I am presently attending a Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia archdiocesan seminary, and one of the perks is that I am getting to meet Fr. Seraphim of Plantina and see some of why he is respected.
Fr. Seraphim, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church does not downplay at least some of the concerns I’ve had about the Blessed Augustine. I’ve heard Orthodox complaints in the past that when Evangelicals say “I’ve been reading the Fathers,” it usually means “I’ve been reading Augustine and no one else,” and my last real comment on the matter was that Blessed Augustine was a Church Father the way Evangelicals would imagine a Church Father: a philosopher whose subject matter was God and who heavily quoted Scripture. Fr. Seraphim acknowledges Blessed Augustine’s overreliance on reason, but suggests that balanced such concerns with a suggestion that Orthodox view him as a Church Father, if not necessarily of the first rank. His overuse of reason is seen as a liability; but it is apparently not seen as the end of the world.
(I’m not completely sure what to do with the book’s claim that an Ecumenical Council placed Blessed Augustine as equal to the Three Heirarchs except maybe as an exuberant tangent spun off a Council’s long list of Church Fathers that included the Three Heirarchs, Blessed Augustine, and many more. However, this is not my main focus.)
To cite the preface to Fr. Seraphim’s title: “When I made a disapproving facial expression and stated that the Church does not give him the full title of “Saint” but only calls him “Blessed,” he replied, ‘Show me another Father who speaks stronger than Augustine on repentance.'”
My most immediate response is, “I don’t know about the Greek Fathers, but I’ve written more about repentance.” I invite you to read my chief work on the topic, Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret. The Orthodox Church speaks in her liturgy about “hope in repentance,” and repentance is something joyful that reaches well beyond what remorse even dreams of. A Protestant framing of repentance is to speak of it as unconditional surrender; Orthodoxy does not deny this but reaches further to compare repentance to awakening. There are more than glimmers of this in Augustine, but the most vivid quotes in Augustine’s Confessions look on evil with a horrid fascination. Things of goodness, sweetness in the Lord, are mentioned joyfully. However, there is nothing like this horrid fascination that has in regard to good things the forceful underscoring and unpacking that Blessed Augustine has for his sins. And really, evil cannot be as evil as good is good. I wrote of repentance about being blindsided by reward, to unpack one aspect of repentance. The goodness of repentance has much more to unpack than the evil of sin, and if there is anything wrong with Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, it is how far it falls short of properly unpacking what a good thing and a blessing repentance is.
The process of repentance is an unconditional surrender to something you think you absolutely must have (the Philokalia says, “People hold on to sin because they think it adorns them), and when you surrender, if you surrender, you have lost nothing but a shackle, and you realize that you need a hole in your head like you needed that sin. You are blindsided by reward, and you realize that you were clinging to what was in fact a piece of Hell. However, the main focus is not on how horrible that piece of Hell was. It is, as my priest put it, that you have been clogged and in repentance you get unclogged, having a new freedom you had not even dreamed of. And, really, there are more things in repentance than are even dreamed of in our prior immediate mindset.
With all that stated, I would like to quote some of the most heavily underlined quotes in Fr. Seraphim’s copy of Blessed Augustine’s Confessions:
I disobeyed, not from a better choice, but from love of play, loving the pride of victory in my contests, and to have my ears tickled with lying fables, that they might itch the more, for the show and games of my elders.
I lusted to thieve, and did it, compelled by no hunger, no poverty, but through a cloyedness of well-doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but I joyed in the theft and sin itself.
Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, I flung them away, my pnly feast being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin.
These are the kind of quotes that put the “Augustine” in “Augustinian,” and remorse gets more fascination than repentance.
When I was received into the Orthodox Church, I thought it was best to confess my sins vividly to help me in my remorse. Admittedly, I know that sins of lust and anger are not to be confessed in great detail lest the penitent reawaken the sin. But in fact what is preferred is to state your sins briefly, and I do not think that this is in the first instance either because of logistics or efficiency on the one hand, or on the other hand tied to what a fellow parishioner commented that you should just state the sin, because the further you go in detail the more likely you will be accusing yourself. While I don’t want to slight joyful compunction, the goal of repentance is not to stay in remorse. The goal is simply to wake up and be freed from your infirmity.
Remorse in itself does not save. Judas was remorseful, and hanged himself. Repentance would be turn to Christ and wash his feet with his tears. And Judas did not do that.
Seeing this book helped me understand why Augustine has repented, and it takes some guts to defend perhaps one of the most vilified of the Fathers of the Church. Or at least a contrarian mind. And some of the things I find questionable in Augustine seem to have some resonance with Fr. Seraphim.
Remorse is not repentance. Repentance vastly eclipses remorse, and it draws one’s eyes towards what Fr. Tom Hopko advised in, “Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.” Part of repentance leaves one realizing, “I was holding onto a piece of Hell!”—but that is not what fascinates a mind beholding the beauty of God and Light.
This book is written primarily to document a large-scale behavior problem. It is also meant to provide a preliminary analysis of what is going on. The movement is Protestant converts to Orthodoxy who are still fundamentalists and rally under the banner of Fr. Seraphim.
FATHER SERAPHIM ROSE was by nature a warm-hearted man. Often he used to say, “It is noble to defend the underdog.” He felt obliged to defend those who were considered by society to be somehow in the wrong. He believed that God was not necessarily on the side of those who are considered right, and that those who are dismissed and held in a negative light are in a position to be pitied. The latter, said Fr. Seraphim, are the ones whom Jesus Christ came to save; and therefore when he saw them being looked down upon, he took their side…
Our Lord Jesus Christ said: Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1). Psychologically, this means that in each act of judging another, the judge identifies the negative aspect in himself which he does not like, and thus projects it onto the other, thereby receiving gratification. He thinks that in this way he is getting rid of that negative aspect of himself, whereas in reality he is only breeding and nurturing it.
Our contemporary converts have a tendency to do likewise. They quickly [become] Orthodox, and then assume that by their conversion they have automatically become infallible. Thus they feel free to point out in others what in reality are their own faults, disguising this as righteous judgment. Instead of humbly seeing their own shortcomings, which are the outgrowth of preceding generations of Western apostasy, they often carry their Western legalism in the midst of the Orthodox Church, and as a result they deform the ancient Orthodox tradition and substitute it with modernism. In Russia this sickness has been identified by the term “renovationism.” If the course of contemporary converts will continue in the renovationist style, making Orthodoxy fit into their own mentality rather than vice versa, then their understanding of Orthodoxy will end up as a kind of “anti-Western” legalism, or to put it another way, Western legalism in an Eastern Orthodox guise. As Fr. Seraphim saw, this very legalism lies at the core of the “Eastern Orthodox” attacks on Blessed Augustine, and he wanted to avoid it at all costs.
The opening quotes Fr. Seraphim as saying, “I myself fear the cold hearts of the ‘intellectually correct’ much more than any errors you might find in Augustine. I sense in these cold hearts a preparation for the work of Antichrist (whose imitation of Christ must also extend to correct theology); I feel in Augustine the love of Christ.”
The more the author reads of Fr. Seraphim, the more wondering there is if Fr. Seraphim might be appalled by those who were under the banner of “Blessed Seraphim Rose.” This book, when it was new, was an underdog position, and to date the author knows no disciple of Fr. Seraphim’s legacy who has decided to defend this particular underdog, nor of any disciple who writes a review of this work in which this book is found to represent serious error but represent the work of an errant brother who is to be pitied but never hated. The author has refrained from praying, “Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, protect me from your followers!” but now wonders if Fr. Seraphim now stands before the throne of God and would welcome such prayers.
“Our contemporary converts have a tendency to do likewise. They quickly [become] Orthodox, and then assume that by their conversion they have automatically become infallible,” reasonably describes many of this book’s reviews, and the amount of poison to be found in them leaves the author to wonder if Fr. Seraphim would see him as an underdog.
My seminary has Holy Trinity Monastery’s (of what jurisdiction I do not know) Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, five-star-reviewed on Amazon (a lone dissenter gave only four stars), and I decided in prayer to read the commentary on the Book of Revelation, which was translated by Fr. Seraphim and published by his St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.
It helped, in part, to help me see why Fr. Seraphim is so respected in some quarters, and it does not strike me, as do other translations from the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, as being laced with an occult dimension or TMI that monks should normally flee from exposing to laity. It was, overall, a good and lucid translation of a classic commentary, but… I’m a little bit “not surprised” that the translation of Vladyka’s commentary on Revelation was the one translation that appears to be Fr. Seraphim’s doing. It has certain fingerprints. And at risk of irony as someone who dipped into the beginning of the commentary and then honed in on Revelation, it might gently be pointed out that Revelation is the one book of the New Testament that is intentionally not read in Orthodox services.
Among the positive points that may be mentioned, in a text that Fr. Seraphim chose to translate and that bears the Brotherhood’s imprint, are that Revelation needs to be interpreted with extreme caution, and that responsible interpretation is layered. For instance, without any pretension of a single, exhaustive exegesis, he notes,
9:7-10 And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
This description of the monstrous locusts causes some commentators to think that these locusts are nothing else than an allegorical description of human passions. Each of such passions, when it reaches a certain limit, has all the signs of these monstrous locusts. In describing the coming day of the Lord, the holy prophet Joel describes also the appearance before it of destroyers who in part remind one of these locusts.
I suppose that by these locusts one should likely understand the evil demons who have prepared themselves for battle with us, and as signs of victory, wear crowns when we submit to them as having received an evil victory through pleasure. The hair of women [in cultures where women covered their hairs, out of modesty—CJSH] testifies of the demons’ love of pleasure and arousal to fornication; the teeth of lions indicate their hardheartedness; their tails, which are likened to those of scorpions indicate the consequences of sins, which produce the death of the soul, for sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (Jas 1:15). (St. Andrew, Chapter 26)
But then he goes on:
Contemporary commentators, not without a certain reasonableness, find a kinship of these locusts with airplanes and their bombing attack.
This notes a similarity with admitted caution; Fr. Seraphim’s translation earlier quotes the reference to hail, and earlier says, without such restraint, “Does this not refer to an aerial bombardment with its destructive and incendiary bombs,” and follows with “Some people see also in this frightful mounted army tanks which spurt forth fire.”
What is at issue here? It has been said, “Nothing is as dated as the future.” And the text, should future scholars wish to date it, could date this text fairly closely by what technology it sees and what it has no hint of.
There is a counterbalance to “Nothing is as dated as the future.” Things fade in. Prophecy collapses time without sharply distinguishing similar events that occur at different period, and when oca.org/saints, before the prophecies of St. Nilus, the party that posted St. Nilus’s story wrote:
Saint Nilus has left a remarkably accurate prophecy concerning the state of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, and a description of the people of that time. Among the inventions he predicted are the telephone, airplane, and submarine. He also warned that people’s minds would be clouded by carnal passions, “and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger.” Men would not be distinguishable from women because of their “shamelessness of dress and style of hair.” Saint Nilus lamented that Christian pastors, bishops and priests, would become vain men, and that the morals and traditions of the Church would change. Few pious and God-fearing pastors would remain, and many people would stray from the right path because no one would instruct them.
The person who assessed the text as referring to the mid-twentieth century was in fact not quoting a timeline given by St. Nilus but giving a gloss by the presumably mid-twentieth century author of his life, and St. Nilus did not in fact give any timeline or date that my historical sensitivities could recognize. I have read his prophecies, the real ones that tell what the wording of the Mark of the Beast will be, a point I have never seen on the urban legend channel. But things are fading in. The original life posted referred to the “radio,” not the “telephone.” As far as men being indistinguishable from women, we have far eclipsed the summary of the prophecy above, which has no concept of widespread sex-change attempts. As far as passions go, we now have a sewer’s worth of Internet porn. The prophecy could apply as much to scuba diving even better than submarines, but the oca.org/saints wording has not been changed. The prophecies stated that wisdom would be found that would let men speak in one place and be heard across the world, a prediction which has faded in in the radio, then also the telephone, then also the Zoom chat. What next? Who knows if haptics might make a “remote touch” that offers some ghastly and obscene parody of a mother touching her baby, remotely and from a phone? As far as the morals and tradition of the Church, contraception has transformed into being broadly seen as a legitimate option to Orthodox. Examples could easily be multiplied, but I think it would be better to recognize the singularity we live in, a singularity that is unfolding on many dimensions (the gender rainbow, the river of blood from black-on-black murders ever since “Black Lives Matter” took to the forefront (could we please reverse course and go for “All Black Lives Matter?”), a singularity following a century that with artists like Picasso radically transforming artistic conventions that a historian should regard as being like an eyeblink. Now changes are continuing to roll out, at an accelerating pace in a singularity. In a matter of weeks, models who were not half-starved began to be rolled out. Politically correct pictures of people usually did not show white people alone; they included a person of color. Now a further installment has been made: some pictures have a woman wearing Muslim hajibs, and increasingly common are wheelchairs to include people with disabilities (please note that most disabilities, including mine, do not have people using a wheelchair). And dominoes are falling: not only BLM, which seems to always and only be in reference to blacks needlessly killed by white police and by white police alone, but Islam’s surge (with atheislam in which the West accepts under an iron yoke what it spurned under a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light), the cyber-quarantine, vaccines that will be socially mandated, transgender being in truth a prominent and well-integrated addition to what was once really just mostly “LBG”, with schoolchildren being told “There’s no right or wrong age to fall in love” (one archpriest called a spade a spade and said, “Putting the P in LGBTQP+”), and so on.
(“Singularity” is intended by analogy to what the term means in physics. Gravity in physics has been compared to weighted balls moving on a level, stretched-out rubber sheet. Heavier balls stretch the fabric more than light balls, and they tend to draw each other in. They stretch the fabric, but don’t break it. A black hole is when something stretches the fabric so singularly that the fabric of space folds in on itself, and you get potential wormholes etc. The difference between regular gravity and a singularity is loosely the difference between stretching the sheet by your weight on the one hand, and on the other hand ripping a hole in it.)
Furthermore, if I may offer what may seem an overly fine distinction, I think that matching up current events to details of Revelation is best avoided, but understanding that we are in a singularity and understanding that similarity may have value.
I had conversations with an adviser who really should have known better, who asked me, in asking if I was meeting basic duty, “Do you make allowances for greater ignorance in the past?” I answered:
I don’t make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. And I would quote General Omar Bradley: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
I don’t want to give an uncritical endorsement of the “Nature Connection” movement, as it seemed as I went through the eight shields thinking always, “This is overall good but I’m holding my nose at the spot we are in now,” and eventually “I don’t need Coyote as a totem.”
However, any serious attempt to hear out nature connection, even as literature one does not give more than a willing suspension of disbelief, is that we have lost things that were known to past generations, and that surviving hunter-gatherers have an incredible richness in sensitivity to their surroundings and layers of patterns suburbanites can miss. And the advisor, in my opinion, had read too many ancient texts, and in the original, to have legitimate innocence in seeing the difference in knowledge as ancient Aramaic texts fail to reflect the victories of the Scientific Revolution.
I might briefly comment on the singularity we are in:
Recorded history does not really date past ten thousand years. The non-Neanderthal subspecies all living humans belong to dates back to perhaps forty times that length, and our genus dates back to two or four hundred times that length. Less than one percent of all humans who have ever lived have ever seen a written/printed word, let alone mass produced technology even on par with a pencil or knife.
I might comment briefly, if perhaps only to Jerry Root and other C.S. Lewis fans, that C.S. Lewis raised an objection to standard evolution that was a form of what is called self-referential incoherence. If evolution is true, then it explains why we have good enough brains to find food, avoid being eaten, and produce offspring… but not why we would have good enough brains to put together a true theory of evolution. Knowledge of evolution is no more than a biochemical reaction as romantic love is no more than a biochemical reaction, and it reflects philosophical confusion of a major order to say it is even theoretically possible that our theory of evolution could be true. This has been answered in part with a suggestion that evolution would select for brains that could find things that were true, but if that is the case, assuming evolution is true, it is an extremely parochial elite, less than 2% of the age of civilization and less than .0001% of the time people have been around that evolution has given anyone the kind of brains that evolution selects for. In my opinion that response to an objection shows serious philosophical muddle. And, incidentally, I believe that Fr. Seraphim was right, at least as regards popular culture, that evolution is not doing the job of a scientific theory, but the job of philosophy that allows atheism to account for what over 99% of humans have ever lived have seen as the work of some form of spirit.
Now before getting back to Fr. Seraphim, let me get back to my advisor. Elsewhere in our discussion, he hypothetically mentioned ancient prophecies of “mushroom clouds” that would “flatten cities,” and benighted ancients failing to understand a reference to nuclear warfare that is neither particularly like toadstools in a forest, nor something that would make a smooth, level surface out of a city. I think I thought of, but did not mention, a suggestion that “mushroom clouds” are not the only way an ancient prophecy could describe global thermonuclear war; “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (Rev 6:14) could be read as a surprisingly straightforward ancient prophetic description of conditions of nuclear war.
And there are other comparisons that could be drawn. I intentionally don’t want to belabor where tempting comparisons could be made, but the Internet and the whole locus of electronic technology could be described as fire from Heaven in “great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,” (Rev 13:13), and “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” (Rev. 17:5), where a basic utility, a socially mandated technology, includes an endless sewer of porn if you want it, and really at least soft porn if you try to research innocent topics on YouTube. There is more I could belabor: SecondLife fascinates the public and has been called SecondWife, with stern moralists saying, “Fornicate using your OWN genitals!” And about Babylon being thrown into the sea, I believe that it will be at some point as easy to take down any technological Babylon as start a nuclear war, and that inadvertently. Read The Damned Backswing as written in fifteen feet high blinking neon about our stack of technologies.
(Fr. Seraphim quotes, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of this prophecy, God shall take away his share in the tree of life,” and the commentary underscores that Revelation ends with “a strict warning not to distort the words of the prophecy under threat of the application of the plagues that are written in this book.” I might suggest that it may be, if not exactly clear-cut wrong, at least in a gray area to add exact historical correspondences where fire and hail simply refer to aerial bombardment—or fire from Heaven (some people believe Elijah’s “fire from Heaven” as being lightning), simply as neither more nor less than the lightning-like electricity that powers electronic gadgets. There are some points of contact, but it is not clear to me that it is right to make such a simple and complete identification of one historic detail with one text in Revelation.)
(And I might briefly state that I believe the examples I gave, if there is far future history to assess this article, will be much more dated than Einstein’s simple prediction: “I do not know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” That kind of statement tells scarcely less but is far less dated.)
And I would like to state now a cardinal point:
I would be very careful about recognizing prophecies fulfilled in Revelation, but I would be much faster to observe ways in which we live within a singularity, and that is a singularity on par with what is called a singularity in modern physics when a black hole is formed.
There was a classic set of AT&T ads, dated to 1993, with the classic AT&T Death Star logo, looking like a dark vintage science fiction movie:
And on a humor newsgroup someone followed up with:
Have you ever received an automated sales pitch,
while you were still in your pajamas?
Have you ever had thousands of calls all over
the world charged to your stolen account number?
Have you ever had your paycheck deleted
by faceless intruders from across the globe?
Have you ever had an employer know more about your
whereabouts and activities than your spouse?
Have you ever been snuffed to dust by a
satellite laser while lying on the beach?
________ | | | | | YOU | | | | WILL | | | |______|
And the company that will bring this to you
There was one thing that AT&T wasn’t straightforward about: No technology is permanently exotic.
The AT&T commercial portrays a world of wonder. However, “YOU WILL” is not especially wondrous to those of us living in that dark science fiction reality. We do not wonder at electronic toll collection; we do not wonder at being able to access webpages on another continent. No technology is permanently exotic, and we can obtain momentary relief by upgrading to the newest and hottest gadget, but then, alcoholics can obtain momentary relief of the living Hell of alcoholism by getting really drunk. The short-term fix does not work in the long run, and is in fact counterproductive. As far as (anti-)social media go, we have delivered the equivalent of a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. And tofu does not just feel and taste gross; it is nutritionally an absolutely terrible surrogate for real, honest animal protein. And even the parody left out one point in retrospect: “Have you ever been drained at compulsively checking your phone at least a hundred times a day? YOU WILL, and the companies that will bring it to you include AT&✁✆✇.*T.”
A Bookshelf for Our Day
Let me give a few titles that I would strongly recommend reading, preferably in paper (kids, go ask your great-grandparents):
I’m going to open this list with a dud. I am, or at least have been, a medievalist at heart; one of my books is a take on Arthurian legend, The Sign of the Grail, although I have since done something that is overdue. I have backed away from Arthurian legend as however enchanting it may seem if you don’t know it, not being particularly edifying or profitable to explore.
It has been said that the singularity we live in now is the fruit of what developed in the Middle Ages. However, The Medieval Experience left me completely underwhelmed, and furthermore the more background knowledge I had of an area, the more hollow a failure to walk in another person’s shoes the text appeared to be.
In the last real chapter, about precursors to feminism, the author quotes a non-medievalist Ibsen in words I wish to repeat in gory detail:
HELMER: To forsake your home, your husband, and your children! And you don’t consider what the world will say.
NORA: I can pay no heed to that. I only know that I must do it.
HELMER: This is monstrous! Can you forsake your holiest duties in this way?
NORA: What do you consider my holiest duties?
HELMER: Do I need to tell you that? Your duties to your husband and your children.
NORA: I have other duties equally sacred.
HELMER: Impossible! What duties do you mean?
NORA: My duties towards myself.
HELMER: Before all else you are a wife and a mother.
NORA: That I no longer believe. I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are—or at least that I should try to become one.
It is a sign of feminism’s hegemony that at least some women, despite every effort to want a career, ask “What is wrong with me?” because after all feminist direction they have received, they still can’t dislodge a fundamental desire to get married and have kids. This last major chapter in The Medieval Experience falls squarely in the “She shall be saved from childbearing” camp, and all accounts of the good and/or improving state of women in the Middle Ages describes precursors to feminism’s desire that a woman not be a homemaker. It doesn’t just say that a woman should have other options besides being homemakers; it is that precursors to the good estate of women are always in terms of dislodging women from the role of wife and mother no matter how much women should want to be homemakers. And on this count, not a word of the book’s account of proto-feminist tendencies shows the slightest acknowledgment and respect for some women wanting to be wives and mothers.
I do not count it as a strike against this book that it takes some effort to appreciate; I am more than willing to recommend a book that will challenge its readers. But nonetheless, I see one or two major strikes against the book. Quite simply, it leads the reader to covet magic and many of its most tantalizing passages tantalize with magic from Atlantis. Furthermore, the character of Merlin is singularly riveting. One definition that has been used to describe the difference between a flat and a rounded character is, “A rounded character believably surprises the reader.” Merlin comes awfully close to delivering nothing but believable surprises. And even if Ransom sharply limits Merlin’s initiative, Merlin’s presence is a problem. And I say that as someone who bore the nickname “Merlin” in high school.
However, this book is valuable in offering a sort of literary “YOU WILL” commercials, which admittedly did not portray how we are glued to mobile devices. The heroes are a delight to read about; the villains are more of a chore to read about, and the banality of evil comes through loud and clear. Furthermore, it is a description of a singularity, and on that point it is the closest work of fiction I know to a fictionalized telling of the singularity we are in.
A couple of comments about the author of this book. First, he is an important figure in the history of English-speaking Orthodoxy and did major work rendering the Philokalia in English. Second, he is a hypocrite and an old rogue. He has blasted the Western musical tradition, which an Orthodox might legitimately do, but one friend came to visit him and found him blasting out Wagner’s opera, and that’s Wagner’s opera as in “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds.” I would also comment on how he writes.
The Rape of Man and Nature deals in caricatures and not the written equivalent of photorealism. However, this has usefulness if it is taken as caricatures and not a literal account of facts. It is a finding in psychology that people recognize someone more readily from a caricature than from a photograph, and the caricature artist’s job is to take the most striking and salient features in e.g. someone’s face, and then portray them in exaggeration that yields a striking clarity. And if Sherrard is a caricature artist in The Rape of Man and Nature, he is an excellent caricature artist.
This book really is a close “near miss,” and I would readily recommend it for people who want a little bit of a feel of what was lost in the Scientific Revolution, and of what developments contributing to our ongoing singularity lost alongside scientific and technical gains.
I’m not going to write at length about why I believe my work is relevant, but my suspicion is that this book and not the overlapping The Best of Jonathan’s Corner will be my most lasting contribution, if (of course) the Lord tarries.
“These days of final apostasy” is not a new phrase; St. John Chrysostom in fact said that the world was breaking apart and coming to an end, but while antiquity ended, the world has continued.
The world has continued, and C.S. Lewis, on the eve of World War II, famously addressed students, “Life has never been normal. Humanity has always been on a precipice,” although it may be that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night because the end of the world has been so insistently predicted over the ages that no one takes the message seriously.
I think it is worth understanding to what extent we live in a singularity, and we have multiple things that could be apocalyptic events: apart from the obvious threat of global thermonuclear war in a world where each city and each major university has a hydrogen bomb aimed at it, the Internet could collapse like an increasingly brittle house of cards, and take the economy down with it. Or things could continue to change and new societal vulnerabilities could develop. The pace of change has been accelerating, and it might well continue accelerating until there is a step that is sui generis, on par with C.S. Lewis in the nonfiction fraternal twin to That Hideous Strength: The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis describes the final step in “man’s victory over nature:”
The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature…
Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car…
Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever.
I do not know how the world will end, or whether the apocalypse will turn out to be anything like any of the possibilities I mentioned. There has already passed a moment when a nuclear power ordered a military officer to launch global thermonuclear war. That was during the Cuban missile crisis, and all of us are alive today only in the wake of a soldier who refused to obey an unconditional order. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” God provided a way out of global thermonuclear war then, and he may shelter us, at least for a time, from a meltdown of the Internet. We live and die as God allows, and he may sustain us still. He may give us more to repent. Since Christ’s First Coming, his Second Coming has always been imminent, and part of what I omitted from C.S. Lewis’s passage above is a reality that has not literally been fulfilled even when That Hideous Strength‘s Pragmatometer is live in what is fed to us by the Internet:
The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.
It is my own opinion that “a perfect applied psychology” is by definition a pipe dream, a materialist’s explanation of spiritual phenomena such as is discussed in How to Think About Psychology: An Orthodox Look at a Secular Religion. But it is possible that Nature’s final conquest of Man as described above will come without needing all-powerful eugenics, prenatal conditioning, or a perfect applied psychology. Pipe dreams have already become real. And one world government is an increasingly real possibility on more grounds than technology.
All the same, I hope to have shed some light in the process, and introduced a useful distinction between donning X-Ray goggles that let you infallibly identify historic details cryptically referred to by the details of Revelation, and recognizing and understanding that we live in a singularity very different from that of over 99.9% of humans who have ever lived.
Bravo: I’m not sure there is a difference between a soliloquy and a rant. Needing to get something off one’s chest is not so much an exchange of information as a medicinal purge that provides relief. Maybe like the lancing of some festering boil.
However, let’s not hope that anybody anywhere ever changes their opinion of political figures because they have heard the rant, they may however change their opinion of the ranter.
Myself and other Trump supporters find ourselves in a dark place after the election but one thing we have learned is that talking about him with non supporters is futile as we automatically write each other off as lacking in intelligence and understanding.
The only question I ask myself is ”do I care if the person I engage with continues as a friend”
From the bible I have learned that a few words can start a forest fire that cannot be controlled.
So if a relationship is worth being preserved, do not engage, do not even send clues about your opinion. The temperature is too high. It could be costly in every sense of that word.
If a continued friendship is not important then a polite rant might may serve as a relief valve, for simply medicinal purpose of course.
In that vein there are several old friends that I have contentedly let go their own way and I’m sure they feel the same.
It’s all a great shame and sad when expressing your personal opinions is an act of war.
I will certainly not however, engage in church or anywhere important.
I’m not even an American but I can see that what might be considered as the greatest and most influential nation on earth is divided so dangerously with the fault lines running through all aspects of society including the family structure.
Alpha: Thank you for information about how my post will be received.
I do not think it is a rant that G.K. Chesterton said in his “A Defense of Patriotism,”
‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’
The question of whether Donald Trump would knowingly incite violence to reverse an election against him is a question of this magnitude. It has been said that violence is in the U.S. political constitution (https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/01/americas-history-of-political-violence). I retweeted a tweet saying “This is the worst thing that happened in U.S. history unless you’ve read a book on U.S. political history.” Nonetheless, I see a difference between “Donald Trump, assuming he follows American political tradition of recognizing an election went against him,” and “Donald Trump, with or without civil war.”
However, I would see Confucius’s “It is useless to take counsel with those who follow a different Tao” as applying not only to “Against Donald Trump by any means necessary,” but people who will not accept that a Trump supporter says he has gone too far.
It is consonant with the verdict of history to say that the United States lost the nineteenth century civil war.
I expect that the verdict of history will be that the world lost this civil war…
It is a matter of historical fact that General Lee ceased hostilities first, and today all the states that seceded are legally part of the United States.
But talking about who won that war is a bit like talking about who won the earthquake in Lisbon that shook the Enlightenment.
Bravo: Hi again Alpha,
In calling your comments a rant I in no way meant to imply that what you said was without a thoughtful basis. However , in this day and age the stakes are much higher and with social media, opinions burn much brighter and are more widespread.
Being retired and largely independent of external pressures I am free to express whatever ideas I have. They can’t take my job away.
There is however something that needs to be addressed .The thought that corruption is alive and well at the highest levels of American society is no longer confined to some isolated extremists hiding in the mountains of Montana.
I realize that violence is an historical building block of the American experience but, the only reason that the country overcomes this violence is the belief that the democratic process is solid and largely without corruption.
Approximately half the country however, now has doubts that the democratic exercise is healthy and at the same time the judicial process is viewed with similar suspicion.
The overly technical, clumsy and drawn out voting procedures leave so many thinking, if we don’t have fair elections, what do we have? The answer is obvious.
I know that for constitutional reasons the USA population is armed to the teeth but it also may reveal that the population has always had a general distrust of it’s own institutions.
As a Canadian we have much to be concerned about in our own political process but the suggestion of widespread fraud never comes up.
But we are though so dependant on the USA for many things , democracy being number one and if you stumble and there is widespread distrust of your institutions all democracies are at risk.
The social media is of course a catalyst for all manner of social change. Some good some very scary.
Of course many of us outside your country love you and wish you well not just for your sakes but most importantly for ours.
Alpha: I agree with most of this, and am concerned about a downward spiral. Republicans and Democrats alike are contributing in large amounts.
Charlie: Good morning.
We conservatives have been struggling with an imperfect vessel of our faith, to say the least, in Trump. One common meme was that he used the same playbook they wrote to take down American culture against them. (Rules for Radicals, dedicated to Lucifer by the author Saul Alinsky, who was also a mentor of Hillary Clinton). This comes down to the game theory of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. The way to get someone who has been hitting you for five decades to stop hitting you is to hit them back in the same way, every time, until hitting you no longer benefits them. It was cathartic to see the weapons they forged against us turned back on them. It had a certain scriptural precedent in that Hammon in the book of Ester is hung on the gallows he prepares for the Jews. Or Gideon blowing trumpets outside an enemy camp and all the armies within the camp killing each other in confusion.
They certainly have insanely low expectations of their own morality, and embody Borderline Personality Disorder. Add to that the origins of these policies in people wanting to bring down the country and destroy it (Frankfort School, etc), coupled with globalist feudal concepts like the so-called “Great Reset”, and you can see our concerns. We’ve seen this play before where some Germanic deadbeat rants some grand plan for humanity (Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler, or now Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum) and next thing you know, we are being marched off to death camps for disagreeing. Or getting our communications channels shut down, or possibly getting our online assets frozen. In each case, we are called conspiracy theorists for reading the books where they lay out their plans in their own words.
But that’s all politics. What about faith?
I keep coming back to this verse…. “Do not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I suspect if we ever see another conservative leader in this nation, it will have to be someone who isolates the ideologies rather than the individuals, as Trump did following the Alinsky rules. It may also be the only way we survive this whole purge or open any communications whatsoever outside this wall. If communicating with relatives, don’t attack the relatives. Attack the ideas if you must, but present better ones in full light and let them either come to the light or run from it. They will tend to internalize and regard as “in group” people like Pelosi, who endorsed the Jim Jones cult prior to the mass suicide back when they were still in California. Jones seems to be the role model of big tech, in terms of isolating their membership and only feeding them one story, constantly, at high volume. Any attempt to question the leader or exit the compound is met with harsh threats and condemnation, just as it was with Jonestown. This won’t end well. It may involve a Pygmalian Effect of separating the person and your expectations of them from their actions and opinions, in hope of drawing them to their better angels, in a positive feedback loop. One of my best friends is a leftist atheist, who was hardcore Michael Moore and Bush Derangement Syndrome two decades ago, who now is a Trump supporter who loves Jordan Peterson. Baby steps, I guess, but certainly unexpected. I’ve always loved her dearly, accepted her confessions of past crazy things, and treated her soul like a treasure. And shockingly, she’s felt the same towards me. That should be what America is all about. It once was. For us, it still is.
Scripture makes it clear we are to present the light and let them either come or go when they see it. We should of course pray first, during, and after for the seeds to fall on good soil. But the sower isn’t responsible for improving the soil. Only scattering the seed. We shouldn’t do things, either in culture or in our own hearts and souls, that make our own soil more stony. We can cancel out of institutions that hate us. The converse of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is “don’t feed the mouths that bite you”. Some seeds may take time to grow, so we maintain kindness in those situations. We overcome evil with good, as we were told.
I’m feeling deeply called to re-read the New Testament to see how the church did last time a tiny group of eleven people got cut off by a global government who wanted them all dead. A big part of that was that the disciples were the only light in a world that had gotten very, very, very dark. In such a world, not everyone is blind, but all eyes are equally useless until someone comes into the caves with a lantern lifted up to get their attention and held low to show the path. That may involve shaking the dust from our clothes as we exit Facebook groups or what not. It’s been bitterly disappointing seeing people I once regarded as mentors or at least role models go full Herodian.
Tomorrow can be as dark as it dang well please, because we don’t live there yet. Each day has enough trouble of its own, as Jesus said. As a pastor once said, there is as much darkness a foot ahead of God as there is a mile behind. Prepare for what may come, but focus on the wisdom God gives you in what to do each day. The days ahead will separate wheat from chaff, so grow your wheat and starve your chaff while you still have roots to draw from and sunlight to grow in. Night is coming, when no man can work.
I also come back to a few other verses. Matthew 10:16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Do not neglect feeding your innocence, the starving of your guilt, nor observing with wisdom the things around you.
2 Chronicles 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Alpha: Thank you. I disagree with you on many points, but I appreciate your taking the time and effort to seriously address the question.
One thing I might mention is a sort of “ethnocentric compliment” to the GOP. I haven’t pressed points against the left as much as the right, and it’s not because I think the left is better than the right (I am expecting disaster to unfold further with where Trump has placed the left, and we’re due to have a president Assume Emergency Powers), but because post-Truth Republican politics represent a greater failure to live up to conservative principles than post-Truth liberals politics fail to live up to liberal principles (unless you want to go along the same lines as Chesterton did in saying, “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” or Fr. [Richard John] Neuhaus in saying that insofar as extending the franchise is bedrock to liberalism, the pro-life position is “in fact the liberal one”).
I’m also reading the New Testament and trying to focus my gaze on the Christ who is Truth.
One other thought: Kallistos Ware, in The Orthodox Church (the standard English-language introduction to the Orthodox Church) comments briefly that the position of Christians today as being perhaps more like the Early Church than anything else. (The book is a must-read for certain audiences, but I am not offering it as directly how one ought to handle the things we have been discussing.)
Orthodoxy is not really involved in reconstructing the Early Church, but you might take a cue from oca.org/saints, with different saints’ lives each day of the year and Early Christian martyrs as one type of regularly recurring figure.
Our role might not be to bring out a situation where we would be citizens of the Christian, Byzantine Empire where the society was Christian, but to be sacrifices who, like the Early Church, shone the light of one candle rather than curse the darkness (and, eventually, triumphed over the Empire that wanted them dead).
When the Roman persecutions ended, one saint complained that easy living robs the Church of her saints.
Monasticism, called “white martyrdom” where what you would ordinarily call martyrdom is called “red martyrdom,” is essentially a surrogate for in peaceful times how you can obtain the spiritual profit known in the Early Church, persecuted in the Roman Empire.
Delta: Hi all
I have been following the correspondence with interest, although not being in North America some of the allusions pass me by!
What worries me is not so much the politics as the situation. Whatever their views, when large social media companies can disenfranchise bits of the population, life is getting dangerous. When some of those disenfranchised then set up their own platform, only to have it closed by a large retailer (Amazon), then I am really worried! At that point government has become irrelevant and it doesn’t matter much who is “in power”, because they are not.
Bravo: Yes Delta,
We are entering uncharted territory. It is no joke when power is vested in totally unelected corporate entities and the government sees them as allies rather than the “robber barons“ of yesteryear.
On social media we should be very wary . How many people could be losing jobs, or more, because of incorrect positions on Facebook?
We are rapidly approaching the same system already in effect in China and elsewhere , where citizens obtain scores based on evaluation through social networks.
This system of public exposure and correction is already playing a part in a small local network used in our municipality.
We cannot even be sure that this forum will always be free and available.
Social media has put the excesses of the Middle Ages on steroids.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, Look full in his wonderful face, And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, In the light of his glory and grace.
It’s been some time that Twitter has had people seeing that at least some strains of conservative tweets (regarding LGBTQ+) were artificially censored from showing up from trending on Twitter.
Do We Have Rights? applies here. It may be helpful to see that what we have been deprived of has never been our right to begin with.
Meanwhile, in what truly counts, all of us have God’s ear, and his Providence.
To go to literal ancient history, I would like to look at economic policy under two emperors who persecuted Christians.
Decius created short-term convenience by devaluing the currency; in the ancient world, the value of (coin) currency was precious metal content, and he took in coins that were a third silver and paid out coins that were just dipped in silver.
Diocletian faced spiralling inflation, and (the one point where I remember the text expressing astonishment that an emperor thought something would work) assumed that inflation was just due to merchant greed, and placed signs by marketplaces announcing maximum prices and forbidding merchants on pain of death from charging more. Unfortunately for everyone, these prices were below cost for merchants, and legal merchants stopped selling things… which ended up driving prices even higher.
Now to more recent history in Wheaton, one move that was taken to curb Wheaton going liberal was to require professors to sign a Statement of Faith that said, among other things, that Adam and Eve were created from earth and not from hominids. I remember speaking with one psychology professor who interviewed with Wheaton and said she didn’t really believe that Adam and Eve were not made from hominids. She met with an answer of, “None of us really believe that,” and she responded with an astonished, “Then don’t sign it!”
The intent in the move was to curb liberalizing movements by selecting for people such as Wheaton attracts who believe in literal creation of humans not from any other life form but straight from earth. Unfortunately, such people exist but they are few and far between. The actual effect was to select for people such as Wheaton attracts who would perhaps openly cross their fingers in signing a major commitment to belief, which may have accelerated feminism’s becoming dominant at Wheaton.
I think, rightly or wrongly, that some of Donald Trump’s actions may accelerate things which have a nasty backswing. And that maybe going tit-for-tat won’t solve the problem.
I’m not sure my last email was constructive.
I would like to give a link to the Sermon on the Mount, which is if anything the Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven:
I’m returning to the Gospel after an overdose in current events.
I was winding down for sleep when I had something come to mind. I am usually wary when I meet surprising cultural finds that alter the plain sense of a Biblical text significantly, but I post from Blessed Are the Peacemakers, the oldest work on my site:
Jesus said “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:39) This is not a command to act as if you have no rights and passively let yourself be regarded as subhuman, but rather an insistence on the fact that you do have rights. In the society of that time, a slap on the cheek was not intended as a physical injury but rather as an insult, putting an inferior back in his or her place. The strength of that insult depended greatly upon which hand dealt it: as the left hand was seen as unclean, a slap with the left hand was the insult far greater than one dealt with the right hand. This was reflected in the legal penalties for an inappropriate slap: the penalty for slapping a peer with your left hand was a fine one hundred times the penalty for slapping a peer with your right hand; the penalty for slapping a better with your right hand was a fine while the penalty for slapping a better with your left hand was death. The people Jesus was speaking to most directly were, by and large, slaves and the downtrodden. A slap on the right cheek was dealt with the left hand. To turn the other cheek would leave the master with two options. The first would be to slap the slave again, but this time with the right hand (therefore declaring the slave a peer). The second would be not to slap the slave again (therefore effectively rescinding the first slap). Now, such impudence and sauciness would often tend to bring punishment, but it none the less says “Hey, I’m a human. I have rights. You can’t treat me like this.” It is not an action without suffering for oneself, nor does it inflict suffering on the “enemy”: but it does say and do something in a powerful way.
“Go the extra mile” was commanded in reference to compulsion to carry a soldier’ pack (same term in some language as would be used for military conscription), on Rome’s decisively good roads, with mile markers (in more or less the same sense as some countries have mile markers today).
A Roman soldier could conscript civilians to carry his pack for one mile but not more, and he faced stiff punishment if he required someone to carry his pack for more than a mile. The expected civilian behavior would be to carry an onerous pack until the next mile and then get away from it as quickly as possible. An entirely unexpected behavior would be to carry the soldier’s pack for one mile, and then keep on walking to try to carry it to two miles.
As Orthodox now, I have accepted communion with warrior-saints like St. George and St. Mercurius, and people who did not raise a finger in self-defense, like St. Boris and St. Gleb. Meaning that I do not get to pick and choose who is pleasing to God. I also have dropped my assumption that we have rights.
I’m wondering, though, if there might be some pearls in the sand in Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Christ was, at least on the account I mentioned (which I heard in a pacifist church), giving an effective and unexpected outline of resistance to be used by the poor and downtrodden. Some people have said they liked the article, and one veteran I asked for feedback on it said that there are precious few articulations of a pacifist position (and I did specifically engage soldiers for feedback). It’s fairly easy to find an articulation of just war; explaining how pacifism could make sense is not so easily found.
The emperor Valens, mercilessly sending into exile any bishop who displeased him, and having implanted Arianism into other Asia Minor provinces, suddenly appeared in Cappadocia for this same purpose. He sent the prefect Modestus to Saint Basil. He began to threaten the saint with the confiscation of his property, banishment, beatings, and even death.
Saint Basil said, “If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner (Ps. 38/39:13)? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.”
The official was stunned by his answer. “No one has ever spoken so audaciously to me,” he said.
“Perhaps,” the saint remarked, “that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as naught, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.”
Reporting to Valens that Saint Basil was not to be intimidated, Modestus said, “Emperor, we stand defeated by a leader of the Church.” Basil the Great again showed firmness before the emperor and his retinue and made such a strong impression on Valens that the emperor dared not give in to the Arians demanding Basil’s exile.
(to Bravo:) I really appreciate how you have spoken about the U.S.
I know that Canadians can get weary of being regarded like the fifty-first state, and one Canadian roommate compared the relationship between our countries as “a mouse in bed with an elephant: the elephant does not know if the mouse is there, but if it rolls over, the mouse is squashed.”
If I had lived in the days of Whigs and Tories among the colonies, I might have fled to Canada.
Bravo: Growing up in war torn England and walking the graveyards of dead Americans gave me an appreciation for the “Yanks”. Also living within walking distance of the border and having spent considerable amount of time in the States gave me a genuine affinity for Americans and their zest for life and freedom.
Canada is also a great but somewhat different country, however to use another analogy of our relationship.
”Living in Canada is like living above an apartment one where they are having a rowdy but fun party.” Maybe you could turn it down a touch.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a letter to the editor after a newspaper requested answers to the question, “What is wrong with the world?”
His answer, “Sir, I am.” was the shortest letter to the editor in newspaper history.
St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a spirit of peace within yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”
Everybody has an opinion about what needs to change after the riot.
Fortunately, with me the one political necessity is within my power: to recognize that “It is a trustworthy saying, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,'” and to repent of my sins and take them to confession.
(It may be noted that a book contest to come up with the most politically incorrect book was won by a book about Orthodox priest and monk Fr. Seraphim of Plantina: Not of This World, which was pointed out to be barely political enough to be politically incorrect: but the best politics are in fact not of this world.)
But I am preparing for something tomorrow that is more political than my voting.
I am going to confession and own up to my sin as best as I can. And try to do better.
There was a private email conversation I had with a friend, when I really thought that what I had written should be adapted for public use.
What of the situation of people who may agree with me about Orthodoxy and Contraception and believe that children are the crown and glory of marital relations, but while married they are childless? Let me say a few things.
First, I feel your pain, and I am praying for you, and I have held children born to childless couples. I would love to hear of a new life.
Second, if you were married before you joined the Orthodox Church, and have not requested to have your marriage crowned, ask for your marriage to be crowned. If you have received communion together after being received into the Orthodox Church, you are married in the Church, so no question of illegitimate relations. However, crowning is a blessing on marriage that you should have.
Third, Saint Anna loves you! In the story of Saints Joachim and Anna, they reached old age without having children, and Saint Joachim was not only childless but he was jeered at because, people thought, he and his wife were childless as punishment for their sins. In fact they were not being punished for their sins; they were just childless. While repenting of sin is almost always good for all of us*, in their old age God granted Saints Joachim one single child: a daughter, who bore one single grandson for them to rejoice in: the Son of God Jesus Christ.
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken,
God has heard Joachim and Anna.
He has clearly promised them that beyond hope, they would bear a divine child,
by whom the uncircumscribable One was born as a mortal Man,
Who commanded the angel to cry to her:
“Hail, O full of grace,
the Lord is with you!”
Kontakion — Tone 4
(Podoben: “You have appeared today…”)
Today the world keeps festival
at Anna’s conceiving, wrought by God;
for she bore her who inexpressibly conceived the Word of God.
Troparion — Tone 4
Divinely-wise Anna, you carried in your womb the pure Mother of God, who gave life to our Life.
Therefore, you are now carried joyfully to the inheritance of heaven,
to the abode of those who rejoice in glory,
where you seek forgiveness of sins for those who faithfully honor you, ever blessed one.
Kontakion — Tone 2
We celebrate the memory of the progenitors of Christ,
and with faith we ask their help,
that deliverance from every affliction be granted to those who cry out:
“Be with us, O God, who in Your good pleasure glorified them.”
There is a saying in some Orthodox forums, “As always, ask your priest,” and if you want to pray one or more of these hymns in your morning or evening prayers, or something else like that, ask a blessing of your priest or spiritual father, whose prayers and blessings are ever relevant.
I was at a parish where one wonderworking icon of Saint Anna was passed from one formerly childless couple to another, and I gave a well-received birthday gift, a plastic horse with wheels, to the son of one couple that had had the icon. Furthermore, this is not specific to St. Anna, but my best friend’s wife had medical treatment that in an attempt to save her life was expected to destroy her ability to bear a child. My friend saw this as a sadness, but said, “We can always adopt.” When I prayed I only asked for her life to be spared. Since then I have held a toddler and a baby they have had; God can give children even when one would medically expect treatments to cost the ability to bear a child.
Fourth, there is a miraculous vine on Mount Athos whose raisins are given, along with ascetical instructions for their use. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here. The sample letter below is not any specific required or special form; it’s just something I wrote; but I offer it for people who wouldn’t know what to say or what the address is. One possible letter is as follows:
[Your postal address, including your country]
Monks keeping St. Symeon’s Vine
Dear Monks Keeping St. Symeon’s Vine;
My wife and I have been married for [such-and-such amount of time] but have not yet been blessed with children.
We would like to have raisins from St. Symeon’s vine and ascetical instructions for their proper use.
By way of thanks, please accept the enclosed freewill offering [Note that this is not required; it’s just a nice gesture. As far as amount, maybe $20?]
[Signatures of wife and husband.]
Fifth, and on a more minor secular note, while I classify “Natural Family Planning” as contraceptive timing for people not honest about committing contraception, the principles of “Natural Family Planning” can be used to time intercourse so as to make it less likely that a child will be conceived, but they can also be useful to time intercourse to make it more likely for a child to be conceived. On that note, if you’ve prayed and you and your priest or spiritual father think this is something you want to pursue, check with a doctor. In a word, the advice is “Try to make a baby at the times of month that it would be most delightful for her, and other times as well.”
This is submitted in respect and love, and with the hope that you may welcome a little one!
* One question which some people have is, “Am I being punished for my sins?” and there is a natural human tendency to think that people deserve what good and bad things happen to them. I don’t know whether God is chastening you to bring you closer to him, and that question is above my pay grade; it’s something a clairvoyant elder might answer. Nonetheless, I would like to offer a word of advice that is in season whether or not God is trying to bring you to a better condition. (And in any case God does not want to punish sin; he wants to heal it, sometimes through hard measures when we do not mend after gentler correction.) And there is one point I would make clear: God does not punish for the sake of punishment. He disciplines, chastises, and speaks through painful circumstances when we do not obey the gentler voice of our conscience. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers in our pleasures and shouts in our pains,” and sometimes he shouts where we need the message but don’t hear a whisper. God may use childlessness to help you grow spiritually, to seek him and experience even greater blessings. Or he may not; Saints Joachim and Anna were childless so that God could do something that changed everything. I don’t know, if you are having trouble having children, whether God is speaking with a hammer to give you good, or whether you are just childless for the glory of God. But in any case God is not punishing you in the sense of gleefully saying, “You tripped up, sinner, and now I get to make you suffer.” God provides things so that you may grow close to him, and this is true whether this is God chastising you to help you reach higher ground, or God has some other reason,
Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and it is joyful and hopeful, an opportunity to be freed from spiritual dead weight and enjoy what it’s like to let go of one more thing that is a miniature Hell. All of us need repentance, and if we take one step closer to God in repentance, God steps a million miles closer to us.
So whether or not you are being disciplined for your sins, certain advice is always in season. Repent, for the Kingdom of God draws nigh, and repentance is a privilege. Make repentance part of your entreaties to God to bless you with little ones, a bit like you make prayers that God would bless you with little ones. Offer God ascesis. Offer God efforts to seek his heart. And you may find yourself blindsided by reward, and not just pregnancy. And this is not just a principle for childless couples; it is a principle for life and for all of us sinners, of whom I am chief.
I would like to close this section with a poem someone sent me when I was having a really rough time. It applies, I believe, for any situation where you have a holy desire to welcome a child, and God hasn’t answered “Yes” to yet:
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
And I might gently suggest that God is weaving our lives for eternal glory if we will take it, and much as in the story of St. Joseph in the Bible is a tale of one difficulty after another where Joseph is thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, thrown in jail on a false accusation… and ends with all of this putting him into place to be second only to Pharoah in Egypt, reconciled with his brothers, and saving the known world.
I apologize if this is unwelcome, but in terms of our life stories that we will have all at once in eternity, there is a deep spiritual beauty in the story of a couple who wants a child pounding on Heaven’s gates in prayer, seeking God’s face, seeking purity and holiness, and maybe or maybe not finally have a child, and that beauty might have never developed if the couple had a pregnancy as soon as they really wanted one.
O Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either a cross or a consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for the sake of Thy great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.
It is not particularly unusual for a teenager to lie awake in bed and wonder about the biggest questions: “Who are we?”, “Where did we come from?”, “Where will we go?”
What is unusual in my case, as I wondered and tried to answer questions like, “Is there an external world?”, “Can there be a perpetual motion machine?”—”If so, how can it get started?” “What does it mean to be ‘”Jonathan Hayward?'”, “Am I a being of the same class as those I observe about me?”, is that I was not a teenager. I was a little boy, too young to think about any of those questions in words. and so I worked out my idiosyncratic and even solipsistic metaphysics by thinking in pictures, and this is in fact my earliest memory.
People (some agree, some don’t) say that a person’s earliest memory can be illuminating, and it has been commented that this is an unusual first memory. I have read a number of people’s earliest memory stories, and not one that I have read is like this. The one that jumps to memory is a girl saying she remembered her Mom holding her and then passing her to another woman, and asking, “Who is this?” and being told, “That’s your grandmother.” An earliest memory is normally a story, not to mention simple and concrete. I was a bit of an outlier.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
I was born in 1975, a firstborn son to John and Linda Hayward, when my father was a grad student. My father studied physics, and my mother would go on to study the teaching of English to speakers of other languages. I was born almost three weeks overdue. A botch by my Mom’s obstetrician meant that at my birth both my mother and I were fighting a deadly infection. I spoke in complete sentences before my first birthday, and at the age of two fell down stairs and hit my head on a concrete basement floor. My eyes rolled back and I did not respond to stimuli. I survived, but spoke slowly, spoke very little, and stuttered. My Mom prayed over me and the stuttering was taken away. When my father had graduated and I was one, my parents moved to Macomb, Illinois, where my father taught at Illinois State University (their homepage shows a young woman wearing goggles that are simply inappropriate for the work she is doing, a common syndrome when photographers try to make a model look scientific). A major goal in their move was to be able to raise me outside of smog. When I was three, my family moved again, to the house where I have my earliest memory, and where my father began teaching at Wheaton College, where he worked until retirement. He had studied physics, but worked in computer science, and served both as a professor and a high-level in-house consultant at Wheaton. He introduced me to puzzles and questions relating to what we found most interesting in computer science (e.g. a question about the foundational ‘pigeon hole principle:’ “You are in a dark room and cannot see at all, and have a drawer full of mixed black and white socks. What is the minimum number of socks you can take to be sure you have a matched pair?”), and Unix computer games, which I dialed into by modem.
Schooling from kindergarten on
I have fond memories of Lowell Elementary School, where I entered in kindergarten, sometimes dressed up as a cowboy with chaps or in a suit, and attended until third grade, when school and my parents sensed that I would do better at a specifically gifted school, and I entered Avery Coonley School in fourth grade, where the headmaster bent a number of rules and awarded me 25% of the total financial aid awarded by the school for that year so my parents could afford to send me. I was initially placed in the less advanced of two math groups (one year ahead instead of two), and in eight grade ranked 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition, programmed a four dimensional maze, conducted an independent study of calculus, and (re)invented recursion in programming and iterated integration in calculus.
After a brief class in modern algebra for math whizzes at the the University of Chicago which I didn’t really get, I skipped a freshman year at a local school to enter the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, where I continued to get high ranks in math contests, ran a Unix server that did the work of a local and hard-to-use social network. and actively participated in discussions, and programmed a video game on my calculator. Someone commented later that this was the first video game they’d heard of where you lose points for shooting things, although I wasn’t trying to be original. (I was trying to implement a game I’d envisioned in gradeschool.) In order to justify a decision, my high school asked me to take an IQ test, and the psychologist scoring the test almost fell off her chair.
The summer after my junior year of high school I trained as an Emergency Medical Technician at College of DuPage because I was frustrated at the shallowness of what I had taken in first aid class. I was also unsatisfied with the Emergency Medical Technician training, as it seemed to me then to only teach enough medicine to package patients up and ship them to the local emergency room, but there have been a few times I’ve used my training: once two summers later, in Malaysia, where I helped provide some faint parody of suspected spinal injury management in helping a motorcycle accident victim, who had evidence of serious internal injury, get to the emergency room when he was loaded into a nearby van instead of an ambulance. I also used knowledge about heat, years after that, to get an elderly dog to stop shivering after she was taken outside for a potty break and made a lethargic beeline to the place in the yard where the wind was least bitter, and stood there, shivering, until I picked her up and carried her back inside and did what I could to raise her body temperature. (I do not think she would have survived for more than a few hours more if I had not had that prior medical knowledge.)
I mentioned that two summers later I was in Malaysia. It was wonderful and I didn’t want to leave. The rest of my family went there for a calendar year; I choosed to stay in the U.S. for my freshman year of college, but joined my family for the summer. It awakened a lifelong interest in culture and the many ways time can be experienced, but beyond that I would refer to a book on writing college admissions essays which talked about avoiding clichés that college admissions officers are tired of reading, which included pet death and The Travel Experience, which runs something like, “In my trip to _______, I met new people and new ways of doing things. _______ challenged assumptions I didn’t even know I had, and has changed me forever. [And so on and so forth about life in _______.]” Please note that this description is entirely ambiguous about what continent, island, or space station “_______” was located on. Living in Malaysia was a life-changing experience, an eye-opener, and a delight, however I try to be careful to avoid stretching social patience in talking about my cherished travel experiences. Those who have already had a travel experience know what it is like; those who haven’t don’t want to hear me gush on and on.
I entered Wheaton College as a National Merit Scholar, but ran aground on a particular community requirement which, like others before and after me, some Christians are not comfortable with. When I stopped running from my conscience, I took the unprecedented step of appealing to the Board of Trustees to give a conscientious exemption to this requirement (no lesser figure had the necessary authority), they did not pay me the courtesy of letting the item be put on the agenda for consideration (they thought the voluntary nature of Wheaton made my concerns “evaporate”). The requirement, that Wheaton students don’t drink and dance, has variously and inconsistently been defended by Wheaton leadership as “just social mores,” “like vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity,” and a strict requirement of Wheaton’s conscience. I lay on bed at night, wondering, “If this is how Christians act, do I want to be a Christian?”
I transferred to Calvin with a broken heart. I ended up being able to take all of the highest-level math classes offered at Wheaton and also at Calvin, in totall a major and a half’s worth of them. I spent a semester in Paris at the Sorbonne, where I imagined the cultures of my own fantasy world, “Espiriticthus,” a fusion of the beauty I saw in Malaysia and France. I met my first Luddite, a man who commented simply that he would look into the window to the computer lab and observe that everybody seemed to be angry as they were typing. On a larger scale, I also had a painful relationship with a girl named Rebecca. In that troubled relationship, I am not interested in stating what she did wrong. I am interested, however, in stating what I did wrong. I approached that relationship, like life itself, as a department of mathematics. Meaning, as time passed, I did not relate to Rebecca as especially human, and I did not relate to myself as especially human either. Our relationship was mercifully broken off.
I spent a summer as a camp counselor and entered as a graduate student at UIUC, where I managed to get a master’s in applied mathematics, with a thesis accomplishing one thing usually associated with a PhD: carving out a niche where I knew more than anyone else in the world, in this case opening a new subbranch of “point-set topology” whose implications included a straightforward but rigorous way to handle infinitesmals such as bedeviled the foundation of calculus, in an academic discipline where it was hard to find something new to prove. Nonetheless, my advisor, the department chair, told me in one prolific summer that he regarded my many emails (see a later writeup of one topic covered) as “mathematics fiction” by analogy with “science fiction,” and he did not regard my math awards as indicating in any way that I was adequate in mathematics. He and one other professor approved my thesis without reading the second half.
Entering the work world, or trying to
My first job out of college, at an anonymous company, told me when I was hired that I had gotten the highest score on one test of any applicant yet, and I had gotten a perfect score on the linear logic test, and I submitted the best code sample they’d seen (“reads like plain English”). Then things turned a little odd. I believe the reasons were complex, but they boasted about the computers they gave employees then gave me what was apparently a hand-me-down, and more seriously when, in the interview process, I asked if I would be able to program in what was then the darling language in IT, I was told I would program in a language they compared to a Formula One racecar, but once hired, I was told I would program in a language that had a terrible reputation (one computer science great said that its use “…cripples the mind. Its teaching should therefore be regarded as a criminal offense;” lesser wits had compared it with a sexually transmitted disease in that “those who have it tend not to admit it in polite company”). I complained, believing in good faith that its use would be harmful for me. In retrospect I do not believe they made an intentional bait and switch, but there was some ineptitude in advertising what they advertised I would work with and then assigning what I was assigned to work with. Also, I think that is the main area where I earned my “not a team player” badge.
I was brainsized my third day on the job (they refused to tell me why…), and I was later told that fellow alumni of the company blocked me from getting jobs at other companies.
A few months later, I developed a terrible manic episode and my life was again in danger. However, the manic episode is less significant in its aftermath, where I was prescribed a year-long drug overdose that destroyed my abilities of mathematician. I spent a year of my life at my parents’ house (where I am still), lying on my bed, staring at the light bulb, with nary a thought running through my mind beyond, “This is worse than watching television.” When I saw my psychiatrist, I would inevitably ask, “When am I going to get my abilities back?” and with an edge of anger in his voice my psychiatrist would answer, “I don’t know. You’ve had a major manic episode, and it can take a long time to recover from a manic episode.” After about a year of this, my Mom dragged me against my will to a patient advocate group meeting on Wheaton College’s campus where a fellow patient, without medical credentials that I know of, listened to my complaints, asked about my medication, and said, “That’s not an effect of your manic episode. It’s your medication.”
I have incidentally complained about the provider’s preferred counselor to work with a complaint I could have directed at the psychiatrist equally well: trying to get anything done better was “like a magic spell, where you have to say just the right words, and say them just right, or else it’s all for nothing.” (It wasn’t, for instance, enough for me to tell him, and have other medical personnel he was working with to observe, that I was throwing up half my medication most days for a year. I had to make a request in just the right words, and just the right way, for him to prescribe the other form of the same medication which had all of the benefits of what he prescribed me, and no added drawbacks, but would not induce vomiting on a frequent basis.)
The hardest intellectual achievement I had made in my life was not some discovery; it was, after spending six months away from mathematics (including my semester studying French at the Sorbonne), regaining competency. I was never in my life to regain competency in research mathematics. Computer programming came back, but with difficulty and imperfectly. Humanities work, which I had always been interested in, came back almost immediately.
Picking up the pieces
After being on a less destructive dose, I took stock and tried to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I had had some rough times outside of academia; I would later hold one post for over a year, but I was fired after I reported a senior manager for harassment. I asked my pastor, who was also a professor at Wheaton College and one of the most charismatic people around, advice on how to get an interdisciplinary humanities degree, and was strongly advised to pick a single field and get a doctorate in that specific field: “American Studies” PhD’s from a department he taught at, who had studied an interdisciplinary fusion of American literature and history, were incredibly hard to place. History departments wanted a straight history PhD; literature departments wanted a straight literature PhD. I applied to several schools, and Cambridge University accepted me.
In the time between employment and Cambridge, I had joined a group of Wheaton students and some alumni, close friends, meeting every Tuesday night at 9:58 PM for a reader’s theatre reading of classic children’s literature, and it was lore that students from that group would enter a tailspin after leaving England (and it seemed almost every member of the group found a way to England at some point). However, I thought that that simply did not apply to me. It was not exactly arrogance on my part; past experience had been that I simply did not experience culture shock on cue. I had experienced culture shock, but not when I was expected to, and when culture shock was predicted, I experienced nothing particularly like culture shock. I had, furthermore, already lived abroad, so this wouldn’t be my first time outside the U.S.
New directions at, and after, Cambridge
There was a major crescendo of trial and providence involved in my getting to England; there were several distractions, and after six months of red tape and difficulties getting student loans, they fell into place one business day before I left. My college told me not to come into residence. Additionally, I had a growing lump by my collarbone and was very sleepy very often. Cambridge had admitted me for a diploma, not yet a master’s, and after I arrived on faith and things started working out, I was diagnosed and treated for lymphoma. And despite all this, I succeeded. After further difficulties and prayer, I was admitted to the master’s program, where at the beginning of the year I said I wanted to study the holy kiss, meaning a doctrinal study of ideas, and after reclassifying my intent as a sociological study of kissing that was not particularly edifying, I was told two thirds of the way through the year that my announced thesis topic did not fit my philosophy of religion seminar, and I would therefore have to change topic completely. (There was also some hideous confusion where it took all but two weeks to meet with my professor and fix the topic for my second compulsory essay, which was a two month project.) I pulled out the stops, wrote a still not particularly edifying thesis in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking, and succeeded at earning a master’s in theology as well, albeit with not quite high enough marks to enter a doctorate. I went home and had my tailspin.
Now there were several things that happened along the way; the biggest one being, during my time at Cambridge, my reception into the Orthodox Church. And I would like to tell a bit about one particular nuance.
There is a tradition in Orthodoxy for people of sufficient age to choose a patron saint, and take that saint’s name. It is believed that not only does the catechumen choose the saint, but that the saint chooses the disciple from Heaven. I wanted to be called “John Adam:” “John” after John the Theologian, and “Adam” as bearing Sources of the Self’s burden of pioneering a new way of life for others to follow. I knew at some level that this was wrong, and I should have recognized I was choosing those names out of pride. A significant struggle occurred when I was wrestling with my guilty conscience, and after long resistance on my part, I repented. This just happened to be when a priest was reading the names of people commemorated in prayer. The next name I heard was “Christos,” and my surrender was complete.
The name has had some salutary side benefits I did not even think of. One thing I have found is that whether clergy are quick to dress me down for taking Christ as my patron gives me a highly effective early warning system for how well we will end up getting along. (It seems to reflect whether I am judged for obvious pride in choosing One above all Saints, versus perhaps seeing no legitimate way I might have been right in that choice, but still refraining from judging.) Now at my cathedral clergy are not happy about my name, but that came later, after I kept bringing horrible things to confession. I give no complaint about them. But social response has offered me a powerful and useful social cue.
As an author, I have usually given my name as “C.J.S. Hayward”, and on Facebook, which is not terribly friendly to such use of initials written out my name as “Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward,” which I thought would condense to “CJSH” when people spoke of me. I have been told that on Facebook it has instead condensed to “CSH,” meaning “C.S. Hayward.” Did I mention that I’ve read every well-known work by C.S. Lewis and most of his obscurities, and he formed me as a writer?
I might also mention that there is more besides the number of times my life has been in danger and I’ve survived (I seem to have more than a cat’s nine lives, though I have rarely been accused of being catlike.) I’ve had an awful lot of being in the right place at the right time in ways I do not that I can rightly take credit for. For instance, I built my first website within a year or two of the web’s creation, although it would be over a year between when I first built a website and I ever used a graphical browser. I used Lynx, a command line tool that displays text alone. It is still a good way to check if a site appears pornographic before loading graphical view; not the reason why I made a nasty parody site called “Revenge of the Hydra,” optimized for Internet Explorer, which if you load it, nine popup windows appear, and for each popup window you close, two more appear. (People on the Megalist wanted to ride me out on a rail for that one.) My main site, started in the early nineties, would grow to be a fixture of the web; when Google still published its PageRanks, my website had a PageRank of 5, a respectable PageRank for a medium to large sized organization, and was the top site in its category in directory.google.com. (I’ve won dozens of math awards, and hundreds of web awards.) It’s grown since then, and in some people’s opinions, it has only gotten better. Now I have worked long and hard to make my website a good site, but there was from the beginning a great deal of being in the right time and choosing decisions that would prove helpful for reasons I could not have imagined. I also published on the web when the tried and true advice was to pursue traditional publication. Now I am a traditionally published author; I’ve published two books with Packt, and they’ve been very good to me and I would heartily recommend contacting an acquisition editor for IT professionals who want to write a book. (Note to such professionals: the pay you receive directly from an IT publisher is a social courtesy; Packt pays more than many publishers but hardly enough to live on. For an IT professional to publish a technical book should be seen as a marketing move that will qualify you as a domain expert who can charge over $100 per hour for expert work.) However, while Packt is built to give structure to unformed authors, traditional publishing tripped me up, and my traditionally published titles are far from excellent and lower in Amazon ratings than those I’ve self-published. The core reason is that I do my best work when I am writing out of my heart, but working with editorial requests for major overhaul has been necessarily out of my head; I cannot summon or control my inspiration or awen at will. Even this work, alongside works I consider some of my best, is not the work I set out to write, though that is grace.
I wrote in another blog post that I believed I had experienced what I would call “fame lite.” Leonard Nimoy, in I am Spock talks about how Hollywood has teachers for all kinds of skills they would need to portray that skill in movies: musical instruments, riding a horse, and so on and so forth. However, there was something that no teachers were to be found in Hollywood: dealing with fame. Nimoy learned, for instance, how to enter a restaurant through the kitchen because there would be a public commotion if Spock walked in through the front door. And on that count, I do not obviously suffer the consequences of real fame. I’ve been asked for my autograph, once. I’ve had someone call out publicly, before I entered Orthodoxy, “That’s Jonathan Hayward!”, once. I have repeatedly had pleasant meetings with people who know me through my website. And since then, the only new tarnish to my claim of undeserved “fame lite” is in recent years when a job opportunity was really a cloak for attempted seduction. If that was because of my website or reputation; I am not sure it was.
My thorn in the flesh: harassment
However, there is another shoe to drop, a scorpion in the ointment: harassment. To take one example, whenever I made a new post to my website, an acquaintance from IMSA wrote extended and intense criticism that delivered pain, took me down quite a few notches, and elevating himself even more notches socially. No matter what genre, length, or really quality I posted, he would, he would deliver trenchant criticism that covered those bases.
At one point, when I explained why his contorting and twisting of my words into an actual alleged assertion that rape is the victim’s fault, followed by his giving me the most belittling lecture in my life, I explained where rape had come close to home and I found that the most offensive thing he’d said yet. He responded with another hefty serving of criticism. I asked him not to send any further criticisms on my writing. He responded with another hefty dollop of criticism of me personally. I asked him not to send any further unsolicited criticisms on any topic. He wrote, “Ok, I will not send any unsolicited criticisms, but I will take emails from you as solicitation for response,” and responded by another king-sized industrial strength dose of brutal, judgmental criticism.
A forceful “No” cc’ed to email@example.com stopped his criticisms cold, or rather I think that the help desk explained to the great liberal what the word “No” means.
I have not heard from him since apart from one request to list him as a trusted contact on LinkedIn.
I also can’t say that I missed him.
This sort of thing has happened dozens of times, and not just with people who post a fantasy of their alter ego luring a boy into a car and being finished with him in under five minutes. For one couple of amateur psychologists, my months or years-long ongoing, repeated “No” was slapped down with an assertion that I was “sending mixed messages” each and every time, combined with moving forward with their attempts to help me with my (alleged) Asperger’s. This kind of thing is why I made a T-shirt saying:
Autism Spectrum, n. A range of medical conditions whose real or imagined presence in your life causes numerous socially inappropriate behaviors in amateur psychologists.)
As far as underlying social dynamics go, in the Bible King Saul wanted St. David dead and sent St. David on a suicide mission that would require killing two hundred Philistines. St. David succeeded in his quest. Then women were singing in the streets, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands,” which was about the worst thing they could have done for St. David’s welfare. It really would have been better for St. David’s political stock if the woman had chanted a cultural equivalent of, “David smells bad and his mother dresses him funny.”
That was the point where Saul went from wanting St. David dead to making him Public Enemy #1 and engaging in extended manhunts after his first outright attempt at direct murder failed.
My giftedness is not simply from my genes, even if my parents are both at the top of their game. It is actually common for profoundly gifted individuals to have birth trauma or early childhood brain injury; such insults to the brain usually push a person towards intellectual disability, but once in a blue moon they overclock the brain and cause an intensification of overgrowth. I’ve had both routes, and however astonishingly bright my parents are, um…
I had higher SAT scores in 7th grade than my father had as a high school senior, and when I took the Modern Languages Aptitude test, the UIUC linguist who scored it said,
…and here’s where it gets interesting. I’ve never seen someone complete this section before… Your mother scored in the mid 150’s, which is considered a very, very high score. You scored 172. I don’t know what to make of it. I’ve been scoring this test for thirty years, and I’ve never seen a score this high…
I was looking to avoid mentioning this, but my parents, especially in my childhood, surprisingly often dealt with me in anger.
In a moment of “I have no mouth and I must scream” after other unrelated situations of harassment and hostility from several other people, I gave my scream in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
My quality of life improved remarkably when I learned that a “CEASE AND DESIST” letter Cc’ed to firstname.lastname@example.org or other authority figure can stop harassment cold.
Schooling: Another attempt
Returning to education, in 2005 I entered Fordham’s PhD program. What I think I’d like to say about that was that it was a golden illustration of St. John Chrysostom’s “A Treatise to Prove That Nothing Can Injure The Man Who Does Not Harm Himself.” During that time, there were occasions where my conscience was extraordinarily clear and I ignored it. Furthermore, while external things may have been inappropriate, it was my own sins that gave them real sting. That a doctor took me off a medication I needed was not my choice. That I worried to the point of uninterrupted waking nausea about whether I would be able to find employment given that my work in the business world had been clumsy and my PhD “union card” to teach in academia was jeopardized, worriedly asking, “Will there be a place for me?” was my decision. Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger quoted in the NFL said, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” and I suffered much more in imagination than in reality then—that was my decision, and not the decision of even the most hostile member of the university. Possibly I could have completed my degree if I had not ignored a conscience at full “jumping up and down” intensity when I didn’t see a reason for what my conscience was telling me, and possibly I am guilty for failing to accept tacitly offered help. I washed out of the program in 2007. Perhaps the other thing really worth mentioning is what I intended to be my doctoral dissertation, which I wrote up in non-scholarly prose that one Roman reader called “the most intelligent and erudite” thing he’d ever read: “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.
The birth of a unique area of attention
Now I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk about something else that has slowly developed over the years, incrementally and mostly imperceptibly to me.
Like others before me, I’ve bristled at the concept of “an idea whose time has come.” My main use of it, as a programmer who poked fun at tools he did not like and tools he did like, was to quote a fake advertisement for Unix’s “X Windows:” “An idea whose time has come. And gone.” When at Fordham I read Vatican II’s almost incessant anxiety to pay attention to “the signs of the times,” meaning in practice to pay attention to whatever 1960’s fads were in the Zeitgeist and take marching orders from them, I pointed out that in searching the 38 volume Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections, I could only find three or four references to discerning the signs of the times, and never a slavish imitation of Zeitgeist; one of them simply meant being on guard against lust.
Nonetheless, there is a sense in which Zeitgeist is real. It is a well-known phenomenon among mathematicians that a major problem will remain unsolved for ages and then be independently solved at almost the same time by several researchers: hence mathematicians are advised that if they discover something major, they should write it up and publish it as soon as possible, because if they don’t, someone else will get the credit for first discovery. And this is in what is possibly the least Zeitgeist-like academic discipline.
Gandhi has been popularly misquoted as saying “First, they ignore you. Then, they laugh at you. Then, they fight you. Then, you win!” and while researchers have traced a legitimate Gandhi quotation about how victory will develop if you apply Gandhi’s satyagraha or nonviolence in dealing with people hostile to you, this did not sound much like Gandhi to me. Nonetheless, it has some grain of truth.
When I wanted to do research on the holy kiss, at first I was bluntly ridiculed by my then current Cambridge advisor; he responded by asking cutesie questions about whether we could find reasons to only kiss the members of a congregation who were the prettiest, notwithstanding that in England there is a well-established social kiss and “Greet one another with a holy kiss” does not come across as a shorthand for all inapplicable ancient nonsense in the Bible as it might in the U.S. midwest, where hugs between friends are within standard cultural boundaries but kisses ordinarily are not.
Furthermore, when I tried to write a dissertation on it, every professor that sought to guide me took my intended doctrinal study, and reclassified it as a study of a physical detail of Biblical culture, to be studied alongside other Realia like, “When St. Paul said to put on the whole armor of God and used a Roman soldier’s weapon and armor as a basis for the analogy, what kind of physical weapon and armor would have been in his imagination?” which overlooks that the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “helmet of salvation” are the armor that God Himself wears in Isaiah. I drew a line in the sand and told my second advisor that I wanted to do a doctrinal study. He immediately pushed past that line and said, “The best way to do that is to do a cultural study, and let any doctrines arise.”
To my knowledge I am the first person who observed that the holy kiss is the only act that the entire Bible calls holy (excluding one reference to a “holy convocation” in the Old Testament where a different Hebrew word is translated “holy”), and it is called holy three or four times. This is one of the highlights that I condensed into a homily, “The Eightj Sacrament.” But then a few years later, I suddenly had people contacting me to tell me about the holy kiss, and people asked if I knew more than I had stated in the homily (yes, I did; the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections contain something like a hundred references to a holy kiss, many of them boilerplate repetitions of “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” in festal epistles by St. John Chrysostom). Earlier I was rudely enough ridiculed by allies; then I was contacted in response to my website to inform me about the holy kiss by complete strangers.
At the moment I would downplay the importance of the holy kiss for active study. It is practiced in the Orthodox Church; I have said everything I want to say; I do not seek a kiss where none is offered. I have moved on to other concerns, one other concern as I am letting go as Fr. Seraphim of Plantina is in the process of canonization (one of my books, the one that’s gotten by far the most scathing reviews, is The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts).
I would like to say that The Best of Jonathan’s Corner is what I consider my overall best collection across my works and leave things at that, but I am rather suspecting another case of “Man proposes, God disposes.” The most important collection I leave behind (if any) may well be The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. The topic is loosely “religion and science,” but it is very different in character. “Religion and science” as I have met it, with one stellar exception, is about demonstrating the compatibility of timeless revealed truths of Christian doctrine with the present state of flux in scientific speculation. Science is, or at least was, characterized by a system of educated guesses held accountable to experiment. Orthodox gnosology (understanding of knowledge) should find this to be very, very different from how true Orthodox theology works.
With one exception, none of the Orthodox authors I hold dear know particularly much about science. The one exception is patrologist Jean-Claude Larchet, who raises some of the same concerns I do about technology, and does some of them better. Everyone else (for instance, Vladimir Lossky) shows little engagement with science that I know of. And if I may refer to the Karate Kid movie that was popular in my childhood, the sensei tells the boy, “Karate is like a road. Know karate, safe! Don’t know karate, safe! In the middle, squash like a grape.” The “religion and science” I’ve seen has a lot of “in the middle, squash like a grape,” by theologians who want to be scientific (and perhaps make what I have called the “physics envy declaration:” theologians-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-the-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics), but who almost never bother to get letters after their name in the sciences, which are genuinely hard. My own formation, in mathematics, engineering, technology, and science, affords me the position of the blackbelt who declares, “Don’t know karate, safe!” Perhaps one blackbelt saying such things is needed!
Furthermore, my main concern from mathematics, engineering, technology, and science (all of which I was formed in, even if I’ve lost much of it) is not too much about science, but specifically about technology. I’ve experienced technology early; my life story and could largely be seen as a preparation for commenting on technology. And I have background in both studying theology academically and living it in practice.
Another dimension to profound giftedness
One reader who has studied giftedness at length commented to me that profoundly gifted individuals are often “very, very conservative, or at least populist.” I had thought earlier that my conservatism and my giftedness were two separate things. They are not, or at least there is a direct relationship.
The basic way I understand it is this. Possibly I had a contrarian spine built by requesting a conscientious exemption from Wheaton College’s requirements and leaving Wheaton College after it was not even put on the agenda. I have certainly had as much exposure to liberal recruiting, or more, than most liberals. But standard methods of recruiting gifted are less successful in dealing profoundly gifted. The university system has very effective ways of drawing in the gifted, and up to a point the more gifted someone is the better it works—but recruiting tools fall flat with some of the profoundly gifted. Much of the gifted range ends up liberal. It has been pointed out that the math department tends to be one of the most liberal, or the most liberal, department on campus, even though the author pointing this out (and I) have never experienced mathematicians trying to recruit to liberalism. I believe, apart from natural bents, that mathematics shapes the mind in a way that inclines towards liberalism. I stopped really trying to learn chess after I found myself at the Cathedral looking at my quarantine-dictated socially distanced space with regard to other parishioners in terms of what I could threaten to capture in a knight’s move. That may be superficial, and it may fade into the background with deeper study. However, mathematics does shape the character, in the direction of what Orthodox have called “hypertrophied dianoia, darkened nous,” i.e. “overgrown head and impoverished, darkened heart,” and mathematics may do this in a more concentrated form than humanities which promote the same. I certainly do not see that my successes in relating to my ex-girlfriend (there are some) were due to my bent to take a mathematician’s approach to relating.
Something that never happened in my formation in mathematics was that my advisor at Cambridge consistently tried to recruit me to Biblical Egalitarianism (he was a plenary speaker at at least one conference), for instance, by asking, “But what about Biblical Egalitarians, who believe that ‘In Christ there is no… male nor female?'” and I would dismantle the live grenade, for instance by saying that “who believe that” in English-speaking idiom means “whose non-shared distinguishing quality is that,” and second by saying that he was snuggling into the back door that “no male nor female” be cast along at least quasi-feminist lines, as opposed to recognizing that some conservatives (St. Maximus Confessor, for instance) hold that in Christ there really is no male nor female, but read it along profoundly non-feminist lines. (I think after a certain number of attempts my advisor gave up and accepted that I would not listen to reason.)
Yonder, which is a collection of works intended to answer and challenge feminism, might have been provocative when it was first published. Now there is much more than than the men’s movement, which I consider opening men to feminist-style protest. It is mainstream for women to dissociate themselves from feminism and “Like” texts that challenge it. When the U.S. Supreme Court came out in rainbow colors, I posted a response echoing First Things in the discussion at StackExchange, whose CEO is an adamant gay activist, saying, “The question is not whether gay marriage is possible in the U.S., but whether anything else is popular. It has been established that marriage has no particular roles, is dissolvable, need not be open to bearing children, and so forth. Why suddenly draw a line in the sand about marriage involving a man and a woman?” It was censored, with a comment of “Not even close!” However, in the time since then, I have seen comments not censored about the whole policy violation of turning the StackOverflow logo rainbow colors for a time and flipping it to veer in the opposite direction, and so on and so forth, was in fact not StackOverflow’s best moment.
C.S. Lewis has a tantalizingly brief remark in ?The Allegory of Love?, in reference to Spencer who alone receives almost undiluted praise in a book that is exacting of other authors, about how figures who turn out to be what some people call “ahead of their time” seem an odd throwback to the vintage past, when they first appear. Even Bach was respected in his life as a performing organist but not taken too seriously as a composer, because he composed in an area of music that had simply fallen out of fashion. I don’t want to compare myself to the famous people who populate the most obvious examples, but in regard to what Lewis said, it seems that some of my portfolio has matured.
My critiques of feminism may still not be mainstream, but they are no longer so far off the beaten path. As far as raising concerns about technology goes, we have gone past the point where one very bright friend tweeted a link to Paul Graham’sThe Acceleration of Addictiveness and commented in only three words: “SOMEBODY UNDERSTANDS ME!” For that matter, we have gotten past the point where the cover of Time Magazine presents the Facebook “Like” button as a major part of our conundrum. Things that I said that were way off the beaten path when I said them remain of particular interest, but are far less provocative to say now.
Since then, times have changed, and I am not a lone author any more. I’ve learned a good deal from patrologist Jean-Claude Larchet, and what I’ve read from him on the topic is eminently worthy of study. I asked Ancient Faith to read “Social Antibodies” Needed: A Request of Orthodox Clergy, not exactly as a candidate for their imprint to publish, but to send to other authors to answer on the record. The response I got back was not detailed, but they said that they had forwarded the questions I raised for other of their authors to answer.
Two other comments before I drop this topic.
First of all, one thing that I can agree with one devotee of Fr. Seraphim of Plantina on is a quote that Fr. Seraphim tried to tell people he was a sinner and he was put on a pedestal anyway. I’ve been wary of being on a pedestal when I realized that I already am on a pedestal; God has just shielded me from some of the downsides. Apart from harassment, I have benefitted from what appears to be “fame lite.” Possibly I may get put on a bigger pedestal, but I am neither more nor less in God’s hands if God provides that.
The second one, perhaps a tangent, is that I am not mainly writing for success in my lifetime. Certainly I am not looking for writing to be lucrative; my revenues on Amazon, possibly due to Amazon’s ongoing repositioning and reinterpretation of its contracts, has gone from about US$150-200 per month to less than US$10 per month over a time frame when more and more people have discovered my writing. I am trying to write works built to last, and I have released my books under CC0 licensing (“no rights reserved,” meaning that anybody can republish it). This is an aspect of a long haul strategy.
Now to move on.
More wonders in Heaven and earth…
I have enlisted at the Orthodox Pastoral School, about which I have only glowing things to say. After health issues compounded by provider issues, I have asked to withdraw for the rest of the semester and re-enroll next semester when I believe I have good reason to hope I will be stronger. What they say I do not know, and I am not specifically counting on the measure of grace they have already extended to me. However, one possibility that is off the agenda is that God will stop blessing me because of what they decide. I would like to continue on with them, but if God has something else in store for me, I will just try and thank them for what they have already done.
The second thing is that I have prayed for years:
Prayer from St. Symeon for a Spiritual Father
O Lord, who desirest not the death of a sinner but that he should turn and live, Thou who didst come down to earth in order to restore life to those lying dead to sin and in order to make them worthy of seeing Thee the true Light as far as that is possible to man, send me a man who knoweth Thee, so that in serving him and subjecting myself to him with all my strength, as to Thee, and in doing Thy will in his, I may please Thee the only true God, and so that even I, a sinner, may be worthy of Thy Kingdom.
I am not praying that now.
Within the past month of my writing, I sent a polite email to a nearby priest and said that I was going to ask a blessing to visit the parish, when I realized that was not then an option due to the quarantine, and then I thought of asking permission to visit him face-to-face, when I realized that would not be an option for the same reason. But, I said, I wished in gesture to visit.
He responded even more graciously, and offered spiritual direction.
I asked a blessing of my confessor, and have begun receiving spiritual direction.
I have also been seeking for years to enter a monastery. That hasn’t happened yet, but I have a live conversation with a monastery now. It apparently won’t work out for me to visit again in 2020, but I have hopes of ending 2021 as a novice, possibly a “rassophore monk,” also called a “robe-wearing novice.”
A last measure in negotiations
The next thing is that in dealing with others, especially as regards difficulties with medical providers, the last measure of resistance I have offered is to let the other party have it their way and then let them decide if they like the consequences.
Earlier I came to the practice I am seen at on double the standard limit of one medication, and they decided to let me have my eccentric ways, at least for a time. But then they decided to relentlessly pursue strict standard dosing, and after a year or two’s power struggle, I let them have their way and I was in rapidly declining health. I can still remember the sad expression on my provider’s face when she realized what situation I was in: she was not in any sense happy that it looked like I would be dead within a year, but standard dosing was simply not conceivable as something negotiable, or a decision that was less important than my life. After three hospitalizations in about two months, insurance advised me to work with a doctor rather than a nurse practitioner, and the doctor found room in her heart to let me have maximum doses of two similar medications, plus another medication that would help. I returned to the even keel I had when I entered their care.
Experience has been that sometimes the only card I can play is to submit to being keel-hauled, and when I come up torn and bleeding on the other side, the other party figures out things it had not been able to connect the dots on before.
I went through that last measure again with the department recently.
I have been on a medication whose known effects include kidney damage and eventual death to kidney failure. I have been experiencing precursors to kidney failure, although not yet real quality of life issues; however, every time previously my providers tried to soften the blow to my organs by reducing my dose of that medication by one quarter, it seemed a cure worse than the disease. Kidney failure can kill me within a decade or two; the effects I was experiencing would likely kill me within a year. Every time previously, my provider did not like what my medicine was doing, but they chose maintaining my dose above causing my death in the short term.
This time, my provider decided to wean me off the medication already, which was having destabilizing effects, and furthermore to forbid me to even take a related over-the-counter medication that is dosed much lower than the prescription analogue, and furthermore does not damage internal organs, period. And I decided to offer the last measure of resistance: to submit to being keel-hauled and follow all of her changes to the letter.
After two days of feeling worse than drunk, I felt sober for the first time in ages, and have been writing prolifically.
Before that happened, my writing experienced what I can only term a death, a religious experience I have forgotten, and a resurrection. My writing was growing scantier and worse; there was something morally corrupt. Now I am still not writing perfectly, but I feel younger. Decades younger.
I have also been involved with Toastmasters, to learn to better communicate with my neighbor. I participated, albeit didn’t rise above local level, in the 2019 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, and it is widely considered that the experience and preparation are worth it even if you do not place particularly highly, as I did not. I completed the Competent Communicator curriculum and have started on the Presentation Mastery path.
One of the things my spiritual father said in a first call or two is that we tend to think we have tried plan A (getting a doctorate in math from the University of Illinois and going from there), plan B (getting a doctorate in theology from Cambridge in theology and teaching, which would have left me saddled with over twice the major student loans I graduated with), plan C (getting a doctorate “union card” at Fordham), and are “going down the alphabet” in faint hopes…
I believe that if I had made better decisions I could have a degree from Fordham. However, I don’t believe that God has withdrawn his care. If anything, he has given me a reminder that decisions have consequences, and a powerful reminder that placing reason above my conscience is not wise. At present I do not have the brand of PhD; I do have two master’s degrees connected with Orthodox theology and technology from excellent institutions, and quite a story with them. I think I am the most blessed I have been in my life, and stand to receive greater blessings still. I would close with words offered from a friend:
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
I haven’t been able to trace my sources at all, but I vaguely remember a book like Good to Great talking about a company like Intuit making a decision for a product like Quicken, a decision, not just to have a collection of really nice tools, but to declare war on the pencil.
The core insight behind ?Intuit? declaring war on the pencil when it made ?Quicken? was that accounting and finance types using accounting software would also use pencil and paper, and possibly a calculator. The company’s decision was to do user research, find out when and why finance users resorted to using pencil and paper, and then implement improvements to eliminate the need to resort to pencil and paper.
(?Intuit? has also been credited with a similar feat in making a lighter and cheaper version that was not just a more feature-limited version of mainstream accounting software, but would make sense to non-accountants who did not know all the technical terms as one would expect of finance and accounting professionals using the version of ?Quicken? made for accounting and finance professionals. Hence the change in terms to a dirt-simple “money in” and “money out.” This is an additional feat of user research and knowing your audience.)
I am interested in what might be called a “neo-old-fashioned mindfulness,” and an older part of this project relates to looking at your watch more than is necessary, an ancestor to “phubbing,” or snubbing someone socially by looking at your phone. I do not seek a new project, but articulate how we can continue an age-old Western pursuit of mindfulness with a few nuances updated to be mindful when using technologies not around when this aspect of manners came to be.
In a martial arts class, the teacher commented, “Set your foot down because you want to, not because you need to.” This was in reference to a swinging kick that started with picking up your leg from behind you and ended with setting it down in front. And in fact there is a difference between moving so that you have to set your foot down or else lose your balance, and moving so that you set your foot down because you choose to do so.
The difference is illuminating.
Face-threatening behavior and basically rude behavior
When I was taking Wheaton College’s “linguistics and anthropology boot camp for missionaries,” one theme that was underlined was the concept of “face-threatening behavior.” The core concept in face-threatening behavior is behavior that could cause the other party to lose face, and it is normally polite to try to soften or remove the danger of causing the other party to lose face. The next time the lecturer was asked a question by someone in the audience, he pointed out the asker’s politeness behavior: before asking the question directly, he offered some kind words to the person he was addressing. The social subtext? “I am asking you a question, but not because you’re a bad lecturer, and I don’t want to make you lose face.” In other words, politeness leads people to usually try and avoid getting egg on someone else’s face.
I remember visiting with a friend of about my age, some years back, where my friend had asked me to look at a printer. I looked at it briefly, but didn’t immediately see how to fix it. I then apologetically asked if I could call my brother, who worked at a well-treated internal help desk. The social message? “I’m doing something that is basically rude, but I don’t want to be rude to you.” And this was when I was acting entirely out of concern for my friend. I had made a first approach to a difficulty he asked me to look at, and when that didn’t resolve the issue, I made a sensible second approach. However, my behavior was an example of how to maintain politeness while doing something that is basically rude: calling and talking with someone else on my phone when I was visiting him.
On another level, I remember a post-graduation visit to a well-liked professor who, as we were talking, glanced at his clock and then apologized, saying that he looked at the clock because he was surprised it was dark so soon. This was a graceful recovery from a minor social blunder: needlessly looking at his clock, which is an example of basically rude behavior. When Madeleine l’Engle briefly states that Mr. Jenkins One “looked at his watch,” this is a social shorthand to say that Mr. Jenkins One was tired with the present social situation, was wishing it would be over and he could be doing something else, perhaps anything else, and that he wondered how long it would continue to drag on and on. And the professor I was visiting, who has a profound ability to enjoy and be present to practically anyone, made a social recovery after a behavior that carries a message of “I wish this conversation were over.”
Mindfulness and manners
Mindfulness as we use the term today derives from Buddhism, where Right Mindfulness is part of what in Buddhism is called “the Eightfold Noble Path,” and what in classic Western philosophy would be called cardinal or hinge virtues. (A “cardinal” or “hinge” virtue is not just a virtue, but a virtue that others hinge on, cardinal being Latin for “hinge,” with a cardinal virtue being a sort of gateway drug to further virtue. The “four-horsed chariot” of the cardinal virtues of classical antiquity lists courage, classically called “fortitude” or today “grit,” justice, wisdom, and moderation, to which Christian Tradition has added faith, hope, and love, and perhaps implicitly, humility.) Now Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path may be a different list of cardinal virtues than those in Western philosophy, and the two may or may not be two equivalent ways of cutting up the same pie. This question need not concern us here.
Different traditions have different lists of virtues, and it does not take any particularly great stretch of the imagination for a Westerner interested in virtue to recognize, for instance, India’s ahimsa, or not causing at least needless harm, as a virtue, and perhaps recognize it as a profound virtue and a cardinal virtue. It has also in my experience not been particularly difficult to get Western Christians to see mindfulness as a virtue, at least in some other tradition’s way of cutting up the pie.
However, this is not because they do not see mindfulness as an obligation. It is because they see the obligation as falling under the heading of manners rather than moral virtue.
A friend I mentioned earlier talked about how decades back, when Walkmans were eating tapes, about how his mother or grandmother had commented that people running with Walkmans on were not paying due attention to their surroundings. I’m not entirely clear how much our society’s concept of manners extends beyond treatment of other people (perhaps manners covers being gentle with your friend’s pets, or at very least leaving them alone if they’re not bothering you), but there is some sense in her remark that you owe attentiveness to your surroundings whether or not there are other people in the picture, and perhaps even that “being off in your own little world” is another name for Hell.
I am not specifically interested in establishing that mindfulness should be thought of as a department of manners, nor am I interested in establishing that mindfulness is a department of virtue. In the interest of not holding my cards too close to my vest, I think it is mostly in an area where the heart of manners meets virtue, and I am inclined to regard it, as I am interested in virtues, as a virtue. However, this is not a point I am interested in establishing. It could be argued that if you owe attentiveness, meaning mindfulness, to nearby rocks and trees as well as other people, it is a virtue rather than just manners as conventionally understood, but possibly some reader will find in this article itself solid reasons to believe mindfulness is manners first and foremost and should not in the first instance be lumped in with virtues. I am genuinely not interested in the question.
However, I will remark, as curiously interesting, that while I’ve seen attention to mindfulness blanketing the air and I have been invited to share in mindfulness exercises, not one of the mindfulness practices I have seen talks about old-fashioned manners to pay attention to others and the situation. Mindfulness is discussed as a Far Eastern virtue or discipline. I have never heard it connected to old-fashioned Western manners.
Fr. Tom Hopko’s famous (to Orthodox) 55 Maxims include:
Be always with Christ.
Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
Be polite with everyone.
Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
Do your work, then forget it.
Be awake and be attentive.
These at least overlap with mindfulness; when I spoke to one martial artist heavily influenced by Buddhism and quoted, “Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings,” he said, “That’s mindfulness!”
Fr. Tom never uses the word “mindfulness,” but he calls for politeness to “everyone” and to be attentive, and it would at least be consistent with his call for unqualified politeness to say “When you are exercising, be attentive to your surroundings rather than using the time to be off in your own little world.” And I believe there are several maxims of his that a mindfulness practitioner would rightly interpret as being mindfulness or overlapping with mindfulness. And, while Fr. Tom is Eastern Orthodox and perhaps praying for all of us from Heaven, his 55 maxims are written almost entirely on terms the West should be able to make sense of, and the incredible number of search results for “fr tom hopko 55 maxims” attest that he has written something simple that people can connect to.
Manners are much more important, and much more than arcana about which is the salad fork. “The fork goes to the left, and the knife guards the spoon,” is a particular alphabet and language in which manners are translated. It is at the exterior of manners that, under some circumstances, you could be given a bowl of water to rinse your fingers in before eating. A much deeper glimpse into manners is afforded in that a distinguished visitor to a Queen picked up his finger bowl and then drunk it, then Her Majesty picked up her finger bowl and then drunk it, and then every person seated around the table picked up their finger bowls and drunk them.
Manners, at least according to older generations and according to our conversations about manners with prior generations, has a great deal to do with paying attention to other people. It was both manners and mindfulness if Boomers and Gen X’s teachers told us not to pass notes and throw paper airplanes in class, perhaps with exceptions for e.g. the last day of school, but the fact that this may have made life easier for the teacher is incidental to teachers using humble gradeschool arithmetic classes to teach a major life lesson, and a major life lesson that is not only for dealing with authorities. I remember talking to one friend with a spine of steel about children who do not respect adults, and the biggest takeaway I took from the conversation is not that children who do not respect adults grind down adult patience. It was that children who do not respect adults can hardly benefit from adult help, and it is far easier to do something that will benefit a child who respects adults than one who is hostile and disrespectful.
In Madeleine l’Engle’s day, needless attention to a watch or clock was the go-to device to avoid practicing mindfulness for a time. It changed and told you where you are. This pint of beer that Boomers tried not to drink too many of has been replaced by a pint of rum in the smartphone, and a pint of weed in the smartwatch and its successors. Mr. Jenkins One looked at his plain old pre-digital watch, probably one without a second hand, while kids now enjoy (or are bored with) a virtual acid trip quickly surfing from one smartphone app to another.
If we care about mindfulness, an excellent starting point is to drink deeply of what we can learn about manners especially from Boomers while we still can.
My own rather counter-cultural technology choices
Some people seek great merit in being counter-culture. I do not think counter-culture is too great an index of merit, and not just because I believe some countercultures, such as the Klu Klux Klan, are evil incarnate. I have sought, even if I have so far not achieved my goal, to reach life on Orthodox turf where I will not be working out a private heresy in counterculture. None the less, I believe that many of my most helpful technology choices amount to counterculture, whether or not I have the faintest desire to be counter-cultural.
When I was in high school, and for far longer, I made it a matter of pride not to wear a watch. It helped me evade, for a certain age, the tyranny of the clock. Since then I have worked professionally where late is unacceptable, and I’ve been bitten by the personal information management and logistics bug; I have my own system for keeping track of calendar appointment, tasks, etc., so at a glance I can see a month or more of scheduled events and when they are scheduled for. And now I own an Apple Watch.
Any freedom I have from compulsively checking phone, email, or watch is a freedom on the other side of needing to deal with logistics.
But a funny thing happened along the way.
I’ve almost exclusively used the solar watch face because, while it may be beautiful, it is less distracting than the face of my industrial strength Pathfinder watch, which changes every second and shows patterns in the numbers (to a mathematician, 11:23:58 looks familiar). I have it set to a smaller analog clock face display within the solar face because from childhood I’ve found analog clocks harder to read than digital. (If analog clocks were easier for me, I would have the digital display, and if I had the option to turn off the inset clock besides the outer solar display, I would turn it off.)
Taking a cue from Humane Tech, I have dug around in “Accessibility” settings and set the watch face to grayscale. It’s beautiful, and the analog clock face’s second hand, brown on blue when seen in color, blends in remarkably well. I have to strain to see it the one time I genuinely want to watch a second hand’s sweep. I also found, under “Display and Brightness,” how to turn off one of the key reasons I purchased an Apple Watch 5: its “Always on” display. It now takes just a little more work to check my watch, supplemented by wearing an oversized fleece whose sleeves tend to cover my watch face.
I’ve also turned on the hourly chime, also an accessibility feature. This reminds me to check the clock once an hour, and relieves me of having to constantly check. If I need to check email once an hour (my preference is to check it once a day), I don’t need to check either my watch or my email compulsively; my watch will remind me on the hour.
Furthermore, I set alarms for when I need to do something. Besides appointments and things like taking medication, I have followed a practice recommended by sleep advocates and set an alarm for when I should go to bed and not when I should get up.
I would briefly pause and acknowledge one objection to the technique above, which is that doing things according to a preset timer and quite possibly stopping when you have momentum going is not as good as working on tasks for as long as they naturally take. For those no ancient or modern watch is needed. However, while I believe working on something for however long it takes to unfold naturally is often better than working for a fixed length of time set without knowledge of how things will unfold, I believe that use of intelligently set alarms is better than clock-watching. (One further aspect of intelligent use of alarms is to have two alarms for something: one five or ten minutes before, meaning when you look at your watch because of the “early warning” alarm, it’s time to start wrapping up; and one at the exact time, meaning it’s time to stop.)
I have almost completely unplugged logistic need to check my watch unprovoked, and I may have the most unobtrusive, if still most expensive, watch I’ve owned. Every non-Apple watch I’ve owned had a digital display, and most recent ones have been gadgety (I have owned three Pathfinders). However, the gadgetry is almost always there if I summon it, and I can take shortcuts by twiddling with complications.
The Apple Watch is designed and marketed as the next level of integrating digital and everyday life, and in my opinion that is not a wise thing to be wishing for at all.
However, it is also powerful enough that judicious choices mean it can be tamed into unobtrusiveness further than any previous watch I’ve owned.
I’m glad for my Apple Watch. For as long as I’ve owned a timepiece, my Apple Watch is the biggest friend of mindfulness to grace my wrist yet.
A few closing words
I would recall a few words from Seeing Through Native Eyes. The main speaker recounted a visit to Kalihari bushmen, who retain hunter-gatherer life unhindered today, and an elder asked him in reference to a device, “Is that a timepiece?”
He said, “Yes.”
The elder said, “Then I don’t like it.”
He said, “Why not?”
The elder said, “Every time you look at it, the next thing you do is rude.”
If you want mindfulness, cultivate an inexhaustible interest in manners.