As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
[Editor’s note: Our first reporter, assigned to investigate directly with the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins, ran away screaming. A more seasoned reporter was able to locate a Church scholar with a strong heresiological and religious studies background, who was willing to speak on the record; the official was available for comment but has requested conditions of anonymity.]
Reporter: So how do I get to the bottom of all this? What on earth is “the Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls?”
Scholar: Fr. Cherubim, like many after him and even those who anathematized him, retained significant Protestant attributes long after being received into the Orthodox Church. The concept of an Article by which the Church stands or falls stems from the Reformation, when Martin Luther rightly or wrongly pressed the entirety of theology as it was then known into a very small nutshell and cut off things that wouldn’t go in. He had a famed three Sola’s: “Sola gratia. Sola fide. Sola Scriptura,” that we are saved only by divine grace, saved only through faith, and accept Scripture alone as authoritative. The “Article by which the Church stands or falls” is that we are saved only by grace. It was, to Luther, the only doctrine that mattered: if you know whether the Church believes in salvation by grace alone, that is really the only question worth asking.
In Fr. Cherubim, called “Dead Cherubim Jones” by those who anathematized him, there are large bits of intact Protestantism that have survived and gotten a brushstroke or two of Orthodox décor. With or without anyone anathematizing anyone, the zealots, written CATOSDDDRORB, owe Fr. Cherubim a tremendous debt. There is no longer an Article by which the Church stands or falls, but now an Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls. Where the former was concerned with momentous questions of grace and salvation, this is concerned by how many miles across the universe is.
Reporter: Dead Cherubim Jones?!? How many mile—whaaa? Is there an indictment of ecumenism in all this?
Scholar: Hmm, yes, those types will give you quite an earful about ecumenism, but there is genuinely more going on. Let me take on a couple of housekeeping details before addressing the meat of the matter.
First, CATOSDDDRORB correctly notes that when people spoke of “Blessed Cherubim Jones,” they were making a twisted use of language. For many, many centuries, someone recently deceased in the Lord is referred to as, “Of blessed memory.” When Fr. Cherubim’s posthumous work came out, he is quite straightforwardly called “of blessed memory,” just like many people are referred to as being “of blessed memory” in the years following their demise.
It is an available alternative, and you find this in figures as ancient as St. Irenaeos, that instead of saying, “So-and-so of blessed memory,” things are packed in a bit to refer to that person of “blessed So-and-so.” So shortly after the death of an Alexander Schmemann or Vladimir Lossky, one can be entirely right to refer to “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Vladimir Lossky,” and this is not just for famous people. A recently reposed member of your parish may just as rightly be called “blessed So-and-so,” and other things as well.
Fr. Cherubim’s camp abused this custom to effectively give Fr. Cherubim a seemingly official honorific that sounds like a type of saint. The term sounded more and more official as “blessed” was hardened into a never-dropped “Blessed,” and since this did not satisfy, “Blessed” became “Bl.”
Then when Fr. Cherubim had the temerity to challenge Protestant assumptions in posthumous unearthed texts, the “Canonical True Autonomous Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins” split off from another jurisdiction whose name I don’t remember, and as their first act, anathematized Fr. Cherubim. Their second act was to collectively realized that “Bl.” really only meant “dead,” and that it would be calling a spade to refer to their former pioneer as “Dead Cherubim Jones.” With emphasis on “Dead.”
Reporter: Wow. You’re bending my brain.
Scholar: There’s more; if you need to, take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes. I’ll be here.
Reporter: Ok; thanks. Is there more?
Scholar: Ok. Have you heard Alan Perlis’s quote, “The best book on programming is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because it’s the best book on anything for the layman?”
Reporter: Now I have.
Scholar: Precise measurement as we know it didn’t exist. We have a platinum one meter bar under lock and key; we have measuring implements made to the most minute precision we can. Whereas, in the ancient world, under conditions of poverty that you can hardly imagine, having all kinds of measuring tools would be costly on tight purses. So, among other units of measure, they used parts of their own bodies for measurement. If a man straightens out his forearm, the distance from the outside of the elbow to the tip of the finger would be one cubit: a solution that was free, sensible, and practical. It, by the way, remains a brilliant idea today: circumstance permitting, if you want to measure a distance of a certain general neighborhood, if you don’t have a measuring implement handy, you can measure it in cubits, multiply it by some other tool and divide by the length of your body’s cubit. Voilà: approximate measurement in a pinch when you don’t have any artificial measuring-tool.
This may not be a direct observation of the Bible, but literature in the medieval West had creatures who at times appeared to be the size of insects and at others reached adult human stature, and there was a remarkable lack of interest in nailing down an exact size for such wondrous being. The astute viewer may watch some cartoons that take radical changes in size to be perfectly unremarkable, and entirely natural.
Now there are certain translation issues between the Hebrew and the Greek for the Old Testament, possibly stemming from relations between the arm and the leg. The “hand”, in modern Greek, interestingly extends to the elbow, and “daktulos” without further clarification can apply to either fingers and toes. Scientifically speaking, an arm and a leg are the same basic kind of thing; their proportions are different and their uses are different but they are each one of our four limbs.
And what gets really interesting is when you take Protestant fundamentalist efforts to determine the size of the Universe from the Bible.
Reporter: What’s that?
Scholar: According to the Hebrew and the Greek Old Testaments, the CATOSDDDRORB devotees yield a size of 4000 miles for the Hebrew, and 7500 for the Greek, and they decided to do things the Orthodox way and settle with the universe conclusively being 7500 miles in size.
Reporter: Um, uh, ok… does that do any real harm?
Scholar: Maybe, but that’s not really the point. The CATOSDDDRORB eagerness to straighten out scientists’ “backwards understanding of science” has irritated a number of members of the academy.
Reporter: That’s not too bad.
Scholar: There’s worse.
Reporter: Present CATOSDDDRORB members were scandalized when some further manuscripts were put to publication.
First, Fr. Cherubim said everything we said above and more. He said that a “foot” may be a unit of measure, maybe, but a foot of what? Of an insect? A dinosaur? Ezekiel seems to specify an explicitly human cubit. The Old Testament in either Hebrew or Greek seems to trade in “feet” (I will not comment on some ambiguities), but not “foot of man” as such.
Second, this draws on mathematical subtlety, but a distance on earth, straightened out as much as a sphere permits, corresponds to a certain angle of an arc. Distances between places can be a linear measure of how much surface is crossed, or (if they are straight) they can be an angle.
What this means is that distances, if we are dealing cosmologically, are cosmological distances. There are the difference represented by an angle between two rays from the earth’s center. In normal science, scientists are quick to use so-called “scientific notation” where the total size of the universe is a mouthful of 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles wide but you write it as 5.0e+23.
But here’s the interesting thing. Fr. Cherubim was not dogmatic, or at least not dogmatic about the size of the universe.
Scholar: Of course he was dogmatic about some things; he is dogmatic that this universe in entirety belongs to God, and scarcely less adamant that God could have created the universe at any size he wanted. However, his scholarship on the universe’s size never really nails down dogmatically that the universe is either 4000 or 7500 miles wide, or a number with lots of zeroes. If you are at all careful, you will recognize that he mentions something more devastating to CATOSDDDRORB: the size of the universe does not seem to be a particularly live question, or one that attracted particularly much debate. The Fathers didn’t really make a fuss about it. But he also fails to vindicate the standard model. Not only does he not make known use of scientific notation, but he does not seem to name the numbers that motivated people to create scientific notation in the first place, or for that matter numbers at all. One gets the impression that he envisioned a “middle-sized” universe, incredibly large to the CATOSDDDRORB crowd, ludicrously small to standard science. The gist of his writing is not to help people get the right numeric calculation. It is, here, to draw to people’s attention to how much they don’t know, and gently draw their attention to greater things.
Reporter: What was the reaction to that?
Scholar: In a heartbeat, “Blessed Cherubim Jones” became “Dead Cherubim Jones,” and the new Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins anathematized him. The chief complaint was that he failed to buttress their efforts to take a beloved Protestant ambiance in Biblical exegesis, substitute the Greek for Hebrew Old Testament, and make their calculation of a 7500 mile wide Universe into the Article by which the Church stands or falls.
Reporter: This has been very interesting. Do you have any further reading to recommend?
On Facebook, one Orthodox priest (ROCOR, if I recall) commented in reference “Blessed Seraphim Rose,” “‘Blessed?’ When did that happen?”
I’d like to unravel that a bit. Let me say it’s very simple when that happened. It happened when Fr. Seraphim breathed out his last breath.It’s that simple.
We have an expression today that someone who has passed away in the Lord is said to be “of blessed memory.” That expression has been with us forever. Ecumenical councils like Chalcedon have even used a shortening of the original phrase, “blessed.” So today we might speak of “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Alexander Lossky” as quickly and readily as “blessed Seraphim (Rose).” Or really these other two might be more appropriate, because we usually try to avoid using a monk’s last name.
But the meaning of “blessed” has been hijacked!
There are at least two difference between “Blessed” for Fr. Seraphim compared to any other camp I’ve met:
First, the ‘B’ is capitalized like an expected honorific; Fr. Seraphim seems to never be “blessed.”
Unique in what I have seen, “Blessed” has been abbreviated to “Bl.”
Both of these nitpicks point out to something. More specifically, the word “Blessed” when used of Fr. Seraphim does not work like most adjectives. It is not fluid. It functions as the kind of honorific that would be rude to omit. And all this is strange if the point is to announce to the whole world that Fr. Seraphim has passed away.
In some academic circles this would be called, “misusing a speech act.” For practically everyone else I’ve sampled, the term “blessed” is a gentle ackowledgement of someone’s passing and nothing more.
In the fundamentalist usage, the use of “Blessed” is not, however much used, a shrill insistence to keep on telling the whole world that their leader, Fr. Seraphim, is dead.
Fr. Seraphim’s following is not not even honest, not even to themselves: people warp an obscure term to be able to treat Fr. Seraphim as, to quote one flame, “If he is not a saint, who is?”
And to put things differently, the practice of calling someone of blessed memory, “blessed,” is being used as a sort of ecclesiastical loophole to venerate someone who has not been canonized.
Let me try to both introduce something new, and tie threads together here. Subjectivism can at its heart be described as breaking communion with reality. This is like breaking communion with the Orthodox Church, but in a way it is more deeply warped. It is breaking communion not only with God, but with the very cars, rocks and trees. I know this passion and it is the passion that has let me live in first world luxury and wish I lived in a castle. It tries to escape the gift God has given. And that passion in another form can say, “If God offers me Heaven, and Heaven requires me to open up and stop grasping Fr. Seraphim right or wrong, I will escape to a Hell that makes no such demand for me to open up to God or His reality.” And it is a red flag of this passion that breaks communion with reality, that the people most devoted to Fr. Seraphim hold on to pieces of fundamentalism with a tightly closed fist. And these Protestant insistences are a red flag, like a plume of smoke: if one sees a plume of smoke coming from a house, a neighbor’s uncomfortable concern is not that a plume of smoke is intolerable, but that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and something destructive may be going on in that house. And when I see subjectivism sweep things under the rug to insist on Fr. Seraphim’s canonization, and fail to open a fist closed on Protestant approaches to Holy Orthodoxy, I am concerned not only that Fr. Seraphim’s colleague may have broken communion with the Orthodox Church to avoid Church discipline, but that Fr. Seraphim’s devotees keep on breaking communion with reality when there is no question of discipline. The plume of smoke is not intolerable in itself, but it may betray fire.
There’s some pretty twisted logic there, and it’s warped in the same way.
We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).
Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.
Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.”
Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.
(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)
Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?
In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.
My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.
Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)
Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.
Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work
Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.”
I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.
Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.
There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!
I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.
I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)
In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”
I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.
But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.
Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development
But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.
Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin
Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.
Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.
Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.
Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.
I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.
Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.
Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.
How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
In the present Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule, Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein is quoted as saying, “‘do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely.But not a single one of these versions of the golden rule requires a God“. Yet months after I lodged a protest about this at least depending on where your quote from the Gospel begins and ends, the chaplain’s pristine wording still summarizes a list of quotes from the New Testament that begins and ends where some would expect it to. (In the other two parallel passages, Christ is quoted as saying explicitly that the duty to love one’s neighbor was like the duty to love God.) As quoted earlier in the very same Wikipedia article:
25And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”
26What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” 27He answered, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” 28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”.
For now, I do not want to go into the unquoted followup to a question about where our obligations stop. I wish instead to say quite specifically here what the text quoted in the Wikipedia says. What it says, in essence, that “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a spillover to an absolute obligation to love God with your whole being. The obligation to love one’s neighbor is, in mathematical language, a corollary to an obligation to love God. It’s a consequence of the first stated imperative. Whilst one can cut the beginning and ending of the quotation so that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is all that survives the abbreviation, the obligation to love one’s neighbor is but a brilliant shadow cast by the infinite obligation to love God. There is some degree of confusion in the suggestion that this gem, shared by Jew and Christian, works just as well if “Love your neighbor as yourself” is stripped of its foundation of, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.” There is considerable insensitivity in seeing the two but failing to recognize them as connected.
While Eastern Orthodoxy may have a rich and many-layered understanding of holy icons and experience a rich interconnectedness between the theology of holy icons on the one hand, and a human race created in the image and likeness of God as stated in the very opening chapter of the Bible, it is not just Eastern Orthodox who have reason to see an implied, too-obvious-to-need-stating connection between loving God and loving people who are made in the image of God. You cannot be cruel to a child without paining that child’s healthy parent, and it is confusion to try to love God without implications for loving one’s neighbor. I am not aware of C.S. Lewis articulating any particularly interesting theology of icon as such, but the rising crescendo that closes The Weight of Glory could hardly be clearer: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” We are to love God entirely, and this love must unfold to loving God in the person of every neighbor who bears God’s divine image. Only a Harvard humanist chaplain could make a blanket statement for all world religions and let slip something so foundational to the plain, old New Testament. You know, the text from which we learned John 3:16 as Bible-believing kids.
Having said such, I would like to go over some rules and variations related to the Golden Rule, before explaining why I believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” is far more interesting than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
A Fool’s Golden Rule: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out!“
There is a bit of social wisdom, legitimate enough in itself, that is a sort of spurious version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t tease others beyond the point where you can handle them returning the same.” It may be wise enough to observe in practice, as it’s really best not to get into waters deeper than you can swim, but in itself doesn’t shed much light on whether teasing should really be avoided (a position that has adherents), or teasing is a legitimate and important dimension to any particularly strong personal connection (another position with adherents).
Of greater concern is this: different people have different tolerances for how much they can enjoy banter. Perhaps others will present less of a confusing situation if they also follow this Fool’s Golden Rule, but it is desirable, and in the spirit of a real Golden Rule, to avoid teasing others beyond what they can handle.
If we go with an expectation that some people avoid getting into waters beyond what they can swim in, and some are less perspective, there is an element of self-care in making sure you don’t invite more teasing than you can handle, and self-care can be perfectly legitimate. However, it doesn’t address how to approach banter legitimately, and without dishing out needless pain. Perhaps one pair of options are either to mostly avoid teasing, indefinitely, or to start very lightly, gradually escalate with a question mark in your eyes, and stop immediately and later on tone things down a bit on any social cue that the other person has had enough. I believe this suggestion is arguably appropriate, but runs somewhat independently of the Golden Rule, and is even based on recognition that knowing what “you would have others do unto you” does not fully answer everything essential. Teasing within people’s tolerances is an area where knowing only your own limits is not enough.
However, this would provide a nuance some have explored in relation to the Golden Rule. If you are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a friend with a deadly peanut allergy walks by, perhaps you might show social respect, but there is neither any faintest obligation of hospitality nor the Golden Rule to knowingly give your special-needs friend food containing a large amount of peanut ingredients. If you’re having beef stew and a vegetarian friend walks by, one obvious level of interpreting the Golden Rule is to offer some social salute and, depending on how rushed the friend is, invite the friend to join the conversation but not, under any ordinary circumstance, offer a bowl of beef stew. A classic comic has a father taking a son to a restaurant and bowling to celebrate, and in the last frame the mother tells the son, “I know; we also did all the things he likes for my birthday too.”
I might note that some Orthodox authors have challenged this nuance (or, perhaps, nuanced the nuance). The essential argument is that if you’re spiritually healthy, you will probably be at least sometimes seeking for yourself things that are good and genuinely in your best interest. If you are trying to show kindness to someone in the grip of passions, that person will be seeking to indulge passion and not what is in his best interests. The correct gift is, for that person, one that in some minor way, and without invading and assuming command, what you would want in the sense of something in one’s own best interest, and not what the other person would want in the sense of serving one’s sinful passions.
The Silver Rule: “Do Not Do Things to Others That You Would Not Have Them Do to You“
Figures in multiple religious traditions have summarized ethics in a commandment not to do things you wouldn’t want other people to do to you. It is unmistakable that “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” has received devoted attention in Judaism for millennia. However, certain scholars who represent landmarks in the Talmud have summarized the Golden Rule in a more diluted form: they tell people only to refrain from doing things to others that they wouldn’t want others to do to them. This is a lower bar.
I would like to put a word in to puzzled Christians wondering why master scholars of the Jewish Bible would choose what is essentially an ethical consolation prize, and a negative morality rather than a positive morality.
My best guess here is that Talumidic scholars didn’t choose the easier of two serious options. That is, they did not line up “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated” and “Don’t do things to other people you wouldn’t want them to do to you,” and go for the less demanding option. The Old Testament thunders “Thou shalt not,” and not in just the Ten Commandments. It includes “Love your neighbor as yourself” but not, as stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” It took me a long time to understand what a Lawgiver was years back, because I thought of rules as unhelpful and constricting. But I would call to mind a medievalist conference that talked about law in Western Europe, and said in essence that law had captivated the public imagination, and fascinated people as being, among other things, a way for people to resolve conflicts without attacking each other physically. Perhaps even the word “lawyer” has slimy connotations today and we think litigation is completely out of control, but to many in the medieval West, people thought litigation was a live and better alternative to an ongoing and deadly feud. Law was seen as a peaceful way to avoid violence. St. Moses was a Lawgiver, and a great deal of that Law was devoted to forbidding people from engaging in destructive practices. There is brilliance in condensing the entirety of the Law to “Do not do things to other people that you would not do unto you,” and I would suggest it is an anachronism to criticize Rabbi ben Hillel and others like them because they chose the Silver Rule over the Golden Rule. (I see no reason to believe that they did anything of the sort.)
Whether or not the Silver Rule is not as good as the full-fledged Golden Rule, it shares the strengths that make the Golden Rule so important. The Silver Rule and the Golden Rule both alike are short, simple directives that offer broad and far-reaching guidance. They might not replace longer and more detailed treatment of what is right and wrong, but a treatment of ethical details alone presents a danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. The Silver and Golden Rules help people see the forest very quickly, and then be in a better position to see the trees situated in the forest when it’s time to study the trees. And, as has been pointed out, in U.S. educational culture the most important lessons are not introduced in graduate meta-ethics seminars; they’re taught in kindergarten, with the Golden Rule often given a place of prominence. The “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” poster that was ubiquitous some decades back reflects important choices made in U.S. educational culture, whatever other flaws it may have. The most important ethical lessons are placed at the very beginning of formal education itself.
I would also like to comment on a the terms “negative morality” and “positive morality.” The language is loaded. It doesn’t mean, or at least not at first glance, that negative morality is bad and positive morality is good. I might mention what the term “progressive cancer” means. “Progressive” is not here loaded language complimenting someone for being sufficiently far to the left; a “progressive” cancer is a cancer that continues to grow and grow, and be more and more destructive despite every treatment that’s thrown at it. Returning to “negative” and “positive” morality, a negative morality essentially says, “Here’s a shortlist of things you shouldn’t do. You’re free to do anything else.” A positive morality dictates your options far more narrowly: “This is what you should do.” And I would make a pointed remark about positive moralities: if you are going to choose a positive morality, choose very, very carefully.Every single one of the twentieth century Utopias that racked up over a million innocent lives in its body count was driven by a positive morality!
The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I wish to comment quite briefly about the Golden Rule as classically worded that it appears exactly once in the Bible, that Christ states it in the most important homily the Orthodox Church can offer, and that Christ himself endorses it as a complete summary of the Scriptures that existed then. The Golden Rule itself is the least in need of introduction of all these variations: asking the man on the street, “What’s the Silver Rule?” or “What’s the Platinum Rule?” should often elicit a perhaps puzzled, “I don’t know.” If you ask, “What’s the Golden Rule?” people may not be able to rattle off the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but they should usually immediately recognize the reference and instantly recall the point, gist and basic concern whether or not they can quote (or misquote) the classic formulation.
The Platinum Rule: “Do unto others better than you would have them do unto you“
I would briefly comment that the Platinum Rule is more a curiosity of discussion of ethics than a point in any live community’s ethical system that I am aware of. For reasons to be discussed below, I believe the Law of Love represents a far more valuable way to go beyond the Golden Rule than simply upping the ante for what one is expected to give others.
However, while I am not aware of religions teaching the Platinum Rule (even in ethics it seems to me to only come up in academic discussions), it does seem to come up in practice even if it is not enjoined. The first job I had was at a rental yard, where assignments ranged from assembling tents for a celebration to scrubbing burnt-on crud off steel to putting away sewer snakes. It was not a glamorous position. However, I noticed that the worst and most disgusting jobs (such as cleaning up a port-a-potty after a wild and wet trailer ride) were always done personally by a manager. Always. In a traditional marriage and family, feminists may claim that the husband and father occupies the position of greatest privilege. This is possibly so, but under the live definition of privilege, his privilege includes taking an ailing pet to the vet for the last time. In the business world, there is the manager who from time to time skips lunch during crunch mode, but would never arrange a schedule so that one of her subordinates was asked to miss a meal. Goodwill, whether or not it is an organization of goodwill towards its employees’ financial interests, asks people whether a donation is good enough to give a friend, and I would comment on that point that there are some pockets where people are generous and giving towards others, but continue to personally use worn or damaged possessions themselves that they would be mortified to give to someone else, especially someone lower than them socially. For a concluding example, anti-smoking advocates found that they met limited success with anti-smoking messages that said, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to yourself!” (Dads seemed not to be terribly concerned.) Then they shifted the center of the message to, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to your kids!” and, Wow! was there a change.
The Platinum Rule may or may not be preached anywhere outside of academia. It does, however, appear to be something people practice of themselves in situations where they have been brought up to respect the Golden Rule.
And now I will show you a more excellent way
One patristic claim has been that the Old Testament purifies what is done externally in the hands, and the New Testament purifies what is done inwardly in the heart. That may be painting things with broad strokes, and someone who doesn’t know the Bible well may still point out that as prominently as in the Ten Commandments the Old Testament forbids coveting in one’s heart, and the New Testament has numerous passages condemning concrete actions as sin. I don’t know the Talmud, but I’m pretty sure that a good Talmud scholar could point out numerous passages rejecting sins committed, at least at first, only in the heart. However, it is helpful to understand here that the relationship between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is really not a relationship between “First installment” and “Second installment: more of the same.”
One core aspect of “Road to Emmaus” passage that winds up Luke’s Gospel is, “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” “Scriptures” does not here refer to any part of the New Testament; there is only one place, in 2 Peter, that any part of the New Testament is called Scripture. Furthermore, at the time reported in this Gospel passage, none of the New Testament had been written. The basic model of Scripture in this passage, which remained live for a surprisingly long time, was that the Scriptures were the Old Testament and represented a locked treasure hoard, and the New Testament contained the key to unlock the Old Testament Scriptures. Fr. John Behr commented in a class that the worst thing that happened to the Church was the canonization of the New Testament. He was perhaps speaking provocatively, but he was driving home a patristic enough point that the Old and New Testaments should not be identified as a first installment and a second installment of the same.
At least in the Wikipedia, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is treated as a wording or formulation of the Golden Rule. I would like to draw an increasingly sharp distinction, and from here, I will use the terms Golden Rule to strictly mean paraphrases or repetitions of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Law of Love to mean “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with or without explicitly stating the commandment to love God from which it arises.
In my own experience, I was surprised by what was apparently obvious enough to the article authors that there seemed no perceived need to establish or defend: that the Law of Love was a wording of the Golden Rule, apparently interchangeable with others.
The first, relatively superficial objection I had was that the Golden Rule uses one’s own desires as a guideline for what action to take. The Law of Love does not directly state what actions to take, and the implied line of action I would see (others might nominate other candidates) is an obligation to seek others’ best interests. It is long religious experience that we often do not seek our own best interests, but finely gilt spiritual potholes, and the Christ who commands love for one’s enemies might perhaps leave room to believe that someone who meets forgiving love with ongoing hostility might, perhaps, be even further from seeking what is genuinely beneficial to them. In the Golden Rule the yardstick of action, at least on a rule of thumb level, is one’s own desires. My personal impression, as someone who has problematic desires, is that the yardstick for action, besides love which I will come to in a minute, is that it is the other person’s best interests.
The second, more serious objection I can think of, has to do with virtue. One basic distinction has been made between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based morality. At the heart of Confucianism, for instance, is not any calculus of required, permitted, and forbidden actions; the highest goal is to become a person who embodies certain virtues, such as a filial piety. The Philokalia draws on certain Greek philosophy, carefully and selectively. The greatest debt I can see to a feature of Greek philosophy in the whole collection is in the cardinally important place that is given to virtues. The concept may be adapted for Christian use at points, but any reasonably sensitive reading would recognize that virtue, from wherever the authors acquired it, is extremely important in the text. As regards the Golden Rule, it is a strictly rule-based guideline and need not perturb a rule-based morality. As regards the Law of Love, “love” may appear as a verb and not a noun, but the commandment is to exercise virtue. Now there are feedback and reinforcement between what is in your heart and what you do with your hands; someone who is honest is more likely to tell the truth, but conversely telling the truth is a practice that also builds the virtue of honesty. However, the Law of Love takes the action from the Golden Rule’s playing field of (potentially) rule-based morality, and puts us on turf where virtue at least looms large.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on the shortlist of Orthodox classics, and Orthodox monastics traditionally read it each Lent. It has various steps of virtues to acquire and vices to surrender, amounting to thirty steps in total. And elements of Greek philosophy may be present; the step that is second from the top is “Dispassion”, a Holy Grail sought in the same philosophical currents that had the authors of the Philokalia think so much in terms of virtue. However, the very, very top rung of all in the great Ladder is the “Faith, Hope, and Love” in an industrial-strength allusion to one of the favorite chapters of the Bible the world around:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
And there is further to go than virtue-based morality.
Beyond even virtue-based morality
The concepts “You need right action” and “You need to be in the right moral state”, taken together, cover many of the world’s ethical systems, and for that matter cover most of what I have said so far.
I would like to push further.
Your actions are in some sense something you possess, and your virtues are in some sense something you possess. Perhaps neither one nor the other is an item you can put on your desk next to your car keys, but they can appear, so to speak, as self-contained. Which they are not.
I was rebuked, when I was newly minted as Orthodox, for asking a question entirely framed by the Reformation schema of nature, sin, and grace, and given very good pastoral advice to stay out of 16th century Reformation concerns for a while. I am grateful for this. That stated, the Reformers were not the first people to see grace, and our need for grace, in that faith whose book is the Bible. But the Philokalia has titles like the in-depth “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works,” and stern warnings that you may only take credit for those achievements you pulled off before you were born (an exception could be made disqualifying the handful of places in the saints’ lives where an unborn child cries or speaks from within the womb). This is not exactly a teaching of grace alone, in that there is a sense of synergy in relation to a divinization where we contribute, but the relevant Fathers are here as clear as any of the Reformers that however much we seek virtue and right actions, we should take no credit before God. Even if, as it turns out, on Judgment Day the saved who take no credit for their works are given full credit for these works by God.
The whole of how we are created is for a divine dance, where we are part of a larger picture and God is calling the shots. Had I raised another Protestant question about discerning God’s will for my life, I might have gotten an equally helpful rebuke. Christ has all but sworn that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, all God’s Providence will follow, including career paths, material needs, and so on and so forth, perhaps even without our needing to try to seek God’s will for our lives. God’s Providence may have plans for the course of our lives, which will be given if we seek first God’s Kingdom, but the New Testament doesn’t have a word about seeking God’s will for our lives. When it discusses God’s will, it discusses God’s will for Creation and the like. Nowhere do the Pauline letters discuss a discernment of what course is intended for your life, or mine.
Sometimes pagan custom ain’t so great
I was in England and on a Cambridge tour was excitedly shown, in a church building no longer live as a place of worship, pagan symbols such as two-tailed mermaids on the baptismal font. What I wanted to ask, instead of just holding my tongue, was whether she had anything to say about Christian symbols in the building. But I held my tongue.
There is an ambiance of mystery and the alluring today surrounding pagan customs, and someone who reads some of the same books I’ve read may read, for instance, about a heirarch who wisely decided to try to wean a newly-illumined people from pagan practices across a few generations, or that some particular detail of observance was in origin an exotic pagan custom that was incorporated into the Church’s intricate practices. And, in general, I’ve read that some leniency was observed in relation to pagan custom. What may be the first written account of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Flame in the Snow, seems unblushing about recording a preserved pagan custom here and there.
But may I say something about pagan custom in relation to my own milieu, and one intended to be not enticing, but banal?
We have bank accounts and general financial planning and don’t let a good deal of what the Sermon on the Mount says about providence and God’s generosity get past our filters. We want endowments, or in short, we want the financial infrastructure to what is, in the end, Hell.
This may be a much less exotic and enticing than the chasing and catching game in the great St. Seraphim’s life, but I really mean it. Forget every sexy connotation that vaguely rises up at the thought of being allowed to practice a pagan custom. One of the great pagan customs in our world is wealth management, and here I write not as someone without slaves who calls for the abandonment of slavery, but someone with fewer slaves who calls for the abolition of slavery. We need, by God’s grace to wean ourselves from the violation of the Sermon on the Mount that forever tries to create our own providence, administered by nothing wiser than our own hand. That is (among the) pagan customs that should come to mind when we think of the Church trying by degrees to free generations of converts from pagan custom, ancestral or otherwise.
The story is told of a little girl who saw, in a vending machine, a metal necklace with gold wash. She asked her Dad, but he discouraged her. But she insisted, and he bought the necklace. That night at bedtime, he asked her, “Do you love me?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Give me the necklace,” but she didn’t. The next night, the same thing happened. Many nights later, with tears in her eyes, she reached out and set her necklace in his hand, the gold wash all but gone. He, also with tears, reached out with his other hand, and gave her a necklace of solid gold.
What we are invited to is God’s Providence, but we can opt out by trying to get our own ersatz providence and not really need God’s intervention. (One of the names for this is, ”Hell.”) We are instead summoned to the Great Dance, where many people weave together in intricate motion and in unfolding glory, and things end up better than we could have imagined if we had everything our way. (Or we can insist on trying to have our way; one of the names for this is, “Hell.”) Or we can stop fighting, and work with God as he draws us into a larger world and opened our eyes to what was there all along, but still more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our financial planning.
And, incidentally, trying to live on a basis of what pseudo-providence you can get for yourself is not a new pagan custom: while admittedly some of our financial instruments were not available then, Christ calls the basic practice a pagan custom as much as anyone else has: “For after all these things the [pagans] seek.” Christ never denies that we need food, water, clothing, etc., but he does try to give people a clue that the God who has loved them from eternity already knows the needs he has built in to their constitution, and has every desire to provide everything necessary to people who are seeking what really is worth seeking.
(Similar remarks could be made for other ways we isolate ourselves from patristic submission to the Sermon on the Mount in favor of pagan customs.)
In depth: If thine eye be single…
St. Philaret of Moscow, possibly a rare instance of a Metropolitan named after a layman, wrote a famed prayer for the acceptance of God’s will:
O Lord, I do not know what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for the sake of Thy great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the [pagans] seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
“If thine eye be single”: this part appears to be a digression, even an intrusion. It is not. Most translations translate away a term like “single” to mean “healthy” or “sound”, and while an aspect of “single” is indeed “healthy” or “sound”, the direct and unusual rendering tells more. St. Paul describes one decisive advantage of celibacy: that the celibate can focus on God with an undivided, single attention, where the married Orthodox must needs live out a divided attention where effort is split between God and one’s spouse. This is no heretical rejection of sacred, holy marriage, where St. Paul elsewhere says forcefully, “…marriage, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth…”; he is simply advising people that he wishes to spare them the trouble, however holy marriage itself may be.
But here celibate and married are both summoned to an eye that is single: an eye that rests its gaze purely on God, instead of dividing attention between God and stupid money. It may be honorable to divide attention between God and a wife given as an icon by whom to love and serve God: but nowhere does the New Testament endorse it as also acceptable to divide attention between God and a lifeless, subhuman wealth that is utterly unworthy of human love.
The seeming digression ups the stakes for trying to serve both God and mammon. The cost of chasing after wealth is a fragmented and divided spiritual vision. There are several places in the Sermon on the Mount where advice about a divided attention could appropriately be placed: for example, if you look in lust, your eye is not single, and is not single in a much more obvious sense. However, Christ sandwiches the warning in a passage debunking the apparent and seemingly self-evident goodness of wealth. And this passage, like others in the Sermon on the Mount, opens up a larger world.
A third basis for morality beyond rules and virtues
In the philosophy class where a professor introduced a distinction between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based reality, I looked and rightly or wrongly drew a conclusion for a Holy Spirit-based morality that is productive of virtues as virtues are productive of right actions. The key verse I drew on was Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
I’m a little cautious about saying tout court that this musing is fully patristic. Some people have made a subtle but important distinction between virtues and “graces”, where a virtue is the sort of thing you build with God’s help but by your own action, and “graces”, which are also by God’s help but the divine generosity greatly exceeds the contribution you would normally need to build up a virtue. Possibly there are other adjustments needed; because it is my own musing, I think that it would best be endorsed as Orthodox by someone else besides me.
However, what I believe more legitimate for me to endorse is this. In The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, mentioned above, speaks with a layman who has essentially spent his life trying to understand, in Western terms, the meaning of life. St. Seraphim receives him with great respect, and lays out the answer: the central point of life is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”
As mentioned, I’m a little cautious about saying that my own formulation that Christianity has a Spirit-driven morality that reaches higher than virtue-based morality as virtue-based morality is higher than rule-based morality. It hasn’t stood the test of time so far as I am aware. However, what I think has stood the test of time is that, while thoughts, actions, and virtues are all very important in the New Testament and the Philokalia, it is even more, more important to focus on a God who infinitely eclipses the greatest virtue. I’ve heard Orthodox raise a question of, “Then why am I here?” and assert that the reception of grace is synergistic, where the reception of grace includes our active cooperation with Christ in us, the hope of glory. But, whatever other differences may exist between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, I have never heard an Orthodox complain that Martin Luther, or any other figure, overstated the importance of grace. (For that matter, I have never heard an Orthodox Christian state that it is possible to overstate the importance of grace.)
The surprise I hadn’t mentioned
There was a surprise I met with the Wikipedia article that I haven’t mentioned. I was surprised that the Law of Love was classified as an articulation of the Golden Rule at all. After numerous readings of the Bible, it was settled in my mind that the Golden Rule’s explicit presence in the entire Bible amounted to part of a single verse of the Sermon on the Mount. It was not just that I preferred the Law of Love to other things that were called phrasings of the Golden Rule. To me they were so different that I never made the connection.
The Golden Rule is great partly because it offers direct prescriptions for action. If we avoid getting bogged down too much in special cases, if I wish others to show me such courtesies as saying “Please” and “Thank you,” that’s probably a sign I should seek to extend those courtesies to others. If I prefer not to be needlessly interrupted, in most cases I should probably avoid needlessly interrupting others. If I prefer that others’ communications with me be straightforward, that is probably a sign I should usually be straightforward with others. The Golden Rule may be stated in a sentence, but it covers an enormous territory.
The Law of Love dictates virtue, not action, and is far more ambiguous as far as action goes. There is respected precedent in monastic literature to what may be an assumption that the actions most fitting to the Law of Love are those that seek the complete best interests of the other. The point of monasticism, including the point of its many unpleasant parts, is to advance your best interests, which are never trumped by treating people the way they would like to be treated.
Let me give one example. At least some monastic rules state that “Monastery guests are to be treated as Christ himself,” and even without that implication the third parable of Matthew 25 provides excellent and chilling warrant to all Orthodox to treat all others as Christ. Good Abbots meet visitors with infinite respect. And for all this, monastics, including Abbots, are normally very sparing with compliments. (And they sometimes shock visitors by trying to dodge social compliments.)
There is no contradiction to this. In many cultures, compliments are given freely and are a staple of managing mood in the other. The Philokalia speaks of foul plants of spiritual sickness as being (as rendered in the polite English translation) “manured by praise.” The Philokalia is not generally foul-mouthed, and to the best of my knowledge human praise is the only thing that the entire collection metaphorically compares to excrement.
Marriage is also an institution for self-transcendence; some have said that marriage is not a place for children to grow up, but for parents to grow up. Marriage is also a vessel of holiness and salvation, but things are perhaps sharper and perhaps easier to see in monasticism. If insults and cleaning latrines are what it will take for a novice to gain the precious treasure of humility, then the love of an Abbot will be expressed in that nasty way. And monasticism above marriage highlights the difference between a nuanced understanding of the Golden Rule that will treat other people the way they want to be treated on the one hand, and on the other hand a nuanced understanding of the Law of Love as seeking the other’s best interests. We should best not treat ourselves as honorary Abbots and authorities above others, but seeking the other’s total best interest is more important than being pleasing to others.
Conclusion: A doorway to the divine
If I may quote Lewis again, this time from The Abolition of Man, “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” It is further St. Paul, the Apostle, who tells us that the Law is a tutor meant to train us up until we are ready for greater things.
I might suggest that the Golden Rule, at least in the forms I have seen it, be given a place similar to what place the Apostle gives to the Law, and in one aspect the place Church Fathers give to the Old Testament as addressing outer righteousness until the New Testament could train us in inner righteousness.
That is to say that we should keep the Golden Rule, perhaps at some level of sophistication and nuance so we don’t knowingly offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a friend who has a deadly peanut allergy. And furthermore we should recognize its significance in that world religious traditions are immeasurably different in immeasurable ways, yet precious few fail to offer some form of the Golden Rule. That speaks for a profound significance even beyond that a moral directive that covers an incredible amount of ground with something in a nutshell. Even a good subset of these credentials properly qualify the Golden Rule as astonishing and arresting.
Yet, for all of this, neither the Platinum Rule, nor the Golden Rule, nor the Silver Rule, nor this article’s nomination for a Fool’s Golden Rule speak a whisper about inner state or virtue, and on this account they must be seen as outer righteousness as Church Fathers have received the Old Testament as a tutor in outer righteousness. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules may progressively escalate the action that is specified in their demand towards our neighbor: but even the Platinum Rule does not show the faintest hint of a request for virtue. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules push further forward in the same plane: not one of them rises higher to draw our eyes towards virtue.
The Law of Love does, and here I am not especially interested in the fact that on the level of action it is possible to rise from pleasing people to seeking their best interests as best we can in a given situation. The Law of Love is a summons to virtue, and more. It moves beyond outer action alone to inner state, and here I might mention that contrary to today’s psychological framing of “inner”, figures such as Augustine held the inner realm to hold the things themselves for spiritual realities: or as condensed in homilectics, Heaven and Hell are inside us. I do not claim any Orthodox or Christian monopoly on inner concerns; the desire for inner virtue may be found in innumerable world religions and age-old philosophies. However, the Law of Love says something that was missed in the Silver Rule. Even if Ben Hillel probably knew both summonses to love, by heart.
Furthermore, the Law of Love implies something that I am not aware of in any formulation of the Golden Rule, and though I am hesitant to quote someone I’ve just critiqued as an authority, is something that a certain Harvard chaplain did not at least notice anywhere else: the box is open at the top.
Nothing hinders a materialist from seeking to act by the Golden Rule, and it may be seen as needlessly insulting to question whether a materialist might take guidance from that beacon. For that matter, you can be in your actions halfway to being a solipsist and still seek to obey the Golden Rule, even if you might end up being hampered by your habits because you are trying to act beyond what your philosophical reserves will afford you. There is nothing in any standard formulation of the Silver, Golden, or Platinum Rule that forbids you from being, and seeing yourself as, self-contained. One can of course subscribe to the Golden Rule and be open to things vaster than the Heavens: Christ himself did as much, and it’s hard to see what stronger warrant one could ask to say that a practitioner of the Golden Rule might be open. However, if we hear that chaplain say, “None of these versions requires a God,” then we might see circumstantial evidence that, as magnificent and really astonishing as the Golden Rule may be, it does not reach high enough to bid us seek a box that is open at the top.
The Law of Love is more and different compared to this. It really does say, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, and I want to show them to you.” It summons us to leave the Hell of self. Its overwhelming impulse that bids us exercise the highest of all virtues, love itself, is a surge from the heart of a command to render an even higher, absolute love to a God who is infinitely beyond. A hymn tells the Theotokos, “When you gave birth, you tore all the philosopher’s nets;” along with that is all possibility of enclosure by anything less than God. I have quoted from the Sermon on the Mount; it is important enough in Orthodoxy that even in the shorter forms of the Divine Liturgy it is quoted in shorthand by chanting its opening Beatitudes. It is characterized by a fundamental openness that is needed as an exegesis of the right and proper love to God, and if you try to love God and live a self-contained life, you may find God responding to you by offering you help to repent of your sin and begin to enjoy a larger world.
I wish to conclude by quoting a poem I wrote, Open:
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
I was given a copy of Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church. I’ve read some but not all of it, and I’ve read the introduction in full. I really have more to say than that the Orthodox tacit response to hearing an Evangelical say, “I’ve been reading the Fathers” when they have only been reading the Blessed Augustine is, “Ouch!” Saint as he may be, the Blessed Augustine is not any kind of legitimate polestar for navigating the Fathers, and when Singled Out deals with a Tertullian who fell into heresy and gave Augustine a singularly bad precedent, the best thing to say to Evangelicals is, “You do not understand monasticism as it exists in the Orthodox Church.” Possibly parts of the book I didn’t get to start to bring in quotes from the Orthodox Church’s Greek Fathers, but I have not found such a passage and it certainly doesn’t set the stage. Alan Perlis said something entirely relevant to Protestants who wish to understand Orthodox monasticism: “The best book about programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because the best book about anything for the layman is Alice in Wonderland.” And the best book for Evangelicals on Orthodox monasticism is decidedly Alice in Wonderland.
I wish to state briefly, and without explanation, that the first step in understanding Orthodox monasticism is understanding it is nothing Protestants can project. One routine moment in a conversation with a respected parishioner, informally called “the godfather of us all” within the parish, came when he had said he wanted to understand Orthodoxy and asked an Orthodox Christian what books to read, was told, “You don’t understand Orthodoxy by reading books. You understand Orthodoxy by participating in the services.” And if the Orthodoxy of the parish is not something to analyze, it is all the more confusing to understand monastic Fathers without even being Orthodox. Regarding sexuality, for instance, monasticism knows as well as anything else that sex is a powerful impulse, and it has powerful built-in features intended, ultimately, to transform carnal desire into a desire for God. Part of this is an extreme caution in monks’ dealings with women, but the same caution is present in the (admittedly less numerous) warnings by Mothers for nuns dealing with men. One nineteenth-century Russian monk compared the Christian living in the world to a wildflower, with the monastic (male or female) compared to a flower that needs to be in a “hothouse” (i.e. a heavily curated greenhouse) to flourish. Marriage is a good and honorable thing, but it’s not just marriage where sexuality serves a legitimate purpose. Monasticism does not provide a track where sexual impulses become simply absent or unimportant; it provides a track where sexual impulses are to be one of several areas where the human is transformed according to divine glory.
A theology of failure
My first real point about Singled Out is that is that the introduction does not call for a new theology of celibacy. It calls for an old theology of failure.
Let me take an instance with St. Paul, and for the moment ignore his celibacy completely, which is not my point here. His accomplishments include raising the dead, planting numerous churches, and writing half the volumes of the New Testament. Sometimes people speak of someone having nothing left to prove; on human terms his accomplishments are about as stellar as mortal Christian has achieved. When he wrote 2 Timothy in particular, and knew that his end was near, he had about as much claim as anybody in Christian history to say, “I came. I saw. I conquered.” But what he instead says is “I have fought the good fight. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.” These words do not bear a whisper of saying, “I achieved.” They say instead, “I was faithful.”
Saints on the whole are faithful and are not affected terribly differently by success and failure, and this is normative. If we look at school sports, there is a momentous spiritual edifice of sportsmanship, however imperfectly applied: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” Now teams of athletes who have to give a game their best may end up winning remarkably often, but this is not a best strategy of winning. It is a best strategy above winning.
Saints seem to exhibit something like sportsmanship in that they are concerned about being faithful rather than succeeding or failing. This adds a certain tint to the whole moral atmosphere, and saints, which one tries to tell even in a work from the Anabaptist tradition like Martyr’s Mirror, show in the living color of story what a holy life looks like. “Every Christian must bear his cross,” and this applies to successes and failures alike. Marriage is meant to be blessed by as many children as God is generous enough to give, and childlessness is a curse. Some have said that marriage is not an institution for children to grow up in, but an institution for parents to grow up in. To those who are married with children, the children should be a joy, but raising them is the cross by which parents are to be saved. However, God does not always give this blessing, and to parents who want to welcome children but are not able to do so, childlessness is itself a cross by which the parents to be saved. Lastly for now, I would suggest that if there are people who endorse marriage is normal, and want to be married but end up always a bridesmaid but never a bride, lack of marriage is itself a saving cross. Disrespect for marriage is a sin, and the career path of monasticism provides a practical and valuable resource, nost just to monastics themselves, but also to devout Orthodox families who tend to visit monasteries. But if, as described in Singled Out authors grew up hoping for marriage and their dreams did not come true, what is needed is not a new theology of celibacy but an old theology of failure and the crosses by which we are saved. And so far as I can tell, the authors are entirely innocent of contact with Orthodox monasticism.
I am trying to get to Mount Athos and become a member of a respected monastic community. However, I am not obligated to succeed in connecting with any of the monasteries on the planned pilgrimage. I am furthermore not obligated to succeed in being able to pay for the trip. I am trying, and under the conditions I feel fully obligated to give it my best, but I am not obligated to succeed. (Willing to make a donation?)
Here we are still on the outside porch of Orthodox monasticism, and not on the inside. But I would suggest that the Orthodox understanding of monasticism provides a robust and excellent old theology of celibacy, and also that “every Christian must bear his cross” and the old theology of failure have every relevance to those who seek marriage but do not arrive at it.
Robert A. Heinlein’s cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a book which was published in 1961, inspired many flower children, and has never gone out of print, is a Western book, and Western in a sense in which most Western Christians legitimately disavow. Early on in the book when Heinlein is loosening up his readers’ boundaries, Heinlein has the hero and heroine basically naked together in the strictest innocence and for entirely legitimate reasons, and the reader is invited to judge the cop who has a dirty mind because of what he reads into them being naked together. When the cop needlessly strikes the heroine, the hero kills him with psychic powers, but only after Heinlein assures us that the cop did not strike her as hard as he used to hit his wife. The episode serves as a sort of gateway drug en route to a Utopianism in which promiscuity is fêted, and for the only time I’ve seen in literature being raped is a helpful and invigorating experience, and while Heinlein grinds the most massive axe against firearms for no explained reason, killing (and cannibalism) become even more casual than promiscuity. Charles Manson, a serial killer who viewed murder as just a habit like smoking a cigarette, denied having read the title at all, although the book’s influence was in some circles ubiquitous, and one of Manson’s own children bore the hero’s first, middle, and last name, “Michael Valentine Smith.” All of this makes for a singular profile even as far as Utopias go.
While Heinlein eagerly rips marriage to shreds, there is a covenant (although not called by that name) of “water brotherhood”, which is some combination of reinventing marriage, only dumber, and reinventing the Church, only dumber. The “Thou art God!” epiphany Michael shares with the fatherly Jubal and the joke about one worm saying to another, “Will you marry me?” and the other saying, “Marry you? I’m your back end!” are reinventing Hinduism, only dumber. While certain aspects of the book show Heinlein has apparently “taken inspiration” from Hinduism, in the sense a web designer might use as a euphemism from outright theft of their intellectual property, Hinduism itself is deeper than a whale can dive. Now I am not endorsing Hinduism but I recall, if nothing else, words which I thought came from G.K. Chesterton but cannot now trace, that if you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by exploring just Christianity and Hinduism: Islam is just a Christian heresy and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy. And really, it’s not just Hinduism that offers a more interesting theology than Heinlein. Buddhism and Taoism are themselves more interesting than Heinlein’s sporadically cherry-picking bits of Hinduism. (And it might at least be helpful to place, “Thou art nothing!” alongside “Thou art God!”) I recall one class at Fordham where the professor spoke of speaking with a Hindu scholar (I think he mentioned lots of wine having been consumed), and the professor saying that he was perfectly happy with God being incarnate in Christ, but why only one? (The great teachers in the Western understanding, plus perhaps various mythological figures, are held in Hinduism to be Avatars in which God / gods came down in human semblance; there are points of contact with Incarnation, although those interested in theological exactness might note that the conception of an Avatar is not that of Incarnation but of the kind of Docetism which sees Christ as human only in a deceptive appearance, the Divine Nature being incapable of being made man.) But let me return to incarnation in a moment.
And finally on the point of this Utopian novel, what Stranger in a Strange Land offers is a Gospel, but only a Gospel made dumber. One Christian editor, in personal conversation, talked about choosing the name for an article. Editors often do this better than authors, by the way. The title amounted to “Maximum Christology,” which asserted that the findings of the Christological Councils are in every way those of a Maximum Christ: maximally God, maximally human, maximally united, with the divine and human natures maximally distinguished. And some of these heroes are of a sub-maximum Christ figure. As I said in an overly long and complex homily in The Sign of the Grail, the figure of Merlin, if pushed to absolute fullness and depth, becomes the figure of Christ. The same is true of the hero, Michael Valentine Smith. No matter what attacks Heinlein places on Christianity and the morals he falsely assumes to be distinctly Christian (by the way, Christianity is in general much more comfortable about legitimately acceptable touch than Hinduism: if you want touch in Hinduism, Kali’s Child comes highly recommended; Kali is a demon-goddess who wears a necklace of skulls and madness is the special blessing she bestows), Heinlein’s debt to the Gospel is incalculably greater than his debt to Hinduism. Even the hero’s martyrdom owes its debt to Christianity; the Bhagavad-Gita may have Sri Krishna exhorting Arjuna the Conqueror of Sloth to enter a battle and strike those doomed to death; I am out of my depth as far as interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita goes but martyrdom is celebrated neither on the part of divine charioteer nor human noble, even if some commentators (like Gandhi) held martyrdom in the most profound respect. There is no sense I get that either charioteer or ruler gave his life as a ransom for many, nor that martyrdom is the noblest death to die, nor, so far as I know, planted a Church that we marked by referring to years as AD and BC in its infinite shadow. The whole story is the Gospel made dumber, a point I tried to argue in Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy.
But there is one point of redeeming virtue. Michael, the hero, says, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being is organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” And in fact we have such a complete working instructions in monasticism. Now I would like to underscore that marriage is a sacrament and the normal choice it is expected that most Orthodox will follow; I will not extol marriage at length but it is worth extolling, as in this beautiful video about Saints Peter and Fevronia (with English subtitles).
Beggars and the divine
There was one point where I was hospitalized with, among others, a woman (a former ballerina, but that’s beside the point), bordering on homelessness. I wondered, “Is there any way I can lighten this cross?” and in fact there was, and I did so when closing out the visit. Part of the difficulty was that she needed to keep track of numerous mostly small items, and that is difficult when homeless. I had an item now not available new, a geeky messenger bag, which was then cheap, easily replaceable, and like nothing else I’ve found anywhere near the price point. And it had both large capacity and multiple compartments. Before I gave it to her our dealings were polite if distant; we never connected interpersonally. And after her warm thanks, our dealings remained polite if distant; while I struck up a friendship with another guy, she and I never clicked as friends, let alone something romantic. And I really think neither of us was obligated to any friendship.
Then why the gift?
To put things in melodramatic terms, none of us goes to sleep knowing we will wake up. Were I to fall asleep that night in time and wake up in eternity, I would have greatly preferred the bag to be in her possession than mine.
If that sounds melodramatic, read to this apocalyptic passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’ And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye who are damned, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ Then shall they also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not serve thee?’ Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
It is the clear teaching of Westerners I know who care for the poor that giving money to beggars is making a problem worse, and it is the clear teaching of the Orthodox Church to give something. I’ve never really heard any Orthodox authority say you should give a lot; the suggestion, without a number being ever stated that I have heard, is that you should give a small amount that is entirely within your power. If they use that money to buy drugs that is no more your fault than it is God’s fault for giving you free will that you use to commit abominable sins. Furthermore, I have heard even my relatives pronounce the word “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin. They are not. When we answer before Christ’s throne, we will answer a great deal more for how we have treated homeless beggars than we will for those in our family and our social circles. I personally view beggars as altars by which I may show small kindnesses to Christ.
A monastic living under a vow of poverty may be under a slightly different set of rules. Monastics are said to be “above alms,” and to a visitor of the same sex, the words “Is not a word better than a gift?” apply, the point being that you can meet the dues of hospitality even if there is nothing you could give even if you wanted. But the core principle is this unchanged: beggars, like everyone else, are made in the image of God, and the point of becoming a Christian is neither more nor less to become by grace what Christ is by nature. None of us is divine “without any help,” so to speak, and the Hindu “Namaste” meaning “I recognize that the innermost part of you is a drop of God,” which I have only heard from New Agers (Hindus have treated me with respect enough but they usually greet me with “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good morning,” etc.) is not in the literal sense Orthodox. Christ and Christ alone among mankind is divine by nature. However, Christ’s action is to make men divine by grace, and ultimately rise above the wall which separates God and Creation. And in that sense, while Orthodox Christianity does not have a great collection of avatars who are all divine by nature, it does have a great collection of saints who are genuinely and properly divine by grace. Even among the rest of us, what is most at our core may not be directly and properly a drop of God himself, but it is to be created in the divine image: to be human is to be a symbol of God in an extraordinarily profound sense, a symbol that both represents and embodies, so that every act of kindness or cruelty rendered to our neighbor is by that fact kindness or cruelty rendered to Christ. My response to my teacher about “Why only one avatar?” and the teacher clarifying that he meant only real avatars, was more than technically correct on my part. “Divine by grace” is real. It is perhaps not, in terms of origins, something that came to be with “divine by nature” built in, but that is not the point. Heaven will be filled by people who were and will be even more “partakers of the divine nature”, genuinely and really divine by means of grace, and this is what we were created for in the first place. We were created to come to a place where the very distinction between Uncreated and created is transcended.
Monasticism as supreme privilege within the Orthodox Church
As I wrote on a social network:
There is a saying that virtue is its own reward, epigrammatic enough that Spaceman Spiff / Calvin wants to teach horrid aliens that virtue is its own reward.
Both physically and spiritually, virtue really is its own reward. Though athletes might train for competitions, the advantages of physical health are not mainly looking better in a swimsuit, but having your body function as it was meant to function and your mind clearer as well. For another example, a recovering alcoholic who has been years sober, or perhaps with slips treated as a real problems and stopped as real problems, the main advantage is not removing the expense of heavy alcohol purchases, nor improved nutrition as alcohol is a genuine nutrient that in large quantities can displace alcoholics’ intake of more balanced nutrition, nor the annoyance of other people constantly getting on their case for drinking too much. The chief reward for being years sober is that you have abandoned a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: the reward for sobriety is sobriety, including feeling much, much, much better. (I opened with drunkenness in the homily A Pet Owner’s Rules.)
But without contradiction to virtue being its own reward, virtue is also the reward of repentance. The Philokalia says that people hold on to sin because they think it adorns them. My understanding is that Evangelicals have said that repentance is an unconditional surrender, and it is. My godfather talked about it as the most terrifying experience at all. God demands an unconditional surrender of us, not for his sake, but for ours. Once we surrender we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” The primary Orthodox metaphor for repentance is awakening, and I’ve been happiest when I’ve repented of something I’ve been in the grips of. In one sense I’m at my happiest when I am writing something new. (And in that sense, I wrote, Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret“)
One last point. The terms of monasticism are the terms of the highest privilege the Orthodox Church has to offer. I also expect that it will cut certain sins much shorter, but there is more than a resource I really think I would wiser not decline. Monasticism is spoken of as repentance, and while it is desirable to have tears and the joyful sorrow of compunction, entering monasticism to repent of your sins ideally bears Heaven’s best-kept secret. If you repent, however great the sorrow it straightens out your heart, and commonly straightens out the body somewhere along the line. Monks (actually, all of us) are forbidden ambition to seek any ordination, but seeking to become a bishop, besides being a temptation, is a confused way to drop the real treasure in a perturbed haste to grab a consolation prize. God’s blessing may be on ordained monks who just want to be monks, such as abbots and bishops, but the highest position of privilege is not that of the highest bishop. It is that of a mere monastic whose sights are set much higher than mere ecclesiastical office. And on that note I wrote A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop.
I am not seeking misery. I am seeking great privilege, much greater privilege than my educations.
Monasticism as “a complete set of working instructions“
The Blue Zones, coming out of a study of where people live the longest, identifies certain hotspots of the map researchers originally marked in blue. There are, according to the Wikipedia entry, nine common themes:
Moderate, regular physical activity.
Moderate calories intake.
Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
Engagement in spirituality or religion.
Engagement in family life.
Engagement in social life.
On Mount Athos, the place I hope to go, and God willing repent of my sins into great old age, every single one of these things is present. (I do not know if Athos is an unstudied hotspot; Athos is a bit hard to reach even for Orthodox, and possibly it is a curiosity that was unknown.) Now there is not the usual sense of engagement with family life, but a healthy Orthodox parish, let alone monastery, is in a deep sense family and “family” is not simply one metaphor among others. The fact that there are probably fathers and sons, or brothers, or uncles and nephews, on the holy mountain is beside the point. However, I would like to drill down on the least “spiritual” of them all.
In a monastery (see a video of Holy Cross Hermitage that gives monasticism a concrete face), there is prayer in liturgy and prayer in near-constant work, with no divide between sacred and secular. People, or at least young monks, are kept occupied, but this is primarily for their needs rather than the monastery and there are stories of ancient monks who would rather make an enormous pile of baskets every year and burn them than be idle. Like in the blue zones, large amounts of time are spent in moderate activity. And one of the the things I realized is that “fitness nut” level exercise, with one qualification mentioned below, is really a consolation prize compared to always being engaged in obedience. It’s a bit like saying, “Well, I don’t have leisure in my schedule for a glass of wine with my dinner, so once a week I’ll have 100 grams of Everclear.” The analogy may break down in that alcohol is hardly a need, but the point stands that sipping one glass of wine with dinner is for most of us good, while blasting a throat-parching payload of 100 grams of absolute alcohol all at once is for most of us dubiously helpful.
The one exception I will mention is that there are cases where people push farther, but in the long term moderate exercise is better than world-class exercise. Remember the former ballerina I mentioned? She wasn’t especially old. Top-notch ballerinas don’t retire because audiences don’t like wrinkles; top-notch ballerinas retire because you can only put that heavy a load on your body for so many years, and the number of years is short compared to normal aging. The usual lifespan is short among an African people that run around eighty miles a day hunting deer by running after it until it collapses from exhaustion; these people don’t die old. And I remember one bodybuilder at my high school who looked quite impressive asking if it was healthy to lift weights, and the presentation giver, perhaps insensitively, said that an extra pound of muscle was just as hard on the heart as an extra pound of fat: it may be striking to have incredibly thickly muscled arms and legs, but there’s more than an unofficial consensus among women that ridiculously huge muscles are ugly. The human body as a whole is not at its health when those are its proportions. The human body can be pushed to marathons or triathlons, but there are long-term problems that you don’t get from hours a day of moderate activity. There are many excesses above near-constant moderate activity that can be sustained at least for a time, but the moderate version is optimal.
And there is a further point I would like to mention, which is simply that the Fathers are very clear that when you are doing an obedience, nine tenths of your attention should be on cultivating and maintaining your inner state, and only one tenth on the physical act. This point was underscored with infinite gentleness when I visited one monastery and the Archimandrite stated that he was assigning obediences for the day and asked if anybody wanted to request anything. I asked him for something with vigorous exercise. He assigned me to work with a monastic aspirant on firewood; what this meant practically was that he and I would work together to gather trees that had been cut up with chainsaws but not further dealt with, and load them into the back of a truck and then unload them at the woodpile. The exercise was delightfully invigorating, and I was able to relieve a partner who was exhausted after being asked to move bigger and bigger and bigger wood; on my end, there were moments where I knew that my weight plus the wood block’s weight amounted to well over three hundred pounds, and it was pushing my feet into the ground hard enough that I worried my workboots might come off when I lifted my feet and pulled them out of the mud they were sunk in. But vigorous as that may have been, there was a significant problem: I wasn’t really praying that much. When I mentioned this, the abbot expressed deep gratitude for my work, and apologized for his shortcoming with me, saying he had not served me adequately in what he had asked me to do. The apology was, with infinite politeness and gentleness, correcting me for a basic beginner’s mistake: doing an obedience without sufficient prayer, and the next obedience he assigned me was something else that was manual labor but not nearly as much force. While the work he assigned was useful to the monastery and would help keep them warm at winter, he was far more concerned about whether the obedience was a practical help to my prayer than what external work I accomplished. And the practice of assigning obediences to visitors is not primarily a message of, “You are staying with us and we would like you to pull at least some of your weight,” even if that may also be true, but “We invite you to join us by praying with us in the temple as we sing our prayers, and we would also like to invite you to join us to pray as you engage in prayerful work with us outside the temple.” And the work is not secular; it is sacred even if it could be performed in a secular way.
Let’s look at the three classic vows.
I’m a bit of an outsider looking in as far as monastic obedience goes, but I would prefer that my writing, at least in theology, were something I was working with and receiving a blessing, including periodically being expected to submit.
One sliver of a window came from a remark I needed to explain (as well as translate) to my parents. We were at a Mexican family-run restaurant, and as we were almost heading out the door, I said something that positively lit up the restaurant staff. I said, “La comida esta hecha con amor,” possibly making some minor language error; the phrase literally translated was “The food is made with love.” Which needed some explanation about why I would say that and why the staff would light up. There is a belief in Mexican culture that food made with love is delicious, while on the opposite end food made in anger and upset will taste terrible and possibly cause indigestion or other nastiness.
That belief is properly part of Mexican culture, but it is of much earlier vintage. One tidbit from monastic literature has a king or someone from a king’s court asking an abbot why food at the monastery, which was made from the simplest ingredients, tasted so good, while food at the royal court made with the best ingredients available tasted worse. The abbot said that food at the court could easily be made amidst conflict and anger, while at the monastery everything was done after receiving a blessing; under normal circumstances “obedience” includes monks seeking the abbot’s blessing for essentially any action. But this is more than asking permission, or at least more than receiving permission. If an abbot gives a monk a blessing to do something, the monk has not just gotten an OK to move ahead. The abbot has declared the blessing of God, and one result of obedience and submission that asks blessings is that what you do has many more blessings pronounced on it than most non-monastics ever see.
People who are above my pay grade, who know obedience from within, speak of obedience as utter freedom. I’m not in a place to confirm that firsthand, but I believe I’ve identified an obedience-shaped void in my life. In writing related to theology, what I have to say is tapering down, but even more than that I want to write in an asymmetrical collaboration of obedience where I am writing under a blessing if I write, and not writing but asking a blessing upon my person if I am not giving a blessing to write. Furthermore, and more poignantly, I’ve been pretty wrong at certain things, and dangerously wrong at that. Part of monasticism that is most repellent to outsiders is that you don’t just confess your sins, but you make a daily confession of all your thoughts to your abbot. I want that. I want to be in a situation where I may still be wrong, perhaps very wrong, but the “wrong” is stopped quickly by an abbot who may see red flags much sooner than I do. And I see monasticism as a sort of ultimate privilege in terms of cleaning house spiritually.
There was one class I remember the professor voicing an existentialist sentiment: “Total liberty is the very worst of prisons.” On a not entirely unrelated note, Aristotle said, “He who teaches himself has a fool for a master.” Political freedoms may be valuable, but they are nothing compared to freedom from one’s sin and one’s passions. The words “May you have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it” sound pleasant to begin with but they are pure and simple a curse. Being spiritually in such a state is worse than a physical lack of health, and Orthodoxy tries to develop each person as is best for that specific person. It also, like the lighter-grade analog to older spiritual work found in today’s non-directive counseling, stipulates that the spiritual healer is to have no interest or personal benefit in directing a disciple. Binding myself to discipleship is placing myself in the care of a spiritual father whose job description is to help me grow into the greatest freedom there is. And right now I do not know what true freedom is. I am the prisoner and slave of my sins and passions, and a good spiritual father has the keys to unlock that prison. I do not expect every freedom that is available from an abbot. I only expect the one freedom that matters.
The chief benefit of celibacy is enumerated by St. Paul. He gives no decisive commandment, but clearly outlines a spiritual advantage to chastity. The married person needs to have a divided attention split between God and spouse. The celibate person is free to have 100% devotion to God.
I might comment briefly that there are three options that can be acceptable, even if it is possible to fail spiritually in all three. The first is marriage, something that is expected of most of the faithful. The second is monasticism, which essentially offers a full complement of spiritual resources meant to entirely maximize the kind of goodness that can stem from celibacy. The third is celibacy outside of monasticism, which is less than ideal but can be appropriate (especially under a theology of failure). I’ve been in the third option and am presently wishing I had joined monasticism ages ago. But I cannot change the past; I can only influence the present and the future, aiming for monasticism and accepting a possibility of failure.
A few details about sexuality:
While I was researching the the holy kiss, I was assigned, among other texts, to read Foucault’s history of sexuality. That’s one reading recommendation I should have dropped faster than a hot potato. The text may not be in any sense sexy, but it does porn-style spiritual damage well enough. However, I wish to pull one minor point and one major point.
The minor point is that understanding another age’s sexuality is an Alice in Wonderland matter. Meaning that before study you don’t understand another world’s sexuality and you are wrong about assumptions you don’t even have.
In the Greek world, appealed to by those who wish to “re-queer” society, the completion of training might well be a consummation between teacher and pupil. We have dirty jokes about “Confucius say secretary not part of furniture until screwed on desk,” but they are “just” dirty jokes, not automatic expectations for practical action. The usual pagan paterfamilias would rape all slaves (male or female didn’t matter much) as an assertion of absolute authority over slaves.
And having said this much, I would like to put one particular point pulled from those dreary books: one pagan philosopher was asked, “How often should I have sex?” and answered, “As often as you wish to deplete your energy.” This is not an absolute interdiction, nor does it suggest Christian ideas of marriage between a man and a woman, but it provides a profound glimpse into a monasticism in which, on the Holy Mountain, there are no women, nor youths who may look too much like a woman’s beauty, and in monasticism there is an exhortation, almost a leitmotif, of “Refrain from embraces.”
Sexuality does not become unimportant in monasticism. It becomes an infinitely sharper peak, and it is transformed to unending desire for God.
Years before I joined the Orthodox Church, there was a Sunday school type class, and I walked in really wincing, expecting a secular investment lesson and knowing that the parishioner who would be giving it was a lawyer. To my astonishment the substance of his lesson, illustrated and underscored with stories from his professional experience, was to say that the book of Proverbs hit the nail on the head in everything it said about wealth. The one sentence I remember from that class was, “Endowments aren’t so great.” He asked what it meant to be “independently wealthy,” and clarified that what that really meant was “independent from God”, and state that seeking God’s providence was far better than chasing after more and more wealth.
In my own time I have become more and more skeptical about how much wealth and property give us. My work The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, which I’m a bit disappointed hasn’t received more attention, has as its premise that individual technologies have both upsides and downsides and that the people selling technologies are a whole lot quicker to sell you on the upsides than on downsides that may be terrible but are often not obvious.
Monasticism is in many ways simply living the Gospel, and the Gospel says, “Do not store up treasures on earth.” Monastics take this as straightforward guidance for optimal living. In addition, though I do not know all of what factors into this conclusion, those above my pay grade spiritually seem as quickly to identify monastic poverty with freedom as they are to identify monastic obedience with freedom.
My mother told a story of a friend visiting one of her friends in Puerto Rico. The visitor looked around and said, “You don’t have any food in your pantry.” The hostess said, “No, I don’t, but I will. And why would I need something now? I wouldn’t need God.”
This may be sharper than monastic communities which look after monastics’ needs, but to my knowledge the monastic embrace of poverty is an embrace of God that seeks everything needed from his providence, rather than make an ersatz providence by providing for oneself financially.
I’ll take an educated guess that some monastics view their poverty as having gotten rid of a great many things to worry about. Almost, if vulgarly, as a man saying, “I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!”
A note on historical background
To put something baldly, I believe that the iconoclasm of the Reformation was significantly less guilty than the iconoclasm that was rejected by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
I remember one time going through Spink’s Catalogue of British Coins, and watching in horror as the Western understanding of symbol disintegrated across the centuries before my eyes. Originally there were simple figures on coins, but nothing seriously attempting photorealism. Then there was a frenzy of detail that created a “gold penny” (the word “penny” does not automatically mean minimal economic value in the world of those who study coins), and then things settled to such more restrained portraits as adorn coins today.
I saw the same horror and the same story as I visited the Cloisters, New York City’s medieval art museum built from bits of monasteries from Europe, and saw the same disintegration across the centuries from icon proper to stronger and stronger (or, if you prefer, stranger and stranger) attempts to be three dimensional until paintings started to morph into being half-statue. All of this was in late medieval Europe, and the situation was what an Evangelical might call “bankrupt” or “spiritually dead.” Some of this I trace in more detail in Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art.
The icons rejected by iconoclasts in the Byzantine Empire at the time were those of full-blooded Orthodox usage, and iconoclasts then were guilty of rejecting the full force of something good. The icons rejected by iconoclasts in the Reformation were “icons” that had been depleted and dead for hundreds of years. If a Reformation iconoclast were to look at the icons around and say, “All those icons should be burned!” one Orthodox response might almost be, “Ok if I bring matches and kindling?”
Something of the same played out in a disintegration of monasticism into proto-University. The Universities we know were started by monks, if later taken over by Renaissance men; monasteries in the West were great centres of learning. Some people have said that after the Great Schism the West got the head and the East got the heart; I have heard an Orthodox parish priest (incidentally, a parish priest with a doctorate) say, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our head to our heart.” His point is not uniquely monastic, but Orthodox monasticism is very directly intended to help those of us who are too much in our heads to reach our hearts.
The difference between Eastern and Western monasticism came to a head in the dispute between St. Gregory Palamas and the Renaissance man Barlaam. The conclusion reached by the Church, even without an ecumenical council, was that St. Gregory was defending Orthodoxy in what he held, and Barlaam was importing a heresy. I do not claim that Barlaam spoke for the entire Western fashion, nor do I deny the near-certain presence continuities between Western monastic practice and Eastern hesychastic prayer. However, I do assert that Barlaam represented something that was in the mainstream range of Western monasticism and broader trends.
What did Barlaam teach, some readers may want to know. In a nutshell, it was the Renaissance ideal. The answer I would give is, “Something like the liberal arts ideal today,” the cultured liberal arts ideal in so many Christian-founded colleges whose apostasy from any sense of Christianity is documented in The Dying of the Light, in a pattern that sheds unflattering light on how effective it is to found a Christian university. Barlaam taught, like a good Renaissance man, that the noblest exercise of human dignity was to reason and philosophize about God. St. Gregory taught that the noblest exercise of human dignity was to behold the uncreated Light of God and directly experience God. Barlaam wanted monastics to be educated and cultured. St. Gregory wanted monks to prayerfully contemplate inner stillness; Barlaam gave the pejorative term “navel-gazing” for one specific way some people have taught stillness. St. Gregory wanted monasticism to remain what it had always been; Barlaam wanted monasticism to adapt to features of what was then in vogue in the broader European cultures.
One interstitial note as I have at least hinted at Orthodox wariness towards the Blessed Augustine: he is essentially a Church Father as an Evangelical who would conceive of a Church Father. He reasons philosophically about God, and constantly references Scripture. Evangelicals may object to the Renaissance, but the Renaissance and Reformation are tangled with each other more than one might, and Barlaam’s approach is not irrelevant to Evangelicalism. The Blessed Augustine is an astute philosopher and his analysis has layers of depth, but he doesn’t have St. Gregory’s strengths. That stated, there are also Church Fathers as a Church Father would conceive of a Church Father. St. Maximos Confessor readily comes to mind, although he’s not the easiest author to cut your teeth on. St. John Chrysostom wrote dozens of volumes, too many for most people to really read, but he is an eminently clear communicator.
At this point I am ready to make some comments about Martin Luther that wouldn’t have made much sense earlier. Martin Luther took a vow of celibacy and then had the most prodigious exploits of a man who cannot keep his willy where it belongs. Alongside Reformers destroying icons were Reformers “liberating” monastics, many of whom served Luther’s pleasures. (It has been said that Luther’s doctrine of the “bondage of the will” is not something you get by reading the Bible, but a theological rationalization that absolved Luther of guilt for his exploits.) This much is not in dispute historically; it’s just something his Protestant successors are not eager to divulge. (A study of Luther’s incontinence provides the concluding chapter for Degenerate Moderns.)
The Reformers attacked what remained of holy icons, and what remained of holy monasticism. We don’t quite have 100% conformity here, as there have been (and are) Anglican monastics, the famous Taizé monastery in France, and perhaps others, but there have also been Mennonites who want to have icons. There remain pockets in Protestantism of almost everything the Reformers ever attacked. None the less, monasticism was a healthy bedrock in the east, then started to become shifting sand in the West, and then for entirely understandable reasons, as understandable as initial Protestant iconoclasm, the Reformers saw monasticism as simply not helpful.
My point in mentioning this offensive point is to say that certain things in Orthodoxy are not something that Protestants have weighed in the balance and found wanting but something not encountered in the first place, and furthermore that the oddities of a Roman Church after half a millennium’s separation from Eastern Orthodoxy in fact do not speak for Orthodoxy, no matter how strong the subtle temptation fill in understanding of bottom-up Orthodoxy with top-down Roman assumptions. Monasticism in the Orthodox Church is an Alice in Wonderland matter for Protestants.
However true that may be, the real reward for repentance is not a pleasant mood. The real reward, and the reward one should seek most of all, is then untangling and straightening out of one’s tangled and sinful soul, and being in a better condition spiritually.
(And by the way, there is nothing mercenary whatsoever about repentance out of the hope of being in a better condition spiritually, and gaining more virtue and being cleansed of more sin. Those are right and proper things one should be seeking as rewards for repentance.)
Repentance is foundational to monasticism, enough so that monasticism is spoken of as repentance. In my partially informed opinion, there may be a case to be made that repentance is more basic or essential to monasticism than even the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity; and that poverty, obedience, and chastity provide a structure or shelter in which the real work of repentance can grow.
And repentance, and live spiritual life after awakenings of repentance, may be the core reality of why monasticism is the supreme condition of privilege within the Orthodox Church. It is a strong medicine for spiritual health, and I believe it may eclipse even poverty, obedience, and chastity, however cardinally important each one may be.
A Utopia that works
I remember one class, years back, where the professor summarized a Utopian ideal that called for (among other things) turning the oceans to sweet lemonade as “a Utopia of spoiled children.” And there seem to be a lot of Utopian visions that end up as Utopias of spoiled children.
I’m not current on Utopian visions from feminists (or, if you would rather put it this way, every feminist author and more that I have read in my studies offers some highly unstable Utopian vision), but Utopian visions by men, without such a restraining hand, call for men to have free and easy access to essentially as many women as they wanted. Not, perhaps, that this is a new feature to the Western form of life of Utopian visions; many pre-Christian giants were polygamists and the Solomon who asked for wisdom and left us three books of the Bible lost his salvation after his prolific efforts in this field. I’ve read, if only in summary form, of a text suggesting that men are capable of great extraneity, summarized some of the people and objects men have used for sexual pleasure, and concludes that a man who reaches a successful marriage does so by a great deal of restraint and discipline, and not by simply laying the reins of male desire on the horse’s neck. And even more offensively, the text suggests that gay men are largely capable of straight marriage, have often tasted heterosexual pleasure, and suggests that the level of discipline for a gay man to have a successful marriage to a woman is really not by leaps and bounds greater than the discipline required of a straight man. (If I recall correctly, the author was not straight. He just chose not to be ruled by base desire.)
Stranger in a Strange Land‘s Utopian vision has a fatherly Jubal and a main hero male readers should identify with who is some sort of superman with a harem of four (or more) women who all worship him and never seem to make real demands or have real needs. (The living situation reminds of one book, by a counselor a good deal to the left of me, who said that as a counselor in California he has seen people in every living situation you could think of and probably some you couldn’t think, and the more he has seen other living situations work out in practice, the more he thinks God’s rules are meant to help us and not to harm us.) And the grounds of Heinlein’s Utopian living situation places his Utopia as a Utopia of spoiled children where boys do not grow into proper men. I would suggest that the Orthodox concept of marriage is fundamentally more interesting. It calls for something the hero never reaches, at least not before provoking martyrdom. It calls for men (and women) to grow up and act as adults. It calls for self-transcendence
The tale of Saints Peter and Fevronia mentioned earlier has one brief segment where Saints Peter and Fevronia are sailing on a boat, and the man handling the boat starts looking at Saint Fevronia and having ideas. Saint Fevronia tells him to take a bowl and dip it in the water by one side of the boat, and taste the water, and then dip it in the water on the other side and taste it. She asks him if the water tastes the same or different as drawn from the two sides. He says that they both taste the same. She says then, “So it is with women,” and asks why he is thinking of her when he has a wife who is just as much a woman. St. John Chrysostom, in decrying a theatre that was largely that day’s version of internet porn, or at least awfully uncensored, constantly spoke of theatre that insulted the shared nature of women. There is a tremendous good that is possible in a man being married to one and only one wife. Is there really more good to obtained from more women? Or do you wish to go to the gas station and spill ten or fifteen gallons of gas on the ground because you keep on pumping twice as much gas as your tank will hold?
Monasticism offers a Utopia for mature adults. Stranger in a Strange land lays the reins on the horse’s neck. Monasticism reins things in further and offers a path that is even more a challenge to grow to adulthood. Not that it is a denial of sexual desire; no monastic literature I’ve read assumes monastics are sexless (most seem to assume monks have plenty of hormones to cope with), and the choice made is to provide a supportive environment to restrain sexual desire and then lead sexual passions, among others, to ultimately be transfigured if it is a successful monastic vocation.
Utopias seem to not work out much as perpetual motion machines do not keep working. Perpetual motion machines are attempted out of confusion about basic physical realities, and Utopias are attempted out of confusion about basic spiritual realities. But monasticism is that odd gem of a Utopia that works.
Becoming a true member of this Utopia, if I succeed, will probably be the hardest thing I ever do, but it is the best choice I can make.
I write with some sadness as provided a courtesy review copy, and as having my consent to include a quote. (Normally, when another author asks my permission to include a quote, I don’t judge on basis of concluding agreement or disagreement; I am thankful for the publicity, and in particular thankful for the other author’s good manners, especially in a case like this where the quote in question falls well within limits of fair use.)
I wanted to read the book through, since beside the author’s generosity, I’d want to be very sure before questioning a book that gets consistent five star reviews, but at least in the first quarter or so of the text I have yet to find any intimation that there is any legitimate anathema, or legitimate barrier to intercommunion, between the Orthodox Churches as presented for the sake of the text: Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Believer, various autonomous churches, and so on. And no distinction is made between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church, besides a basic position that only confusion and perhaps past sins or historical accident that stops the Russian Orthodox Church from recognizing the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church as equal jurisdictions that should be in full communion without any of the Orthodox Church’s proper reconciliation of heretics and schismatics.
The author mentions a number of unfortunate experiences; I’ve had some unfortunate experiences, too. I, to, have been educated at a Roman Catholic university, or at least an academic environment that continued to draw inspiration from its Jesuit heritage. And there at least seems to be one difference between East and West; I had one Professor in formal communion with Rome say that she believed in Tradition, but she explicitly placed Arius alongside St. Athanasius as equal and proper representatives of Tradition. While the Roman communion has its own fractured communities of traditionalists, the live threat in Rome is their Left Coast which involves churches of Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates, and at times can be difficult to distinguish from New Age; it is my experience that when Romans wax eloquent about “the spirit of Vatican II” it is provocative to say “The spirit of Vatican II is in the letter” (Avery Cardinal Dulles, class session), and the best thing to do is run for the hills.
With Orthodoxy it is different. Orthodoxy does have a left, and it has confused Orthodox Christians into believing that contraception is fine as long as you follow a few ground rules. However, the real concern in Orthodoxy is the Orthodox Right Coast, which has Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s quite astonishing following (check out the one-star reviews!), which are unlike anything else I’ve received as an author. (When someone speaks of “Blessed Seraphim Rose” I’ve had real trouble telling whether the other person is a member of the canonical Orthodox Church.) To clarify regarding Mr. Alexander’s treatment of the matter, I do not lump all the communities he mentions as being under the Right Coast, but only some of them. I have no reason to believe, and this book gives me no reason to believe, that non-Ephesians and non-Chalcedonians are particularly given to legalism, nor Right Coast passions that despise oikonomia and mercy, nor regard themselves as much too Orthodox to be in communion with the canonical Church. The Orthodox Church’s table is piled high, and there has always been room at the table: for True and Autonomous “Orthodox”, for Old Believers (some of whom are already in), for Oriental Orthodox, for Western Christians and for people not Christian even in pretension: there is room for all those who will be reconciled, individually or in groups, as schismatics or as heretics, if only they will be received as full members of the Orthodox Church only, and on the Church’s terms.
With all that stated, let me begin with what I thought would be my point of departure.
There is a Utopia on earth, I have been there or at least within walking distance of this Utopia, and come to think of it, seeing Utopia wasn’t a memorable experience at all.
If you wish to pull up Google Maps, and search for “Utopia, IL”, you will find Utopia pinpointed in a Chicago suburb (Oakbrook Terrace), and Google helpfully shows an uninspired picture of the Jiffy Lube at Utopia. I haven’t had the time to research the matter, but there are on present-day U.S. soil the graveyards of a number of attempts of a Nordic country (if memory corrects me, Sweden), to colonize North America and resurrect timeless, ancient Nordic values. There were some things that were remarkably consistent across attempts. There was the reconstruction effort, and there was the daunting endeavor of actually going to New World soil and making a live colony. However, the actual timeless values the whole enterprise hinged on were highly inconsistent. Varying somewhat by the decade, the overall impression of scholarship that may not have reached beyond a Wikipedia article is that these timeless, pristine values were something like an ink blot test in a proverbial Freudian counseling session (note that I have no idea if inkblot tests are practiced any more). The point of asking a patient what was seen in quintessentially ambiguous “pictures” was understood as informing the psychologist of nothing about the “pictures” and everything about the patient. I had not heard of these Utopian movements, nor known that the house I grew up in was such a short drive from Utopia (if in fact this Utopia was of Nordic origin), when I wrote “Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a Passion” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”, but it would have fit naturally enough. The key downwind effect of the inkblot attempt that, in an attempt to reconstruct past glory, the effect is to sever ties to the recent past and the further-back past as well.
A second case in point, studied in “Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a Passion” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”, has to do with the plain meaning of Scripture in the Protestant Reformation. Now Protestants never invented the idea that Scripture is foundational to the point of being bedrock. Whether in Luther’s Sola Scripture, or Roman discussions of Scripture and Tradition, or Vladyka KALLISTOS writing that Scripture is not separate from Tradition but the greatest thing in Tradition (I don’t know exactly where non-Ephesians or non-Chalcedonians stand but I would be astonished to find either tradition holding Scripture to be anything less than cardinally important), you can’t escape a sense that the Bible is important, except for the lukewarm and the Left Coasts. However, if it is not decisively interpret by a Tradition (whether non-Left-Coast Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, or for that matter Orthodoxy’s Right Coast), seeing for yourself the plain sense of Scripture is the bedrock to there being myriads of Protestant denominations. Even in the Reformation’s better moments, people who were devoted to Christianity as guided by the plain sense of Scripture found time and time again that they could not stay under the same doctrinal house. As a Protestant then (now chrismated Orthodox and received under the rubric of receiving a reconciled heretic, a route I endorse for others as well), my Political Science professor at Calvin, who was Protestant enough, said that “Every man his own Pope” doesn’t work. The Bible may invaluable and it may have layers more to it than the Reformation would have liked, and if I may delicately say so, the Orthodox Church keeps a great more of even the 66 book Protestant canon than the “plain sense” Reformation exegetes will acknowledge in Scripture. But the plain sense of Scripture, denuded of protecting Tradition, is halfway to being an inkblot.
The proof of this, if anything, is in Reformation ecclesiology and the Invisible Church, a doctrine I found myself totally unable to derive from the Bible when I was Protestant (and remain unable as Orthodox to do the same). The Invisible Church is essentially a doctrine that once the Reformation logic’s practical effects work out and there are innumerable schisms (“denomination” being a neutral-sounding euphemism for something the Reformers themselves knew was entirely abhorrent), God placed some sort of invisible duct tape across true Christians regardless of fracture, and that duct-taped, invisible retcon was in fact what had been hitherto understood by the visible Church, an understanding shared by Romans, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, and for that matter by the first Reformers until the claim of “My little fragment is the true Church” claimed by dozens of voices could no longer really be taken seriously.
That set the scene for ecumenism as we now know it. I know relatively little of the history of ecumenism, and I have read one scholarly work suggesting that Protestant missionaries in other lands than their own interacted with each other and realized they were separated without clearly understanding why, but in any case that was the reality that defined a great deal of the contours of the category we now know of ecumenism. Originally, ecumenism did not address Romans, let alone Eastern or Oriental Orthodox; the metaphor of a virtual supercomputer composed of numerous coordinated individual personal computers is obviously of more recent vintage than ecumenism itself, but it is faithful to the nature of ecumenism. It is an alternative to saying, “Being in schism like this is sin,” and bespeaks an ecclesiology that does not condemn the Reformation collection of schisms, or tries to transcend them while keeping them in place. (Note that this explanation leaves out a good deal.) It also might be pointed out, less delicately, that this doctrine is a Tradition which has priority over Scripture and simply trumps its plain sense on at least one point. Perhaps it is not the most interesting such Tradition: but it is one.
I grew up Protestant, and ecumenism was to me like mother’s milk. It was, for that matter, ecumenism that helped lead me to the Orthodox Church (and yes, the Lord does work in mysterious ways). It was bedrock to me that if you cared about Christian unity, ecumenism was the clay you should be shaping. And I encountered the claim, strange to me as it seemed, that Rome was not one more denomination and her claim was in fact something more to being one more division lumped into the duct tape.
But what was stranger was what I encountered as Roman ecumenism years later, having repented of my ecumenism as my priest and sponsor slowly worked with stubborn me over time. At first I assumed that Roman ecumenism was simply Rome saying, “You’re right; I agree” to Protestant ecumenism. But that was not in fact the case. Roman ecumenism really and truly is an ecumenism and an incorporation deriving from Protestant ecclesiology. But it is adapted, if disturbingly superficially. I haven’t heard the term “Invisible Church” in Roman usage, but the basic idea is there are several more-or-less equivalent communions (“particular Churches”, a phrase which seems to change meaning with each Pope, but basically conveying true Church status while being wounded by failure to participate in Roman communions), so that the “Invisible Church” (or whatever they call or refrain from calling it) is not out of Baptists, Mennonites, or Lutherans, but is out of “historic Churches”, meaning not only Rome but Eastern Orthodox, non-Chalcedonians, non-Ephesians, and any other continuing ancient community I’ve missed. These have more or less de facto the status of individual Protestant denominations under the original Protestant ecclesiology, and I remember the flame I got when a Roman priest made an ecumenical overture that he claimed to be “sensitive to Orthodox concerns” (with zero recognition that ecumenism is a sensitive concern to some Orthodox; he used pretty strong language and implied that he was closer to the heart of Orthodoxy than I was). “An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner” had been my reply. Roman ecumenism may have Protestantism somewhere in its sights, but the basic framing is that historic Churches are insiders who should restore communion without reconciliation, on the terms Protestant ecumenism would have it, while inclusion of Protestants may be desirable but they are outsiders to the family of historic Churches.
(I might comment briefly that I do not think it is right to regard Oriental Orthodox communions as being like Protestant denominations. There are a small number of primary non-Eastern Orthodox communions, and in fact some of them like Novatians are treated with some sympathy in canon law. After the original break over a millennium ago, I am not aware of further fractures within the communities then established or having most adherents belong to a splinter. However, I do not accord this status to the Orthodox Right Coast or various groups that want to call themselves Orthodox without submitting to canonical communion.)
Having looked at the original ecumenism as invented by Protestants, and its alien transplantation into Rome, I would now like to look at this book’s transplantation of ecumenism into Oriental Orthodoxy and proposed to Eastern Orthodox to make our own as well. The book’s basic proposition is essentially that all the communities claiming to be Orthodox should restore intercommunion without, as understood by Rome’s historic Churches, a full and proper reconciliation. (And on the “There’s room at the table” theme, I might remind you that the Evangelical Orthodox Church was received into the Orthodox Church as reconciled to become canonical. And I’d love to see other groups join them as well.) The only ecclesiastical body with “Orthodox” in its name that I am aware of that Mr. Alexander does not seek to include in Orthodox intercommunion is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which was formed after one Presbyterian denomination (Politically Correct, USA?) knowingly ordained a candidate who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and my uncle and other pastors split off so they could still be named Presbyterian while considering the deity of Christ to remain absolutely beyond question.. (I answered an Orthodox Presbyterian DMin graduate from an Orthodox seminary in “An Orthodox Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Orthodoxy”, in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”.) The Orthodox Presbyterian claim is to be able to say the Creed without crossing one’s fingers (or at least not translating anything except for the line about the Church), not any sort of claim to be of Eastern provenance. But Mr. Alexander does want to include others who call themselves Orthodox and put Orthodox in their name but do not seek to submit to Orthodox communion, including the (Anglican-based) African Orthodox Church as much as the Russian Orthodox Church or the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church can and in every sense should show welcome and hospitality to visitors of any confession and no confession at all, and baptize / chrismate and include in full communion those who (like my respected second advisor at Cambridge) are Copts and want to become members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, there is a wide consensus among many Orthodox I respect, not only that good fences make good neighbors, but that ecumenism, of which Mr. Alexander offers a new permutation, is the ecclesiological heresy of our age.
I’m not sure if Mr. Alexander dealt with the Orthodox Right Coast; even his hardships suggest innocence as to how the Right Coast can and often does treat outsiders to it. But I remember years back, when I was trying to get some basic bearings, asked a sharp friend why people who separate themselves from the Orthodox Church in schism develop legalistic passion. He gently suggested I had the order reversed: first comes the passion, then comes the separation. In terms of how passion goes, there are limited options for how the Right Coast can act in anger against the canonical Church and still preserve the self-illusion of being purer. None of the Left Coast axes appear adequate; you can attack the Orthodox Church for not having women priests, but that doesn’t cut it. The same goes for advocating for sexual libertinism. You can wield either Left Coast axe but it won’t give you the illusion of being super-Orthodox.
Pretty much your only live option with the hand Orthodoxy has dealt you is to be super-Orthodox by indicting the Orthodox Church is indicting the Church for overly lax observation of canons. Now ancient canons are all there for a reason, but proper application of canons employs both akgravia (the principle of strict excellence) and oikonomia (the principle of love). Any good bishop, or possibly priest, will govern out of understanding canon law as a whole and trying to strike the right balance between the two principles. As a consequence, any good priest or bishop will show a great deal of laxity in at least some part of the overall picture of applying ancient canons. All the canons are there for a reason, and there are consequences when a canon is too loosely interpreted. And the one option to appear super-Orthodox, at least to yourself, is to blast the Church for overly lax observation of canon X in situation Y. That defines the contour for your sins.
My suspicion, strange as it may sound, is that the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church would bristle much more at instant and artificial intercommunion with the Russian Orthodox Church than the Russian Orthodox Church would.
One parish friend made a comment that he would like to have an anathema service, a particular service in which propositions the Orthodox Church has anathematized are in fact answered with one word: “Anathema!” I do not mean to state that no anathema or broken communion could ever arise from misunderstanding or, more pointedly, sin. For me to make that claim across all Church history would be quite a claim and it would be in excess of my authority as nothing more than a layman. However, the opposite error of assuming that every anathema or breach in communion should simply be stepped over is equally and stunning of an assertion. In the part I read before I really gave up, I did not see a single analysis reaching a responsible conclusion that even one single anathema or breach in communion may safely be brushed aside. The argument, such as it went, was not to go over any of the fences in detail, but make brief assertions out of a presupposition that anathemas and closed communion (at least between what Rome calls “historic Churches”) are insubstantial, not really speaking to us today, and resulting from confusion or sin rather than anything binding.
The author has put his heart in this, a point which is evident on almost every page. His sincerity is not up for grabs, nor his goodwill, and I wince at the pain he will have reading this. None the less, I say that ecumenism is the Left Coast ecclesiological heresy of our age, I have seen two and now three basic permutations, and its chief audience among canonical Orthodox should be those concerned with Orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
I am trying to reach monasticism and become a monk. I do not know that I will get there, but I am trying.
I expect that if I do arrive and God in his mercy grants my desires, I will be in a place with accommodations so Luddite that hot running water is not available. Whether I may have heating or cooling is unknown to me, although a common monastic preference is to try to avoid both. I will likely be one of very few English speakers around, and for all I know I may be the only American in my monastery. As a novice I will have people deliberately set out to strike my feelings, and above the confession that precedes Holy Communion in Holy Russia, I will be expected to tell my abbot all my thoughts every day.
And please understand that I am saying this neither in the hopes of receiving your admiration nor your pity. Quite simply, these are the terms of the highest privilege the Orthodox Church has to offer.
I yearn for all of this and pray that I may be strong enough, although that is not my point here.
A note on continuity
My point is about continuity of service from the website you are visiting now. I am trying to make arrangements so that my website, and electronic and paper books, will remain available without disruption. However, I do not see why an abbot would necessarily reconnect me to the Internet, or whatever exists then, before my website is long gone. Abbots may come to surprise monks again and again; it would be disappointing if they didn’t. But whether I remain a blogger after becoming a monk is well outside my knowledge now, and furthermore not my concern, not if I have the faintest desire of becoming a monk.
Apart from my own spiritual path, there is the question of the materials on this site being available in a historical setting when at least one of my friends talk about the Digital Dark Ages, and techs have already said you should print out the photos you want to be able to keep, and we are decades past the point where technologically sophisticated museum curators have warned that they have information on computers in their museum, and they believe the information to be intact, but the knowhow and technology to actually access that information is already lost and gone forever. The second most Luddite warning about technology I’ve heard comes from computer programmer folklore: “If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.” (The first most Luddite statement is from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not store up treasures on earth.”)
Everything I’ve written that’s worth reading is presently available on Amazon, and for that matter a good bit that isn’t. The Bible says something about “Put not your trust in princes,” and I do not regard my arrangement with Amazon as a permanent arrangement. Already in the Nazification of today’s world we have reached a point where you can freely buy and sell Nazi memorabilia on Amazon, but Amazon dropped the Confederate flag faster than a hot potato without a single voice of the left crying out, “Censorship!” I see no reason why, ultimately, Amazon need be squeamish about lumping my work together with the flag of the Confederate States of America as abominations unfit for the present world.
I was not happy with this when it was new, and think that something in it still isn’t quite right. However, I still think there is much in it that’s worth reading.
As a child of perhaps ten, I told friends that I was going to make a martial art, made up a name that sounded Asian to me (“Tong Fior”), and got into an argument about it with a classmate (nowhere near physical blows). The preferred term for this in the academy is the highly abrasive term “Orientalism,” although the better tempered anthropologists would regard it as the normal and natural contact when any one culture starts to meet another, and is really the same Orientalism by which the nationalistic Independence Day movie enjoyed tremendous popularity well outside of U.S. political borders. In the one kind of Orientalism, there are people in the West who want to be some romanticized image of the East; in the other there are people in the East who want to be some romanticized image of the West. I have difficulty finding much of any real difference between these instances of “diffusion” as the term is understood in an anthropology department.
Obligatory quotation from G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton, in a passage that is politically incorrect enough today, wrote,
I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not suddenly of pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is in the very worst spirit of the East. But there is no force so hard to defeat as the force which is easy enough for conquer; the force that always yields and then returns.
But hold that thought for a second, and I speak as a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun for ages. (And not just for that one single Google AdWords ad impression that changed eBay’s AdWords presence forever: “Buy Japanese sushi on eBay! New and Used.“)
Someone said, in response to a Quora question about whether anyone had regretted getting a PhD, and one of few PhD’s to say “yes” said basically that you don’t get a doctorate to get a superhuman high social status and be addressed as “Doctor”; he said “a PhD is just a paper that comes along the way as you are doing something you love.”
The personalities of martial arts
Something very much like that related to what what we now understand as a belt system. A martial artist wouldn’t be awarded a blackbelt (or anything else besides a white belt) on the grounds of a formalized test. When you started, you got a white belt that would be slowly blackened by the practice involved in developing expertise for years and years and years. And I believe that most of the better martial artists today would say that the older approach is still foundational in better practices today; it’s just obscured and harder to discern, and certain entirely justified concessions to societal needs have been made.
I remember being offended when I saw how parts of Aikido in Aiki Ninjutsu work; it brought up memories of very frustrating matters of conversation, where a friend (and I do really mean friend) gave infuriating claims of agreement where he would say “I agree with you that [fill in the blank]”, and the beginning, middle, and end of every such “agreement” was to wrench some belief of my mine out of context, placing himself as someone in a position to understand, interpret and explain my beliefs far better than I could, and use it as a sledgehammer against something else that were just as foundational to those beliefs. During those years, he never claimed agreement except as the presentation of an attack. And that is specifically what I saw in physical form in how to respond to an opponent’s punch. You grabbed your opponent’s arm, and so to speak “corrected” the direction it was moving, and add exaggerated force to what your revision of the punch has become. This was disappointing enough to be offensive after reading the tale of a martial art founded by a legendary, great O Sensei who stood unarmed and kept dodging a master swordsman until the attacking swordsman collapsed from fatigue.
I’d be a little cautious about glibly identifying this as “Aikido,” which etymology means something close to “Way with harmony and energy,” as Aiki Ninjutsu represents a new fusion that draws on several older sources and has modern elements. The fusion may not particularly Western elements, but it has a Creed (with an apparently deliberate uppercase ‘C’ as in “Craptastic”), with the Creed beginning with “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals,” and when I started to give a thinking Christian’s objections to believing in oneself (see Chesterton’s take below), I saw in verbal form the foundational lesson of “Become the center.” What I never heard was so much as lip service to “harmony between opponents” that is a leitmotif in so many genuine martial arts. The technique associated with “Become the center” forces all else to resolve around oneself, and the teacher seemed a bit “become the center” in that he spoke with decisive authority and I was not allowed to even contribute anything to the conversation beyond accepting decisive authority.
G.K. Chesterton incidentally has something to say about “become the center” or rather just believing in yourself. The sting with which he opens chapter 2 of his book Heretics make the stinging remarks of Sumo wrestling quoted above almost sound like praise:
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the name of the lunatic asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
Enough of Chesterton; like The Onion, he has something to offend every palate. (He was beyond being dismissive of the thought of his joining the Orthodox Church.
Some people might be surprised by remarks above; my memberships in 3-4 martial arts lasted for a few months, and while I have had some successes (Kuk Sool Won and the local Shokotan paired me with blackbelts or blackbelt candidates by the end, and one fellow Karate student was getting very infuriated when I responded to him about a quarter second earlier than expected; I moved to meet him as he was moving, not after, without the faintest interval between the two), I found that spirituality was very dry until I repented of it as sin (a mistake I should have made once, if even that). And just to be clear, everyone I’ve heard of in any martial art at all says that you improve after a couple of months, but real mastery takes years and years and years. (I think my case was simply not how things work normally.)
God practices Ju-Jutsu, and we should too, as an act of submission
Perhaps the single greatest illustration of Jiu-Jutsu in the Bible is where a Saul burning with wrath and destruction, trying in overweening pride to annihilate the Church, was stopped cold by the uncreated Light of Heaven, the Light who strikes terror in those not indwelt by It, and provides what may be the only place in the Bible where the Lord quotes a pagan Greek source: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The action of an Orthodox Christian is not, on the balance, to invade another’s mind and straighten it out. It is not, on the balance, either our place to really defend ourselves. It is to, in the words of a Protestant hymn, “Keep your eyes on Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face / And the things of this world will grow strangely dim / In the light of his glory and grace,” and remember that you too are a sinner and try to be merciful and forgiving as others join you as you continue kicking against the goads.
Furthermore, the more you are in trouble, the more stress you are in, the more conflict or worse, the more more essential that you grow beyond any abilities you know in deiform love to forgive, to have mercy, to pray, to turn the other cheek. The Sermon on the Mount is not an ornament for the beings of some mythical world more perfect than Star Trash. It is a battleplan for those of us who live in a world of conflict and violence.
Bultmann is a foundational character in the academy, enough so to have provoked C.S. Lewis to write The Elephant and the Fern-Seed. Bultmann came up with a new way of moving beyond mythological trappings found in the Bible and theology. Or at least that is how his progressive circles understood their stance; I’m not completely sure how an Orthodox might best respond, whether “You have a valid enough point, but why does it loom so suffocatingly large to you?” or, “Um, you ARE aware that your fresh and new discovery is a recycled version of a topic that an Orthodox Christian worked out with power, well over a millennium earlier than you, and by a canonized saint at that, and the saint did a profoundly better job than you?”, or extending an invitation for the distinguished scholar to simply become a catechumen!
However, I would like to take up Bultmann’s point, or rather that of the canonized saint of over a thousand years before (Pseudo-Dionysius), or rather God’s point. A standard illustration is, as we repeatedly read in Exodus, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This claim should not be taken literally; I’ve yet to read even someone very wrong read the text as meaning that God stiffened Pharaoh’s cardiac muscle (heart) the same way an arm or leg or back muscle stiffens with a cramp. But it goes deeper. The claim that God changed Pharoah at all is too crude. Pharaoh hardened his own heart with Satan’s help. God (and the image of Jiujutsu must eventually be dropped as well) exercised Jiujutsu and let Pharaoh reach destruction by the only way that Hell can ever be reached: by his own steam.
I now remember once feeling particularly squeamish about a mailing list conversation where one Orthodox sympathizer clarified, in perfect sincerity, that where Genesis 1 repeats, “And God said,” that was such a human way of speaking that it meant that God spoke, in her words, “with lips and a tongue” as one would expect of mortal man. And I made no effort to assume command of the situation and straighten out her mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, even if her assertion was analytically wrong enough to fill me with squeamishness, unless she is troubling others (in which case someone well above my pay grade should be laying down the law), it is not my place to use my book-learning to take away the little that is held by someone who is not even a member of the Orthodox Church. But that is just for practice. The beam in my eye has to with believing I need to have my way, that I should be in power or in control, or anything else. She might have thought it helpful to give Pharaoh an intake appointment at a cardiologist’s. I do much worse.
Perhaps one way of putting that is this: we are inclined to believe that God violated the free will of Satan and Judas, because they killed the Son of Man and He came back to life triumphant. But a slightly closer image is that he was on higher ground, he let their free will be as sordid as they chose, and in a way beyond Jiujutsu the God who is beyond motion met them fully and attentively, with a heart full of love, and the evil that cannot grasp love tried to give its strongest and most venomous strike, they struck where the everywhere-present God is not and the full force of their blow slammed into a brick wall and their sting was inflicted only on themselves.
But be careful:
One subtle note to those who find alluring the image of Satan slamming his horns full force into an adamant wall next to which diamond is as as a crumbling dust: if you find the image attractive, beware of adopting Satan’s ever-seductive, ever-destructive pride.
One joke good or bad that I heard many, many times as a child ran:
There were two morons working in a hot pit enduring the heat while their boss sat in a cool air-conditioned building outside of the pit on the ground above, not doing much of anything.
One day the morons got to talking and said, “How come we do all the work and our boss gets to sit in an air conditioned building? So the first moron got up from the pit and asked, “How come we work in a hot messy pit all day, and you’re in this office getting nearly all the money?”
The boss said, “Because I’m smarter than you.”
The moron asked, “Why?”
The boss walked over to a thick tree and held his hand in front of the trunk. “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”
The moron swung his best, and the boss deftly pulled his hand away, leaving the moron to slam the full force of his punch into the rugged trunk of the tree.
After he had stopped crying, the first moron climbed back into the pit.
The second moron said, “What did you find out?”
The first moron said, “I’m smarter than you.”
The second moron said, “Why?”
The first moron put his hand in front of his face and said, “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”
There are two, and no more than two, essential options to us. One is to join hands in the Church and dance with the Lord not only of men but of angels and eagles, cultures and corporate worlds, a vast universe held in the heart of a God so small as to be without parts, and join in the unfolding mystery of the Lord of the Dance in whom alone the Divine Providence unfurls. The other option is to help Satan rearrange your face. There is no inconsistent option which lets you remain impenitent in pride and yet remain impossibly free from Satan’s clutches. And more could be said than that: as Fr. Thomas Hopko famously crystallized, Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.
This is also the point expressed in what may be the most piercingly beautiful of St. Nicolas’ Prayers by the Lake in which, as I would offer images Hope is praised, the Hope Who is eternal, the Hope which glimmers in young children who race out of bed on Christmas morning in all the pageantry of the Great Dance and can’t wait to open the first present but hasn’t the faintest idea of what the first present may be. But there also hopes, with an ‘s’ as in “Shit“, hopes that have certainly plagued me enough hopes really that God will obey the plan that you have worked out to him, and set expections that God is to jump to your plan, and in the event of any problems, he should contact you immediately for further orders or instructions. It is, on reflection, an act of mercy that God sometimes says, “No” to people who give the most meticulously drafted orders, and perhaps work with people who order him around for decades to teach them, just a little, how to live a life that is dancing the Great Dance.
Gandhi and satyagraha
Having tried to underscore the absolute necessity of humility, I would like to move on to the next order of business and compare myself to Gandhi.
Gandhi was a Hindu, in one of three world religions that took its genesis in India. It is my considered judgment that Gandhi’s achievements could have been made solely within resources directly provided by his native Hinduism. However, that sounds like an outsider’s guess to anyone who understands this figure in history; however rich Hinduism may be, Gandhi through whatever reason chose to draw on outside sources.
The most shame I have ever felt about being a Christian was when a pastor in church explained that Gandhi wanted with his whole heart to become a Christian, and when he sought out a Christian evangelist, the racist evangelist rejected him for the color of his skin alone. That experience soured Gandhi enough that he was never again open to being a Christian, but please look at this closely.
I would draw out four decisive influences on Gandhi:
Gandhi’s native Hinduism about which I will now only say that it is deep as an ocean.
The “purer than the pure” Jainism from which he took profound inspiration without also membership (we proverbially say that someone “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, while to this day Jain monastics sweep the ground in front of them with peacock feathers to avoid accidentally stepping on a bug, as Jainism is also a world religion that came from India.
Christianity:this was the religion of the British colonists, and Gandhi spoke and acted warmly towards his sharpest critics. Gandhi also said things that would astonish people for a speaker who wasn’t Christian: “Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” He elsewhere states that his three heroes are Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates, all of whom saw their lives as nothing next to the salvation of their souls. And finally:
I do not know how to explain Gandhi’s towering stature in actively trying to adopt the strengths of Christianity and activism. True, he was soured by personally rejected by a Christian evangelist who was beyond moronic, but what I would ordinarily expect is for Gandhi to grind an axe against the English and Christians for the rest of his life, with an anger transparently visible to everyone else besides him, all the way icily insisting, “I am not angry!” As it was, he kept reaching out in love to English and other people who met him with total hatred, and by what is called “satyagraha” purchased the freedom of the one nation in history that achieved its from colonial domination by nonviolence rather than war, and remains the one nation in the world that I am aware of where rah-rah nationalism express itself by the study of nonviolence rather than by celebrating victory through warriors’ killing of others. And this is in a religion where the crowning jewel, the Sermon on the Mount, is a tale of epic heroism where God appears in human semblance and encourages and exhorts a prince who is so devoid of laziness that perhaps he doesn’t even sleep, to rise up in full power and annihilate all those marked for destruction. And Gandhi does nothing to downplay the text; he instead contributed yet one more commentary to the vast collection (and the Hindu preference, at least today, seems to be never give this crowning jewel without opening it up by commentary). And now we are in a position to drill down slightly.
Gandhi said very emphatically, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” And I would take this as entirely without sloppiness or guile. However, I would like to delve into a word he used. For the purpose of this section, I will treat Gandhi’s use of “nonviolence” and “satyagraha” as two sides of the same coin, or even closer. The term “satyagraha” is not taken from Hindi (which is, along with English, India’s modern national language), but from the classical Sanskrit, classical in India as Latin and Greek are European classical languages. My best understanding both as a historian and also as an author is that Gandhi went on a word hunt, searching to find the perfect word to crystallize the consuming quest, as Madeleine l’Engle found a word “kythe”, a Scottish word if I remember correctly, that originally meant something like “to truly come to be”, and became the central term in her classic A Wind in the Door. Madeleine l’Engle did not use the word as anyone before her did, and Gandhi seized on a word that had previously not been a term about violence or its absence, a term that meant something like “steadfastly holding on to the Truth no matter what.”
And there is no either-or between Gandhi’s embarking on a quest that ended with a deep term from classical Sanskrit, and his full and direct assertion that truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. The key to this is found in Christ’s words: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” A study of Gandhi’s use of the term “satyagraha” is a study of bringing forth out of a treasure things new and old which are one on the same.
I freely enough compare myself to Gandhi as an author. I do not feel the need to compare myself to Gandhi on forgiveness or anything else truly important besides that we are both made in the image of God, and both sinners.
What is pain? What is yielding?
Here I will not discuss what the image of God is at length, nor dissect that the highest command is to love God with one’s whole being and the second which is like it is to love your neighbor as yourself. However, I will say that the God who defines health is the model for healthily function and life, and Jujutsu is not just how God acts, it’s how we act if we’re doing right. It means that even in the most intense conflict or combat one is looking up for light. The U.S. in World War II referred to the Japanese Jiujutsu as “chop-socky”, and for all their following the universal wartime rules of due diligence in demonizing the enemy, the most patriotic U.S. foot soldiers learned very, very quickly that their Western boxing completely fell to pieces when it ran into “chop-socky.”
It is said by at least some martial artists and athletes that “Pain is weakness exiting the body.” It should equally be said by Orthodox Christians not only that repentance is sin exiting the soul, but that repentance is misery exiting the soul, if there is any difference at all: repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. And the struggle with anger that is called forgiveness, when we reach victory, is also misery exiting the soul.
Jiu-jutsu is a word meaning “yielding”, and comparisons with Jiu-jutsu should not be pushed too far, as may be admitted. It is one image among others and one not present in Scripture. But there is a distinction in Asian martial arts (and perhaps Capoiera, for instance), between “-jutsu” and “-do” that is well understood. “Jutsu” means a technique or skill, like woodworking, and “do” means a philosophical or spiritual path. The Western tradition (apart from when Asian martial arts came to be a substantial influence) is entirely “-jutsu”. This is true with a couple of bumps, as Jiu-jutsu is of an ancient provenance, the art of Samurai who had not even their weapons, while Judo may be seen as a modern attempt to simplify and cleanse Jiu-Jutsu into a simpler art that would be effective self-defense while eliminating locks and other destructive features. And all of the martial arts have their own personalities and characteristics, some better than others, but none yet let the stillness of Orthodox hesychasm or silence eclipse the meditation that is structural to internal martial arts.
So when am I going to start opening dojos? The answer I am hoping for is, “Never.” The one possible exception I see is that if the Church is really, really scraping the bottom of the barrel and makes me a bishop in some vague sense, or even worse a real bishop charged with fully competent administration, love, and care of a diocese, instead of the nominal formality, the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” concession of being honored on paper as the more-than-a-bishop of some long-lost city without a second living representative. If I bear the heavy cross and heavy crown of thorns of a real bishop, then I would have the right to start opening dojos, except that wouldn’t be the right way of thinking of it at all: most people would call it “the responsibility to continue opening parishes.”
I winced when I heard Exodus International was closing its doors… until I found out why, and it was a concern that I held since I first heard of it, no matter how much I respected its mission. Exodus International was trying alone to shoulder a responsibility that belonged to the entire ecosystem of the Church. And one question I had already been asking before I saw the Gay Nineties taking over was why on earth that class of sin was its own world, a separate detached from the rainbow fragments forgiven by Christ at Sinners Anonymous, or as it is more often called, the Church. The reason for the coming of the Son of God was to destroy the Devil’s work, and then to keep on pushing for bonus points well past when people can go Heaven: but for starters, let us to say to take each broken fragment of a fractured rainbow, whether pride or envy or the occult or drunkenness or any shard of lust whether gay or straight, and take these broken fragments and restore them to the to the pure, whole, white, bright, radiant, scintillating Light beyond beauty of the uncreated Son.
The martial arts classic A Book of Five Rings, in a brevity comparable to the Sermon on the Mount, covers five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and the void. The chapter about the void is by far the most terse: all else is summarized and transcended.
I have come to nearly the end of writing what I wanted to write, and I have covered almost everything on topic to cover except one thing: the original, central point that motivated the construction of the work. It would not be strange to call the topic “satyagraha:” I do not complain that others may do so, but I would rather look at hagiography.
The canonized saints trample on the rules of nature again, and again, and again. Saints walk on water; one monk, the only one on a monastic coast worthy to retrieve an icon miraculously floating on water, when he absolutely had to do so, crawled on top of the surface of the water on all fours like a dog, because in his great humility he considered himself utterly unworthy to stand up normally and walk on top of the water like Christ did. Saints pass through fire unharmed, although not every time. Many saints have been burned to death as martyrs, but it seems to happen that when the fire went out the martyrs looked as if they were merely sleeping, with a smile on their faces, and without a thread of their clothes or a hair on their heads singed or the faintest scent of smoke. In the lives, it seems that the only way that persecutors can get certain saints to die and stay dead is to behead them (hello, ISIS?), and even then, the saints occasionally pick up their heads, walk over to their preferred resting place, and there set down their severed heads and only then give their consent to really die.
Furthermore the God who works in the heart of hearts to giants among the saints is also works in the hearts of the faithful. Monastic giants trample on scorpions with bare feet; many more faithful trample on pride. Majestic saints open the eyes of the blind; and men reject lust and find their sight truly opened. St. Paul the Apostle raised the dead more than once, and innumerable more among the faithful, across many centuries, have fed the hungry; and furthermore, in a point that many, many officially canonized saints have driven home across the centuries, feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. The term “saint” referred originally to every member of the Church without exception, and one and the same God works in every stripe of saint to ultimately transcend the chasm between what is created, and what is uncreated. The wall between God and we who are merely created is there so that we may rise above it.
And in all this, the inner struggle of the Philokalia is vibrant in its nature. Its watchfulness or inner “nipsis” acts in moral and ascetical character like an author searching from just the perfect word, ever attentive, never hurrying, never impatient, always expecting. It is like the great Noah, who followed God’s command to build a huge boat in the middle of the desert, and was then the sole survivor from a deluge. It is like a diligent martial artist, who lives by the words, “The more you bleed in the dojo, the less you will bleed in the street.” It claims no exemption from suffering, nor entitlement to wishes fulfilled: if the Measure by whom all saints are measured was the great King who only wore a crown once, and then only a crown of twisted thorns, then we are advised to properly take up our crosses in this earthly vale while we can still repent, because once our life has gone, the opportunity to repent will vanish forevermore. But sometimes there is an an inner struggle of building a boat in the desert, and trusting the Lord of the Dance to know that he knows what is the right order and that if your next step is to leap before you look and only find out why after you have leapt. For those of us who are children at least, God shows us the reason why just after we have leapt because he knows that out of our weakness we will not exercise faith if he presents us with the reason beforehand, and identically knows that out of our weakness we will not maintain faith if too great a delay comes between the obedience and reward: in all things he meets our weakness that we might meet his strength. And all of this has every connection to how we can be entangled in our world’s conflicts, get hurt again and again, and meet a joy that is beyond any of the conflicts and hurts.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy talks about “ego-reading”; reading to push through a text, or as the problem appears among hiking, rushing to get to a point as forcefully and as quickly as possible. He points out that paradoxically those who rush to just get something done tend to not arrive at the intended destination at all. People who make progress in one activity or the other are, although I do not recall if they are stated in these terms, are people who have something in mind other than forcing their way to an external goal. Had the book been written later, it might have used the term “auto-telic”, which describes an activity that is its own goal. Where martial arts like Aikido are called “goalless” by practitioners, it would be more literal, at some loss of striking contrast, to use a presently preferred term of auto-telic and say that an Aikidoko is not worrying about if he as a student will reach black belt, or on a much lower scale how interminably long it will take to master what should be a simple technique, or whether there will be enough progress in managing anger or weight, or anything else. A proper practitioner of Aikido’s attention is fixed on Aikido itself, rather than paralysis by analysis over whether Aikido can be successfully used as a bridge to something external. You practice Aikido in order to practice Aikido.
The Philokalia offers something that seems much less but ends by being much more. The basic framing of work is different, and quite at odds with today’s conception of interesting work. The usual physical craft of self-supporting monks in the ancient world was basket weaving, cynically understood by some in academia today as a legal fiction to let high-value football players keep the alumni without needing to perform proper academic work. The most common craft of self-supporting monasteries today is crafting incense, which at least supplies something elevated to Orthodox parishes. But this way of thinking misses the point for both the ancient and the modern arrangement, which I personally only understood when watching my brother’s Mythbusters show and hear Adam gush at how “meditative” the repeated monotonous physical action of weaving a braided kangaroo leather bullwhip was. The chief merit of basket weaving and incense making alike is that they are repetitive motions that occupy the hands, and it is not clear to me that it is particularly helpful to think of incense as a high-status thing. The ancient and modern monasticism alike the preferred obedience is something that engages the hands while the heart pursues purity. That is the center of gravity. And in modern monasteries, there may be some non-meditative work that needs to be done, but the general pattern is to have most monks heavily engaged in meditative labors for the benefit of the monks themselves in a setting where people do not distinguish sacred from secular or work from prayer. The work is there to help prayer reach perfection. And really, cleaning toilets is more often mentioned as the standard example of honorable obediences than making incense.
But the same center of gravity applies outside of the monastery; it can just be frustratingly more difficult. One monk commented to a cleaning lady that she had a more fortunate position, and I as a programmer and knowledge worker had a less fortunate position, because it is entirely possible to be engaged in prayer while scrubbing tables, but significantly harder to be absorbed in prayer while your mind is chasing bugs in a computer program. And no, this was not a matter of the monk being gracious to someone with lower status and knowing that I would not be hurt or offended by the suggestion. It was unvarnished candor.
What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!”
One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror.Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.
But God has ordained things, and monastic and non-monastic alike need struggle, which often takes the form of conflicts, of things that we don’t think belong in our lives but God knows they do. And joy does not consist in being exempt from struggle. It consists of growing in struggle. It consists of having a good struggle. And if you earnestly engage your struggle you may experience the power in the final crescendo of Fr. Thomas’s crystallization:
Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.
In all these things and more, the Sermon on the Mount as it unfolds including the Philokalia, like as the Mishnah and Talmud, acts as a stone from Heaven of inexhaustible wealth:
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
These things slip through our fingers. They are simple, simpler than breathing, and we in our weakened state need some great systematic theology with slippery concepts we can pin down to grasp. So God meets in our weakness and gives the Philokalia to meticulously assess every detail of internal struggle and the eight demons that became the seven deadly sins in the West. “Do not store up treasures on earth” is a simple commandment; it does not only tell us we do not need Rolls-Royces to experience true blessedness, nor do we need our health (saints have lived to great spiritual heights amidst great illness, and not just because they were extraordinarily good), nor do we need our thoughts, or plans for our future in days or minutes, or an identity such as we try to have in the West, or “My Opinions”. We are to chase instead of the treasures that we can eat from today and forever, and come to that place where every drop of blood we bleed in the dojo eclipses a galaxy of diamond in its worth on the streets of Heaven.
Cooldown: The Alchemist
The Alchemist, like many favorite picks on Oprah, is the sort of thing that makes me nostalgic for when my brother still had a beautiful tropical bird as a pet, and moreover makes me positively yearn for the days the house still had a birdcage that still needed lining. None the less, there is a vignette that I would like to draw out.
The teacher-figure in the course is the towering alchemical figure of Melchizedek, who is immortal, can turn lead into gold, can already turn himself into wind, and presumably has numerous and extraordinary other cosmic powers not explored in the text, and teaches the student-figure after making a sweeping dismissal of all the other traditions in all the world’s other religions, and even a Western scholar whose heart was in the wrong place along with alchemy being dismissed for rhetorical weight.
The student figure never becomes immortal, never gains abilities to change metals personally, has no idea how to turn himself into wind (at least to start off with; the quest where he learns to make this self-transformation is core to the book’s plot), and ends up after a long heroic journey to and back finds out that there had been an enormous quantity of gold lying buried under his back yard right where he started.
But a major point is this: both Master and student are equally alchemists, or at very least at the end. The student does not have all the master’s cosmic powers, and even after he has turned himself to wind it is debatable whether he has any cosmic powers, but the question of whether they have identical arsenals of cosmic powers matters no more than whether their eyes are of the same color. Both are equally alchemists; the student follows his teacher in delving deeper into a pride that destroys all capacity for any joy, and an occult mindset that destroys the sanity of all those who practice it in the real world. They are both alchemists, master and pupil, and both participate fully in the tradition, on their own paths. That the teacher’s path includes having the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and the student does not, and the teacher can transmute lead to gold and the student cannot, is neither here nor there. Teacher and student both follow their personal paths within alchemy. Perhaps it would have been fundamentally humbler for the student to keep on asking that the teacher give him a sole drop of the Elixir of Life and induct him into turning lead to gold.
With all of the above efforts to rip The Alchemist to shreds, and others I’ve held my tongue on, I still wish to make one point clear: The book’s way of looking at difference is less than you think. The further you reach the Kingdom of Heaven, the less it matters that you have precious little money or gold. In fact wealth properly understood is a liability and a handicap more than really being much of any asset that puts you in a better position. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher and apologist who helped me along the way to Orthodoxy, found one great spiritual advantage to money: it doesn’t make you happy. If you are perennially struggling financially, and you see Break My Window around you on the street when your beater breaks down frequently, it’s awfully, awfully hard to avoid thinking that so many things would be better if you had a good bit of money. If, on the other hand, you have a top-notch chauffeur for a Rolls-Royce, and you’re still miserable, a great deal of the sting has been taken away from the temptation that just having more money is all you need. You can still be greedy and covet things, but it becomes a far weaker temptation to think that your spiritual emptiness actually comes from the fact that you are not in a position to have Michelangelo’s David in your garden and the Mona Lisa in your living room.
The martial artist I respect most was asked in class how many times he had had to use his martial arts skills. And he slowly, gently, humbly said, that he had really been fortunate and hadn’t needed to use his his martial art, even though there were a couple of awfully close calls [during years and years of study].
And I submit that his answer, as stated, is wrong, or at least his wording was deceptive and misleading.
He was at the time a third-degree blackbelt. I don’t know what he is now. For non-martial artists, as far as sparring goes, a first-degree blackbelt is a third-degree blackbelt’s chewtoy. He is past the point where people are said to be able to kill a tiger with their bare hands. I am all but certain that in every one of those close calls, he could have killed the other person immediately. His teacher, at a martial arts show, stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and then the teacher was simultanously attacked by five blackbelts with swords, and an instant later the teacher stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and all around him were five blackbelts, on the ground, crying.
The martial artist I most respect said, humbly, gently, modestly, that even in the close calls, he had said, “You’re the tough guy,” and backed down, or run away, or almost anything possible (whatever it took), coming out the loser in every social confrontation, and he went on to say, “Most people who think they want to fight don’t really want to fight.” And I submit that the proof of his profound mastery of his art was this: he has passed through minefield after minefield after minefield such as I almost certainly could not, without stepping on a mine even once. The point is not that he happened to be carrying a first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The point is not that he was carrying a very, very good first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The proof of his mastery is that, as of my last knowledge, he had never needed to open his first aid kit, not even once. And indeed martial artists often defuse a potential fight before most outsiders would recognize there was anything going out of the ordinary going on.
Incidentally, though there was no question of my ever wanting to give a physical attack when I was in his class, I was quite the jackass and quite the belligerent student, and he only ever answered me with humility and gentleness. In the end, his gentleness conquered me.
What about what I have somewhat whimsically called “Tong Fior”? In my own opinion, my credentials make for an pretty impressive parody of martial arts, unless you want to go through the ha, ha, only serious route. I’ve lifted weights (and lifted weight machines, and broken weight machines by applying too much force), climbed with devotion, in riflery went from no rank to Sharpshooter, Bar VIII in one week, punched at bags, dipped a finger in a few martial arts, made my own approximation of ninjutsu stealth (and unintendedly got a stunned “Whaaaaa?” when these skills came out in campers’ response to games in nature with me as their camp counselor, asking, “Did you go to some special Daniel Boone school [to be able to move so silently and be sensitive to sounds that were apparently around 0 dB]?”), and am gifted to the degree that professionals say “You’re smarter than most geniuses” or “The average Harvard Ph.D. has never met someone as talented as you” (the gifts are not magic powers but for some purposes they might as well be), and other things which should be preferably viewed as ornamental at best. One question outsiders ask of martial artists is how well they’d do in a real fight; the question comes perhaps with hope at a training that would make the asker all but invincible, the basic response to that question is “HTTP Error 404: Missing Page”: if you’re not already the one and only Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s “sword-saint”, no martial art can change that at all. I would show respect for Kuk Sool Won by saying that one second degree black belt said, “I would give myself one chance in two. But the more chances you give yourself, the less you have.” I’ve had experienced the martial arts practicality, as one martial artist’s parody ad said, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” There is one point where I expect victory would come, and that is if the Spirit of the Lord comes on me. Orthodox priests should not employ physical violence, and in the profound story of Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, people are flabbergasted when the weakened and aged monk Fr. Arseny steps where a fight has broken out and strikes a forceful blow. Possibly if the Spirit of the Lord falls on me, I might blast through a 9th kyu, or possibly for that matter a 9th dan. In all other cases it is not my concern.
The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount, and the struggles I now wrestle with are not flesh and blood, though they have brought me through mortal danger more than once. Kuk Sool Won in every school but one says, “We need more practice!” The Kuk Sa Bo Nim (Grandmaster)’s headquarters school says, “You need more practice!” I’ll go with “We need more practice!”, please, or better “I need more practice!”, or if I can bring it even closer to my true needs, “Lord, give me more time to repent.”