself,
but when you repent,
repentance shows its true nature
as an awakening:
you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell,”
and, awakened, you grasp Heaven in a new way.
Let go of the mirage of doing God’s job of providence,
by your own strength,
and let go of the mirage of getting enough money
to make you happy,
and when you give up this misshapen clay horse,
find a warhorse waiting for you:
God will provide better than you know to ask,
perhaps giving you a great spiritual gift
by showing you you can live without some things,
and this just the outer shell holding spiritual blessings
next to which billions of dollars pale in comparison.
(“Who is rich? The person who is content.”)
And if like me you are weak and wish you had more honor,
you may taste the living water next to which worldly honor is an elusive mirage
always shimmering, always luring, and never satisfying, at least not for long,
and ride the warhorse,
and wonder why you ever thought worldly honor would make you happy.
A saint has said,
that when you work,
seven eights of the real task
is watching the state of your heart
and only one eighth is the official task.
Proverbs likewise tells,
“Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.”
Guard your heart.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things are honest,
whatsoever things are just,
whatsoever things are pure,
whatsoever things are lovely,
whatsoever things are of good report;
if there be any virtue,
if there be any praise,
think of these things.”
What you put before your heart matters.
Your heart will be conformed to whatever you place before it:
a good deal of your spiritual diet
is simply what you place before your mind:
mental images above all else,
“Be careful, little eyes…”
There is a distinction between
where one meets God,
and that which reasons from one thought to another:
to us today, “mind” or “intellect” is that which reasons,
but the Church has long known the heart of the intellect or mind:
where one meets God.
And the poisoning of our spiritual diet
has moved us
from knowing the mind as the heart that meets God
to growing and over-growing that which reasons,
so that it is at the heart of our lives,
in Christians as much as the atheist,
is the secular view of mind,
in its secular flight
from religious knowing
of who the human person is
and what is the heart of the human mind.
Learn to live out of that by which you worship:
drink living water,
because it is exhausting
to chase after mirages
in worrying and scheming
in the part of us which reasons,
that which is only the moon
made to reflect the light
of the sun,
that by which we worship,
the spiritual eye
made for a God who is Light.
“We have a sister,
whose breasts are not grown,
what shall we do for our sister
in the day when she shall be spoken for?
If she be a wall,
we will build on her a palace of silver:
and if she be a door,
we will inclose her with boards of cedar.”
In your mind be a garden locked and a fountain sealed,
that which worships
not forever dispersed,
in treating that which reasons
as the heart of your mind:
learn the prayer of the mind in the heart.
The ancient organic spiritual diet is prayer, silence, fasting, liturgy, giving to the poor, tithing, reading the Bible and the Fathers and saints’ lives, and many other things.
You eat it as you would eat an elephant:
one bite at a time.
Your task today is to eat one day’s worth:
tomorrow’s concerns are tomorrow’s concerns.
“Holy” is an important word in the Bible, and there are many holy actions described in the Bible: Communion, prayers, and worship, to pick some of the larger ones. But there is only one act in the Bible that is called holy, and it is one we might not think of. What is it? “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” which is repeated four or five times. “Holy” is not just another way of saying “appropriate,” or rather it means “appropriate” but also something much stranger, much wilder. “Holy” means set apart to God, an element of Heaven here on earth.
The New Testament’s main word for a profound display of respect in fact means “kiss”, even if our translations hide it. Bowing and kissing have some interesting similarities throughout the Bible, and they mean something similar. Kissing has one meaning in American culture, but it has a very different set of colors in the Bible, and we are missing something of the holy kiss until we can see it as a display of profound reverence for one who is living in the life of Christ and becoming a little Christ. Is giving a kiss to an Orthodox Christian really different from kissing an icon?
The holy kiss is an opportunity to meet others in love. Do you know how someone gives you a greeting, a gift, or something and you know it isn’t fake, you know another person has put his heart into it? That’s what the holy kiss should be, and for many people here, is. Why? There was one tenth degree black belt in karate who was asked what he thought our society could learn from his martial art. He didn’t give any of the answers we find so obvious: exercise, self-defense, discipline, and the like. What he said, very emphatically, was “to bow,” at which point he stood up and gave a great, courteous, and majestic bow. Bowing was bigger to him than any of the things that draw us, and that is what the holy kiss should be. What’s the connection? Bowing and giving a kiss are never very far in the Bible, and once you understand them, you understand that they are a place where quite a lot come together. Furthermore, some of the warmest kisses I’ve received have been from bishops and other devout Orthodox Christians, and then the kisses have been worthy of that bow. How you give the holy kiss is related to your spiritual state.
The holy kiss is tied to holy communion. It is part of the eucharistic liturgy, and the Fathers draw interesting connections. St. Ambrose of Milan said, “We kiss Christ with the kiss of Communion:” we embrace Christ when we embrace each other, and yet there’s something that the holy kiss adds. The kiss is itself an image for the Eucharist: even our prayers before communion say more than that. Yet the holy kiss is not just something indirectly connected to Holy Communion. The holy kiss is an act of communion between persons, and if we pray before Communion, “Neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss,” this means not only that love must be in our reception of Holy Communion, but that we must not like Judas kiss our brethren without the love of Communion. There is difference between an embrace to someone who is Orthodox and someone who is not, because as with Holy Communion the kiss does not stand by itself: full communion makes a difference.
There are many other things one could say; the holy kiss takes different forms in different cultures and in my home parish is usually a hug. But the holy kiss is, in its way, the eighth sacrament, and is a window that opens out onto the whole of Orthodoxy. It is well worth living.
We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different types of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.
I would like to talk about repentance, which has rewards not just in the future but here and now. Repentance, often, or perhaps always for all I know, bears a hidden reward, but a reward that is invisible before it is given. Repentance lets go of something we think is essential to how we are to be—men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them, as the Philokalia well knows. There may be final rewards, rewards in the next life, and it matters a great deal that we go to confession and unburden ourselves of sins, and walk away with “no further cares for the sins which you have confessed.” But there is another reward that appears in the here and now, and it is nothing that is real to you until you have undergone that repentance. It is like looking forward to washing with fear, wondering if you will be scraped up in getting mud off, and in a very real sense suddenly recognizing that you had not in mind what it was like to be clean.
Let me explain by giving some examples.
Discovering the treasure of humility
The first illustration I have is not strictly speaking an example of repentance, at least not that I have seen, but might as well be.
One of the hardest statements in the Bible that I am aware of is, “In humility consider others better than yourself” (Phil 2:3). It’s a slap in the face to most of us, including me. But humility is only about abasing yourself up to a point. The further you go into humility, the less it is about dethroning “me, me, me,” and the more it can see the beauty of others.
If it seems a sharp blow to in humility consider others better than yourself, let me ask you this: would you rather be with nobodies who are despicable, or in the company of giants? Pride closes the eyes to any beauty outside of yourself, and falsely makes them appear to have nothing worthy of attention. Humility opens the eyes to something of eternal significance in each person we meet.
There is one CEO at a place I worked who might as well have taken up the gauntlet of considering others better than himself. (I don’t know about his spiritual practices as a whole; that’s between him and his shul.) But on this point he has taken up the gauntlet, not of St. Paul necessarily, but of humility.
This CEO showed delight and some awe in each person I saw him meet. It didn’t matter if you were near the top of the org chart, or at the abolute bottom; the CEO was delighted to see you. End of discussion. And he wanted to hear how you were doing, and not in a Machiavellian sense.
Now let me ask a question: who benefitted most from his respect at work (and, I can scarcely doubt, his respect outside of work)? Is it the ambitious leader, the low-level permanent employee, the timid intern? Certainly all these people benefitted, and though it was not so flambuoyantly expressed, there is a thread of deep respect running through the whole organization, and some things work smoother than any other place I’ve been. There are a lot of people who benefit from the CEO’s humility. But I insist that the person who benefits most from the CEO’s aptitude for respect is the CEO himself. Others may enjoy kind treatment and perhaps be inclined to more modestly follow his example. But he is in that respect at least functioning the way a person functions optimally, or to speak less abstractly, his state puts him in the presence of people he deeply respects and delights in again and again and again. To be proud is to be turned in on yourself, and he has something better: a spiritual orientation that lets him see the genuine beauty in others. (And, to be clear, the phenomenon also plays out more quietly among the rest of the organization.) Humility opens the eyes to the beauty of others. It also has other benefits; humility is less tempted to meet bad news with wishful thinking; the CEO is, I imagine, as sincerely wrong as often as the rest of us are sincerely wrong, but my suspicion is that he is less wrong, and less often wrong, than if he were to freely opt-in to being wrong by freely indulging in wishful thinking. This is another incidental advantage to humility, and perhaps there are others. But I insist that the person who benefits most from the CEO’s humility is the CEO himself. And the reward for him looking on others with delight and awe is that he is put in a condition where he meets others filled with delight and awe. If that sounds like a tautology, it is. The reward for his seeing others through the eyes of humility is that he sees others through the eyes of humility: the biggest reward for humility is, quite simply, humility: virtue is its own reward.
Now humility may express itself in self-abasement, and another powerful gauntlet is thrown down when The Ladder of Divine Ascent or the Philokalia speak of “thirsting for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor.” I will not treat that at length, beyond saying that it is a mighty door and opens to blessed humility.
What I do wish to point out is that pride turns you in on yourself, blinding you to beauty outside of you and making you fill a bag of sand with holes in satisfying your narcissism, or trying to. Humility opens you up to all the beauty around you, and if you repent of pride and despair of being able to gaze on yourself in fascination, you may be surprised by the joy of gazing on others in joy and fascination, or something better than the transient and fleeting fascination offered by narcissism.
But what if I can’t find anything in a person to respect?
If you can’t find anything in a person to respect, I submit that you are missing something about being human. To quote Tales of a Magic Monastery:
The Crystal Globe
I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.
“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”
“Yes,” I said, “a real monk.”
He poured a cup of wine, and said, “Here, take this.”
No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a small crystal globe forming about me. It expanded until it included him.
Suddenly, this monk, who had seemed so commonplace, took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. I thought, “Maybe he doesn’t know how beautiful he is. Maybe I should tell him.” But I really was dumb. The wine had burned out my tongue!
After a time, he made a motion for me to leave, and I gladly got up, thinking that the memory of such beauty would be well worth the loss of my tongue. Imagine my surprise when, when each person would unwittingly pass into my globe, I would see his beauty too.
Is this what it means to be a real monk? To see the beauty in others and be silent?
Plants and animals command respect, and not just in the sense articulated by green advocates. Empty space itself is itself interesting. How? It is empty space that is much of the study of quantum physics and superstring theory. A great many physicists have earned PhD’s, and continue to research, based on the physical properties of empty space. And, more importantly, the whole of God is wholly present in any and every empty space. In that sense, empty space in Orthodox Christianity is more pregant, more dignified, than what an atheist would consider to be everything that exists. So empty space is worth respecting. But more than that, inanimate things, rocks and such, exist on the level of empty space but fill the space: “Blessed be the Rock” lets an inanimate thing represent God. It exists; it is something rather than nothing, and for that reason it is worth respecting. Plants exist on one more layer than mere existence; they have the motion, the fire, of life inside them. And animals exist on these layers but exist more fully; they are aware of their surroundings and act. And you and I, and every person you have trouble respecting, exist on all of these layers and more: we are made in the image of God, the royal and divine image, with the potential of the angelic image and of theosis, and are all of us making an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell. Those who choose Hell represent a tragedy; but even then there is the dignity of making an eternal choice; Hitler and Stalin represent the dignity of eternal agency and making a choice between Heaven and Hell, and sadly using that choice to become an abomination that will ever abide in Hell. But they still tragically represent the grandeur of those who exist on several layers and use their free and eternal choice to eternally choose Hell. Some saint has said, “Be kind to each person you meet. Each person you meet is going through a great struggle,” and all mankind, including those one struggles to respect, exist on several profound levels and are making an eternal choice of who they will permanently become. And respect is appropriate to all of us who bear the image of God, and have all of the grandeur of God-pregnant empty space, physical things, plants, animals, and a rational and spiritual and royal human existence, even if there is nothing else we can see in them to respect. Being appropriate to treat with respect is not something that begins when we find something good or interesting about a person: it begins long before that.
God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:
I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
Don’t drink out of the toilet.
That’s really it. Those are the only two rules we are expected to follow. And we still break them.
Drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. If you ask most recovering alcoholics if the time they were drunk all the time were their most joyful, merry, halcyon days, I don’t know exactly how they’d answer, if they could even keep a straight face. Far from being joyful, being drunk all the time is misery that most recovering alcoholics wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies. If you are drunk all the time, you lose the ability to enjoy much of anything. Strange as it may sound, it takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. Drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet.
Bondage to alcohol is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. If you reject bondage to alcohol and fight your way to sobriety with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, the reward if you succeed is that you have rejected bondage to alcohol and fought your way to sobriety. The reward for sobriety regained is sobriety regained—and sobriety includes ways of enjoying life that are simply not an option when one is in bondage to alcohol. The virtue is its own reward.
Returning from covetousness to contentment
Advertising, in stimulating covetousness, stimulates and builds discontent. Covetousness may well enough say, “If I only get _______, then I’ll be content.” But that is fundamental confusion. Getting whatever _______ may be may bring momentary satisfaction, but the same spiritual muscles twisted to be discontent with what you had before, will make you become discontent with the _______ that you now think will make you happy.
What makes for contentment is learning to be content, and repenting of covetousness and being satisfied with what you have now gives the reward that is falsely sought in indulging covetousness. The reward for repenting of covetousness and learning contentment is that you are freed from covetousness and blessed with contentment.
The virtue is the reward.
Returning from lust to chastity
Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe; repenting of lust, like repenting of pride and occult-like escapism, opens one’s eyes to beauty one cannot see. Lust greatly hinders the ability to appreciate and enjoy things; repentance from lust is occasion for the slow re-awakening of the eyes to everything that lust cannot see—which is a lot.
Returning from contraception to how God built marriages to work
I had a bit of a hesitation in including contraception, because in Orthodoxy “everybody knows” that such things as drunkenness are real sins, while “everybody knows” that contraception is debatable, and probably OK if one gets a blessing etc. And here what “everybody knows” is out-and-out wrong.
The Fathers universally condemn contraception, and the first edition of K.T. Ware’s The Orthodox Church said point-blank, “The Orthodox Church forbids artificial methods of contraception,” but subsequent versions moved further and further to permissiveness. But it is not the Orthodox Church that has changed her mind; it is only certain salad bar theology today that wishfully tries to believe that the Orthodox Church says contraception can be permitted.
St. John Chrysostom calls contraception point-blank “worse than murder,” and counsels parents to leave their children brothers and sisters, and not mere things, as an inheritance. The Blessed Augustine blasts what is today called “natural family planning,” and should be called “contraceptive timing”, saying that the heretics who practice what is today called “periodic continence” to frustrate the fertility of sex thereby forbid marriage, earning the searing rebuke about forbidding marriage in 1 Tim 4:1-5, and says that where there is contraception, there is no wife, only a mistress. St. Maximus Confessor describes sex as being wrong when it is done for some other purpose than making a baby. In my researches, I have yet to hear of any Christian teacher or canonized saint from the first millenium stating or allowing that any form of contraception is permitted in any form. For that matter, I have yet to hear of any of the Reformation offering anything but condemnation to the sin of contraception.
Biologically speaking, the beginning, middle, and end of the purpose of sex is procreation. Sex is not intended merely for pleasure, but each pleasure, such as that of eating (for which we have made Splenda), exists to continue the species, whether through procreation or preserving individuals by nourishing their bodies with food. But I wish to state something more than just the condemnations of contraception, because the condemnations are the guardian of something basically human.
When I was studying in the Bronx, I was bombarded by posters from Planned Barrenhood, which in their most forceful forms said, “Take control of your life!” And in general I am suspicious about the final honesty of advertising, but in this context the advertisement could hardly be more candid. Planned Parenthood’s marketing proposition is that you can enjoy the pleasure of sex, perhaps increasingly overclocked by Viagra and ED drugs, while only having children when you individually opt-in, and retain your life in control as a pleasure-seeker. And that goes for Orthodox Christians as much as everyone else: perhaps abortion is out, but contraception, accidents excluded, is how people can pursue the pleasure of sex without the drag of unintended children.
But, before looking at monasticism, let me say that part of growing to full human stature is not being a permanent pleasure-seeker, and not being in control of oneself. In monasticism this is partly through things such as monastic obedience, an absolute obedience which frees monk or nun from fulfilling self-will. In marriage this comes from having children beyond the point where you can have control as a pleasure-seeker. In that sense disconnecting sex from making babies is in marriage what optional obedience would be for monasticism. It is easier, it is more palatable, and it all but neutralizes the whole point.
The benefit of repenting of contraception is not that God preserves pleasure-seeking. The benefit of repenting of contraception is that you grow to transcend yourself, and marriage reaches its full stature just as obedience to a spiritual physician helps monastics reach full human stature. Marriage and monasticism are different in many ways, and today I think marriage should be recognizing as having some of the status traditionally seen in monasticism. But the point of being an adult is to grow up, to grow by a crown of thorns, to transcend oneself, whether by marriage or by monasticism. The means may be very different, but the goal is self-transcendence, and the marketing proposition of contraception is to short-circuit that hard lesson and allow the adult to remain a sexually active pleasure seeker who does not grow any higher. And this is part of why I wince when I find people I know telling of their contraception; it is something of a missed opportunity, where people have marriage but do not use it to their full stature, opting instead for an “à la carte” version of marriage that is the equivalent of a “monasticism” that allows veto over obedience.
Returning from Gnosticism and escape to the here and now
When I read one title on Gnosticism, I was pulled up short by one passage. It described Gnosticism not as a set of ideas or hinging on ideas (it can be connected with many ideas), but on a mood, and more specifically that of despair. I was quite surprised by that because the appeal of Gnosticism is something enticing, something “sexy,” of a sweet forbidden escape. But that is only an enticing bait if one wants escape because one has despair about the here and now that God has provided us.
Monks in the desert were perennially warned about escaping the here and now; it is tied to what was, and is, called the “demon of noonday.” And a great many things today are laced with that sweetly-coated poison. It is not just gnosticism, which I shouldn’t have researched, or the occult, or “metaphysics” in the occult sense, or Harry Potter, or the Chronicles of Narnia. And yes, I did say, The Chronicles of Narnia. It is the story of people brought out of the everyday world into another world, and that is a classic bait, and one that is far from exhausted from the short list here.
The reward for rejecting the temptation to escape from the here and now is the discovery of the here and now as something one does not need to escape from. At an advanced level, one discovers that paradise is present wherever saints are; that is why crude settings at a monastery are genuinely sweeter than more luxurious settings where Mammon is worshiped. But, as in giving up pride, giving up escape sets the stage to enjoy what you wanted to escape from. Before you give it up, what you want is something that almost by definition is something you cannot have: whatever enters the here and now becomes one more dreary fixture of the here and now, maybe not instantly, but at least eventually. But like humility which opens the eyes of others pride cannot see, repenting of escapism in any form is rewarded by finding that one is in God’s good Creation and escape is in fact not the best one can hope for: one hopes for engagement in worship of God, and that is what one is rewarded with. The reward for repenting and accepting virtue is that one steps out of escape and accepts virtue: the virtue is its own reward.
Moving on from grudges to forgiveness
Forgiveness is tied for some of us to repentance of unforgiveness. Perhaps some people forgive easily and quickly, or at least quickly. But when you do not forgive, or do not yet forgive, it seems falsely like you have something over the other person, and it seems like a treasure to hold on to. But it is no treasure. It is a piece of Hell: nursing a grudge is drinking poison and hoping it will hurt the other person.
Repentance is stepping out of Hell, and forgiveness is stepping outside of the moment of pain and moving on to other things that do not hurt. It is not easy; it is incredibly hard for some of us; but it is the first step in a journey of healing. And the reward is simply that we step out of the moment of hurt, back in the past, and start to leave the hurt behind.
…and being blindsided by reward
Some people speak of repentance as unconditional surrender, and it is in fact unconditional surrender. My godfather spoke of repentance as the most terrifying thing a person can experience, because God demands a blank cheque of us, and does not tell us how much he will expect.
But when, and only when, we have made that surrender, we are blindsided by rewards. God may give other rewards too; but he gives rewards. In repentance you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” And you let go of Hell and grasp something much better!
Repentance is seen in Orthodoxy as awakening, and the reward is part of the awakening.