- The Best Things in Life are Free.
- The Best Things in Life are Free. But what does this mean?
- The Best Things in Life are Free. But we do not understand the truth of these words if we think they are filled out by hugs and friendship, or even love: If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
- A better lens comes from the condemnation of the Pharisees: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
- It appears in Orthodoxy that the outside of the chalice is all feasts and beautiful liturgies, even during Lent: but on the inside is all repentance, deprivation and hardship, and being blindsided by rebukes. All of this falls under “The Best Things in Life are Free,” the one as much as the other.
- Well enough it may be said that sin is the forerunner of sorrow: The wages of sin is death, and that death’s sorrow begins here and now. Sin ultimately kills pleasure: It takes humility to enjoy even pride. It takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.
- But this is not all. The outside of the cup is beautiful and its beauty is true and real. But the real treasure is inside. Repentance is a spiritual awakening; it terrifies because it seems that when we repent we will lose a shining part of ourselves forever, but when we repent we suddenly realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” and are free to flee the stench. What feast compares to the grandeur of real repentance?
- The Great High Priest said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. The Best Things in Life are Free, and this pruning is a very big free gift.
- It is when we are cleansed inside the cup that the outside is clean. Let Christ cleanse us inside the cup, and then inside and outside will both bear proper fruit.
- The things in life that are free are persecutions, and we have on the highest authority: Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
- St. Paul goes so far to say, 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.
- We may approach the outside of the chalice first, but it is a loss to stop there. We need the joyful sorrow of compunction and all that is within the chalice, and then what is on the outside of the chalice will be clean, and what is more, will reach its proper stature.
- Every day take a little less, and pare down a little more. The Fathers do warn, “Do not engage in warfare beyond your strength,” and the praxis is to crawl before we try to walk. But The Way of the Ascetic pares down, little by little, in humor, in luxury, in eating for a purpose other than nourishment, and aims to have none of it left.
- By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. And by faith we wean ourselves even from a life centered on innocent pleasures, knowing that they do not hold a candle to the spiritual pleasure that is inside the chalice.
- The cutting of of one’s own will is free. And it is the experience of monasticism that this is one of the best things in life: a monk’s will is cut off, not for the primary benefit of his brother monks, but for his own benefit. And the voluntary and involuntary cutting off of one’s will extends far outside the monastery. It is one of the best things in life, whether we accept it as a blessing or resent it because we do not wish to grow up in the spiritual life.
- Do you wish that this chalice be taken from you? Christ prayed the same, but he also prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” For some prayers are impossible.
- There are two answers to prayer: “Yes,” and “No, please ask for something better.” St. James writes, You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Passions are sinful habits that warp us, and when we ask for something to satisfy our passions, God only ever says “No” because he wants better for us.
- Those things that are obviously good are nothing compared to the terrible goods: the gilded artwork outside the chalice is beautiful enough, but it is nothing next to what is inside the chalice.
- The Maximum Christ wishes the maximum for our lives, and that comes through repentance and the royal road of affliction.
- Rejoice and dance for joy when men slander you and revile you and curse you for Christ’s sake. This is a sign you are on the royal road; this is now the world heralds prophets and sons of God. This earthly dishonor is the seal of Heavenly honor.
- No one can harm the man who does not injure himself. Nor can any circumstance. So therefore let us not be governed by circumstances, or think the less of our God when he allows us rougher circumstances.
- We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but there is another shoe to drop. We live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that is a greater good.
- Perhaps we are entering a time of struggle. (Entering?) Perhaps we are seeing the end of exceptionally prosperous and easy days we have no right reason to expect. The same truths apply. The same God who reigns in easy times, reigns in hard times.
- “Give us this day our daily bread:” it is normal not to know where your next meal is from.
- The arm of the Lord is more visible, not less, in hard times. God’s providence is stronger when you know you need it.
- The chalice offered us indeed looks easy on the outside but is full of pain within. But the sufferings are part of the treasure. And the best things in life reach deeper than the golden ornaments that belong on the outside, but extend to the joyful sadnesses within. Those who shed at least some entertainment and seek repentance and compunction for their sins find repentance an awakening and compunction to be joyful and cleansing. And that is not all. Everything inside the cup runs deep. And everything inside the cup is free.
- The divine sovereignty is never purchased at the expense of human freedom. Human freedom is limited, but this is not where divine sovereignty comes from. The divine sovereignty has the last word after every creaturely choice has been made, and the divine sovereignty shapes joy after every draught of the inexhaustible cup.
- The joy of the best things in life is not purchased at the expense of the chalice of suffering. Suffering is limited, but this is not something the divine sovereignty is purchased from. The divine sovereignty has the last word after every creaturely suffering has been entered, and the divine sovereignty leaves people in a better place than had they not met their sufferings.
- The divine life is now. The divine energies are now. Not later, once some difficulties are resolved, but now.
- In ancient times the holiday of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection were celebrated together; even now there is not a separation between them, and we speak of a three-day Pascha. There is no real separation between bearing a cross and being crowned with a crown, even if it takes time to gain the eyes of faith to see such things.
- Orthodox are iconodules, but God is both iconodule and iconoclast: he takes things in our life and makes them icons of himself, and he also keeps on destroying and removing things to make us more free to breathe. Heaven and Hell are both inside us, and God seeks to inhabit Heaven inside of us and uproot Hell.
- God the Father is the maker of all things visible and invisible. God is spirit, and even among created things the first excellence belongs to the invisible. Who can buy or sell invisible things? This is one reason the best things in life are free.
- In the Incarnation, Heaven kissed earth and the visible now has a share in the excellence of the invisible. But still if a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned: the sale of relics is forbidden.
- Do you believe the best things in life are free? Excellent, but the demons believe—and shudder. Do you live as if the best things in life are free?
- It is more blessed to give than receive. What do you have to give?
- If you covet something and you gain it, it will bring misery once the pleasure melts away, and the greater the covetousness, the greater the misery. Covetousness is the inverse of what is inside the cup.
- We want to have things our way. But the Lord has other plans. And what we will find if we yield is that he has other plans for us that are not what we would have chosen, but are far better. This is at once an easy and a hard thing to do.
- In the Bible a chalice is both a cup of suffering to drink and a cup which fills with excellent joy. The suffering is as bad as we fear—no, worse— but if we drink of it we will be drinking of the very best things in life. The divine life in the chalice immeasurably eclipses the gilt ornament outside of it. Rememberance of death, compunction, and repentance dig deeper than the music of liturgy.
- The best things in life are not just an ornament for when our material needs are well taken care of. It is true ten times more that they are lifeblood in hard times and harder times. And the chalice is inexhaustible.
- The Best Things in Life are Free.
Kaine: What do you mean and what is the “damned backswing”?
Vetus: Where to start? Are you familiar with category theory?
Kaine: I have heard the term; explain.
Vetus: Category theory is the name of a branch of mathematics, but on a meta level, so to speak. Algebraists study the things of algebra, and number theorists study the things of number theory—an arrangement that holds almost completely. But category theory studies common patterns in other branches of mathematics, and it is the atypical, rare branch of mathematics that studies all branches of mathematics. And, though this is not to my point exactly, it is abstract and difficult: one list of insults to give to pet languages is that you must understand category theory to write even the simplest of all programs.
The achievements of category theory should ideally be juxtaposed with Bourbaki, the pseudonym of a mathematician or group of mathematicians who tried to systamatize all of mathematics. What came out of their efforts is that trying to systematize mathematics is like trying to step on a water balloon and pin it down; mathematicians consider their discipline perhaps the most systematic of disciplines in academia, but the discipline itself cannot be systematized.
But the fact that Bourbaki’s work engendered a realization that you cannot completely systematize even the most systematic of disciplines does not mean that there are patterns and trends that one can observe, and the basic insight in category theory is that patterns recur and these patterns are not limited to any one branch of mathematics. Even if it does not represent a total success of doing what Bourbaki tried and failed to do, it is far from a total loss: category theory legitimately observes patterns and trends that transcend the confines of individual subdisciplines in mathematics.
Kaine: So the “damned backswing” is like something from category theory, cutting across disciplines?
Kaine: And why did you choose the term of a damned backswing?
Vetus: Let me comment on something first. C.S. Lewis, in a footnote in Mere Christianity, says that some people complained about his light swearing in referring to certain ideas as “damned nonsense.” And he explained that he did not intend to lightly swear at all; he meant that the ideas were incoherent and nonsense, and they and anyone who believed in them were damned or accursed. And I do not intend to swear lightly either; I intend to use the term “damned” in its proper sense. Instead there is a recurring trend, where some seemingly good things have quite the nasty backswing.
Kaine: And what would an example be?
Vetus: In the U.S., starting in the 1950’s there was an incredibly high standard of living; everything seemed to be getting better all the time. And now we are being cut by the backswing: the former great economic prosperity, and the present great and increasing economic meltdown, are cut from the same cloth; they are connected. There was a time of bait, and we sprung for it and are now experiencing the damned backswing.
Kaine: So the damned backswing begins with bait of sorts, and ends in misery? In the loss of much more than the former gain? Do you also mean like addiction to alcohol or street drugs?
Vetus: Yes, indeed; for a while drinking all the time seems an effective way to solve problems. But that is not the last word. The same goes from rationalism to any number of things.
Kaine: Do you see postmodern trends as the backswing of modern rationalism?
Vetus: All that and less.
Kaine: What do you mean by “and less”?
Vetus: The damned backswing did not start with Derrida. The understanding of “reason” that was held before the Enlightenment was a multifaceted thing that meant much more than logic; even as Reason was enthroned (or an actress/prostitute), Reason was pared down to a hollowed-out husk of what reason encompassed in the West before then. It would be like celebrating “cars”, but making it clear that when the rubber hits the road, the truly essential part of “a set of wheels” is the wheel—and enthroning the wheel while quietly, deftly stripping away the rest of the car, including not just the frame but engine, and seats. The Damned Backswing of rationalism was already at work in the Enlightenment stripping and enthroning reason. And the damned backswing was already at work in economic boom times in the West, saying that yes, indeed, man can live by bread alone.
And perhaps the strongest and most visible facet of the damned backswing occurs in technology. There are other areas: a country erected on freedoms moves towards despotism, just as Plato said in his list of governments, moving from the best to the worst. But in technology, we seem to be able to be so much more, but the matrix of technology we live in is, among other things, a surveillance system, and something we are dependent on, so that we are vulnerable if someone decides to shut things off. Man does not live by bread alone, but it is better for a man to try to live by bread alone than live by SecondWife alone, or any or all the array of techologies and gadgetry. The new reality man has created does not compare to the God-given reality we have spurned to embrace the new, and some have said that the end will come when we no longer make paths to our neighbors because we are entirely engrossed in technology and gadgetry.
Kaine: And are there other areas?
Vetus: There are other areas; but I would rather not belabor the point. Does this make sense?
Kaine: Yes, but may I say something strange?
Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, and in full.
Vetus: You’re not telling me something.
Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, but I do not believe that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
Vetus: What? Do you mean that you partly believe in the damned backswing, and partly not? Do you believe in the damned backswing “is true, from a certain point of view”?
Kaine: I understand your concern but I reject the practice of agreeing with everyone to make them feel better. If I believed in the damned backswing up to a point, I would call it such.
Vetus: How do you believe it, if you reject that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?
Kaine: Let me ask: do Calvinists believe in the Sovereignty of God?
Vetus: Is the Pope Catholic? (I mean besides John XXIII.)
Kaine: Let me suggest that the Reformed view of Divine Sovereignty could go further than it actually does.
Vetus: How? They are the most adamant advocates of Divine Sovereignty, and write books like No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism.
Kaine: There’s an awfully strong clue in the title.
Vetus: That the author believes so strongly in the Divine Sovereignty that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom?
Kaine: Not quite.
Vetus: Then what is the clue? I don’t want to guess.
Kaine: The clue is that the author believes in the Divine Sovereignty so weakly that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom, and that if there is one iota of creaturely freedom, there is not one iota of Divine Sovereignty.
His is a fragile Divine Sovereignty, when in actual fact God’s Sovereignty is absolute, with the last word after every exercise of creaturely freedom. There is no exercise of freedom you can make that will impede the exercise of the Divine Sovereignty.
Vetus: I could sin. In fact, I do sin, and I keep on sinning.
Kaine: Yes, but God is still Sovereign and can have the last world where there is sin. To get back to Lewis for a second, “All of us, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Satan and Judas as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” The Divine Sovereignty is the Alpha and the Omega, the Founder of the beginning, and works in and through all: “even Gollum may have something yet to do.”
Vetus: But what?
Kaine: “But what?”, you ask?
For starters, there is Christmas. Good slips in unnoticed. God slips in unnoticed. True, it will become one of the most celebrated holidays in the Western world, and true, the Western world will undertake the nonsensical task of keeping a warm, fuzzy Christmas without Christ or Christmas mentioned once. But us lay aside both Christian bloggers speaking in defense of a secularized Christmas, and bloggers telling retailers, “You need Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t need you.” You speak of the damned backswing coming from an unexpected place; this is nothing next to God slipping in unnoticed.
There will be a time when God will be noticed by all. At the first Christmas, angel hosts announced good news to a few shepherds. When Christ returns, he will be seen by all, riding on the clouds with rank upon rank of angels. At the first Christmas, a lone star heralded it to the Magi. When he returns, the sky will recede as a vanishing scroll. At the first Christmas, a few knees bowed. When he returns, every knee will bow. And the seed for this victory is planted in Christmas.
And the same seeds of glory are quietly planted in our lives. You are not wrong to see the damned backswing and see that it is real: but one would be wrong to see it and think it is most real. Open one eye, and you may see the damned backswing at work. Open both eyes wide, and you may see God at work, changing the game.
And God will work a new thing in you. Not, perhaps, by taking you out of your sufferings or other things that you may pray for; that is at his good pleasure. But you have heard the saying, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us.” Whole worlds open up with forgiveness, or repentance, or any virtue. If you are moulded as clay in the potter’s hands, unsought goods come along the way. The Best Things in Life are Free, and what is hard to understand is that this is not just a friend’s smile, but suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. It was spiritual eyes wide open that left the apostles rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame [and violence] for Christ’s name. And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” This newness begins here and now, and it comes when in circumstances we would not choose God works to give us a larger share in the real world. We enter a larger world, or rather we become larger ourselves and more able to take in God’s reality. And all of this is like the first Christmas, a new thing and unexpected. We are summoned and do not dare disobey: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth. And it is this whole world with angels, butterflies, the Church, dandylions, energetic work, friends, family, and forgiveness, the Gospel, holiness, the I that God has made, jewels, kairos, love, mothers, newborn babes, ostriches, preaching, repentance from sins, singing, technology, unquestioning obedience, variety, wit and wisdom, xylophones, youth and age, and zebras.
The damned Backswing is only a weak parody of the power of God the Gamechanger.
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With that done, let me first tell how I have come to this infusion of spiritual life.
I was walking outside and met a friend, and we talked. When he asked me how I was doing, I didn’t have much to say, but mentioned a few thoughts I’d had. Then I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he had been feeling really close to God, and more aware of other people.
I hadn’t mentioned, because it had been around so long, the emptiness I was feeling, and I became more acutely aware of how dry my own spiritual life had been, how mechanical of an exercise my Bible reading was.
That night, I was walking over to Wheaton’s campus for Pooh’s Corner (a group of people that meets to read children’s books aloud). A long and slow-moving freight train was crossing the tracks. While I was standing and waiting, I thought about the conversation and my own dryness, and decided to work on my spiritual state when I got home.
—No, not when you get home. Now.
—Not now! I’m waiting for a train.
I decided to do something then and there. But what? Iniative and power are all on God’s side; there was nothing I could do that would accomplish closeness between God and me. So I prayed a simple prayer.
That moment, I was filled with joy and peace, deeper than I had known in a long time. I paced back and forth in that joy and peace waiting for the train — enjoying through them the simple little things: the walking, the sound of the train. Whatever I did, there was God.
I thought about Thérèse de Lisieux’s little way (as depicted in the movie Household Saints), about resting in God’s presence, and of being in God’s will in even the most simple places — even waiting for a train. At a low spot — when I medically can’t work above half-time, and have an intermittent job not related to computers — and when used to thinking about serving God in spectacular and heroic ways, it was good to realize that. I went on to Pooh’s corner, and enjoyed things there a great deal more. There were milk and cookies, and I enjoyed them in a different way than I usually enjoy food. I usually eat good food slowly and in little bites, to consciously savor its flavor — but I do not completely engage, or rather I am not able to let go of my disengagement. This time I was able to engage, and not just with the milk and cookies; I was also able to engage with the camaraderie and silliness.
When I create something (even something little), there is a first conception of the idea, then an incubation period where I let the idea ferment, then a time of implementation. The fermenting period is one which I cherish, and one which I had rarely experienced since a loss of creativity. I experienced it then. I also spent time worrying about the loss of the joy and peace, although I tried not to.
I am not sure how to begin; a lot has happened since then. My account will probably grow more linear and chronological as time moves on, but the account of the days before will probably be more by lessons learned and by theme.
The lessons I have learned have not in a sense been new lessons, in the sense of something I couldn’t have articulated before, but I have owned and experienced the knowledge more deeply.
The first lesson has to do with the bread from Heaven, manna. It was divine nourishment, and it required trust in God. You couldn’t gather extra for two days; it would spoil. However much you gathered, it was enough. These two principles I have found to apply to God’s presence, and spiritual nourishment.
I struggle with wanting to have things under control, to know ahead of time what to do with my time (in small part to avoid boredom, and in large part to continue to be nourished and grow close to God), and God doesn’t tell me. That is better for my learning to trust him, I think. God isn’t giving me a programme to follow. He’s giving me a relationship.
Before that Tuesday, I was uniformly groggy. My emotions after then have been a little bit of a roller coaster — I’ve had some moments of bliss, and some moments of sadness. Now I am feeling groggy and perhaps a little depressed — although that’s probably because I didn’t get enough sleep. God has blessed me with emotions; now perhaps he is trying to wean me off of them. He saved me for himself, not for emotions. I hope that the good feelings won’t end yet, though; I need to heal from pain. I ask that I may first have him, and then after that enjoy him through emotional blessings.
I have been reminded of, and appreciating, the way of the heart described in Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, which I will summarize/condense here, and would highly encourage you to read:
There is within us a yearning for a sacred Romance, a haunting that won’t go away. Art, literature, music have explored this Romance and its loss. It uncontrollably haunts through natural beauty, telling of something lost with a promise to return.
If this were all there was to it, that would be great — but it’s not. The Romance has an enemy, the Message of the Arrows.
We once trusted in good because we had not known evil. Now we must trust in good, with full knowledge of evil. Our loss of innocence came through painful experiences we adapted to by wearing a false self.
The Romance appears through things — moonlight, a song — but those things will sear us if we think the Romance is in them. We can hurt ourselves by trying to capture the things through which Romance has shown, or we can hurt ourselves by trying to forget the Haunting, and resigning ourselves to the Romance’s loss. This resignation sees good as not startling, but only “nice”, and evil as normal.
In resignation we give up on the sacred Romance, but our heart will not give up, and we compromise. We become, and take, less-wild lovers.
God calls us to give up the less-wild lovers, embrace our nakedness, and trust in his goodness. We are at a fork in the road. The one path can only be seen for a short distance, and looks uncertain, unpredictable. Anxious, we have no good road map, but just snippets of travellers before: encouraging but frustratingly vague.
The other way looks straight and safe far as the eye can see, and signs promise success on the next leg if directions are precisely followed. We read one last note quaintly encouraging us to trust the goodness of the first path, and start on the route of discipline and duty.
We discover that we don’t feel much of anything, don’t connect with people. Our passions show themselves in inappropriate ways. Our heart is with us, journeying under protest. So we crush it with more activity — or let our heart have a secret life on the side. We arrive at Vanity Fair, peopled by deadness of spirit, lack of love, lust, pride, anger… We think this is as close to the Celestial City as we are going to get, and so set up shop and try to distract ourselves with the soul curiosities and anesthetics: Bible study, community service, religious seminars, hobbies… These are often good things, but misused to squelch our heart’s longings.
Most of us fall into two categories vis-a-vis these less-wild lovers. There are those who anesthetize their hearts via competence or order (a clean desk, stellar athletic skills, impressive dinner parties, massive amounts of time reading Scriptire), like a picture perfect wife who is always busy, admirably involved with the community, and is never really there to her husband. Her sadness says, “My heart is not available for anything that is not safe and tame. I am careful to avoid surprises that might upset my control, and if you were wise, you would, too.” She tries to keep away the pain of the Arrows by sealing off those compartments of the heart that have been wounded. She may have grown up in an atmosphere too delicate to handle the weight of her unedited soul.
Others choose a different kind of control: indulgence. They seek a taste of transcendence from non-transcendent sources: porn, obsession with sports, or living off our giftedness, which is like crack cocaine to our souls. They touch the heart-place made for transcendent communion without being transcendent, and shackle us: addiction.
Only unfallen communion will ever satisfy our desire, or allow it to drink freely without imprisoning it and us.
If God married to us experiences from the first group a legalistic controller, the second group is a harlot whose heart is seduced by every scent on the evening breeze. God says, “I love you and yet you betray me at the drop of a hat. Can’t you see we’re made for each other?”
God’s love became even more wild, but we become and take on lovers that are less wild. We give up on being in a relationship of heroic proportions, and take what is smaller but under our control.
The indulgence looks better than anesthesia, but the passion must be fed by worship or use of the other and so does ot leave us free to love. Its pleasure is part of the vanity of vanities.
The formulae that seem to control everything, do not offer wisdom about what to do with the depth of desire God has given us. If we try to anesthetize the desire, we become relational islands, and if we seek to indulge then familiarity breeds contempt and we must seek mystery elsewhere.
What, then, is the road less travelled, the way of the heart?
Perhaps, more than improving our habits, we are to invite Jesus into the aching abyss of our hearts. Internal discipline is valuable, but discipline imposed from the outside will be defeated. There comes a point when renewed religious activity is worthless. We must place our hand in God’s, and relate in a personal way to him. We are drawn to and fear this intimacy.
We are once again at the crossroads. There is a chasm between us and Christ, but he beckons and promises a bridge. We listen, but his words sound like many we should not have trusted. Some return to Vanity Fair, some close their eyes and take a step. We look in our valise, and pull words we disdained the last time we stood at a crossroads — now we see their truth. We see that good can be trusted in, and that God is good. We see that to be free, we must allow ourselves to be haunted, surprised by goodness we cannot hold.
We fear to really ask for such bold movement from the wild God, and sit down, honest with ourselves. Vanity Fair never really has felt like home. We are captured by our less-wild lovers. We take the step into freedom.
We are clueless as to how we will cross the abyss, but we are glad to be on our way.
After a number of activities last night, I felt a beckoning from God to lie down and be with him. I lay down, and made being with him one more activity — I was trying to do something to accomplish being with him. I felt a prompting to stop, and did, with hesitation — trying to let go, and beginning to succeed.
The next thing I knew, I awoke from a nap, wonderfully refreshed and filled with his presence.
Discipline is essential to spiritual growth, and there are several things I am doing as a matter of discipline: Bible reading, e-mailing prayer requests to my friends and praying for their prayer requests, transcribing the lyrics to hymns into a collection, and this journal. But the disciplines are for faith, not faith for the disciplines, and I have felt a freedom to not be bound too tightly by the disciplines. Yesterday I did not enter a hymn, and it felt wonderful.
One of the questions or doubts I have concerns my professional future. I have a master’s degree in applied mathematics, with a computational science and engineering option, and want to work as a mathematician or at least a programmer. Use it or lose it skills are beginning to atrophy. I think it will be sad if I acquire this education and then never really use it — I am trying to hold that out, open to God to work with. It’s his domain, not mine.
I visited my friend Robin, a few days after we spoke and that first spark was lit, to see if there were any words of wisdom that he could share with me, any direction or advice. I asked him what he had been learning, and he said a number of things. Nearly all of them were things I had reasoned out theologically, but there is sometimes a difference between reasoning out a truth as a doctrinal proposition and coming to own it, to breathe it. The lesson above about manna, for instance, was one I had thought out before (and I do not wish in the least to denigrate learning something intellectually. I am served very well by my intellectual knowledge, and I am worshipping God when I reason things out). But there was one he mentioned that hit me. Although I had reasoned it out, I am not sure how well I’ve assimilated it.
That has to do with where your identity comes from. The Christian’s identity should come from Christ, and I realized that my identity in very large part comes from what Curtis would have referred to as competence — what I can do. I am very intelligent and have a number of talents, and when I think about myself… perhaps you could say that I have feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Being a Christian is a very large part of my identity, but so are the talents that I have. I realized a couple of days ago that many of my fantasies are about having some (usually odd) superhuman power, such as knowing the contents of all the books ever written, or speaking a thousand languages at a native proficiency. Those fantasies express something very revealing; they answer in some way the question of “What, in my heart of hearts, do I really believe would be an expression of who I would like to be?” Who you would like to be is usually an expression of who you are, a magnified and concentrated sense if you will. A hint of how this is, might be shown in that a black man’s fantasies will have him be a black man, and a white man’s fantasies will have him be a white man: a black man does not become more of the essence of a black man by becoming white, nor a white man become more of the essence of a white man by becoming black. (I realize that this isn’t the whole picture, but I don’t want to add all the nuances now.)
The importance of “Who do you understand yourself to be?” might be observed in a fact about the early Christian Church. The society they lived in was quite sharply divided and segregated by race, gender, and social status. Feelings of superiority and hatred were the norm; an organization like the KKK would not seem to people to be abnormal or disappointing.
In this context, there appeared what both itself and outsiders recognized as a new race: Christians. There really was not any longer Jew nor Greek nor barbarian, male nor female, slave nor free. People mingled across those boundaries, and a large part of this was because their identities were not “I am a free Jewish man,” but simply “I am a Christian.” (Martyr’s Mirror records some early martyrs who, when asked their names, simply answered, “Christian.”) People were still (for example) free African men, but the core of their identity, the core answer to the question, “Who am I?”, was Christian.
I am not at that point yet. A large part of my identity comes from speaking French and ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition, for instance. It has been very difficult for me to not have, or be frustrated in applying, or slowly be losing, some of those abilities. Those things are to be enjoyed and used, and are blessings from God, but… My friend Robin was able to say that he had realized that if he were to lose (for example) his computer abilities, it would be an adjustment, but it would not be that difficult to go on; he would not have lost who he was. I’m not at that point yet. I think that (say) being paralyzed from the waist down would be an easier adjustment than having my intelligence move to an average level.
I think this is important, but I don’t know what to do about it. Pray and be open to God, perhaps; he’ll move on when he wants to, and maybe I’m not ready for that. God doesn’t try to do everything at once; we couldn’t take it. He works on us slowly and patiently; he isn’t in a hurry.
There were a few insights I had theologically, and I thought about including them, but decided not to. This is a journal of how I am doing spiritually, not primarily a theological writing. (I think some of the above may have shifted too much to writing a lecture for readers from writing a journal as I grow close to God. I’ll try to shift back.)
Today has been a good day. I had a good, long, and unplanned conversation with my 14 year old brother Joseph. Deep, open conversations are something I have wanted and not had for a while. I’ve had people willing to talk and listen, but when the time comes I haven’t found much to say. (That is frustrating — wanting to talk and having someone to talk with, but not to actually be able to say anything.)
I thought a bit about what Robin said — about being closer to God, and being more open to other people. I think the two are linked for him. I was able this time to be open to Joseph, to listen and engage when he was ready to talk.
One thing that I have been thinking with, out of this, is that I have been affected by the scientific method. The aspect of the method that is relevant here is that you reproduce initial conditions to bring about the same outcome — a matter in which the scientific method reflects human and even animal psychology. It runs deep in me, and it is something I have to let go of in this regard.
In spiritual life, I do not (at least on some scales) have an experimental apparatus before me to manipulate in order to get desired effects. The conversation I had with Joseph was a good conversation, but I know I can’t bring about another such conversation by repeating what I did before this one. The more immature side of me would also like to have over again the experience at the train tracks, but I know that I cannot cause that to be repeated. God can, but I can’t. These experiences are to be enjoyed, then cherished and let go of when they are over. God will grant fresh experiences, like writing this journal entry for me (I didn’t think I’d have anything to say after a day’s rest), but the manna must be fresh each day. The temptation is perennial to regard God as my personal genie — but he is not, and I cannot control what he does, not even by faithfully repeating whatever I did to which he responded with a blessing. He answers prayers, and even his unpredictability is part of his love. He is faithful, and responds to his people’s reaching up to him. He blesses people as they receive Communion. But there is something in spiritual life — or at least the speck of it I’m experiencing now — that is quite unpredictable, where God responds to us as he will and refuses to be manipulated by our doing what we did before a blessing.
Tomorrow after church, instead of seeking out people to listen to me, I’ll try to seek out someone I can listen to. I mean to ask, “How are you?” — slowly — and then wait and listen to the answer.
When I was growing up, I had a miniature collie named Goldie. (A miniature collie is a dog like Lassie on TV, only smaller.) She was a wonderful dog, a good breed to have with children. When I was a little boy, I covered her back with Vaseline. Then my brother Matthew (3 years younger) covered her back with peanut butter. Then we both covered her back with honey. Later and finally, Ben and Joe (10 years younger) covered her with honey. The poor dog hated baths. I have a lot of fond memories of her.
This morning, I looked out the family room window, and saw a miniature collie wandering through the back yard. It was good to stand and watch it.
Then, when I arrived late at church, I was looking at the bulletin cover. The bulletin covers vary in cover according to the liturgical year, and today’s bulletin cover was white. I slowly realized that the cover was not a pure white, but flecked with little specks of color — something that I had been trying to find for a Christmas gift but not been able to.
Finally, as I looked through the songs, I saw that the last communion song was “We will dance”, a beautiful song that I had been looking for the lyrics for and not found. The song goes:
Sing a song of celebration Lift up a shout of praise
For the Bridegroom will come, The glorious One
And Oh, we will look on his face
We’ll go to a much better place.
Dance with all your might Lift up your hands and clap for joy
The time’s drawing near, When He will appear
And Oh, we will stand by his side
A strong, pure, spotless bride
We will dance on the streets that are golden
The glorious bride and the great Son of Man
From every tongue and tribe and nation
We’ll join in the song of the Lamb
Sing aloud for the time of rejoicing is near
The risen King, our groom, is soon to appear
The wedding feast to come Is now near at hand
Lift up your voice, Proclaim the coming Lamb.
I said three blessings, but I remembered a fourth. I had become slightly depressed last Sunday after meeting a girl but not being able to talk with her. I was able to chat with her and a few other people today.
These blessings are interesting, because they are a kind of blessing I try not to focus on. The immature mind seeks to find happiness primarily by controlling the circumstances out there; the mature mind seeks to find happiness more by controlling the circumstances in here. These blessings are the sort of blessings that someone immature would ask for; therefore I wasn’t expecting them. I had forgotten them, and forgotten that, even if they are lesser blessings than a tranquil heart, they are still blessings. I hope that I have a few more such blessings.
A part of maturity comes in giving up a pleasure principle — in having joy and being able to appreciate pleasures, but not chasing after them in a primary sense. I have come to realize that there’s more of that pleasure seeking in me than I thought. It’s part of what I seek from God. I evaluate some of the blessings in part by what pleasure they give me. I don’t know when (if ever) I’ll outgrow it, but at least I’m aware of it now.
There is one more thing I remembered about the church service. As background for this, I wasn’t holding my bulletin at the time, and the musicians often repeat verses, so it can be hard to tell when a song will end:
As “We will dance” was being sung, there came a point when the music was winding down, and I said to myself, “I enjoyed that, but I don’t need it to go any longer.” I happily prepared to sit down. Then things sped up a little and the song continued on for a bit longer — at which I was delighted — but I did not wistfully desire for the song to linger on and on. I was able to enjoy it, cherish it, and then let it go.
(The background principle, if it would help to state explicitly, is that a person who is full doesn’t ask for more. Immoderation, finding something good, will try to have more and more of it, or finding a good moment, try to make that moment last forever. Moderation allows good things to pass from experiences to memories, capable of both holding on and letting go. The topic is explored beautifully in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.)
The music is hauntingly beautiful, and speaks of a childlike, hushed awe and wonder. It is music that can be sung without breaking the stillness, the silence. The emotions that the piece, or its thought, evokes, are the ones I have surrounding Christmas carols in a minor key — which is what I decided to make of it. It tells of being a little boy in pyjamas, warm and out in the living room, drinking a cup of hot cocoa at night where it is wintry cold outside and warm inside, waiting for Christmas to come. (When I was a boy, Christmas was one of my favorite holidays because of all the presents I got, and I looked forward to that a great deal. Now it’s the presents I give.) (I’ve got the melody written down, and I have some words, but I’m not completely happy with them — except for the last four stanzas. They allow people to sing and listen to the music.) To me, there has been something special about music in minor keys, that I have difficulty explaining. Perhaps you could say that major keys are pretty, like a dandelion, and minor keys are beautiful, like a rose. I have heard people say that minor keys are sad, and there is some truth to that, but to say that and nothing more is to paint a very deceptive picture. A better word would be ‘bittersweet’, and music in a minor key can tell of a bittersweet beauty — which includes the haunting beauty of the Romance described above. Bittersweet waters run deep.
Here is the present version of the piece; I don’t know how to write sheet music in HTML, and for that matter I don’t know if there is any better way to do it than include a GIF of some sheet music, which is why the music is written as it is.
(As I have been writing this, I have been feeling the emotions I would feel if I were singing it.)
Once there was born a lit-tle ba-by,
Born out of the pure vir-gin Mary,
Sent from Hea-ven he ca-ame to ea-arth,
Word of Cre-a-tion, found a-a-mong us,
Son of God, the Word ma-ade fle-esh,
King of Kings and Lord o-of Lo-ords,
I had coffee with a really cool friend tonight. His name’s Joel. At the beginning, I showed him something I’ve been working on for Christmas, and he cried; he has been in intense spiritual warfare, and what I wrote really touched him. (I was worried during the time he was reading, because his brow wrinkled and I thought he didn’t like it.) He is a seminary student, and asked permission to use parts of it when he returns to Mexico. During that time, I also decided to see if the church would use “In the Silence” around Christmastime. I’ll go to the church office tomorrow.
We had a good conversation, and I was able to encourage him, and talk and listen. We talked about different cultures (among other things), and he spoke of Mexican communication style: where an American would have a logical, outlined plan (premise, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion…), a Mexican will have one central point and then give many different pieces of supporting evidence. Joel mentioned that his wife sometimes got frustrated with this: “Get to the point! Get to the point!” I mentioned to him that I am interested in different cultural communication styles, and he was welcome to communicate with me in the Mexican style.
When I walked away, I realized that he had been communicating with me in the Mexican fashion, and I was listening to it with ease.
A month or two ago in church, I was thinking about Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which has as a premise a person of totally alien culture entering our world (roughly). As well as experiencing culture shock, he causes a great deal of culture shock. He violates expectations people didn’t know they had.
I was wanting to find some other piece of literature like that, something else like that to read. Such a theme would be hard to find — it’s not the sort of thing people generally write about. And then it suddenly dawned on me what other book would fit that description: theBible, with God in it as the stranger. “My thoughts are not like your thoughts, nor are my ways like your ways.” God is a totally alien intelligence, one not like a man. He does not have any culture, but uses people’s cultures to speak and work with them. He speaks all languages, and knows all cultures’ ways of thinking. He works with these things and meets people where they are, but is always more than they are, and beyond comprehension. He is not now an organism walking on earth, but is immaterial, in all places at all times. He is not bound even by time. He is par excellence the stranger in a strange land.
I remembered this in connection with my present experience because, for my years of faith and study of spiritual things, what is happening is very different from what I would have expected an awakening to be like. The first thing (the experience at the railroad tracks) is about the only thing that happened the way I could have expected. My unspoken attitude towards the blessings on Sunday was, “Thanks, God, these Christmas presents are nice, but would you please draw me close to you?” Whoops.
I’m so glad that God doesn’t give us what we want.
Oh, and I’ve gotten almost nothing out of what I’ve read of Thérèse de Lisieux’s autobiography. I was expecting to learn a lot from that.
After reading Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, I began to think, “That article should be a book,” or more properly was wishing that I could find a book to read that would be like it, hold the same charm. The haunting beauty it tells of manifests itself in the article. There are a lot of books a little like that, but I only know of one that’s really like it: Peter Kreeft’s Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, which I hope to reread. Then I realized something heartening: I may be writing a book like Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire. I might not be, of course, and I cannot tell if this writing will haunt others as Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire haunted me. If it does, though, that will be a beautiful thing.
Free time is a blessing in moderation. Having eight hours of free time a day is not eight times as good as having one hour of free time a day. I was very frustrated to have hours and hours of free time on my hands and have lost my creativity. Now it feels good, once in a while, to have been a bit busy.
At lunch today, I said something that I realized had broader application than its original context, and application to blessings from God.
It has to do with a difference between European and American attitudes towards alcohol and parties. In America, alcohol is the reason for the party. In Europe, alcohol is present and it is enjoyed, but it is not the reason for the party. It is given a subordinate role, a part of the enjoyment of the other people — and therefore probably enjoyed more.
A good party doesn’t need alcohol, but alcohol can add something to a party. C.S. Lewis said that nobody puts a bow on a baby’s head to hide how ugly she is. In the same spirit, alcohol is not what makes a party good, but neither is it something that has nothing to add. It adorns the goodness of a good party, just as a bow adorns a baby’s head.
Many things are like that — not needed, but they have something to add. Christmas gifts are like that to friendship and family — gifts cannot be the substance of the relationships (and it is perverse to try to buy love by giving gifts), and a good friendship needs no exchange of gifts — but they are none the less a beautiful adornment. The principle also applies to some of my attitude towards how God was working with me — I was thinking “Either I have community with God, or I have lesser things that are easier to want and harder to be satisfied with.” No — I can have both, with the lesser adorning the greater. A lesser good is still a good.
Up until recently, I was somewhat ashamed of my singing voice. Now, I have been able to listen and hear its beauty.
Relatedly… I am afraid of driving. I am slightly nervous when I drive, and more nervous when I’m not driving but thinking about it. My fear has been soothed a great deal by singing in the car.
Tuesday nights are Pooh’s Corner nights, meeting at 9:58 — one of the highlights of the week. Tonight I was waiting for it to start, and around 8:30 or 9:00 felt what seemed like a prompting to leave my house for Pooh’s Corner. Leave and do what? I wondered, as the only thing I could think of was to go to a little chapel on campus, and I expected half an hour or an hour of prayer to be too much, too boring. After some dallying, I went. The chapel was dark, with a little light filtering in through a stained glass window. I love darkness and semidarkness; I love starlight and moonlight. (My eyes are fairly sensitive in dim light.) And in there I sang; that is, I prayed twice. After a time of singing prayers and sitting in peaceful silence, I felt a prompting to leave. I looked at my watch; it was a bit early. So I dallied a bit, and then left, and on my way out found a Palestinian high school student with little brother, who was looking to see if the Stupe (Wheaton’s snack shop) was open. It was closed. We walked and talked for a little while; I started to take him to a nearby Starbucks, but found out that he was on a tight time schedule, and we parted ways.
I walked to Fischer, where Pooh’s corner meets, and found out that it’s not meeting — Thanksgiving weekend. I was not too disappointed, not as much as I would have been other times. I was then glad for the time in the chapel (which I approached with an attitude of rushing, as something to do while impatiently waiting for Pooh’s corner) and with the high schooler (who I enjoyed the opportunity to try to serve, looking with pleasure on an opportunity to serve Christ, thinking, “Pooh’s corner can wait,” and for that matter contemplating staying with them for coffee). I was able to watch and listen to a whole freight train crossing the tracks (something I enjoy). And I was able to get back in time to be able to get some sleep tonight — I would have been up even later if there had been Pooh’s corner, and I would have been tired for work (I was pleasantly surprised at how well rested I felt today).
I just, as I was writing, pieced together something that had been on my mind. I was at the church office today, and an acquaintance by the name of Andy brought in someone named David (I think; my memory’s hazy) who walked like someone with a bad case of cerebral palsy, made annoying noises when he breathed, was immature and mentally retarded, and couldn’t talk. I was annoyed, and I think I did a pretty good job of containing my annoyance and trying to think lovingly (which is not something that is stopped by feeling annoyed), but I couldn’t concentrate. Andy was talking with him, gently and patiently, and there was something in the manner in which he was talking that said that he very much enjoyed David’s company. “How can he do that?” I wondered. I was right in how I acted — there is nothing wrong with controlling yourself, nor with seeking to love when you don’t feel like it (indeed, loving when you don’t feel like it is valuable spiritual exercise). I was still in wonder at Andy, though.
Then when I was writing about the Palestinian student, I realized what it was.
Jesus, in one of his more chilling parables, tells us (Matt. 25:31-46, NJB):
When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it for me.” And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.
This parable is foundational in importance, and it needs to be digested. It affects your whole attitude towards people. It was the semiconscious backdrop to my attitude towards that Palestinian student — and the fact that I did not see him as an inconvenience or an interruption (interruptions can be the some of the most beautiful things; certain interruptions are to be seized), that I was happy to spend a few minutes with him and would have been happy to spend an hour over a cup of coffee and miss Pooh’s corner, that I had difficulty understanding his accent and had to ask him to repeat things, that I offered to lend him my coat when it was cold out and he did not have a coat… None of those things were done with gritting-my-teeth willpower, or offered as noble sacrifices. (The thought that they could be viewed as sacrifices didn’t even occur to me until I started writing.) They came out of a gift — the ability to do those things is a gift from God. That gift’s name is ‘love’, or ‘caritas’, or ‘agape’. Like some other gifts from God, it is a gift that grows with use — and Andy is a bit further along in that gift than I am. There is something special about that virtue that it hides itself, so that its presence may not even be recognized. When I asked myself, “How can he do that?”, I was really asking the question of “How can he summon the willpower to behave kindly when he is experiencing the same annoyance I feel?” That is a wrong question. The answer to the right question is, “It flows from God’s grace.”
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
As I was sitting, watching my little brothers play Monotony, and chatting with Matthew, who is studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and not around very often, I felt a prompting to look for a gift to give him. What gift could I pull up for him in an hour? Well, I reasoned, I have my creativity back, so I’ll probably be able to think of something. So I started thinking, and paced a bit (which is what I sometimes do when I’m thinking), and thought of this journal — and quickly dismissed the thought, for several reasons. It is the project I’m presently working on, and when I’m working on a creative project I want to tell the whole world — and so I send it to all sorts of people I know, including some who probably shouldn’t be bothered. (Sometimes I do it for the wrong reason; I am doing it less to share than for an emotional desire for the praise I receive.) I also sometimes give gifts, or big gifts I’ve put too much work into too quickly — before the relational context has been built up for a gift to have its proper meaning; it has somewhat of the same thing wrong as buying love. This journal-in-progress is not the sort of gift that is appropriate to give to an acquaintance whom you have only talked with for two hours.
I said that I dismissed the thought; it would be more accurate to say that I fought it with the same energy that is in defensiveness: Qui s’excuse, s’accuse. I fought it, and thought of another gift to give, a signed printout on nice paper of one of my poems. And I will give him that, too. But throughout the time, I had a feeling that I really should give him this journal. Finally came the words, “Think about who you are going to see.”
When we first met, Carlos paid for the coffee, and (when I was feeling guilty about not doing a better job of fighting for the check, something I do badly) he said something; I don’t remember the exact words, but he said that it tastes better if you don’t argue about who’s going to pay for it. Not fighting for the check can express a trust and acceptance of the other party’s generosity, and letting someone else be generous and pay for it is as kind as paying for it yourself. Before that point, I felt bad about not knowing how to fight for a check; after that conversation, I have had some doubts about that custom — it embodies some virtue, but doesn’t go all the way. Love should be generous and willing to pay; it should also honor others’ generosity. It is more blessed to give than to receive, and a holy heart should be willing to let others have the greater blessing. I might ask him to buy me a rice crispies treat when I get there.
Then I realized exactly what Carlos will do when he receives this. He will read it carefully and with interest — probably making time for it soon after he receives it. He will feel honored to receive it, love me more for it, and use what it says when he thinks about what to pray for when he is praying for me. (Carlos, could you pray that I grow closer to my brother Matthew?) And for a friend like Carlos, even if I’ve only talked with him for two hours, this gift is perfectly appropriate.
Carlos was feeling sick after work, and almost called to cancel our meeting. That was why he didn’t say much; I caught him when he wasn’t doing well. He treated me to a good steak burrito and a bottle of guava Jarritos. (When he asked how the burrito was, I told him that it seemed good, but I’d need another one to be sure.) And he said that he was glad we met.
There was one C.S. Lewis short story where several people were at a colony in space. After a number of events, the story ended with a monk asking in prayer, “Can you forgive me, Father, for thinking I was sent here for my own spiritual convenience?”
I was thinking primarily of myself and my own spiritual growth when I asked Carlos to meet for coffee, which there was nothing wrong about. We should place a great emphasis on our own spiritual development: what does it profit a man to gain the entire world and lose his soul? Here, though, God was calling me to the next step: to meet Carlos not for my own benefit, but for his. It was good for me, though, but in a different way: another step in maturing.
It’ll be a good lesson to keep in mind as I see relatives today at Thanksgiving.
I prayed and went to bed early last night — more slowing down instead of always moving. I woke up today feeling relaxed and truly refreshed for the first time in a while. I’m in the family car, moving up, and plan to get some sleep now.
I am writing this on a laptop which I am quite fond of. I use it for programming, writing, and other things. I wrote the above entry, shut it down to sleep, and when I next tried to turn it on, it wouldn’t go on. My heart was placid; I expected a non-functional computer to be a disruption to what I do, but I wasn’t upset. I think that’s a good sign. I tried to turn it on just now, and it worked. I’m a little worried now, because of an intermittent failure, but I’m glad that this happened. I thought I was much more attached to this possession.
I think I might know what is wrong with the laptop; the switch may be bad. If so, that shouldn’t cost much to replace.
I have struggled, and felt guilt about, a dislike for the aged. For a while, I haven’t liked my grandmother, because her mind is going and she looks old. I remember some frustrating conversations in which I was unable to think of anything to ask or anything to say that would elicit a response which could appropriately be called normal adult conversation. I did not sin in having a dislike to deal with, and I do not think my guilty feelings were called for, but my displeasure at her presence and that of other seniors distressed me.
There is an element of beauty that is culture independent, but cultural conditioning can affect what is perceived as beautiful. Ideals of beauty vary from culture to culture. The American ideal of feminine beauty could be caricatured as a pre-pubescent boy with silicone implants. A healthy woman’s body will tend to have thicker legs and bigger hips than most women on TV, and the Venus de Milo looks almost flat next to them. Many cultures would find our supermodels to be sickly, and nowhere here would we find a comment like one made by Marco Polo in the Travels, that a nation’s women had breasts four times as large as those of normal women, and they were exceedingly ugly. Our culture’s icons of feminine beauty are also very young. There is no chance that someone the age of Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery would be voted the sexiest woman in America. When an older adult appears in advertising, he is usually portrayed disrespectfully; many of the disapproving adults in Tropicana Twister ads were elderly, far older than anyone shown heralding a product other than something like Depends undergarments. It is disturbing that one way of promoting a product is to show a wrinkled nun making a face that would curdle new milk saying “We don’t approve of Tropicana Twister.” Would such a thing be done with a bosomy young nymph? We have very little sense of what it means to revere the hoary head, or why someone would refer to the aged as ‘venerable’.
Tonight, amidst the fellowship, I was able for the first time in as long as I can remember to look at my grandmother and see her as truly beautiful. Yes, she is an octogenarian; yes, she is wrinkled, yes, she was sunken in her wheelchair. She still looked beautiful to me. And it was good, not only to be able to enjoy looking on her, but to realize that something had healed in me. It was something like what I realized as I wrote about Andy at the church office and my time with the Palestinian high schooler — good to see an unmerited, God-given grace.
At most family gatherings, I have not connected with the other people, not clicked, not jived. (I was once kicked out of a frat party for that reason.) At this gathering, I wandered around a bit, initiating a few conversations (I had a good talk with my uncle Doug; he’s a good listener), told a few jokes (Jenna had the most delicious expression on her face as she got them), and finally after sitting down with the adults talking realized that there was a relaxed synergy going; I had clicked, and was in the conversation. It felt a little like a campfire.
There was a poster I saw on the wall at Wheaton College’s Computing Services, that talked about becoming a Unix wizard. It was in the form of a miniature catechism, and had questions like, “How many kernels do I have to take apart?” and “What books should I read?” The last question was, “How will I know I know when I am a Unix wizard?” Its answer was profound: “Never mind about when you will become a wizard. Just walk along the path, and someday you will look over your shoulders and see that the mantle of the Unix wizard has lain upon your shoulders since you knew not when.”
That insight applies to many things in life; it offers a deep alternative to our habit of thinking of everything in terms of a sharp beginning and an end. Here, I would certainly not say that a great mantle has lain upon my shoulders since I knew not when; all the same, there is something similar: suddenly realizing a virtue I had hoped for but not had.
I mentioned “In the Silence” in a letter to Grandma, saying that I would sing it to her at Christmas. She has a broken hip, and probably won’t be around for that much longer. I hope that the expectation helps give her the strength to hold on, and that she will be able to hold on gracefully until then. She is very lonely in the nursing home, where she is to heal.
My brother Ben just came in from outside and showed me a battered, dirty diver’s watch, asking me if I recognized it. It took me a second, but I recognized it as a watch I had worn a while back. It was still working. I was at that point trying to politely entertain an interruption I didn’t want. Then he pulled something else out and asked me if I recognized that. I looked at what he had pulled out, at first not recognizing it and then not believing what I saw.
It was my high school class ring.
I had worn it on the band of that watch for a time, and when a pin came loose and the watch fell off, the ring was lost with it. I looked all over the house for it, and today found out why I hadn’t located it — it was outside, next to the garage. This happened at least a year ago, and I was sad to see it go. My high school was very important to me, a formative influence, and I did not get rings for any of the three institutions of higher learning I attended. Having it back reminded me on a little level of the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9, NASB):
Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully untill she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!
I took Ben to celebrate with me at The Popcorn Shop. The Popcorn Shop is a converted alleyway between two brick buildings, and has a wall lined with glass containers of all different kinds of candy, ranging in price from $1.00 to 1¢. It is the sort of place children’s dreams are made of. It is one of those places that is not polished and commercial in veneer, business as it may be, but instead has something that a child would find magical. It was good to take Ben there and spend some time talking with him, although I was cold. When I looked up the parable, I appreciated experientially Jesus’s explanation (Luke 15:10, NASB):
In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
After that, we went bowling, which was nice. I got my first strike in a while, followed by a spare; my total score was 66 for one of the games. During part of that, I began to realize something about myself. I have been an intense and passionate person; for an e-mail address, I chose nimbus(@ameritech.net), and in role play have spent a fair amount of time playing a character named Nimbus. ‘Nimbus’ is Latin for ‘storm’. Some people might have chosen the name Nimbus in a negative sense — with connotations of being dark, forboding, and destructive — but I chose it in a positive sense. From childhood I have loved being out in a storm, and I especially cherished the warm, wet rainstorms in Malaysia, and so I chose the name Nimbus in an entirely positive sense: it has a meaning of wild goodness, of energy, of life-giving water pouring out of Heaven, of play. Even the darkness I never associated with evil or forboding, but with colors that are rich, deep, and alive, and of the same sort of beauty I wrote of in describing the chapel.
Now, I am starting to feel, perhaps to become, something like the peace after a storm, when everything is still and fresh.
Possibly related to this, in a negative manner, is something else I have realized. For at least a few months, I have felt broken, in a sense similar to how a torturer breaks a man. It is not separately articulated in Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, but it does seem to be related to (for example) how the article talks about people who have heard the Message of the Arrows giving up on being part of a romance of epic proportions. It is more than a breaking of will. It is a breaking of dreams.
It seems to have occurred through a couple of things. One of them, but a lesser and indirect one, has been being unemployed in the areas I would like to be working in: something that would be intensive in mathematics and computer science (two disciplines that are intermingled), work that would involve heavy brainpower and allow my own particular combination of abilities to shine. Another more severe one is having nothing to do for much of my time — and more severe still, and related to it, a loss of creativity and general dullness. Having a lot of time on my hands would have been a good thing if I had creativity to think of things to do, and now I am enjoying the time much more because I can work on projects.
Those projects are not just pass-time (and I have started not to write down theological insights if I would just be writing them to amuse myself), nor even just work, but Work. I’m not sure how to concisely describe it… ‘work’ is a dreary, menial, meaningless job that is taken in order to obtain money. ‘Work’ is spiritually ennobling activity that may not be immediately pleasant (such as an assistant in a hospital wiping patients’ butts), but which a person connects with, has a relation to human dignity (and Mother Theresa’s dignity was helped and not hindered by cleaning festering sores), and is done for the sake of getting work done. It may be paid or unpaid, and may occur in a number of contexts, both formal and institutionalized, and informal. At least in this country, people doing Work for their jobs are often making less than they could be making if they were to do whatever work paid the most money. My father is an associate professor of computer science and a top-notch information technology worker, and supports our family at a reasonable level; we have everything we need and a few things we don’t. He enjoys the contact with people and the opportunity to share the joy of his discipline with others. If he wanted money, he could fairly easily pursue consulting work and charge justified fees that would earn enough money to make us all miserable. I’m glad he has chosen his Work as a professor.
I was doing work but not Work, and… my father used the word ‘submerged’ in reference to how I was doing. These things — lots of time that I was unable to Work in, loss of my creativity and perhaps other cherished faculties, and a general narcosis-like state that could be described as dullness, being submerged, or a haze — seem to have been what caused a brokenness. Out of the Message of the Arrows came, not so much a defense of wearing a false self, but a weary brokenness that would not throw my whole self into things.
I was in my room wondering today, why God is giving me what seem like a lot of little things, but not some of the bigger things I want — among them a computer science job that I can Work in. As I was writing, I realized that maybe I’m not ready for that, that maybe he has to heal me first. A Bible story may be taken as an illustration (Luke 5:17-26, NAB):
One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him for healing. And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; they were trying to bring him and set [him] in his presence. But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.” Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, “What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He stood up immediately before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they sayd, “We have seen incredible things today.”
Jesus did care about the invalid’s body, and did eventually heal it. But he put first things first, and beforehand gave him something of infinitely greater value: he healed the man’s relationship with God. My sins are forgiven, but there are other wounds I bear that need to be healed, perhaps before I will be ready to get a job where I will really be exercising the talents God has given me.
I realized as I was writing the past few paragraphs that, since the night at the railroad tracks, I have not felt like saying, “I give up,” meaning a giving up on life (although I am not clear, besides suicide, on how exactly one might go about doing that). I had felt like that often before then. This doesn’t mean that I’m healed, but it probably does mean that healing is at work.
There is a possibility for one information technology job that has come across my door, a webmastering position at two hours a week. It’s not exactly what I would have envisioned (I would have thought of something half-time in programming), but it would be a good first step as well as my present job in manual labor half time to get into information technology work — and a good prospect at learning how to webmaster. I would like this possibility to become a reality, but strangely I am not clinging to it. I am a little better able to let God work with me, putting first things first and healing my broken spirit first, and let him work at whatever pace he chooses.
God’s way is not to delete evil, but take it and redeem it, producing something even better than things were before. Heaven will not simply be Eden restored; it will be something better, far better. We will share in the divine nature. In the Gospels, a woman’s bad reputation and many sins were taken and made not only into a restored person but a beautiful story (Mark 14:3-9, NASB):
And while He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head.
But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good; but you do not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for the burial. And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done will be spoken in memory of her.”
Perhaps Nimbus becoming Pax (and the fruit of the Spirit is peace) may how my brokenness is being redeemed. Perhaps my passion is coming back, albeit in a sublimated form. I don’t know. But I am trying to open my heart to the wind’s free play.
That surprised me a bit, as we both know the value of discipline — and he clarified later that he was not meaning to disparage Bible reading at all. But there is something in that. I think I understood it a little better today, when I realized that I hadn’t been reading theBible much for the past few days, and been no less close to God. It’s hard to put into words why — an approximation would be to say that God is in control, and he will orchestrate things as he chooses.
On Thanksgiving, my uncle Doug asked me if I was a coffee drinker, and (after a hesitant pause) the answer I gave was this: I enjoy coffee a great deal when I drink it, but I don’t drink it very often. I like to savor a crèeme de menthe espresso, but the thought of gulping down some sludge each morning to be jolted out of a stupor seems disgusting to me. As much as I enjoy it when I drink it, I just wouldn’t want it to become an everyday thing. (Today I went out with Joseph and purchased ice cream for him and another hazelnut mocha for myself. I should have gotten ice cream. The coffee, triple as it was, was nowhere near too much caffeine over time in a health sense, but it was trying to have a pleasure over again too quickly. As good as it was, I enjoyed the few bites I had of Joe’s ice cream more.)
I realized today that that attitude, apart from the possible snobbishness that can accompany a preference for gourmet coffees to American staple coffees (and I do not wish to suggest that drinking a cup of Maxwell House each morning is sinful — but I am not going to attempt to explain why this jives with the rest of what I am saying beyond saying that a line of moderation can legitimately be drawn in different places), is a manifestation of moderation. By this I mean that moderation goes further than stopping at a certain point and not going further. It, over time, will reach into a deeper orientation of attitudes, emotions, and desires, such that the desire to enjoy a blessing does not translate to a desire to have more and more of it. My dislike for the idea of drinking coffee every day is not moderation itself, but an effect and signal of moderation. An ability to enjoy blessings in an appropriate time and place without extending them to every time and place showed itself in wanting an occasional coffee while losing the desire to be drinking good coffee as often as possible. It is something that is not very much a part of American culture, not taught very much. (I think we lost a real understanding of what temperance was, about the time of the temperance movement.)
I also realized something else today, and was able to articulate something that had been implicit in what I wrote earlier, namely that virtue can take qualitatively different forms as it develops and matures. Andy’s graceful kindness with David, and my frustrating struggle to maintain a good attitude and not think ill of him, both came from the same virtue, from the highest of virtues in fact: agape, caritas, deiform love. The difference was a difference of maturity in the virtue’s formation: it flowed from him, but I could only remain in that virtue through difficult struggle. A similar difference may be seen in forms of moderation: at an early stage (and I am still at an early stage in other facets of moderation), it revolves around determination in cutting back your desire to have more, and at a later stage the virtue results in a realignment of desires so that the way you want to enjoy things is a way that can draw full benefit from doing something once, and not engage in a futile attempt to obtain from four or five what eluded you the first time. This kind of moderation means enjoying things more, not less; it enjoys things more in the fashion of a museum goer who spends a couple of hours and truly comprehends a few paintings, than failing to enjoy them in the fashion of a museum goer who rushes here and there, looks for a couple of seconds at hundreds of paintings, and at best manages to see that some of them are pretty.
In some ways the immature forms of virtue might even be more strongly commended than the mature forms, because they are more difficult and less enjoyable. A recovering alcoholic who strugglingly refuses to touch a single drop of liquor (rather than have just one drink, and then just one more, nad then just one more, adn than jest won more, andt hen jes tone mroe, antdh nej tonf qfr3…) is to be commended in a fashion that is not merited by a man who has no real propensity to alcoholism, and has two drinks and easily refuses a third. He puts far more effort into exercising virtue. But the more mature forms of virtue are more highly to be desired.
Thomas Aquinas did not regard self-control as a virtue, because who he understood to be a virtuous man would not be constantly needing to restrain his passions — kind of like saying that a family with parents who are good disciplinarians is not one where the parents are expert at stopping the children from fighting and throwing temper tantrums, but one where the parents do not need to stop the children from fighting and throwing temper tantrums. I would suggest rather that self-control is a virtue which has a much more prominent place where the person’s virtues are immature, than when the virtues have matured more. If parents adopt children who come from a rough background, then good disciplinarians as they may be, much of what they may find themselves doing at first is stopping fights and temper tantrums. Good discipline over time will mean that there are fewer and fewer fights and temper tantrums to stop, but that does not change the fact that the immediate form of good discipline will mean a restraint on the children’s unruliness.
After my creativity began to return, the first real creation I can remember making is the following poster:
I learned it all from Jesus.
A gift does not need to be costly in order to be big. A little child is worth God’s time. All who believe are brothers and sisters. Be thankful. Be the first to say, “I’m sorry,” and the first to forgive. Believing means clinging with your whole heart. Clothe yourself in prayer. Commune with God. Cry. Dance. Don’t judge. A respected pillar of the community can be two steps from Hell, and a prostitute can be two steps from Heaven. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today has enough worries of its own. Every blade of grass, every twinkling star, every ticklish friend, is a blessing from God. Cherish them. Everything in the whole Creation tells us something about God. Give someone a gift today. God delights in you. God has a sense of humor. God is a friend who’ll never, never leave you. God is an artist. God is everywhere, from the highest star to inside your heart. There is nowhere you can go to escape his presence — or his love. God is found, not in earthquake nor fire nor mighty wind, but in a soft and gentle whisper. God is your Daddy. God watches over even the little sparrows. Heaven is very close. He is risen! He who sings, prays twice. He who dances, sings twice. He who laughs, dances twice. He who prays, laughs twice. Hug your friends. If you have to have everything under your control, trusting God may look as stable as a cow on ice skates. Trust him anyway. It’s worth it. If you want God to smile, tell him your prayers. If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans. It’s never too late to repent. Joy comes from suffering. Keep on forgiving. Laugh.Listen to other people’s stories. Listen to the silence. Love God with your whole being. Love one another. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Make every action a prayer. Make your prayers and your good deeds secret. Play with children. Prayers ascend like incense before God’s throne. Purity does not reside in the hands, but in the heart. Respect the aged. Rest. Serve. Sing. Take time to be alone with God. Tell God you love him. Tell your friends that you love them. The Heavens tell the glory of God.There are miracles all around. You just have to be able to see. Treasure God’s smallest blessings. We can bring little pieces of Heaven down to earth. What you do for the least, you do for God. Work is a blessing from God. You are God’s image.
Then, a few days after then, the Christmas carol “In the Silence” above was the first musical piece I had composed since the loss of creativity. Now, the above musing about virtue changing form is the first significant and new (to me) theological insight I have had since that point.
Last night, I had some time before bed that I didn’t know what to do with. I felt let down and deserted; my emotions were of the same kind as when I had time and was unable to think of anything worthwhile. So I prayed.
The first thought that occurred to me was to clean my room. But I was reluctant to do that, and said in sincerity “I’m not ready for that now.” The next thought was of catching up on my New Testament reading (the one part out of four that I hadn’t caught up on yet), but I was Bibled out for the day. Then I cleaned up a couple of the larger items on my floor and paced a bit, and noticed on the piano a page of music that I had left out: a simple piano arrangement of Amazing Grace. I played that with pleasure, and when I was standing up to leave I noticed a splash of color: Roger van Oech’s Creative Whack Pack.
The Creative Whack Pack, which I had noticed earlier and forgotten to look at, is a deck of 64 cards, each one of which has a tip on how to function more creativity. It is quite good, especially for someone who doesn’t know how to use his creative faculties well or doesn’t have naturally flowing creative juices (another good resource is a book entitled Conceptual Blockbusting, written for engineers but valuable to all sorts of people). I slowly read through a few cards, trying to savor the experience rather than fly through and have the whole deck read before I knew it. Some were things I knew, a couple were surprises, and after hitting “Sell, sell, sell!”, I acknowledged an insight which I had been suppressing: some of aspects of the cards were questionable, or at least left another shoe to drop. Someone said, “Never mind about others stealing your ideas. If they’re really good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” The resistance suggested in that quote is akin to a resistance I had been putting up so well that I wasn’t even aware of it: that the authority (in this case, the deck) could be wrong. Once I admitted that idea, I had another idea for something to write: “The Other Side of the Coin,” which would give the other side of the coin for these cards. (I’m not going to share that writing, at least yet, for copyright reasons: at least the most obvious good way to write it would involve citing the entire text of the cards, and I’m not doing that without obtaining permission from Mr. von Oech.) It’s good to have something more to write.
I thought a small group meeting I was invited to, was going to be at 5:00, and was disappointed to find out that it’s not until 6:00 or 7:00 (I’m writing a bit before 6:00). I started reading through more of the Creative Whack Pack, and then set it down and noticed three pieces of framed Malaysian batik that are hanging on the wall (and just now, the play of the light). The batik is really beautiful, with flowing colors, and I hadn’t really noticed it when I came in. It’s a funny thing to realize after writing what I wrote about the two museum goers.
This journal is more of an outer journal — a journal of what I do and what happens to me — and less of an inner journal — a journal of what transpires within me and who I am — than I’d intended. I’m not sure what to make of that; perhaps it’s better that way. I don’t know.
I feel a certain trepidation towards going to work tomorrow. Especially after a long weekend, it’s hard to go back to work… the dread I feel is similar to that I feel towards driving a car, which can leave me lying in bed slightly nervous the night before, and similar to the trepidation I feel in anticipating a long block of time I can’t think of anything to do in. It is not an intense fear, but one that is vague, ill-defined, and discomforting. In it is some doubt — the little doubt is a doubt that I’ll have enough energy to keep going, and the big doubt is a doubt that it’ll be like the time I’ve spent with God over the weekend.
These emotions do not correspond entirely to my best rational judgments. I know in my head that God is quite as capable of meeting me as I am testing toy computers as he is of meeting me as I read something good or write this journal, and that the work day is only four hours, which I am ready for. I know in my head, but my heart doesn’t know, and I’m a bit scared.
I am taking this as a time to trust him, to (as the Mars Hill article says) embrace my nakedness and trust in God’s goodness.
Something else which I just realized (or, more properly, admitted to myself) as another place where soul work is required…
I am not at peace with being an American. I would much rather be a European.I cannot now say “I am an American,” with the same secure pleasure that I would say “Je suis un français,” were that true.
I am legitimately far more European in spirit than most Americans. I believe that there severe flaws in American culture, moreso than most fallen cultures — ranging from pragmatism that has no patience for things without immediately visible use (which turns out to mean many of the deepest and best things in life), to television, to a shallow and disposable concept of human relationships — and I know that Neil Postman in Technopoly certainly wasn’t grinding an axe against America when he named America the world’s first and (as of the book’s writing) only technocracy (a country which is ruled by technology). I enjoy a great many things about French and other European culture: the sound of the language, the idea of moderation in use of alcohol, the deeper friendships, the higher level of education and greater intellectual substance of the conversations people have (a group of French young people will discuss Balzac rather than the Bears), the old cities, the art, the architecture, the speaking multiple languages, the body language, the kisses, and many other things I cannot now name. After she spent a month in France, my ex-fiancée Rebecca commented that everything she saw there reminded her of me. I hold both differences with many of the peculiar features of American culture, and affinities to many aspects of European culture. That stated, there is still something in the picture that is wrong.
Perhaps a way to state it is that I not only embody certain European characteristics, but wistfully wish to be what I am not, and be further over. That doesn’t capture the latter part quite well… Another approximation would be to say that it’s like a child’s walking, dressing, and talking like a sports hero — appropriate in a boy, but not in a man. It may have something to do with a manifestation of reverse culture shock that I haven’t gotten over for some reason. A good description of the root problem would be to say that I’m not at peace with being an American.
In college, I wrote a cynical book entitled Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary: A Free Online (Satire) Dictionary. All of the problems I described in that book are real problems, but it was still written in the wrong spirit. I wrote in a way that took pleasure from pointing out what was wrong, and that should never be. As I let go of that, I realized that one of the tests of love is to see everything a cynic sees, and still not be a cynic. I don’t want to stop seeing all of the problems in American culture, nor do I want to stop being somewhat European in spirit, nor do I want to stop seeing how beautiful French culture is. What I do want is the analogue of still not being a cynic: to be at peace with being an American. Living in France was a great blessing for a certain period of time, and it will always be a sweet memory, but it is not a blessing I have now, and perhaps a blessing I may never again have this side of heaven. I still may not fit in very well among typical Americans, and that does not bother me. I do want to stop looking down on my homeland — and really hold it to be my homeland — and take that culture as a basis for interacting with other cultures.
This is a less-wild lover to give up.
(But the reprieve hasn’t been as exciting as I’d hoped.)
I just realized something that I don’t know exactly what to do with.
In the early stages of a friendship, it is easy to share things about yourself with your friend, because you don’t know each other very well. As time passes, that becomes more difficult; it’s harder to think of something to share. I was expecting something similar to appear with this journal. It may well kick in at a later date (I’ve only been writing for about two weeks) — but I am surprised at the pace I’ve been able to keep up with. (I have been looking forward to the slowing up, in order to write a less gargantuan epistle, leaving something behind that will let people see the crystallized essence of my journey.)
I acquired a Dilbert poster that listed several definitions to terms in information technology jargon. Among the definitions new to me was ‘brain dump’, defined as “The act of telling someone everything one knows about a particular topic or project. Typically used when someone is going to let a new party utilize and maintain a piece of programming code.” That struck me as a really cool phrase, in part because I am familiar with the Unix term ‘core dump’ from which it would appear to have come. It’s a beautiful metaphor.
I was looking for an opportunity to use it, and today I realized that what I am writing is a brain dump of an awakening. I thought for a bit about changing the title of this document to “Brain Dump of an Awakening,” but the term’s really too obscure to use in a title… unless it’s something that would acquire meaning as its definition is encountered in the document… not for the moment, at least.
When I first heard about Y2k, I basically ignored it, or more properly did not seriously think about it. I am not much given to alarmist pictures.
In my job search, I talked with some consultants who are involved in selling Y2k merchandise, who painted a doomsday picture and then gave me a couple of URLs to look at. I looked at them and others; with others since then, I’ve seen expert opinion varying from hiccup to doomsday. What is disturbing is that the thinking of the doomsday experts seems eminently rational; with my knowledge of the realities of software maintenance, the argument I’ve seen for why the power grid should be expected to go dark makes perfect sense. I haven’t seen rebuttals to the arguments for things going wrong. Now, I’m not sure either way; I haven’t seen evidence to persuade in another direction, but either outcome tendency seems plausible. I would say that there is at least a 30% chance of something going severely wrong: the grid going black, or distribution logistics breaking because of defective code (and fixing that stuff involves finding several needles in a haystack), or chaos because of public panic, or some stock market crash for these or other reasons. If some of those things happen, I will probably die.
One thing that I observed in people talking about how to prepare for Y2k was that there was a lot of talk about preparation for physical needs (food, water, heat, money…), and almost no talk about mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation. This seemed to make no sense to me, as (for example) being snowbound generally offers no severe physical threats, but causes people to go batty (“cabin fever”). Disasters seem to be at least as much a mental stress as a physical threat, and being properly prepared at least as much psychologically as physically. I asked in a couple of newsgroups about this. Apart from “I’ve noticed this, too; please tell me what you find,” I got basically three responses: (1) Get books, games, contraceptives, etc. to pass the time, (2) you could study a martial art, as the discipline will help you, and (3) draw close to the Lord.
Many people have been helped by faith in traumatic situations, such as being held hostage and prisoner by terrorists. I was a bit disappointed by the answers I got, because I was hoping for something I didn’t know or couldn’t have guessed at, but especially with the third one… I do not see this awakening in terms of Y2k (I did not make a connection before today), but if I were primarily concerned with spiritual preparation for Y2k, I would not choose much differently from what I am doing now.
Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord were returning the next day. His answer? “Plant a tree.”
Before I continue, let me make an aside and say that my evaluation of certain things, and the impression I take away from them, differs from that of many people. In books, the titles I have most benefitted from have not typically been the most classic of what I read; I learned far more from G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi than I did from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. (I’m sure that Aquinas would gently smile at this, happy that I could learn about God from some source, and that Chesterton would positively wince.) My observations usually don’t directly conflict with other people’s, but I observe a different part and draw different conclusions. The three movies I have held in highest regard, only one of which I would want to see now, are The Game, Labyrinth, and Titanic.
In the reviews I read, Cutthroat Island got slammed again and again: it forced 20th century politically correct feminism onto another era, some things were ludicrously unrealistic, and so on and so forth — criticisms which were entirely valid. But I liked it. Why? Part of it probably has something to do with the fact that I drank two shots of spiced rum as I watched it, but I think there’s more to it than that. What I liked about the movie was that it captured a certain beauty, a certain romance. When children are playing pirate, they are capturing a certain feeling, a certain impression. It’s the same sort of thing a Disneyland ride does well that a Six Flags ride does badly if at all. That’s what Cutthroat Island did. The visual scenery was beautiful. That movie can be enjoyed in the same spirit as Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
It was the visual effect that haunted me, and from which I felt a desire to visit the rich, white side of the colonial West Indies that was in some sense portrayed — and it ached all the more because it is a place I cannot go, a place that perhaps never really existed (and I do not mean to suggest that I take Cutthroat Island as serious historical fiction), a place that I can only go in my dreams (if ever — and I have returned to Paris in my dreams). A haunting to go back to Paris is one that may quite possibly come true — I expect to go to California to be with my father’s side of the family for Christmas, and that was not something I expected until my parents started talking about it recently; Paris would not be that stranger of a windfall, and for that matter one of my uncles and one of my cousins will be in Paris soon for layovers going to and from Mali, where they will be translating. A haunting to go and participate in Carnevale in Italy is something I do not regard as probable, but would quite probably come true (including sharpening my Italian to a basic conversational proficiency) if I threw my weight into it. But a yearning to visit a place that no longer exists… The trip to California will be bittersweet, as my grandparents will shortly thereafter be selling their house, a house that holds a lot of fond memories for me (such as the time that Matthew and me, as little boys, climbed up in their treehouse and couldn’t figure out how to get down). The visit to the house will hold the bittersweet knowledge that I can enjoy it as I visit it, but I’ll never see it again. And soon my occasional remiscences of that place will be yearnings to visit a place that can I can never visit again. To get back on track, a haunting to visit a place which no longer exists is more painful than one to visit a place I may well return to, or one that I will probably will never see, but still could if I put my mind to it.
For all the ache, it was a special and pleasurable moment, a sign of life.
When I first looked at Wheaton, I felt that there was something wrong with its Pledge, but signed it anyway. (The Pledge is a document that all community members are required to sign, and tries to outline a Christian life and then prohibits activities such as drinking and dancing.) During my time there, I found myself running away from my conscience over this issue, and at one point decided to stop running, did a massive search of Scripture, my conscience, and the perspectives of other people, and came to a conclusion. I wrote the following letter to the editor, which one of the philosophy professors said was the best treatment of the issue he’d seen in eight years of being a professor there:
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Pledge
If the name of this letter hasn’t nettled you, then something is wrong. If what it refers to hasn’t nettled you more, then something is very wrong.
At the heart of Christianity are many things. I will not name and elaborate each one here, but there is one which seems forgotten to some: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
When Christ came, he fulfilled and completed the Law. The Law was not a bad thing, but it was incomplete – not as a matter of God being a spiteful bully, but because it was the most complete form that could be before the Messiah. Now has come the one about whom Jesus said, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” (Luke 14:26, NIV). Throughout Galatians, Paul corrected those who were trying to live under law and rejecting the Spirit: “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? … But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (4:9, 5:18, NIV).
While the Law has some very important commands (love God, love your neighbor, maintain sexual purity, worship God alone, care for the poor…), it does not have the Spirit and consequent freedom. When you take away the Spirit, then there is a replacement of freedom with written codes that restrict in situations where they are not useful: don’t eat any bacon, don’t wear clothing made of two different fabrics, don’t consume any alcohol, don’t dance.
Now, you may say, there is a difference between the Mosaic Law and the Pledge. Of course there is: God himself composed the Law and handed it over to one of the greatest prophets of all time, before Christ.
The Pledge’s restrictions, pragmatically speaking, do not constitute more than a mild annoyance to me. Missing a dance every couple of months does not annoy me nearly as much as if (for example) my dorm had only one laundry room, off in a far corner of the basement. Theologically speaking, however, there is a much more major concern. The Pledge is a perfect fit for a castrated Christianity without the Holy Spirit: despite its many words and enumerations, nowhere does it mention the Holy Spirit, and parts of the end (…in order to establish a Christian community…) implicitly require the heretical notion that the Holy Spirit either doesn’t exist, or cannot be a basis for such a community.
The joy of my life would not be destroyed if all pig products left my diet for pragmatic reasons (the local grocery store doesn’t carry them, it’s too expensive, I don’t want to clean up the grease splatters from cooking bacon…), but if a present day Judaizer were to imply that it is unclean to consume what Christ has declared clean, or that that would aid the establishment of a Christian academic community in a way that the Holy Spirit cannot, then that would badly need correction. Likewise, I dislike the taste of alcohol, but am deeply offended that, in order to teach here, my professors cannot enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.
Satan’s way of working in this world is often to twist good things that God has created. The things that the Pledge “goes beyond what is written” (I Cor. 4:6, NIV) to prohibit are, in some cases, good things that God has ordained for the benefit and enjoyment of humans, which Satan often likes to twist into deadly poison. The solution is not to completely disallow these things for all members of the community, but rather (as per Romans 14-15) to use judgment and the Spirit to avoid what will cause you to fall into sin, and to avoid what will cause fellow believers to fall into sin.
If you haven’t done so lately, please read Romans 14-15, Galatians, and Colossians. And think – about letter, about freedom, and about the Spirit.
CPO 1202, x6751
I requested a conscientious exemption from the Pledge, and when that was denied, I transferred out of Wheaton. It was one of the most painful decisions of my life.
Now, George Poynor, one of the people in charge of Wheaton College’s Computing Services, is trying to line up what would be an excellent job and opportunity in almost all respects. My father was explaining this to me, and commented that George was trying to see if he could get independent contractor status for me (which would not be considered community membership and therefore not require signing of the Pledge), and if that didn’t work out, “it’s only six months.” When I told him, “I can’t do that,” it became evident that he is considering trying to force me to sign the Pledge, and that he does not understand my “No” to mean “No.” His mind’s not made up on that, but it is possible that he will try to make me sign the Pledge. I can’t do that in good conscience. Much of my will may be broken, but not that part; when I left Wheaton, I made a very firm decision never to make that mistake again, never again to swallow my conscience like that. If my father throws his weight into insisting that I sign it, the conflict will be long, drawn-out, and exquisitely painful.
I feel angry, truly angry, for the first time in a long while.
The forum wall is one piece of local color at Wheaton; it’s a section of brick wall where people tape things up, write on the things taped, etc. When we arrived, Robin drew my attention to one piece that was up on the wall:
WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE A WHEATON CYNIC?
“In sexual love the cynic perceives lust; in sacrifice and dedication, guilt; in charity, condescension; in political skills, manipulation; in the powers of the mind, rationalization; in peacefulness, ennui; in neighborliness, self-interest; in friendship, opportunism. The vitality of the old is pathetic; the exuberance of the young is immature; the steadiness of the middle-aged is boredom.
“And yet, even for the most disillusioned cynic, an aching longing remains for something true, good, or beautiful.” (so there is hope for you yet)
He started moving other posts to make space, and suggested that I put it up next to this post. I was puzzled, as I had been when he suggested I read it, and asked, “As a rebuttal? A joke?” He said, “No,” and pointed me towards the bottom of the post.
It wasn’t until we got back to his apartment that I got it — and realized that he had selected the perfect place to put it.
I have been feeling depressed.
At Pooh’s Corner, I was distracted for a good part of it, wanting to get up and write about the posting on the forum wall, but still trying to enjoy it, as that would be all the Pooh’s Corner I would have for the week. Pooh’s Corner meets in the lobby of Fischer dorm, where I stayed my freshman year. It is a place full of distractions and people passing through. There is a piano there, and partway through I realized in a flash that I had been drinking the music in the same way that I drink wine.
What I mean is this: Wine, as contrasted to e.g. milk or juice, is something you can only take a small amount of. You can drink water until your thirst is quenched, or have several glasses of milk, but with wine it is different. If you are having one drink, then that translates to a 5 ounce glass — not even a full cup. If you drink it the same way you drink Pepsi, you are going to find yourself holding an empty glass before you know it.
Consequently, when I drink wine, I sip it very slowly, and I consciously savor it in a way that would never occur to me if I could drink an indefinite quantity and remain sober. What I realized last night as I was thinking about my realization was that I taste wine in a way that I do not taste milk. I drink milk, and like it, and vaguely and absently taste it, but do not taste it wholly. With wine, the realization that I only have a little amount and it will soon be gone keeps me from absently quaffing glass after glass; when I have a glass of wine, I sometimes close my eyes and am able to taste it so intensely that I am not aware of anything else.
That is what happened with the music, and which I realized afterwards. I have no control over the music that is played, and the most beautiful passages seem to be over so quickly. At one point in the music, I was doing the same thing as I do when I hold a sip of wine in my mouth, close my eyes, and savor it — I was concentrating on it so intensely that I was not aware of anything else (in a busy room with many voices talking and people passing through), and when it was over I had a feeling of having drunk it to the dregs.
It was somewhat strange to realize that I had learned such a thing from wine. My attitude towards alcohol is European rather than American, and (without trying to trace the argument here) I regard alcohol as a symbol of moderation, and learning to enjoy things in a temperate manner (the Puritan attitude towards alcohol). I had not, though, expected that in drinking I would learn something of this nature. I think that what I did is close to what goes on in empathic listening — a drinking in with your whole being. At the beginning of this journal, I talked about not being able to engage. This is a point where I have learned to truly engage in one area, and it may well help me to engage in others — it has helped me to enjoy music, at least.
I also realized in my walking on Tuesday that I really do know myself, and that that is a good starting point for relating with people. It was a pleasant thing to realize, after a feeling of clumsiness and not really knowing how to relate to other people — not that I now feel perfect at relating to other people, but I feel that I have a good start.
In the car going to work today, I suddenly realized a couple of things: (1) I had forgotten to sing, and (2) I was not afraid, either in the car or before then. I felt some fear after realizing this (perhaps I had simply forgotten to be afraid), but it was good to realize.
I was also thinking, Tuesday, about a point related to chapter 4 of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Specifically, many things imagined as magic and psychic phenomena are exaggerated and cosmetically altered versions of things God has given us. For example, teleportation (to be able to move instantaneously from point to point) is less astounding than being able to move from point to point in the first place, and there are many creatures which live without any such faculty (such as trees). Telekenesis is not that much more astounding than having hands with which to move things. Mental telepathy is quite similar to speech, and the surprise we would have at seeing mental telepathy is nothing like the surprise an animal (with a sufficiently anthropomorphic mind) would have at discovering that once one of these creatures learns something, the rest know it. It would be like what reaction we might have upon first learning certain things about Star Trek’s Borg, multiplied tenfold. If it is thought of in this manner, the concept of speech is far more impressive than the concept of altering speech by changing the channel through which the mind-to-mind transmission occurs. It might be also pointed out that, in the past few millenia, we have found another channel for mind-to-mind transmission to occur: reading and writing. When one pair of Wycliffe missionaries was working with some tribesmen, they were trying to persuade the chief of the advantage of writing. One of them left the other room, and the other one asked the chief’s mother’s name, and wrote it down. When his partner returned and read her name, the chief almost fainted.
There are a couple of things that come from this.
The first is that God’s creation really is magical, in the sense of being something awesome, and something we should be amazed that we have. It is in our nature to become blasé; our eyes become glazed over at magnificent things. If we can somehow let scales fall from our eyes, we would be dumbstruck at what we have — for example, music.
The second is that, if we can become blasé at what God has given us, we would probably also become blasé at the things we fantasize about. When I was a child, I absolutely loved to swim, and I wished that I could breathe underwater… but that (after a little while) would have held nothing for me than being able to breathe air, hold my breath, and swim underwater. I have fantasized about all of the special powers that I would like to have, and when I do that I do not much enjoy the gifts I have, not only as a human being, but personally — my sharp mind and so on and so forth.
Also related to this insight was kything… In A Wind in the Door, Madeleine l’Engle uses the word ‘kythe’ to describe a beautiful communion beyond communication. It is the whole cherubic language, of which mental telepathy is just the beginning. It holds a similar place to ‘grok’ in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the meanings of the two words are similar. I am not going to try per se to describe its meaning further, but simply refer the reader to that excellent book.
What he had actually seen she could not begin to guess. That he had seen something, something unusual, she was positive.
This is the same sort of feeling I felt about kything.
There is something in that word that strikes a deep chord in my spirit; it is the primary reason why that is my favorite book out of the series, and at times been one of my favorite books at all. In conjunction with the above musing, l’Engle’s portrait of kything has a beauty that is not an ex nihilo creation, that shows forth a beauty that is really in this world but which we do not see. I would very much like to kythe — but I can’t do what’s in the book without sinning. What is in this world that embodies the beauty of kything?
As I was thinking and praying, I realized several things that may, in a sense, be called kything, that are beautiful in the same way. I felt a Spirit-tugging to list a hundred such things. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that, or if so where I’ll come up with a hundred, but I will none the less try.
2: Holy Communion. God speaks to us through that.
3: Martial arts sparring. It takes time (I’ve studied martial arts for a little over a year, and I’ve only begun to taste this), but there is something martial artists call ‘harmony with opponents’ that is a deep attunement. I’ve had one sparring match where I knew everything my opponent was going to do about a quarter second before he did it. A good book to read to get a little better feeling for this is The Way of Karate: Beyond Technique.
4: Flow, as described in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.
5: Empathic listening. This is listening in which the listener is completely attuned to the speaker. I don’t know any books to reccommend for that topic.
6: Drinking as I drink wine, or as I drank music.
7: Improvising musically. Music is an alien language, not symbolic, not logical, and yet speaking powerfully. When you can really let the music flow through you, you are kything.
8: Making love. The subject of the Song of Songs is not just a physical act, but a total communion between a man and a woman, united for life.
9: Stillness. There is a way of being still that is kything.
10: What I did at Pooh’s Corner the first night described.
(Well, there’s ten at one sitting… I expect to come back to this later.)
11: Mathematical problem solving. I won’t even begin to explain this, beyond saying that to those who have experienced it no explanation is necessary. Just remembered — there’s a good book on this topic for non-mathematicians, entitled, The Art of Mathematics.
12: Musical improvisation with another person. I have never done this, but I remember, at Calvin, being fascinated by my friends Bruce and Janna talking about when they improvised together at the keyboard. It worked. I believe, from conversations, that the Spirit was guiding them, and it was a communion with the Spirit and each other.
13: Singing prayers in tongues. I don’t pray this way very often, but when I do, it’s very uplifting. It is a praying, not with the rational mind, but with the spirit, and it receives what to say moment by moment from the Spirit.
14: Non-sexual touch. It’s going to be hard to say something brief here, as I’ve written a whole treatise on this point), but to try: Non-sexual touch can be deep, and express something words cannot. It is the nature of love to draw close; touch is an incarnate race’s physical means of communicating love, and for babies the first and foremost way of knowing love. Beyond that… if what I am saying doesn’t resonate within you (or if you’d just like a hug), ask me for a hug — a real one. It took me a long time, but I have learned how to touch, and at times to drink touch as I drink wine.
15: Dancing. Wheaton alumnus Alan Light wrote a beautiful letter about how he had adopted a code of duty, honor, and steadfastness, and a folkdancing class had opened his eyes to joy, peace, and freedom. There is something beautiful of those things that can be learned in dancing, something that it’s easy not to know you’re missing. (For all that, I don’t dance very well. Before a knee injury, I had something to do with my feet that looked impressive, but I haven’t learned to dance (to commune with others, to connect in a merry, moving hug) as I have learned to touch.)
(Coming back after a time) I can recall one occasion when I really danced. At the last Mennonite Conference I attended, both youth and adult worship were religion within the bounds of amusement, but the youth worship was at least honest about it, and I preferred it to the adult sessions. Before a Ken Medema concert, there was a group of high schoolers playing a dance game, and I joined in. It lifted me out of sorrow, and there was a vibrant synergy, a joy and connection and communion. It’s something that everyone should experience at least once. He who dances, sings twice.
16: An I-Thou relationship. An I-Thou relationship differs from an I-It relationship as kything differs from mental telepathy. I only got halfway through Martin Buber’s I and Thou before setting the book down, because it was too hard to concentrate on, but it says a lot about how to kythe. As pertains to prayer and kything with God, I would pose an insight in the form of a riddle: how is it that the saint and mystic refers to God as `I’ without blaspheming?
17: Dreaming. One story in a marvelous book, Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk, ended with a character saying, “While you tend to judge a monk by his decorum during the day, we judge him by the number of persons he touches at night, and the number of stars.” Dreaming has always been special to me; it allows access to a different, fantastic world. It can be a way to kythe. What if there were a culture that regarded dreaming rather than waking as the aroused state?
18: Praying with another person. Where two or three are gathered, he is with them. When they are praying, there is not only an individual bond between each one and God; there are connections within the group. There have been some people who hold that a man and a woman who are not married to each other should not pray together; I do not agree with that, but the fact that such a position has been taken by levelheaded believers seems to underscore that there is a communion between people who pray together.
19: Artistic creation. When I create something, it fills my mind, my musings; I kythe with it as I give it form.
20: Children’s play. Children’s play can be timeless and absorbing, and Peter Kreeft, in Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, says that the activity of Heaven will be neither work, which is wearying, nor rest, which is passive, but pure and unending play, an activity which is energetic and energizing. Playing with children is entering into another world, a magical world, and entering into it means kything.
21: Listening prayers; listening to the Spirit. Ordinarily we think of prayer as speaking to God, but it is also possible to listen to him. And dancing with the Spirit — there are so many adventures to be had.
22: The Romance. There is a sacred Romance described in, for example, C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, and Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire. You do not come to the Romance; the Romance comes to you, although you may respond. Being in that is kything.
(I thought I might be able to think of 20 ways of kything… I’ve already gotten past that, by God’s grace.)
23: Silliness. When some friends are doing something silly — tickling or teasing (without going too far — this is something I’m not very good at), for example, it is not thought of in terms of something serious (as ‘serious’ is misunderstood to mean ‘somber’). None the less, there is in the lightheartedness a bond being forged or strengthened, a connection being made. Kything at its best is communication that needs no symbolic content, that has something that can’t be reduced to words. So is grabbing your friend’s nose.
24: Friendship and family relations. This differs from the above items, in that it is not an instantaneous experience resembling an instant of kything. It is rather a bond over time that is more than communication, where hearts touch each other. It is a bond where two people know each other, and in the time spent together a connection accumulates.
25: Agape love. There is a vain phrase, “To know me is to love me,” that might fruitfully be turned around as, “To love me is to know me.”
One of the stories in Tales of a Magic Monastery goes roughly as follows:
The Crystal Globe
I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.
“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”
“Yes,” I said, “a real monk.”
He poured a cup of wine, and said, “Here, take this.”
No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a small crystal globe forming about me. It expanded until it included him.
Suddenly, this monk, who had seemed so commonplace, took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. I thought, “Maybe he doesn’t know how beautiful he is. Maybe I should tell him.” But I really was dumb. The wine had burned out my tongue!
After a time, he made a motion for me to leave, and I gladly got up, thinking that the memory of such beauty would be well worth the loss of my tongue. Imagine my surprise when, when each person would unwittingly pass into my globe, I would see his beauty too.
Is this what it means to be a real monk? To see the beauty in others and be silent?
There have been times that I have been able to see beauty in other people, sometimes beauty that they were not likely aware of. Robin and Joel might not think in these terms, but they have the sight that comes of love. The words, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” bespeak this kind of love. Love is the essence of kything.
26: Passion. When we are filled with passion, we are singleminded and undistracted. Someone said that hate is closer to love than is apathy; if anything is the opposite of kything, it is apathy. Kything need not be associated with intense emotion, but passion has something of the spark of kything.
27: Tears. Crying is cathartic, and comes unbidden at the moments when something comes really close to our heart — be it painful or joyful. My ex-fiancée Rebecca commented that she was impressed at one time she saw me crying in public. My friend Amy, after reading my treatise on touch, said that she wished I had written a treatise on crying — something that is well worth writing, but I don’t have it in me to write. To cry is to kythe.
28: Don a mask. Putting on a mask can be a way of revealing; in role-play, I have through characters found ways of expressing myself that I couldn’t have done otherwise, and many people learn more about themselves through acting. Temporarily putting on a mask allows you to kythe through that mask in a way that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
29: Stand on your head. With familiarity, we don’t really see the things before us; we become Inspector Clouseaus. This is why some painters stood on their heads to look at landscapes — to see afresh what was familiar. Standing on your head is not exactly a way of kything, but it does open up ways to kythe that would normally be overlooked.
I just had a change of perspective… I thought about soliciting others’ insights as to ways of kything, but with some guilt, as if thinking about not doing my work. Then I remembered what I was writing about — a connected communion — and that it would be very appropriate to have this be not my isolated work but the work of several minds. So I will solicit and seek the help of others.
30: Stop hurrying. Our culture is obsessed with doing things quickly, and rushes through almost everything. Carl Jung, heretic as he may have been, had rare moments of lucidity; in one of them, he said, “Hurry is not of the Devil. Hurry is the Devil.” Removing hurry, and letting a moment last however long it should last by its own internal timing, is not exactly kything, but it is a removal of one of the chief barriers we face to kything. Kything is a foretaste of the eternal, timeless joy that is to come, and in kything five seconds and five hours are the same. One good idea before trying to kythe is to take off your watch.
31: Walks. I have just come back from a kything walk. It was warm, the ground was moist after rain, the sky was mostly covered by pink clouds, and it was silence — there was even silence in the sound of cars going by. Summer nights, with fireflies and crickets and a crystalline blue sky, are excellent for kything walks. In thinking about this, I realized that what we have is an incarnate kything — spirit moving through matter — while l’Engle portrays what is essentially a discarnate kything — spirit moving without regard to matter. It is also interesting to note that (to me at least) touch is more kything than sight — with sight potentially working at almost any range (we can see stars billions of light-years away), and touch having no range at all. I’m glad that I can absorb the grass around me in a way that I cannot absorb the grass a thousand miles away.
32: Grace. Up until now, I have written about what you can do to kythe, but there is a lot of kything that God initiates and provides. Having a vision is a kind of kything, and that is not anything you can do. My time with God by the railroad tracks was a kything with him that I had no power to create.
33: Looking. I am allergic to cats, and my family has a wonderful grey tabby named Zappy. I usually don’t touch her, but I do sometimes sit and gaze at her for a while. (I just realized that looking at Zappy for a while has the same effect on me as stroking a cat has on most people.) I can recall being warmed by the same gaze as an expectant mother in my small group, Kelly, smiled at me as I stroked Lena’s head (Lena being the 5 year old daughter of the group leader). In medieval culture, beholding the body and blood of Christ at mass was in a sense almost more held to be a receiving, a partaking, than eating and drinking them. The kything power of sight is attested to in Augustine’s words: “See what you believe; become what you behold.”
34: Absorbing poetry. Here is an example of a poem I wrote which I think is effective for the purpose:
Beyond doing, there is being.
Beyond time, there is eternity.
Beyond mortality, there is immortality.
Beyond knowledge, there is faith.
Beyond justice, there is mercy.
Beyond happy thoughts, there is joy.
Beyond communication, there is communion.
Beyond petition, there is prayer.
Beyond work, there is rest.
Beyond right action, there is virtue.
Beyond virtue, there is the Holy Spirit.
Beyond appreciation, there is awe.
Beyond sound, there is stillness.
Beyond stillness, there is the eternal song.
Beyond law, there is grace.
Beyond even wisdom, there is love.
Beyond all else, HE IS.
35: Mirth. The one line from all of C.S. Lewis’s writing that most sticks in my mind comes from Out of the Silent Planet, where he wrote, “…but unfortunately, [name of villain] didn’t know the Malacandrian word for ‘laugh’. Indeed, ‘laugh’ was a word which he didn’t understand very well in any language.” I debated about whether to put laughter in, as it has many forms — some of which, as the cynic’s scoff, are corrupt, and some of which are lesser goods — but there is at least one form of laughter that really is kything. It is mirth. It can be found, for example, where old friends are sitting around a table after a hearty meal; the laughter is not just a reaction to isolated events, but a mood that has little eruptions over things that aren’t that funny in themselves. It is mingled with companionship and fellow-feeling, and is a mirth that is the crowning jewel of forms of laughter.
36: Becoming good. Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913, p. 877, has:
(Kythe, Kithe) (ki&thlig;), v. t. [imp. Kydde, Kidde (kid”de); p. p. Kythed Kid; p. pr. & vb. n. Kything.] [OE. kythen, kithen, cuden, to make known, AS. cydan, fr. cud known. √45. See Uncouth, Can to be able, and cf. Kith.] To make known; to manifest; to show; to declare. [Obs. or Scot.]
For gentle hearte kytheth gentilesse.
(Kythe), v. t. To come into view; to appear. [Scot.]
It kythes bright . . . because all is dark around it.
Sir W. Scott.
The latter meaning of ‘kythe’ is the reason Madeleine l’Engle, after a search, chose that word to carry her meaning.
C.S. Lewis said that the process of becoming good was like the process of becoming visible, in that objects becoming visible are more sharply distinguished not only from objects in obscurity but from each other; becoming good is becoming more truly the person you were created to be (being Named).
Becoming good is kything in the dictionary sense, and it is why I put it here. It is also a kind of kything, and an aid to kything, in l’Engle’s sense — a stepping into the great kythe, into the great dance. It is like learning vocabulary to speech, or a conversation in which one learns vocabulary.
37: Comforting those in pain. Pain can isolate, but it can also bring down the walls around a person. I can remember now one time at a retreat when I was in the long, dark night of the soul, when I drank in a friend’s silent presence and touch like a lifeline. The worst comforters offer words to fix everything with clichés and pat answers. The best often feel somewhat helpless, enduring an awkward silence as if they don’t have anything to offer to so great a pain, but none the less offer something deep, more than they could have put into words, more often than they realize.
38: Presence. This facet of kything is perhaps best portrayed not directly, but in its stark silhouette, painted by Charles Baudelaire in his poem “Enivrez-vous”: <<Il faut etre toujours ivre…. Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans treve. Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise….>> — “You must always be drunk…. to not feel the horrible burden of Time which crushes your shoulders and pushes you towards the earth, you must ceaselessly get drunk. But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please….”
Against this silhouette, of seeking something, anything, to flee into, stands out another facet of kything: that of being present, and giving undivided, focused attention. The kind of person you’d like to be around, the kind of person you’d want to have as a friend — isn’t he present?
39: Digesting experience.
A book is best understood, not just after being read once, but after being gone over several times. The same thing goes for experiences — they can be contemplated and pondered. This does not have instantaneous effect, but in a certain way it makes the experience contemplated a more complete experience, one that is more fully grasped.
40: Riflery. Riflery, I discovered, is not a macho thing, and someone who comes in with a macho attitude won’t shoot very well. It has much more do do with concentration, stillness, and patience. In riflery, I learned how to hold at least parts of my body so still that the biggest cause of motion was the beating of my heart. Riflery is not so much a kything with, as just a kything.
41: Brainstorming. I think I do not need to say much here.
42: Step into other people’s worlds… Tonight my father, Joseph, and I went to play ping-pong. I didn’t realize one thing I had been doing — playing Joe’s way, Joe’s rules — until I saw Dad make Joseph rather upset by insisting that he play a standard, official rules game of ping-pong. (To his credit, Dad later started playing Joe’s way.) Then I realized that I had been stepping into Joe’s own little world, and meeting him more completely than had I insisted we stay in the public space that all ping-pong players share. Joe didn’t exactly mean to play ping-pong; he wanted to spend some time together, play around, goof off in a way that happened to make use of the framework of ping-pong. Part of the time, he was doing silly things that weren’t ping-pong (such as hitting the ball around the room), which our father frowned on, and I commented were a little bit of Janra-ball (see below), a compliment which Joe said he really appreciated. People invite you into their worlds all the time, but the invitations don’t have much fanfare and can be hard to notice.I’m glad I accepted Joe’s invitation.
43: …and invite others into your own. In one letter, when cherished abilities were beginning to return, I wrote:
The other thing which I have to share now is something which happened during the Gospel reading at the mass. I had my first theological musing in a long while. That touched a greater frustration — that of reading some of the richest passages of the Scriptures, and learning almost nothing from them. There had one text that I read and was able to appreciate, if not being able to think much at all (Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come…”). This bleak dryness was broken both mentally and emotionally (there is a distinct and deep pleasure I have in theological reasoning), as I mused over the words: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places [or rooms, or mansions, in other translations].”
The most obvious interpretation of this metaphor is to think of a physical building, and that is surely appropriate. But I began to think of another interpretation of the dwelling-places, and that is this: our souls and spirits.
We have a temptation and a culture which defines happiness and sadness almost purely in terms of what is materially external to us: our possessions, the way others treat us, etc. That is certainly relevant — in that such blessings are to be gratefully received as a part of God’s grace and provision, and pains are a real suffering to work through — but even more important and more central is what is internal to us and our interactions and relationship with God. Being an alcoholic is a worse suffering than being in prison. It is something related to this insight that is behind many Eastern religions defining Heaven and Hell to be defined almost purely by your internal state. One Zen koan tells us:
A Samurai came to a Zen master and said, “Show me the gates of Heaven and Hell.”
The Zen master said, “Are you a Samurai? You look much more like a beggar. And that sword — I bet it is so dull that it could not cut off my head.”
The enraged Samurai drew his sword, and raised it to strike the master down.
The Zen master said, “Now show me the gates of Heaven.”
The Samurai sheathed his sword, bowed to the master, and left.
A person’s bedroom is a place that has flavor and detail; it is an interesting place to explore, especially as compared to the sterility of a classroom or some other public place. A person’s soul, too, has something of this color and distinctiveness; there are interests, memories, stories, and other things even more vital but which I have more difficulty describing — the particular virtues and vices, the particular tendencies, which cause a person to act unlike any other. A soul, like a house, is a place of hospitality — a guest is invited into a host’s house, to enjoy his comforts, his foods, and a friend is invited into another friend’s soul, to enjoy it in a deeper form of the way in which we enjoy a friend’s house. (In Heaven, there will be very much opportunity for hospitality; it will be the final place of community and celebration, and therefore our dwelling places can hardly be places of isolation.) For many years, I thought of this passage in terms of something of a more ornate, perhaps almost magical, physical edifice that would be nothing more; now, I see what is in retrospect obvious: when the old order of things has passed away and behold, all things are made new, our dwelling places will not simply be better purely physical buildings, but better than purely physical buildings. This is just as our bodies, which are dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, will not simply be better purely physical bodies, but pneumatikon, spirit-bodies, better than purely physical bodies. I thought before of these rooms as physical rooms which we would decorate with artistic creations — and those artists among you will know what it means, and what a room means, when you are able to fill it with your artwork. I still do believe that — and I realized another form that will take. By our faith, and by our works, we are doing with our spirits what an artist does with a room when he toils over artwork to adorn it with. We are shaping the dwelling places we will have for our eternal play (and one of the images painted of Heaven is one of neither work nor rest, but pure and unbounded play). God is shaping us to become gods and goddesses, but he is not doing it in a way that bypasses us and our free will; we are working with God in the work that will shape us forever.
Our souls, like our domiciles, are special places, far more than public places that anybody can enter without asking permission, in which to receive other people.
44: Nursing. The natural focal distance for an adult’s eyes is twenty feet and on; the natural focal distance for an infant’s eyes is eighteen inches, the distance between a woman’s nipple and her nose. (Infants look at, and remember, noses rather than eyes.) Feeding, important as it may be, is only the beginning of what is going on when a mother is nursing a child. To put it another way, the necessity of physical feeding provides the occasion for a kything of love that provides even more necessary spiritual feeding.
45: Pregnancy. A fortiori.
46: Timeless moments. One person, speaking of singing a worship song, suggested thinking not so much in terms of “We start and stop this song,” as “This song always has been going on and always will be going on; we just step into it for a time.” In this spirit, there are moments of kything, often unsought and unattempted, which do not so much start and stop as are a stepping into the Eternal Kythe.
47: Parenting a child with a severe disease. At a bioethics conference, Dr. C. Everett Koop said, “There is a special bond that forms with a defective child, often far moreso than a normal child.” He told a story from the practice of a Jewish pediatrician and colleague. A father lost a second child to Tay-Sachs, a degenerative disease whose people do not live to the age of four. Grieving, he said through tears, “He never gave me a moment’s trouble.” I am not sure why this is, but it may have something to do with why I enjoy a small glass of wine more than a bottomless cup of Coke.
48: Corporate worship. Worship is a foretaste of Heaven, and it plays a focal role in the Eastern Orthodox emphasis on bringing Heaven down to earth; they describe their worship as stepping into Heaven. Worship is also the highest form of love. In these two aspects, at least, worship is kything. Corporate worship is a kything not only with God, but with the others you are worshipping with.
49: Janra-ball. This is a game I devised, and has been described as a Zen NOMIC. To excerpt the ingredients list:
Springfield, Monty Python, Calvin-Ball, body language, Harlem Globetrotters, sideways logic, Thieves’ Cant, Intuition, counter-intuitive segues, spoon photography, creativity, Zen koans, Psychiatrist, adrenaline, perception, tickling, urban legend Spam recipe, swallowing a pill, illusionism, NOMIC, modern physics, raw chaos, F.D. & C. yellow number 5.
I originally hesitated to put this in, on the grounds that it is difficult to play, at least in a pure state. There’ve been a couple of times I’ve gotten together a group of people willing to play, and it didn’t work. I thought it would require players with more of something — perception, intuition, creativity, spontaneity, etc. — but in thinking recently, I have come to believe that it’s something, like empathic listening, that can’t just be turned on at will, especially by someone inexperienced (which would be everyone now). Joseph’s behavior at the game last night persuaded me that it is indeed possible, perhaps best started at in small increments from a more structured game. (Maybe Pooh’s Corner will be able to play. Who knows?) I will say this: It’s a difficult game to play, but if you can play it, it’s anawesome kythe.
For further information, click here.
50: Synchronicity/attunement. As treated in The Dance of Life, people have rhythms about them — outside of conscious awareness — and when people are together, these rhythms can become attuned (and, if so, the people themselves are more attuned). This is something that is not as well appreciated in our culture as in others. The easiest example or analogue I can point to (I’m not sure which) is in walking together and holding hands. When I was dating Rebecca, it took me a long time to learn to get in step, and stay in step — but things were smoother when I did.
51: A kind of openness. There is a kind of openness where you perceive something but can’t put your finger on exactly what. If you can listen, be opening, look, then there is a sort of listening kything. I checked out a copy of A Wind in the Door yesterday, and when I was reading through to find insights for more ways of kything, I came on something that I felt was significant to what I’m writing, but I couldn’t say what. I sat then, open, thinking, waiting to see what it was — and then realized that it was not the heart of a way of kything, but something to put at the beginning:
What he had actually seen she could not begin to guess. That he had seen something, something unusual, she was positive.
This is the same sort of feeling I felt about kything.
This is part of how kything is to Charles Wallace:
Meg said sharply, “Why? What did mother say?”
Charles Wallace walked slowly through the high grass in the orchard. “She hasn’t said. But it’s sort of like radar blipping at me.”
This kind of listening kythe is how I get a lot of the ideas for these items.
Then [Blajeny] sat up and folded his arms across his chest, and his strange luminous eyes turned inwards, so that he was looking not at the stars nor at the children but into some deep, dark place far within himself, and then further. He sat there, moving in, deeper and deeper, for time out of time. Then the focus of his eyes returned to the children, and he gave his radiant smile and answered Calvin’s question as though not a moment had passed.
Introspection is a kything with oneself.
53: Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a spiritual act, a restoration of broken communion.54: Artistic appreciation. In high school, I made a silver ring, designed to hold a drop of water as a stone. When I started to paint, I learned a new way of seeing. After a painting in which a pair of hands played prominently, I was captivated by the beauty of people’s hands all around me; for the first time in my life, I saw in them a beauty as great as that of faces.
What an artist does is allow you to see through his eyes. When you look at a friend’s watercolor, you are seeing the beach through her eyes, as you would not have perceived it yourself. When you read this list, you are thinking about the word ‘kythe’ through my mind.
55: Talking. This one is so obvious I overlooked it completely. The magic of symbols that allows mind-to-mind communication is one that is appreciated, for instance, when trying to work with someone who doesn’t speak a common language with you.
56: Looking into another person, and telling him what you see. I have always enjoyed other people telling me what they see in me. For a time, I thought that was vanity, and vanity certainly played a part. But recently, I have come to see a deeper reason for asking this of other persons.
I have for a while enjoyed asking foreigners what they think of American culture, and probed a bit not only for the appreciation they will voice, but criticisms. Most foreigners can articulate the character of American culture better than can most Americans, and they have insights that wouldn’t occur to an American. They see things that have become invisible to Americans. They have a distance, like aesthetic distance, that allows them to see what is too close to be visible to us.
For the same or analogous reasons, having another person tell you what he sees in you is another variant on introspection, like using a mirror in looking at yourself to see parts you can’t look at directly. Different people who have known you for different amounts of time can see different parts of you.
When you tell another person what you see in him, you provide this sort of introspection; your words fuse with his knowledge of himself to form a deeper self-knowledge, and say more to him than they would mean to anyone else. They connect. They kythe. It is like the story of the crystal globe — only you can tell people how beautiful they are.
57: Driving. In the car this morning, after having to take my brother to school and my mother to work, I was thinking about the podracing in Star Wars: Episode I — one of the most Jedi/Force parts of the movie — and I realized I was really enjoying driving for the first time in years. (I started late in driving, and have a fear of it. I had enjoyed singing while driving, but not driving itself.) I was very aware of my surroundings, and connected, and entered flow. Though I stayed within the speed limit and there were no hazardous conditions, it was in a very real sense podracing. It was a kythe with my surroundings and especially with my car, which was as an extension of my body. It is entirely possible to kythe with technology (and I was seeking an example), to have your hands on a steering wheel or a keyboard so that you are thinking through them, and your thoughts are not on your hands or fingertips, but where the car is moving, or what letters are appearing on the screen. Technology (techne, art + logos, logic, reason, domain of knowledge) is part of the creation of the imago Dei, and therefore has a role in God’s order. There is a tendency for the sort of people interested in kything things to be Luddites, but this need not be. If you can kythe with God, with another person, with a shaggy dog, with the grass, with ideas, with experiences, then you can also kythe with a car, with a computer.
58: Pain. This one will probably be difficult for most Americans to understand, and I’m not sure I can explain it well — here I will probably be talking around my point mostly. We live in a painkilling culture, one that attemps to delete that entire region of human experience, and therefore neither understands nor profits from it.
A place to begin is to say that leprosy ravages the body through one very simple means: it shuts off a person’s ability to feel pain. Exactly how shutting off pain causes such severe damage is left as a valuable exercise to the reader’s imagination. Pain is an awareness of your body’s state, and of what you can and cannot do without aggravating an injury. I very rarely take painkillers, because I want to know exactly how my body is doing. (Sunday night was the first time in memory of taking a painkiller not prescribed by a doctor.)
In addition, pain is a present sensation; it is not in our nature to not notice. Intense pain can fill consciousness. (Some mentally ill people self-mutilate because the sensation of physical pain, if only momentarily, can take them out of their mental anguish.) If all our kything is as real as pain, we are doing well.
59: Death. What was said about pain and our culture applies, mutatis mutandis, to death and our culture. (I don’t know any good books on pain; a good, deep book on death is Peter Kreeft’s Love is Stronger Than Death.) In other kythes, you kythe love, or ideas, or listening; in this kythe, you kythe yourself. The art of dying well is an art of letting go of a world you’ve known for years and giving yourself fully to God. That’s about as full of a message as you can send.
60: Gift-giving. A good gift is at least three messages: a statement about the nature of the person giving the gift, a statement about the nature of the person receiving the gift, and something else peculiar to the character of the gift. None of these messages are symbolically encoded, and the result is that they can say things inexpressible in normal words. A gift is not worth a thousand words; there is no exchange rate between gifts and words.
61: Reminiscing. Reminiscing is a kything with memories.
62: Local traditions. There are traditions, like Pooh’s Corner or Club Pseudo (a tradition at my high school, similar to an open mike at a coffeehouse). These traditions have a unique local flavor and personality, and create a special bond among participants. Janra-ball, if it works, would be another example.
63: Community. Community is like friendship, but it does not reduce to friendship. A community is more than a set of friendships, as a friendship is more than two isolated individuals.
64: Ellis lifeguarding. This entry should not be written by me; it should be written by my high school acquaintance, Chuck Saletta. American Red Cross lifeguards are taught to respond to problems; Ellis lifeguards are taught to see them coming. Chuck has written that he knows ahead of time when a swimmer is going to be in distress, and also that on the highway he watches the cars ahead of him and is usually able to tell whether or not they’ll turn on an exit — before they put their turn signals on. That has to involve an attention and attunement to the situation that is noteworthy.
“Has Mother actually told you all this?”
“Some of it. The rest I’ve just—gathered.”
Charles Wallace did gather things out of his mother’s mind, out of meg’s mind, as another child might gather daisies in a field.
This is another passage that sticks in my mind as an insight into kything. I gather when I muse, when I have certain intuitions. I gather passages from the book. Where do you gather?
66: Firing a ballista at your television. Television is a crawling abomination from the darkest pits of Hell. It is a pack of cigarettes for the mind. It blinds the inner eye. It is the anti-kythe.
A home without television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.
When I was in fourth grade, we read The Last of the Really Great Wang-Doodles, and then drew pictures. My teacher commented that she could tell from the pictures who watched TV. Get rid of your television, and you will find yourself living life more fully, and kything more deeply.
Two good books dealing with this topic are Neil Postman’s concise and lively Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business,
and Jerry Mander’s in-depth Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television.
67: Boundaries. Boundaries are an important part of friendship; the boundaries of a message give it shape; drinking a certain amount of wine and then stopping enables you to enjoy it without becoming drunk. Boundaries are a kind of kythe, and also a part of other kythes; a hug is best if it is neither too short nor too long.
68: Thunderstorms. Imagine that you are a child, outside in a thunderstorm at night, with the rain warm and heavy, the wind blowing about, the trees dancing, everything suddenly illumined by flashes of lightning. This is a night to connect with, to drink in.
(Idea taken from Robin Munn.)
69: Using a knack. I am adept at finding pressure points on the body — not just the ones I know, but the ones I don’t know. I can tell from looking if a person will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a hug. More fallibly, I can sometimes guess if a person is ticklish (hi, Ashley!).
I don’t know how I do any of these things, but these knacks are a form of kything.
70: Trying to kythe. I think it was Richard Foster who said that the very act of struggling to pray is itself a form of prayer. Last night during Pooh’s Corner, my fear of driving began to act up, and I walked out of the building thinking, “I won’t be able to kythe now. I’m not in the proper frame of mind.” Then I realized — no, I could kythe. I couldn’t produce the same end result, but I could put myself into it. A small child’s crayon drawing of a five-legged dog whose head is larger than its body is a beautiful thing, and it is made beautiful not by the performance criteria that a commercial product would be judged by, but by the love and effort that went into it.
I have attention deficit disorder. I can hyperfocus at times (exactly which times being largely out of my control), but quite often I haven’t connected with Pooh’s Corner. I haven’t been in the silliness, drinking it in even as an observer. What I have realized in writing this entry is that that doesn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did, just as the crudity of the above described drawing doesn’t matter very much. It doesn’t matter if I often don’t succeed. I try. I kythe.
71: Weight lifting. The amount of force coming from a muscle is the result, not only of the muscle’s size and condition, but the amount of nervous impulse coming from the brain. People can normally summon only a small fraction of the total possible muscle impulse. One case where there can be full or near-full exertion is when people are terrified; they can possess something called hysterical strength, where it is entirely possible for a small, middle-aged woman to lift the back end of a car. Another is an epileptic seizure; in my EMT class, we were told not to try to restrain someone having a seizure, because bones will snap sooner than muscle strength will give out.
I trained with weights for a few years, and doing so was largely on will. I had pencil-thin arms and legs as a child, and worked to the point of having a Greek figure. (I now have a Greek figure plus a paunch, but we won’t get into that.) I got to the point of being able to lift the full stack (as much resistance as a machine designed for football players can give) on the better part of the machines, and (in moments of being macho and trying to do something I could brag about) walked a couple of short steps while carrying over 400 pounds of weight, and injured my hand by punching through stone tiles. I didn’t get much bigger after a certain point. Only a small portion of my doing those things was muscle. The rest was mind.
Many of the items above have been kythes of drinking in. This a kythe of putting out.
72: Doing something new and difficult. When you are skilled at something, you don’t have to put much of yourself into it to succeed. In high school, I put a lot of effort into trying to learn how to balance on a slack rope. I never really succeeded at what I aimed for, but I learned a couple of things. My balance improved a lot. One person watching me said it was like watching the sensei catching flies with chopsticks, in The Karate Kid. Even if I didn’t succeed at my intention, I learned to put my whole self into it.
73: Going through a difficult experience together. Meg and Mr. Jenkins came to know each other in a way that never would have happened had things been light and sunny. It may not be seen for the pain at the moment, but afterwards a growing-closer has happened.
74: Intuitions. Being attuned to, and using, your intuition is another way of kything.
75: Knowing others.
[Meg:] “…Did you know it was one of Calvin’s brothers who beat Charles Wallace up today? I bet he’s upset—I don’t mean Whippy, he couldn’t care less—Calvin. Somebody’s bound to have told him.”
[Mrs. Murray:] “Do you want to call him?”
“Not me. Not Calvin. I just have to wait. Maybe he’ll come over or something.”
One form of communion comes from knowing another person so well that communication is unnecessary. There is something more in this passage than if Meg had called Calvin — far more.
76: The useless. Many of those areas of human intercourse which are cut out by American pragmatism are the areas of speech which most embody kything. Within speech, talking about how to get something done is not a kythe — certainly not compared to a discussion which conveys love or insight or theory. Kything is something that’s not in Pierce’s and Dewey’s practical world.
77: Culture. Culture, often invisible to us, is a shared kythe across a group of people. It is the framework for communication, a kythe that gives other kythes their shape.
78: Wordless knowledge. When I was at Innes’s house, she asked me if I thought my twin brothers Ben and Joe were introverted, extroverted, etc. My first response, after a bit of a pause, was, “I don’t know.” I thought some more, and realized that the truth was slightly different: it had never occurred to me to think about them in those terms.
After I read Stranger in a Strange Land, I began to realize that many of my deepest thoughts were not in English, not for that matter in anything like verbal language. When I write them down, it is usually a translation, and sometimes matter a far more difficult translation than between English and French. It is more like trying to translate a song into a poem. These thoughts are of a wordless thinking, like the kything of the fara.
Personal Knowledge, a profound book and an excellent cure for insomnia, deals with those facets of human thought and interaction that do not reduce to words.
79: Being underwater. I felt that this was a kythe, but couldn’t put my finger on how. I still can’t fully articulate it, but it has a similar feel to a visual kythe. The beginning of A Dream of Light provides a good description of an underwater kythe:
You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.
There is a time of rest and stillness; all is at a deep and serene peace. The slow motion of the waves, the dancing lights below and above, the supple bending of the plants, all form part of a stillness. It is soothing, like the soft, smooth notes of a lullaby.
Your eyes slowly close, and you feel even more the warm sunlight, and the gentle caresses of the sea. And, in your rest, you become more aware of a silent presence. You were not unaware of it before, but you are more aware of it now. It is there:
Like a tree with water slowly flowing in, through roots hidden deep within the earth, and filling it from the inside out, you abide in the presence. It is a moment spent, not in time, but in eternity.
You look out of the eternity; your eyes are now open because you have eternity in your heart and your heart in eternity. In the distance, you see dolphins; one of them turns to you, and begins to swim. The others are not far off.
It lets you pet its nose, and nestles against you. You grab on to its dorsal fin, and go speeding off together. The water rushes by at an exhilarating speed; the dolphin jumps out of the water, so that you see waves and sky for a brief moment before splashing through the surface.
The dolphins chase each other, and swim hither and thither, in and out from the shore. After they all seem exhausted, they swim more slowly, until at last you come to a lagoon.
In the center, you see a large mass; swimming closer, you see that it is a sunken ship. You find an opening…
80: Becoming ancient. Most entries so far have focused on what you do when you kythe. This is an entry about who you are. When you are ancient, you have had ages to let God work with you. You have had time to grow mature. You have gained experience. You have lived through many events and circumstances. You have smiled on generations. You have experienced change, both without you and within you. You have learned what is constant, both without you and within you. You have grown wise. You kythe with depth, with reality. You are like Senex (whose name means ‘aged’), like the fara — deep, rooted, moving without motion, sharing in the age (however faintly) of the Ancient of Days. Become all this, and you will kythe.
81: Becoming a child. When you are a child, you look with wonder at every bit of the world God has made; you do not know jadedness. You do not know guile; it would never occur to you to wear a mask. You play. You are never afraid to come running for a hug. You stay out in the rain. You always want to grow. You always want to know, “Why?” You bear a peace no storm has troubled. You can believe anything. You are like the little farandolae, dancing, swimming. Become all this, and you will kythe.
82: Doing something for its own sake. Someone said that a classic is a book that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. There is a big difference between reading a book because you want to have read it, and reading it because you want to read it. The former is something to endure, the latter something to enjoy. For a while, when I drove, I would often drive five or ten miles under the limit, and when I started driving at the limit, it was mainly as a courtesy to not stress other drivers, and because I started driving on streets with heavier traffic where it would be hazardous to drive that much more slowly than the flow of traffic. I do not generally get tense (for reasons other than my fear of driving, and blunders I make as I still learn to drive), have nervous fidgets, get angry, or experience stress at red lights, slow traffic, and other delays that shoot some drivers’ blood pressure through the roof. The reason is that I am operating within a mindset of “I am driving; I am in the process of getting there; I will be there,” as opposed to “I need to be there now, and I am tolerating this drive because it is the least slow means of getting there, and— Hey! That’s another second’s delay. Ooh, that makes me mad!” Pirsig treats this point at some length in the section of Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy that deals with climbing and his son’s ego climbing.
Of course many activities are means to other activities, and we would be in a bad state if we couldn’t do one thing to get at something else. But even then, intermediate activities that are trampled on are not good to do. Really wanting to do something, and doing it for its own sake, is a kythe with the activity that is better for both you and the activity.
Through [Mr. Jenkins’s] discouragement she became aware of Calvin. “Hey, Meg! Communication implies sound. Communion doesn’t.” He sent her a brief image of walking silently through the woods, the two of them alone together, their feet almost noiseless on the rusty carpet of pine needles. They walked without speaking, without touching, and yet they were as close as it is possible for two human beings to be. They climbed up through the woods, coming out of the brilliant sunlight at the top of the hill. A few sumac trees showed their rusty candles. Mountain laurel, shiny, so dark a green the leaves seemed black in the fierceness of sunlight, pressed towards the woods. Meg and Calvin had stretched out in the thick, late-summer grass, lying on their backs and gazing up into the shimmering blue of sky, a vault interrupted only by a few small clouds.
And she had been as happy, she remembere, as it is possible to be, and as close to Calvin as she had ever been to anybody in her life, even Charles Wallace, so close that their separate bodies, daisies and buttercups joining rather than dividig them, seemed a single enjoyment of summer and sun and each other.
That was surely the purest form of kything.
When I was in France, Rebecca wrote a letter about some of the moments she valued most with me. There was one moment when we went into the fine arts center, and I improvised on the organ for her,
and then we sat
in the silence
in the dark
not saying anything
not doing anything
Other people had talked with her and done things with her. I was the first person to be in the silence with her, and it profoundly affected her.
84: Dodge-ball. When I thought of this during a slow, back-burner brainstorm, I initially wanted to put it in because of pride and boastfulness: I wanted to impress you with how talented I am. Then I realized what I was thinking, and realized that was entirely out of place, and decided to definitely leave it out. But I still had some idle thoughts about it mulling about… and I mused… and realized something amazing. This definitely belongs in.
In dodge-ball, I couldn’t throw worth beans. Still can’t. But, in a lock-in for sophomores at IMSA, I joined a game of dodge-ball, and hid around in the back… and noticed that there were fewer and fewer people left on my team… and then I was one of two… and then the only one. Then, for five minutes, i dodged the whole other team throwing at me, sometimes four or five balls at once, and then a ball brushed me. When I stopped and began to slow down, I realized that the soles of my bare feet were burning hit from the friction of my jumping. After another game like that, people decided that if it got down to the other team versus me, the game was a draw.
One of the upperclassmen supervising, Paul Vondrak, was a great thrower; he was able not only to throw accurately, but to throw much faster than anyone else. He would stand, wind up slowly, and throw like lightning. I think it only took him about five throws to nick me.
I was thinking about this latter item, and (examining the memory) realized that I was paying very close attention to him… then realized that I was attuned to him… then thought that it was almost like a martial artist… and then realized, in a flash of insight, that in the one game I was doing the same thing a Samurai does when he defeats ten men. I do not understand exactly why I was able to do this without any special training or experience, although it does lend some corroboration to the puzzling fact that as a karate white belt I was able to defeat two out of three of my blackbelt instructors in sparring. Now I know that I have had an experience I would not ordinarily expect to have access to. I guess I would chalk it up to an unusual talent for certain kinds of kything.
I was trying to analyze my state of mind in (especially) the five minute dodge at the end, and the first thing I realized was that I don’t remember that state of mind too well — not as well as I remember feeling that my feet were hot afterwards. From what I remember, my state of mind differed from normal consciousness. A hint of an explanation would be to say that the perceptual processing alone would have severely overloaded my conscious mind. It could also be described as flow or podracing. I know there’s more, but I can’t get at it. If I can better process this memory, I think I will better understand kything. As I mull over this, I think that those five minutes may qualify as the most intense kythe of my life.
85: Reading another person’s body languages and emotions. As telekinesis is really moving things with your arms and telepathy is really talking, Charles Wallace’s awareness, without being told, of what’s going on in meg is really a perception of others’ emotions. This is the origin for the spark of beauty in that facet of Charles Wallace’s kything, and it is an area where I’d like to grow.
[The Shal’s] moments of community are profound; their moments of solitude are even more profound. `Withdrawing’ is what they call it; it is a time of stillness, and an expression of a love so profound that all other loves appear to be hate. It is a time of finding a secret place, and then withdrawing — from family, friends, and loved ones, from music and the beauty of nature, from cherished activities, from sensation — into the heart of the Father. It is a time of — it is hard to say what. Of being loved, and of loving. Of growing still, and becoming. Of being set in a right state, and realigned in accordance with the ultimate reality. Of purity from the Origin. Of being made who one is to be. Of communion and worship. Of imago dei filled with the light of Deus. Of being pulled out of time and knowing something of the eternal.
87: Zoning out. This is one of the last places one would look for kything; Robin observed that one of the central themes tying these entries together is presence, and this would seem to be the essence of absence. For all that… I found myself spacing out, and left the spacing out for introspection, and realized that my mental and emotional state was that of kything. A start of an explanation is that if it is an absence, it is entirely devoid of the Baudelarian flight urged in Enivrez-vous. It is a present absence; it goes into It is an egoless sliding into enjoyment. It is still and peaceful; it is quite restful; it is a good. Being in a similar attitude will help other kythes.
88: Playing Springfield. Springfield is a game with very simple rules: two people alternate naming state capitals, and the first person to name Springfield wins.
What makes it interesting is that it’s not a game of mathematical strategy. It’s a game of perception. The real objective is to win as late as possible, and that means reading the other person and seeing how far you can go: from nonverbal cues, you need to read his mind.
Springfield is probably comparable to poker.
89: Thinking deeply, prolongedly, and intensely about a question. I realized today that I had been thinking pretty hard about kything for several days, and thought I should take a sabbath from it: I would record ideas that I had, but not intentionally give conscious thought to the question. It was after I did that that I began to realize how deeply I had been kything with the idea of kything.
The first thing I noticed was that it was hard to stop thinking. The second thing I realized was that I was still thinking of ways of kything. I probably don’t have to devote any more conscious effort to thinking to complete the number of entries.
When you think in that manner, for a sufficient length of time, your thought acquires the momentum of a freight train. Mathematicians solve some of the most difficult problems after long and intense thought, and then cessation of conscious thought, usually to the point of forgetting it — and the solution comes. If it can be solved by continuous thought, it is not among the most difficult problems; the mathematician is not exercising his full abilities. When the storm ceases and the surface of the ocean stills, then the Leviathan stirs in the deeps. Deep calls to deep. This is perhaps the most profound kythe with an idea.
90: Experience. Experience in a domain constitutes and enables a kythe with that domain. My Mom asked me if I had a universal adaptor for her tape recorder, and I pulled one and said, “Is this the right jack? If it isn’t, I have another.” She said, “I don’t know, let me see.” A short while afterwards, she called me over to look at it, because “it seems to have two prongs.” I looked at, and instantly realized that it didn’t need an adaptor. It needed a power cord.
I was mildly irritated, and was finally able to put my finger on something I’d felt. Answering her help requests with technology has the same feel to me as explaining things to a small, naive child who doesn’t understand how the world works. She sees technology as this mysterious, unpredictable black box which works by magic.
I thought a little more, as my mother is neither naive nor childish. She is an intelligent and well-educated woman. What I realized was that I was not appreciating my own experience. Experience enables a person to look at the surface and see the depths — and a port for a power cord does not look fundamentally different from what a port for an adaptor might be. I see a computer as having definite inner workings which work according to understandable principle; when the computer is malfunctioning, I think I have a chance of understanding why. If my Mom thinks that the computer is a black box (you can see what it does, but not what’s inside it), I think of it as a white box (you can see what’s going on inside, and try to fix it if need be). The way I look at computers might be compared to the topographical anatomy I was taught in my EMT class, where you look at skin and see the underlying organs.
You kythe more when you’re interacting with a white box than with a black box, and that comes with experience.
91: Closing your eyes.
[Charles Wallace] closed his eyes, not to shut out Louise, not to shut out Meg, but to see with his inner eyes.
I closed my eyes when visiting my friend Innes’s house, and I realized what I was doing, and why: to focus, to connect, to concentrate. This is why couples close their eyes when they kiss; this is why we have the custom of closing our eyes when we pray. The image of a blind seer is a part of myth and literature; when we close our eyes, we momentarily blind ourselves so we can see.
92: Mental illness. Mental illness is not exactly a purely negative thing. It is a difference that is ecological in character, with positive as well as negative aspects. This very dark cloud has a silver lining, sometimes a mithril lining. This is why people with mental illness speak of a gift — something that puzzled me when I first heard it.
93: Mental health. If mental illness is a way of kything, then mental health is definitely a way of kything. Robin is a good friend and an excellent listener, and he radiates health. And Joel —
Robin once mentioned a theatre professor saying of his predecessor that with most people, they walk into a room and it’s “What about me?” His predecessor walks into the room and it’s, “What about you?”
I remember thinking, “I’d like to have a friend like that,” and then, “I would like to be like that.” A day later, I realized that I do have a friend like that: Joel. With Joel, it’s “What about you?”
Joel is a very good kyther.
94: Watching or studying a kythe.
[Meg] found herself looking directly into one of his eyes, a great, amber cat’s eye, the dark mandala of the pupil, opening, compelling, beckoning.
She was drawn towards the oval, was pulled into it,
was through it.
My brothers were playing, and I was watching Ben and Joe play. I became aware of an energetic character to the play, and then I recognized a kythe a split second before remembering the entry about play as kything. So I decided to watch — and then I realized I was in the kythe.
95: Nature. To be out in the woods, or looking at night at the sapphire sky and crystalline stars, or listen to the sounds of a forest, or to play with an animal, or wade barefoot through a cold, babbling brook — these are ways of kything with nature. (Taken from Innes Sheridan.)
96: Swallowing a pill. Learning to swallow a pill was a long and traumatic experience for me; for the longest time, I tried my hardest and just couldn’t do it. The reason was precisely that I was trying my hardest: I was trying much too hard. When I finally did learn, I learned far better than most; I can now swallow several decent-sized pills on a sip of water — when I was last hospitalized, the nurses remarked at how little water I needed, and told me to drink more.
In what is for the most people a minor learning experience, I came to really appreciate how easy swallowing a pill is — to easy to force or accomplish by willpower. In this regard, it is not only an example of kything, but a symbol. Do, or do not. There is no try.
97: Mystical experiences. These are bestowed by God, and are not human doing; visions may come once or twice in a person’s life, not at all for most people. When they do happen, they are a special moment of grace, and communion with God, and they can leave a person changed for life.
98: Massage. Being able to do backrubs is a good skill to take to college campuses. When you give another person a massage, you communicate with his body through touch, and relax the flesh, the body, and the person you are touching, more fully than he can himself. It is different from many other touches, in that it is not spontaneous or habitual; it is a special time set aside to connect.
99: Saying farewell.
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
When someone’s leaving, people say many of the things that they should have said long before but never got around to. Barriers come down. People realize how much others mean. They cry.
That is an obvious insight into saying farewell. What is less obvious is that these things can happen at any time. It is not so much that people can’t normally commune in this manner and are specially enabled to when someone leaves, as that people normally avoid this communion, and when some leaves they realize how bad it would be to them at any point. You can tell someone how much they mean to you any day. I did something like this for Robin recently, as I stopped from writing this to think about practicing what I was preaching. He and I are both glad I did. One part of the barriers coming down is that sharing yourself is inherently risky, and there is less risk if a person is leaving — if you share something that makes the other person think you are stupid, at least he’ll be away. So people share more. If you realize this, you can share on ordinary days what you would normally share when saying farewell — and grow closer. It might be a good idea to hold a farewell party for someone when he’s not going away. The same may be said for a funeral — there is something magnificent that goes on at a funeral, that doesn’t really have to wait for a person’s death.
100: Anything. Thursday night, I was at a band concert at Ben and Joe’s school. Afterwards, when walking through the mass of people, there was a moment when I was looking down into a little girl’s face, and as it passed I realized I was kything. There is a sense in which anything can be kything, if it is done in the right way.
Now we kythe darkly and through a glass. Then we shall kythe fully, spirit to spirit, even as we are fully kythed.
I look for books that are filled with the Romance; they come to me in the strangest of ways, but they are impossible to find. I started this journal thinking it was not very good… I have realized that I may be writing a book filled with the Romance, a scrapbook of the beautiful. It is not something that I could have even approached if I had tried.
When I thought about what to write, I realized something. All is well with my soul. Of course I should not get cocky (“He who thinks he stands should take heed lest he fall.”), and this isn’t the end of the growth God wants for me. But I am close to God. I am spiritually awake. It is in a way that would surprise me; I am doing ordinary things, and enjoying working on my creations. Ecclesiastes, even if it is the most pessimistic book of the Bible, says (2:24, 9:7, NRSV):
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This, also, is from the hand of God.
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.
I am doing these things, and enjoying their blessings. It is nothing spectacular, at least not in the Hollywood sense, but Hollywood can be quite blind. I am worshipping God in the ordinary things that are not very ordinary at all, and I see in them what Baudelaire cannot.
Here ends the Journal of an Awakening. It ends, not for the reasons I anticipated at the beginning, but because the awakening has reached its proper end (both finis and telos): I am awake. I mean to continue to journal, but this journal has reached its logical conclusion.
Please pray for me, that I remain steadfast in the abundant life God has given me.
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I. Mindset considerations
Does Augustine Return to the Interpersonal Image of Love as Representing the Trinity, or Does He Abandon This in Favour of the Psychological Image? Behind this question may lurk another question that is both connected and distinct from it: ‘Does Augustine have a relational understanding of the image, or is his understanding ultimately solipsistic?’ I take Rowan Williams as an example of a scholar writing from a mindset which fails to adequately distinguish the two questions. He opens with quotes that read Augustine as almost Sabellian, and ends his opening paragraph with a spectacular strawman:
Augustine stands accused of collaborating in the construction of the modern consciousness that has wrought such havoc in the North Atlantic cultural world, and is busy exporting its sickness to the rest of the globe, while occluding the vision of the whole planet’s future in its delusions of technocratic mastery — a hugely inflated self-regard, fed by the history of introspection.
Williams is building up to a rescue operation. He offers a careful study which either counterbalances Augustine’s apparent meaning or replaces it. He brings up quotations like, ‘In the West, especially since the time of Augustine, the unity of the divine being served as the starting point of Trinitarian theology’, as examples of the reading he doesn’t like. Williams’s presentation of Augustine’s text does not bring up Augustine’s claim that all three persons of the Trinity speak in Old Testament theophanies. This claim is significant because Augustine rejects the Patristic claim that Old Testament theophanies are specially made through the immanent Son. Williams seems to be fighting an obvious reading so he can rescue relationality in Augustine. I would argue that the psychological image is relational from the beginning, and that Augustine’s image is psychological.
We’re looking for relationality in the wrong place if we look for it in where Augustine stood in the controversies of his day. The deepest relationality does not lie in i.e. his writing against Arianism, but something that was so deeply ingrained in the Church that he would never have thought it necessary to explain. The very individualism he is accused of helping construct had not come together. In the Reformation-era Anabaptist/Zwinglian controversy over infant baptism, the issue was not whether faith precedes baptism. Both sides believed that much. The issue was whether that faith was reckoned along proto-individualist lines, or whether the faith of a community could sanctify members too young to embrace faith on terms an individualist would recognise. Augustine lived over a thousand years before that controversy. His tacit theory of boundaries was that of a community’s bishop, not a counselor imparting the ‘value-free’ boundaries that flow from atomist individualism. I mention these examples to underscore that Augustine’s understanding of where one person ends and another begins is much less articulate, much less thorough, much less basic, much less sealed, and in the end much less focal than ours. The difference is like the qualitative difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible, and what either Arian or a Trinitarian did with what is present in the Bible. One is tacitly present, something you can’t explain (‘That’s just the way things are!’), and the other is articulate, the sort of thing you can at least begin to explain and give reason for. In the end Augustine’s understanding of how one person can meet another arises from a very different mindset from a setting where scholars argue that communication is impossible. This means that combining passages with individualist assumptions gives a very different meaning from combining the same passages with Augustine’s patristic assumptions. It is the latter which represents Augustine’s thought. I believe that Augustine did plant proto-modernist seeds. These seeds became a vital ingredient of modernism with many thinkers’ successive modifications. However, the fact that they have become modernism today with the influence of a millenium and a half of change does not make Augustine an early modernist. His beliefs were quite different from atomist individualist modernism.
What is most important in Augustine’s thought, and what he believed most deeply, includes some of what would never occur to him to think needed saying. These things that leave less obvious traces than his explicit claims. With that in mind, I would like to look more closely at Augustine’s interiority:
But it [the mind] is also in the things that it thinks about with love, and it has got used to loving sensible, that is bodily things; so it is unable to be in itself without their images. Hence arises its shameful mistake [errus dedecus ], that it cannot make itself out among the images of things it has perceived with the senses, and see itself alone…
What is interesting is what Augustine doesn’t say here. A materialist would see bodily things as including other people, but Augustine did not think from that starting point. Would he have included people? That’s a little less clear-cut. People are equal to oneself, and purely sensible objects are inferior. One is trying to go upwards, and Augustine does not seem to include equal people with inferior objects. Perhaps he does not raise this question. Augustine does go on to give a primacy to ‘Know thyself,’ but this is a matter of means,not of final end. Augustine is telling us to start with what is near at hand. The distinction between what Augustine called ‘interior’ and what we would call ‘private’ is significant. It contains not only phantasms (sense impressions) but the res ipsa (the realities themselves) of intelligible things, and is where the soul meets intelligible truth. God is in the interior, and is shared between people. Furthermore, when we unite with God, we are united with others united with God. Where there is privacy, this is darkness caused by the Fall.
II. Is the psychological image relational?
I would suggest that the psychological image is relational. Furthermore, I would suggest that the deepest relationality comes before making God the object of the vestigia (divine shadows or traces in Creation) of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine comments:
Even in this case [I Cor. 8:2], you notice, he [Paul] did not say “knows him”, which would be a dangerous piece of presumption, but “is known by him.” It is like another place where as soon as he said, But now knowing God, he corrected himself and said,Or rather being known by God…
Before we worry if God is the object of our love, he must be the Subject behind it. And that does not mean we need to worry about orienting the vestigia (traces of God imprinted in Creation) so we add relationality as something external; relationality is there in the beginning, as God knowing us.
Is remembering, understanding, and willing oneself a relational activity? If it’s sought on the right terms, it is. That means that it is not the pre-eminent goal , but a means, the bridge that must be crossed to gain access to other places. That means that remembering, understanding, and willing have God as their goal even before he is their object. Augustine comments in another draft of the psychological image:
This word is conceived in love of either the creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth; which means either in covetousness or in charity. Not that the creature is not to be loved, but if that love is related to the creator it will no longer be covetousness but charity. It is only covetousness when the creature is loved on its own account.
Augustine’s discussion of use and enjoyment forbids the psyche to enjoy itself: regardless of immediate object, God is the goal or goal of ‘Know thyself.’
In regard to the rest of Creation, it is much easier to read a psychological image as non-relational. His enjoyment/use distinction is not utilitarian but helped make utilitarianism. Whilst he chose Christianity over Manicheanism and Platonism, these other beliefs left a lasting imprint; Augustine rejected their claims that matter was evil, but his conversion to believing in the goodness of created matter was less thorough than one could desire. At one point Augustine considered sex a major to reject marriage; later he acknowledged sex an instrumental good when it propagates the people of God. Augustine’s much-criticised views on sex were in continuity with his understanding of creation, especially material creation. The created order that is neither called evil nor fully embraced as good, even fallen good: ‘Cleansed from all infection of corruption, they are established in tranquil abodes until they get their bodies back—but incorruptible bodies now, which will be their guerdon [beneficial help], not their burden.’ This negative view of our (current) bodies is not a view of something one would want to be in relation with, and that is part of who we are created to be. From these, one could argue a continuity, if perhaps not parity, with a mindset that would support an individualistic psychological image. The argument has some plausibility, but I believe it is not ultimately true.
The biggest difference between a person and mere matter is that a person has spirit. Augustine can say, ‘Now let us remove from our consideration of this matter all the many other things of which man consists, and to find what we are looking for with as much clarity as possible in these matters, let us only discuss the mind,’ and abstract away a person’s body to see the mind. I did not find a parallel passage abstracting away a person’s mind to see body alone. Even if we assume he remained fully Manichean or fully Platonist, both Manicheanism and Platonism find some people to be above the level of matter. Augustine was free enough of Platonism to forcefully defend the resurrection of the body in De Civitate Dei (The City of God). His belief in community is strong enough to make the interpersonal image important in his discussion. As argued in ‘Mindset Considerations’, he was quite far from individualism to begin with.
If community is important, why have a psychological image? Let me give one line of speculation. Augustine may be trying to put community on a proper ground. The Trinity turns outwards, not in an attempt to remedy any kind of defect, to try to get the creation to fill some need that it can’t fill itself. The Trinity turns outwards out of abundance and fulness. Augustine may not want half persons seeking other half persons to try and create fulness. I believe he wants whole persons turning outwards out of the fulness within. In other words, a psychological image lays the ground for robust interpersonal relationship. Leaving this speculation aside, community was deeply ingrained in the patristic mindset, so that it didn’t need saying. A psychological image could be explored without Augustine needing to add constant footnotes saying, ‘But I still believe in community.’
III. What understanding does Augustine hold in the end?
Augustine explores a number of possible images of the Trinity before settling on one. He starts with an interpersonal image of lover, beloved, and love representing Father, Son, and Spirit respectively. Then he explores a ‘psychological’ image of mind, mental word, and will, which he revises into memory, understanding, and will.  Besides these images there are others not explored in this essay, such as thing seen, sense impression formed, and will. I would like to show which image Augustine chooses.
I would also like to make a distinction which makes sense of his choosing one image from several candidates. The distinction is the distinction between images that are ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’. The difference between an image that is ‘after the fact’ and one that is ‘built in’ is the difference between a portrait which resembles a person, and a cloud in which a resemblance is found. Is the image something prior to anything observable, something around which other things are shaped, or is the image what we can find when we find things that look like a trinity?
This is arguably latent in Augustine’s discussion of enigmas, and in remarks like ‘It is true of all of his creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, that he does not know them because they are, but that they are because he knows them.’ The discussion of enigmas discusses things mysteriously hidden and then brought forth: Augustine mentions the story of Hagar and Sarah and then Paul drawing out their hidden symbolism. He wrote, ‘As far as I can see then, by the word “mirror” he wanted us to understand an image, and by the word “enigma” he was indicating that although it is a likeness, it is an obscure one and difficult to penetrate.’ Augustine has looked through any number of images ‘after the fact.’ Now Augustine is trying to find out which of these plausible ‘after the fact’ candidates holds its plausibility precisely because it is the image ‘built in’. He wants to know which of the resemblances to the Trinity is there precisely because the Trinity created it to be ‘after our likeness’.
What, at heart, is the distance between an image ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’? An ‘after the fact’ image is an ‘after the fact image’ because the behaviour and properties it shows, whilst a ‘built in’ image is such by its internal logic. An early draft of the psychological image compares the mind to the Father, its word to the Son, and the will joining them together to the Holy Spirit. Augustine, conscious of Arianism, says that a human mental word is equal to the mind that begot it. Even if he did not say this, and the word was described as inferior to the mind, there would be reason to see the mind/word/will psychological image as a ‘built in’ image. A person looking for an ‘after the fact’ image would look for the property that word and mind are equal because Father and Son are equal; if we look at ‘built in’ logic it is possible that uncreated God can beget a Word equal to himself, but a creaturely mind lacks the stature to beget a word that is its equal. Then the image would lack the property of equality, but it would have the internal logic of begetting what word one can beget, and reflect the Trinity at a deeper level.  This is like the difference between a literal translation and a dynamic equivalent. A literal translation tries to faithfully represent the text word for word; a dynamic equivalent tries to faithfully represent the text’s impact, and it may give the text much more breathing room than a literal translator feels is respectful. A literal translation preserves details, but only a dynamic equivalent can render a poem into something that breathes as poetry. This may be part of why Williams writes, ‘Growing into the image of God, then, is not a matter of perfecting our possession of certain qualities held in common with God… It is for us to be at home with our created selves…’ Growing into the image of God is not to look as if we had not been created, a literal rendering of God’s attributes, but a creaturely dynamic equivalent in which a glimpse of the Trinity is rendered in creaturely idiom. This is inadequate; the creaturely idiom isn’t powerful enough to capture the divine original, regardless of how it is rendered. Yet Augustine does settle on one image, one translation, not just as bearing ‘after the fact’ resemblance, but as having been constructed to have a ‘built in’ resemblance.
At the end of XV.3, Augustine quotes Wisdom 13:1-5 on recognising creation as the work of the Creator, and comments:
I quote this passage from the book of Wisdom in case any of the faithful should reckon I have been wasting time for nothing in first searching creation for signs of that supreme trinity we are looking for when we are looking for God, going step by step through various trinities of different sorts until we arrive at the mind of man.
This sets the programme for much of book XV. This program has subtleties of various sorts, and Augustine says far more than merely settling on the psychological image. The mind is the genuine image of the Trinity in that God has projected his own likeness downwards, but if we try to project anything in creation upwards—even the image God himself has fashioned—it must fall immeasurably short. The most faithful photograph captures at best a glimpse of the living person it portrays. So while Augustine settles with the psychological image, he is careful to portray its fundamental incompleteness. The psychological image may hold a unique privelege. Of all the ‘after the fact’ images surveyed, it alone bears apparent ‘after the fact’ resemblance because it was built to be image. In the end, this privelege of place underscores the book’s apophasis all the more powerfully. Not only do the various apparent ‘after the fact’ images which we see fail to accurately convey the Trinity, but theimage which the Trinity itself has built into us, itself falls fundamentally short of God’s transcendence. This is a far greater testimony to the divine transcendence: if an ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer observation, that only says that one specific ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer inspection. When the one ‘built in’ image, created by the Trinity itself, also breaks down, this says that the Trinity utterly transcends anything the creation can contain. The bigger it is, the immeasurably harder it falls, and the more we can learn from its failure.
But is this a failure of the created image?
Let’s look more specifically at Augustine settling on the psychological image. In book X, Augustine writes:
These three, then, memory, understanding, and will, are not three lives but one life, not three minds but one mind…. Are we already then in a position to rise with all our powers of concentration to that supreme and most high being of which the human mind is the unequal image, but image nonetheless? [emphasis added]
This is an important distinction. Augustine is not looking for a perfect and uncreated image of the Trinity, as the Son is the perfect and uncreated image of the Father. This is stated here, but I am not sure that this is a basic insight which informed his thought. He writes,
Again, there is this enormous difference, that whether we talk about mind in man and its knowledge and love, or whether about memory, understanding, and will, we remember nothing of the mind except through memory, and understand nothing except through understanding, and love nothing except through will. But who would presume to say that the Father does not understand either himself or the Son or the Holy Spirit except through the Son…
This is an observation that the ‘built in’ image he has chosen does not have what one would seek in a ‘after the fact’ image. In the surrounding text, Augustine doesn’t explicitly state that the differences are failings. However the long discussion of how much of the Trinity is not captured in this image does not seem a verbose way of saying that this image functions along ‘built in’ rather than ‘after the fact’ lines. It seems to be criticising the ‘built in’ image for failing to demonstrate ‘after the fact’ properties. If so, Augustine made something like a category error. This would suggest that the meticulous Augustine, so careful in accounting for the details of Bible verses, didn’t conceive this as something to be meticulous about. The impression I receive from reading Augustine is that Augustine probably had thoughts like the ‘built in’/’after the fact’ distinction I drew, but they were probably tacit, much less developed and much less prominent, and in particular not an organising principle or winnowing tool Augustine used in deciding which of many trinities he would rest with.
And there are other texts which show a psychological image:
So the trinity as a thing in itself is quite different from the image of the trinity in another thing. It is on account of this image that the thing in which these three [memory, understanding, and love] are found is simultaneously called image…
IV. Directions for further enquiry
The distinction between ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’ appears to be significant. It would be interesting to study more specifically what is the relation between Augustine and this concept. There are quotations one could piece together to argue that Augustine thought in these terms, but other passages make this somewhat less clear. I have raised a question, but I believe more work needs to be done. My comments about that distinction in regard to Augustine’s choice of image may be treated more as a question than an answer.
People who read Augustine as overly unitarian seem to find a psychological image, and people who read him as a balanced Trinitarian seem to find an interpersonal image. Reading the psychological image as relational may suggest an alternative placement with regard to these basic positions.
The earliest Church Fathers, writing more or less systematic theological treatises, generally didn’t write about the Church. Was this because it was not important or not believed? To the contrary, it was air they breathed so deeply that they would never have thought of that as needing saying. Augustine was a Church Father and had the mindset of a Church Father. He chose a psychological image and did not try too hard to make it relational because he never thought it was the sort of thing that needed to have relationship added.
I have chosen an obvious reading which people may give people pause because it appears individualistic and not relational; this reading is that Augustine chose memory, understanding, and will as the ‘built in’ image of the Trinity. Of things raised in this essay that could merit further study, the most interesting is probably the concept of ‘built in’ images as contrasted with ‘after the fact’ images.
Ayres, Lewis, ‘The Discipline of Self-Knowledge in Augustine’s De Trinitate Book X’, in ed. Ayres, Lewis, The Passionate Intellect, Rutgers University Studies in the Classical Humanities, vol. 7, Brunswick: Transaction, 1995, pp. 261-96
Bourassa, F., ‘Théologie trinitaire chez s. Augustin’, Gregorianum 58, 1997
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo (revised edition), London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1967, 2000
Cavadini, John, ‘The Structure and Intention of Augustine’s De Trinitate,’ Augustinian Studies 23, 1992
Fitzgerald, Allan D. (ed.), Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999
Hill, Edmund (tr.), The Trinity, New City Press: Hyde Park, 1991.
MAXIMOS O PLANOUDHS, AUGUSTONOU PERI TRIADOS BIBLIA PENTEKAILEKA APER EK TES LATINON DIALEKTOU EIS THN ELLADA METENEGKE, AQENAI: KENTRON EKDOSEWS ERGWN ELLHNON SUGGRAFEWN, 1995 (Maximus the Traveler, Augustine’s On the Trinity, Fifteen Books From the Latin Translated to [medieval] Greek Brought Together [in parallel translation], Athens: Center For Giving Greek Work and Collaborative Writing, 1995)
Meyendorff, John, Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, London, 1975
Williams, Rowan, ‘Sapientia and the Trinity: Reflections on the De Trinitate‘, Augustiniana, 1990.
Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1966, pp. 1-49
 Williams 1990, 317-332
 Williams 1990, 317
 Meyendorff 1974 (page number not specified), as quoted in Williams 1990, 317
 II.19-22; Williams 1990, 317-332. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Augustine are from De Trinitate, and all English quotations from De Trinitate are from Hill’s translation.
 ‘The mind you see is not told Know thyself in the same way as it might be told “Know the cherubim and seraphim”; of them, as absent beings, we believe what they are declared to be, that they are certain heavenly powers.’ (X.12)
 These latter observations in the same paragraph are taken from Fitzgerald 1999, 454-5.
 X.12 presents ‘thyself’ as more immediately knowable than (higher) ‘cherubim and seraphim’.
 Hill 1991, 283-4.
 Fitzgerald 1999, 341, 591.
 Ibid., 535-6.
 Fitzgerald 1999, 653.
‘Memory’, ‘understanding’, ‘will’, and (mental) ‘word’ are all understood very differently in Augustine from their meanings today. I can give a bare hint at the nature of difference by saying will is not a Neitzchian Übermensch‘s power to domineer, crush, and persevere in lonely selfishness, but something whose nature is to incline towards the other in love, and something that holds things together even inside a person. Beyond that, it would be at least another essay to try to explain these different concepts. I’m going to have to content myself with saying there are significant cultural differences that I can’t fairly explain. A good understanding of Augustine’s memory, for instance, is suggested by reading Confessions X, complemented by Yates’ (1966, 1-49) treatment of memory in relation to ancient rhetoric.
 I have thought of this distinction out of discussion of universalia ante rem and universalia post rem that I had read, and I had originally used the more precise, if less vivid, terminology of ‘ante rem‘ and ‘post rem‘ for ‘built-in’ and ‘after the fact’ respectively. So far as I know, this usage is original to me.
 Gen 1:26, RSV
 This distinction applies to other images Augustine looks at; I chose and modified this example to highlight something also present in other parts of the text.
 Williams 1990, 321
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Paidion: I found some really interesting stuff about the Law of Attraction.
Aneer: What is it that you have found?
Paidion: This wonderful secret, the Law of Attraction, is a secret where if you understand how you attract what you think about… then you have the key to happiness!
Aneer: Have you seen what else the Law of Attraction could be?
Paidion: You mean the Law of Attraction could be more?
Aneer: Let me think about how to explain this…
Paidion: Did the Church Fathers say anything about the Law of Attraction? Or did the Bible?
Aneer: Where to start, where to start—the Law of Attraction says our thoughts are important, and that is true. Not just a little bit true, but deeper than a whale can dive. The Apostle writes:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Paidion: And there is something about “ask, seek, knock?”
Aneer: Yes, indeed:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Paidion: Why? Is there anything relevant besides the Sermon on the Mount?
Aneer: Yes indeed, from the first pages of Genesis:
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath God said, “Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'”
And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat,
The Law of Attraction is here. The very heart of the Law of Attraction is here. Have you read The Magician’s Nephew?
Paidion: It is one of my favorite books.
Aneer: Do you remember what Jadis stole?
Paidion: How could Jadis steal anything? She was a queen!
Aneer: Then you have forgotten the verse when Jadis met a garden enclosed:
“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
The story gives a glimpse of the Queen Jadis finding her heart’s desire: undying years, and undying strength. She found everything the Law of Attraction promises. If the Law of Attraction does anything, you can see it unfold in Eve choosing to be attracted to the fruit, or Jadis.
But undying strength was not the only thing in the picture. When Jadis ate that apple, she might never age or die, but neither could she ever live again. She cheated death, perhaps, but at the expense of Life. Which is to say that she didn’t really cheat Death at all. And she damned herself to a “living” death that was hollow compared to her previous life she so eagerly threw away.
Paidion: So you think Eve was like Jadis? Halfway to being a vampire?
Aneer: Paidion, you’re big on imagining. I want you to imagine the Garden of Eden for just a moment. Adam and Eve have been created immortal, glorious, lord and lady of all nature, and Eve tastes an exhilirating rush that has something very vampiric about it: a moment passed, and the woman who had never known pain found the seed of death deep inside her. And in a flash of insight, she realized something.
Paidion: What is it she realized?
Aneer: She had the seed of death eating away at her. Nothing could stop her from dying. And her deathless husband would watch her die.
Paidion: A sad end to the story.
Aneer: What do you mean?
Paidion: But it’s a tragedy!
Aneer: It may be tragic, but how is it an end to Adam’s story?
Adam was still deathless. He would live on; did you assume he would be celibate, or that Eve envisioned God to never provide him a wife to share in blessed happiness?
Paidion: Look, this is all very impressive, but is any of this really part of the ancient story?
Aneer: I cut off the story before its usual end. The end goes surprisingly fast:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Paidion: Why? Is this just Eve’s… solution… to… the… problem… of… Adam’s… [shudder]
Aneer: Do you think your generation is the first to invent jealousy?
Paidion: But can’t the Law of Attraction be used for good?
Aneer: When people speak of the Law of Attraction, it always sounds like the unearthing of the key to happiness.
Paidion: But what else could it be once we are attracting the right thoughts?
Aneer: What, exactly, are the right thoughts might be something interesting to discuss someday. But for now let me suggest that the Law of Attraction might be something very different, at its core, from the key to happiness: it could be the bait to a trap.
The Sermon on the Mount truly does say,
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
but only after saying something that is cut from the same cloth:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
The Sermon on the Mount finds it unworthy of the children of a loving and providing God to chase after food and clothing—or cars and iPods or whatever—as if they have to do so because their Heavenly Father has forgotten their needs. God knows our needs before we begin to ask, and it’s a distraction for us to be so terribly concerned about the things that will be added to us if we put first things first and last things last.
Paidion: But what is wrong with wanting abundance?
Aneer: Have you read Plato’s Republic?
Aneer: Did you know that royalty do not touch money?
Paidion: Why not? It would seem that a king should have the most right to touch money.
Aneer: Well, let us leave discussion of rights for another day. But there’s something in the Republic where Plato knows something about gold, and it is the reason why royalty do not touch money.
Paidion: And that is?
Aneer: Plato is describing the guardians, the highest rulers of an ideal city. And what he says about them is that they have true gold in their character: they have a truer gold than gold itself, and they are set apart for something high enough that they would only be distracted by handling the kind of gold that is dug up from the earth like something dead.
Paidion: But kings have palaces and jewels and such!
Aneer: Not in Plato’s Republic they don’t. The life of a ruler, of a king, in Plato is something like the life of a monk. It’s not about having palaces of gold any more than being President is all about being able to watch cartoons all day!
Paidion: Ok, but for the rest of us who may not be royalty, can’t we at least want abundance as a consolation prize?
Aneer: “The rest of us who may not be royalty?”
What can you possibly mean?
Aneer: All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. All of us are created in the divine image, made to grow into the likeness of Christ and—
Paidion: So we are all made to rule as kings?
Aneer: Read the Fathers and you will find that the real rule of royalty is when we rule over God’s creation as royal emblems, as the image of God. For people to rule other people is not just not the only kind of royal rule: it’s almost like a necessary evil. Do you know of the ritual anointing of kings? In the Bible, a man is made king when he is anointed with oil. Such anointing still takes place in England, for instance. And when a person receives the responsibility for sacred work in the Orthodox Church, he is anointed—chrismated—and in this anointing, the Orthodox Church has always seen the sacred anointing of prophet, priest, and king.
Paidion: But this is just for priests, right?
Aneer: Paidion, every one of us is created for spiritual priesthood. Perhaps I wasn’t clear: the anointing of prophet, priest, and king is for every faithful member of the Church, not just a few spiritual Marines. Chrismation, or royal anointing, is administered alongside baptism to all the faithful.
Paidion: And it’s part of this royal dignity not to touch money?
Aneer: There is a very real sense in which Christians may not touch money. Not literally, perhaps; many Christians touch coins or other items, and so on and so forth. But there is a real sense in which Christians never have what you search for in abundance, because they have something better.
Paidion: Are you saying half a loaf is better than an abundance of loaves?
Aneer: I know a number of people who have found that an abundance of loaves is not the solution to all of life’s problems. Easy access to an abundance of loaves can lead to weight issues, or worse.
May I suggest what it is that you fear losing? It isn’t exactly abundance, even if you think it is.
Paidion: So am I mistaken when I think I want shrimp and lobster as often as I wish?
Aneer: Maybe you are right that you want shrimp and lobster, but you don’t only want shrimp and lobster. You want to be able to choose.
Remember in Star Wars, how Luke and Ben Kenobi are travelling in the Millenium Falcoln, and Kenobi puts a helmet on Luke’s head that has a large shield completely blocking his eyesight? And Luke protests and says, “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?” And then something happens, and Luke starts to learn that he can fight even without seeing what was in front of him, and Kenobi says, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”?
What you want is to have your ducks in a row and be able to see that you can have shrimp and lobster as often as you want.
What the Sermon on the Mount says is better than a way to do a better job of having your next meal right where you can see it. It says to put the blast shield down…
And take your first step into a larger world.
Paidion: I’m sure for a man of faith like you—
Aneer: Why call me a man of faith? I may not have all my ducks lined up in a row, but I have always known where my next meal is coming from.
Paidion: Well sure, but that’s—
Aneer: Maybe everybody you know has that privilege, but a great many people in the world do not.
Paidion: That may be, but I still want abundance.
Aneer: May I suggest that you are reaching for abundance on a higher plane?
Paidion: Like what? What is this larger world?
Aneer: When you have the blast shield down over your eyes, what you receive is part of a life of communion with God. When you don’t see where your next meal is coming from, and God still feeds you, you get a gift covered with God’s fingerprints. You’re living part of a dance and you are beckoned to reach for much deeper treasures. If you are asked to let go of treasures on earth, it is so your hands can open all the wider to grasp treasures in Heaven.
Paidion: Maybe for super-spiritual people like you, but when I’ve tried anything like that, I’ve only met disappointments.
Aneer: I’ve had a lot of disappointments. Like marriage, for instance.
Paidion: You? You’ve always seemed—
Aneer: My wife and I are very happily married. We’ve been married for years, and as the years turn into decades we are more happily married—more in love. But our marriage has been a disappointment on any number of counts.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The marriage succeeds because the honeymoon fails.” Part of our marriage is that it’s not just a honeymoon; my wife is not some bit of putty I can inflate to the contours of my fantasies about the perfect wife; she is a real person with real desires and real needs and real virtues and real flaws and a real story. She is infinitely more than some figment of my imagination. She has disappointed me time and time again—thank God!—and God has given me something much better in her than if she was some piece of putty that somehow fit my imagination perfectly. By giving me a real woman—what a woman!—God is challenging me to dig deeper into being a real man.
Paidion: So all disappointments make for a happy marriage? Because…
Aneer: I’m not completely sure how to answer that. We miss something about life if we think we can only have a happy marriage when we don’t get any disappointments. Read the Gospel and it seems that Christ himself dealt with disappointments; his life on earth built to the disappointment of the Cross which he could not escape no matter how hard he prayed. But the Apostle Paul wrote about this disappointment:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It is part of his glory.
If you have a disappointment, you have one problem. If you have a disappointment and you think that with such a disappointment you can’t really be where you should be, you have two problems. Disappointments sting like ninety, but they can be drawn into something deeper and a richer life.
Paidion: So you’d rather be disappointed in life than get your way.
When I haven’t gotten my way, that has been a stepping stone for a refinement on more than one level, a refinement in what I sought and what I wanted. I’ve gotten better things than if I always had a magic key that gave me what I thought I wanted. St. Paul said, “When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.”
Paidion: Am I being childish if I wish the Law of Attraction could get me what I want? If I dream?
Aneer: What the Law of Attraction is a way to satisfy the kind of things childish people set their hearts on. Always getting your way is not an unattainable dream. Always getting your way is not a dream at all. Always getting your way is a nightmare. It is the nightmare of succeeding at being a spoiled brat where others have grown up in all the disappointments you hope to dodge.
Paidion: Is virtue its own reward?
Or is it just the consolation prize when you do the right thing even if you don’t get a real reward?
Aneer: Let us return to Plato again.
Elsewhere in the Republic, some people say some questionable things about goodness. Someone says, for instance, that what is good is whatever the stronger group wants, or something like that. And so someone asks if there’s anything a good man has that the evil man does not.
Actually, the question is put much more strongly than that. We are asked to suppose that an evil man has every worldly benefit—a good name, wealth, good children, everything in life going his way. And let us suppose that the good man gets quite the opposite: he is slandered and betrayed, loses everything, is tortured, and is finally crucified. Can we still say that the good man has anything the evil one does not?
Paidion: If that is the case, it’s hard to see that the good man has anything valuable that the evil man does not.
Aneer: He has goodness.
Paidion: Well, yes, but besides—
Aneer: Paidion, how would you like to have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it?
Paidion: No thanks!
Aneer: Meaning that on those terms, no man in his right mind would choose any amount of wealth!
Paidion: Sure, if you have to spend all the money on doctor bills…
Aneer: All right.
Let’s suppose you don’t have to spend any of it on doctor bills. Suppose you’re a billionaire with all kinds of free medical care, and with your billions of dollars comes the worst of health and the most atrocious suffering for the rest of your mercifully short life. Billions of dollars must be worth that, right?
Paidion: Does this relate to Plato?
Paidion: Are you saying that the evil man had bad health? You didn’t mention that at first.
Aneer: Well, that depends on what you mean by health. Externally, he had the best of health, I suppose, and the good man had terrible diseases. But the condition of being evil is the spiritual condition of being diseased, twisted, and shrunken. Even our English words like “twisted” and “sick” are signs of ancient recognition of evil as a spiritual disease. The evil man with worldly glory is the man who has all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it—and the good man is the man who has nothing but his health. He has the one thing the evil man does not: his health!
Paidion: Is this about Heaven and Hell? Because however impressive they may be, we aren’t there yet.
Aneer: Wrong. Heaven and Hell begin in this life. The eternal tree that forever stands in Heaven or Hell is planted and nourished in this life. The connection between this life and the next is a closer connection than you can imagine.
Paidion: All this sounds very wonderful, and I could wish it were true. For people like you who have faith, at least. I don’t…
Aneer: Paidion, there was something that happened in The Magician’s Nephew, before Queen Jadis attracted to her the deathless strength that she desired. Something happened before then. Do you remember what?
Paidion: I’m not sure what.
Aneer: It’s quite memorable, and it has quite a lot to do with the Law of Attraction.
Paidion: I am afraid to ask.
Aneer: Let me quote the Queen, then.
…That was the secret of secrets. It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water…
The last great battle raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that led up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could not see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, “Victory.” “Yes,” said I, “Victory, but not yours.” Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.
Paidion: Are you saying that the Law of Attraction is like the Deplorable Word?
Aneer: The Law of Attraction is described in glowing terms but what is described so glowingly is that there’s you, your thoughts, and a giant mirror called the universe… and that’s it. Everything else is killed. Not literally, perhaps, but in a still very real sense. The reason you have not succeeded at getting what you want couldn’t be because a powerful man, with his own thoughts and motives, is refusing something you want, much less that God loves you and knows that what you want isn’t really in your best interests. The powerful man is just part of the great mirror, as is God, if there is anything to God besides you. The only possible reason for you to not have something, the only thing that is not killed, is your thoughts.
And how I wish you could enter a vast, vast world which is not a mirror focused on you, where even the people who meet and know you have many other concerns besides thinking about you, who have their own thoughts and wishes and which is ruled by an infinitely transcendent God who is infinitely more than you even if you were made for the entire purpose of becoming divine, and perhaps even more divine than if you are the only thing you do not lump into the great mirror reflecting your thoughts.
Paidion: But how shall I then live? It seemed, for a moment, like things got better when I paid attention to my thoughts, and things in my life—
Aneer: If you think it seems like your thoughts matter, perhaps that’s because your thoughts really are important, possibly more important than you can even dream of. Perhaps there are other things going on in the world, but it is your thoughts that stand at the root of everything you contribute to the tree that will stand eternally in Heaven or as Hell. I don’t know how to tell you how important it is to attend to your thoughts, nor how to tell you that what you think of as morality is something which all the wise go upstream and deal with at the source, in the unseen warfare of vigilant attention to one’s thoughts. Little thoughts build to big thoughts and big thoughts build to actions, and spiritual discipline or “ascesis” moves from the hard battle of actions to the harder battle of thoughts. And thoughts aren’t just about concepts; when I’ve had trouble getting a thought of doing something I shouldn’t out of my head, sometimes I’ve reminded myself that what is not truly desired doesn’t really last long. The Philokalia there, my point is that it is a lifetime’s endeavor to learn how to pay proper attention to one’s thoughts.
Paidion: Um… uh… did you say I was made to be divine? Did you mean it?
Aneer: Paidion, if being divine just means that there isn’t anything that much bigger than us, then that’s a rather pathetic idea of the divine, and I wouldn’t give twopence for it. But if we really and truly understand how utterly God dwarfs us, if we understand what it means that God is the Creator and we are his creatures, and the infinite chasm between Creator and creature is then transcended so that we his creatures can become by grace what God is by nature—then that is really something and I would give my life for that way of being divine!
There is a hymn, of ancient age, that says, “Adam, wanting to be divine, failed to be divine. Christ became man that he might make Adam divine.” Christ’s life is an example of what it means to be divine: as a child he was a refugee, then grew up as a blue-collar worker, then lived as a homeless man, and died a slave’s death so vile its name was a curse word. This is a tremendous clue-by-four about what true glory is. This is a divine clue-by-four about what Adam missed when he decided that reigning as immortal king and lord of paradise and following only one simple rule wasn’t good enough for him.
And it is in this messy life we live, with so many situations beyond our control and so many things we would not choose, that God can transform us so that we become by grace what he is by nature.
Paidion: Aneer, can I ever enter the vast world you live in? It seems I have, well…
Paidion: Chosen to live in an awfully small world, thinking I was doing something big.
Aneer: All of us have. It’s called sin. Not a popular word today, but realizing you are in sin is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Before you repent, you are afraid to let go of something that seems, like the Ring to Gollum, “my precious.” Afterwards you find that what you dropped was torment and Hell, and you are awakening to a larger world.
Paidion: But when can I do something this deep? My schedule this week is pretty full, and little of it meshes well with—
Aneer: The only time you can ever repent is now.
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In an era of political correctness, it is always refreshing to discover a new manuscript from Athanasius, a saint a bit like gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who told the community’s most respected members that they crossed land and sea to gain one single convert only to make this convert twice as much a child of Hell as they were themselves (Matt 23:15). In an era of political correctness, Athanasius can be a breath of fresh air.
In this hitherto undiscovered and unknown work, Athanasius addresses a certain (somewhat strange and difficult to understand) era’s idiosyncracy in its adulation of what is termed “creative fidelity.” His own era seems to be saying something to ours.
Athanasius: On creative fidelity
What is this madness I hear about “creative fidelity“? For it is actually reported to me that whenever one of you talks about being faithful to tradition, his first act is to parrot mad words about how “Being Orthodox has never been a matter of mindless parrot-like repetition of the past, but always a matter of creative fidelity.”? What madness is this?
Is creative fidelity the fundamental truth about how to be an Orthodox Christian? Then why do we only hear about this at a time when people love innovation, when the madness of too many innovators to mention poisons the air as effectively as the heretic, the Antichrist, Arius? How is it that the Fathers, who are also alledged to participate in this diabolical “creative fidelity”, did not understand what they were doing, but instead insisted in one and the same faith shared by the Church since its beginning? Is this because you understand the Fathers better than the Fathers themselves?
Is the report of blasphemy also true, that to conform to people’s itching ears (II Tim 4:3) you shy back from the divine oracle, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Cor 11:3)? There is something the Apostle so much wants you to understand, and perhaps if you understood it better you would not go so far astray as to seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5) in your quest for creative fidelity.
How is it that you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)? Christ is the head of the Church (Eph 5:23), of every man (I Cor 11:3), of every authority (Col 2:10), of all things (Eph 1:22,) and God is the head of Christ (I Cor 11:3). Christ is the one head, and because of him there are many heads. The sanctuary is the head of the nave: the place where sacred priests minister meets its glory and manifest interpretation (for as the divine Disciple tells us, the Son has interpreted the Father (John 1:18) to the world) in the nave where the brethren worship. The archetype is the head of the image, the saint the head of his icon, and indeed Heaven is the head of earth. And it is the head whose glory is manifest in the body.
If both incorruptible and unchangeable Heaven is the head of corruptible and changeable earth and yet earth manifests Heaven, what does this say about this strange thing you laud called “creative fidelity”? Does it not say something most disturbing? Does the one and the same faith, alive from the days of the apostles, belong to the corruptible or the incorruptible? Is it not unchangeable?
What then of those adaptations you make—even if some are good and some are even necessary? Do they not belong to the realm of the changeable and the realm of the corruptible?
Which then is to be head? Is the corruptible and changeable to be the head of the incorruptible that suffers no change? Or rather is not the heavenly incorruptible faith to be made manifest and interpreted in the world of change? Such creative fidelity as there may be cannot be the head, and when it usurps the place of the head, you make Heaven conform to earth. Such a people as yours is very good at making Heaven conform to earth!
Listen to me. When you prepare for the sacred Pascha, how many fasts are there? One of you fasts most strictly; another is too weak to fast; another has an observance somewhere between these poles, so that there are several ways of observing the fast.
Are there therefore many fasts? Are there many Lords (I Cor 8:5) honored when you fast? Or is it not one and the same fast which one observes according to the strictest letter, another with more accommodation, and each to the glory of God? Now which is the head, the variation in fasting, or the fast itself? Are the differences in observance the spiritual truth about the fast, or the one fast to the glory of the One Lord? Or do you think that because the fast may be relaxed in its observance, the most important truth is how many ways it may legitimately be observed?
So then, as the Church’s fast is the head of the brethren’s fast, be it strict or not strict, and it is one fast in the whole Church, so also there is one faith from the days of the Apostles. This I say not because I cannot notice the differences between the Fathers, but because these differences are not the head. The one fast is the head of various observances and the one faith perfectly delivered is the head even of creative fidelity, which has always appeared when people pursue the one faith and which has no need of our exhortations. Have the Fathers shown creative fidelity when they sought to preserve the one faith? If you say so, what does that say about your exhortation to creative fidelity? Is it needed? Do you also exhort people to wrong others so that the flower of forgiveness may show forth? Or is there not enough opportunity for the flower of forgiveness without seeking it out? Show creative fidelity when you must, but must you seek it out? Must you make it the head? Must you make the Fathers wrong when they lay a foundation, not of each day’s idiosyncracies in being faithful, but in the one faith that like Heaven cannot suffer change and like Heaven is what should be made manifest in earth?
Why do you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)? Our confession has a great High Priest (Heb 3:1) who has passed through the Heavens (Heb 4:14) to that Temple and Tradition, that Sanctuary, of which every changeable earthen tradition is merely a shadow and a copy (Heb 8:5) and which the saints of the ages are ever more fully drawn to participate! Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses and the Great Witness himself, let us also lay aside every weight, and change, and sin which so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1), changing that we may leave change behind!
Remember that you are not walking, as you say, the Orthodox System of Concepts, but the Orthodox Way. Remember that feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:35); is greater than raising the dead. Never let the lamp of your prayers go out (I Thess 5:17. Like the Father, be a father to the fatherless (Ps 68:5; Isa 1:17). All the brethren salute you (Rom 16:16; II Cor 13:13). Greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16; I Cor 16:20; II Cor 13:2; I Thess 5:26; I Pet 5:11).
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- We stand in an arena, the great coliseum. For it is the apostles who were sent forth last, as if men condemned to die, made a spectacle unto the world, to angels and men.
- St. Job was made like unto a champion waging war against Satan, on God’s behalf. He lost everything and remained God-fearing, standing as the saint who vindicated God.
- But all the saints vindicate God.
- We are told as we read the trials in the Book of Job that Satan stands slandering God’s saints day and night and said God had no saint worthy of temptation. And the Lord God Almighty allowed Satan to tempt St. Job.
- We are told this, but in the end of the Scripture, even when St. Job’s losses are repaid double, St. Job never hears. He never knows that he stands in the cosmic coliseum, as a champion on God’s behalf. Never on earth does St. Job know the reason for the catastrophes that befell him.
- St. Job, buffeted and bewildered, could see no rhyme or reason in what befell him. Yet even the plagues of Satan were woven into the plans of the Lord God who never once stopped working all things to good for this saint, and to the saint who remained faithful, the plagues of Satan are woven into the diadem of royal priesthood crowning God’s saints.
- Everything that comes to us is either a blessing from God or a temptation which God has allowed for our strengthening. The plagues by which Satan visited St. Job are the very means themselves by which God glorified his faithful saint.
- Do not look for God in some other set of circumstances. Look for him in the very circumstances you are in. If you look at some of your circumstances and say, “God could not have allowed that!”, you are not rightly accepting the Lord’s work in the circumstances he has chosen to work his glory.
- You are in the arena; God has given you weapons and armor by which to fight. A poor warrior indeed blames the weapons God has armed him with.
- Fight therefore, before angels and men. The circumstances of your life are not inadequate, whether through God lacking authority, or wisdom, or love. The very sword blows of Satan glancing off shield and armor are ordained in God’s good providence to burnish tarnishment and banish rust.
- The Almighty laughs Satan to scorn. St. Job, faithful when he was stricken, unmasked the feeble audacity of the demons.
- God gives ordinary providence for easy times, and extraordinary providence for hard times.
- If times turn hard for men, and much harder for God’s servants, know that this is ordained by God. Do not suppose God’s providence came when you were young but not now.
- What in your life do you wish were gone so you could be where you should be? When you look for God to train you in those very circumstances, that is the beginning of victory. That is already a victory won.
- Look in every circumstance for the Lord to train you. The dressing of wounds after struggle is part of training, and so is live combat.
- The feeble audacity of the demons gives every appearance of power, but the appearance deceives.
- Nothing but your sins can wound you so that you are down. And even our sins are taken into the work of the Almighty if we repent.
- When some trial comes to you, and you thank God, that is itself a victory.
- Look for God’s work here and now. If you will not let God work with you here and now, God will not fulfill all of your daydreams and then begin working with you; he will ask you to let him train you in the here and now.
- Do you find yourself in a painfully rough situation? Then what can you do to lighten others’ burdens? Instead of asking, “Why me?”, ask, “Why not me?”
- An abbot asked a suffering monk if he wanted the abbot to pray that his suffering be taken away. The disciple said, “No,” and his master said, “You will outstrip me.”
- It is not a contradiction to say that both God has designs for us, and we are under the pressure of trials. Diamonds are only made through pressure.
- No disciple is greater than his master. Should we expect to be above sufferings when the Son of God was made perfect through suffering?
- Anger is a spiritual disease. We choose the path of illness all the more easily when we do not recognize that God seeks to train us in the situation we are in, not the situation we wish we were in.
- It is easier not to be angry when we recognize that God knows what he is doing in the situations he allows us to be in. The situation may be temptation and trial, but was God impotent, unwise, or unloving in how he handled St. Job?
- We do not live in the best of all possible worlds by any means. We live instead in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods. And that is the greater blessing.
- Some very holy men no longer struggle spiritually because spiritual struggle has worked out completely. But for the rest of us, struggle is a normal state. It is a problem for you or I to pass Lent without struggle. If we struggle and stumble and fall, that is good news. All the better if we cannot see how the thrusts and blows of the enemy’s sword burnish away a little rust, one imperceptible speck at a time.
- Do you ask, “Did it have to hurt that much?” When I have asked that question, I have not found a better answer than, “I do not understand,” and furthermore, “Do I understand better than God?”
- We seek happiness on terms that make success and happiness utterly impossible. God destroys our plans so that we might have the true happiness that is blessedness.
- Have a good struggle.
- There is no road to blessedness but the royal road of affliction that befits God’s sons. Consider it pure joy when you fall into different trials and temptations. If you have trouble seeing why, read the Book of James.
- Treasures on earth fail. Treasures in Heaven are more practical.
- Rejoice and dance for joy when men slander you and revile you and curse you for what good you do. This is a sign you are on the royal road; this is how the world heralds prophets and sons of God. This earthly dishonor is the seal of Heavenly honor.
- If you have hard memories, they too are a part of the arena. Forgive and learn to thank God for painful memories.
- Remember that you will die, and live in preparation for that moment. There is much more life in mindfully dying each day than in heedlessly banishing from your mind the reality. Live as men condemned to die, made a spectacle before men and angels.
- Live your life out of prayer.
- It takes a lifetime of faith to trust that God always answers prayers: he answers either “Yes, here is what you asked,” or “No, here is something better.” And to do so honestly can come from the struggle of praying your heart out and wondering why God seemed to give no answer and make no improvements to your and others’ pain.
- In the Bible, David slew Goliath. In our lives, David sometimes prevails against Goliath, but often not. Which is from God? Both.
- Struggling for the greater good is a process of at once trying to master, and to get oneself out of the way. Struggle hard enough to cooperate with God when he rips apart your ways of struggling to reach the good.
- Hurting? What can you do to help others?
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Apps that are directly useful for ascesis
There are not many apps formally labeled as Orthodox Christian, but there are some apps and mobile websites that can be used in the pursuit of the spiritual discipline of ascesis. Among these apps are:
- Ancient Faith Radio
- The value of this app goes more or less without saying, but there is one caveat.
I visited a monastery whose rules included not playing recorded music, and I saw outside the nave an old man, with headphones on, listening to Byzantine chant, moving to its beat and off in his own world.
It struck me, if anything, as an act beneath the dignity of an old man. Being off in your own world is not good for anyone, but there are some things tolerated in youth that are just sad in a mature adult. And as best I can surmise the rule was not a rule against certain types of prohibited music (though acid rock would be a worse violation), but using technology to be off in your own world in the first place. And it is because of this that I rarely listen to recorded liturgical music: it is easily available, but there is something about it that is simply wrong. (And this is not just a matter of how digital music sounds to someone with perfect pitch.)
I know of nothing better in terms of Orthodox Internet radio than Ancient Faith Radio, and really have very little if anything to say how Ancient Faith Radio could better do the job of a radio station (or, as the case may be, two stations providing access to lectures, sacred liturgical chant, and access to past broadcasts). But I have some reservations about why Orthodox need to be doing the job of a radio station—as, for that matter, I have a cautious view of my own website. The ironically titled The Luddite’s Guide to Technology lays out the attitude where a radio station with crisply rendered sacred song available on one’s iPhone or Android should be used that much.
- CJSHayward.com/psalms/?mode=mobile (bookmark for iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry; tablet users may prefer CJSHayward.com/psalms/)
- The Psalter is the greatest prayerbook of the Orthodox Church. This page selects a Psalm at random, until you click a link and it provides another Psalm at random. They seem to be helpful, chiefly because the Psalter is helpful.
- JonathansCorner.mobi (bookmark for iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry; tablet users may prefer CJSHayward.com)
- I hate to hawk my own wares, but I’ve put quite a lot into the two sites linked above, and perhaps reading them may be of some use.
- Your smartphone’s built-in note-taking application, or Momento for iPhone or iPad (with many diary applications for Droid, Samsung, and Android, and perhaps other offerings for other devices.
- Some monks in the ancient world kept a notebook, and something to write with, by their belts. They would stop at intervals to write down their thoughts: not brilliant ideas to think about, but take moral stock of where they were and how they were doing.
Such a practice was not mandatory in the ancient world and to my knowledge no one requires it now. However, since I started doing it, I have besides some very stupid struggles come to a higher level of awareness, of nipsis, of how much goes on in my head and heart that is simply silly.
If you do this, it would be better to have an application that stores your information locally in your smartphone instead of uploading it to the cloud where others may more easily find it. That is why I don’t recommend Evernote for this purpose; it is a very attractive app in many ways, but not as strong on privacy as your smartphone’s built-in note taker or a diary app.
- The Kindle app for iPhone, iPod Touch, Droid, Samsung, Android, and Blackberry (not to mention PC’s)
- I wouldn’t want to denigrate paperback books, but you can buy some of the greatest classics on Kindle: the Orthodox Study Bible (an edition I discussed in my Orthodox bookshelf), the Philokalia, and My Orthodox Prayer Book. Plenty of lesser works are available too: see my own Kindle offerings at CJSHayward.com.
- Wants and Needs
- Having this app is a want and not a need, but there are legitimate wants.
This is a simple but very well-executed app to help appreciate what are our wants, what are our needs, and what we have to be grateful for.
Apps that are generally useful
G.K. Chesterton said, “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.” And there is more Orthodoxy in just using an iPhone as a tool for being human than going to the app store and looking for apps endorsed as religious.
Do a Google search for best iPhone apps, for instance, and you will find a wealth of app recommendations. And many of these can work as a support for an Orthodox life of ascesis: Orthodoxy did not invent the pot, the belt, or the hammer, and yet all of these can have a place. Not, perhaps, the same place as a book of prayers, but a legitimate place. Secular tools and activities are holy when they are used by a life out of ascesis. And there are some excellent apps; among them I would name PocketMoney, a personal finance tool;mSecure, a password manager; Things, a to-do list; GPS MotionX Drive, a navigation tool; Flashlight, which lets you use the LED as a flashlight; and the main Google app, a search app optimized for the web by the company that defined search. All of these have their place.
But there are many apps on those lists that are unhelpful. Games and entertainment apps are meant to kill time, which is to say that they are meant to provide a convenient alternative to the spiritual discipline that tolds monks, “Your cell [room] will teach you everything you need to know.” And I suggest asking, in considering an app, “Does this support ascesis?” A to-do list helps with nuts and bolts of a disciplined life. An app to show a stream of new and different restaurants feeds gluttony. It is fine for Orthodox Christians to use apps that are not branded as Orthodox or ascetical, but the question “Does this support ascetical living?” (which is in no way a smartphone-centric question, but a basic question of Orthodox life, to be settled with one’s priest or spiritual father perhaps), applies here.
A closing note: When do you call 9-1-1 (or 9-9-9)?
There is a good case to be made that the most important number for you to be able to call on any phone is 9-1-1. However, this does not mean that your first stop in dealing with boredom is to call 9-1-1 to just chat with someone. It may be the most important number for you to be able to call—and the only number that may save your life—but using 9-1-1 rightly means using it rarely.
I would not speak with quite equal force about smartphones, but I would say that if you really want to know how to use your smartphone in a way that supports Orthodox spiritual discipline, the biggest answer is not to use one more app or one more mobile website. It is to use your phone less, to visit people face to face instead of talking and texting, and to use apps a little more like you use 9-1-1: to get a specific task accomplished.
And this is without looking at the problem of an intravenous drip of noise. The iPhone and Android’s marketing proposition is to deliver noise as an anaesthetic to boredom. And Orthodox use of the iPhone is not to deliver noise: all of us, with or without iPhones or Android devices, are to cultivate the ascesis of silence, and not make ourselves dependent on noise. And it is all too easy with these smartphones; they are designed so that it is too easy.
The Fathers did not say “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity,” but on this point they could have. Killing time is the opposite of the ascesis of being present, of being attentive of the here and now that God has given us, and not the here and now that we wish to be in or the here and now we hope to get to. Contentment and gratitude are for here now, not what we imagine as better conditions. We are well advised to live astemeniously, and that is where the best use of iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets comes from.
Smartphones have many legitimate uses, but don’t look to them for, in modern terms, a mood management tool.
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- This life is an apprenticeship. You do not understand its purpose until you understand that we are created to be apprentice gods.
- It is said, a man knows the meaning of life when he plants a tree knowing he will never live to sit in its shade. Truer is to say that a man knows the meaning of life when he plants a tree not seeing how he will ever this side of Heaven sit in its shade.
- You do not understand life in the womb until you understand what is after the womb. For some actions in the womb bear fruit in the womb, but suckling and kicking are made to strengthen muscles for nursing and walking, and nursing a preparation for the solid food of men.
- You shall surely die: such Adam and Eve were warned, such Adam and Eve were cursed, and such the saints are blessed. For death itself is made an entryway for life. But we can only repent in this life: after this life our eternal choice of Life or Death is sealed.
- Do not despise moral, that is to say eternal, victories. Have you labored to do something great, only to find it all undone? Take courage. God is working with you to wreak triumph. From his eternal providence he is working, if you will be his co-worker, in synergy, to make with you something greater than you could possibly imagine, a treasure in Heaven which you never could imagine to be able to covet.
- The purpose of life may be called as an apprenticeship to become divine. The divine became man that man might become divine. The Scriptures oft speak of the sons of God, and of men’s participation in the nature divine. This divinisation begins on earth and reaches its full stature, when the Church triumphant and whole becomes the Church of saints who have become what in God they were trying to become. And we are summoned to that door.
- Were sportsmanship to be found only in a foreign culture, we would find it exotic. Play your best, seek to win a well-played game, but have dispassion enough to be graceful in winning and losing alike. But one of its hidden gems is that most often a team that has to win will be defeated by a team that only tries to give it their best.
- But sportsmanship is not just for sports. Hard times are encroaching and are already here: but we are summoned, not to win, but to play our best. Hence St. Paul, at the end of a life of as much earthly triumph as any saints, spoke as a true sportsman: he said not, “I have triumphed,” but that he had been faithful: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my [race]course, I have kept the faith. This from a saint who enjoyed greater earthly accomplishments than his very Lord.
- It is said that there are three ranks among the disciples: slaves who obey God out of fear, hirelings who obey God out of the desire for reward, and sons who obey God out of love. It has also been said that we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, for more people come to the truth from fear of Hell than the desire for the rewards in Heaven. But if you want a way out of Hell, seek to desire the incomparably greater reward in Heaven; if you seek reward in Heaven, come to obey God out of love, for love of God transcends even rewards in Heaven.
- It is said, Doth thou love life? Then do not waste time, for time is the stuff life’s made of. It might be said, Seekest thou to love? Then do not shun ascesis and discipleship, for they are the stuff love is made of. Or they a refining fire that purges all that is not silver and gold. Our deifying apprenticeship takes place through ascesis and being disciples.
- Two thoughts are to be banished: I am a saint, and I shall be damned. Instead think these two thoughts: I am a great sinner, and God is merciful. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. You have not met Christ’s dread judgment throne yet: seek each day to pursue more righteousness.
- The sum of our status as apprentice gods is this: Love men as made in the image of God, and work in time as the womb of eternity. Fulfill your apprenticeship with discipleship as best you are able. And follow God’s lead in the great Dance, cooperating in synergy with his will. And know that lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
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Can you pull out Leviathan with a hook,
or press his tongue down with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose,
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you?
Will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make a covenant with you?
Will he be your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird?
Or will you put him on a rope for your maidens?
Will traders bargain for him?
Shall he be divided among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons,
or his head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on him;
Think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed;
he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before him?
Who can confront him and be safe?
Under the whole Heavens, who?
I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his powerful frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Round about his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up as tightly as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can pass between them.
They are joined to one another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light;
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him.
The folds of his flesh cleave together,
firmly cast upon him and immovable.
His heart is as hard as a stone,
as hard as the lower millstone.
When he raises himself up, the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail;
nor spear, nor dart, nor javelin.
He counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotted wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee;
for him slingstones are turned to rubble.
Clubs are counted as stubble;
he laughs at the rattle of javelins.
His underparts are like sharp potsherds;
he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his equal,
a creature without fear.
He beholds everything that is high;
he is king over all of the sons of pride. (Job 41)
Behold Behemoth, which I made with you;
he eats grass as an ox.
Look now; his strength is in his loins,
and his power is in the muscles of his belly.
He swings his tail like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are like rods of bronze;
his limbs are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the works of God;
his maker can approach him with the sword.
Surely the mountains bring forth food to him,
where all of the beasts of the field play.
He lies under the lotus trees;
the willows of the book surround him.
Behold, he drinks up a river and is not frightened;
he is confident though the Jordan rushes into his mouth.
Can a man take him with hooks,
or pierce his nose with a snare? (Job 40:15-24)
These words, lightly altered from the Revised Standard Version, culminate a divine answer to Job out of the whirlwind: where was Job when God laid the foundation of earth? The divine voice turns to the foundations of the earth and the bounds of the sea, light and darkness, rain and hail, the stars, and the lion, mountain goat, wild ox and ass, ostrich, horse, and the hawk. The text is powerful even if translators demurely use “tail” for what the Behemoth swings like a cedar.
On a more pedestrian level, I was reticent when some friends had told me that they were going to be catsitting in their apartment and invited me over. (They know I love cats and other animals.) What I thought to explain later was that I proportionately outweigh a housecat by about as much as a mammoth outweighs me (perhaps “rhinoceros” would have been more appropriately modest than “mammoth”), and I try to let animals choose the pace at which they decide I’m not a threat. (And the cat has no way of knowing I don’t eat cats.) As far as the environment to meet goes, I didn’t bring up “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but humans are more forgiving than animals. Although I didn’t mention that, I did mention the difference between someone approaching you in a mailroom and someone following you in a less safe place. All of which was to explain why I love animals but would be cautious about approaching a cat in those circumstances and would play any visit by ear. (I later explained how even if the cat is not sociable and spends most of its visit hiding, they can still experience significant success by returning the cat to his owner unharmed with any unpleasantness quickly forgotten in the arms of his owner.)
As I write, I spent a lovely afternoon with those friends, and tried to serve as a tour guide. What I realized as I was speaking to them was that I was mixing the scientific with what was not scientific, not exactly by saying things some scientists would disapprove like why eyeless cave fish suggest a reason natural selection might work against the formation of complex internal and external organs, but by something else altogether.
What is this something else? It is the point of this essay to try and uncover that.
I wrote in Meat why I eat lots of beef but am wary of suffering caused by cruel farming, and for that reason don’t eat veal and go light on pork: I believe it is legitimate to kill animals for food but not moral to raise them under lifelong cruelty to make meat cheap. (Jesus was very poor by American standards and rarely had the luxury of eating meat.) While I hope you will bookmark Meat and consider trying to eat lower on the animal cruelty scale, my reason for bringing this up is different. The reason I wrote Meat has to do with something older in my life than my presently being delighted to find beef sausage and beef bacon, and trying not to eat much more meat than I need. And I am really trying hard not to repeat what I wrote before.
Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said that the one who does not murder because “Do not murder” is so deep in his bones that he needs no law to tell him not to murder, is greater than the theologian who can derive that law from first principles. What I want to talk about is simultaneously “deep in the bones” knowledge and something I would like to discover, and it is paradoxically something I want to discover because it is deep in my bones. And it is connected in my minds less to meat than when one of my friends, having come with a large dog who was extremely skittish around men, had a mix of both women and men over to help her move into her apartment, and asked me and not any of the women to take care of a dog she acknowledged was afraid of men. (I don’t know why she did this; I don’t think she thought about my being a man.) At the beginning of half an hour, the dog was manifestly not happy at being at the other end of a leash with me; at the end of the half hour the dog had his head in my lap and was wagging his tail to meet the other men as well as women.
Part of this was knowledge in the pure Enlightenment sense about stretching an animal’s comfort zone without pushing it into panic—a large part, in fact. But another part is that while I don’t believe that animals are people, I try to understand animals and relate to them the same way I understand and relate to people. Maybe I can’t discuss philosophy with a rabbit, and maybe a little bit of knowledge science-wise helps about minimizing intimidation to a creature whose main emotion is fear.
But that’s not all.
After I ended the phone conversation where I explained why I was wary of terrifying what might be an already afraid cat, I realized something. I had just completed a paper for a feminist theology class which criticized historical scholarship that looked at giants of the past as behaving strangely and inexplicably, and I tried to explain why their behavior was neither strange nor inexplicable. I suggested that historical sources need to be understood as human and said that if you don’t understand why someone would write what you’re reading, that’s probably a sign there’s something you don’t understand. Most of the length of my paper went into trying to help the reader see where the sources were coming from and see why their words were human, and neither strange nor inexplicable. What I realized after the phone conversation was that I had given the exact same kind of argument for why I was hesitant to introduce myself to the cat: I later called and suggested that the cat spend his first fifteen minutes in the new apartment with his owner petting him. I never said that the cat was human, and unlike some cat owners I would never say that the cat was equal to a human, but even if I will never meet that cat, my approach to dealing with the cat meet him is not cut off from my approach to dealing with people. And in that regard I’m not anywhere near a perfect Merlin (incidentally, a merlin is a kind of hawk, the last majestic creature we encounter before the proud Behemoth and Leviathan, and it does not seem strange to me that a lot of Druids have hawk in their name, nor do I think the name grandiose), but Merlin appears in characters’ speculation in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength as someone who achieves certain effects, not by external spells, but by who he is and how he relates to nature. That has an existentialist ring I’d like to exorcise, but if I can get by with saying that I feel no need to meditate in front of a tree and repeat a mantra of “I see the tree. The tree sees me,” nor do I spend much of any time trying to “Get in touch with nature…” then after those clarifications I think I can explain why something of Lewis’s portrayal of Merlin resonates. (And I don’t think it’s the most terribly helpful approach to talk about later “accretions” and try to understand Arthurian legend through archaeological reconstruction of 6th century Britain; that’s almost as bad as asking astronomy to be more authentic by only using the kind of telescopes Galileo could use.) It is not the scientific knowledge I can recite that enables me to relate to animals well, but by what is in my bones: a matter of who I am even before woolgathering about “Who am I?”
This has little to do with owning pets; I do not know that I would have a pet whether or not my apartment would allow them, and have not gone trotting out for a cat fix even though one is available next door. It’s not a matter of having moral compunctions about meat, although it fed into my acquiring such compunctions a few years ago. It’s not about houseplants either; my apartment allows houseplants but I have not gone to the trouble of buying one. Nor is it a matter of learning biology; physics, math, and computer science were pivotally important to me, but not only was learning biology never a priority for my leisure time, but I am rather distressed that when people want to understand nature they inevitably grab for a popular book on biology. When people try to understand other people, do they ask for CT scan of the other person’s brain? Or do they recognize that there is something besides biological and medical theories that can lend insight into people and other creatures?
The fact that we do not try to relate to people primarily through medicine suggests a way we might relate to other animals besides science: trying to relate to nature by understanding science is asking an I-It tree to bear I-Thou fruit. (If you are unfamiliar with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, it would also be comparable to asking a stone to lay an egg.)
I’m not going to be graphic, but I would like to talk about dissection. Different people respond differently to different circumstances, and I know that my experience with gradeschool dissection is not universal. I also know that dissection is not a big deal for some people, as I know that the hunters I know are among the kindest people I’ve met. Still I wish to make some remarks.
The first thing is that there is an emotional reaction you people need to suppress. Perhaps some adults almost reminisce about that part of their education as greatly dreaded but almost disappointing in its lack of psychological trauma. And I may be somewhat sensitive. But there’s something going on in that experience, stronger for some people and weaker in others. It’s one learning experience among others and what is learned is significant.
But is it really one learning experience among others?
Again without being graphic, dissection could have been used as a bigger example in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book I strongly reccommend. It finds a red flag in the dissection room, if mentioned only briefly—a red flag that something of our humanity is being lost.
To be slightly more graphic, one subtle cue was that in my biology classroom, there were plenty of gloves to begin with, then as the dissections progressed, only one glove per person, then no gloves at all—at a school for the financially gifted. And, to note something less subtle, the animals were arranged in a very specific order. You could call the progression, if you wanted to, the simplest and least technical to properly dissect, up to a last analysis which called for distinctly more technical skill. Someone more suspicious might point out how surprisingly the list of animals coincides with what a psychologist would choose in order to desensitize appropriately sensitive children. I really don’t think I’m being too emotional by calling this order a progression from what you’d want to step on to what some people would want to cuddle. I don’t remember the Latin names I memorized to make sense of what I was looking at. What it did to my manhood, or if you prefer humanity, is lasting, or at least remembered. Perhaps my sensibilities might have needed to be coarsened, but it is with no great pride that I remember forcing myself in bravado to dissect without gloves even when everybody else was wearing them. Perhaps I crossed that line so early because there were other lines that had already been crossed in me. And perhaps I am not simply being delicate, but voicing a process that happened for other people too.
If the question is, “What do we need in dealing with animals?”, one answer might be, “What dissection makes children kill.” I’m not talking about the animals, mind you; with the exception of one earthworm, I never killed a specimen. Perhaps the memories would be more noxious if I had, but all my specimens were pre-killed and I was not asked to do that. But even with pre-killed specimens I was, in melodramatic terms, ordered to kill something of my humanity. I do not mean specifically that I experienced unpleasant emotions; I’ve had a rougher time with many things I can remember with no regrets. What I mean is that any emotions were a red flag that something of an appropriate way of relating to animals was being cut up with every unwanted touch of the scalpel. It’s not just animals that are dismantled in the experience.
When I wrote my second novel, I wrote to convey medieval culture (perhaps Firestorm 2034 would have been better if I focused more on, say, telling a story), and one thing I realized was that I would have an easier time conveying medieval culture if I showed its contact, in a sense its dismantling, with a science fiction setting, although I could have used the present day: I tried not to stray too far from the present day U.S. There is something that is exposed in contact with something very different. It applies in a story about a medieval wreaking havoc in a science fiction near future. It also applies in the dissection room. Harmony with nature, or animals, may not be seen in meditating in a forest. Or at least not as clearly as when we are fighting harmony with animals as we go along with an educator’s requests to [graphic description deleted].
Let me return to the account from which I took words about a Leviathan and a Behemoth whose tail swings like a cedar. This seemingly mythological account—if you do not know how Hebrew poetry operates, or that a related languages calls the hippopotamuspehemoth instead of using the Greek for “river horse” as we do—is better understood if you know what leads up to it. A stricken Job, slandered before God as only serving God as a mercenary, cries out to him in anguish and is met by comforters who tell him he is being punished justly. The drama is more complex than that, but God save me from such comforters in my hour of need. The only thing he did not rebuke the comforters for was sitting with Job in silence for a week because they saw his anguish was so great.
Job said, “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (Job 13:3) And, after heated long-winded dialogue, we read (Job 38-39, RSV):
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, `Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed like a garment.
From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man;
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
Can you bind the chains of the Plei’ades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Maz’zaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
and say to you, `Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the clouds,
or given understanding to the mists?
Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cleave fast together?
Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they bring forth,
when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
and he searches after every green thing.
Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear;
because God has made her forget wisdom,
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider.
Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrible.
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength;
he goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
he does not turn back from the sword.
Upon him rattle the quiver,
the flashing spear and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says `Aha!’
He smells the battle from afar,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off.
[closing gruesome image deleted]
Then Job says some very humble and humbled words. Then the Lord gives his coup de grace, a demand to show strength like God that culminates with words about the Leviathan and Behemoth. Job answers “… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… I had heard of thee by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” (Job 42:3,5, RSV)
Did God blast Job like a soup cracker?
Absolutely, but if that is all you have to say about the text, you’ve missed the text.
There’s something about Job’s “comforters” defending a sanitized religion too brittle to come to terms with un-sanitized experience and un-sanitized humanity; Job cares enough about God to show his anger, and though he is never given the chance to plead his case before God, he meets God: he is not given what he asks for, but what he needs.
There’s a lot of good theology about God giving us what we need, but without exploring that in detail, I would point out that the Almighty shows himself Almighty through his Creation, quite often through animals. There may be reference to rank on rank of angels named as all the sons of God shouting for joy (Job 38:7), but man is curiously absent from the list of majestic works; the closest reference to human splendor is “When [Leviathan] raises himself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves” (Job 41:25). The RSV thoughtfully replaces “gods” with “mighty” in the text, relegating “gods” to a footnote—perhaps out of concern for readers who mihgt be disturbed by the Old and New Testament practice of occasionally referring to humans as gods, here in order to to emphasize that even the mightiest or warriors are terrified by the Leviathan.
This is some of the Old Testament poetry at its finest, written by the Shakespeare of the Old Testament, and as Hebrew poetry it lays heavy emphasis on one the most terrifying creature the author knew of, the crocodile, a terrifying enough beast that Crocodile Dundee demonstrates his manhood to the audience by killing a crocodile—and the film successfully competes head-to-head against fantasy movies that leave nothing to the imagination for a viewer who wants to see a fire-breathing dragon.
Let me move on to a subtle point made in Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. While the main emphasis of the work is that dependence is neither alien to being human nor something that makes us somehow less than human, he alludes to the classical definition of man as “rational mortal animal” and makes a subtle point.
Up until a few centuries ago the term “animal” could be used in a sense that either included or excluded humans. While both senses coexisted, there was not a sense that calling a person an animal was degrading any more than it was degrading to mention that we have bodies. Now calling someone an animal is either a way of declaring that they are beneath the bounds of humanity, or a dubious compliment to a man for boorish qualities, or else an evolutionary biologist’s way of insisting that we are simply one animal species among others, in neo-Darwinist fashion enjoying no special privilege. But Aristotle meant none of these when he recognized we are animals.
To be human is to be both spirit and beast, and not only is there not shame in that we have bodies that need food and drink like other animals, but there is also not shame in a great many other things: We perceive the world and think through our bodies, which is to say as animals. We communicate to other people through our bodies, which is to say as animals. Were we not animals the Eucharist would be impossible for Christians to receive. We are also spirit, and our spirit is a much graver matter than our status as animals, including in Holy Communion; our spirit is to be our center of gravity, and our resurrection body is to be transformed to be spiritual. But the ultimate Christian hope of bodily resurrection at the Lord’s return is a hope that as spiritual animals we will be transfigured and stand before God as the crowning jewel of bodily creation. The meaning of our animal nature will be changed and profoundly transformed, but never destroyed. Nor should we hope to be released from being animals. To approach Christianity in the hope that it will save us from our animal natures—being animals—is the same kind of mistake as a child who understandably hopes that growing up means being in complete control of one’s surroundings. Adulthood and Christianity both bring many benefits, but that is not the kind of benefit Christianity provides (or adulthood).
If that is the case, then perhaps there is nothing terribly provocative about my trying to understand other animals the way I understand other people. Granted, the understanding cannot run as deep because no other animal besides man is as deep as man and some would have it that man is the ornament of both visible and spiritual creation, Christ having become man and honored animal man in an honor shared by no angel. The old theology as man as microcosm, shared perhaps with non-Christian sources, sees us as the encapsulation of the entire created order. Does this mean that there are miniature stars in our kidneys? It is somewhat beside the point to underscore that every carbon nucleus in your body is a relic of a star. A more apropos response would be that to be human is to be both spirit and matter, to share life with the plants and the motion of animals, and that it is impossible to be this microcosm without being an animal. God has honored the angels with a spiritual and non-bodily creation, but that is not the only honor to be had.
In my homily Two Decisive Moments, I said,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”
I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.
Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.
It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!”
What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!
Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.
Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.
Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!
Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”
Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.
To the Orthodox, at least in better moments, Christ is not just our perfect image of what it means to be God. He is also the definition of what it means to be Christian and what it ultimately means to be man.
Can we understand this and deny that Christ is an animal?