Monasticism for Protestants

Alice in Wonderland

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 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.

Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as an old Western idol

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:

  1. Moderate, regular physical activity.
  2. Life purpose.
  3. Stress reduction.
  4. Moderate calories intake.
  5. Plant-based diet.
  6. Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
  7. Engagement in spirituality or religion.
  8. Engagement in family life.
  9. 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.

Obedience

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.

Chastity

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.

Poverty

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.

Repentance

I wrote, Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and I almost wish I hadn’t.

Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret argues that repentance is often a gateway to a completely unexpected and unsought joy.

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.

(Want to support me financially?)

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Read it on Kindle for $3!

I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?

(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)

If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.

There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.

If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.

To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.

Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.

As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.

There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.

Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.

The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”

The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.

But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.

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Dastardly Duo Considered Harmful: “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” and “Wounded By Love”

A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.

Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:
It’s an occult book!

I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.

The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.

This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.

If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.

One example of a cleaner source for peaceful thoughts is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, of which #52 is, “Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.” A slightly longer form is available in an Ancient Faith Radio podcast on Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims:

“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”

Wounded by “Wounded by Love:”
Monastic TMI!

There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.

But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:

The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).

Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.

Beware of all fashions

Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.

The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.

One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.

A dark memorial, and a warning sign

I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.

There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.

The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.

And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.

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Communities of Mount Mathos Release Another Open Letter to Ecumenist Patriarch

Satire / Humor Warning:

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.

Thessaloniki (DP). A monk from one of the communities explained a recent uproar:

During a recent voyage that crossed the U.S., the Ecumenist Patriarch was approached by a beggar, and asked one of the priests with him to “Give him some change.”

The importance of this request simply cannot be overstated. It might perhaps have been appropriate to say, “Give him 37 cents,” or “Give him nothing,” or even “Give him twenty (or a hundred) dollars,” costly as that may be. However, to say to give someone some money, without specifying the amount, is in no way consistent with best practices in accounting. And what is Orthodoxy, if not a training ground for the life of an accountant?

Our reporter said, “Yes, but aren’t there two principles of accounting? Isn’t there room for both strict precision that knows what you have down to the last cent, but also a much smaller area where it isn’t worth the bother to keep tabs. Doesn’t basic accounting have some degree of flexibility for both basic principles, even if the absolute precision bit is the deeper of the two?”

The monk coughed, and shifted his position slightly. “I planned fifteen minutes for this interview. I see that those fifteen minutes have already elapsed.”

Archdruid of Canterbury Visits Orthodox Patriarch

Devotees of Fr. Seraphim (Jones) demand his immediate canonization and full recognition as “Equal to the Heirophants”
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Magnum Opus from C.J.S. Hayward’s Painting Career: Original and High-Quality Copies for Sale!

If you know of C.J.S. Hayward, at least by reputation, you have probably heard of his writing, with favorite written works beginning in moments as an undergraduate. Those early works include The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, for instance, or Religion within the Bounds of Amusement. The fountain of creativity has continued, with Amazon listing his three bestselling titles as the Classic Orthodox Bible he assembled, and two anthologies: The Luddite’s Guide to Technology and The Best of Jonathan’s Corner.

What some friends of his do not know is that creativity did not end when he reached adult age. Like many people, he was creative as a child. Like many fewer of that group, he as continued to exercise that burgeoning collection now stored at CJSHayward.com and also now represented on Amazon. Up until college age, he worked on mastering one new artistic medium per year, and his favorite class in high school was the jewelry and metalworking class; he made a silver ring for his grandmother and designed it to hold a drop of water as a gemstone.

Here is perhaps the best of his collection, arising from a vision Wednesday of Holy Week decades back:

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthane?“:
“My God, My God, attend to Me: why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

The quote is the New Testament’s longest quotation of anyone in the language Christ grew up with. Some of those present mock with a crude mocking pun, implying that His “Eloi“, “My God”, was pitifully “calling for Elijah,” two words which are confusingly similar. The sadistic jeer might be paraphrased, “‘Eloi?’ Sounds an awful lot like a call to Elijah, eh? Let’s wait around and see if Eliah helps him.” If that were not spite enough, the mockers even dissuaded the simple mercy of whoever who would give Him a little sip of water in a sponge on a stick.

But Christ was not “calling for Elijah”, and the people who made the sarcastic joke knew as well as anyone else that the Psalm of the Cross was a shorthand quotation of the entirety of Psalm 21 (22 in the Western numbering), here cited from the Classic Orthodox Bible:

For the End, concerning the morning aid, a Psalm of David.

O God, My God, attend to Me: why hast Thou forsaken Me?
The account of My transgressions is far from My salvation.
O my God, I will cry to Thee by day, but Thou wilt not hear:
And by night, and it shall not be accounted for folly to Me.
But Thou, the praise of Israel, dwellest in a sanctuary.
Our fathers hoped in Thee;
They hoped, and Thou didst deliver them.
They cried to Thee, and were saved:
They hoped in Thee, and were not ashamed.
But I am a Worm, and not a Man;
A Reproach of men, and Scorn of the people.
All that saw Me mocked Me: they spoke with their lips,
They shook the head, saying,
“He hoped in the Lord: let Him deliver Him,
Let Him save Him, because He takes pleasure in Him.”
For Thou art He that drew Me out of the womb;
My hope from My mother’s breasts.
I was cast on Thee from the womb:
Thou art My God from My mother’s belly.
Stand not aloof from Me; for affliction is near;
For there is no helper.
Many bullocks have compassed Me:
Fat bulls have beset Me round.
They have opened their mouth against Me,
As a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
And all My bones are loosened:
My heart in the midst of My belly is become like melting wax.
My strength is dried up, like a potsherd;
And My tongue is glued to My throat;
And Thou hast brought Me down to the dust of death.
For many dogs have compassed Me:
The assembly of the wicked doers hath beset Me round:
They pierced My hands and My feet.
They counted all My bones;
And they observed and looked upon Me.
They parted My garments among themselves,
And cast lots upon My raiment.
But Thou, O Lord, remove not My help afar off:
Be ready for Mine aid.
Deliver My soul from the sword;
My only-begotten One from the power of the dog.
Save Me from the lion’s mouth;
And regard My lowliness from the horns of the unicorns.
I will declare Thy Name to My brethren:
In the midst of the Church will I sing praise to Thee.
Ye that fear the Lord, praise Him;
All ye seed of Jacob, glorify Him:
Let all the seed of Israel fear Him.
For He hath not despised nor been angry at the supplication of the poor;
Nor turned away His face from Me;
But when I cried to Him, He heard Me.
My praise is of Thee in the great congregation:
I will pay My vows before them that fear Him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
And they shall praise the Lord that seek Him:
Their heart shall live for ever.
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord:
And all the kindred of the nations shall venerate Him.
For the Kingdom is the Lord’s;
And He is the governor of the nations.
All the fat ones of the earth have eaten and venerated:
All that go down to the earth shall fall down before Him:
My soul also lives to Him.
And My seed shall serve Him:
The generation that is coming shall be reported to the Lord.
And they shall report His righteousness to the people that shall be born,
Whom the Lord hath made.

They pierced My hands and My feet:” this Psalm is, like no other, the Psalm of the Cross.

The painting is roughly 20″x30″, and it is mounted against a high-quality frame that holds it against invisible glass and entirely immanent:

A picture as framed.

The painting is powerful to display if hung on a wall normally, but it may be even more powerful if it is suspended, well below eye level and angled upwards: to see the Son of God, Who was obedient, being found in fashion as a Man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.

Explore a high quality fine art reproduction of this work, entitled, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthane?

You might still be able to buy the original, now on Etsy.

Vidi, Vomi: A Look at “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”

The Luddite's Guide to Technology
Read it on Kindle for $2.99

The preface

Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.

I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.

The Song of Songs, 4:16-5:1, King James Version

A Socratic dialogue triggered by The Labyrinth

Trimmed slightly, but “minimally processed” from an email conversation following The Labyrinth:

Author: P.S. My brother showed me the following video as cool. He didn’t see why I found it a bit of a horror: “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”

Visitor: Oh gosh, that’s just layers and layers of sad. It’s all about the experience, but the message is kept just this side of tolerable (“nerds are the new sexy” – the reversal of a supposed stigmatization) so it can function as an excuse for the experience. At least that’s my analysis.

Author: Thanks. I just hotlinked a line of Labyrinth to Avatar…

…and added a tooltip of, “Veni, vidi, vomi”.

Visitor: (Laughs) You have me completely mystified on this one, sorry.

However, you are welcome. And I’m glad to see that you’re cracking jokes. (I think.)

No seriously, laughing out loud. Even though I don’t exactly know why.

Is ‘vomi’ a made-up word? Men… when it comes right down to it you all have the same basic sense of humor. (I think.)

Author: Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Veni, vidi, vomi: I came, I saw, I puked.

Visitor: Yep… the basic masculine sense of humor, cloaked in Latin. I’m ever so honored you let me in on this. If the world were completely fair, someone would be there right now to punch your shoulder for me… this is my favorite form of discipline for my brother in law when he gets out of line.

But what’s Avatar… and hotlink and tooltip?

Author: The link to “Do you want to date my Avatar?” Hotlink is a synonym for link; tooltip, what displays if you leave your mouse hovering over it.

Visitor: Oh dear, I really didn’t understand what you were telling me; I was just in good spirits.

OK, I find that funny – and appropriate.

Author: Which do you think works better (i.e. The Labyrinth with or without images):

Visitor: I have some doubts about the video showing up in the text.

Author: Ok; I’ll leave it out. Thanks.

Visitor: Welcome.

I did like the Christ image where you had it. It encouraged a sober pause at the right place in the meditation.

Author: Thank you; I’ve put it in slightly differently.

Visitor: I like that.

Author: Thank you.

I’ve also put the video (link) in a slightly different place than originally. I think it also works better there.

Visitor: Taking a risk of butting in… Would this be a more apropos place?

The true raison d’être was known to desert monks,
Ancient and today,
And by these fathers is called,
Temptation, passion, demon,
Of escaping the world.

Unless I’ve misunderstood some things and that’s always possible. (laughs) I never did ask you your analysis of what, in particular, horrified you about the video. But it seems like a perfect illustration not of pornography simple but of the underlying identity between the particular kind of lust expressed in pornography (not the same as wanting a person) and escapism, and that’s the place in the poem where you are talking about that identification.

Author:: Thank you. I’ve moved it.

In That Hideous Strength, towards the end, Lewis writes:

“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”

Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.

Pp. 270/271 are in fantasy imagery what has become quite literally true decades later.

Visitor: Yes, that would be what I was missing… that fantasy banquet at the end of the video feels particularly creepy now.

However the girl I was telling you about had among other things watched a show where a “doctor” talked about giving seminars where women learn to experience the full physical effects of intercourse, using their minds only. (Gets into feminism, no?)

That’s why I was trying to tell her that “richter scale” measurements aren’t everything…

In this hatred of the body, in putting unhealthy barriers between genders, and in seeing the body as basically a tool for sexual experience, fundamentalist Christianity and cutting edge worldliness are really alike. (I had a pastor once who forbade the girls in the church school to wear sandals because they might tempt the boys with their “toe cleavage.”)

Author: I would be wary of discounting monastic experience; I as a single man, prudish by American standards, probably have more interaction with women than most married men in the patristic era.

But in the image… “eating” is not just eating. In the initial still image in the embedded version of “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, I made a connection. The sword is meant as a phallic symbol, and not just as half of a large category of items are a phallic symbol in some very elastic sense. It’s very direct. Queer sex and orgy are implied, even though everything directly portrayed seems “straight”, or at least straight as defined against the gender rainbow (as opposed, perhaps, to a “technology rainbow”).

Visitor: Yes, I see what you are saying. I suppose the opening shots in the video would also imply self-abuse. I was seeing those images and the ones you mention as just icky in themselves without thinking about them implying something else.

Author: P.S. My brother who introduced it to me, as something cool, explained to me that this is part of the main performer’s effort to work her way into mainstream television. She demonstrates, in terms of a prospect for work in television, that she can look beautiful, act, sing, dance, and be enticing while in a video that is demure in its surface effect as far as music videos go. (And she has carefully chosen a viral video to prove herself as talent.)

Not sure if that makes it even more disturbing; I didn’t mention it with any conscious intent to be as disturbing as I could, just wanted to give you a concrete snapshot of the culture and context for why I put what I put in The Labyrinth.

Visitor: It’s making a lot more sense now.

I’m not remembering the significance of the technology rainbow.

Author: As far as “technology rainbow”:

In contrast to “hetero-centrism” is advocated a gender rainbow where one live person may have any kind of arrangement with other live people, as long as everyone’s of age, and a binary “male and female” is replaced by a rainbow of variety that is beyond shades of gray.

I was speaking by analogy: a “technology rainbow”, in contrast to “face-to-face-centrism”, would seek as normative any creative possibility, again excluding child pornography, where face-to-face relationships are only one part of a “technology rainbow”.

It might also help make the point that internet-enabled expressions of sexuality, for most of the men, aren’t exactly straight. They do not involve same-sex attraction, nor animals or anything like that, but they depart from being straight in a slightly different trajectory from face-to-face relationships where heterosexuality is only one option.

Neither member of this conversation had anything more to say.

See the video again

On humor

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Yonder

 

Open

The Best of Jonathan's Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Theology
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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?

Doxology

Now

A Pet Owner’s Rules

Prayers

How to Survive an Economic Depression

Read it on Kindle for $3!

Want to survive?

I learned some pretty big things during the Y2k scare, and some of them have every relevance to how to survive an economic depression.

When year 2000 was approaching, I was part of the doomsday camp. I believed, wrongly, that technology would fail and everything around me would start to fall apart. But did a lot of digging and I think I learned something about what makes people survive really rough situations–and how to survive an economic depression. The economy is in deep trouble, and what I found out then has every relevance now that we are worried about how to survive an economic depression.

When Y2k was approaching, I found a lot of materials on physicalpreparation for such an event, but very little on psychological preparation. The most that I can remember reading about that was that when I said on a newsgroup that a Y2k doomsday would be psychologically as well as physically difficult, someone said that I was right and suggested that Y2k preparations include stocking up on board games and condoms.

That answer seemed, to put it politely, not up to snuff. As far as mental preparation goes, that was the equivalent of saying, “If bad things happen on January 1 2000, be prepared for great physical danger. Alwaysremember to look both ways before you cross the street!”

After failing to find something more informative on newsgroups, I went to the library, to look for more information on psychological survival in difficult situations. I did a lot of digging, reading whatever seemed like it might shed light, but finding very little of an answer anywhere that I looked. Even a book on psychology and the military said almost nothing about how either soldiers or civilians stood up psychologically to disaster, or what enables a survivor to overcome an incredibly difficult situation.

It was only after a lot of digging that I realized the answer was almost staring me in the face. What makes a survivor is not exactly psychological. It is spiritual. There was something spiritual about, for instance, people who had survived incredibly hostile situations as hostages and prisoners. It is not exactly that they had some special talent, or drew on some special mind trick or had developed what we would imagine as spiritual powers. It was something almost pedestrian.

It had something to do with religious devotion. Faith has something to do with how to survive an economic depression.

I imagine I may raise some eyebrows by suggesting faith has something to do with how to survive a disaster. But faith was how many people survived the Great Depression. Perhaps a great many survivors survived despite their useless faith, or maybe it was a crutch, but if it seems obvious to you that faith could have nothing to do with how people survived the Great Depression, then I would ask you to entertain a possibility you might not have considered. Maybe they know something we have forgotten.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Much of the Bible comes from disastrous times. In the Bible’s book ofHabakkuk, there is a prophet who sees great evil about him. He cries out to the Lord, and the Lord gives an answer that leaves the prophet stunned: the Lord will punish the wickedness of Israel by having an army of terrorists conquer their land. This was a disaster that might be worse than economic collapse. The prophet asks the Lord a question: how can a righteous God look on such wickedness? And the Lord responds without really answering the prophet’s question: the Lord responds without giving the prophet what he wants. But tucked away in the Lord’s response are some very significant words: “…the righteous shall live by faith.”

Those words were taken up in the New Testament and became a rallying-cry against rigid legalism. But they are more than a response to people who turn religion into a bunch of rules; they speak also in situations where legalism is simply not the issue. The prophet cried out to the Lord about rampant violence. The issue was not really legalism at all. And this is when the words were first spoken: “The righteous shall live by faith.” These words were given in terrifying times.

“The righteous shall live by faith” is a non-answer, and a quite deliberate non-answer. The prophet asked how such a pure God could allow such wickedness to exist, and God does not give the answer he is looking for. The Lord doesn’t really answer the prophet’s question at all. It’s almost like:

Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”

The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”

The Lord doesn’t tell the prophet what he wants. He gives him something much better; these brief words say, “I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do, and you may not look past the protecting veil that enshrouds me. But in the disastrous times you face, know this: the righteous shall live by faith.”

God doesn’t just refuse to tell the prophet what he wants. He gives Habakkuk something fundamentally richer and deeper. He tells the prophet what he needs. What God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith,” is a luminous thread appearing throughout Scripture, woven into the fabric of Proverbs and woven through and through in the Sermon on the Mount. This luminous, radiant thread declares that God is sovereign, in hard times as well as good, and that his divine providence is with his faithful no less. Even if we are in a depression, God can watch out for us.(Perhape especially if we are in a depression. The surprising report from many survivors is that God’s help is much more obvious in hard times than when things are easy.) Just witness this luminous thread in the Sermon on the Mount:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is there not more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add one hour to his span of life? (You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot and a half taller!) And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither work nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as gloriously as one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For people without faith seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own things to worry about. Each day has enough worries of its own.

The righteous shall live by faith, and the Sermon on the Mount has a great deal to say about exactly how the righteous shall live by faith. The radiant thread unfolds, unfurls, beams, “Money is unworthy of your trust: put your trust in God. Live in the security of faith. Have the true security of faith in God who provides, not the ersatz providence of what you can arrange for yourself. Do not spend your life building a sandcastle for your home and trying to keep it from collapsing. I offer you a way to build a solid house, built on the rock.”

And this is not just a statement about how we should not worry about the future when we have it easy. The Sermon on the Mount closes with words that are entirely relevant to surviving the storms of life when we wonder how to survive an economic depression:

Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and its collapse was great.

These are not words about nothing more than how to relax and enjoy life when it is easy. These are words about how to prepare for hard times, and how to survive in a disaster. In other words, they are words about how to survive an economic depression.

In hard times as well as good, the righteous shall live by faith. Indeed, the words “the righteous shall live by faith” originally come from times with an industrial-strength disaster on the horizon!

The Apostle Paul: Portrait of a survivor!

Who can survive stress like an industrial-strength disaster? The Bible paints a picture of one person who survived a lot of really rough times, and not only survived, but genuinely thrived.

When I was in college, part of the general “foundations of wellness” class was taking the Holmes Stress Point Scale, which assigns points for stressful events to add up to a rough estimate of how stressful your life is. You get a certain number of points for each stressful experience you’ve been through, and they add up to your total score for how stressful the past year of your life is. The events include:

  • Jail term…
  • Death of a close friend…
  • Outstanding personal achievement…
  • Vacation…
  • Christmas…
  • Minor violation of the law…

The higher a score from stressful events, the more stressful your life is. The scale’s explanation is: If your score is 300 or more, you are at a very high stress level and probably run a major risk of illness in the next year. If your score is 200 to 299, your stress and illness risk are moderate, and if your score is between 150 to 200, your stress and risk are mild.

My teacher mentioned that one student had computed such a score for a year in the life of the Apostle Paul, who went through a number of events that should score major points for stress:

  • Jailed…
  • Attacked by a frenzied mob…
  • Shipwrecked in the mother of all storms…
  • Clandestine escape from a city when people were trying to kill him…
  • Physically assaulted by soldiers…
  • Survived an assassination attempt…

The student calculated a staggering 675 points for one year in the life of St. Paul!

But the odd thing is that if you read the Book of Acts, St. Paul does not really come across as someone we should pity. We read that some of his colleagues were harassed, beaten, and afterwards were rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of their Lord. When I read the accounts of these events, I walk away with a sense, not that these suffering heroes are poor and pitiable, but that they are giants and they utterly dwarf me. There is something greater in the Apostle, far greater, than a whopping 675 points worth of externally stressful events.

It is the same thing, really, as with people who survived a long time being hostages for terrorists. They had dug deep and built their house on the rock, and when stormwinds battered their house, it survived and stood firm. It is the same thing for the bedrock of how people survived the Great Depression. And if we may be battered by hard economic times, we would like our houses to stand firm as well.

Suffering and sonship

It may be that what we fear that in a potential disaster is that we will lose what is good for us. We may fear getting sidetracked when none of our dreams seem to come true. We may fear that God cannot really provide our good if our recession becomes a depression or even an economic collapse–that the Sermon on the Mount is presumably about how to live in easy times but wouldn’t be quite so helpful when we’re in a depression. But there is something we are missing. Some of the things that we fear may have a surprisingly positive place in a well-lived life. There is something we are missing in all this.

Suffering has a place in the divine discipleship—the divine sonship—that the Sermon on the Mount is all about. “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God,” as C.S. Lewis echoed the ancient wisdom, a wisdom that plays out in discipleship. Discipleship, service to God in difficulties, providence, and ascetical or spiritual practices all come together: God provides for us and disciples us in hard times as well as good. Sometimes he provides more plainly when we have nothing than when we have everything. In the Philokalia, we hear the words of St. Makarios as he explains the place of suffering in discipleship:

He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?

Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.

The story is told of a woman who was told the Lord would be with her, and afterwards found herself an incredibly painful situation. When she cried out to the Lord and asked how this could be, the Lord answered: “I never said it would be easy. I said I’d be with you.” God’s way, it seems, is not to make things easy for us, but to strengthen us for greatness in what are often hard situations, and sometimes disasters. He gives us mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.

And we can climb mountains even if we are in an economic depression. Perhaps especially if we are in an economic recession. God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering. Not even if we’re really good Christians—especially not if we’re really good Christians! If you read the saints’ lives (see the links on the natural cycle clock), you will see that even with all the wondrous providence God provides for the saints, the saints in fact suffer much more than the rest of us; they know sufferings worse than most of us have ever been through.

There are saints whose prayers healed others—but who were for themselves never healed of their own major illnesses. If this sounds ironic, remember that Christ also was told, “Physician, heal thyself.” Christ is pre-eminent as one who saved others but could not save himself, and “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” is one way of defining God’s kingdom. Part of how people survived the Great Depression was that they carried the spirit of God’s kingdom and worked to save others, and not just themselves. Communities of people survived the Great Depression because, even if no one could save “Me! Me! Me!”, perhaps each one could help save others.

God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering, but he works with us in our suffering, often to do things with us that could never happen if we had things our way. It may be precisely on the mountain, in the act of climbing, that God gives us the strength to climb!

Sometimes God works with us despite our best efforts to fix things so we can have things our way. Wise people rightly tells us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and “You can’t always get what you want.” And perhaps if we did get what we wanted, we wouldn’t get what God wanted for us. Some of us may try to fix our problems and pray to God to take them away—when his plan is to use our problems to build us up. St. Makarios above quotes Hebrews, and in fact Hebrews is one of the clearest books of the Bible that God works with us in suffering—in fact, that Christ himself was perfected by suffering (source):

But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.

…But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.

Our view of suffering is often that if we are suffering, then we cannot be where we should be. It often seems we can only be where we should be when we are out of a difficult situation). It seems that we are sidetracked, and will only stop being sidetracked when we have things our way. But that is absolutely false. God worked with Christ in suffering. God worked with the saints in suffering. God worked with us in suffering. And that means that we can be in suffering and in pain, with our godly plans failing, and we are still just where God wants us: we may not see it, but sometimes our earthly failure is a heavenly victory. If God allows us to be in an economic collapse, he may be doing things with us, good things, that we might never happen if we had the comfort we seem to need. The last words above, about suffering and failure, lead directly into the famous “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.

What may be happening in our sufferings is that God is building us into greater people than if we succeed in getting what we want. Including if we are in an economic depression. This is a basic lesson of people growing up: many young people have big dreams for themselves, but grow by middle age into living for others, growing into something that could never happen if all their youthful dreams came true. And suffering has a place in this—and a greater and deeper value. The Son of God was made perfect through suffering. Innocent suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ: Christ’s suffering is made perfect in his people. St. Paul, the survivor who went through terrible suffering, wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col 1.24 RSV)

Suffering is not getting off-track, nor does it force us out of God’s plans, so that we only get into God’s providence as soon as things are the way we would like. What some of us fear in suffering is that if we are in difficult circumstances, then that must mean we are spiritual failures as well as failing on earth. If we are faithful and still fail in our plans, this does not mean that either God’s plans or providence have failed. Often he is working at us when we are suffering and we are so far afield from anything that makes sense to us.

Everything we meet is either a blessing from God, or a trial that God allows for our strengthening. You may say that there is something evil in your trials, and you would be entirely right: there is something evil, and perhaps demonic, in our trials and afflictions. Perhaps you may say that there seems to be something almost demonic about an economic collapse, and you would still be right. But, as C.S. Lewis observes, all of us do the will of God. We may do the will of God as Satan and Judas did, asinstruments, or we may do the will of God as Peter and John did, as sons. But all of us do the will of God, and ultimately Satan and may be no more than a hammer in God’s hand. And even if God allows rough trials, he allows them for our strengthening. St. Makarios is very clear: “The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to.” Evil is on a leash. Let us be faithful. Every move the Devil plays is one move closer to his loss and God’s victory, and ours if we are faithful.

I am not saying that the future holds much suffering. You or I may have a lot of suffering, or actually not that much. I am, however, saying that however much suffering God allows, he can still work with us. He can still work with us in an economic depression. (And that is even without going into how a great many people have been in situations they dreaded, and found life to still be beautiful.) As St. Paul, a survivor, closed Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Building a house on the rock—it’s not all about you!

Ascesis refers to disciplined spiritual practice. It’s a part of building a house on the rock. In the Orthodox tradition, these include sacraments, church attendance and daily liturgical prayers, reading and listening to Scripture, working to keep the Jesus prayer in your heart (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), growing into the liturgical seasons and internal and external fasting, hospitality, service, thanksgiving, repentance, giving to others who ask your help, cutting back on selfish pleasures, including icons in your prayer, solitude, community, and other practices. All of these can offer different help in growing to spiritual maturity.

But there comes a crucial caveat. None of these, if they are working correctly, are all about us. However essential they are to building a house on the rock, they are infinitely more than tools for how to survive an economic depression. They are tools to living in communion with God and being transformed by his grace. These disciplines, used rightly, can clear away obstacles to our growing in discipleship under God, but if they are used wrongly, they can be extremely harmful.

Using ascetical practices wrongly, as ends in themselves, has the same problem as Eeyore in The House at Pooh Corner:

[Piglet picked some violets, decided to give them to Eeyore, and went to visit him.]

“Oh, Eeyore,” began Piglet a little nervously, because Eeyore was busy.

“To-morrow,” said Eeyore. “Or the next day.” Piglet came a little closer to see what it was. Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.

“Oh, Eeyore,” he began again, “I just—”

“Is that little Piglet?” said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.

“Yes, Eeyore, and I—”

“Do you know what this is?”

“No,” said Piglet.

“It’s an A.”

“Oh,” said Piglet.

“Not O—A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?”

“Yes,” said Piglet. “No,” said Piglet very quickly, and he came closer still.

“Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is—until somebody treads on it,” Eeyore added sternly.

Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.

“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”

“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”

“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”

“Oh,” said Piglet again. “I mean, does it?” he explained quickly.

“I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated—mark this, little Piglet—to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,” he added, “just something that anybody can come and breathe on.”

Piglet stepped back nervously, and looked round for help.

“Here’s Rabbit,” he said gladly. “Hallo, Rabbit.”

Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, “Ah, Eeyore,” in the voice of one who would be saying “Good-bye” in about two more minutes.

“There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?”

“What’s this that I’m looking at?” said Eeyore, still looking at it.

“Three sticks,” said Rabbit promptly.

“You see?” said Eeyore to Piglet. He turned to Rabbit. “I will now answer your question,” he said solemnly.

“Thank you,” said Rabbit.

“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becones Educated. He instigorates—I think that is the word he mentioned, but I may be referring to something else—he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way, I also, if I have the word right, am—am doing what he does. That, doe instance is?”

“An A,” said Rabbit, “but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.”

Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.

“What did Rabbit say it was?” he asked.

“An A,” said Piglet.

“Did you tell him?”

“No, Eeyore, I didn’t. I expect he just knew.”

“He knew? You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?”

“Yes, Eeyore. He’s very clever, Rabbit is.”

“Clever!” said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. “Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. “A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!”

We need to avoid being Eeyores with our spiritual discipline, or our spirituality, or our faith, or our religion. Letters serve a greater purpose, and so do ascetical practices: we should not, like Eeyore, stare at an A and tell ourselves that it is our Education and Learning, or Prayers and Church Attendance as the case may be.

The point of ascetical practices is to be steps of the Great Dance: living the life that God shares, and becoming one of the sons of God. It’s not merely a set of survival skills that work in an economic recession or depression, or even an economic collapse, even if “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is quite practical advice. The point is to seek first the kingdom of a God who knows our survival needs: as God told Habakkuk before a disaster, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The luminous thread beams brightly because it is more than just a white thread. It shines, and it shines with the light of Heaven, a light of divine love that illumines Creation.

What Eeyore doesn’t get about the luminous thread is that it is the light of Heaven shining on earth.

Better than an endowment

Some years before I became Orthodox, I was at a class where someone was commenting on Proverbs, and its texts that say, in essence, “Put your trust in God, not money.” (“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death,” Prov 11:4 RSV.) One point he made that particularly surprised me was, “Endowments aren’t so great.”

He asked a question: if we want to be independently wealthy, who do we want the “independently” to mean we are independent from? The answer he gave: “Independent from God.” If we want to be independently wealthy, we may want something more than mere luxuries. The basic fantasy of life as we imagine ourselves being independently wealthy, is a life that is in control and unlike the actual messiness of our real lives with so many things that are simply beyond our control. And his suggestion, based on real life as well as Proverbs, is that it is actually not good for us to have an endowment that we can trust.

One kind of person counselors work with is the person who cannot be happy without being in control of everyone around them. The basic problem is that a person who needs to be in control is a tragically shrunken person, and part of what a counselor will try to give a person is an opportunity to step into a larger world. If you believe, “I can’t be happy unless I’m in control of everyone I’m involved with,” that will set you up for a lot of unhappiness.

This is not just because it is really hard to control everyone else. A few people who want to control others really do manage to control others around them, but they are really as unhappy as others who want the same thing but don’t manage the control over others they always want to establish. As Chesterton observed, there may be some desires which are not achievable, but there are some desires which are not desirable.

If you want the world to be small enough that there is nothing outside your control, you want to live in a small and terribly shrunken world. If you let go of that kind of control, you may find that you have let yourself into a much bigger world than if you were the biggest thing around, and in the process you become bigger yourself. Instead of being a tin god ruling a world as cramped as a cubicle, you become servant in God’s vast mansions. And being one of many of these servants is a much better position to be in than dominating as a tin god.

And there is more to this larger world, the larger world of serving in God’s great mansions. The words, “The righteous shall live by faith” were given, in full force, when a brutal invasion was coming. Those words may not originally have been about how to survive an economic depression. They were originally more about how to survive something worse: your country being taken over by terrorists!

The words, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and the Sermon on the Mount, apply to some pretty rough situations, including an economic recession, economic depression, or economic collapse. Christ’s words about not worrying do not apply just to privileged people who have nothing seriously worth worrying about; many of the people who first heard theSermon on the Mount were on the bottom of the totem pole and would see less material comfort than the kind of person most Americans would imagine as a homeless person.

The model prayer Christ would give is not a prayer for something nicer for people stuck on a nasty diet of burgers and KFC; the one physical request is for bread—by American standards, quite a dull thing to eat day in and day out, and possibly poorer nutritional fare than fast food—and it is in thiscontext that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, beckons us to store up treasure in Heaven, and invites us to a spiritual feast that unfurls in hard times as well as when everything meets our expectations. He invites us to the spiritual feast, the larger world, that is at the heart of spirituality and religion and is unlocked by faith. The Sermon on the Mount neither assumes nor needs a high standard of living to have real treasure.

The invitation to dance the Great Dance is open to us now as ever. All of us are invited to the Great Feast. Even if we’ve snubbed words like, “Money doesn’t make you happy,” and, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” not only do those truths remain open to us, but the Divine Providence is no less open. If our external circumstances remove all the luxuries that serve us, we may discover that not only is it better to give than receive, but it is also better to serve and be served. We might take a tip from how people survived the Great Depression. If we are unemployed, we might serve others and find something that technologies and luxuries can’t give, and if our 401(k) plan becomes a 404(k) and vanishes, we might lean on God’s providence and discover that God’s providence gives us more than money could.

There’s a sign that was seen around my hometown that says, “Money may not do everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch!” And I wonder if that is precisely what we gain if we do not know what will meet our needs in the future: our material needs can “keep the kids in touch” for God. Especially in an economy in shambles. And if that happens, we have something no money could buy: keeping in touch with God in a way that is ultimately a Heavenly transformation.

The prodigal son: “I wish you were dead!”

The parable of the prodigal son begins (source):

There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.

Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the husks that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Today, one of the ways parents might give money to children is letting them “borrow against their inheritance:” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back, but they lose that much of their inheritance when their parents die. And this is considered a fairly normal arrangement.

This isn’t what is going on here. The younger son’s request telegraphs something loud and clear: “I wish you were dead!”

We see a first glimpse of God’s love—a love to the point of madness. Out of all responses the father could have to this affront, he gave every last penny he was asked for. The love to the point of madness may be easier to see later on, but it is already present in the gift by which he answers the ludicrously inappropriate request.

The son goes off to live life the way he wants to. And living life the way he wants to hits rock bottom. The big party he imagined he’d make for himself turns into famine and dire straits that leave him coveting the unappepetizing husks that he is feeding to unclean, vile swine. He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots, not his father.

He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots. Just like some of us here. We don’t want to have to wait under the authority of a Father who calls the shots. We want money and control, with things lined up here and now. What is it we are telling God if we ask him to give us money and control on our terms? Something a bit like, “I wish you were dead.”

The younger son has discovered that life with his father out of the picture is not so glorious and wonderful. And he realizes the extent of his fall. So he resolves to go back and beg, not even for forgiveness, but possibly his father might even contain his wounded resentment enough to let him work for pay and be able to buy bread. (Who knows? Maybe a long shot, but what real alternative did he have?)

What was the father doing in all of this?

When husbands have gone off to war, there have been wives who have stood by the path of the doorway, looking for some hope that their husbands may return, looking and waiting, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… never giving up! And the father in our story was doing exactly that.

The father was looking, waiting, and saw his son far off, and completely cast off his upper-class dignity to run and embrace him. Love to the point of madness! He didn’t even wait for an apology before embracing him and kissing him!

And when the son made a full confession, hoping maybe to toil for his father’s scraps, the father pulls out all the stops: the best robe, a ring for his finger, and the best food possible for a royal feast. This is love to the point of madness!

But the story continues on to a more sobering note (source):

Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.

His father came out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father, `Look, I have served you for all of these years, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf!’

And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

We have an Eeyore here.

This story has been called the parable of the two prodigals, meaning that not only did the one son tragically fall, but the other, elder son also tragically falls from the glory his father would have wished for him. At the beginning, the younger son wished that his father was dead. At the end, did the older son wish his father was dead?

The older son is a tragic spiritual Eeyore.

His statement could have come from a very different angle. For all of the years the older son was in his father’s service, he toiled, and he may not have had rich party food—only solid, nourishing, ordinary food day by day. For all these many years, he worked hard in the context of the father training him, and drawing him into mature manhood. In the meantime, his brother has been ripping up his own soul, losing even what he thought he had at the mercy of merciless people with no one else who cared for his well-being. The brother who all but told his father, “I wish you were dead,” was in every sense save the literal, himself dead.

If it is painful to lose one’s parents, it is another level of pain to lose one’s child, and the father had seen one of his sons—not to mention the older son’s only brother—die a living death. Now he was back, and in every sense including the literal, alive. Was killing the fatted calf even enough of a celebration?

The older son didn’t get it. How well did his service to his father work? Not very well; it went badly enough that instead of sharing in his father’s joy at a lost son who “was dead, and is alive again,” acts bitterly affronted and indicts his father searingly. Which is to say, the son’s hard work didn’twork, any more than Eeyore’s laborious staring at his three sticks achieved the true heart of “Learning” and “Education.”

The point, though, is not really the tragedy of the older son. The point is that God welcomes people who turn to him, and welcomes them with open arms. It is only one step to turn to God, even if you think you are ten thousand steps away. But when are we ready?

It is easy enough to wait for life to really begin. When? Maybe when the present illness is gone, or when we get that promotion, or maybe just when we get a job in the first place, or when someone we deal with will become not quite so difficult a person, or when we have something paid off, or when Washington gets its act together. When something big or small changes, then maybe we will be in God’s blessing. St. Herman of Alaska met some people who were waiting for their lives to really begin (source):

Father Herman gave them all one general question: “Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?” Various answers were offered… Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. “Is it not true,” Father Herman said to them concerning this, “that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?” They all answered, “Yes, that is so!” He then continued, “Would you not say, ‘Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men?’ Should we not then love God above everything, desire Him more than anything, and search him out?”

All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “If we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they did not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” continued the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”

The time for God is not at some indefinite point in the future when things will fit our hopes better. The time to work with God, in a sense the only time we should be concerned with, is now. Not later, now.

More precious than gold

When I was a child, I remembered a story about a fearsome dragon who told a knight that if the knight would tickle the dragon’s throat with a sword, he would have a great treasure. The knight rode up on his horse and approached the dragon, already afraid, and asked if the treasure was as good as a good horse and a good suit of armor. It was more, the dragon said. The knight asked if the treasure was as good as a silver suit of armor, and shield and sword to match. It was, the dragon assured him. The knight then asked if the treasure was better than gold. The dragon answered that it was more precious than rooms full of gold. So the terrified knight trembled and tickled the dragon’s throat with his sword, and asked what the treasure was. And the dragon turned and ripped the knight’s sword out of his hand, breathing out a tremendous deluge of fire and smoke and roared, “Your life!” And the terrified knight, having lost his sword, fled as best he could, and grasped a treasure far more precious than rooms and rooms full of gold.

Hard times may still let us know what is truly important, and what is truly treasure.

Even if we are in an economic depression, we have a treasure worth more than rooms and rooms full of gold: our lives.

For the righteous who walk by faith, hard times may even turn out to be good times.

St. John Chrysostom once wrote to people who think they are somebody if they conspicuously ride on a horse and have an armed servant clear the way before them, and told them that they were missing something and have all the wrong priorities. These words seem like they have nothing to do with how to survive in an economic depression—but on a very deep level, they have everything to do with how to survive in an economic depression where we may lose any number of things that seem so essential. St. John Chrysostom wrote (source):

And I know that I am disgusting my hearers. But what can I do? I have set my mind on this and will not stop saying these things, whether or not anything comes of it. For what is the point of having someone clear the way before you in the marketplace? Are you walking among wild beasts so that you need to drive away those who meet you? Do not be afraid of the people who approach you and walk near you; none of them bite. But why do you consider it an insult to walk alongside other people? What craziness is this, what ludicrous folly, when you don’t mind having a horse follow close behind you, but if it is a person, you think you are disgraced unless the person is driven a hundred miles away. And why do you have servants to carry horse ____, using the free as slaves, or rather yourself living more dishonorably than any slave? For truly, anyone who bears so much pride is more repulsive than any slave.

Therefore people who have enslaved themselves to this vile habit will never come within sight of true liberty. No, if you must drive away and clear away anything, do not let it be those who come near you, but your own pride. Do not do this by your servant, but by yourself, not by this material weapon, but by the spiritual one. Since now your servant drives away those who walk alongside you, but you yourself are driven from your rightful place by your own self-will, more disgracefully than any servant can drive your neighbor. But if, descending from your horse, you will drive away pride by humility, you will sit higher and place yourself in greater honor, without needing any servant to do this for you. I mean that when you have become modest and walk on the ground, you will be seated on the horse-drawn carriage of humility which carries you up to the very heavens, the carriage with winged steeds: but if falling from the horse-drawn carriage of heaven, you pass into that of arrogance, you will be in no better state than crippled beggars who are carried along the ground—no, much more wretched and pathetic than they are: since they are carried because of their bodies’ weakness, but you because of the disease of your own arrogance.

Some of us also need the carriage of humility, even if we are not even in a position to make everybody get out of our way. And some of us might benefit from the loving interdependence that was how people survived the Great Depression.

In tough times—and in tougher times—we may lose things we have set our hearts on, but it may be that however much we resist, God will give us something better. What if I lose my car, for instance? How could I get something better? But it is entirely possible that I could get something better than my present car. I might get something better than my own Rolls Royce, even better than my own private jet. I might get more inter-dependence, where I do not get around by what I do by my car. I may still be able to go places, but now by the love of my friends and family.

In that case, if I get some groceries, or a ride to church, I am not getting it as something run by me, me, me; I am riding on community and love. And the love of another who cares about me is a much bigger thing than economic self-sufficiency. It’s the same thing as food tasting better if it is prepared with love for hospitality—then it isn’t just food. You are, in a very real sense, eating a friend’s love, and that is a richer and deeper kind of sustenance—and a richer, deeper, and fuller goodness!

Who knows? I might ride even higher than this if my car is taken from me. Perhaps I might respond to the humiliation of losing my car by starting to let Christ chauffer me to Heaven in the flying Rolls-Royce of humility. Maybe I might even start being grateful, and be carried by the car of gratitude, and look for ways that I might launch into the heavens on the immense celestial starship of service to others.

And it is the starship of service to others—of saving others even though I cannot save myself—that shines with celestial glory. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”—the Sermon on the Mount again. Perhaps I might stop thinking about my own survival and instead think about how I can save others even though I cannot save myself. Some people did not just survive the Great Depression; they learned that life is beautiful. They stopped being tin gods trying to rule over a shrunken world and became servants of God and each other in the vast mansions of a glorious God. In the Great Depression, they did not have gold, but they grasped a treasure vaster than rooms and rooms full of gold. For some, the Great Depression was a wakeup call to what is truly important in life.

And that is true wealth.

Why are some of us not living this way already? Repentance is terrifying. In the tale of the prodigal son, the son who had devoured his father’s property was in far from his father’s house, and had real work to get back. He had to travel in a much rougher sense than taking a plane, train, or bus, and faced much nastier dangers than “Dinner in New York, breakfast in London, luggage in Sydney.”

Our word “travel” comes from the French travailler, referring to work, and not exactly easy work: with slightly different spelling, the same word appears in English as “travail,” meaning a mother’s struggle in childbirth. Travel was hard, gruelling, and dangerous labor, and not for the faint of heart. And the prodigal son undertook travel with far less of the strength—not to mention absolutely none of the wealth—by which he had gotten there. The feat would have been comparable to running a marathon, or at least a marathon where your path might well go through the turf of thugs lying in wait and quite willing to kill anyone who would travail into their ambush.

And yet this is exactly what the prodigal son did. His brother may have done the ascetical work of prayers and fasting; but the younger son undertook something much tougher: repentance which is, in a spiritual sense, what the younger son did to return home.

Repentance has been called unconditional surrender. It has been called other things as well, and it terrifies: it is a decision to return home and beg for mercy when you have no grounds to expect to be treated like anything but the vilest of the scum of the earth. Perhaps the Father’s love to the point of madness may respond otherwise when we have repented. Perhaps we when we surrender conditionally and expect to be razed to the ground, we find ourselves walking away triumphant victors whose refusal to surrender was holding on to defeat for dear life, terrified to let go of our defeat because we think it helps us. Perhaps we have nothing, really, to lose but our misery. But that isn’t our concern when we need to repent.

But if we can repent—for all of us have much to repent of—and step into the Sermon on the Mount and begin to live by faith, then the Father’s love will answer, and give us something better than whatever we grasp for in our forgetfulness that a provident God already knows our needs just as well in an economic depression as any other time. In an economic depression as much as any other time, the Father’s love can meet these needs much better than we will if we control our inheritance ourselves.

In hard times in the past the Lord’s arm and providence have shown more plainly than they sometimes do here. Do you want to know how to survive an economic depression? The answer is very simple. It’s not a matter of what you arrange. It’s a matter of what God provides. When there is no natural hope of God’s saints being taken care of, it may be a supernatural provideence that we don’t see as often when we have easy times.

In hard times as well as easy, the luminous thread woven throughout Scripture, appearing in one place in the words, “the just shall live by faith,” and another place in a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”—this luminous thread is at the heart of faith, spirituality, and religion—and this luminous thread is more. It is a participation in the life of a God of love to the point of madness.

The luminous thread is spun by a God of love to the point of madness.

It may be in hard times that we fear that in hard times we will lose what is good for us.

But it may be that hard times, whether a recession, depression, or economic collapse, serve as a divinely given clue-by-four when we discover that the Father’s love to the point of madness knows, and will give, what is much better for us. And on that point, I would like to quote a praise song about what is truly more precious than gold: the words go:

Lord, you are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.

In one variant, these words answer:

And the Father said:
“Child, you are more precious than silver.
Child, you are more costly than gold.
Child, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.”

These are the words of divine love to the point of madness, of a God who loves saints and sinners alike, of a God who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent. And this is a God who loves us in hard times as well as good, a God of providence who seeks our highest good whenever we turn to him.

God be merciful to us. (Amen!)

The Arena

From Russia, With Love: a spiritual guide to surviving political and economic disaster

How to find a job: a guide for Orthodox Christians

God the Spiritual Father