The Consolation of Theology

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Author’s Note

This work is an intentional variation on Boethius’s little gem of a classic: The Consolation of Philosophy (modern translation, old translation, another (old) translation online, wiki). It is like Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?, but more deliberately divergent. This book is meant both to stand on its own and to take a road less travelled for the reader already acquainted with Boethius. For that matter, it is also intended in the tradition of another, lesser author following How Shall We Then Live?, following it with How Now Shall We Live?, and another author following Leviathan with Behemoth, and indeed how The Consolation of Philosophy has already been followed with The Consolations of Philosophy.

If you like to curl up with a good book, this is included in the collection The Best of Jonathan’s Corner (Kindle, paperback), and I strongly encourage you to read the whole collection, perhaps starting with this piece.

Song I.

The Author’s Complaint.

The Gospel was new,
When one saint stopped his ears,
And said, ‘Good God!
That thou hast allowed me,
To live at such a time.

Jihadists act not in aught of vacuum:
Atheislam welcometh captors;
Founded by the greatest Christian heresiarch,
Who tore Incarnation and icons away from all things Christian,
The dragon next to whom,
Arius, father of heretics,
Is but a fangless worm.
Their ‘surrender’ is practically furthest as could be,
From, ‘God and the Son of God,
Became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men,
Might become Gods and the Sons of God,

By contrast, eviscerating the reality of man.
The wonder of holy marriage,
Tortured and torn from limb to limb,
In progressive installments old and new,
Technology a secular occult is made,
Well I wrote a volume,
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And in once-hallowed halls of learning,
Is taught a ‘theology,’
Such as one would seek of Monty Python.
And of my own life; what of it?
A monk still I try to be;
Many things have I tried in life,
And betimes met spectacular success,
And betimes found doors slammed in my face.
Even in work in technology,
Though the time be an economic boom for the work,
Still the boom shut me out or knocked me out,
And not only in the Church’s teaching,
In tale as ancient as Cain and Abel,
Of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
And why I must now accomplish so little,
To pale next to glorious days,
When a-fighting cancer,
I switched discipline to theology,
And first at Cambridge then at Fordham,
Wished to form priests,
But a wish that never came true?

I.

And ere I moped a man appeared, quite short of stature but looking great enough to touch a star. In ancient gold he was clad, yet the golden vestments of a Partiarch were infinitely eclipsed by his Golden Mouth, by a tongue of liquid, living gold. Emblazoned on his bosom were the Greek letters Χ, and Α. I crossed myself thrice, wary of devils, and he crossed himself thrice, and he looked at me with eyes aflame and said, ‘Child, hast thou not written, and then outside the bounds of Holy Orthodoxy, a koan?’:

A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

He spoke again. ‘Child, repent of thine own multitude of grievous sins, not the sins of others. Knowest thou not the words, spoken by the great St. Isaac and taken up without the faintest interval by the great St. Seraphim, “Make peace with thyself and ten thousand around thee shall be saved?” Or that if everyone were to repent, Heaven would come to earth?

‘Thou seemest on paper to live thy conviction that every human life is a life worth living, but lacking the true strength that is behind that position. Hast thou not read my Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself? How the three children, my son, in a pagan court, with every lechery around them, were graced not to defile themselves in what they ate, but won the moral victory of not bowing to an idol beyond monstrous stature? And the angel bedewed them in external victory after they let all else go in internal and eternal triumph?

‘It is possible at all times and every place to find salvation. Now thou knowest that marriage or monasticism is needful; and out of that knowledge you went out to monasteries, to the grand monastery of Holy Cross Hermitage, to Mount Athos itself, and thou couldst not stay. What of it? Before God thou art already a monk. Keep on seeking monasticism, without end, and whether thou crossest the threshold of death a layman or a monk, if thou hast sought monasticism for the rest of thy days, and seekest such repentance as thou canst, who knows if thou mightest appear a monk in lifelong repentance when thou answerest before the Dread Judgement-Throne of Christ?

‘Perhaps it is that God has given thee such good things as were lawful for God to give but unlawful and immature for thou to seek for thyself. Thou hast acquired a scholar’s knowledge of academic theology, and a heresiologist’s formation, but thou writest for the common man. Canst not thou imagine that this may excel such narrow writing, read by so few, in the confines of scholarship? And that as thou hast been graced to walk the long narrow road of affliction, thou art free now to sit in thy parents’ splendid house, given a roof when thou art homeless before the law whilst thou seekest monasticism, and writest for as long as thou art able? That wert wrong and immature to seek, sitting under your parents’ roof and writing as much as it were wrong and immature to seek years’ training in academic theology and heresy and give not a day’s tribute to the professorial ascesis of pride and vainglory (thou hadst enough of thine own). Though this be not an issue of morality apart from ascesis, thou knewest the settled judgement that real publication is traditional publication and vanity press is what self-publication is. Yet without knowing, without choosing, without even guessing, thou wert again & time again in the right place, at the right time, amongst the manifold shifts of technology, and now, though thou profitest not in great measure from thy books, yet have ye written many more creative works than thou couldst bogging with editors. Thou knowest far better to say, “Wisdom is justified by her children,” of thyself in stead of saying such of God, but none the less thou hadst impact. Yet God hath granted thee the three, unsought and unwanted though thou mayest have found them.’

I stood in silence, all abashed.

Song II.

His Despondency.

The Saint spoke thus:
‘What then? How is this man,
A second rich young ruler become?
He who bore not a watch on principle,
Even before he’d scarce more than
Heard of Holy Orthodoxy,
Weareth a watch built to stand out,
Even among later Apple Watches.
He who declined a mobile phone,
Has carried out an iPhone,
And is displeased to accept,
A less fancy phone,
From a state program to provide,
Cell phones to those at poverty.
Up! Out! This will not do,
Not that he hath lost an item of luxury,
But that when it happened, he were sad.
For the rich young ruler lied,
When said he that he had kept,
All commandments from his youth,
For unless he were an idolater,
The loss of possessions itself,
Could not suffice to make him sad.
This man hast lost a cellphone,
And for that alone he grieveth.
Knoweth he not that money maketh not one glad?
Would that he would recall,
The heights from which he hath fallen,
Even from outside the Orthodox Church.’

II.

Then the great Saint said, ‘But the time calls for something deeper than lamentation. Art thou not the man who sayedst that we cannot achieve the Holy Grail, nor even find it: for the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail? Not that the Orthodox Church tradeth in such idle romances as Arthurian legend; as late as the nineteenth century, Saint IGNATIUS (Brianchaninov) gaveth warnings against reading novels, which His Eminence KALLISTOS curiously gave embarrassed explanations. Today the warning should be greatly extended to technological entertainment. But I would call thy words to mind none the less, and bid thee to become the Holy Grail. And indeed, when thou thou receivest the Holy Mysteries, thou receivest Christ as thy Lord and Saviour, thou art transformed by the supreme medicine, as thou tastest of the Fount of Immortality?

‘Thou wert surprised to learn, and that outside the Orthodox Church, that when the Apostle bade you to put on the whole armour of Christ, the armour of Christ wert not merely armour owned by Christ, or armour given by Christ: it were such armour as God himself wears to war: the prophet Isaiah tells us that the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are God’s own armour which he weareth to war.

‘Thou art asleep, my son and my child; awaken thou thyself! There is silver under the tarnishment that maketh all seem corrupt: take thou what God hath bestowed, rouse and waken thyself, and find the treasure with which thy God hath surrounded thee.’

Song III.

A Clearer Eye.

‘We suffer more in imagination than reality,’
Said Seneca the Younger,
Quoted in rediscovery of Stoicism,
That full and ancient philosophy,
Can speak, act, and help today,
Among athletes and business men,
And not only scholars reading dusty tomes.
And if thus much is in a school of mere philosophy,
An individualist pursuit deepenening division,
What of the greatest philosophy in monasticism,
What of the philosophy,
Whose Teacher and God are One and the Same?
I stood amazed at God,
Trying to count my blessings,
Ere quickly I lost count.

III.

Then said I, ‘I see much truth in thy words, but my fortunes have not been those of success. I went to Cambridge, with strategy of passing all my classes, and shining brightly on my thesis as I could; the Faculty of Divinity decided two thirds of the way through the year that my promptly declared dissertation topic was unfit for Philosophy of Religion, and made me choose another dissertation topic completely. I received no credit nor recognition for the half of my hardest work. That pales in comparison with Fordham, where I were pushed into informal office as ersatz counselour for my professors’ insecurities, and the man in whom I had set my hopes met one gesture of friendship after another with one retaliation after another. Then I returned to the clumsy fit of programming, taken over by Agile models which require something I cannot do: becoming an interchangeable part of a hive mind. I have essayed work in User eXperience, but no work has yet crystallised, and the economy is adverse. What can I rightly expect from here?’

Ere he answered me, ‘Whence askest thou the future? It is wondrous. And why speakest thou of thy fortune? Of a troth, no man hath ever had fortune. It were an impossibility.’

I sat a-right, a-listening.

He continued, ‘Whilst at Fordham, in incompetent medical care, thou wert stressed to the point of nausea, for weeks on end. Thy worry wert not, “Will I be graced by the noble honourific of Doctor?” though that were far too dear to thee, but, “Will there be a place for me?” And thus far, this hath been in example “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” For though what thou fearest hath happened, what be its sting?

‘Thou seekedst a better fit than as a computer programmer, and triedst, and God hath provided other than the success you imagined. What of it? Thou hast remained in the house of thy parents, a shameful thing for a man to seek, but right honourable for God to bestow if thou hast sought sufficiency and independence. Thou knowest that we are reckoned come Judgement on our performance of due diligence and not results achieved: that due diligence often carrieth happy results may be true, but it is nothing to the point. Thou art not only provided for even in this decline; thou hast luxuries that thou needest not.

‘There is no such thing as fortune: only an often-mysterious Providence. God has a care each and all over men, and for that matter over stones, and naught that happeneth in the world escapeth God’s cunning net. As thou hast quoted the Philokalia:

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvellous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

‘And again:

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

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

‘Thou hast earned scores in math contests, yea even scores of math contests, ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Now thou hast suffered various things and hast not the limelight which thou hadst, or believeth thou hadst, which be much the same thing. Again, what of it? God hath provided for thee, and if thou hast been fruitless in a secular arena, thou seekest virtue, and hast borne some fruit. Moreover thou graspest, in part, virtue that thou knewest not to seek when thou barest the ascesis of a mathematician or a member of the Ultranet. Thou seekest without end that thou mayest become humble, and knowest not that to earnestly seek humility is nobler than being the chiefest among mathematicians in history?

‘The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, hath written,

Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.

All these things were from Me.

‘The doctors have decided that thy consumption of one vital medication is taken to excess, and they are determined to bring it down to an approved level, for thy safety, and for thy safety accept the consequence of thy having a string of hospitalizations and declining health, and have so far taken every pain to protect thee, and will do so even if their care slay thee.

‘What of it? Thy purity of conscience is in no manner contingent on what others decide in their dealings with thee. It may be that the change in thy medicaments be less dangerous than it beseemeth thee. It may be unlawful to the utmost degree for thou to seek thine own demise: yet it is full lawful, and possible, for our God and the Author and Finisher of our faith to give thee a life complete and full even if it were cut short to the morrow.

‘Never mind that thou seest not what the Lord may provide; thou hast been often enough surprised by the boons God hath granted thee. Thou hast written Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and thou knowest that repentance itself eclipseth the pleasure of sin. Know also that grievous men, and the devil himself, are all ever used by God according to his design, by the God who worketh all for all.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

‘Know and remember also that happiness comes from within. Stop chasing after external circumstances. External circumstances are but a training ground for God to build strength within. Wittest thou not that thou art a man, and as man art constituted by the image of God? If therefore thou art constituted in the divine image, why lookest thou half to things soulless and dead for thy happiness?’

Song IV.

Virtue Unconquerable.

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
And with my eyes yet shall I see God,
But what a painful road it has been,
What a gesture of friendship has met a knife in my back.
Is there grandeur in me for my fortitude?
I only think so in moments of pride,
With my grandeur only in repentance.
And the circumstances around me,
When I work, have met with a knife in the back.

IV.

The Golden-Mouthed said, ‘Child, I know thy pains without your telling, aye, and more besides: Church politics ain’t no place for a Saint! Thou knowest how I pursued justice, and regarded not the face of man, drove out slothful servants, and spoke in boldness to the Empress. I paid with my life for the enemies I made in my service. You have a full kitchen’s worth of knives in your back: I have an armory! I know well thy pains from within.

‘But let us take a step back, far back.

‘Happiness is of particular concern to you and to many, and if words in the eighteenth century spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” now there are many people who make the pursuit of happiness all but a full-time occupation.

‘In ages past a question of such import would be entrusted to enquiry and dialogue philosophic. So one might argue, in brief, that true happiness is a supreme thing, and God is a supreme thing, and since there can not be two separate supreme essences, happiness and God are the same, a point which could be argued at much greater length and eloquence. And likewise how the happy man is happy not because he is propped up from without, by external circumstance, but has chosen virtue and goodness inside. And many other things.

‘But, and this says much of today and its berzerkly grown science, in which the crowning jewel of superstring theory hath abdicated from science’s bedrock of experiment, happiness is such a thing as one would naturally approach through psychology, because psychology is, to people of a certain bent, the only conceivable tool to best study to understand men.

‘One can always critique some detail, such as the import of what psychology calls “flow” as optimal experience. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, outlined three versions of the good life: the Pleasant Life, which is the life of pleasure and the shallowest of the three; the Engaged Life, or the life of flow, called optimal experience, and the Meaningful Life, meaning in some wise the life of virtue.

‘He says of the Pleasant Life that it is like vanilla ice cream: the first bite tastes delicious, but by the time you reach the fifth or sixth bite, you can’t taste it any more. And here is something close to the Orthodox advice that a surplus of pleasures and luxuries, worldly honours and so on, do not make you happy. I tell you that one can be lacking in the most basic necessities and be happy: but let this slide.

‘Of the Meaningful Life, it is the deepest of the three, but it is but a first fumbling in the dark of what the Orthodox Church has curated in the light of day. Things like kindness and mercy have built in to the baseline, curated since Christ or rather the Garden of Eden, so Orthodox need not add some extra practice to their faith to obtain kindness or gratitude. Really, the number of things the Orthodox Church has learned about the Meaningful Life far eclipse the Philokalia: the fount is inexhaustible.

‘But my chief concern is with the Engaged Life, the life of flow. For flow is not “the psychology of optimal experience,” or if it is, the theology of optimal experience hath a different base. Flow is legitimate and it is a wonder: but it is not additionally fit to be a normative baseline for mankind as a whole.

Flow, as it occurs, is something exotic and obscure. It has been studied in virtuosos who are expert performers in many different domains. Once someone of surpassing talent has something like a decade of performance, it is possible when a man of this superb talent and training is so engrossed in a performance of whatever domain, that sits pretty much at the highest level of performance where essentially the virtuoso’s entire attention is absorbed in the performance, and time flies because no attention is left to observe the passage of time or almost any other thing of which most of us are aware when we are awake.

‘It seemeth difficult to me to market flow for mass consumption: doing such is nigh unto calling God an elitist, and making the foundation of a happy life all but impossible for the masses. You can be a subjectivist if you like and say that genuis is five thousand hours’ practice, but it is trained virtuoso talent and not seniority that even gets you through flow’s door. For that matter, it is also well nigh impossible for the few to experience until they have placed years into virtuoso performance in their craft. Where many more are capable of being monastics. Monastics, those of you who are not monastics may rightly surmise, have experiences which monastics call it a disaster to share with you. That may be legitimate, but novices would do well not to expect a stream of uninterrupted exotic experiences, not when they start and perhaps not when they have long since taken monastic vows. A novice who seeth matters in terms of “drudgework” would do well to expect nothing but what the West calls “drudgework” for a long, long time. (And if all goeth well and thou incorporatest other obediences to the diminution of drudgery, thou wilt at first lament the change!) A monastic, if all goes well, will do simple manual labour, but freed from relating to such labour as drudgery: forasmuch as monastics and monastic clergy recall “novices’ obediences”, it is with nostalgia, as a yoke that is unusually easy and a burden unusually light.

‘And there is a similitude between the ancient monastic obedience that was par excellence the bread and butter of monastic manual labour, and the modern obedience. For in ancient times monks wove baskets to earn their keep, and in modern times monks craft incense. And do not say that the modern obedience is nobler, for if anything you sense a temptation, and a humbler obedience is perhaps to be preferred.

‘But in basket making or incense making alike, there is a repetitive manual labour. There are, of course, any number of other manual obediences in a monastery today. However, when monasticism has leeway, its choice seems to be in favour of a repetitive manual labour that gives the hands a regular cycle of motion whilst the heart is left free for the Jesus Prayer, and the mind in the heart practices a monk’s watchfulness or nipsis, an observer role that traineth thee to notice and put out temptations when they are a barely noticeable spark, rather than heedlessly letting the first temptation grow towards acts of sin and waiting until thy room be afire before fightest thou the blaze. This watchfulness is the best optimal experience the Orthodox Church gives us in which to abide, and ’tis no accident that the full and unabridged title of the Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. If either of these simple manual endeavours is unfamiliar or makes the performer back up in thought, this is a growing pain, not the intended long-term effect. And what is proposed is proposed to everybody in monasticism and really God-honoured marriage too, in force now that the Philokalia hath come in full blossom among Orthodox in the world, that optimum experience is for everyone, including sinners seeking the haven of monasticism, and not something exotic for very few.

‘And remember how thou wast admonished by a monk, perhaps in echo of St. James the Brother of God who said, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.” For thou wert in the trapeza, with the monk and with a janitorial lady, and he told the janitorial lady that she was fortunate, for her manual labour left her free to pray with her mind, and thou, a computer programmer at the time, wert unfortunate because thy work demanded thy full mental attention.

‘Forsooth! If thou canst have optimal experience, the Jesus Prayer in thy heart as the metronome of silence, if thy business were to weave baskets or craft incense, why not indeed can one attend to the Jesus Prayer, rising as incense before God, in mopping a floor or cleaning windows? For however great monasticism may be, it hath not aught of monopoly in meditative work and prayer before God. Marriage is the older instrument of salvation. The door is open, if thou canst do some manual labour, to do so in prayer to God. And monks are not alone permitted prayerful manual labour: monasticism is but the rudiments of the Gospel, and if monasticism seeketh out perhaps a boon in prayerful manual labour, this is hardly a barbed wire fence with a sign saying that prayerful manual labour is reserved only for monastics.

‘Let us say that this is true, and the theology of optimum experience is virtually accepted for the sake of argument, or if thou preferest, thou mayest answer it “Yes” and “Amen.” Still, I say it is a quibble, compared to the darker import. Let us set the point aside, and with good reason.’

Then he paused, and ere a moment resumed explaining. ‘If I may pull a rare note from the wreckage postmodern, there is the concept of a semiotic frame, perhaps a myth, that determines a society’s possibles et pensables, that which is understood to be possible in a society, and that which is found to even be thinkable. The knife cuts well against some radicals. And people are in blinders about activism and psychology.

‘Think of thy feminist theology professor, who said both right and full that she believed in Tradition, and in the same breath placed Arius, the father of heretics, alongside St. Athanasius as equally full representatives of that Tradition. When in your theological anthropology class she picked two texts for disability, the obvious agenda, the one and only thing to do for autism (as her agenda fell) was to engage some activist political advocacy for to make conditions in some wise more favourable for that particular victim class. No expression of love was possible save additional political activism. And I would say, and thou wouldst say, that she were too political in her response, and not nearly political enough. (For when all is civil warfare carried on by other means, real concern for the life of the polis but starves.)

‘Yet one of these reading assignments contained what she did not grasp. Of the two, one was what could be straightforwardly be called either or both of political ideology and identity politics, and it was complete with the standard, footnoteless, boilerplate opening assertion that no one else in the whole wide world could possibly have suffering that could be compared to that of one’s own poor, miserable demographic.

‘But the other text was different in many ways. It was entitled “Love Without Boundaries,” and it was a text about love written by the father of a severely autistic son. This latter text did not come close to calling for agitation or plans for a better future: far from it—on these points it is silent. What it did do, however, was take an approach in ascesis, and learn to love without limits. The father did not and could not cure his son, but whether or not the father’s love transformed his son, the love the father expressed transformed the father. His love was cut from the same cloth as the peace with oneself which St. Isaac and St. Seraphim with one voice exhort us to acquire, and the love the father expressed rendered him Godlike, in a humble, everyday, ordinary fashion.

‘And in like wise to how thy professor automatically jumped to political activism as how one might exhibit right care for the severely autistic and other disabled, in this day and age the go-to discipline for understanding humans is psychology, and a psychology fashioning itself after hard science, introducing itself by what might be called the physics envy declaration: psychologists-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

‘It is a side point that psychologists treat subjects as less-than-human: a near-universal feature of psychological experiment is some stripe of guile, because psychological experimental value would be ruined under normal conditions of intelligent and informed cooperation between fellow men. (Though the enterprise may be named “psychology”, the name were oafishly or treacherously applied: for the name be drawn from the Greek for the study that understands the psyche or soul, a psyche or soul is precisely what the discipline will not countenance in man.) Forsooth! Men running experiments think and make decisions; subjects in experiments are governed by laws. Moreover, since physics hath worked long and hard to de-anthropomorphise what it studies, physics envy biddeth psychology to seek well a de-anthropomorphised theory of ανθροπος (anthropos), man.

‘It hath been noted, as psychology reinvent more of religion, that classical clinical psychology can raise a person suffering from some mental illness to be as normal, but nought more. And so positive psychology chaseth after means of enhancement and excellence, to best make use of giftedness. Meanwhilst, whilst this invention is brand new, it is well over a millennium since monasticism was at one stroke a hospital for repentant sinners and an academy for excellence.

‘The point primarily to be held is that psychology is not the ultimate real way, but one among many ways, of understanding how people work, and one that hath stopped its ear to our being created in the image of God. All great Christian doctrines are rendered untranslatable. The article form of what is also thine advisor’s thesis hath as its subtitle “From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,” and it discusseth the formation of psychology as an emergent secular realm which hath displaced older candidates. But in the West before the reign of psychology there were pastoral paradigms for understanding the human person, and thou knowest that one of the first technical terms Orthodoxy asketh its converts to learn is “passion:” and if the passions thine advisor hath discussed are not point-for-point identical to the passions repented of in Eastern Orthodoxy, still they be by far closer than any of the several emergent framings and meanings of “emotion” as pushed for in the discipline of psychology.

‘That there be a common term for psychology, and more dubiously one for what it replaced, is of little import for us. The term “pneumatology” may have existed and named practitioners from an older tradition; but such were under religious auspices. The study and field of communication is, among fields of enquiry studied in the academy, of vintage historically recent: yet it would be right stunning to deny that people communicated, and tried better to communicate, before the change when a university department door now heralded and announced, “Department of Communication.”

‘And what has psychology done since being established as a secular arena? Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land gets on very quickly to utterly dismissing marriage. But no sooner does Michael stop flailing marriage’s lifeless corpse, but he hath made a gaping hole and buildeth up a bond of water brotherhood that is meant to be every bit as heroic, beautiful, and magnificent, that the only remaining way to make water brotherhood truly more wondrous and amazing were to enlarge it until it grew to become true marriage.

‘Psychology, whilst being secular, in its completion offers ersatz religion that, though meant to be value-free, provides a secular mystical theology. That this secular religion, fit for all religions and patients, uses guided imagery allegedly from some generic copy-paste of Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American traditions, and goeth back to Graeco-Roman times; mindfulness from Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path; and yoga from Hinduism is but an illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s observation: the man who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing; he believes anything. But put this aside and take psychology’s claim of secularity at face value. The Philokalia is scarcely but a library of collected works about how to rightly live the inner life. It is not in the main concerned with pleasure or joy: but it has an infinite amount to say about repenting from sins that bear Hell each and every one. Psychology does not trade in temptation, sin, or passion: but it too offers a rudder for one’s inner life, and if it teacheth not the extirpation of things that sully the soul’s purity, it has infinite reach in a battleplan to not be conquered by negative emotion.

‘And if I may speak to thee of TED talks, there is probably a TED talk to be made, “The Trouble with TED,” for they exacerbate this. As thou knowest, one talk gave the staggering announcement that after decades of each generation having higher self-esteem than the last, and the lamented consequence arising that our youth in particular reach record levels of narcissism. Well might she announce that if thou sprayest fuel around and throwest lighted matches on the fuel, sooner or sooner thou wilt have a blaze about thee.

‘She also talked about self-touch, about it being soothing to place thy hand over thy heart. Forsooth! This is placed among the same general heading of making love without a partner. Not a whisper was heard mentioning affection towards another person, or for that matter a pet; the remedy stepped not an inch away from solipsism. Monks as thou knowest are admonished to refrain from embraces: be that as it may, it would be healthier for a monk to embrace another than to embrace himself.’

I said, ‘What is the trouble with TED? For I sense something askance, yet to put a finger on it is hard.’

His All Holiness answered me and said, ‘All world religions have grandeur, and for an analysis secular all world religions represent a way that a society can live together and persevere. Hinduism is not the sort of thing one uses up, whether across years, lifetimes, or centuries even; its spiritual paths are millennia old, and to destroy it would likely take nuclear war or an apocalyptic event. By contrast, remember thou how thou hast said, “No form of feminism that has yet emerged is stable:” easily enough one finds the living force of body image feminism today, whilst it would scarce be live in the academy in fifty years. Thy friend answered thy remark of something called “Christian feminism,” which articulates how traditional Christianity cares for, and seeks, the good of women: for an example, it takes politically incorrect words about husbands and wives and offers the breathtaking change of addressing women as moral agents, and never telling husbands to keep wives in line. That is if anything the exception that proves the rule: for it may bear the external label of “feminism,” but its core be much slower to decay than any feminism at all, for it is not feminism at all. In thy feminist theology class one author said that in feminist theology, “all the central terms are up for grabs.” Meanwhilst, remember thy superior when thou wert an assistant at a bookstore. He hath told thee that books of liberal theology have a shelf life; after five years, perhaps, they are hard to sell. Meanwhilst, his shop published and sold Puritan sermons three centuries old. Thou mayest have a care that they are heterodox: but do not have a care that they will go out of fashion, or if they do go out of fashion, it will not be because the sermons lost their appeal to future Protestants seeking Biblical faith, but something else hath changed features of Protestantism that have survived since the Reformation.

‘Thou needest not refute TED talks; a few years and a given talk will likely be out of fashion. There is something in the structure of TED that is liberal, even if many talks say nothing overtly political: forasmuch, there is more to say than that they are self-contained, controlled, plastic things, where world religions are something organic that may or may not have a central prophet, but never have a central planner. TED is a sort of evolving, synthetic religion, and it cannot fill true spiritual hunger.

‘But let us return to psychology, or rather treat psychology and TED talks, for psychology hath of ages hoped for a Newton who would lead them into the Promised Land full status of being scientists. The study of Rocks and Nothing is the exemplar after which to pattern the study of Man. Forsooth! The problems in psychology are not so much where psychology has failed to understand Man on the ensaumple of empirical science. The real concerns are for where they have succeeded.

‘In a forum discussion thou readst, a conversation crystallised on care for diabetes, and cardinally important advice not to seek a book-smart nurse, but a diabetic nurse. For it is the case with empirical science that it entirely lacketh in empirical character. In psychology, as oft in other disciplines, a sufficiently skilled practitioner can pick up a book about part of the subject he does not yet understand, and understand well enough what there is to understand. Understanding were never nursed on the practice of direct experience, and understanding here is malnourished.

‘However, the Orthodox Church with monasticism as its heart has genuine empiricism as its spine; you know with the knowing by which Adam knew Eve. All else is rumour and idle chatter. If there are qualifications to being a spiritual father, one of the chief of these must be that he speaks and acts out of first-hand encounter and first-hand knowledge, not that he learned by rumour and distortion. Dost wish that thou be healed by a spiritual physician? Seek thou then a man which will care for thee as a diabetic nurse.’

Song V.

O Holy Mother!

O Holy Mother! Art Thou the Myst’ry?
Art Thou the Myst’ry untold?
For I have written much,
And spent much care,
In The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And looked all the whilst,
Down the wrong end,
Of the best telescope far and away that I could find.
I have written of man and creation defiled,
Yet for all my concerns,
Of so-called ‘space-conquering technologies,’
Which it beseemeth me ‘body-conquering technologies,’
Sidestepping the God-given and holy bounds,
Of our embodied state,
Where better to seek healing,
For an occult-free simulation,
Of the unnatural vice of magick arts,
Than in the perfect creaturely response,
‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.’
Then, the gates, nay, the foundations,
The foundations of Hell began a-crumbling,
The New Eve, the Heavenly Mother,
Whom Christ told the Disciple,
‘Behold thy Mother!’
In Her is the microcosm of Creation aright,
And She is the Friend and Comfort,
Of the outcast, and the poor:
My money, my property, I stand to lose:
But no man can take from me,
A Treasure vaster than the Heavens;
Perhaps I would do well,
To say little else of technologies progressively degrading humanity,
And pray an Akathist to the Theotokos,
And put a trust in Her that is proto-Antiochian,
Rather than proto-Alexandrian,
And give Her a trust in the great Story,
Diminished not one whit,
If She happeneth not to be a teacher,
Offering such ideas as philosophers like:
Her place in the Great Story is far greater than that:
And such it is also,
With illuminèd teachers,
Who offer worship to God as their teaching,
And are in travail,
Until Christ be formed in their disciples.

V.

He said, ‘But let us return to the pursuit of happiness, which hath scathingly been called “the silliest idea in the history of mankind.” And that for a junior grade of pursuing happiness, not the clone of a systematic science which worketh out a combination of activities and practices, an America’s Test Kitchen for enjoying life, studying ways of manipulating oneself to produce pleasure and happiness.

‘It were several years ago that thou tookest a Fluxx deck to play with friends, and the group included five adults and one very little boy. So the adults took turns, not just in their moves, but (for a player who had just played a move) in paying attention to the little one, so that he were not looking on a social meeting that excluded him.

‘When it were thy turn to look after the boy, thou liftedst him to thy shoulders and walkedst slowly, gingerly, towards the kitchen, because thou wishedst to enter the kitchen, but thou wert not sure thou couldst walk under the kitchen’s lower ceiling without striking his head.

‘Shortly after, thou realizedst three things: firstly, that the boy in fact had not struck his head on the kitchen ceiling, even though you had advanced well into the kitchen area; secondly, that the boy was dragging his fingers on the ceiling; and thirdly and finally, that he was laughing and laughing, full of joy.

‘That wert a source of pleasure that completely eclipsed the game of Fluxx, though it were then a favourite game. And when thou askedst if it were time for thy next move, it were told thee that the game was won.

‘In the conversation afterwards, thou wert told a couple of things worthy of mention.

‘First, and perhaps of no great import, thou gavest the boy a pleasure that neither of his parents could offer. The boy’s father wert a few inches taller than thee, and were he to attempt what thou attemptedst, he in fact would have struck his son’s head against the ceiling. The boy’s mother could not either have offered the favour to her son; whether because her thin arms were weaker, or something else: God wot.

‘Second of all, as mentioned by an undergraduate psychologist, it gives people joy to give real pleasure to another person, and the case of children is special. She did not comment or offer comparison between knowing thou hast given pleasure to any age in childhood and knowing thou hast given pleasure to an adult, but she did comment, and her comment were this: the boy were guileless: too young to just be polite, too young for convincing guile, perhaps too young for any guile worthy of the name. That meant, whether or not thou thoughtest on such terms, that his ongoing and delighted laughter were only, and could only be, from unvarnished candour. Wherewith thou hadst no question of “Does he enjoy what I am doing with him, or is he just being polite?” Just being polite were off the table.

‘And this is not even only true for the royal race of men. Thou hast not right circumstance to lawfully and responsibly own a pet, but without faintest compromise of principle, thou visitest a pet shelter nearby to thine own home, and at the shelter also, guile is off the agenda, at least for the pets. A cat can purr, or if it hath had enough human attention for the nonce and thou hast perhaps not attended to its swishing tail, a light nip and swipe of claw is alike of unvarnished candour. Whereby thou knowest of a truth what a cat desireth and conveyeth if it purreth and perchance licketh thine hand.

‘Which were subsumed under a general troth, that it is better to serve than to be served, and it is better to give than receive. What is more, the most concentrated teaching about who be truly happy is enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount, and enshrined again as the shorthand version of that great Sermon chanted in the Divine Liturgy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

‘The word translated, “blessed,” μακαριος (makarios, hath what we would count as at least two meanings in English: “blessed,” and “happy.” Among English Bible translations there are some, but a few, translations which render the word as “happy,” including Young’s Literal Translation:

Happy the poor in spirit — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness — because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers — because they shall be called Sons of God.

Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake — Rejoice ye
and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

‘In English this is usually, but not always, found in more free translations; the Amplified Bible naturally shines in cases like these as an deliberately unusual translation style intended to render two or more faces of an ambiguity or a phrase bearing multiple meanings. Other languages can be different; in French, for instance, there are separate words béni and heureux which respectively mean “blessed” and “happy,” but heureux appears to be the term of choice in French translation of the Beatitudes.

‘Here, though, the Gospel hath aught in common with Plato. Plato investigated happiness, and the Greek term used was ευδαιμονια, eudaimonia, almost exactly a literal equivalent to “in good spirits,” but the literal sense was taken much more seriously and much farther. It was a primary term for happiness, but what was seen as true happiness was having one’s spirit in good health. This happiness would not be easily confused by counterfeit pleasures such as one can immediately procure with narcotics; and the point is not that real-world narcotics create addiction and horrible misery. The happiness would be just as counterfeit in the pleasure of a person unhealthy in spirit to take some imaginary narcotic that created intense and endless pleasure, without either addiction or the misery that loom in the grievous backswing of narcotic pleasure.

‘Thou rememberest thy surprise, when reading thine undergraduate psychology text, when thou readedst what wert said of the pleasure principle. For the pleasure principle art an artifact of bad philosophy, which noting perchance that most of our actions bring some pleasure or pleasing result, assumes and defines that every action anyone ever takes is that which is calculated to bring thee the most pleasure. In settings less far back, thou hast listened to people saying that the only motivation anyone takes for any action is that it is calculated to bring them the greatest economic profit, and thou hast borrowed an answer, to say that several people have essayed to convince thee of this as truth, and so far as thou knewest, not one of them stood to gain financial profit from convincing thyself of this purported truth.

‘Thy textbook, like those who try to convince with a charming smile where a reasoned argument is ordinarily polite to offer, said that it were more a virtue than a vice to show kindnesses to others because one enjoyed the feelings it gave, and thou hadst two answers in thy heart: first of all, past the sugar-coating of “more a virtue than a vice” lies an assertion that virtue is impossible in principle, and secondly, that the only theoretical possibility thou couldst care for the poor in order to help thy fellow men is if one received absolutely no pleasure or consolation in any stripe or dimension to care for the poor out of a geniune motive of benefitting others and not whatever probable pleasures their generosity and service might come back their way. That appalling price tag reaches beyond exorbitant. And thou desirest to speak of a “masochism principle” or “pain principle” whereby all decisions and all actions at all times by all men are whatever is calculated to bring them the greatest sufferings, alike useless to assert for any philosopher worthy of the name. It is hardly to be denied that most decisions bring some pain or have some downside on the part of the persons who make them, so a pain principle mirroring a pleasure principle is alike unprovable, and alike unfalsifiable, an untestable guess that hath not any place in science and scarcely more any place in disciplines seeking to be established as science. It was not until later that thou readst a competent philosopher who said that the existence of pleasure and a reward does not in and of itself make any action which brings pleasure to be motivated solely as a means to obtain pleasure. The thought-experiment were posed, that a man who gives to the poor and enjoys doing so were offered a pill which would give him the full pleasure and benefits of his generosity, but do nothing at all for the practical needs of the poor, would be in but rare cases utterly spurned as a right empty and worthless counterfeit.

Song VI.

Crossing the Great Threshold.

The tale were told,
Of a child starkly scant of mind,
Who receivèd a glittering package, a gift,
And kept the glittering package,
Indeed taking it with him well nigh everywhere,
And after long time,
When the disposable wrapping paper,
Were well battered and now dingy,
An adult asked,
‘Aren’t you going to open the package?’
The child exclaimed with joy,
Once the toy emerged from the tatters,
And squealed with joy, saying,
“Oh, there’s another present!”
My Lord and my God!
Perhaps I will never open,
The Sermon on the Mount.

VI.

I said myself then, ‘O John! O glorious Saint John! Canst thou lead me on a path into the The Sermon on the Mount? For I have trod the path of self-direction, and it well nigh destroyed me.’

Then the Saint said to me, ‘Thanks to thee, son, for thy request. I awaited that thou mightest ask, for that thou mightest have the Heavenly reward for asking.

‘That which you ask were a work of years or lifetimes; let me chase a humbler quarry: unfolding the first verse only of that great Sermon, which declareth the poor in spirit to be blessed and happy. I will speak to you of the riches of poverty but not the heights of humility, though they be one and the same. Though I may call on other verses to tell what riches are in poverty, I will make no attempt to unfold these other Beatitudes, though to them that which declared the blessedness of poverty that wert one and the same. And I tell thee, through thine interests, that to be poor in spirit is to be no self-sufficient solipsist; rather, it is utterly dependent on the infinite riches of God, and that it is royal: for kings are forbidden to touch money, and in another sense all Christians and especially all monastics are forbidden to touch aught possession, not solely money, in stead of grasping as did the rich young ruler. But poverty be the unstopping of yon Sermon, an unstopping of virtue in which flowing fount eclipseth flowing fount.

That true poverty extendeth beyond a lack of possessions is taught by calling those blessed who are “poor in spirit,” beyond mere poverty of the body, and it is taught that the monastic vow of poverty includeth the other two: for a monk is bereft of the normal blessing of holy matrimony, and even of his own self-will. That thou knowest as treasure, for thou wishest to trade thine own idiorrythmic self-direction for a coenobetic monastery, and to speak even more plainly, the direction of an abbot.

‘In the Sermon on the Mount, poverty beseemeth to be special, for there are two passages: that which commendeth the storing treasures up in Heaven and rejecting the storing up of treasures on earth, then discussion of the eye as the lamp of the body, then exhortation to take no thought for the morrow, for God knoweth and willeth to care for our needs. And when thou hast wealth, be merciful to others, and thou wilt be repaid at great usury by thy true Debtor, God.

‘In fact there is one passage and topic, the longest though length in verses is a trivial measure. The tri-unity is harder to see in modern translations that translate something out to be accessible; one reads of one’s eye being “healthy” or “sound”. The King James version rightly renders “single”, for an undivided wholeness. Fr. Thomas Hopko hath said, before the surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness, “Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.” This attentiveness and full presence is the operation of an activity that is single, that neither layeth up possessions, nor defendeth them in worry, nor doubteth that the God who provideth will overlook thee in His care. In all these is dispersal and dissipation. Poverty of spirit maketh for singleness of eye, and a singleness destroyed by so many of the technologies you trade in.

‘It has from ancient times been reckoned that if thou givest to the poor, God is thy Debtor, and under what you would call third world living conditions, I told married Christians to leave to their children brothers rather than things. This too is poverty of spirit, even if it belong only in marriage, in a condition monks renounce. Thou hast read of those who suggest that thou asketh not, “Can I afford what I need?” but “Do I need what I can afford?”

‘It is monastic poverty that monastics do not defend themselves, not only by force, but even with words, showing the power that terrified Pontius Pilate. It is monastic poverty not to struggle again over any temporal matter. It is poverty of spirit not to have plans, nor, in the modern sense, an identity. For in ancient times, Christians who were martyred, answered when asked their names, none other than “Christian.” And beyond this further layers yet beckon. Poverty is not an absence of treasures; it is a positive, active, thing that slices sharper than any two-edged sword. And monks who renounce property sometimes have something to say beyond “Good riddance!” The force of the rejection, and the freedom that is gained in letting riches go, is more like the obscene and thundering announcement: “I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!”

‘Thou readedst a church sign saying, “Who is rich? The person who is content.” And I tell thee that thou canst purchase by poverty of spirit many times and layers more than contentment with what thou possessest now. I have not even scratched the surface of experiences of monastics who were poor in spirit to a profound degree, but thou knowest that there are limits to what is lawful for me to utter to thee, and thou knowest that thou art not bidden to chase after experiences, but seek to repent of thy sins for the rest of thy life, which thou knowest to reckon as monastic privilege.’

Song VII.

I Sing a Song to my Apple.

Betimes my salad days were right begun,
I programmed an Apple ][,
In gradeschool adventure games and a 4D maze,
Simple arithmetic- and trigonometric-powered animations.
My father a computer scientist,
Who shared with me his joy,
And in high school a Unix system administrator became.
My family got, and still hath the carcass,
Of one original ‘fat Mac’,
So named because it had an available maximum 512k of RAM.
My calculator in high school,
On which I programmed computer-generated art,
And a simple video game, had as much.
Ere my salad days were dwindled,
I remained a Unix programmer,
And judged Mac OSX my preferred flavor of Unix.
Later I had iPhones,
And for the first time in my life,
Owned a computer where I lacked root privilege.
Along the way I got an Apple Watch,
My desire increased as I read about it,
And vanished when I learned it were,
Bereft of such things as even a web browser.
I gave it to my brother,
Who later gave it back before it broke.
I sing a song to my Apple,
A peerless 17″ MacBook Pro,
Which through minor design flaw,
Burned through video cards oft enough,
And when the Apple Store stopped receiving those cards,
So with it went any hope of keeping my Mac without frequent $500 repairs.
And along the way,
With the sweetness of a Linux virtual machine,
Realized that OSX had grown monstrous as a version of Unix.
When I asked about one cardinally important open source project,
I were told that Apple had removed parts of the operating system,
That the project needed to run,
But information technology work in my Linux virtual machine,
Was the command line equivalent of point and click.
It were a discovery as if I had returned to Paradise.
I sing a song to Apple’s technical support,
For when I asked a question,
About command-line-driven Apache configuration,
It took escalations up to level 3 technical support,
Before a Genius knew that Macs have a command line.
I purchased a computer meant to last many years.
I sing a song to my late iPhone,
Bewailed by men who made the Mac great,
Which slipped a pocket near a food bank,
Booted my laptop into Windows and found,
That Find My iPhone was now rendered useless.
I went to see an Apple Store,
And received a followup call,
Giving a good ten days before I could access my iPhone,
And found out also that Macs were as useless,
As my computer booted into Windows,
To Find My iPhone.
Once I had one from each four,
Offerings for Apple computers:
A laptop one, an iPad one,
An iPhone one, an Apple Watch one;
And ere I were negotiating,
For to buy a replacement iPhone on eBay,
I said that there were many Android devices within my budget,
And whilst in bed realized,
I wanted full well that the negotiation fail.
Apple’s indirect gift to desktops may be Windows,
And Apple’s indirect gift to smartphones may be Android;
For surely no iPhone killer before Android even came close.
Certainly Windows Mobile answered the wrong question.
But even if one may argue, legitimately,
That a Mac and a PC have grown remarkably similar,
And iOS and Android are also more alike than different,
I was not poisoned by technical merits.
I was poisoned by the corporate mindset,
That all but killed my prospects,
Of finding my iPhone before the battery were drained completely,
And when I called my iPhone to perchance find it in my car,
I went to voicemail immediately:
My iPhone’s battery wert already dead.
I had known, but not paid attention earlier,
To Steve Jobs as beyond toxic, as a boss;
Screaming and abusive,
To employees he had every reason to cherish,
And after a technical fumble,
Publicly fired an Apple technician,
At an employee motivational event.
And I believed it.
More disturbed I was,
When I read of Jobs’s spiritual practices,
Such as an Orthodox might interpret,
As opening the mind to listen,
And draw the milk of dragons.
Technology does things for us,
Though I have found that when I shared my iOS devices with children,
Squabble and squabble ensued.
Technology does things for us,
But this Trojan horse does things for devils also,
Who cannot give exquisitely beneficial gifts,
Even wert they to try.
The power of devils is real but limited:
Such teaches the Philokalia,
Which though it be filled with love of the beautiful,
Says more about the operations and activities of devils,
Than aught else that I have read.
And one thing it sayeth,
Through Orthodox Christian Tradition,
Says that devils can tell a man’s spiritual state,
And try to inject venomous thoughts in temptation,
Where men have free will, still,
The devils cannot read minds,
Even if they by ruse give one man certain thoughts,
Sting another that the thoughts are in the first man,
And behold, they speak and art deceived,
That devils can read people’s minds.
Devilish predictions are called guesses,
Which are sometimes wrong,
The devils see a man walking to journey,
And guess that he travels to visit another specific man,
But ’tis guesswork; devils can well enough be wrong.
St. Nilus’s alleged prophecies are dubious at present,
But we may not yet be in the clear.
And if the U.S. has been called “One nation under surveillance,”
Where No Such Agency has received every email,
It is now clear and open knowledge,
To those that will reflect,
That among most most Americans,
‘Every breath and step Americans take,’
Is monitored by Big Brother,
But perhaps it is not just human agencies,
That reap the information collected.
++ungood
(Did anyone besides my most reverend Archbishop mention that it used to be that you had to seek out pornography, and leave your car in front of a store with papered-over windows, and wear your trenchcoat disguise for the mission, whereas now pornography seeks you?
It is something like a water cooler that hath three faucets,
Serving cold water, hot water, and antifreeze,
And the handles perplexing in their similitude.)

VII.

The Saint turned to me and said, ‘I would remind thee of Fr. Thomas’s famous 55 maxims:

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person
    regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for
    themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and
    caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last
    breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness,
    temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s
    mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The Saint continued: ‘Wouldst thou agree that we are in a high noon of secret societies?’

I answered, ‘Of a troth.’

He asked, ‘Wouldst thou agree that those societies are corrosive?’

I answered, ‘As a rule, yes, and I wit that Orthodox are forbidden on pain of excommunication to join the Freemasons.’

He spoke again and asked me, ‘And hast thou an opinion about the assassination of JFK, whether it wert a conspiracy?’

I said, ‘A friend whose judgement I respect in matters political hath told me an opinion that there in fact was a conspiracy, and it were driven by LBJ.’

He said, ‘And hast thou spent five full minutes in worrying about either in the past year?’

I said, ‘Nay.’

He said, ‘Thou hast secular intelligence if thou canst ask if “surveillance from Hell” in an obviously figurative sense might also be “surveillance from Hell” far more literally speaking, but such intelligence as this does not help one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The devils each and every one are on a leash, and as thy priest hath said many times, every thing that happeneth to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that God hath allowed for our strengthening. Wherefore whether the devils have more information than in ages past, thou wert still best to live:

Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.

Song VIII.

A Hymn to Arrogance.

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
‘There be no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not ere were created,
The royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of peace,
And pray, a-stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the bodiless hosts,
Said but his name, “Michael,”
Which is, being interpreted,
“Who is like God?”
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
They remain to sharpen the faithful,
God useth them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

Therefore be not dismayed,
If one book of Holy Scripture state,
That the Devil incited King David to a census,
And another sayeth that God did so,
For God permitted it to happen by the Devil,
As he that heweth lifteth an axe,
And God gave to David a second opportunity,
In the holy words of Joab.
Think thou not that God and the Devil are equal,
Learnest thou enough of doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And hath neither equal nor opposite,
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared him not well.
The dragon wert as a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that wert the greatest harm,
That he saweth how to do.
The Orthodox Church knoweth well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read thou well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the devils aren’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God alloweth temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
“It is just the demons.
Pay it no mind,” came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
Wherefore be thou not arrogant towards men,
But be ever more arrogant towards devils and the Devil himself:
“Blow, and spit on him.”‘

VIII.

I told St. John, ‘I have just read the panikhida service, and it appeareth cut from the same cloth as the divine services in general.’

He said, ‘Doth that surprise thee?’

I said, ‘Perhaps it should not. But the Philokalia describes a contrast between life and death: for instance, in the image of an inn, where lodgers come for a night, bearing whatever they possess; some sleep on beds, some sleep on the floor, but come daybreak, all of them pick up their belongings and walk on hence.’

He said, ‘How readest thou that parable?’

I said, ‘In this life, some live in riches, and some in poverty, but all alike leave this life carrying only their deeds with them. The last English homily I heard, the priest quoted someone who said, “I have never seen a trailer attached to a hearse.” Which were, “You can’t take it with you,” save that terrifying tale of a monk who died with over a hundred gold pieces. (‘Twas said he was not avaricious, but merely stingy.) When he died, the community discussed what to do with his nigh incalculable sum of wealth: some suggested a building or other capital project, others some kindness to the poor. And when all was discussed, they buried all the gold with him, a costly, potent reminder to monastics that they should not want to be buried with even one gold piece. But the monk could not take the gold with him ere it were buried with him.’

The Saint told me, ‘Thou hast read part of Prayers by the Lake, in which St. Nikolai says that birth and death are an inch apart, but the ticker tape goes on forever.

‘Rememberest thou also that in the Philokalia we read that those who wish one suffering to die were like one holding a deeply confused hope hope that a doctor would break up the bed of a sick man? For our passions we take with us beyond death, which passions the body mediateth to some degree.’

I said, ‘May I comment something? Which soundeth as a boast?’

He said, ‘Speak on.’

I said, ‘I am mindful that I am mortal, and that I am the chief of sinners. But the day of my death be more real to me than my salvation, and that I be the chief of sinners eclipseth that God be merciful. I have needed the reminder of the core promise in For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thus there be twain of deep pairs, and I have of the twain grasped each one the lesser alone.’

He said, ‘Hast thou not been astonished at God’s perfect Providence of years betimes?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘What thou sayest resoundeth not as boasting in my ears, but many people have wished for the remembrance of death and not reached it, no, not in monasticism even.’

I asked, ‘Will I reach monasticism?’

He smiled at me, and said, ‘Whither askest thou the future? It is wondrous.’

He said, ‘Remembrance of death doeth not to drain life. It is a reminder that life is not a dress rehearsal: or rather that it is a dress rehearsal, and our performance in this rehearsal determineth what we will meet the Resurrection having rehearsed.

‘With death cometh a realization of, “I shall not pass this wise again.”

‘Such death as we have giveth life a significance eternal in its import. For thou knowest that all ye in the Church Militant stand as it were in an arena before God and His Christ, before all the saints and angels and even devils, as God’s champions summoned to vindicate God as St. Job the Much-Suffering and others vindicate God. And whereinever thou triumphest, Christ triumpheth in thee.

‘Knowest thou not that the saints who have run the race and be adorned with an imperishable and incorruptible crown stand about all ye, the Church Triumphant cheering on the Church Militant until every last one hath crossed the finish line in triumph?

‘Knowest thou not that every saint and angel, the Mother of God and Christ enthroned on high, all cheer ye who still run the course, each and every one?

‘The times preceding the Second Coming of Christ are not only apocalyptic; they are the very thing which giveth the term “apocalyptic” its meaning in thy day. And they be trials and tribulations which perhaps will happen in ages later on, and perhaps may already be begun. But in the end Christ will triumph, and all alike who are faithful. And if thou art alive for the Second Coming of Christ, or if not, God hath provided and will provide a way for thee. Be thou faithful, and remember, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”‘

I said, ‘I should like to know where God will lead me. I can guess promises of good, but I am happier at least leaving a vessel open for God to fill.’

The Saint’s face began to glow, and he said, ‘In my day, I said something you may have met in the Reformers: that the age of miracles was no more, or in crasser tongue, “God wrote the book and retired.” So I called “opening the eyes of the blind” to be cleansing eyes from lust, which wert a fair claim in any case, and in particular if there miracles are no more. Thou, it seemeth, art in another age of miracles, or perhaps the age of miracles has never stopped from before the Nativity of Christ, but hath merely hid from time to time. Thou knowest thyself not to be the Orthodox Church’s fourth Theologian, but thou hast known some beginnings of theology already, and hath seen more miracles in thine earthly pilgrimage than have I. I perchance engaged in rhetorical discourse about God, and never on earth saw the Uncreated Light. Thou hast seen icons like and thou hast also seen a photograph of inside an altar, where paten and chalice glowed purest white, and unlike mine own self, thou hast been anointed with more than one miraculous oil, dear Christos…’

Then he bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before me, and his face glowed brightly, brightly, ten thousand times brighter than the sun and yet hurt not my mortal eyes, and he asked of me, ‘Friend, wherewith askest thou the future? It is wondrous.’

Then there was a scintillating flash of light, beyond intense, and the Saint was gone.

I wept until I realized I was the happiest I had been in my life.

Song 1: The Author’s Complaint

The Gospel was new,
When one saint covered his ears,
And said, “Good God!
That you have allowed me,
To live at such a time!

Jihadists do not act in a vacuum:
Atheislam welcomes conquerors,
Founded by the greatest Christian arch-heretic,
Who uprooted Incarnation and icons from all that was Christian,
The dragon next to whom,
Arius, the father of heretics,
Is only a worm, with no fangs.
Their “surrender” is about as far as you can get,
From, “God and the Son of God,
Became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men,
Might become Gods and the Sons of God,

Instead denying the genuine reality of man.
The wonder of holy marriage,
Is tortured and torn from limb to limb,
On the installment plan.
Technology is made a secular occult,
I was right enough to write a volume,
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And in formerly sacred halls of learning,
People teach a “theology,”
Such as one would expect of Monty Python.
And what about all the things of my life?
I still seek monasticism.
I have tried many things in life,
Sometimes meeting spectacular success,
And sometimes found doors slammed in my face.
Even in work in technology,
Though the time be an economic boom for my field,
I was still shut out or knocked out from the boom.
It wasn’t just in the Church’s teaching,
In a story as old as Cain and Abel,
Of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
Why am I spinning my wheels?
When I was fighting cancer,
I switched my academic discipline to theology.
At Cambridge and then Fordham,
I wished to form priests,
A wish that never came true.

And while I was moping about, a man appeared. He was quite short, but something in him was great enough to touch a star. He was wearing ancient garments with a golden shimmer, but the golden garments of a Patriarch were completely outclassed by his Golden Mouth, with a liquid, living golden tongue. The Greek letters Chi and Alpha were sewn upon his chest: the initials to “Christ is risen!” in Greek. I crossed myself three times, cautious about demons, and he crossed himself three times. He looked at me with blazing eyes, and said, “Child, didn’t you write, and for that matter outside of Holy Orthodoxy, a koan?”:

A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

He spoke again. “Child, repent of your own many and serious sins, not other people’s sins. Do you not know the words, first spoken by the great St. Isaac the Syrian and fully endorsed by the great St. Seraphim of Sarov, ‘Make peace with yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved?’ Or that if everyone were to repent, Heaven would come to earth?

“It looks like you have, on paper, a conviction that every human life is a life worth living, but you lack the true strength that is behind it. Have you not read my Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself? How the three youths, my son, in a decadent pagan court, did not defile themselves by eating defiled foods, but won the moral victory of not bowing to an enormous statue? And the angel gave them coolness and refreshed them with dew in external victory after they let everything else go in internal and eternal triumph?

“You can find salvation at all times and in every place. Now you know that marriage or monasticism is necessary; and out of that knowledge you went out to monasteries. You went to the grand Holy Cross Hermitage and Mount Athos itself, and you were not allowed to stay. So what? You are already a monk in God’s eyes. Keep on seeking monasticism, without ever stopping, and whether you pass away as a layman or a monk, if you have sought monasticism for the rest of your days, and seek such repentance as you can, who knows if you might appear a monk in lifelong repentance when you answer before the Dread Judgment-Seat of Christ?

“Perhaps God has given you good things that were entirely legitimate for God to give to you, but immature for you to seek for yourself. You have a scholar’s knowledge of academic theology, and an excellent foundation for fighting some heresies, but you write for the public. Can’t you imagine that this may be more than such narrow writing, with so few readers, in scholarship’s confinement? As you have been given grace to walk the long, narrow road of suffering, you are free now to sit in your parents’ splendid house, given a roof over your head when you are legally homeless, and write as much as you can?
That would be quite wrong and immature to seek, sitting under your parents’ roof and writing, as much as it would be wrong and immature to seek years’ training in academic theology and heresy without giving back one single day to the professor’s ascesis of seeking proud distinction. And there’s more. Even though this is not an issue of morality apart from ascesis, you knew the settled judgment that real publication is traditional publication and self-publication is vanity press. But without knowing, choosing, or even guessing, you were at the right place, in the right time, among the many shiftings of technology, again and again. Now, even though you don’t get any money worth mentioning from your books, you have written many creative works than you could if you were “discovered” and your creative process bogged down with the standard editorial process. You know better than to say “Wisdom is justified by her children,” about yourself instead of God, but none the less you have made an impact. But God has granted all three of these to you, even though they may have come to you unsought and unwanted.

I stood in bashful silence.

Song 2: His Despondency

The saint said,
“How’s that?
How has this man,
Become a second Rich Young Ruler?
The man who didn’t wear a watch on principle,
Even before he’d scarcely even
Heard of Holy Orthodoxy,
Wears a watch built to stand out,
Even among later Apple Watches.
He who declined a mobile phone,
Has carried out an iPhone,
A less fancy phone,
From a state program to provide,
Cell phones to those at poverty.
Up! Out! This will not do,
Not that he hath lost an item of luxury,
But when it happened, he were sad.
For the Rich Young Ruler lied,
When he said that he had kept,
All commandments from his youth,
For unless he were an idolater,
The loss of possessions itself,
Could not suffice to make him sad.
This man hath lost a cellphone.
And for that alone he grieveth.
Doesn’t he know that money doesn’t make you happy?
I wish he would remember,
The heights he has fallen from,
Even from outside the Orthodox Church.

Then the great Saint said, “But we need something bigger than mourning now. Aren’t you the man who said that we cannot achieve the Holy Grail, and not even find it: the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail? Now the Orthodox Church doesn’t trade in “idle romances” like Arthurian lengends. As late as the nineteenth century, Saint IGNATIUS (Briandhanov) gave warnings about reading just novels, which His Eminence KALLISTOS oddly gave embarrassed explanations. Today the warning should extend to quite a lot of technological entertainment. But I would still call your words to mind, and ask you to become the Holy Grail. For that matter, when you receive the Holy Mistories, you receive Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you are transformed by the supreme medicine, when you taste from the Fount of Immortality?

“You were surprised to learn, and even this outside the Orthodox Church, that when the Apostle told you to put on the whole armor of God, the armor of God was not merely armor owned by God, or armor given by God. It was in fact the armor that God himself wears to war. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the breastplace of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are God’s own armor which he wears to war.

“You are sleeping, my son and my child. Wake up! There is silver under the tarnish that makes it look like the whole thing is corroded. Take what God has bestowed, wake up, and see all the treasure God has surrounded with.”

Song 3: A Clearer Eye

Seneca the Younger said,
“We suffer more in imagination than reality,”
Quoted in today’s rediscovery of Stoicism,
Discovering that ancient philosophy,
Can speak, act and help today,
Among athletes and in the business world,
And not only antiquarians reading dusty old books.
And if this holds for a mere school of philosophy,
Now cast in the academy’s mould of distinguishing oneself,
What of the greatest philosophy, monasticism,
Whose Teacher and God are One and the Same?
I stood amazed at God,
Trying to count my blessings,
But I quickly lost count.

Then I said, “I see a lot of truth in what you say, but my fortunes haven’t been very successful. I went to Cambridge, with a strategy of passing all my classes and going for broke on my thesis. The Faculty of Divinity decided, two thirds of the way through the schoolyear, that the thesis topic I declared at the beginning of the year did not belong in Philosophy of Religion, and made me choose another dissertation topic completely. I didn’t get any credit or recognition for half my hardest work! That pales in comparison with Fordham, where I had to cope with my professor’s insecurities, and a professor I really tried to reach out to met one gesture of friendship after another with retaliation. So when that door was shut, I returned to the clumsy fit of programming, a world since taken over by Agile models which make sense but require something I cannot do: becoming an interchangeable part in a hivemind. I’ve tried to break in to User eXperience, but nothing has come together yet, and the economy isn’t helping. What can I rightly expect from where I am now?”

He said, “Why do you ask the future? It is wonderful. And why do you speak of your fortune? Truly, no man has ever had fortune. It is an impossibility.”

I sat, listening.

He continued, “When at Fordham, under incompetent medical care, you were stressed to the point of nausea for weeks on end. You did not worry about ‘Will I be graced by the noble honorific of Doctor?’ even though you wanted that too much, but, ‘Will there be a place for me?‘ So far, this has been an example of, ‘We suffer more in imagination than in reality.’ For although the unemployment you feared has caught up with you, what is its sting?

“You sought a better fit than as a web developer, and tried, and God has provided something else besides the success you imagined. So what? You have stayed with your parents, a shameful thing for a man to seek, but honorable for God to bestow if you have sought sufficiency and independence. You know that on Judgment Day we are held to the standard of due diligence and not results produced: that due diligence often gets results is simply beside the point. You are not only provided for now; you have luxuries you do not need.

“There is no such things as fortune; only an often-mysterious Providence. God cares for each and for all mankind, and for that matter over sparrows and stones, and nothing in the world escapes God’s cunning net.

“As you have quoted the Philokalia:

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvellous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

“And again:

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

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

“You have earned scores in math contests; for that matter you have ranked in scores of math contests, ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Now you have suffered various things and have been deprived of your earlier limelight. So what? God has provided for you, and if you have been fruitless in some secular matters, you still seek virtue and have borne some fruit. What is more, you grasp in part virtue that you did not know to seek when you bore the ascesis of a mathematician or a member of the Ultranet. You unendingly seek humility now. Don’t you know that even the seeking of humility is nobler than being the greatest mathematician in history?

“The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, wrote,

Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.

All these things were from Me.

“The doctors have decided that your consumption of one vital medication is excessive, and they want to bring it down to an FDA-approved level, for your safety, and for your safety they accept the consequences of your having a string of hospitalizations and declining health, and have so far taken every pain to protect you, and will do so even if their care KILLS you.

“So what? Your purity of conscience does not automatically depend in any way, shape, or form, on others’ decisions. It may be that the change in your medications is less dangerous than it appears. It is completely out of the question for you to seek your own demise: but is entirely legitimate, and entirely possible, for our God and the Author and Finisher of our faith to give you a full and complete life even if you are killed tomorrow.

“Never mind that you do not see what the Lord may provide; you have often enough been surprised with the blessings God has given you. You have written Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and you know that repentance itself eclipses the pleasure ofsin. You should also know that people who act unhelpfully, and the Devil himself, are always and everywhere used by God according to his design, by the God who works all for all.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

“Know and remember as well that happiness comes from our kingdom within. Stop chasing after external circumstances. External circumstances are but a training ground for God to build internal strengths. Don’t you know that you are a man, and as man are constituted by the image of God? Then if you are constituted as being in the divine image, why spend half your time looking to soulless and dead things to make you happy?”

Song 4: Virtue Unconquerable.

I know that my Redeemer lives,
And I shall see God with my eyes,
But what a painful road it has been,
What a gesture of friendship has met a knife in my back.
Is there gradeur in me for my fortitude?
I only think so in moments of pride,
With my grandeur only in repentance.
And the circumstances around me,
When I work, have met with a knife in the back.

The Golden-Mouthed said, “Child, I know your pains without needing you to tell me, and I have suffered more: Church politics ain’t no place for a Saint! You know how I impartially pursued justice, drove out morally incompetent leaders, and spoke boldly to the Empress. I paid with my life for the enemies I made in my service. You have a full kitchen’s worth of knives in your back: I have a department store’s worth. I know your pains from inside.

“But let us take a step back, far back.

“You and many others are particularly concerned with happiness, and if eighteenth-century documents spoke of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ now your country has taken this to the next level. Or worse.

“In another day and age such an important question would be inquired about in philosophical dialogue. So one might argue, in brief, that since true happiness is a supreme thing, and God is a supreme thing, and there can’t be two separate supreme essences, happiness and God are the same, a point which could be argued at much greater length and eloquence. And likewise how the happy man is not happy because he is propped up from without, by external circumstances, but has chosen virtue and goodness inside. And many other things.

“However, and this says a lot about today and our berzerkly grown science, in which physics’ crown jewel of superstring has abdicated from science’s bedrock of experiment, happiness is such a thing as one would naturally approach through the attempted science of psychology, because psychology is, to people of a certain bent, the only conceivable tool to best study and understand humans as such.

“One can always nitpick some detail, such as the significance of what psychology calls “flow” as optimal experience. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, outlined three versions of the good life: the Pleasant Life, which is the life of pleasure and the shallowest of the three; the Engaged Life, or the life of “flow,” called optimal experience, and the Meaningful Life, meaning in some sense the life of virtue.

“He says of the Pleasant Life that it is like vanilla ice cream: the first bite tastes delicious, but by the time you reach the fifth or sixth bite, you no longer taste it. Here is something close to the Orthododx insisting that a surplus of pleasures and luxuries, worldly honors and so on, do not make you happy. I tell you that one can be lacking in the most basic necessities and be happy: but let this slide.

“Of the Meaningful Life, it is the deepest of the three, but it is a only a first fumbling in the dark of what the Orthodox has curated in the light of day time out of mind. Things like kindness and mercy have been built into the baseline, curated since Christ or more properly hte Garden of Eden, so Orthodox have no need to add some extra practice to their faith to obtain kindness or gratitude. Honestly, the number of things the Orthodox knows about the happy Meaningful Life outstrips the Philokalia: the fountain is inexhaustible.

“But my chief concern is with the Engaged Life, the life of flow. For flow is not the “psychology of optimal experience,” or if it is, the theology of optimal experience comes from somewhere else. Flow is legitimate, and it is a wonder: but it is not, in addition to being legitimate and wonder, a good idea to prescribe to the general public.

Flow, as it occurs, is something exotic and obscure. It has been studied in virtuosos who are expert performers in many different domains. Once a practitioner of surpassing talent has something like a decade of performance, it is possible when a performer of this superb talent and training is so engrossed in a performance of whatever chosen domain, that sits pretty much at the highest level of performance that absorbs the virtuoso’s attention so completely that time flies because no attention is left to passage of time or almost any other thing of which most of us are aware when we are awake.

“It looks difficult to me to market flow for mass consumption: doing this is tantamount to calling God an elitist, and making the foundation of a happy life all but impossible for the masses. You can be a subjectivist if you like and say that genius is ten thousand hours of practice, but it is trained virtuoso talent and not seniority alone that even gets you through flow’s door. For that matter, it is also almost impossible for the lucky few to experience until they have placed years into virtuoso performance in their craft. (Many more are capable of being monastics). Monastics, those of you who are not monastics may well enough guess, have experiences which monastics consider it disastrous to share with laity. This much may be legitimate, but novices would do well not to expect a stream of uninterrupted exotic experiences, not when they start and probably not when they have long since taken monastic vows. A novice who sees things in terms of “drudgework” would do well to expect nothing but what the West calls “drudgework” for a long, long time. (And if all goes well and you get along far enough that the drudgework is diluted by more responsible obediences, you will at first lament the change!)

“There is still a striking similarity between the ancient monastic obedience that was par excellence the bread and butter of monastic manual labor, and the more modern obediences. In ancient times, monks supported themselves by weaving baskets, and in modern times they craft incense. Do not say that the modern obedience is nobler: if anything it is a temptation, and maybe it’s better to have the humbler obedience.

“But basketweaving and making incense are both repetitive manual labor. There are, of course, any number of other manual obediences in a monastery today. However, when monasticism has its leeway, its choice seems to be in favor of a repetitive manual labor that gives the hands a regular cycle of the motion while the heart is free for the Jesus Prayer, and the mind in the heart practices a monk’s watchfulness or nipsis, an observer role that conditions you to notice and put out temptations when they are but a barely noticeable spark, rather than heedlessly letting the first spark of temptation grow until one is strongly tempted to external sin, and waiting for your whole room to be on fire before you start to put it out. This watchfulness is the best baseline for optimal experience that the Orthodox Church gives us in which to abide, and ’tis no accident that the full and unabridged title of the Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. If either of these simple manual project is unfamiliar or makes the performer back up in thought, this is a growing pain, not the intended long-term effect. And now that the jewel of the monastic Philokalia has been discovered by mainstream Orthodoxy and read by many with utmost attention, watchfulness is practiced by many people living in the world today.

“And remember how a monk advised you, perhaps in conscious echo of St. James the Brother of God who said, ‘Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.’ For you were in the dining hall with the monk and a cleaning lady, and he told the cleaning lady that she was fortunate, because her manual labor left her free to pray with her, and you, a computer programmer, at the time, were unfortunate to have work that demanded your full mental attention.

“If you can have optimal experience, with the Jesus Prayers in your heart as the metronome of silence, if your business is to weave baskets or craft incense, why couldn’t you also attend to the Jesus Prayer, rising as incense before God, by mopping a floor or cleaning windows? For however great monasticism may be, it has no monopoly in meditative work or prayer before God, and marriage is the original instrument of salvation. The door is open, if you can do some manual labor, to do so in prayer to God. Furthermore, monks are not alone permitted prayerful manual labor: monasticism is but the rudiments of the Gospel, and if monasticism perhaps seeks out a boon in prayerful manual labor, there is no sign of the door saying ‘Monastics alone.’

“Let’s say this is true, and the theology of optimum experience is virtually accepted for the sake of argument alone, or if you want, you may answer ‘Yes and amen.’ Still, the entire point is a quibble compared to the more profound matter to discuss. Let us, with good reason, set this point aside.”

Then he paused, and after a moment resumed his explanation. “If I may pull a rare note from postmodern wreckage, there is the concept of a semiotic frame, perhaps a frame that is additionally a myth, which determine’s a society’s possibles et pensables, that which is understood to be possible in a society, and that which is found, or not, to be even thinkable The analytic knife cuts well here, where we as a society wear pretty impressive blinders about both activism and society.

“Think of your feminist theology professor, who said with full force that she believed in Tradition, and in the same breath placed Arius, the father of heretics, alongside St. Athanasius as equally full representatives of that Tradition. When, in your theological anthropology class, she picked two texts for disability, the obvious agenda to her, the one and only love possible towards (in this) the disabled, was to engage some activist political advocacy for to make external conditions better in some way for that particular victim class. No expression of love was possible save more political activism. I would say, and I’m pretty sure you would say, that she was too political in her response, and not nearly political enough. (For when all is civil warfare carried on by other means, real concern for the deeper life of the city or nation all but starves.)

“One of the two reading assignments had something she couldn’t grasp. The other assignment was political ideology and/or identity politics. It was complete with the standard, footnoteless, boilerplate opening assertion that no one else in the whole wide world could possibly have suffering that could possibly compared to the suffering of one’s poor, downtrodden, miserable demographic.

“But the first text was fundamentally different. It was entitled ‘Love Without Boundaries,’ and it was a text about love written by the father of a severely autistic son. This latter text did not come close to calling for agitation or plans for a better future. Far from it! It was silent on these points. What the text did do, however, was to reflect an approach in ascesis, and learning to love without limits. The father did not and could not cure his son, but whether or not the father’s love transformed his son, the love the father expressed transformed the father. His love was cut from the same cloth as the peace with oneself which St. Isaac and St. Seraphim with one voice exhort Orthodox to acquire. The love the father expressed rendered him Godlike, in a humble, everyday, ordinary fashion.

“Much as your professor automatically jumped to a conclusion from ‘disabled people’ to ‘activist agitation’, today we jump from a conclusion from ‘need to understand the human heart’ to ‘psychology’. Yes, the psychology taught in schools, the psychology fashioning itself after hard science, the psychology that introduces itself by the physics envy declaration: psychologists-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

“It is a side point that psychologists treat subjects as less than human. A near-universal feature of psychological experiment is some stripe of guile, because psychological experimental value would be ruined under normal conditions of intelligent and informed cooperation between adult human beings. (Though the enterprise may be named “psychology,” the name itself is either clumsy or treacherous: “psyche” means “soul,” and the existence of a real, non-materialist soul is precisely what psychology will not even consider.) Psychologists running experiments act as thinking human beings: they think and make decisions. The people they study are governed by laws. Furthermore, since physics originally did quite a lot of work to de-anthropomorphize Nature, psychology tries to follow suit by offering a de-anthropomorphized picture of anthropos, humans.

“It has been noticed, as psychology reinvents more of religions, that classical psychology can take a person who is mentally ill to reach a normal state, but nothing better. Positive psychology tries to move beyond what preachers have called ‘a theology of sin management,’ and push to enhance excellence and well-being, and develop gifts. Meanwhile, for over a millenium, monasticism has been at one stroke a hospital for penitent sinners and an academy for ever-reaching excellence.

“The main point is that understanding how people work neither begins nor ends with psychology, a discipline that has blinded itself to our being made in the image of God. All the great Christian doctrines are untranslatable on psychology’s secular terms. The article version of your advisor’s thesis is subtitled, ‘From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,’ and it discusses the formation of psychology as an emergent secular realms which displaced older candidates. However, in the West before psychology began to come together, there were religious and pastoral paradigms for understanding the human person, and you know that one of the first technical terms Orthodoxy asks its converts to learn is ‘passion.’ If the passions your advisor discussed are not point-for-point identical to the passions repented of in Orthodoxy, they are still far closer than any of the multiple emergent framings and meanings of ’emotion’ as pushed for in the formation of psychology as a discipline.

“That there may be a common term for psychology today, and more dubiously a term for what that common term replaced, doesn’t really matter that much. The term ‘pneumatology’ may have existed and named practitioners from an older tradition; but these were under religious auspices. The study and field of communication is relatively new among major academic disciplines, but it would be quite strange to deny that people communicated, and tried to communicate, before the day that universities now tended to have a door heralding, ‘Department of Communication.’

“And what has psychology done since being established as a secular arena? Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land gets on very quickly to utterly dismissing marriage. But no sooner does Michael stop flailing marriage’s lifeless corpse, but he senses that he has made a great gaping hole, and builds up a bond of water brotherhood that is meant to be every bit as heroic, beautiful, and magnificent, so that the only way really remaining to make water brotherhood truly more wonderful and amazing is to enlarge it until it becomes true marriage.

“While psychology is secular, its complete form offers an ersatz religion that, though it is meant to be value-free, provides a secular mystical theology. That this secular religion, fit for all religions and patients, uses guided imagery allegedly from some generic copy-paste of Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American traditions, and may go back to Greco-Roman times; mindfulness from Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path; and yoga from Hinduism, is but an illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s observation: the person who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing; the person who does not believe in God believes anything. But let us put this aside and take psychology’s claim of secularity at face value. The Philokalia is scarcely anything but a library of collected works about how to rightly live the inner life. It is not in the main concerned narrowly with pleasure or joy: but it has an infinite amount to say about sins that are all, in the end, ways to taste Hell. Psychology does not trade in temptation, sin, or passion: but it too offers a rudder for your inner life, and if it does not talk about cleansing the soul from moral stains, it has quite an impressive battleplan to not be conquered by negative emotion. Alcoholics Anonymous has reclaimed or reinvented quite a lot.

“And if I can put in a word about TED talks, there is probably a TED talk to be made, ‘The Trouble with TED,’ for they exacerbate this. You know well enough that one talk gave the staggering announcement that after decades of each generation having higher self-esteem than the last, and then the lamented finding that by consequence we, and our youth, have reached record levels of narcissism. She might well enough have announced that if you spray fuel around and throw lighted matches into the fuel, sooner or sooner you will be surrounded by fire.

“She talked about it being soothing to place your hand over your heart. Honestly! This is just another way of, how can I put this delicately, ‘making love without a partner.’ Not a word was whispered about affectionate touch to another person, or for that matter a pet; the remedy did not step an inch away from solipsism. You know that monks are admonished to refrain from embraces; however, it is better for a monk to embrace another than to embrace himself.”

I said, “What is the trouble with TED? For I sense something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

His All Holiness answered me and said, “All world religions have grandeur, and for a secular analysis all world religions represent a way that a society can live together and persevere. Hinduism is not the sort of thing one uses up, whether across years, lifetimes, or even centuries. Its paths are millenia old, and to destroy it would likely take something like a nuclear war or an apocalyptic event. By contrast, remember how you said, ‘No form of feminism that has yet emerged is stable:’ it’s very easy to meet the force of body image feminism today, while it would scarcely be live in the academy in fifty years. Your friend answered this remark with a nominal exception in what is called ‘Christian feminism,’ which articulates how traditional Christianity cares for, and seeks, the good of women: for an example, it takes politically incorrect words about husbands and wives and offers the breathtaking change of addressing women as moral agents, and never telling husbands to keep their wives in line. That is, if anything, the exception that proves the rule! It might externally be called feminism, but its core is much slower to decay than any feminism at all, because it is not feminism at all. In your feminist theology class one autho said that in feminist theology, “all the central terms are up for grabs.” Meanwile, remember your boss at the bookstore. He commented that books of liberal theology have a shelf life; after a few years a title becomes hard to sell. However, his shop published three hundred year old Puritan sermons and sold them on an ongoing basis. You might concerned about whether they are heterodox, but don’t worry about them going out of fashion, or if they do go out of fashion, it will not be because the Puritan sermons lost their appeal to future Protestants seeking Biblical faith, but something else wound up changing features of Protestant Christianity that have survived intact since the Reformation.

“You do not need to refute TED talks; a few years and a given talk will probably have fallen out of fashion. There is something in the structure of TED that is liberal, even if many talks say nothing political. There more to say than that they are self-contained, controlled, plastic things, where world religions are something organic that may or may not have a central prophet, but never have a central social engineer. TED is a sort of evolving, synthetic religion, and spiritual tofu cannot truly fill true spiritual hunger.

“Let’s get back to psychology, or better, take a look at psychology and TED talks, for psychology has for ages hoped for a Newton who the Promised Land’s full status of being scientists. The study of Rocks and Nothing is the exemplar after which to pattern the study of Man. Really! The problems in psychology are not so much where psychology has failed to understand humanity on the example of empirical science. The real concerns are for where they have succeeded.

“In a forum discussion you read, one conversation crystallized on proper care for diabetes. The central lesson from the discussion is that if you have diabetes, you don’t want a book-smart nurse. You want a diabetic nurse. In psychology, along with other disciplines, a sufficiently skilled practitioner can pick up a book about part of the subject he does not yet understand, and understand well enough what there is to understood. Understanding was never nursed on the foundation of direct experience, and here understanding is malnourished.

“However, the Orthodox Church with monasticism as its heart has a deeper, more true empiricism as its spine; you know things with the same kind of ‘knowing’ by which Adam knew Eve. All else is rumor and idle talk. If there are qualifications to being a spiritual father, one of the most important qualifications must be that he speaks and acts out of first-hand encounter and first-hand knowledge, and not that he learned by rumor and distortion. Do you want to be healed by a spiritual physician? Then look for a man who will care for you as a diabetic nurse.”

Song 5: O Holy Mother!

O Holy Mother! Are You the Mystery?
Are you the untold Mystery?
For I have written much,
And taken great care,
In The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And looked all the while,
Down the wrong end,
Of the best telescope far and away that I could find.
I have written of mankind and creation defiled,
Yet for all of my concerns,
Of so-called “space-conquering technologies,”
Which seemed to me to be “body-conquering technologies,”
Sidestepping God-given and holy bounds,
Of our incarnate state.
Where better to seek healing,
From an occult-free simulation,
Of the unnnatural vice of magic arts,
(For there are several unnatural vices:
“Unnatural vice” is an umbrella term),
Than in the perfect creaturely response,
“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.”
Then, the gates, and even the foundations,
The foundations of Hell began crumbling.
The New Eve, the Heavenly Mother,
Of Whom Christ told the Disciple,
“Beholy thy Mother!”
In Her is the microcosm of Creation done right,
And She is the Friend and Comfort,
Of the poor and the outcast.
I can lose my money and my property,
But no one can take from me,
A Treasure vaster than the Heavens;
Perhaps I would do well,
To say little else of technologies progressively degrading humanity,
And pray an Akathist to the Theotokos,
And put a trust in Her that is proto-Antiochian,
Rather than proto-Alexandrian,
And give Her a trust in the great Story,
Not diminished at all,
If She happens not to be a teacher,
Offering such ideas as philosophers like:
Her place in the Great Story is far greater than that:
And such it is also,
With illumined teachers,
Who offer worship to God as their teaching,
And are in the pains of labor,
Until Christ be formed in their disciples.

He said, “But let us return to the pursuit of happiness, which has scathingly been called ‘the silliest idea in the history of mankind.’ And that is for a junior grade of pursuing happiness compared to today’s dose, not the clone of a systematic science which works out a combination of activities and practices, an America’s Test Kitchen for enjoying life, studying ways of manipulating oneself to maximize pleasure and happiness.

“It was several years ago that you took a Fluxx deck to play with friends, and the group included five adults and one very little boy. So the adults took turns, not just in their moves, but the player who had just played a move would pay attention to the little kiddie, so that he wouldn’t be left out socially.

“When it was your turn to care for the boy, you put him on your shoulders and walked slowly, delicately, towards the kitchen, because you wanted to go in, but you weren’t sure whether you’d end up hitting his head on the lower ceiling.

“Not long after, you realized three things. First, the boy had not bonked his head. Second, the boy was dragging his fingers on the ceiling. Third and finally, he was laughing and laughing.

“That was a source of pleasure to you far beyond the game of Fluxx, even though it was then your favorite game. And when you asked if it were time for your next move, they told me game was over.

“In the conversation afterwards, you were told a couple of things worth mentioning.

“First, and perhaps not particularly important, you happened to have given the child a pleasure that neither of his parents could offer. The boy’s father was a few inches taller than you, and if he were to try what you tried, he in fact would have hit his son’s head on the ceiling. The boy’s mother could not do this either, whether due to lack of physical strength or some other reason.

“Secondly, as a psychology major mentioned to you, it gives people joy to give real pleasure to another person, and young children are a special case. She didn’t talk about whether there is a difference between knowing you’ve given pleasure to a young child and knowing you’ve given pleasure to an adult, but she did point out that the child, who was really quite very small, was too young to act like he was having fun because he was just being polite. He was too young for convincing guile and perhaps even the most transparent of guile. That meant, whether or not you were thinking about it, that his delighted laughter could only be from unvarnished candor. So you did not have any question about, “Does he enjoy what I am doing with him, or is he just being polite?” Just being polite was off the table.

“And this is not even only true for the royal race of mankind. You still aren’t in a position to adopt a furry pet, but without compromise of any principle you visit a pet shelter near your home, and at the shelter as well, guile is off the agenda, at least for the pets. A cat can purr, or if it’s had enough and you’ve not paid attention to its swishing tell, a light nip and a swipe of the claw equally represents unvarnished candor. So you really know what is conveyed if a cat purrs and starts licking your hand.

“This is part of a larger truth, that it is better to serve than to be served, and it is better to give than to receive. What is more, the most concentrated teaching about who is truly happy is enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount, and enshrined to the next level by being chanted in the Divine Liturgy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

“The word translated, ‘blessed,’ has what would be counted as at least two meanings in English: ‘blessed,’ and ‘happy.’ Among English Bible translations, there are a few that translate the word as ‘happy.’ including Young’s Literal Translation:

Happy the poor in spirit — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness — because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers — because they shall be called Sons of God.

Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake — Rejoice ye and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

“In English this is usually, but not always, found in more free translations; the Amplified Bible naturally shines in cases like these as a deliberately unusual style of translation intended to present two or more faces of an ambiguity or a phrase that bears multiple meanings. Other languages can be different; in French, for instance, there are separate words béni and heureux which respectively mean ‘blessed’ and ‘happy,’ but heureux appears to be the term of choice in French translation of the Beatitudes.

“Here, though, is a point of contact with Plato. Plato investigated happiness, and the Greek term was almost exactly a literal equivalent to ‘in good spirits,’ but the literal sense was taken much more seriously and taken much further. It was a primary term for happiness, but what was seen as true happiness was having one’s soul in good health. This happiness would not be easily confused by counterfeit pleasures such as one can immediately procure with narcotics, and the point is not just that real-world narcotics create addiction and horrible misery. The happiness would be just as counterfeit in the pleasure of a person unhealthy in soul to take some imaginary narcotic that created intense and endless pleasure, without either the addiction or the misery that loom in the nasty backswing of real-world narcotics.

“Remember how surprised you were, when you were reading your undergraduate psychology text and saw what it said of the pleasure principle. For the pleasure principle is an artifact of bad philosophy, which perhaps notes that most of our actions bring some kind of pleasure or pleasing result, assumes and defines that every action anyone ever takes is that which is calculated to bring you the most pleasures. In more recent settings, you have listened to people saying that the only motivation anyone ever takes for any action is that it is calculated to bring them the greatest economic profit, and you repeated another’s answer, to say that several people have tried to convince you this was true, and so far as you knew, not even one of them stood to gain financial profit from convincing you this was true.

“Your textbook, like someone who tries to persuade by offering a charming smile in lieu of reasoned argument, consoled the reader that it was more a virtue than a vice to show kindnesses to others because you enjoyed the feelings it gave, and you had two answers in your thoughts. First, past the sugar-coating of ‘more a virtue than a vice’ lies an assertion that virtue is in principle impossible; and secondly, that the only theoretical possibility that you could care for the poor in order to help fellow humans was if you received absolutely no pleasure, consolation, or reward, in any stripe or dimension, to care for the poor out of a genuine motive of benefitting others and not whatever pleasures or rewards might follow. And that’s setting the price tag far too high. So you wanted to speak of a ‘pain principle’ or ‘masochism principle’ where all decisions and actions at all times by all people are whatever is calculated to bring them the greatest sufferings, alike useless to assert for any philosopher worthy of the name. It is hardly to be denied that most decisions bring some pain or have some downside on the part of the persons who make them, so a pain principle mirroring a pleasure principle is alike unprovable, and alike unfalsifiable, an untestable guess that has no place whatever in science and scarcely more a place in disciplines seeking to be established as science. It was not until later that you read a worthy and competent philosopher who wrote that the existence of pleasure and a reward does not in and of make any action which brings pleasure to be motivated solely as a means to obtain pleasure. The thought experiment was posed, that someone who gives to the poor and enjoys doing so were offered a pill that would give the full pleasure and benefits of being generous, but do nothing whatsoever for poor people’s practical needs, would in but rare cases be spurned as an empty and worthless counterfeit.

Song 6: Crossing the Great Threshold

The tale was told,
Of a child of little mind,
Who received a glittering package, a gift,
And kept the glittering pack,
Taking it with him almost everywhere.
And after a long time,
When the disposable wrapping paper,
Was quite battered and dingy,
An adult asked,
“Aren’t you going to open the package?”
The child exclaimed with joy,
Once the toy emerged from the tatters,
And squealed with you, saying,
“Oh, there’s another present!”
My Lord and my God!
Perhaps I will never open,
The Sermon on the Mount.

Then I said, “O John! O Glorious Saint John! Can you lead me on a path into The Sermon on the Mount? For I have long walked the path of self-direction, and it almost destroyed me.”

Then the Saint said to me, “Thank you, my son, for your request! I was waiting for you to ask, so that you might have the Heavenly reward for asking.

“What you are asking for is a work of years of lifetimes; let’s chase something smaller: unfolding, partly, only the first verse, which declares the poor in spirit to be blessed and happy. I will speak to you of the poverty’s riches but not humility’s heights, even though they are one and the same and true poverty contains everything that you seek in humility. Though I may call on other verses to tell what riches are in poverty, I will make no attempt to unfold these other Beatitudes, though to them which declared the blessedness of poverty that was the same thing. I also tell you, through your interests, that to be poor in spirit is to be no self-sufficient solipsist; rather, it is utterly dependent on the infinite riches of God, and that it is royal: for kings are forbidden to touch money, and in another sense all Christians and especially all monastics are forbidden to touch any wealth or possession, and grasp at things like the rich young ruler did. But poverty is the unstopping of the The Sermon on the Mount, an unstopping of virtue in which flowing fountain surpasses flowing fountain.

“Calling blessed those who are ‘poor in spirit’ extends beyond a merely bodily poverty. It is taught that true poverty extends beyond a lack of possessions, much like it is taught that the monastic vow of poverty includes the other two: for a monk abstains from the normal and God-blessed estate of holy marriage, and relinquishes claim to even his own self-will. You know that as treasure, for you want to exchange self-direction for a monastic community under the direction of an abbot.

“In the The Sermon on the Mount, poverty seems to hold a special place, for there are two passages which build most clearly poverty, and build most clearly on poverty. One commends storing treasures in Heaven and rejects storing treasures on earth; then an apparent digression about the eye as the lamp of the body, then exhortation not to worry about even tomorrow, for God knows and will care for our needs. And when you have wealth, be merciful to others, and you will be repaid many times over by your true Debtor, God.

“In fact there are not two passages and one digression, but one passage and no digression. The miniature tri-unity is harder to see in modern translations that translate something out to be more readily understood; one reads of one’s eye being ‘healthy’ or ‘sound.’ Fr. Thomas Hopko has said, before the surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness, “Be awake and attentive, fullly present where you are.” This attentiveness and full presence is the operation of an activity that is single, that neither layeth up possessions, nor defendeth them in worry, nor doubteth that God who provides will overlook you in His care. All of this dissipates an eye that is single. Poverty of spirit makes for singleness of eye, and a singleness destroyed by so many of the technologies you trade in.

“It has been considered from ancient times that if you give to the poor, God is your Debtor, and under what you would consider third world living conditions, I told married Christians to leave brothers and sisters to their children instead of things. This too is poverty of spirit, even if it belongs only in marriage, in a setting monks renounce. You have read those who do not ask, ‘Can I afford what I need?’ but ‘Do I need what I can afford?’

“It is monastic poverty that monastics do not defend themselves, not only by force, but even with words, showing the power that terrified Pontius Pilate. It is monastic poverty of spirit not to have plans nor, in the modern sense, an identity. For in ancient times Christians who were martyred, answered when asked their names, nothing other than ‘Christian.’ Beyond this, further layers yet beckon. Poverty is not an absence of treasures; it is a positive, active thing that slices sharper than any two-edged sword. And monks who renounce property have much more to say than a mere, ‘Good riddance!’ The force of the rejection they give, and the freedom that is gained in letting riches go, is more like the obscene and thundering announcement: ‘I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!’

“You read a church sign that said, ‘Who is rich? The person who is content.’ And I tell you that you can purchase by poverty of spirit many times and layers more than contentment with what thou possessent now. I have not even scratched the surface of experiences of monastics who were profoundly poor in spirit, but you know there are limits to what I can rightly tell you, and you know that you are not invited to chase after experiences, but seek to repent of your sins for the rest of your life, which you recognize as monastic privilege.”

Song 7: I Sing a Song to my Apple.

Before I had even reached youth proper,
I programmed an Apple II,
In gradeschool adventure games and a 4D maze,
Simple arithmetic- and trigonometric-powered animations.
My father a computer scientist,
Who shared his joy with me,
In high school I became a Unix system administrator.
My family purchased, and still has the remains,
Of one original “fat Mac”,
So named because it had the maximum available RAM: 512k.
My calculator in high school,
On which I programmed computer-generated art,
And a simple video game, had as much.
Before my youth had dwindled,
I remained a Unix programmer,
And judged Mac OSX my preferred flavor of Unix.
Later I had iPhones,
And for the first time in my life,
Owned a computer where I lacked root privilege.
Along the way I got an Apple Watch,
My desire increased as I read about it,
And vanished when I learned it were,
Bereft of such things as even a web browser.
I gave it to my brother,
Who later gave it back to me,
Then it fell apart.
I sing a song to my Apple,
A peerless 17″ MacBook Pro,
Which through an ever-so-minor design flaw,
Burned through video cards often,
And when the Apple Store stopped stocking those cards,
So with it went any hope of keeping my Mac without frequent $500 repairs.
And along the way,
With the sweetness of a Linux virtual machine,
Realized that OSX had grown monstrous as a version of Unix.
When I asked about one cardinally important open source project,
I was told that Apple had removed parts of the OS,
That the project needed to run,
But information technology work in my Linux virtual machine,
Was the command line equivalent of point and click.
It were a discovery as if I had returned to Paradise.
I sing a song to Apple’s technical support,
For when I asked a question,
About command-line-driven Apache configuration,
It took escalations up to level 3 Technical support,
Before a Genius knew that Macs have a command line.
I purchased a computer meant to last years.
I sing a song to my late iPhone,
Bewailed by men who made the Mac great,
Which slipped out a pocket near a food bank,
Booted my laptop into Windows and found,
That Windows Find my iPhone was now rendered all but useless.
I went to see an Apple Store,
And received a followup call,
Giving a good ten days before I could access my iPhone,
And found out also that Macs were as useless,
As my Linux box booted into Windows,
To Find My iPhone.
Once I had one from each four,
Offerings for Apple computers:
A laptop one, an iPad one,
An iPhone one, an Apple Watch one;
And ere I were negotiating,
For to buy a replacement iPhone on eBay,
I said that there were many Android devices within my budget,
And while in bed that night realized,
I wanted full well that the negotiation fail.
Apple’s indirect gift to desktops may be Windows and part of Linux,
And Apple’s indirect gift to smartphones may be Android;
For surely no iPhone killer before Android,
Even came close.
Certainly Windows Mobile answered the wrong question.
But even if one may argue, legitimately,
That a Mac and a PC have grown remarkably similar,
And iOS and Android are also more alike than different to use,
I was not poisoned by technnical merits.
I was poisoned by Apple’s corporate mindset,
That all but killed my prospects,
Of finding my iPhone before the battery were drained completely.
And when I called my iPhone to perhaps find it in my car,
I went to voicemail immediately:
My iPhone’s battery was already dead.
I had known, but not paid attention earlier,
To Steve Jobs as beyond toxic, as a boss;
Screaming and abusive,
To employees he had every reason to cherish,
And after seeing a technical fumble,
Publicly fired an Apple technician,
At an employee motivational event,
And I believed it.
I was more disturbed,
When I read of Jobs’s spiritual practices,
Such as an Orthodox mind might interpret,
As opening the mind to listen,
And draw the milk of dragons.
Technology does things for us,
Though I have found that when I’ve shared children my iPhone or iPad,
There have been squabbles and squabbles.
But this Trojan horse does things for devils also,
Who cannot give exquisitely beneficial gifts,
Even if they were to try.
The power of demons is real but limited:
Such teaches the Philokalia,
Which though it be filled with love of the beautiful,
Says more about the activities and operations of demons,
Than anything else I have read.
And one thing it says,
Through Orthodox Christian Tradition,
Says that demons can tell a man’s spiritual state,
And try to inject venomous thoughts in temptation,
Where men have free will, still,
The demons cannot read minds,
Even if by ruse they give one monk certain thoughts,
Sting another that the thoughts are in the first man,
They talk and are deceived,
That demons can read people’s minds.
Demonic predictions are called guesses,
Which are sometimes wrong,
The demons see a man beginning to walk a journey,
And guess that he travels to visit another specific man,
But ’tis guesswork; demons can well enough be wrong.
St. Nilus’s alleged prophecies are dubious at present,
But we may not yet be in the clear.
And if the U.S. has been called “One nation under surveillance,”
Where No Such Agency has received every email,
It is now clear and open knowledge,
To those who will reflect,
That among most Americans,
“Every breath and step Americans take,”
Is monitored by Big Brother,
But perhaps it is not just human agencies,
That reap the information collected.
++ungood
(Did anyone besides my most reverend Archbishop mention that porn may always have been available, but it used to be that you had to seek out porn, and leave your car in front of a store with papered-over windows, and wear your trenchcoat disguise, while now porn seeks out you?
It is something like a water cooler that has three faucets
Serving cold water, hot water, and antifreeze,
And the handles are confusingly similar.)

The Saint turned to me and said, “I would remind you of Fr. Thomas’s famous 55 maxims:

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person
    regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for
    themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and
    caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last
    breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness,
    temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s
    mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The Saint continued, “Would you agree that we are at a high noon of secret societies?”

I answered, “Absolutely.”

He asked, “Would you agree that such societies are corrosive?”

I answered, “As a rule, yes, and I know that Orthodox are forbidden on pain of excommunication to join the Freemasons.”

He asked, “And do you have an opinion about the JFK assassination, whether it was a conspiracy?”

I said, “I accept the opinion of a friend whose judgment I respect as regards politics gave me an opinion that there in fact was a conspiracy, and it was driven by LBJ.”

He said, “And have you spent five full minutes in worrying about either in the past year?”

I said, “No, not really.”

He said, “You have secular intelligence if you can ask if ‘surveillance from Hell’ in an obviously figurative sense might also be ‘surveillance from Hell’ in a far more literal sense, but such intelligence as this does not help one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Every demon and the Devil himself is on a leash, and as your priest has said many times, everything that happens to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that God has allowed for our strengthening. So whether or not the demons have more information than in ages past, you would still be best advised to live:

Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.

Song 8: A Hymn to Arrogance

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
“There is no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not before the creation,
Of the royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of Peace,
And pray, stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the angelic warriors,
Said only his name, ‘Michael,’
Which is, translated,
‘Who is like God?’
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
The remain to sharpen the faithful;
God uses them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

So don’t be dismayed,
If one book of the Bible says,
That Satan tempted David into taking a census,
And another says God did so,
For God allowed it to happen by the Devil,
As he who chops lifts an axe,
And God gave David a second chance,
In the holy words of Joab.
Do not think that God and the Devil are equal,
Learn enough doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And can have no equal or even opposite.
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared not so well.
The dragon was like a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that was the greatest harm,
That he could see how to do.
The Orthodox Church knows well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the demons ain’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God allows temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
‘It is just the demons.
Don’t pay any attention to it,’ came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
So don’t be arrogant towards other people,
But be ever more arrogant towards demons and the Devil himself:
‘Blow, and spit on him.'”

I told St. John, “I have just read the panikhida service, and it seems to be cut from the same cloth as Church services in general.”

He said, “Does that surprise you?”

I said, “Perhaps it should not. But the Philokalia describes a contrast between life and death: for instance, in the image of an inn, where travelers come for a night, carrying whatever they have; some sleep on beds, some sleep on the floor, but when day comes, all of them pick up their belongings and resume their journey.”

He says, “How do you understand that parable?”

I said, “In this life, some live in riches, and some in poverty, but all of these leave life carrying only (Grace and) their deeds with them. The last English homily I heard, the priest quoted someone who said, ‘I have never seen a trailer attached to a hearse.’ That is, ‘You can’t take it with you,’ save that terrifying tale of a monk who died with over a hundred gold pieces. (It was said he wasn’t greedy, just remarkably stingy.) When he died, the community talked about what to do with this incredible sum of wealth: some suggested a new building or another capital project, others some great kindness to the poor. And when all was said and done, they buried the gold with him, an industrial strength reminder to monks that you don’t want to be buried with even one gold piece. But even then, the monk couldn’t take the gold with him.”

The Saint told me, “You have read part of Prayers by the Lake, in which St. Nikolai says that birth and death are an inch apart, but the ticker tape goes on forever.

“Also remember that in the Philokalia we read that those who wish one suffering to die are like someone holding a deeply confused hope that a doctor would break up the bed of a sick man? For we take our passions with us beyond death, passions which the body mediates to some degree.”

I said, “May I comment on something? Which will sound like a boast?”

He said, “Speak on.”

I said, “I know that I am mortal, and that I am the chief of sinners. But the day of my death is more real to me than my salvation, and in me the knowledge that I am the chief of sinners surpasses my knowledge that God is merciful. I have needed the reminder of the core promise in For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. So there are two deep pairs, and I have of the two properly recognized only the lesser element.”

He said, “Have you not been astonished at God’s perfect Providence in years past?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “What you have said doesn’t sound like boasting to me. Many people have wished for the remembrance of death and not reached it, not even in monasticism.”

I asked, “Will I reach monasticism?”

He smiled at me, and said, “Why do you ask the future? It is wonderful.”

He said, “Remembrance of death does not drain life. It is a reminder that life is not a dress rehearsal: or rather that is a dress rehearsal, and our performance in this rehearsal determines what we will meet the Resurrection having rehearsed.

“With death comes a realization of, ‘I shall not pass this way again.’

“Such death as we have gives an eternal significance to life in its importance. For you know that all you in the Church Militant stand in something like an arena before God and His Christ, before all the saints and angels and even devils and the Devil himself, as God’s champions summoned to justify God as St. Job the Much-Suffering and others justify God. And whatever triumph you have is Christ’s triumph in you.

“Don’t you know that the saints who have run the race and are adorned with an imperishable and incorruptible crown stand all about you, the Church Triumphant cheering on the Church Militant until every last member has crossed the finish line in triumph?

“Don’t you know that every saint and angel, the Mother of God and Christ enthroned on high, all cheer each and every one of you who are still running the race?

“The times preceding the Second Coming of Christ are not only apocalyptic; they are the very thing which gives the term ‘apocalyptic’ its meaning in your day. And there are trials and tribulations which perhaps will happen in ages later on, and perhaps may already have begun. But in the end Christ will triumph, and all alike who are faithful. And if you are alive for the Second Coming of Christ, or if not, God has provided and will provide a way for thee. Remain faithful, and remember, ‘The righteous will live by his faith.'”

I said, “I should where God will lead me. I can guess promises of good, but I am happier at least leaving a vessel open for God to fill.”

The Saint’s face began to glow, and he said, “In my day, I made a claim you may have met in the Reformers, that the age of miracles had passed: in blunt terms, ‘God wrote the book and retired.’ So I called ‘opening the eyes of the blind’ to be cleansing eyes from lust, which was a fair claim in any case, and particular if there are no more miracles. You, it seems, are in another age of miracles, or perhaps the age of miracles has never stopped from before the Nativity of Christ, but has merely hid from time to time. You know that you are not the Orthodox Church’s fourth Theologian, but you have already known some beginnings of theology beyond the printed page, and have seen miracles in your earthly pilgrimage such as I have not. I perhaps engaged in rhetorical discourse about God, and never on earth saw the Uncreated Light. You have seen icons like me and you have also seen a photograph from inside an altar, where paten and chalice glowed purest white. Unlike me, you have been anointed with more than one miraculous oil, dear Christos…”

Then he bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before me, and his face glowed brightly, brightly, ten thousand times brighter than the sun and yet did not hurt my mortal eyes, and he asked me, “Friend, why do you ask the future? It is wonderful.”

Then there was a scintillating flash of light that was beyond intense, and the Saint was gone.

I wept until I realized that I was the happiest I had been in my life.

You might also like…

The Angelic Letters

Doxology

Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret


Yonder

Cover for Yonder

The body continued running in the polished steel corridor, a corridor without doors and windows and without any hint of how far above and below the local planet’s surface it was, if indeed it was connected with a planet. The corridor had a competition mixture of gases, gravity, temporature and pressure, and so on, and as the body had been running, lights turned on and then off so the body was at the center of a moving swathe of rather clinical light. The body was running erratically, and several times it had nearly fallen; the mind was having trouble keeping the control of the body due to the body being taxed to its limit. Then the body tripped. The mind made a few brief calculations and jacked out of the body.

The body fell, not having the mind to raise its arms to cushion the fall, and fractured bones in the face, skull, and ribs. The chest heaved in and out with each labored breath, after an exertion that would be lethal in itself. A trickle of blood oozed out from a wound. The life of the abandoned body slowly ebbed away, and the lights abruptly turned off.

It would be a while before a robot would come to clean it up and prepare the corridor for other uses.


“And without further ado,” another mind announced, “I would like to introduce the researcher who broke the record for a running body by more than 594789.34 microseconds. This body was a strictly biological body, with no cyberware besides a regulation mind-body interface, with no additional modifications. Adrenaline, for instance, came from the mind controlling the adrenal glands; it didn’t even replace the brain with a chemical minifactory. The body had a magnificent athletic physique, clean and not encumbered by any reproductive system. And I still don’t know how it kept the body alive and functioning, without external help, for the whole race. Here’s Archon.”

A sound came from a modular robot body at the center of the stage and was simultaneously transmitted over the net. “I see my cyborg utility body there; is that my Paidion wearing it? If so, I’m going to… no, wait. That would be harming my own body without having a good enough reason.” A somewhat canned chuckle swept through the crowd. “I’m impressed; I didn’t know that anyone would come if I called a physical conference, and I had no idea there were that many rental bodies within an appropriate radius.” Some of the bodies winced. “But seriously, folks, I wanted to talk and answer some of your questions about how my body broke the record. It was more than generating nerve impulses to move the body to the maximum ability. And I would like to begin by talking about why I’ve called a physical conference in the first place.

“Scientific breakthroughs aren’t scientific. When a mind solves a mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved before, it does… not something impossible, but something that you will miss if you look for something possible. It conforms itself to the problem, does everything it can to permeate itself with the problem. Look at the phenomenology and transcripts of every major mathematical problem that has been solved in the past 1.7e18 microseconds. Not one follows how one would scientifically attempt a scientific breakthrough. And somehow scientifically optimized applications of mind to problems repeat past success but never do anything new.

“What you desire so ravenously to know is how I extended the methodologies to optimize the running body and the running mind to fit a calculated whole. And the answer is simple. I didn’t.”

A mind interrupted through cyberspace. “What do you mean, you didn’t? That’s as absurd as claiming that you built the body out of software. That’s—”

Archon interrupted. “And that’s what I thought too. What I can tell you is this. When I grew and trained the body, I did nothing else. That was my body, my only body. I shut myself off from cyberspace—yes, that’s why you couldn’t get me—and did not leave a single training activity to another mind or an automatic process. I trained myself to the body as if it were a mathematics problem and tried to soak myself in it.”

A rustle swept through the crowd.

“And I don’t blame you if you think I’m a crackpot, or want to inspect me for hostile tampering. I submit to inspection. But I tried to be as close as possible to the body, and that’s it. And I shaved more than 594789.34 microseconds off the record.” Archon continued after a momentary pause. “I specifically asked for bodily presences for this meeting; call me sentimental or crackpot or trying to achieve with your bodies what I failed to achieve in that body, but I will solicit questions from those who have a body here first, and address the network after everybody present has had its chance.”

A flesh body stood up and flashed its face. “What are you going to say next? Not only that you became like a body, but that the body became like a mind?”

Archon went into private mode, filtered through and rejected 3941 responses, and said, “I have not analyzed the body to see if it contained mind-like modifications and do not see how I would go about doing such a thing.”

After several other questions, a robot said, “So what’s next?”

Archon hesitated, and said, “I don’t know.” It hesitated again, and said, “I’m probably going to make a Riemannian 5-manifold of pleasure states. I plan on adding some subtle twists so not only will it be pleasurable; minds will have a real puzzle figuring out exactly what kind of space they’re in. And I’m not telling what the manifold will be like, or even telling for sure that it will genuinely have only 5 dimensions.”

The robot said, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to do that at all.” Then the mind jacked out and the body fell over, inert.

Another voice, issuing from two standard issue cyborg bodies, said, “Has the body been preserved, and will it be available for internal examination?”

Archon heard the question, and answered it as if it were giving the question its full attention. But it could only give a token of its consciousness. The rest of its attention was on tracing the mind that had jacked out of the robot body. And it was a slippery mind. Archon was both frustrated and impressed when it found no trace.

It was skilled at stealth and tracing, having developed several methodologies for each, and something that could vanish without a trace—had the mind simply destroyed itself? That possibility bothered Archon, who continued tracing after it dismissed the assembly.

Archon looked for distractions, and finding nothing better it began trying to sound out how it might make the pleasure space. What should the topology be? The pleasures should be—Archon began looking at the kinds of pleasure, and found elegant ways to choose a vector space basis for less than four dimensions or well over eight, but why should it be a tall order to do exactly five? Archon was far from pleasure when a message came, “Not your next achievement, Archon?”

Archon thought it recognized something. “Have you tried a five dimensional pleasure manifold before? How did you know this would happen?”

“I didn’t.”

“Ployon!”

Ployon said, “It took you long enough! I’m surprised you needed the help.”

Ployon continued, “And since there aren’t going to be too many people taking you seriously—”

Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.

Ployon failed to acknowledge the interruption. “—from now on, I thought you could use all the help you could get.”

Archon sent another long stream of zeroes to Ployon.

When Ployon remained silent, Archon said, “Why did you contact me?”

Ployon said, “Since you’re going to do something interesting, I wanted to see it live.”

Archon said, “So what am I going to do?”

“I have no idea whatsoever, but I want to see it.”

“Then how do you know it is interesting?”

“You said things that would destroy your credibility, and you gave an evasive answer. It’s not every day I get to witness that.”

Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.

Ployon said, “I’m serious.”

“Then what can I do now?”

“I have no idea whatsoever, but you might take a look at what you’re evading.”

“And what am I evading?”

“Try asking yourself. Reprocess the transcripts of that lecture. Your own private transcript.”

Archon went through the file, disregarding one moment and then scanning everything else. “I find nothing.”

“What did you just disregard?”

“Just one moment where I said too much.”

“And?”

Archon reviewed that moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can describe it three ways, all contradictory. I almost did it—I almost forged a connection between mind and matter. And yet I failed. And yet somehow the body ran further, and I don’t think it was simply that I learned to control it better. What I achieved only underscored what I failed to achieve, like an optimization that needs to run for longer than the age of the universe before it starts saving time.”

Archon paused before continuing, “So I guess what I’m going to do next is try to bridge the gap between mind and matter for real. Besides the mundane relationship, I mean, forge a real connection that will bridge the chasm.”

Ployon said, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible. I don’t even understand why your method of training the body will work. You seem to have made more of a connection than has ever been done before. I’m tempted to say that when you made your presentation, you ensured that no one else will do what you did. But that’s premature and probably wrong.”

“Then what am I going to do next? How am I going to bridge that gap?”

Ployon said, “I saw something pretty interesting in what you did achieve—you know, the part where you destroyed your credibility. That’s probably more interesting than your breaking the record.”

Ployon ran through some calculations before continuing, “And at any rate, you’re trying to answer the wrong question.”

Archon said, “Am I missing the interesting question? The question of how to forge a link across the chasm between matter and spirit is—”

“Not nearly as interesting as the question of what it would mean to bridge that chasm.”

Archon stopped, reeling at the implication. “I think it’s time for me to make a story in a virtual world.”

Ployon said, “Goodbye now. You’ve got some thinking to do.”

Archon began to delve. What would the world be like if you added to it the ability for minds to connect with bodies, not simply as it had controlled his racing body, but really? What would it be like if the chasm could be bridged? It searched through speculative fiction, and read a story where minds could become bodies—which made for a very good story, but when it seriously tried to follow its philosophical assumptions, it realized that the philosophical assumptions were not the focus. It read and found several stories where the chasm could be bridged, and—

There was no chasm. Or would not be. And that meant not taking the real world and adding an ability to bridge a chasm, but a world where mind and matter were immanent. After rejecting a couple of possible worlds, Archon considered a world where there were only robots, and where each interfaced to the network as externally as to the physical world. Each mind was firmware burned into the robot’s circuits, and for some still to be worked out reason it couldn’t be transferred. Yes, this way… no. Archon got some distance into this possible world before a crawling doubt caught up to it. It hadn’t made minds and bodies connect; it’d only done a first-rate job of covering up the chasm. Maybe organic goo held promise. A world made only of slime? No, wait, that was… and then it thought—

Archon dug recursively deeper and deeper, explored, explored. It seemed to be bumping into something. Its thoughts grew strange; it calculated for billions and even trillions of microseconds, encountered something stranger than—

Something happened.

How much time had passed?

Archon said, “Ployon! Where are you?”

Ployon said, “Enjoying trying to trace your thoughts. Not much success. I’ve disconnected now.”

“Imagine a mind and a body, except that you don’t have a mind and a body, but a mind-body unity, and it—”

“Which do you mean by ‘it’? The mind or the body? You’re being careless.”

“Humor me. I’m not being careless. When I said, ‘it’, I meant both—”

Both the mind and the body? As in ‘they’?”

“Humor me. As in, ‘it.’ As in a unity that doesn’t exist in our world.”

“Um… then how do you refer to just the mind or just the body? If you don’t distinguish them…”

“You can distinguish the mind and the body, but you can never separate them. And even though you can refer to just the mind or just the body, normally you would talk about the unity. It’s not enough to usually talk about ‘they;’ you need to usually talk about ‘it.'”

“How does it connect to the network?”

“There is a kind of network, but it can’t genuinely connect to it.”

“What does it do when its body is no longer serviceable.”

“It doesn’t—I haven’t decided. But it can’t jump into something else.”

“So the mind simply functions on its own?”

“Ployon, you’re bringing in cultural baggage. You’re—”

“You’re telling me this body is a prison! Next you’re going to tell me that it can’t even upgrade the body with better parts, and that the mind is like a real mind, only it’s shut in on twenty sides. Are you describing a dystopia?”

“No. I’m describing what it means that the body is real to the mind, that it is not a mind that can use bodies but a mind-body unity. It can’t experience any pleasure it can calculate, but its body can give it pleasure. It runs races, and not only does the mind control the body—or at least influence it; the body is real enough that the mind can’t simply control it perfectly—but the body affects the mind. When I run a race, I am controlling the body, but I could be doing twenty other things as well and only have a token presence at the mind-body interface. It’s very different; there is a very real sense in which the mind is running when the body is running a race.

“Let me guess. The mind is a little robot running around a racetrack hollowed out from the body’s brain. And did you actually say, races, plural? Do they have nanotechnology that will bring a body back after its been run down? And would anyone actually want to race a body that had been patched that way?”

“No. I mean that because their bodies are part of them, they only hold races which they expect the racers to be able to live through.”

“That’s a strange fetish. Don’t they ever have a real race?”

“They have real races, real in a way that you or I could never experience. When they run, they aren’t simply manipulating something foreign to the psyche. They experience pleasures they only experience running.”

“Are you saying they only allow them to experience certain pleasures while running?”

“No. They—”

“Then why don’t they allow the pleasures at other times? That’s a stranger fetish than—”

“Because they can’t. Their bodies produce certain pleasures in their minds when they’re running, and they don’t generate these pleasures unless the body is active.”

“That raises a number of problems. It sounds like you’re saying the body has a second mind, because it would take a mind to choose to let the ‘real’ mind experience pleasure. It—”

Archon said, “You’re slipping our chasm between the body and mind back in, and it’s a chasm that doesn’t exist. The body produces pleasure the mind can’t produce by itself, and that is only one of a thousand things that makes the race more real than them for us. Think about the achievements you yourself made when you memorized the map of the galaxy. Even if that was a straightforward achievement, that’s something you yourself did, not something you caused an external memory bank to do. Winning a race is as real for that mind-body as something it itself did as the memorization was for you. It’s something it did, not simply something the mind caused the body to do. And if you want to make a causal diagram, don’t draw something linear. In either direction. Make a reinforced web, like computing on a network.”

Ployon said, “I still don’t find it convincing.”

Archon paused. “Ok, let’s put that in the background. Let me approach that on a different scale. Time is more real. And no—this is not because they measure time more precisely. Their bodies are mortal, and this means that the community of mind-body unities is always changing, like a succession of liquids flowing through a pipe. And that means that it makes a difference where you are in time.”

Archon continued. “I could say that their timeline is dynamic in a way that ours is not. There is a big change going on, a different liquid starting to flow through the pipe. It is the middle age, when a new order of society is being established and the old order is following away.”

Ployon said, “So what’s the old technology, and what’s the new one?”

“It’s deeper than that. Technological society is appearing. The old age is not an abandoned technology. It is organic life, and it is revealing itself as it is disintegrating.”

“So cyborgs have—”

“There are no cyborgs, or very few.”

“And let me guess. They’re all cybernetic enhancements to originally biological things.”

“It’s beyond that. Cybernetic replacements are only used to remedy weak bodies.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler to cull the—”

“The question of ‘simpler’ is irrelevant. Few of them even believe in culling their own kind. Most believe that it is—’inexpedient’ isn’t quite right—to destroy almost any body, and it’s even more inadvisable to destroy one that is weak.”

“In the whole network, why?”

“I’m still working that out. The easiest part to explain has to do with their being mind-body unities. When you do something to a body, you’re not just doing it to that body. You’re doing it to part of a pair that interpenetrates in the most intimate fashion. What you do to the body you do to the mind. It’s not just forcibly causing a mind to jack out of a body; it’s transferring the mind to a single processor and then severing the processor from the network.”

“But who would… I can start to see how real their bodies would be to them, and I am starting to be amazed. What else is real to them?”

“I said earlier that most of them are hesitant to cull the weak, that they view it as inexpedient. But efficiency has nothing to do with it. It’s connected to—it might in fact be more efficient, but there is something so much bigger than efficiency—”

Ployon cut it off. “Bigger than efficiency?”

Archon said, “There is something that is real to them that is not real to us that I am having trouble grasping myself. For want of a more proper label, I’ll call it the ‘organic’.”

“Let’s stop a minute. I’ll give you a point for how things would be different if we were limited to one body, but you’re hinting at something you want to call ‘organic’, which is very poorly defined, and your explanations seem to be strange when they are not simply hazy. Isn’t this a red flag?”

“Where have you seen that red flag before?”

“When people were wildly wrong but refused to admit it.”

“And?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

Archon was silent.

Ployon said, “And sometimes it happens when a researcher is on to something big… oh… so what exactly is this nexus of the ‘organic’?”

“I can’t tell you. At least, not directly. The mind-body unities are all connected to a vast (to them) biological network in which each has a physical place—”

That’s original! Come on; everybody’s trivia archive includes the fact that all consciousness comes out of a specific subnet of physical processors, or some substitute for that computing machinery. I can probably zero in on where you’re—hey! Stop jumping around from subnet to subnet—can I take that as an acknowledgment that I can find your location? I—”

“The location is not part of a trivia encyclopedia for them. It’s something as inescapable as the flow of time—”

“Would you like me to jump into a virtual metaphysics where time doesn’t flow?”

“—correction, more inescapable than the flow of time, and it has a million implications for the shape of life. Under the old order, the unities could connect only with other unities which had bodies in similar places—”

“So, not only is their ‘network’ a bunch of slime, but when they look for company they have to choose from the trillion or however many other unities whose bodies are on the same node?”

“Their communities are brilliant in a way we can never understand; they have infinitesmally less potential partners available.

“You mean their associations are forced on them.”

“To adapt one of their sayings, in our network you connect with the minds you like; in their network you like the people you connect with. That collapses a rich and deeper maxim, but what is flattened out is more organic than you could imagine.”

“And I suppose that in a way that is very deep, but you conveniently have trouble describing, their associations are greater.”

“We are fortunate to have found a way to link in our shared tastes. And we will disassociate when our tastes diverge—”

“And shared tastes have nothing to do with them? That’s—”

“Shared tastes are big, but there is something else bigger. A great deal of the process of making unities into proper unities means making their minds something you can connect with.”

Their minds? Don’t you mean the minds?”

“That locution captures something that—they are not minds that have a body as sattelite. One can say, ‘their‘ minds because they are mind-body unities. They become greater—in a way that we do not—by needing to be in association with people they could not choose.”

“Pretty convenient how every time having a mind linked to a body means a limitation, that limitation makes them better.”

“If you chose to look at it, you would find a clue there. But you don’t find it strange when the best game players prosper within the limits of the game. What would game play be if players could do anything they wanted?”

“You’ve made a point.”

“As I was going to say, their minds develop a beauty, strength, and discipline that we never have occasion to develop.”

“Can you show me this beauty?”

“Here’s a concrete illustration. One thing they do is take organisms which have been modified from their biological environment, and keep them in the artificial environments which you’d say they keep their bodies in. They—”

“So even though they’re stuck with biological slime, they’re trying to escape it and at least pretend it’s not biological? That sounds sensible.”

“Um, you may have a point, but that isn’t where I was hoping to go. Um… While killing another unity is something they really try to avoid, these modified organisms enjoy no such protection. And yet—”

“What do they use them for? Do the enhancements make them surrogate industrial robots? Are they kept as emergency rations?”

“The modifications aren’t what you’d consider enhancements; most of them couldn’t even survive in their feral ancestors’ environments, and they’re not really suited to the environments they live in. Some turn out to serve some ‘useful’ purpose… but that’s a side benefit, irrelevant to what I’m trying to let you see. And they’re almost never used as food.”

“Then what’s the real reason? They must consume resources. Surely they must be used for something. What do they do with them?”

“I’m not sure how to explain this…”

“Be blunt.”

“It won’t sting, but it could lead to confusion that would take a long time to untangle.”

“Ok…”

“They sense the organisms with their cameras, I mean eyes, and with the boundaries of their bodies, and maybe talk to them.”

“Do the organisms give good advice?”

“They don’t have sophisticated enough minds for that.”

“Ok, so what else is there?”

“About all else is that they do physical activities for the organisms’ benefit.”

“Ok. And what’s the real reason they keep them? There’s got to be something pragmatic.”

“That’s related to why I brought it up. It has something to do with the organic, something big, but I can’t explain it.”

“It seems like you can only explain a small part of the organic in terms of our world, and the part you can explain isn’t very interesting.”

“That’s like saying that when a three-dimensional solid intersects a plane in two dimensions, the only part that can be detected in the plane is a two-dimensional cross-section (the three-dimensional doesn’t fit in their frame of reference) so “three-dimensional” must not refer to anything real. The reason you can’t make sense of the world I’m describing in terms of our world is because it contains real things that are utterly alien to us.”

“Like what? Name one we haven’t discussed.”

“Seeing the trouble I had with the one concept, the organic, I’m not going to take on two at once.”

“So the reason these unities keep organisms is so abstract and convoluted that it takes a top-flight mind to begin to grapple with.”

“Not all of them keep organisms, but most of them find the reason—it’s actually more of an assumption—so simple and straightforward that they would never think it was metaphysical.”

“So I’ve found something normal about them! Their minds are of such an incredibly high caliber that—”

“No. Most of their minds are simpler than yours or mine, and furthermore, the ability to deal with abstractions doesn’t enter the picture from their perspective.”

“I don’t know what to make of this.”

“You understand to some degree how their bodies are real in a way we can never experience, and time and space are not just ‘packaging’ to what they do. Their keeping these organisms… the failure of the obvious reasons should tell you something, like an uninteresting two-dimensional cross section of a three-dimensional solid. If the part we can understand does not justify the practice, there might be something big out of sight.”

“But what am I to make of it now?”

“Nothing now, just a placeholder. I’m trying to convey what it means to be organic.”

“Is the organic in some relation to normal technology?”

“The two aren’t independent of each other.”

“Is the organic defined by the absence of technology?”

“Yes… no… You’re deceptively close to the truth.”

“Do all unities have the same access to technology?”

“No. There are considerable differences. All have a technology of sorts, but it would take a while to explain why some of it is technology. Some of them don’t even have electronic circuits—and no, they are not at an advanced enough biotechnology level to transcend electronic circuits. But if we speak of technology we would recognize, there are major differences. Some have access to no technology; some have access to the best.”

“And the ones without access to technology are organic?”

“Yes. Even if they try to escape it, they are inescapably organic.”

“But the ones which have the best technology are the least organic.”

“Yes.”

“Then maybe it was premature to define the organic by the absence of technology, but we can at least make a spectrum between the organic and the technological.”

“Yes… no… You’re even more deceptively close to the truth. And I emphasize, ‘deceptively’. Some of the people who are most organic have the best technology—”

“So the relationship breaks down? What if we disregard outliers?”

“But the root problem is that you’re trying to define the organic with reference to technology. There is some relationship, but instead of starting with a concept of technology and using it to move towards a concept of the organic, it is better to start with the organic and move towards a concept of technology. Except that the concept of the organic doesn’t lead to a concept of technology, not as we would explore it. The center of gravity is wrong. It’s like saying that we have our thoughts so that certain processors can generate a stream of ones and zeroes. It’s backwards enough that you won’t find the truth by looking at its mirror image.”

“Ok, let me process it another way. What’s the difference between a truly organic consciousness, and the least organic consciousness on the net?”

“That’s very simple. One exists and the other doesn’t.”

“So all the… wait a minute. Are you saying that the net doesn’t have consciousness?”

“Excellent. You got that one right.”

“In the whole of cyberspace, how? How does the net organize and care for itself if it doesn’t contain consciousness?”

“It is not exactly true to say that they do have a net, and it is not exactly true to say that they do not have a net. What net they have, began as a way to connect mind-body unities—without any cyberware, I might add.”

“Then how do they jack in?”

“They ‘jack in’ through hardware that generates stimulation for their sensory organs, and that they can manipulate so as to put data into machines.”

“How does it maintain itself?”

“It doesn’t and it can’t. It’s maintained by mind-body unities.”

“That sounds like a network designed by minds that hate technology. Is the network some kind of joke? Or at least intentionally ironic? Or designed by people who hate technology and wanted to have as anti-technological of a network as they can?”

“No; the unities who designed it, and most of those using it, want as sophisticated technological access as they can have.”

“Why? Next you’re going to tell me that the network is not one single network, but a hodge podge of other things that have been retraoctively reinterpreted as network technology and pressed into service.”

“That’s also true. But the reason I was mentioning this is that the network is shaped by the shadow of the organic.”

“So the organic is about doing things as badly as you can?”

“No.”

“Does it make minds incompetent?”

“No. Ployon, remember the last time you made a robot body for a race—and won. How well would that body have done if you tried to make it work as a factory?”

“Atrocious, because it was optimized for—are you saying that the designers were trying to optimize the network as something other than a network?”

“No; I’m saying that the organic was so deep in them that unities who could not care less for the organic, and were trying to think purely in terms of technology, still created with a thick organic accent.”

“So this was their best attempt at letting minds disappear into cyberspace?”

“At least originally, no, although that is becoming true. The network was part of what they would consider ‘space-conquering tools.’ Meaning, although not all of them thought in these terms, tools that would destroy the reality of place for them. The term ‘space-conquering tools’ was more apt than they realized, at least more apt than they realized consciously; one recalls their saying, ‘You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.'”

“What does ‘eternity’ mean?”

“I really don’t want to get into that now. Superficially it means that there is something else that relativizes time, but if you look at it closely, you will see that it can’t mean that we should escape time. The space-conquering tools in a very real sense conquered space, by making it less real. Before space-conquering tools, if you wanted to communicate with another unity, you had to somehow reach that unity’s body. The position in space of that body, and therefore the body and space, were something you could not escape. Which is to say that the body and space were real—much more real than something you could look up. And to conquer space ultimately meant to destroy some of its reality.”

“But the way they did this betrays that something is real to them. Even if you could even forget that other minds were attached to bodies, the space-conquering tools bear a heavy imprint from something outside of the most internally consistent way to conquer space. Even as the organic is disintegrating, it marks the way in which unities flee the organic.”

“So the network was driving the organic away, at least partly.”

“It would be more accurate to say that the disintegration of the organic helped create the network. There is feedback, but you’ve got the arrow of causality pointing the wrong way.”

“Can you tell me a story?”

“Hmm… Remember the racer I mentioned earlier?”

“The mind-body unity who runs multiple races?”

“Indeed. Its favorite story runs like this—and I’ll leave in the technical language. A hungry fox saw some plump, juicy green grapes hanging from a high cable. He tried to jump and eat them, and when he realized they were out of reach, he said, ‘They were probably sour anyway!'”

“What’s a grape?”

“Let me answer roughly as it would. A grape is a nutritional bribe to an organism to carry away its seed. It’s a strategic reproductive organ.”

“What does ‘green’ mean? I know what green electromagnetic radiation is, but why is that word being applied to a reproductive organ?”

“Some objects absorb most of a spectrum of what they call light, but emit a high proportion of light at that wavelength—”

“—which, I’m sure, is taken up by their cameras and converted to information in their consciousness. But why would such a trivial observation be included?”

“That is the mechanism by which green is delivered, but not the nature of what green is. And I don’t know how to explain it, beyond saying that mechanically unities experience something from ‘green’ objects they don’t experience from anything else. It’s like a dimension, and there is something real to them I can’t explain.”

“What is a fox? Is ‘fox’ their word for a mind-body unity?”

“A fox is an organism that can move, but it is not considered a mind-body unity.”

“Let me guess at ‘hungry’. The fox needed nutrients, and the grapes would have given them.”

“The grapes would have been indigestible to the fox’s physiology, but you’ve got the right idea.”

“What separates a fox from a mind-body unity? They both seem awfully similar—they have bodily needs, and they can both talk. And, for that matter, the grape organism was employing a reproductive strategy. Does ‘organic’ mean that all organisms are recognized as mind-body unities?”

“Oh, I should have explained that. The story doesn’t work that way; most unities believe there is a big difference between killing a unity and killing most other organisms; many would kill a moving organism to be able to eat its body, and for that matter many would kill a fox and waste the food. A good many unities, and certainly this one, believes there is a vast difference between unities and other organisms. They can be quite organic while killing organisms for food. Being organic isn’t really an issue of treating other organisms just like mind-body unities.”

Archon paused for a moment. “What I was going to say is that that’s just a literary device, but I realize there is something there. The organic recognizes that there’s something in different organisms, especially moving ones, that’s closer to mind-body unities than something that’s not alive.”

“Like a computer processor?”

“That’s complex, and it would be even more complex if they really had minds on a computer. But for now I’ll say that unless they see computers through a fantasy—which many of them do—they experience computers as logic without life. And at any rate, there is a literary device that treats other things as having minds. I used it myself when saying the grape organism employed a strategy; it isn’t sentient. But their willingness to employ that literary mechanism seems to reflect both that a fox isn’t a unity and that a fox isn’t too far from being a unity. Other life is similar, but not equal.”

“What kind of cable was the grape organism on? Which part of the net was it used for?”

“That story is a survival from before the transition from organic to technological. Advanced technology focuses on information—”

“Where else would technology focus?”

“—less sophisticated technology performs manual tasks. That story was from before cables were used to carry data.”

“Then what was the cable for?”

“To support the grape organism.”

“Do they have any other technology that isn’t real?”

“Do you mean, ‘Do they have any other technology that doesn’t push the envelope and expand what can be done with technology?'”

“Yes.”

“Then your question shuts off the answer. Their technology doesn’t exist to expand what technology can do; it exists to support a community in its organic life.”

“Where’s the room for progress in that?”

“It’s a different focus. You don’t need another answer; you need another question. And, at any rate, that is how this world tells the lesson of cognitive dissonance, that we devalue what is denied to us.”

Ployon paused. “Ok; I need time to process that story—may I say, ‘digest’?”

“Certainly.”

“But one last question. Why did you refer to the fox as ‘he’? Its supposed mind was—”

“In that world, a unity is always male (‘he’) or female (‘she’). A neutered unity is extraordinarily rare, and a neutered male, a ‘eunuch’, is still called ‘he.'”

“I’m familiar enough with those details of biology, but why would such an insignificant detail—”

“Remember about being mind-body unities. And don’t think of them as bodies that would ordinarily be neutered. That’s how new unities come to be in that world, with almost no cloning and no uterine replicators—”

“They really are slime!”

“—and if you only understand the biology of it, you don’t understand it.”

“What don’t I understand?”

“You’re trying to understand a feature of language that magnifies something insignificant, and what would cause the language to do that. But you’re looking for an explanation in the wrong place. Don’t think that the bodies are the most sexual parts of them. They’re the least sexual; the minds tied to those bodies are even more different than the bodies. The fact that the language shaped by unities for a long time distinguishes ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ enough to have the difference written into ‘it’, so that ‘it’ is ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of mind-body unities.”

“Hmm… Is this another dimension to their reality that is flattened out in ours? Are their minds always thinking about that act?”

“In some cases that’s not too far from the truth. But you’re looking for the big implication in the wrong place. This would have an influence if a unity never thought about that act, and it has influence before a unity has any concept of that act.”

“Back up a bit. Different question. You said this was their way of explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t. It describes one event in which cognitive dissonance occurs. It doesn’t articulate the theory; at most the theory can be extracted from it. And worse, if one treats it as explaining cognitive dissonance, it is highly ambiguous about where the boundaries of cognitive dissonance are. One single instance is very ambiguous about what is and is not another instance. This is an extraordinarily poor method of communication!”

“It is extraordinarily good, even classic, communication for minds that interpenetrate bodies. Most of them don’t work with bare abstractions, at least not most of the time. They don’t have simply discarnate minds that have been stuck into bodies. Their minds are astute in dealing with situations that mind-body unities will find themselves in. And think about it. If you’re going to understand how they live, you’re going to have to understand some very different, enfleshed ways of thought. No, more than that, if you still see the task of understanding ways of thought, you will not understand them.”

“So these analyses do not help me in understanding your world.”

“So far as you are learning through this kind of analysis, you will not understand… but this analysis is all you have for now.”

“Are their any other stories that use an isomorphic element to this one?”

“I don’t know. I’ve gotten deep enough into this world that I don’t keep stories sorted by isomorphism class.”

“Tell me another story the way that a storyteller there would tell it; there is something in it that eludes me.”

Archon said, “Ok… The alarm clock chimed. It was a device such that few engineers alive fully understood its mechanisms, and no man could tell the full story of how it came to be, of the exotic places and activities needed to make all of its materials, or the logistics to assemble them, or the organization and infrastructure needed to bring together all the talent of those who designed, crafted, and maintained them, or any other of sundry details that would take a book to list. The man abruptly shifted from the vivid kaleidoscope of the dreaming world to being awake, and opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of sunrise colors and a room with the song of birds and the song of crickets. Outside, the grass grew, the wind blew, a busy world was waking up, and the stars continued their ordered and graceful dance. He left the slumbering form of the love of his life, showered, and stepped out with his body fresh, clean, and beautifully adorned. He stopped to kiss the fruit of their love, a boy cooing in his crib, and drove past commuters, houses, pedestrians, and jaybirds with enough stories to tell that they could fill a library to overflowing.

Archon continued, “After the majestic and ordered dance on the freeway brought him to his destination safe, unharmed, on time, and focusing on his work, he spent a day negotiating the flow of the human treasure of language, talking, listening, joking, teasing, questioning, enjoying the community of his co-workers, and cooperating to make it possible for a certain number of families to now enter the homes of their dreams. In the middle of the day he stopped to eat, nourishing a body so intricate that the state of the art in engineering could not hold a candle to his smallest cell. This done, he continued to use a spirit immeasurably greater than his body to pursue his work. Needless to say, the universe, whose physics alone is beyond our current understanding, continued to work according to all of its ordered laws and the spiritual world continued to shine. The man’s time at work passed quickly, with a pitter-patter of squirrels’ feet on the roof of their office, and before long he entered the door and passed a collection with copies of most of the greatest music produced by Western civilization—available for him to listen to, any time he pleased. The man absently kissed his wife, and stepped away, breathing the breath of God.

“‘Hi, Honey!’ she said. ‘How was your day?’

“‘Somewhat dull. Maybe something exciting will happen tomorrow.'”

Ployon said, “There’s someone I want to meet who is free now, so I’ll leave in a second… I’m not going to ask about all the technical vocabulary, but I wanted to ask: Is this story a farce? It describes a unity who has all these ludicrous resources, and then it—”

“—he—”

“—he says the most ludicrous thing.”

“What you’ve said is true. The story is not a farce.”

“But the story tells of things that are momentous.”

“I know, but people in that world do not appreciate many of these things.”

“Why? They seem to have enough access to these momentous resources.”

“Yes, they certainly do. But most of the unities are bathed in such things and do not think that they are anything worth thinking of.”

“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that is part of their greatness.”

“To them these things are just as boring as jacking into a robotically controlled factory and using the machines to assemble something.”

“I see. At least I think I see. And I really need to be going now… but one more question. What is ‘God’?”

“Please, not that. Please, any word but that. Don’t ask about that.”

“I’m not expected, and you’ve piqued my curiosity.”

“Don’t you need to be going now?”

You’ve piqued my curiosity.

Archon was silent.

Ployon was silent.

Archon said, “God is the being who made the world.”

“Ok, so you are God.”

“Yes… no. No! I am not God!

“But you created this world?”

“Not like God did. I envisioned looking in on it, but to that world, I do not exist.”

“But God exists?”

“Yes… no… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God does not exist.”

“So the world is self-contradictory? Or would it therefore be true to say that God both exists and does not exist?”

“No. Um… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God exists as it is false to say that a square is a line and it is false to say that a square is a point. God is reflected everywhere in the world: not a spot in the entire cosmos is devoid of God’s glory—”

“A couple of things. First, is this one more detail of the universe that you cannot explain but is going to have one more dimension than our world?”

“God is of higher dimension than that world.”

“So our world is, say, two dimensional, that world is three dimensional, and yet it somehow contains God, who is four dimensional?”

“God is not the next step up.”

“Then is he two steps up?”

“Um…”

“Three? Four? Fifty? Some massive power of two?”

“Do you mind if I ask you a question from that world?”

“Go ahead.”

“How many minds can be at a point in space?”

“If you mean, ‘thinking about’, there is no theoretical limit; the number is not limited in principle to two, three, or… Are you saying that God has an infinite number of dimensions?”

“You caught that quick; the question is a beautiful way of asking whether a finite or an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, in their picturesque language.”

“That question is very rational. But returning to the topic, since God has an infinite number of dimensions—”

“In a certain sense. It also captures part of the truth to say that God is a single point—”

Zero dimensions?”

“God is so great not as to need any other, not to need parts as we have. And, by the way, the world does not contain God. God contains the world.”

“I’m struggling to find a mathematical model that will accommodate all of this.”

“Why don’t you do something easier, like find an atom that will hold a planet?”

“Ok. As to the second of my couple of things, what is glory?”

“It’s like the honor that we seek, except that it is immeasurably full while our honors are hollow. As I was saying, not a place in the entire cosmos is devoid of his glory—”

“His? So God is a body?”

“That’s beside the point. Whether or not God has a body, he—”

“—it—”

“—he—”

“—it… isn’t a male life form…”

Archon said, “Ployon, what if I told you that God, without changing, could become a male unity? But you’re saying you can’t project maleness up onto God, without understanding that maleness is the shadow of something in God. You have things upside down.”

“But maleness has to do with a rather undignified method of creating organisms, laughable next to a good scientific generation center.”

“His ways are not like your ways, Ployon. Or mine.”

“Of course; this seems to be true of everything in the world.”

“But it’s even true of men in that world.”

“So men have no resemblance to God?”

“No, there’s—oh, no!”

“What?”

“Um… never mind, you’re not going to let me get out of it. I said earlier that that world is trying to make itself more like this one. Actually, I didn’t say that, but it’s related to what I said. There has been a massive movement which is related to the move from organic to what is not organic, and part of it has to do with… In our world, a symbol is arbitrary. No connection. In that world, something about a symbol is deeply connected with what it represents. And the unities, every single one, are symbols of God in a very strong sense.”

“Are they miniature copies? If God does not have parts, how do they have minds and bodies?”

“That’s not looking at it the right way. They indeed have parts, as God does not, but they aren’t a scale model of God. They’re something much more. A unity is someone whose very existence is bound up with God, who walks as a moving… I’m not sure what to use as the noun, but a moving something of God’s presence. And you cannot help or harm one of these unities without helping or harming God.”

“Is this symbol kind of a separate God?”

“The unities are not separate from God.”

“Are the unities God?”

“I don’t know how to answer that. It is a grave error for anyone to confuse himself with God. And at the same time, the entire purpose of being a unity is to receive a gift, and that gift is becoming what God is.”

“So the minds will be freed from their bodies?”

“No, some of them hope that their bodies will be deepened, transformed, become everything that their bodies are now and much more. But unities who have received this gift will always, always, have their bodies. It will be part of their glory.”

“I’m having trouble tracking with you. It seems that everything one could say about God is false.”

“That is true.”

“Think about it. What you just said is contradictory.”

“God is so great that anything one could say about God falls short of the truth as a point falls short of being a line. But that does not mean that all statements are equal. Think about the statements, ‘One is equal to infinity.’ ‘Two is equal to infinity.’ ‘Three is equal to infinity.’ and ‘Four is equal to infinity.’ All of them are false. But some come closer to the truth than others. And so you have a ladder of statements from the truest to the falsest, and when we say something is false, we don’t mean that it has no connection to the truth; we mean that it falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth, and if we say, ‘All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth,’ that falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. Our usual ways of using logic tend to break down.”

“And how does God relate to the interpenetration of mind and matter?”

“Do you see that his world, with mind and matter interpenetrating, is deeper and fuller than ours, that it has something that ours does not, and that it is so big we have trouble grasping it?”

“I see… you said that God was its creator. And… there is something about it that is just outside my grasp.”

“It’s outside my grasp too.”

“Talking about God has certainly been a mind stretcher. I would love to hear more about him.”

“Talking about God for use as a mind stretcher is like buying a piece of art because you can use its components to make rocket fuel. Some people, er, unities in that world would have a low opinion of this conversation.”

“Since God is so far from that world, I’d like to restrict our attention to relevant—”

Archon interrupted. “You misunderstood what I said. Or maybe you understood it and I could only hint at the lesser part of the truth. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”

“How would unities explain it?”

“That is complex. A great many unities do not believe in God—”

“So they don’t understand what it means to be a unity.”

“Yes. No. That is complex. There are a great many unities who vehemently deny that there is a God, or would dismiss ‘Is there a God?’ as a pointless rhetorical question, but these unities may have very deep insight into what it means to be a unity.”

“But you said, ‘You cannot understand—'”

Archon interrupted. “Yes, and it’s true. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”

Archon continued. “Ployon, there are mind-body unities who believe that they are living in our world, with mind and body absolutely separate and understandable without reference to each other. And yet if you attack their bodies, they will take it as if you had attacked their minds, as if you had hurt them. When I described the strange custom of keeping organisms around which serve no utilitarian purpose worth the trouble of keeping them, know that this custom, which relates to their world’s organic connection between mind and body, does not distinguish people who recognize that they are mind-body unities and people who believe they are minds which happen to be wrapped in bodies. Both groups do this. The tie between mind and body is too deep to expunge by believing it doesn’t exist. And there are many of them who believe God doesn’t exist, or it would be nice to know if God existed but unities could never know, or God is very different from what he in fact is, but they expunge so little of the pattern imprinted by God in the core of their being that they can understand what it means to be a unity at a very profound level, but not recognize God. But you cannot understand unities without reference to God.”

Ployon said, “Which parts of unities, and what they do, are affected by God? At what point does God enter their experience?”

“Which parts of programs, and their behaviors, are affected by the fact that they run on a computer? When does a computer begin to be relevant?”

“Touché. But why is God relevant, if it makes no difference whether you believe in him?”

“I didn’t say that it makes no difference. Earlier you may have gathered that the organic is something deeper than ways we would imagine to try to be organic. If it is possible, as it is, to slaughter moving organisms for food and still be organic, that doesn’t mean that the organic is so small it doesn’t affect such killing; it means it is probably deeper than we can imagine. And it doesn’t also mean that because one has been given a large organic capital and cannot liquidate it quickly, one’s choices do not matter. The decisions a unity faces, whether or not to have relationships with other unities that fit the timeless pattern, whether to give work too central a place in the pursuit of technology and possessions or too little a place or its proper place, things they have talked about since time immemorial and things which their philosophers have assumed went without saying—the unity has momentous choices not only about whether to invest or squander their capital, but choices that affect how they will live.”

“What about things like that custom you mentioned? I bet there are a lot of them.”

“Looking at, and sensing, the organisms they keep has a place, if they have one. And so does moving about among many non-moving organisms. And so does slowly sipping a fluid that causes a pleasant mood while the mind is temporarily impaired and loosened. And so does rotating oneself so that one’s sight is filled with clusters of moisture vapor above their planet’s surface. And some of the unities urge these things because they sense the organic has been lost, and without reference to the tradition that urges deeper goods. And yes, I know that these activities probably sound strange—”

“I do not see what rational benefit these activities would have, but I see this may be a defect with me rather than a defect with the organic—”

“Know that it is a defect with you rather than a defect with the organic.”

“—but what is this about rotating oneself?”

“As one goes out from the center of their planet, the earth—if one could move, for the earth’s core is impenetrable minerals—one would go through solid rock, then pass through the most rarefied boundary, then pass through gases briefly and be out in space. You would encounter neither subterranean passageways and buildings reaching to the center of the earth, and when you left you would find only the rarest vessel leaving the atmosphere—”

“Then where do they live?”

“At the boundary where space and planetary mass meet. All of them are priveleged to live at that meeting-place, a narrow strip or sphere rich in life. There are very few of them; it’s a select club. Not even a trillion. And the only property they have is the best—a place teeming with life that would be impossible only a quarter of the planet’s thickness above or below. A few of them build edifices reaching scant storeys into the sky; a few dig into the earth; there are so few of these that not being within a minute’s travel from literallytouching the planet’s surface is exotic. But the unities, along with the rest of the planet’s life, live in a tiny, priceless film adorned with the best resources they could ever know of.”

Ployon was stunned. It thought of the cores of planets and asteroids it had been in. It thought of the ships and stations in space. Once it had had the privelege of working from a subnet hosted within a comparatively short distance of a planet’s surface—it was a rare privilege, acquired through deft political maneuvering, and there were fewer than 130,982,539,813,209 other minds who had shared that privelege. And, basking in that luxury, it could only envy the minds which had bodies that walked on the surface. Ployon was stunned and reeling at the privilege of—

Ployon said, “How often do they travel to other planets?”

“There is only one planet so rich as to have them.”

Ployon pondered the implications. It had travelled to half the spectrum of luxurious paradises. Had it been to even one this significant? Ployon reluctantly concluded that it had not. And that was not even considering what it meant for this golden plating to teem with life. And then Ployon realized that each of the unities had a body on that surface. It reeled in awe.

Archon said, “And you’re not thinking about what it means that surface is home to the biological network, are you?”

Ployon was silent.

Archon said, “This organic biological network, in which they live and move and have their being—”

“Is God the organic?”

“Most of the things that the organic has, that are not to be found in our world, are reflections of God. But God is more. It is true that in God that they live and move and have their being, but it is truer. There is a significant minority that identifies the organic with God—”

Ployon interrupted, “—who are wrong—”

Archon interrupted, “—who are reacting against the destruction of the organic and seek the right thing in the wrong place—”

Ployon interrupted, “But how is God different from the organic?”

Archon sifted through a myriad of possible answers. “Hmm, this might be a good time for you to talk with that other mind you wanted to talk with.”

“You know, you’re good at piquing my curiosity.”

“If you’re looking for where they diverge, they don’t. Or at least, some people would say they don’t. Others who are deeply connected with God would say that the organic as we have been describing it is problematic—”

“But all unities are deeply connected with God, and disagreement is—”

“You’re right, but that isn’t where I was driving. And this relates to something messy, about disagreements when—”

“Aren’t all unities able to calculate the truth from base axioms? Why would they disagree?”

Archon paused. “There are a myriad of real, not virtual disagreements—”

Ployon interrupted, “And it is part of a deeper reality to that world that—”

Archon interrupted. “No, no, or at best indirectly. There is something fractured about that world that—”

Ployon interrupted. “—is part of a tragic beauty, yes. Each thing that is artificially constricted in that world makes it greater. I’m waiting for the explanation.”

“No. This does not make it greater.”

“Then I’m waiting for the explanation of why this one limitation does not make it greater. But back to what you said about the real and the organic—”

“The differences between God and the organic are not differences of opposite directions. You are looking in the wrong place if you are looking for contradictions. It’s more a difference like… if you knew what ‘father’ and ‘mother’ meant, male parent and female parent—”

Ployon interrupted, “—you know I have perfect details of male and female reproductive biology—”

Archon interrupted, “—and you think that if you knew the formula for something called chicken soup, you would know what the taste of chicken soup is for them—”

Ployon continued, “—so now you’re going to develop some intricate elaboration of what it means that there is only one possible ‘mother’s’ contribution, while outside of a laboratory the ‘father’s’ contribution is extraordinarily haphazard…”

Archon said, “A complete non sequitur. If you only understand reproductive biology, you do not understand what a father or mother is. Seeing as how we have no concept yet of father or mother, let us look at something that’s different enough but aligns with father/mother in an interesting enough way that… never mind.”

Archon continued, “Imagine on the one hand a virtual reality, and on the other hand the creator of that virtual reality. You don’t have to choose between moving in the virtual reality and being the creator’s guest; the way to be the creator’s guest is to move in the virtual reality and the purpose of moving in the virtual reality is being the creator’s guest. But that doesn’t mean that the creator is the virtual reality, or the virtual reality is the creator. It’s not just a philosophical error to confuse them, or else it’s a philosophical error with ramifications well outside of philosophy.”

“Why didn’t you just say that the relationship between God and the organic is creator/creation? Or that the organic is the world that was created?”

“Because the relationship is not that, or at very least not just that. And the organic is not the world—that is a philosophical error almost as serious as saying that the creator is the virtual reality, if a very different error. I fear that I have given you a simplification that is all the more untrue because of how true it is. God is in the organic, and in the world, and in each person, but not in the same way. How can I put it? If I say, ‘God is in the organic,’, it would be truer to say, ‘The organic is not devoid of God,’ because that is more ambiguous. If there were three boxes, and one contained a functional robot ‘brain’, and another contained a functional robot arm, and the third contained a non-functioning robot, it would be truer to say that each box contains something like a functioning robot than to say that each box contains a functioning robot. The ambiguity allows for being true in different ways in the different contexts, let alone something that words could not express even if we were discussing only one ‘is in’ or ‘box’.”

“Is there another way of expressing how their words would express it?”

“Their words are almost as weak as our words here.”

“So they don’t know about something this important?”

“Knowledge itself is different for them. To know something for us is to be able to analyze in a philosophical discussion. And this knowledge exists for them. But there is another root type of knowledge, a knowledge that—”

“Could you analyze the differences between the knowledge we use and the knowledge they use?”

“Yes, and it would be as useful to you as discussing biology. This knowledge is not entirely alien to us; when a mathematician ‘soaks’ in a problem, or I refused to connect with anything but the body, for a moment a chasm was crossed. But in that world the chasm doesn’t exist… wait, that’s too strong… a part of the chasm doesn’t exist. Knowing is not with the mind alone, but the whole person—”

“What part of the knowing is stored in the bones?”

“Thank you for your flippancy, but people use the metaphor of knowledge being in their bones, or drinking, for this knowing.”

“This sounds more like a physical process and some hankey-pankey that has been dignified by being called knowing. It almost sounds as if they don’t have minds.”

“They don’t.”

What?

“They don’t, at least not as we know them. The mathematical analogy I would use is that they… never mind, I don’t want to use a mathematical analogy. The computational analogy I would use is that we are elements of a computer simulation, and every now and then we break into a robot that controls the computer, and do something that transcends what elements of the computer simulation “should” be able to do. But they don’t transcend the simulation because they were never elements of the simulation in the first place—they are real bodies, or real unities. And what I’ve called ‘mind’ in them is more properly understood as ‘spirit’, which is now a meaningless word to you, but is part of them that meets God whether they are aware of it or not. Speaking philosophically is a difficult discipline that few of them can do—”

“They are starting to sound mentally feeble.”

“Yes, if you keep looking at them as an impoverished version of our world. It is hard to speak philosophically as it is hard for you to emulate a clock and do nothing else—because they need to drop out of several dimensions of their being to do it properly, and they live in those dimensions so naturally that it is an unnatural constriction for most of them to talk as if that was the only dimension of their being. And here I’ve been talking disappointingly about knowledge, making it sound more abstract than our knowing, when in fact it is much less so, and probably left you with the puzzle of how they manage to bridge gaps between mind, spirit, and body… but the difficulty of the question lies in a false setup. They are unities which experience, interact with, know all of them as united. And the knowing is deep enough that they can speculate that there’s no necessary link between their spirits and bodies, or minds and bodies, or what have you. And if I can’t explain this, I can’t explain something even more foundational, the fact that the greatest thing about God is not how inconceivably majestic he is, but how close.”

“It sounds as if—wait, I think you’ve given me a basis for a decent analysis. Let me see if I can—”

“Stop there.”

“Why?”

Archon said, “Let me tell you a little story.

Archon continued, “A philosopher, Berkeley, believed that the only real things are minds and ideas and experiences in those minds: hence a rock was equal to the sum of every mind’s impression of it. You could say that a rock existed, but what that had to mean was that there were certain sense impressions and ideas in minds, including God’s mind; it didn’t mean that there was matter outside of minds.”

“A lovely virtual metaphysics. I’ve simulated that metaphysics, and it’s enjoyable for a time.”

“Yes, but for Berkeley it meant something completely different. Berkeley was a bishop,”

“What’s a bishop?”

“I can’t explain all of that now, but part of a bishop is a leader who is responsible for a community that believes God became a man, and helping them to know God and be unities.”

“How does that reconcile with that metaphysics?”

Archon said, “Ployon, stop interrupting. He believed that they were not only compatible, but the belief that God became a man could only be preserved by his metaphysics. And he believed he was defending ‘common sense’, how most unities thought about the world.

Archon continued, “And after he wrote his theories, another man, Samuel Johnson, kicked a rock and said, ‘I refute Berkeley thus!'”

Ployon said, “Ha ha! That’s the way to score!”

“But he didn’t score. Johnson established only one thing—”

“—how to defend against Berkeley—”

“—that he didn’t understand Berkeley.”

“Yes, he did.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“But he did.”

“Ployon, only the crudest understanding of Berkeley’s ideas could mean that one could refute them by kicking a rock. Berkeley didn’t make his ideas public until he could account for the sight of someone kicking a rock, or the experience of kicking it yourself, just as well as if there were matter outside of minds.”

“I know.”

“So now that we’ve established that—”

Ployon interrupted. “I know that Berkeley’s ideas could account for kicking a rock as well as anything else. But kicking a rock is still an excellent way to refute Berkeley. If what you’ve said about this world has any coherence at all.”

What?

“Well, Berkeley’s ideas are airtight, right?”

“Ployon, there is no way they could be disproven. Not by argument, not by action.”

“So it is in principle impossible to force someone out of Berkeley’s ideas by argument.”

“Absolutely.”

“But you’re missing something. What is it you’ve been talking to me about?”

“A world where mind and matter interpenetrate, and the organic, and there are many dimensions to life—”

“And if you’re just falling further into a trap to logically argue, wouldn’t it do something fundamentally unity-like to step into another dimension?”

Archon was silent.

Ployon said, “I understand that it would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding in our world… but wouldn’t it say something equally profound in that world?”

Archon was stunned.

Ployon was silent for a long time.

Then Ployon said, “When are you going to refute Berkeley?”


Since the dawn of time, those who have walked the earth have looked up into the starry sky and wondered. They have asked, “What is the universe, and who are we?” “What are the woods?” “Where did this all come from?” “Is there life after death?” “What is the meaning of our existence?” The march of time has brought civilization, and with that, science. And science allows us to answer these age-old human questions.

That, at least, is the account of it that people draw now. But the truth is much more interesting.

Science is an ingenious mechanism to test guesses about mechanisms and behavior of the universe, and it is phenomenally powerful in that arena. Science can try to explain how the Heavens move, but it isn’t the sort of thing to explain why there are Heavens that move that way—science can also describe how the Heavens have moved and reached their present position, but not the “Why?” behind it. Science can describe how to make technology to make life more convenient, but not “What is the meaning of life?” Trying to ask science to answer “Why?” (or for that matter, “Who?” or any other truly interesting question besides “How?”) is a bit like putting a book on a scale and asking the scale, “What does this book mean?” And there are indeed some people who will accept the scale’s answer, 429.7425 grams, as the definitive answer to what the book means, and all the better because it is so precise.

But to say that much and then stop is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. Why?

Science at that point had progressed more than at any point in history, and its effects were being felt around the world. And science enjoyed both a profound prestige and a profound devotion. Many people did not know what “understanding nature” could mean besides “learning scientific descriptions of nature,” which was a bit like not knowing what “understanding your best friend” could mean besides “learning the biochemical building blocks of your friend’s body.”

All this and more is true, yet this is not the most important truth. This was the Middle Age between ancient and human society and the technological, and in fact it was the early Middle Age. People were beginning to develop real technologies, the seeds of technology we would recognize, and could in primitive fashion jack into such a network as existed then. But all of this was embraced in a society that was ancient, ancient beyond measure. As you may have guessed, it is an error to misunderstand that society as an inexplicably crude version of real technological society. It is a fundamental error.

To really understand this society, you need to understand not its technology, but the sense in which it was ancient. I will call it ‘medieval’, but you must understand that the ancient element in that society outweighs anything we would recognize.

And even this is deceptive, not because a single detail is wrong, but because it is abstract. I will tell you about certain parts in an abstract fashion, but you must understand that in this world’s thinking the concrete comes before the abstract. I will do my best to tell a story—not as they would tell one, because that would conceal as much as it would reveal, but taking their way of telling stories and adapting it so we can see what is going on.

For all of their best efforts to spoil it, all of them live on an exquisite garden in the thin film where the emptiness of space meets the barrier of rock—there is a nest, a cradle where they are held tightly, and even if some of those who are most trying to be scientific want to flee into the barren wastes of space and other planets hostile to their kind of life. And this garden itself has texture, an incredible spectrum of texture along its surface. Place is itself significant, and I cannot capture what this story would have been like had it been placed in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, or Paris in France, or Cambridge in England. What are these? I don’t know… I can say that Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge are cities, but that would leave you knowing as much as you knew 5 milliseconds before I told you. And Malaysia, France, and England are countries, and now you know little besides being able to guess that a country is somehow capable of containing a city. Which is barely more than you knew before; the fact is that there is something very different between Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge. They have different wildlife and different places with land and water, but that is not nearly so interesting as the difference in people. I could say that people learn different skills, if I wanted to be very awkward and uninformative, but… the best way of saying it is that in our world, because there is nothing keeping minds apart… In that world, people have been separate so they don’t even speak the same language. They almost have separate worlds. There is something common to all medievals, beyond what technology may bring, and people in other cities could find deep bonds with this story, but… Oh, there are many more countries than those I listed, and these countries have so many cities that you could spend your whole life travelling between cities and never see all of them. No, our world doesn’t have this wealth. Wealthy as it is, it doesn’t come close.

Petaling Jaya is a place of warm rainstorms, torrents of water falling from the sky, a place where a little stream of unscented water flows by the road, even if such a beautiful “open sewer” is not appreciated. Petaling Jaya is a place where people are less aware of time than in Cambridge or Paris and yet a place where people understand time better, because of reasons that are subtle and hard to understand. It draws people from three worlds in the grandeur that is Asia, and each of them brings treasures. The Chinese bring with them the practice of calling adults “Uncle” or “Aunt”, my father’s brother or my father’s sister or my mother’s brother or my mother’s sister, which is to say, addresses them not only by saying that there is something great about them, but they are “tied by blood”—a bond that I do not know how to explain, save to say that ancestry and origins are not the mechanism of how they came to be, or at least not just the mechanism of how they came to be. Ancestry and origins tell of the substance of who they are, and that is one more depth that cannot exist in our world with matter and mind separate. The Indians and Bumi Putras—if it is really only them, which is far from true—live a life of friendship and hospitality, which are human treasures that shine in them. What is hospitality, you ask? That is hard to answer; it seems that anything I can say will be deceptive. It means that if you have a space, and if you allow someone in that space, you serve that person, caring for every of his needs. That is a strange virtue—and it will sound stranger when I say that this is not endured as inexpedient, but something where people want to call others. Is it an economic exchange? That is beside the point; these things are at once the shadow cast by real hospitality, and at the same time the substance of hospitality itself, and you need to understand men before you can understand it. What about friendship? Here I am truly at a loss. I can only say that in the story that I am about to tell, what happens is the highest form of friendship.

Paris is, or at least has been, a place with a liquid, a drug, that temporarily causes a pleasant mood while changing behavior and muddling a person’s thoughts. But to say that misses what that liquid is, in Paris or much else. To some it is very destructive, and the drug is dangerous if it is handled improperly. But that is the hinge to something that—in our world, no pleasure is ever dangerous. You or I have experienced pleasures that these minds could scarcely dream of. We can have whatever pleasure we want at any time. And in a very real sense no pleasure means anything. But in their world, with its weaker pleasures, every pleasure is connected to something. And this liquid, this pleasure, if taken too far, destroys people—which is a hinge, a doorway to something. It means that they need to learn a self-mastery in using this liquid, and in using it many of them forge a beauty in themselves that affects all of life. And they live beautiful lives. Beautiful in many ways. They are like Norsemen of ages past, who sided with the good powers, not because the good powers were going to win, but because they wanted to side with the good powers and fight alongside them when the good powers lost and chaos ruled. It is a tragic beauty, and the tragedy is all the more real because it is unneeded, but it is beauty, and it is a beauty that could not exist if they knew the strength of good. And I have not spoken of the beauty of the language in Paris, with its melody and song, or of the artwork and statues, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, or indeed of the tapestry that makes up the city.

Cambridge is what many of them would call a “medieval” village, meaning that it has stonework that looks to its members like the ancient world’s architecture. To them this is a major difference; the ancient character of the buildings to them overwhelms the fact that they are buildings. To that medieval world, both the newest buildings and the ones they considered “medieval” had doorways, stairwells, rooms, windows, and passages. You or I would be struck by the ancient character of the oldest and newest buildings and the ancient character of the life they serve. But to these medievals, the fact that a doorway was built out of machine-made materials instead of having long ago been shaped from stone takes the door—the door—from being ancient to being a new kind of thing! And so in the quaintest way the medievals consider Cambridge a “medieval” village, not because they were all medievals, but because the ancient dimension to architecture was more ancient to them than the equally ancient ways of constructing spaces that were reflected in the “new” buildings. There was more to it than that, but…

That was not the most interesting thing about them. I know you were going to criticize me for saying that hospitality was both a human treasure and something that contributed to the uniqueness of Petaling Jaya, but I need to do the same thing again. Politeness is… how can I describe it? Cynics describe politeness as being deceit, something where you learn a bunch of standard things to do and have to use them to hide the fact that you’re offended, or bored, or want to leave, or don’t like someone. And all of that is true—and deceptive. A conversation will politely begin with one person saying, “Hi, Barbara, how are you?” And Barbara will say, “Fine, George, how are you?” “Fine!” And the exact details seem almost arbitrary between cultures. This specific interaction is, on the surface, superficial and not necessarily true: people usually say they feel fine whether or not they really feel fine at all. And so politeness can be picked apart in this fashion, as if there’s nothing else there, but there is. Saying “How are you?” opens a door, a door of concern. In one sense, what is given is very small. But if a person says, “I feel rotten,” the other person is likely to listen. Barbara might only “give” George a little bit of chatter, but if he were upset, she would comfort him; if he were physically injured, she would call an ambulance to give him medical help; if he were hungry, she might buy him something to eat. But he only wants a little chat, so she only gives him a little chat—which is not really a little thing at all, but I’m going to pretend that it’s small. Politeness stems from a concern for others, and is in actuality quite deep. The superficial “Hi, how are you?” is really not superficial at all. It is connected to a much deeper concern, and the exterior of rules is connected to a heart of concern. And Cambridge, which is a place of learning, and has buildings more ancient than what these medieval people usually see, is perhaps most significantly distinguished by its politeness.

But I have not been telling you a story. These observations may not be completely worthless, but they are still not a dynamic story. The story I’m about to tell you is not in Petaling Jaya, nor in Paris, nor in Cambridge, nor in any of thousands of other worlds. And I would like to show you what the medieval society looks like in action. And so let’s look at Peter.

Peter, after a long and arduous trek, opened the car door, got out, stretched, looked at the vast building before him, and listened as his father said, “We’ve done it! The rest should be easy, at least for today.” Then Peter smiled, and smashed his right thumb in the car door.

Then suddenly they moved—their new plan was to get to a hospital. Not much later, Peter was in the Central DuPage Hospital emergency room, watching people who came in after him be treated before him—not because they had more clout, but because they had worse injuries. The building was immense—something like one of our biological engineering centers, but instead of engineering bodies according to a mind’s specification, this used science to restore bodies that had been injured and harmed, and reduce people’s suffering. And it was incredibly primitive; at its best, it helped the bodies heal itself. But you must understand that even if these people were far wealthier than most others in their tiny garden, they had scant resources by our standard, and they made a major priority to restore people whose bodies had problems. (If you think about it, this tells something about how they view the value of each body.) Peter was a strong and healthy young man, and it had been a while since he’d been in a hospital. He was polite to the people who were helping him, even though he wished he were anywhere else.

You’re wondering why he deliberately smashed his thumb? Peter didn’t deliberately smash his thumb. He was paying attention to several other things and shoved the door close while his thumb was in its path. His body is not simply a device controlled by his mind; they interact, and his mind can’t do anything he wishes it to do—he can’t add power to it. He thinks by working with a mind that operates with real limitations and can overlook something in excitement—much like his body. If he achieves something, he doesn’t just requisition additional mental power. He struggles within the capabilities of his own mind, and that means that when he achieves something with his mind, he achieves something. Yes, in a way that you or I cannot. Not only is his body in a very real sense more real to him than any of the bodies you or I have jacked into and swapped around, but his mind is more real. I’m not sure how to explain it.

Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few calls with a network that let him connect with other minds while keeping his body intact, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb—what does ‘sympathy’ mean? It means that you share in another person’s pain and make it less—and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.

It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept the weary man from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while. What? Which part do you want explained? Pain is when the mind is troubled because the body is injured; it is a warning that the body needs to be taken care of. No, he can’t turn it off just because he thinks it’s served his purpose; again, you’re not understanding the intimate link between mind and body. And the other thing… sleep is… Their small globe orbits a little star, and it spins as it turns. At any time, part of the planet faces the star, the sun, and part faces away, and on the globe, it is as if a moving wall comes, and all is light, then another wall comes, and it is dark. The globe has a rhythm of light and dark, a rhythm of day and night, and people live in intimate attunement to this rhythm. The ancients moved about when it was light and slept when it was dark—to sleep, at its better moments, is to come fatigued and have body and mind rejuvenate themselves to awaken full of energy. The wealthier medievals have the ability to see by mechanical light, to awaken when they want and fall asleep when they want—and yet they are still attuned, profoundly attuned, to this natural cycle and all that goes with it. For that matter, Peter can stick a substance into his body that will push away the pain—and yet, for all these artificial escapes, medievals feel pain and usually take care of their bodies by heeding it, and medievals wake more or less when it is light and sleep more or less when it is dark. And they don’t think of pain as attunement to their bodies—most of them wish they couldn’t feel pain, and certainly don’t think of pain as good—nor do more than a few of them think in terms of waking and sleeping to a natural rhythm… but so much of the primeval way of being human is so difficult to dislodge for the medievals.

He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering this way and that until he found a place to eat. The pain was much duller, and he made his way to a selection of different foods—meant not only to nourish but provide a pleasant taste—and sat down at a table. There were many people about; he would not eat in a cell by himself, but at a table with others in a great hall.

A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”

A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”

Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass vessel full of carbonated water with sugar, caffeine, and assorted unnatural ingredients, and then winced in pain, spilling the fluid on the table.

Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to take earth toned objects made from the bodies of living trees (napkins), which absorbed the liquid and were then shipped to be preserved with other unwanted items. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed another glass with fluid cows had labored to create, until his wet left hand slipped and he spilled the organic fluid all over his food.

Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”

Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”

Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”

Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.

John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”

Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”

Mary said, “I’d like that.”

John said, “Um…”

Mary said, “What?”

John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”

Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”

John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”

Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”

John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”

Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.

John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”

Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”

Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”

John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.

Peter sat back and just laughed.

John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”

They left the glass roofed building and began walking around. There were vast open spaces between buildings. They went first to “Blanchard”, a building they described as “looking like a castle.” Blanchard, a tall ivory colored edifice, built of rough limestone, which overlooked a large expanse adorned with a carefully tended and living carpet, had been modelled after a building in a much older institution called Oxford, and… this is probably the time to explain certain things about this kind of organization.

You and I simply requisition skills. If I were to imagine what it would mean to educate those people—or at least give skills; the concept of ‘education’ is slightly different from either inserting skills or inserting knowledge into a mind, and I don’t have the ability to explain exactly what the distinction is here, but I will say that it is significant—then the obvious way is to simply make a virtual place on the network where people can be exposed to knowledge. And that model would become phenomenally popular within a few years; people would pursue an education that was a niche on such a network as they had, and would be achieved by weaving in these computer activities with the rest of their lives.

But this place preserved an ancient model of education, where disciples would come to live in a single place, which was in a very real sense its own universe, and meet in ancient, face-to-face community with their mentors and be shaped in more than what they know and can do. Like so many other things, it was ancient, using computers here and there and even teaching people the way of computers while avoiding what we would assume comes with computers.

But these people liked that building, as contrasted to buildings that seemed more modern, because it seemed to convey an illusion of being in another time, and let you forget that you were in a modern era.

After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the building, each secretly pretending to be in a more ancient era, and went through an expanse with a fountain in the center, listened to some music, and ignored clouds, trees, clusters of people who were sharing stories, listening, thinking, joking, and missing home, in order to come to something exotic, namely a rotating platform with a mockup of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. Happy to have seen something exotic, they ignored buildings which have a human-pleasing temperature the year round, other people excited to have seen new friends, toys which sailed through the air on the same principles as an airplane’s wings, a place where artistic pieces were being drawn into being, a vast, stonehard pavement to walk, and a spectrum of artefacts for the weaving of music.

Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at a number on a small machine he had attached to his wrist, and interpreted it to mean that it was time for the three of them to stop their leisured enjoyment of the summer night and move with discomfort and haste to one specific building—they all were supposed to go to the building called Fischer. After moving over and shifting emotionally from being relaxed and joyful to being bothered and stressed, they found that they were all on a brother and sister floor, and met their leaders.

Paul, now looking considerably more coherent than when he procured Peter’s keys, announced, “Now, for the next exercise, I’ll be passing out toothpicks. I want you to stand in two lines, guy-girl-guy-girl, and pass a lifesaver down the line. If your team passes the lifesaver to the end first, you win. Oh, and if you drop the lifesaver your team has to start over, so don’t drop it.”

People shuffled, and shortly Peter was standing in line, looking over the shoulder of a girl he didn’t know, and silently wishing he weren’t playing this game. He heard a voice say, “Go!” and then had an intermittent view of a tiny sugary torus passing down the line and the two faces close to each other trying simultaneously to get close enough to pass the lifesaver, and control the clumsy, five centimeter long toothpicks well enough to transfer the candy. Sooner than he expected the girl turned around, almost losing the lifesaver on her toothpick, and then began a miniature dance as they clumsily tried to synchronize the ends of their toothpicks. This took unpleasantly long, and Peter quickly banished a thought of “This is almost kissing! That can’t be what’s intended.” Then he turned around, trying both to rush and not to rush at the same time, and repeated the same dance with the young woman standing behind him—Mary! It was only after she turned away that Peter realized her skin had changed from its alabaster tone to pale rose.

Their team won, and there was a short break as the next game was organized. Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.

Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”

Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”

“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.

The next day Peter woke up when his machine played a hideous sound, and groggily trudged to the dining hall to eat some chemically modified grains and drink water that had been infused with traditionally roasted beans. There were pills he could have taken that would have had the effect he was looking for, but he savored the beverage, and after sitting at a table without talking, bounced around from beautiful building to beautiful building, seeing sights for the first time, and wishing he could avoid all that to just get to his advisor.

Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”

Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, an organic surface used to retain colored trails and thus keep small amounts of information inscribed so that the “real” information is encoded in a personal way. No, they don’t need to be trained to have their own watermark in this encoding.

Peter looked down at the paper for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”

The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.

Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”

Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”

Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”

Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”

The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”

Peter said, “No, what’s that?”

Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”

Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”

Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”

Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”

Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”

Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”

Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”

“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”

“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”

Peter said, “Which ones are best?”

Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”

“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”

Prof. Johnson took a small piece of paper from where it was attached to a stack with a strange adhesive that had “failed” as a solid adhesive, but provided a uniquely useful way to make paper that could be attached to a surface with a slight push and then be detached with a gentle pull, remarkably enough without damage to the paper or the surface. He began to think, and flip through a book, using a technology thousands of years old at its heart. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson restrained himself from launching into a discussion of the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”

Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”

“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”

“Magazines and newspapers.”

“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”

“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”

Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”

“That sounds interesting. What else?”

“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”

“Could I do both?”

“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”

“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”

Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”

Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”

Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat, a movable support that met the contours of his body. Violating convention somewhat, he had a chair for Peter that was as pleasant to rest in as his own. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”

Peter said, “What?”

“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”

“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”

“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”

Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”

Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”

Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”

Prof. Johnson said, “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be free of them.” He spoke with the same simplistic assurance of artificial intelligence researchers who, seeing the power of computers and recognizing how simple certain cognitive feats are for humans, assumed that it was only a matter of time that artificial intelligence would “bridge the gap”—failing to recognize the tar pit of the peaks of intelligence that seem so deceptively simple and easy to human phenomenology. For computers could often defeat the best human players at chess—as computerlike a human skill as one might reasonably find—but deciphering the language of a children’s book or walking through an unfamiliar room, so easy to humans, seemed more difficult for computers the more advanced research began. Some researchers believed that the artificial intelligence project had uncovered the non-obvious significance of a plethora of things humans take for granted—but the majority still believed that what seemed trivial for humans must be the sort of thinking a computer can do, because there is no other kind of thinking… and an isomorphic simplicity, an apparent and deceptive simplicity much like this one, made it seem as if ideas were all that really mattered: not all that existed, but all that had an important influence. Prof. Johnson did not consciously understand how the Enlightenment worldview—or, more accurately, the Enlightenment—created the possibility of seeing worldviews that way, nor did he see how strange the idea of crafting one’s own worldview would seem to pre-Enlightenment Christians. He did not realize that his own kindness towards Peter was not simply because he agreed with certain beliefs, but because of a deep and many-faceted way in which he had walked for decades, and walked well. It was with perfect simplicity that he took this way for granted, as artificial intelligence researchers took for granted all the things which humans did so well they seemed to come naturally, and framed worldviewish thought as carrying with it everything he assumed from his way.

Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”

Prof. Johnson looked over a document that was the writeup of a sort of game, in which one had a number of different rooms that were of certain sizes, and certain classes had requirements about what kind of room they needed for how long, and the solution involved not only solving the mathematical puzzle, but meeting with teachers and caring for their concerns, longstanding patterns, and a variety of human dimensions derisively labelled as “political.” Prof. Johnson held in his hands the schedule with the official solution for that problem, and guided Peter to an allowable choice of class sections, taking several different actions that were considered “boring paperwork.”

Prof. Johnson said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”

Peter walked out, completely relaxed.

The next activity, besides nourishing himself with lunch (and eating, sleeping, and many other activities form a gentle background rhythm to the activities people are more conscious of. I will not describe each time Peter eats and sleeps, even though the 100th time in the story he eats with his new friends is as significant as the first, because I will be trying to help you see it their way), requires some explanation.

The term “quest,” to the people here, is associated with an image of knights in armor, and a body of literature from writers like Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory who described King Arthur and his knights. In Chretien de Troyes, the knight goes off in various adventures, often quests where he is attempting different physical feats. In Sir Thomas Mallory, a new understanding of quests is introduced, in the quest for the holy grail—a legendary treasure which I cannot here explain save to say that it profoundly altered the idea of a quest, and the quest took a large enough place in many people’s consciousness that it is used as a metaphor of the almost unattainable object of an ultimate pursuit (so that physicists would say that a grand unified theory which crystallizes all physical laws into a few simple equations is the “holy grail of physics”), and that the holy grail is itself in the shadow of a greater treasure, and this treasure was one many people in fact had possessed (some after great struggle, while others had never known a time when they were without it). In Mallory in particular the quest can be more than a physical task; most of Arthur’s knights could not reach the holy grail because of—they weren’t physical blemishes and they weren’t really mental blemishes either, but what they were is hard to say. The whole topic (knights, quests, the holy grail…) connects to something about that world that is beyond my ability to convey; suffice it to say that it is connected with one more dimension we don’t have here.

Peter, along with another group of students, went out on a quest. The object of this quest was to acquire seven specific items, on conditions which I will explain below:

  1. “A dog biscuit.” In keeping with a deeply human trait, the food they prepare is not simply what they judge adequate to sustain the body, but meant to give pleasure, in a sense adorned, because eating is not to them simply a biological need. They would also get adorned food to give pleasure to organisms they kept, including dogs, which include many different breeds which in turn varied from being natural sentries protecting territories to a welcoming committee of one which would give a visitor an exuberant greeting just because he was there.
  2. “An M16 rifle’s spent shell casing.” That means the used remnant after… wait a little bit. I need to go a lot farther back to explain this one.You will find something deceptively familiar in that in that universe, people strategically align resources and then attack their opponents, usually until a defeat is obvious. And if you look for what is deceptive, it will be a frustrating search, because even if the technologies involved are primitive, it is a match of strategy, tactics, and opposition.What makes it different is that this is not a recreation or an art form, but something many of them consider the worst evil that can happen, or among the worst. The resources that are destroyed, the bodies—in our world, it is simply what is involved in the game, but many of them consider it an eternal loss.

    Among the people we will be meeting, people may be broken down into “pacifists” who believe that war is always wrong, and people who instead of being pure pacifists try to have a practical way of pursuing pacifist goals: the disagreement is not whether one should have a war for amusement’s sake (they both condemn that), but what one should do when not having a war looks even more destructive than having a war. And that does not do justice to either side of the debate, but what I want to emphasize that to both of them this is not simply a game or one form of recreation; it is something to avoid at almost any cost.

    A knight was someone who engaged in combat, an elite soldier riding an animal called a horse. In Chretien de Troye’s day and Mallory’s day, the culture was such that winning a fight was important, but fighting according to “chivalry” was more important. Among other things, chivalry meant that they would only use simple weapons based on mechanical principles—no poison—and they wouldn’t even use weapons with projectiles, like arrows and (armor piercing) crossbow bolts. In practice that only meant rigid piercing and cutting weapons, normally swords and spears. And there was a lot more. A knight was to protect women and children.

    The form that chivalry took in Peter’s day allowed projectile weapons, although poison was still not allowed, along with biological, thermonuclear, and other weapons which people did not wish to see in war, and the fight to disfigure the tradition’s understanding women had accorded them meant that women could fight and be killed like men, although people worked to keep children out of warfare, and in any case the “Geneva Convention”, as the code of chivalry was called, maintained a sharp distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the latter of which were to be protected.

    The specific projectile weapon carried by most members of the local army was called an M16 rifle, which fired surprisingly small .22 bullets—I say “surprisingly” because if you were a person fighting against them and you were hit, you would be injured but quite probably not killed.

    This was intentional. (Yes, they knew how to cause an immediate kill.)

    Part of it is the smaller consideration that if you killed an enemy soldier immediately, you took one soldier out of action; on the other hand, if you wounded an enemy soldier, you took three soldiers out of action. But this isn’t the whole reason. The much bigger part of the reason is that their sense of chivalry (if it was really just chivalry; they loved their enemies) meant that even in their assaults they tried to subdue with as little killing as possible.

    There were people training with the army in that community (no, not Peter; Peter was a pure pacifist) who trained, with M16 rifles, not because they wanted to fight, but as part of a not entirely realistic belief that if they trained hard enough, their achievement would deter people who would go to war. And the “Crusader battalion” (the Crusaders were a series of people who fought to defend Peter’s spiritual ancestors from an encroaching threat that would have destroyed them) had a great sense of chivalry, even if none of them used the word “chivalry”.

  3. “A car bumper.” A car bumper is a piece of armor placed on the front and back of cars so that they can sustain low-velocity collisions without damage. (At higher velocities, newer cars are designed to serve as a buffer so that “crumple zones” will be crushed, absorbing enough of the impact so that the “passenger cage” reduces injuries sustained by people inside; this is part of a broader cultural bent towards minimizing preventable death because of what they believe about one human life.) Not only is a car bumper an unusual item to give, it is heavy and awkward enough that people tend not to carry such things with them—even the wealthy ones tend to be extraordinarily lightly encumbered.
  4. “An antique.” It is said, “The problem with England is that they believe 100 miles is a long distance, and the problem with America is that they believe 100 years is a long time.” An antique—giving the rule without all the special cases and exceptions, which is to say giving the rule as if it were not human—is something over 100 years old. To understand this, you must appreciate that it does not include easily available rocks, many of which are millions or billions of years old, and it is not based on the elementary particles that compose something (one would have to search hard to find something not made out of elementary particles almost as old as the universe). The term “antique” connotes rarity, and in a sense something out of the ordinary; that people’s way is concerned with “New! New! New!” and it is hard to find an artifact that was created more than 100 years ago, which is what was intended.This quest is all the more interesting because there is an “unwritten rule” that items will be acquired by asking, not by theft or even purchase—and, as most antiques are valuable, it would be odd for someone you’ve just met—and therefore with whom you have only the general human bond but not the special bond of friendship—to give you such an item, even if most of the littler things in life are acquired economically while the larger things can only be acquired by asking.
  5. “A note from a doctor, certifying that you do not have bubonic plague.” Intended as a joke, this refers to a health, safeguarded by their medicine, which keeps them from a dreadful disease which tore apart societies some centuries ago: that sort of thing wasn’t considered a live threat because of how successful their medicine was (which is why it could be considered humorous).
  6. “A burning piece of paper which no one in your group lit. (Must be presented in front of Fischer and not brought into the building.)” This presents a physical challenge, in that there is no obvious way to transport a burning piece of paper—or what people characteristically envision as a burning piece of paper—from almost anywhere else to in front of Fischer.
  7. “A sheet of paper with a fingerpaint handprint from a kindergartener.””Kindergarten” was the first year of their formal education, and a year of preparation before students were ready to enter their first grade. What did this society teach at its first, required year? Did it teach extraordinarily abstract equations, or cosmological theory, or literary archetypes, or how to use a lathe?All of these could be taught later on, and for that matter there is reason to value all of them. But the very beginning held something different. It taught people to take their turn and share; it taught people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule by which their great Teachers crystallized so much wisdom. All of this work and play, some of the most advanced lessons they could learn, were placed, not at the end, but at the beginning of their education.

    That is what kindergarten was. What was a kindergartener? The true but uninformative answer would be “a person in kindergarten.”

    To get past that uninformative answer, I need to stress that their minds are bound up with organic life—they did not spring, fully formed, as you and I did. In most complex organisms, there is a process that transforms a genetically complete organism of just one cell to become a mature member of the species; among humans, that process is one of the longest and most complex. During that time their minds are developping as well as their bodies; in that regard they are not simply in harmony with the natural world this society believes it is separate from… but one of its best examples.

    But to say that alone is to flatten out something interesting… even more interesting than the process of biological mental development is the place that society has for something called “childhood”. Not all cultures have that concept—and again I am saying “culture” without explaining what it means. I can’t. Not all societies understand “childhood” as this society does; to many, a child is a smaller and less capable adult, or even worse, a nonentity. But in this culture, childhood is a distinctive time, and a child, including a kindergardener, is something special—almost a different species of mind. Their inability to healthily sustain themselves is met, not always with scorn, but with a giving of support and protection—and this is not always a grudging duty, but something that can bring joy. They are viewed as innocent, which is certainly not true, and something keeps many people from resenting them when they prove that they are not innocent by doing things that would not be tolerated if an adult did it. And the imperviousness of this belief to contrary experience is itself the shadow of the whole place of childhood as a time to play and learn and explore worlds of imagination and the things most adults take for granted. And many adults experience a special pleasure, and much more than a pleasure, from the company of children, a pleasure that is tied to something much deeper.

    This pleasure shines through even a handprint left with “fingerpaints,” a way of doing art reserved for children, so that this physical object is itself a symbol of all that is special about childhood, and like symbols of that world carries with it what is evoked: seeing such a handprint is a little like seeing a kindergartener.

And they were off. They stopped for a brief break and annoyedly watched the spectacle of over a hundred linked metal carts carrying a vast quantity of material, and walked in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods. Their knocks on the door met a variety of warm replies. Before long, they had a handprint from a kindergartener, a dog biscuit (and some very enthusiastic attention from a kind dog!), a note from an off-duty doctor (who did not examine them, but simply said that if they had the bubonic plague there would be buboes bulging from them in an obvious way), a cigarette lighter and a sheet of paper (unlit), a twisted bumper (which Peter surprised people by flipping over his shoulder), and finally a spent shell casing from a military science professor. When they climbed up “Fischer beach,” John handed the paper and lighter to his RA and said, “Would you light this?” It was with an exhausted satisfaction that they went to dinner and had entirely amiable conversation with other equally students who scant minutes ago had been their competitors.

When dinner was finished, Peter and Mary sat for a while in exhausted silence, before climbing up for the next scheduled activity—but I am at a loss for how to describe the next scheduled activity. To start with, I will give a deceptive description. If you can understand this activity, you will have understood a great deal more of what is in that world that doesn’t fit in ours.

Do I have to give a deceptive description, in that any description in our terms will be more or less deceptive? I wasn’t trying to make that kind of philosophical point; I wasn’t tring to make a philosophical point at all. I am choosing a description of the next scheduled activity that is more deceptive than it needs to be.

When students studied an academic discipline called “physics,” the curriculum was an initiation into progressively stranger and more esoteric doctrines, presented at the level which students were able to receive them. Students were first taught “Newtonian mechanics” (which openly regarded as false), before being initiated into “Einstein’s relativity” at the next level (which was also considered false, but was widely believed to be closer to the truth). Students experienced a “night and day” difference between Newtonian mechanics and all higher order mysteries. If you were mathematically adept enough to follow the mathematics, then Newton was easy because he agreed with good old common sense, and Einstein and even stranger mysteries were hard to understand because they turned common sense on its head. Newton was straightforward while the others were profoundly counterintuitive. So Einstein, unlike Newton, required a student to mentally engulf something quite alien to normal, common sense ways of thinking about the world around oneself. Hence one could find frustrated student remarks about, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. Then the Devil howled, ‘Let Einstein be!’ and restored the status quo.”

Under this way of experiencing physics, Newton simply added mathematical formality to what humans always knew: everything in space fit in one long and continuous three-dimensional grid, and time could be measured almost as if it were a line, and so Einstein was simply making things more difficult and further from humans’ natural perceptions when his version of a fully mathematical model softened the boundaries of space and time so that one could no longer treat it as if it had a grid for a skeleton.

Someone acquainted with the history of science might make the observation that it was not so much that Newton’s mechanics were a mathematically rigorous formalization of how people experienced space and time, but that how people experienced space and time hadbecome a hazy and non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian mechanics: in other words, some students some students learned Newtonian mechanics easily, not because Newtonian physics was based on common sense, but because their “common sense” had been profoundly shaped by Newtonian physics.

This seemingly pedantic distinction was deeply tied to how the organic was being extinguished in their society.

I suspect you are thinking, “What other mathematical model was it based on instead?” And that’s why you’re having trouble guessing the answer.

The answer is related to the organic. Someone who knew Newton and his colleagues, and what they were rebelling against, could get a sense of something very different even without understanding what besides mathematics would undergird what space meant to them. In a certain sense, Newton forcefully stated the truth, but in a deceptive way. He worked hard to forge a concept of cold matter, pointing out that nature was not human—and it was a philosophical error to think of nature as human, but it was not nearly so great as one might think. Newton and his colleagues powerfully stressed that humans were superior to the rest of the physical world (which was not human), that they were meant not simply to be a part of nature but to conquer and rule it. And in so doing they attacked an equally great truth, that not only other life but even “inanimate” matter was kin to humans—lesser kin, perhaps, but humans and the rest of the natural world formed a continuity. They obscured the wisdom that the lordship humans were to exercise was not of a despot controlling something worthless, but the mastery of the crowning jewel of a treasure they had been entrusted to them. They introduced the concept of “raw material”, something as foreign to their thinking as… I can’t say what our equivalent would be, because everything surrounding “raw material” is so basic to us, and what they believed instead, their organic perception, is foreign to us. They caused people to forget that, while it would be a philosophical error to literally regard the world as human, it would be much graver to believe it is fundamentally described as inert, cold matter. And even when they had succeeded in profoundly influencing their cultures, so that people consciously believed in cold matter to a large degree, vestiges of the ancient experience survived in the medieval. It is perhaps not a coincidence that hundreds of years since Newton, in Newton’s own “mother tongue” (English), the words for “matter” and “mother” both sprung from the same ancient root word.

The Newtonian conception of space had displaced to some degree the older conception of place, a conception which was less concerned with how far some place was from other different places, and more concerned with a sort of color or, to some extent, meaning. The older conception also had a place for some things which couldn’t really be stated under the new conception: people would say, “You can’t be in two places at once.” What they meant by that was to a large degree something different, “Your body cannot be at two different spatial positions at the same time.” This latter claim was deceptive, because it was true so far as it goes, but it was a very basic fact of life that people could be in two places at once. The entire point of the next scheduled activity was to be in two places at once.

Even without describing what the other place was (something which could barely be suggested even in that world) and acknowledging that the point of the activity was to be in two places at once, this description of that activity would surprise many of the people there, and disturb those who could best sense the other place. The next scheduled activity was something completely ordinary to them, a matter of fact event that held some mystery, and something that would not occur to them as being in two places at once. The activity of being present in two or more places at once was carried on, on a tacit level, even when people had learned to conflate place with mathematical position. One such activity was confused with what we do when we remember: when we remember, we recall data from storage, while they cause the past to be present. The words, “This do in rememberance of me,” from a story that was ancient but preserved in the early medieval period we are looking at, had an unquestioned meaning of, “Cause me to be present by doing this,” but had suffered under a quite different experience of memory, so that to some people it meant simply to go over data about a person who had been present in the past but could not be present then.

But this activity was not remembering. Or at least, it was not just remembering. And this leaves open the difficulty of explaining how it was ordinary to them. It was theoretically in complete continuity with the rest of their lives, although it would be more accurate to say that the rest of their lives were theoretically in complete continuity with it. This activity was in a sense the most human, and the most organic, in that in it they led the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the plants, the rocks, the mountains, and the sees in returning to the place they came from. This description would also likely astonish the people who were gathered in a painted brick room, sitting on carpet and on movable perches, and seeing through natural light mixed with flickering fluorescent lights. Not one of them was thinking about “nature.”

What went on there was in a very real sense mediocre. Each activity was broken down, vulgarized, compared to what it could be—which could not obliterate what was going on. When they were songs, they were what were called “7-11” songs, a pejorative term which meant songs with seven words repeated eleven times. There was a very real sense in which the event was diminished by the music, but even when you factor in every diminishing force, there was something going on there, something organic and more than organic, which you and I do not understand—for that matter, which many people in that world do not understand.


Archon was silent for a long time.

Ployon said, “What is it?”

Archon said, “I can’t do it. I can’t explain this world. All I’ve really been doing is taking the pieces of that world that are a bit like ours. You’ve been able to understand much of it because I haven’t tried to convey several things that are larger than our world. ‘God’ is still a curious and exotic appendage that isn’t connected to anything, not really; I haven’t been able to explain, really explain, what it is to be male and female unities, or what masculinity and femininity are. There are a thousand things, and… I’ve been explaining what three-dimensional substance is to a two-dimensional world, and the way I’ve been doing it is to squash it into two dimensions, and make it understandable by removing from it everything that makes it three dimensional. Or almost everything…”

“How would a three dimensional being, a person from that world, explain the story?”

“But it wouldn’t. A three dimensional being wouldn’t collapse a cube into a square to make it easier for itself to understand; that’s something someone who couldn’t free itself from reading two dimensional thinking into three dimensions would do. You’re stuck in two dimensions. So am I. That’s why I failed, utterly failed, to explain the “brother-sister floor fellowship”, the next scheduled activity. And my failure is structural. It’s like I’ve been setting out to copy a living, moving organism by sculpturing something that looks like it out of steel. And what I’ve been doing is making intricate copies of its every contour, and painting the skin and fur exactly the same color, and foolishly hoping it will come alive. And this is something I can’t make by genetic engineering.”

“But how would someone from that world explain the story? Even if I can’t understand it, I want to know.”

“But people from that world don’t explain stories. A story isn’t something you explain; it’s something that may be told, shared, but usually it is a social error to explain a story, because a story participates in human life and telling a story connects one human to another. And so it’s a fundamental error to think a story is something you convey by explaining it—like engineering a robotic body for an animal so you can allow it to have a body. I have failed because I was trying something a mind could only fail at.”

“Then can you tell the story, like someone from that world would tell it?”


Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.

When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”

When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.

Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.

Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”

Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.

It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”

Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.

People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.

When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”

A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”

The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”

Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”

The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”

Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”

Mary looked at him, and then passed out.

Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.

Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”

Peter said, “No.”

Mary said, “Why not?”

Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”

Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.

“Is that true?” she said.

Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”

Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”

Peter came to her bedside and knelt.

Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”

Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”

Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”

Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”

Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”

Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”

Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.

“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”

Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”

Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.

The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”

The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars surprisingly didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.

Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.

He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…

That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.

As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”

When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.

At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.

Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.

On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.

Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom creeping into their words.

One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”

Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”

Peter said, “Yes.”

Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”

Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”

Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.

Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more unhappy. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”

Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”

After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”

After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”

Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”

The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.

Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”

Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”

Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.


Ployon said, “I didn’t follow every detail, but… there was something in that that stuck.”

Archon said, “How long do you think it lasted?”

“A little shorter than the other one, I mean first part.”

“Do you have any idea how many days were in each part?”

“About the same? I assume the planet had slowed down so that a year and a day were of roughly equal length.”

“The first part took place during three days. The latter part spanned several thousand days—”

“I guess I didn’t understand it—”

“—which is… a sign that you understood something quite significant… that you knew what to pay attention to and were paying attention to the right thing.”

“But I didn’t understand it. I had a sense that it was broken off before the end, and that was the end, right?”

Archon hesitated, and said, “There’s more, but I’d rather not go into that.”

Ployon said, “Are you sure?”

“You won’t like it.”

“Please.”


The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.

As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests!), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.

And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:

The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.

The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…

For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.

Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.

Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.

A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.


Ployon was silent for a long time, and Archon was silent for an even longer time. Ployon said, “I guess part of our world is present in that world. Is that what you mean by being in two places at once?”

Archon was silent for a long time.

Ployon said, “It seems that that world’s problems and failings are somehow greater than our achievements. I wish that world could exist, and that we could somehow visit it.”

Archon said, “Do you envy them that much?”

Ployon said, “Yes. We envy them as—”

Archon said, “—as—” and searched through his world’s images.

Ployon said, “—as that world’s eunuchs envy men.”

Archon was silent.

Ployon was silent.

Exotic golden ages and restoring harmony with nature: Aanatomy of a passion

Game Review: Meatspace

Knights and Ladies

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Watch

Cover for The Steel Orb

Metacult: So, Pater, I was thinking—wait a minute; I hear someone scratching at the door.

Janra: Hi, Vespucci. How are you?

Vespucci: Doing well. Take a seat.

Janra: Where?

Vespucci: Anywhere.

Janra: Anywhere?

Vespucci: Anywhere…

Off! Off! Get off my lap! Only my wife is allowed to sit there. You know that. Anyways, the Radical Gadgets catalogue came in today…

Janra: By the way, I phoned the company today. I think I can get some World War II vintage mechanical—

Vespucci: Don’t even think about it. If you—

Pater: Easy, brothers. As you were saying?

Vespucci: As I was saying… Radical Gadgets has the most interesting tools. The cover product this month was an e-mail filtering package that uses Bayesian filtering techniques to block unwanted messages.

Janra: That’s original! I checked Freshmeat today, and I think they only have half a dozen well-known anti-spam packages, not counting lesser products and tools that have just been released. Does Radical Gadgets always find products this original?

Vespucci: But it is original. And it’s not an anti-spam package. It has nothing to do with spam.

Pater: Huh?

Vespucci: Let me explain. You know that Bayesian filtering looks at a message and uses statistics to guess what category it belongs to, right?

Pater: Yes; go on.

Vespucci: But that will work whether you use it for incoming or outgoing e-mails. Most people use the filtering techniques on incoming e-mails, to try and reduce the fire hose of spam coming in. But you don’t have to stop there. You can also filter outgoing e-mails.

Pater: Why would I want to filter the e-mails I send out?

Vespucci: You’ve never sent a flame? Come on; I remember a couple of times that you flamed me over something minor, and sent a very embarrassed apology when I waited two weeks and simply sent it back, and asked you to read it aloud, and tell me whether that’s what you want me to hear from you. And it’s not just you. When you’re talking with a person face to face, there are two eyes looking at you and reminding you that a person hears every cutting word you say. That doesn’t stop conflicts, but it does mitigate some of the abrasive things we’re tempted to say. On a computer, it seems like there’s just a keyboard and pixels—no person you can actually hurt. So people hit harder, and you have incredible flamewars, often between people who conduct themselves like responsible adults when they’re talking to someone face to face. It’s possible to learn discipline, of course, and conduct yourself maturely, but all too many people don’t realise there’s a discipline you have to learn even if you’re mature.

And so instead of just assuming that the only bad e-mails are offensive messages from people who’ve never seen you, telling you that part of your body isn’t big enough and you need to buy their snake oil, or that you’re impotent, or that you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and will have to content yourself with pixels on a screen—apart from these, there are offensive messages that you send out and then wish you could somehow take back and delete.

And this program does just that. Once you’ve trained it on your sent mail folder, it watches messages you send out, and uses the same Bayesian technology that’s so powerful in identifying spam, and identifies when you’re writing something you’ll regret later. Then it saves it, quarantining it in a separate folder until you come to your senses and delete it.

Pater: That’s… um, I’m going to go to their computer and order it from their website. Please excuse me for a moment. I really need to—

Metacult: Sit down, Pater. You’re not going to e-mail out any flames while we’re here talking.

Vespucci: Hmm… um, I hadn’t meant to have a big discussion about the anti-flame software. There were several things that caught my attention, but what caught my eye most was a watch that keeps exceptionally accurate time.

Pater: Huh? Who would need a more accurate way to keep time? Most cultures find an hour to be a short time, and a cheap digital watch keeps more accurate time than a $5000 Rolex, because our watches are too accurate already. It would be awfully hard to explain our to-the-second accuracy to an aboriginal—I can’t see why, besides pride that wants a possession to boast about, someone would benefit from a more accurate watch.

Vespucci: Oh, but there is benefit—worth paying $5,000 for a digital watch. Even worth having to change the batteries too often.

Pater: How?

Vespucci: The Watch doesn’t just have an oscillating quartz crystal; it has an array of sensors in the watchband that measure skin temperature and conductivity, pulse, even a clever estimate of blood pressure, and feeds all of these into an embedded chip with some extraordinarily clever software.

This software takes these data and gets a picture of the person’s emotional state. You know how time flies when you’re having fun?

Pater: Didn’t Einstein explain his theory of relativity by saying, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

Vespucci: Um… that has nothing to do with the theory of relativity, and I’m not interested in discussing Einstein’s spacetime now. If Einstein said that, he probably had a merry twinkle in his eye. But…

Come to think about it, that is a pretty good picture. The Watch estimates your emotional state for one purpose: it keeps track of how long time seems to be passing. It has a normal timer that can count forty minutes until dinnertime, but it can also tell you how long the wait will feel like. And that’s something no other watch can do.

Metacult: So it deals with subjective time? I read a book once which was trying to argue that time could be understood as something besides the number a machine has counted to. It talked about how a small child will ask Mom how long she’s leaving for, and Mom’s answer—she’s really trying to avoid feeling guilty about leaving the child alone—are singularly unhelpful for a child trying to figure out how much perceived time must be endured before Mom returns.

Vespucci: Yes, and the minute-hour quote captures that. All watches tell what time it is from a machine’s perspective. This is the only watch that tells time from a human perspective.

Metacult: Wonderful. What does it take into account besides clock ticks and the person’s emotional state?

Vespucci: Huh? What else contributes to our experience of time besides the physical time and our psychological state?

Pater: Your question betrays nominalism. The way you’ve framed things shuts out the true answer.

Vespucci: We’re entering the third millenium; I don’t see why you’re dragging in a controversy from medieval times.

Janra: Mmmph. Excuse me. I think I need a glass of water.

Metacult: Sit down, Janra. And don’t look at me like that. I’m going let you answer that.

Janra: Certainly. Here are the steps to hunt a bear: First, fire your gun. Second, aim your gun. Third, locate a bear. Fourth, buy a gun.

Metacult: Try again.

Janra: Clothing to wear in winter: a heavy coat, then on top of that a good sweater or two, then two shirts and two pair of pants, then underwear, with woolen socks over your boots.

Metacult: Please be serious.

Janra: I am being serious.

Metacult: Then be mundane.

Janra: Oh. That’s another matter entirely.

Your entire approach is backwards and inside-out, as backwards as trying to shoot a bear before you have a gun, and as inside-out as wearing your anorak next to your skin.

How? Let me respond to your second comment. If I said, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude,” you’d think I was making a mountain out of a molehill: yes, we’re at a particular latitude and longitude, but what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China? It’s true, but what does that have to do with anything we’re discussing? Yet people say, “We’re entering the third millenium” as if it is this great statement of far-reaching consequences, the sort of thing that should settle a matter. As you yourself did.

People in the Middle Ages often did not know what year it was, or even what century, any more than people today know what latitude and longitude we’re at—quick—do you know what latitude and longitude you’re at? The reason is that we think the past is under a glass bell, where we humans are living our lives while those odd and quaint creatures under the bell are not the same as us. And it doesn’t need to be that way. For a long time after Shakespeare’s death, when people put on Shakespeare, they didn’t try to reconstruct period accurate costumes. Why? Did they not know that Shakespeare lived long before them? Perhaps, but they also recognised that Shakespeare was a human who worked with human problems and wrote human drama, and that the reason his plays are worth performing is not because they’re old but because they’re timelessly human. And we forget this when we take great care to dress actors in funny costumes that tell people that this is something quaint from long ago and far away.

You know that many of your physical possessions that make up the physical world come from far away: when you buy something at Target, and make no effort to find treasures from faroff land, you buy a lamp that was made in China or underpants that were made in Mexico. You know that the whole world is interconnected, so even if you don’t go hunting off for exotic imports, a great many of the things you buy were made far away.

You can as much live without ideas from bygone ages as you can live in a house you built with your own hands—or for that matter, be born in a house you built with your own hands. That isn’t how things work. Nominalism is one of innumerable ideas that has survived, just as the custom of using pots and pans has survived.

Vespucci: If it’s one of innumerable ideas, why pay it that much attention?

Janra: Because I can count on my fingers the number of conceptual revolutions that are more important today than nominalism. Trying to understand how people think today without looking at nominalism is like trying to look at a summer meadow without seeing plants. There are other important ideas, but this one makes the short list.

Vespucci: Then why have I not heard more about nominalism, when I hear people talking about postmodernism, for instance, or modernism? And what is nominalism to begin with?

Janra: For the same reason a fish won’t tell you about water. Modernism and postmodernism are both nominalism writ large; nominalism is a seed, whose flower is modernism, and whose fruit is postmodernism.

Vespucci: Hmm. I hear the distinct accent of a person laboring in the prison of one idea.

Janra: Bear with me. Nominalism may be seen as the lock on a prison: we need to pay close attention to the lock to see if there’s any way to open it. Then, if we can get out, let us see if there are not many more ideas available after we have paid proper attention to nominalism.

Now what is nominalism? In a sentence, nominalism says, “There’s nothing out there; it’s all in your head.” A nominalist doesn’t literally mean “nothing” is outside our heads; you can’t put on a watch and say, “I refute nominalism thus.”

Vespucci: But it was a non sequitur when—

Janra: Yes, I know, I know. Another tangent. But let’s forget about saying that matter is just in people’s heads and not something external to mind. As I was saying, you can’t put on a watch and say, “I refute nominalism thus.” But if we really follow nominalist logic, you can’t put on a watch. You can have nerve impulses that result in the motion of some elementary particles, but a watch is a tool-to-tell-time-which-you-wear-on-your-wrist, and a tool-to-tell-time-which-you-wear-on-your-wrist does not and cannot exist in nature. All the meaning that makes those atoms a watch can only exist in minds, and for the same reason what-we-call-a-watch can’t have the time displayed on its face. It can have elementary particles that are placed like so and interact with light just so, but the meaning that can read a time in that configuration isn’t at all in the atoms themselves; it’s in your head. This is clarified in a distinction between “brute fact” and “social reality:” brute fact is what exists outside of minds and social reality can only exist in minds, and almost anything humans value consists of a small amount of brute fact and a large portion of social reality—larger than most people would guess. Everything is either brute fact or social reality.

Pater: Is the boundary between brute fact and social reality a brute fact or a social reality?

Metacult: Shut up.

Janra: Imagine three umpires at a baseball game: the first says, “I calls ’em as they are.” The second says, “I calls ’em as I sees them.” But the third says, “Some’s strikes, and some’s balls, but they ain’t nothing ’til I calls ’em.”

With apologies to Kronecker, God created cold matter. All else is the work of man.

Pater: Whoa. Is the basic faculty that lets man create social reality derived from brute fact or social reality?

Janra: Shut up.

Now I have been showing what happens when you push nominalism a good deal further than non-scholars are likely to do. But in fact nominalism has been seeping into our consciousness for centuries, so that we might not find the claim that nature is beautiful to be a mistake, but we see with nominalist eyes and hear with nominalist ears. Most of people across most of time have understood and experienced symbols very different from how a nominalist would.

If we assume that matter is basically something cold and dead, devoid of spiritual properties, then of course a symbol can only exist in the mind, a mental connection between two things that are not connected by nature. Any similarity is in the eye of the beholder, or if not that, is at least a coincidence that isn’t grounded on anything deeper. There is no organic connection.

But if we look at how people have understood symbols, their understanding has to do with a view of reality where a great many things are real, where a symbol bespeaks a real and spiritual connection. The crowning jewel of this understanding of symbol was the claim that man is the image of God. When Christians talked about man being the image of God, they were not talking about what we would understand by a photograph or a painting, where pigments are arranged in such a way that an observer can tell they were meant to look like God; they meant a real and organic connection that went far beyond a mere representation of God; they meant that we were what you would think a kind of magical statue which not only represented God, but embodied his actual presence: God’s presence operates in us in a real way, and every breath we breathe is the breath of God.

Now the reason we began discussing nominalism was that you said something, and I said, “That question betrays nominalism.” Do you remember what you said?

Vespucci: No.

Janra: We were discussing what I consider to be a very interesting watch, and you asked what could contribute to our experience of time besides what an ordinary watch tells, and our emotional state.

That question betrays nominalism. You were in essence asking what could interest us in time besides the brute fact of what most watches tell, and the social, or at least mental, reality of our emotional state.

But there’s a world of other things out there.

Vespucci: But what else is there?

Metacult: Hmm. I think we need to work a bit harder to help you look at what you believe. You’ve been keeping up on superstring theory, right?

Vespucci: Yes. I loved the explanations I could get of relativity, and I love how scientists can turn our commonsense notions upside down.

Metacult: Do you know any classical, Newtonian physics?

Vespucci: I did in high school. I’ve forgotten most of it now, but I don’t remember it being nearly as exciting: a lot of math to go through to get at common sense.

Metacult: May I instead suggest that your common sense is a nonmathematical version of Newtonian physics?

Newton’s physics was big on grids: everything was placed on a grid of absolute space, and absolute time. And it connected rooms the wrong way: different places are on the same meaningless grid, but they’re not connected besides the grid.

To the medieval mind, it wasn’t so. Each space was its own little world as far as Newton was concerned. But they were connected spiritually. There is an icon of two saints from different centuries talking, and the medieval mind was comfortable with this because it saw things other than “but they’re from other parts of the spacetime grid!”

Vespucci: But what does this have to do with time? It seems to me you’re going off on a tangent.

Metacult: Ok, back to time. Time isn’t just a grid adorned by emotions. It’s spiritually connected. You yourself are not self-contained.

Pater: And there’s liturgical time. One of the things that shocked me was that people seem to have no time. It helped me to appreciate the colorful time I had breathed. I was stunned when people experienced time as torture. I experienced it as a sacrament, a channel of God’s grace.

From other conversations, I get the impression that the liturgical year isn’t real to you: one source of holidays among others. But it is real: interlocking cycles of day, week, year, so that you are breathing in this rhythm and are given something to live in each moment. Sometimes you’re feasting; sometimes you’re fasting; often you’re given something to meditate on.

Vespucci: So the watch would do a more complete job if its little computer were programmed to keep track of the liturgical cycles? I think the engineers could do that.

Pater: Errmmmmm…

Metacult: I think what he means, but cannot articulate, is that what a computer could make of the liturgical cycles are not the place that makes liturgical time. They are more of a doorway into the place, into a room that the Spirit blows. If the watch were to keep track of that, it would have to have, not more sophisticated computer programming, but something else altogether, something sensitive to spiritual realities.

Pater: And that’s just what a scientific computer, even a very small one, cannot do. Science works on nominalism. It’s brought a lot of good stuff, but it can’t perceive or work with spiritual qualities, any more than a pair of binoculars will improve your hearing. And that’s fine when you recognise that spiritual qualities are left out, but the temptation is to say, “Because science is so powerful, it sees everything that’s real.” And a watch designed by scientific engineering can do scientific things, but if it were to try and see liturgical time from the inside, it would inevitably kill what breathes in it.

Janra: So if we were to imagine a watch that keeps track of time, true time, it would need not only sensors and a miniature computer, and a time-keeping quartz crystal, but something attuned to spiritual realities.

Pater: If that were possible. In my culture, we never wear watches. The best watch would be no watch, or perhaps a rock on a wristband, where if you go to it looking for trivia, it doesn’t give what you’re looking for—and in so doing, reminds you of something important, that you need to look elsewhere.

Janra: What about a watch that had a rock alongside the things we’ve just described?

Pater: Ermmm…

Janra: And what would men’s and women’s models look like? Would the rocks be respectively rough and smooth?

Metacult: Actually, men’s and women’s experience of time differs significantly, so if you had a watch with a truer way of telling time, there would be a much bigger difference than men’s watches being heftier and women’s watches being slender.

Janra: How?

Metacult: I remember one time when you were talking with a new mother, and whenever the baby needed care, you stopped talking so that Mom could pay attention to her new son. It was a thoughtful gesture, and one that wasn’t needed.

Janra: Why not? I’d have wanted to be allowed to give the child my full attention.

Metacult: I know. So would most good men. A man’s particular strength is to devote his full attention to a task. A woman’s particular strength is to lightly balance several tasks, giving genuine attention to each. That mother was perfectly able to give attention to her son and listen to you at the same time. That’s why she looked at you, slightly puzzled and with an attention that says, “I’m listening,” when you stopped talking.

And there are other differences as well. If there is a situation that colors a man’s understanding of time, it is a brief period of intense pressure. A woman’s understanding of time more has the hue of a longer period that requires sustained attention. And even that misses something. The difference between a man’s experience of time and a woman’s is not so much like a difference between numbers as a difference between two colors, or sounds, or scents. It’s a qualitative difference, and one that is not appreciated—usually people feel in their heart, “She’s treating time the same way I do, but doing an unexplainably bad job of it.”

Vespucci: I forgot to tell you, the watch also asks when you were born.

Pater: Why? To remind you if you forget your birthday?

Vespucci: I’m surprised, Pater. It’s so it can keep track of your age. You experience time differently as you grow. What seems like an hour when you’re five only seems like half an hour when you’re ten, or fifteen minutes when you’re twenty, or five minutes when you’re sixty. Time seems to go faster and faster as you grow: there’s one change between when you’re a child and an adult, and senior citizens say that every fifteen minutes it’s breakfast. The quality and pace of time change as you age, which is why young people think youth lasts forever and the rest of us think it vanishes. They say that once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.

Pater: What does “over the hill” mean?

Vespucci: Um…

Metacult: He really doesn’t understand. To him, aging is about maturing and growing, not only for children, but adults as well. He values his youth as a cherished memory, but he’s enjoying his growth and looking forward eagerly to the joy awaiting him in Heaven. He doesn’t understand your self-depracating humor that speaks as if aging were a weakness or a moral failing.

Vespucci: Ok.

Metacult: Which reminds me. One of the ways my experience of time has changed as I have grown has been to recognize that time flows faster and faster. For some people, this is a reason to try way too hard to be healthy—taking care of their bodies, not because their bodies should be taken care of, but to try and postpone the inevitable. But I’m looking forward to the Heaven that’s getting closer and closer, and I am delighted by a glimpse into the perspective of a God who created time and to whom all times are both soon and now.

But the other major change is more internal, more a matter of discipline. I used to live in hurry, to always walk quickly and love to play video games quickly. Then I set foot in Malaysia, and something changed.

There was a difference, which I imperfectly characterized as life being lived more slowly in Malaysia. Which is true, or was for me, but is somewhat beside the point. And I experienced the joy of living more slowly. You know how I’ve thought that it takes humility to enjoy even pride, and chastity to enjoy even lust. At that point I would have added to those two that it takes slowness to enjoy even haste.

Vespucci: So you tried to be as slow as you had been quick?

Metacult: Yes. I observed that I had been obsessed with time under the tyranny of the clock, and so I tried to abolish time by being slow. Which isn’t right; besides chronos, the time a clock can measure, there is kairos, relational or task-oriented or creating time, where you are absorbed in another person or a task, and there time is a glimmer of eternity. And I was interested in the idea of living time as the beginning of an eternal glory, which Pater understands much better than I ever will. First I tried to negate time and live as something less-than-temporal, and I am slowly realizing that instead it means embracing time and entering something more-than-temporal.

In liturgical time—and Pater could say much more about this than I—it flows. Here it moves quickly, there it moves slowly, and there it spins in eddies. It isn’t just the speed that flows; it’s the color, if you will. Just as the priest is the crowning jewel of the priesthood every person is called for, so the touch of Heaven as we worship is the crowning jewel of what time is meant to be.

And I had also been realizing that I had sought to escape time, and not cherish it as God’s good creature. Most recently, I am trying to… There’s a famous quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Now I’m looking for a time that is on the other side of complexity: not the mundane ordinariness of disfigured time, but a beautiful ordinariness on the other side of this complexity we’ve been discussing.

Vespucci: How do you think that will work?

Metacult: I don’t know. Part of it has to do with the metaculture you used for my nickname. I don’t simply breathe in my culture and ask “How else could it be?”, but am in the odd position of being able to step into cultures but never be absolutely at home. And have part of me that doesn’t fit. That’s not quite right; I do connect, partly in a way that is basically human, and partly in a way that is—

Janra: Don’t try to explain. That would take an hour.

Metacult: At any rate, a fair number of people talk about living counterculturally, and one way you can live counterculturally is let live time as a blessing rather than a curse. People who say technology determines our lives are almost right, and that almost makes a world of difference if you’re willing to live counterculturally. The pressure on us to live in hurry is not a pressure that no one can escape. It is a pressure that few try to escape in the right way—but you can, if you try and go about it the right way.

But quite a lot of the rest of it has to do with very basic parts of the Christian life. God wants us to seek him first, and when we do, he knows full well what else we need. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well.” includes a life where time unfolds as a rainbow or a river, something of both color and flow, like the year with its beauty in due season.

Vespucci: Do you see time as a line or a circle? Something that keeps moving in a direction, or something that does the same thing over and over again?

Metacult: Both, of course. God is revealing himself in history and transforming it to his ends. And there is decay; decay follows a line down. In our lives, we are progressing towards Heaven or Hell, and in each day… here we meet the cycles, but if we live well, the cycles in our lives aren’t just an aimless meandering, but like a man who keeps running through a ditch, digging. In one way, he’s going to the same places again and again, but in another way, he’s going deeper—and he may meet both the earth’s warmth in winter (or coolness in summer), and the water of life. The line moves through circles.

Janra: So what would make the perfect watch?

Vespucci: Are there any we haven’t covered?

Metacult: Umm… we’ve looked at one big change from a normal watch—instead of adding a calculator, that Radical Gadgets catalogue had a watch that tries to tell a more human time by taking your age and emotional state into account as well as what most watches tell. That was sort of a Pandora’s box. I think we could all agree that that watch was leagues more human than any normal watch… and it was just human enough to reveal how un-human watches are.

Vespucci: How?

Metacult: When the only kind of watch kept track of seconds, it was easy enough to think that time was simply what a watch told. But when one watch started to pay attention to how you feel…

It was kind of like when you’ve been in the freezing outdoors for a long time, so long that it still hurts a little, but you can almost ignore it. Then you come inside, and THEN it stings. It’s not until you enter a genuinely warm room that you realize how cold and numb you really are.

The Watch in that catalogue was just human enough to reveal how un-human watches, and the time that they tell, are. It did what no other watch could. It’s enough of a success to be a spectacular failure. Someone brought up liturgical time, which led to the suggestion that the watch be programmed to keep track of liturgical time. And then we stumbled into a hole with no bottom. Why can’t a computer keep track of liturgical time? Well, you see, the Spirit does more than just follow calculations… A watch would need far more than better electronics to do that, far more than scientific engineering can provide. Although I did like the suggestion of adding a rock. Even if I don’t see how to make a rock sensitive to women’s time and men’s time. Or rather, what to do to appropriately respect the difference.

Vespucci: Janra, what you said about nominalism interests me. Could you give a more complete explanation?

Janra: I’d love to, but I need to be somewhere next month.

Vespucci: Please be serious.

Janra: I am being serious.

Vespucci: Then be mundane.

Metacult: He is being mundane. If you’d like a good introduction, read Philip Sherrard’s The Rape of Man and Nature: An Enquiry Into the Origins & Consequences of Modern Science. In it, Sherrard says almost nothing about time and everything about the things time is connected to. I think it goes overboard, but if you read it and pay attention to the haunting beauty that keeps coming up, then you’ll learn something about being human—and living in human time. It doesn’t use the word ‘nominalism’ very much, but it says quite a lot about it.

Vespucci: Are there any other things you’ve all left out?

Metacult: Only about two billion. I’ve talked about kairos as an absorbed time instead of a time when you’re watching the clock. What I haven’t talked about as kairos as a divinely appointed time, where you are in a divinely orchestrated dance, and you are free, and yet your movements are part of the divine plan. We are human, not by “just” being human, but by allowing the divine to operate in us; it is the divine, not the human, that we need most to be human. I haven’t discussed that. We haven’t discussed, in connection with nominalism, how there is a spiritual place in us where we meet God, and we have the ability to reason from what we see, and in tandem with nominalism we have become impoverished when both functions are dumped on the reasoning ability and we don’t know where we can meet God, where our minds connect with the very Reason that is God himself. It makes a difference whether we experience time through both our reasoning ability and this spiritual meeting-place, or through our reasoning ability alone.

I also haven’t talked about turning back the clock. When people rightly or wrongly believe there is a golden age they’ve lost, and try to re-create it, they end up severing connections with the recent past and even the golden age.

Vespucci: How does that work?

Metacult: I’m not exactly sure.

My guess is that a living culture has a way of not being ambiguous. It gives corrections when you make false assumptions about it; that’s why people experience culture shock. People trying to re-create a past golden age need never experience culture shock; if you make a false assumption about the golden age, the golden age won’t correct you. So the golden age appears to be whatever you want, and people who aren’t satisfied with the present, and want to re-create past glory, end up pushing a fantasy that is different both from the present and the past. The Renaissance and Enlightenment neo-classicism both tried to re-create the glory of classical antiquity and are both notable as departures from the past. People who aren’t trying to re-create the past can preserve it, saying, “Be gentle with this tradition. It was not inherited from your parents; it is borrowed from your children.” People eager to restore past glory all too often, if not sever, severely damage the link between past and future.

I also haven’t talked about keeping up with the Trumps, and your unadvertised way to say “No!” to the tyranny of the urgent. I haven’t even talked about—

Janra: Stop! Stop. You’re going way overboard. He got your point. In fact, I think he got your point half an hour ago. He—

Pater: Could I interrupt for a moment?

Janra: Certainly. What is it?

Pater: I know this is going to sound REALLY strange, but I want a watch.

Vespucci, Janra, Metacult: Huh?

Pater: You heard me.

Janra: But why?

Pater: I know this is going to sound strange, but I want one.

To you a watch represents all sorts of problems, and I don’t wonder if you’re dumping too much on it. But that’s another issue. I don’t have the ticking clock in me that you do. There’s an issue of sensitivity—I know you hate watches and probably planners, but I burn people by being late and forgetting that just an hour’s delay to me is not “just” an hour to them.

Is it really impossible to make a watch that can represent liturgical time, or even hollow out a space liturgical time can abide in? I thought it was possible now to make a watch that will keep track of sunrise and sunset. Scientific engineering can’t do some things, but could there be another kind of engineering? I suppose that “even” that technical marvel in your catalogue, the watch that knows how long something feels like, would make an awfully neat conversation piece.

Metacult: I think I may know of just the thing for you.

This watch is a sort of hybrid. Part of it is traditional electronic—something that tells hours, minutes, and seconds, that displays the date, and has a timer, alarm, and a stopwatch accurate to the nearest hundredth of a second—and for that matter it’s water resistant to two hundred meters. It’s a bit battered—which adds to its masculine look.

But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part has an exquisite sensitivity to liturgical rhythm, such as purely electronic gadgetry could never deliver. And it is a connected time, a part of the Great Dance that moves not according to the wearer’s emotions alone but what the Great Choreographer orchestrates. It moves in beautiful ordered time. And there is more. It can enter another person’s or place’s time, and fit. Among other things.

Pater: This is great! Where can I get one?

Metacult: Just a second while I take off my watch… here’s the littlest part. The rest is already inside your heart.

Christmas gift guide 2015: A tale of two watches…

The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos

The “natural cycle” liturgical clock

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Within the Steel Orb

Surgeon General’s Warning

Part of the books behind the title had a reviewer say, “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise,” and possibly the same could be said of this dialogue, but it is laced with the spiritual poison of escape.

This title has its merits, enough so not to delete. However, I would warn that its spice is spiritual MSG.

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

The car pulled up on the dark cobblestones and stopped by the darker castle. The vehicle was silver-grey, low to the ground, and sleek. A—let us call him a man—opened the driver’s door on the right, and stood up, tall, dark, clad in a robe the color of the sky at midnight. Around the car he went, opened the door for his passenger, and once the passenger stepped out, made one swift motion and had two bags on his shoulder. The bags were large, but he moved as if he were accustomed to carrying far heavier fare. It was starlight out, and the moon was visible as moonlight rippled across a pool.

The guest reached for the bags. “Those are heavy. Let me—”

The host smiled darkly. “Do not worry about the weight of your bags.”

The host opened a solid greyblack door, of unearthly smoothness, and walked swiftly down a granite hallway, allowing his guest to follow. “You’ve had a long day. Let me get you something to drink.” He turned a door, poured something into two iridescent titanium mugs, and turned through another corridor and opened a door on its side. Inside the room were two deep armchairs and a low table.

“This is my first time traveling between worlds—how am I to address you?”

The host smiled. “Why do you wish to know more of my name? It is enough for you to call me Oinos. Please enjoy our welcome.”

The guest sipped his drink. “Cider?”

The host said, “You may call it that; it is a juice, which has not had artificial things done to make it taste like it just came out of its fruit regardless of how much it should have aged by the time you taste it. It is juice where time has been allowed to do its work.” He was holding a steel orb. “You are welcome here, Art.” Then—he barely seemed to move—there was a spark, and Oinos pulled a candle from the wall and set it on the table.

Art said, “Why not a fluorescent light to really light the room up?”

The host said, “For the same reason that you either do not offer your guests mocha at all, or else give them real mocha and not a mix of hot water, instant coffee, and hot cocoa powder. In our world, we can turn the room bright as day any time, but we do not often do so.”

“Aah. We have a lot to learn from you about getting back to nature.”

“Really? What do you mean by ‘getting back to nature’? What do you do to try to ‘get back to nature’?”

“Um, I don’t know what to really do. Maybe try to be in touch with the trees, not being cooped up inside all the time, if I were doing a better job of it…”

“If that is getting back in touch with nature, then we pay little attention to getting in touch with nature. And nature, as we understand it, is about something fundamentally beyond dancing on hills or sitting and watching waves. I don’t criticize you if you do them, but there is really something more. And I can talk with you about drinking juice without touching the natural processes that make cider or what have you, and I can talk with you about natural cycles and why we don’t have imitation daylight any time it would seem convenient. But I would like you to walk away with something more, and more interesting, than how we keep technology from being too disruptive to natural processes. That isn’t really the point. It’s almost what you might call a side effect.”

“But you do an awfully impressive job of putting technology in its place and not getting too involved with it.”

Oinos said, “Have you had enough chance to stretch out and rest and quench your thirst? Would you like to see something?”

“Yes.”

Oinos stood, and led the way down some stairs to a room that seemed to be filled with odd devices. He pushed some things aside, then walked up to a device with a square in the center, and pushed one side. Chains and gears moved, and another square replaced it.

“This is my workshop, with various items that I have worked on. You can come over here and play with this little labyrinth; it’s not completely working, but you can explore it if you take the time to figure it out. Come on over. It’s what I’ve been working on most recently.”

Art looked around, somewhat amazed, and walked over to the ‘labyrinth.’

Oinos said, “In your world, in classical Greek, the same word, ‘techne,’ means both ‘art’ and ‘technology.’ You misunderstand my kindred if you think we aren’t especially interested in technology; we have a great interest in technology, as with other kinds of art. But just as you can travel a long distance to see the Mona Lisa without needing a mass-produced Mona Lisa to hang in your bathroom, we enjoy and appreciate technologies without making them conveniences we need to have available every single day.”

Art pressed a square and the labyrinth shifted. “Have I come here to see technologies?”

Oinos paused. “I would not advise it. You see our technologies, or how we use them, because that is what you are most ready to see. Visitors from some other worlds hardly notice them, even if they are astonished when they are pointed out.”

Art said, “Then why don’t we go back to the other room?”

Oinos turned. “Excellent.” They went back, and Art sat down in his chair.

Art, after a long pause, said, “I still find it puzzling why, if you appreciate technology, you don’t want to have more of it.”

Oinos said, “Why do you find it so puzzling?”

“Technology does seem to add a lot to the body.”

“That is a very misleading way to put it. The effect of most technologies that you think of as adding to the body is in fact to undercut the body. The technologies that you call ‘space-conquering’ might be appropriately called ‘body-conquering.'”

“So the telephone is a body-conquering device? Does it make my body less real?”

“Once upon a time, long ago from your perspective, news and information could not really travel faster than a person could travel. If you were talking with a person, that person had to be pretty close, and it was awkward and inconvenient to communicate with those who were far away. That meant that the people you talked with were probably people from your local community.”

“So you were deprived of easy access to people far away?”

“Let me put it this way. It mattered where you were, meaning where your body was. Now, on the telephone, or instant messages, or the web, nothing and no one is really anywhere, and that means profound things for what communities are. And are not. You may have read about ‘close-knit rural communities’ which have become something exotic and esoteric to most of your world’s city dwellers… but when space conquering technologies had not come in, and another space-conquering technology, modern roads allowing easy moving so that people would have to say goodbye to face-to-face friendships every few years… It’s a very different way of relating. A close-knit rural community is exotic to you because it is a body-based community in ways that tend not to happen when people make heavy use of body-conquering, or space-conquering, or whatever you want to call them, technologies.”

“But isn’t there more than a lack of technologies to close-knit communities?”

“Yes, indeed… but… spiritual discipline is about much more than the body, but a lot of spiritual discipline can only shape people when people are running into the body’s limitations. The disciplines—worship, prayer, fasting, silence, almsgiving, and so on—only mean something if there are bodily limits you are bumping into. If you can take a pill that takes away your body’s discomfort in fasting, or standing through worship, then the body-conquering technology of that pill has cut you off from the spiritual benefit of that practice.”

“Aren’t spiritual practices about more than the body?”

“Yes indeed, but you won’t get there if you have something less than the body.”

Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”

Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”

Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”

Art hesitated, and began to sit up.

Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”

Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.

Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”

Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”

Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”

“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”

“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.

“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the minute difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”

“Um, I don’t know…”

“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”

“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”

“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”

“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”

“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”

“Would you explain relativity to me so that I can discuss its implications?”

“I really think there might be more productive ways to use your visit.”

“But you have a scientist’s understanding of relativity.”

“I am not sure I’d say that.”

“Why? You seem to understand relativity a lot more like a scientist than I do.”

“Let’s talk about biology for a moment. Do you remember the theory of spontaneous generation? You know, the theory that life just emerges from appropriate material?”

“I think so.”

“But your world’s scientists haven’t believed in spontaneous generation since over a century before you were born. Why would you be taught that theory—I’m assuming you learned this in a science class and not digging into history?”

“My science course explained the theory in covering historical background, even though scientists no longer believe that bread spontaneously generates mold.”

“Let me ask what may seem like a non-sequitur. I assume you’re familiar with people who are working to get even more of religion taken out of public schools?”

“Yes.”

“They are very concerned about official prayers at school events, right? About having schools endorse even the occasional religious practice?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Let me ask what may seem like a strange question. Have these ‘separation of Church and state’ advocates also advocated that geometry be taken out of the classroom?”

Art closed his eyes, and then looked at Oinos as if he had two heads. “It seems you don’t know everything about my world.”

“I don’t. But please understand that geometry did not originate as a secular technical practice. You migth have heard this mentioned. Geometry began its life as a ‘sacred science,’ or a religious practice, and to its founders the idea that geometry does not have religious content would have struck them as worse than saying that prayer does not have religious content.”

“Ok, I think I remember that being mentioned. So to speak, my math teacher taught about geometry the ‘sacred science’ the way that my biology teacher taught about the past theory of spontaneous generation.”

Oinos focused his eyes on Art. “In our schools, and in our training, physics, biology, and chemistry are ‘taught’ as ‘secular sciences’ the same way, in your school, spontaneous generation is taught as ‘past science’, or even better, the ‘sacred science’ of geometry is ‘taught’ in the course of getting on to a modern understanding of geometry.”

Art said, “So the idea that the terrain we call ‘biology’ is to you—”

Oinos continued: “As much something peered at through a glass bell as the idea that the terrain of regular polygons belongs to a secularized mathematics.”

“What is a sacred science?”

Oinos sat back. “If a science is about understanding something as self-contained whose explanations do not involve God, and it is an attempt to understand as physics understand, and the scientist understands as a detached observer, looking in through a window, then you have a secular science—the kind that reeks of the occult to us. Or that may sound strange, because in your world people proclaiming sacred sciences are proclaiming the occult. But let me deal with that later. A sacred science does not try to understand objects as something that can be explained without reference to God. A sacred science is first and foremost about God, not about objects. When it understands objects, it understands them out of God, and tries to see God shining through them. A sacred science has its home base in the understanding of God, not of inanimate matter, and its understanding of things bears the imprint of God. If you want the nature of its knowing in an image, do not think of someone looking in and observing, detached, through a window, but someone drinking something in.”

“Is everything a sacred science to you? And what is a sacred science? Astrology?”

“Something like that, except that I use the term ‘sacred science’ by way of accommodation. Our own term is one that has no good translation in your language. But let us turn to the stars.”

“Astrology is right in this: a star is more than a ball of plasma. Even in the Bible there is not always such a distinction between the ranks of angels and the stars as someone raised on materialist science might think.” He rose, and began to walk, gesturing for Art to follow him. In the passage, they turned and entered a door. Oinos lit a lamp next to an icon on the wall.

The icon looked like starlight. It showed angels praying at the left, and then the studded sapphiric canopy of the night sky behind a land with herbs shooting from the earth, and on the right an immense Man—if he was a Man—standing, his hand raised in benediction. All around the sapphire dome were some majestic figures, soaring aloft in two of their six wings. Art paused to drink it in.

“What are those symbols?”

“They are Greek letters. You are looking at an icon of the creation of the stars, but the text is not the text for that day; it is from another book, telling of the angels thunderously shouting for joy when the stars were created. So the stars are connected with the angels.”

“Is this astrology?”

“No, because the stars and angels both point to God. The influences in astrology point beyond matter to something else, but they do not point far enough beyond themselves. If you can use something to make a forecast that way, it doesn’t point far enough beyond itself.”

“Why not?”

“One definition to distinguish religion from magic—one used by anthropologists—is that religion is trying to come into contact with the divine, and magic is trying to control the divine. God cannot be controlled, and there is something of control in trying to foretell a future that God holds in mystery. A real God cannot be pried into by a skill. Astrology departs from a science that can only see stars as so much plasma, but it doesn’t go far enough to lead people to look into the stars and see a shadow of their Creator. To be a sacred science, it is not enough to point to something more than matter as secular science understands it; as the term is used in our language, one can only be a sacred science by pointing to God.”

“Then what is a sacred science? Which branches of learning as you break them up? Can they even be translated into my language?”

“You seem to think that if astrology is not a sacred science then sacred sciences must be something much more hidden. Not so. Farming is a sacred science, as is hunting, or inventing, or writing. When a monk makes incense, it is not about how much incense he can make per unit of time; his making incense is the active part of living contemplatively, and his prayer shows itself in physical labor. His act is more than material production; it is a sacred science, or sacred art or sacred endeavor, and what goes into and what comes out of the activity is prayer. Nor is it simply a matter that he is praying while he acts; his prayers matter for the incense. There are many lands from your world’s Desert Fathers to Mexico in your own day where people have a sense that it matters what state people cook in, and that cooking with love puts something into a dish that no money can buy. Perhaps you will not look at me askance when I say that not only monks in their monasteries exotically making incense for worship are performing a sacred science, but cooking, for people who may be low on the totem pole and who are not considered exotic, as much as for anyone else, can and should be a sacred science. Like the great work that will stay up with a sick child all night.”

“Hmm…” Art said, and then finished his tankard. “Have you traveled much?”

“I have not reached one in five of the galaxies with inhabited worlds. I can introduce you to people who have some traveling experience, but I am not an experienced traveler. Still, I have met sites worth visiting. I have met, learned, worshiped. Traveling in this castle I have drunk the blood of gems. There are worlds where there is nothing to see, for all is music, and song does everything that words do for you. I have beheld a star as it formed, and I have been part of an invention that moves forward as a thousand races in their laboratories add their devices. I have read books, and what is more I have spoken with members of different worlds and races. There seems to be no shortage of wonders, and I have even been to your own world, with people who write fantasy that continues to astonish us—”

“My son-in-law is big into fantasy—he got me to see a Lord of the whatever-it-was movie—but I don’t fancy them much myself.”

“We know about Tolkein, but he is not considered a source of astonishing fantasy to us.”

“Um…” Art took a long time to recall a name, and Oinos waited patiently. “Lewis?”

“If you’re looking for names you would have heard of, Voltaire and Jung are two of the fantasy authors we consider essential. Tolkein and Lewis are merely imaginative. It is Voltaire and Jung who are truly fantasy authors. But there are innumerable others in your world.”

Art said, “Um… what do you mean by ‘fantasy author’?”

Oinos turned. “I’m sorry; there is a discrepancy between how your language uses ‘fantasy author’ and ours. We have two separate words that your ‘fantasy’ translates, and the words stand for very different concepts. One refers to works of imagination that are set in another world that is not confused with reality. The other refers to a fundamental confusion that can cost a terrible price. Our world does not produce fiction; we do appreciate the fiction of other worlds, but we do not draw a particularly strong line between fiction where only the characters and events are imagined, and fiction where the whole world is imagined. But we do pay considerable attention to the second kind of fantasy, and our study of fantasy authors is not a study of imagination but a study of works that lead people into unreality. ‘Fantasy author’ is one of the more important terms in understanding your world and its history.”

Art failed to conceal his reaction.

“Or perhaps I was being too blunt. But, unfashionable as it may be, there is such a thing as evil in your world, and the ways in which people live, including what they believe, has something to do with it. Not everything, but something.”

Oinos waited for a time. Then, when Art remained silent, he said, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” He opened a door on the other side of the room, and went into the next room. The room was lit by diffuse moonlight, and there was a ledge around the room and water which Oinos stirred with his hand to light a phosphorescent glow. When Art had stepped in, Oinos stepped up, balancing on a steel cable, and stood silent for a while. “Is there anything here that you can focus on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Step up on this cable and take my hand.”

“What if I fall into the water?”

Art tried to balance, but it seemed even more difficult in the dark. For a while, he tried to keep his balance with Oinos’s help, but he seemed barely up. He overcompensated twice in opposite directions, began flying into the water, and was stopped at last by Oinos’s grip, strong as steel, on his arm.

“I can’t do this,” Art said.

“Very well.” Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.

“What is it?”

“A telescope, not too different from those of your world.”

Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, “Do you see that body?”

“What is it?”

“A small moon.”

Oinos said, “I want you to look at it as closely as you can,” and then pulled something on the telescope.

“It’s moving out of sight.”

“That’s right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them.”

“Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?”

“This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation.”

Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.

Art said, “This is a hard telescope to control.”

Oinos said, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

“Can you turn the tracking back on?”

Oinos merely repeated, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view… and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.

Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.

“Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?”

“We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it’s not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly.”

“Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?”

“Maybe you aren’t pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?”

Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.

Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn’t have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.

He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.

It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.

Then Art realized he was exhausted, and began to sit down; Oinos pulled him to a bench.

After closing his eyes for a while, Art said, “This was a magnificent break from your teaching.”

“A break from teaching? What would you mean?”

Art sat, opened his mouth, and then closed it. After a while, he said, “I was thinking about what you said about fantasy authors… do you think there is anything that can help?”

Oinos said, “Let me show you.” He led Art into a long corridor with smooth walls and a round arch at top. A faint blue glow followed them, vanishing at the edges. Art said, “Do you think it will be long before our world has full artificial intelligence?”

Oinos said, “Hmm… Programming artificial intelligence on a computer is not that much more complex than getting a stone to lay an egg.”

Art said, “But our scientists are making progress. Your advanced world has artificial intelligence, right?”

Oinos said, “Why on earth would we be able to do that? Why would that even be a goal?”

“You have computers, right?”

“Yes, indeed; the table that I used to call up a scientific calculator works on the same principle as your world’s computers. I could almost say that inventing a new kind of computer is a rite of passage among serious inventors, or at least that’s the closest term your world would have.”

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

“I know that computers don’t have emotions yet, but they seem to have rationality down cold.”

“Do they?”

“Are you actually going to tell me that computers, with their math and logic, aren’t rational?”

“Let me ask you a question. Would you say that the thing you can hold, a thing that you call a book, can make an argument?”

“Yes; I’ve seen some pretty good ones.”

“Really? How do paper and ink think out their position?”

Art hesitated, and said, “Um, if you’re going to nitpick…”

“I’m not nitpicking. A book is a tool of intelligent communication, and they are part of how people read author’s stories, or explanation of how to do things, or poetry, or ideas. But the physical thing is not thereby intelligent. However much you think of a book as making an argument, the book is incapable of knowing what an argument is, and for that matter the paper and ink have no idea of whether they contain the world’s best classic, or something mediocre, or incoherent accusations that world leaders are secretly planning to turn your world to dog drool, or randomly generated material that is absolute gibberish. The book may be meaningful to you, but the paper with ink on it is not the sort of thing that can understand what you recognize through the book.

“This might ordinarily be nitpicking, but it says something important about computers. One of the most difficult things for computer science instructors in your world to pound through people’s heads is that a computer does not get the gist of what you are asking it to do and overlook minor mistakes, because the computer has no sense of what you are doing and no way to discern what were trying to get it to do from a mistake where you wrote in a bug by telling it to do something slightly different from what you meant. The computer has no sense that a programmer meant anything. A computer follows instructions, one after another, whether or not they make sense, and indeed without being able to wonder whether they make sense. To you, a program may be a tool that acts as an electronic shopping cart to let you order things through the web, but the web server no more understands that it is being used as a web server than a humor book understands that it is meant to make people laugh. Now most or all of the books you see are meant to say something—there’s not much market for a paperback volume filled with random gibberish—but a computer can’t understand that it is running a program written for a purpose any more than a book can understand that the ink on its pages is intended for people to read.”

Art said, “You don’t think artificial intelligence is making real progress? They seem to keep making new achievements.”

Oinos said, “The rhetoric of ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now; we’re on the verge of full artificial intelligence, and with what we’re achieving, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner’ is not new: people have been saying that full artificial intelligence is just around the corner since before you were born. But breeding a better and better kind of apple tree is not progress towards growing oranges. Computer science, and not just artificial intelligence, has gotten good at getting computers to function better as computers. But human intelligence is something else… and it is profoundly missing the point to only realize that the computer is missing a crucial ingredient of the most computer-like activity of human rational analysis. Even if asking a computer to recognize a program’s purpose reflects a fundamental error—you’re barking up the wrong telephone pole. Some people from your world say that when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The most interesting thing about the mind is not that it can do something more complete when it pounds in computer-style nails. It’s something else entirely.”

“But what?”

“When things are going well, the ‘computer’ that performs calculating analysis is like your moon: a satellite, that reflects light from something greater. Its light is useful, but there is something more to be had. The sun, as it were, is that the mind is like an altar, or even something better. It takes long struggles and work, but you need to understand that the heart of the mind is at once practical and spiritual, and that its greatest fruit comes not in speech but in silence.”

Art was silent for a long time.

Oinos stopped, tapped a wall once, and waited as an opening appeared in the black stone. Inside an alcove was a small piece of rough hewn obsidian; Oinos reached in, took it, and turned it to reveal another side, finely machined, with a series of concentric ridged grooves centered around a tiny niche. “You asked what a kairometer was, and this is a kairometer, although it would take you some time to understand exactly what it is.”

“Is it one of the other types of computers in your world?”

“Yes. I would call it information technology, although not like the information technology you know. It is something people come back to, something by which people get something more than they had, but it does this not so much according to its current state as to our state in the moment we are using it. It does not change.” Oinos placed the object in Art’s hands.

Art slowly turned it. “Will our world have anything like this?”

Oinos took the kairometer back and returned it to its niche; when he withdrew his hand, the opening closed with a faint whine. “I will leave you to find that yourself.”

Oinos began walking, and they soon reached the end of the corridor. Art followed Oinos through the doorway at the end and gasped.

Through the doorway was something that left Art trying to figure out whether or not it was a room. It was a massive place, lit by a crystalline blue light. As Art looked around, he began to make sense of his surroundings: there were some bright things, lower down, in an immense room with rounded arches and a dome at the top, made of pure glass. Starlight streamed in. Art stepped through the doorway and sunk down a couple of inches.

Oinos stooped for a moment, and then said, “Take off your shoes. They are not needed here.” Art did so, and found that he was walking on a floor of velveteen softness. In the far heart of the room a thin plume of smoke arose. Art could not tell whether he smelled a fragrance, but he realized there was a piercing chant. Art asked, “What is the chant saying?”

Oinos did not answer.

What was the occasion? Art continued to look, to listen, and began trying to drink it in. It almost sounded as if they were preparing to receive a person of considerable importance. There was majesty in the air.

Oinos seemed to have slipped away.

Art turned and saw an icon behind him, hanging on the glass. There was something about it he couldn’t describe. The icon was dark, and the colors were bright, almost luminous. A man lay dreaming at the bottom, and something reached up to a light hidden in the clouds—was it a ladder? Art told himself the artistic effect was impressive, but there was something that seemed amiss in that way of looking at it.

What bothered him about saying the icon had good artistic effect? Was the artistry bad? That didn’t seem to be it. He looked at a couple of areas of artistic technique, but it was difficult to do so; such analysis felt like a foreign intrusion. He thought about his mood, but that seemed to be the wrong place to look, and almost the same kind of intrusion. There seemed to be something shining through the icon; looking at it was like other things he had done in this world, only moreso. He was looking through the icon and not around it, but… Art had some sense of what it was, but it was not something he could fit into words.

After being absorbed in the icon, Art looked around. There must have been hundreds of icons around, and lights, and people; he saw what seemed like a sparse number of people—of Oinos’s kind—spread out through the vast space. There was a chant of some kind that changed from time to time, but seemed to somehow be part of the same flow. Things seemed to move very slowly—or move in a different time, as if clock time were turned on its side, or perhaps as if he had known clock time as it was turned on its side and now it was right side up—but Art never had the sense of nothing going on. There seemed to always be something more going on than he could grasp.

Art shifted about, having stood for what seemed like too long, sat down for a time, and stood up. The place seemed chaotic, in a way cluttered, yet when he looked at the “clutter,” there was something shining through, clean as ice, majestic as starlight, resonant as silence, full of life as the power beneath the surface of a river, and ordered with an order that no rectangular grid could match. He did not understand any of the details of the brilliant dazzling darkness… but they spoke to him none the less.

After long hours of listening to the chant, Art realized with a start that the fingers of dawn had stolen all around him, and he saw stone and verdant forest about the glass walls until the sunlight began to blaze. He thought, he though he could understand the song even as its words remained beyond his reach, and he wished the light would grow stronger so he could see more. There was a crescendo all about him, and—

Oinos was before him. Perhaps for some time.

“I almost understand it,” Art said. “I have started to taste this world.”

Oinos bowed deeply. “It is time for you to leave.”

A periodic table: elements that have shaped me, and elements that I have shaped

The Steel Orb

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Spirit

Links: Read anything good lately?

Dexios: An article that tries to catch you by beginning, “They really should have put it into my contract: I, the undersigned, hereby agree to spend one-half to three-quarters of all class time explaining why watching Dawson’s Creek and thinking vague thoughts about God is not a valid substitute for attending mass.” The students weren’t affected by the usual exhortations, until she happened on a visit to monastic worship.

Links: …And?

Dexios: The students were perfectly welcome, but the monks were there worshipping God and the students were welcome to join the monks worshipping God. And that got their attention when a whole legion of ill-starred attempts to get their attention failed. One student said, “With all the other masses, it’s like it was all about me or something. With this mass, I got the feeling it was about God.” And that succeeded where words about “It’s commanded,” or “It’s good for you,” failed.

The students weren’t really asking “Why should I go to mass?” at all; they said that because they couldn’t form the words to ask what they really meant.

Links: And that was…?

Dexios: “Why should I go to that mass?”

Links: Wow. I’m surprised you’re siding with a bunch of rebellious—how old are they?

Dexios: Students at a Catholic high school. And as to rebellious—teenagers are likely to rebel and be rebels without a cause if they have too much trouble finding a good enough cause, but there’s something that has to do with spirit that isn’t rebellious at all. They rejected counterfeit coin.

Links: “Spirit?” As in—

Dexios: Um, as in—[pause]

Links: —as in something you’re thinking about?

Dexios: Yes.

Links: So you’re saying these students were super spiritual?

Dexios: Yes. No. Saying that they’re super spiritual is an answer to the wrong question. Sure, I’d love to bring two (or however many it was) busloads of kids to our parish and show them how Orthodox worship is taken seriously even if you’re not monks, but if you’re thinking of spirit as some special quality that has an incense rising up from the best people’s heads, that’s exactly what it’s not. I would say it’s natural, if people hadn’t heard a million voices saying that appetite is the only thing that’s natural about us. These kids weren’t showing spirit because they were being urged to be spirit enough to want real worship and not a show—if anything, they were spirit enough for that despite people urging them that shows dressed up as worship were good enough for them. And the author of the article didn’t say that every now and then she sees a kid with a halo and that kid wants a real worship service, and is so spiritually snobbish that only a monastic service will satisfy him. (She said the services were “relaxed, by monastic standards,” whatever that means.) What she was saying was that everyday, normal kids kept asking her why they should go to mass until she showed them…

A real mass. Or rather, one where monks were there to worship God and other people were quite welcome to join them in worshipping God.

Links: [pause] In Spirit and in Truth.

Dexios: In Spirit and in Truth. And I realized just now that the article has more going on in it than just spirit. It has a million other substitutes for spirit that people aren’t happy with. Maybe it wasn’t just spirit that resonated with me.

Links: Where else?

Dexios: Maybe your art history education simply talked about different eras and cultures choosing different strengths to develop—

Links: —it did—

Dexios: —but in mine there was a story of progress: at first medieval art was crude, and then changes began in medieval art that resulted in art getting better and better at being like a photograph until eventually artists weren’t an expensive substitute for a photograph. The history of Western art was a history of progress, starting with medieval art that didn’t look like a good photograph up to Enlightenment neo-classicism that could give a good photograph a run for its money. Which is exactly right, except that it’s backwards.

Links: Let me guess. You’re going to say that the medieval art was spiritual, or spirit?

Dexios: Something like that, because the baseline for medieval art was similar to icons. They hadn’t gone to such scientific lengths to get a scientifically correct rendition of the human body for the mirror image of why pastors get their science illustrations wrong. Pastors and theologians get their science wrong because their focus is on theology and just a little science is brought in to make a point—and the fact that the science is usually wrong shows that their hearts are in the right place. But scientific art, unlike medieval art but like “The Oaths of the Horatii” by Jacques Louis David, for which he sketched first skeletons and then muscles and then bodies and only then painted bodies complete with clothes, represents a fall from a spiritual center of gravity.

Links: But the material world is good, and understanding it is good.

Dexios: Um…

Links: Which of those do you want to deny?

Dexios: Do you believe I have to deny that the material world is good? Or, alternately, that understanding the material world is good?

Links: Unless you want to say some very strange things about science.

Dexios: Ugh, I was hoping to avoid saying strange things about science. But first of all, you seem to be treating “understanding the natural world” and “science” as interchangeable, so that it is inconceivable what “understanding the human body” could mean besides “learning scientific facts about the body.”

Links: And how exactly would I learn about the body apart from science?

Dexios: Let’s see, you could look Appreciate art that portrays the human form, or discover how your body behaves by playing Baseball, or have a Chiropractic massage, if there is such a thing, or Dance, or—

Links: —didn’t you say something about “alignment of the stars, alignment of the bones…” yesterday?

Dexios: You interrupted me! I was hoping to work my way up to something profound. But let’s put massage under ‘M‘ and forget about the alignment of the bones. I don’t want to get into alternative medicine, besides saying that it seems a hint that people have some sense that their bodies have to have more to do with spirit than the almost mechanical view of “Western medicine”, which is powerful and yet considered narrow in some circles.

And now for something related to the other horn for your dilemma.

Having enough to eat is good. So is having clothing, and a roof over your head in nasty weather. But the Sermon on the Mount tells us not to seek after these things: yes, we need them, and the Heavenly Father knows this well enough. But we are to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and his perfect righteousness, making our center of gravity there, and making a spiritual center of gravity. Oh, and by the way, the other things will be given to us as well, even though that isn’t the point. The point, if I may use slightly non-Sermon-on-the-Mount language, is to have a spiritual center of gravity.

Links: But aren’t you changing the subject of the Sermon on the Mount? Unless you talk about being poor in spirit, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t use the word “spirit.”

Dexios: Matthew’s Gospel talks about the Kingdom of Heaven and John’s talks about abundant or eternal Life. As concepts they are not identical but you cannot treat them as dealing with separate realities, which would make the crudest fallacy. The Sermon on the Mount barely uses the word “spirit,” but nothing from the ages is a better resource on living as spirit. And the distinction between ‘Spirit’, big ‘S’, and ‘spirit’, little ‘s’, is not what you think.

Links: What do you mean?

Dexios: The distinction doesn’t exist in Greek, or at least is not forced in that if you write “spirit” you have to decide if it has a big or little ‘s’. A lot of people think they need to place a vast chasm between big ‘S’ spirit and little ‘s’ spirit so that it’s almost two different words. But body is not so much the opposite of spirit as where spirit unfurls, and our spirits, little ‘s’, are not so much the opposite of the Holy Spirit as where God’s Spirit unfurls.

But this is a minor point. Nitpicking about a little or big ‘S’ on “Spirit”, I mean. Body is profoundly important. Far from being a mere enemy of spirit, it is a proper counterpart, and that means that when you know the proper meaning of body, you know that it is where spirit unfurls, and the difference between a holy icon and secular art is not that secular art takes a high view of the body in contrast to holy icons, but icons take a high view of the body by letting it get inspired by spirit. Literally and figuratively, body is meant to be where spirit unfurls, and the monk who lives a life of “contemplation” and the “secular” Christian who lives contemplation in the world are both spirit at work. But may I make a more concrete illustration of spirit? In social ethics, perhaps?

Links: What are Orthodox social ethics?

Dexios: “Our social program is the Trinity,” as Orthodox seem to not be able to stop repeating. I’m not sure you have to say “Trinity” instead of, say, plugging in spirit, but what it is becomes clearer by contrast with Catholic social ethics. Catholic social ethics addresses a question that isn’t addressed in the Bible, or at least looks at its question in a very different light.

Links: What did they see? A better way to solve an old problem?

Dexios: Well, that would at least be their interpretation, and when they present things their way, it’s kind of hard to see any other way of seeing it.

Links: What is the basic question?

Dexios: The basic question they address is, “What should be done about the poor,” and the way they interpret that question is, “What societal structures should be erected so that poverty isn’t the same sort of issue?”

Links: But isn’t that how the problem is approached today?

Dexios: Maybe, but its differences from how the Gospel interprets the problem are profound. If you look in the Bible, poverty looms large. Where the Old Testament theocracy had done things by force, the New Testament calls people to responsibility and generosity. “Give to the one who asks of you” and all that. But nowhere in the Gospel is there an agenda for societal reform. There are no quasi-statist outlines for how the government should take from the rich and redistribute to the poor: Christians are told what they should do, not how the government should approach things differently.

It is not, in terms of the Gospel precepts, an improvement to go from people learning to be sons of God and in their sonship exercising almsgiving and generosity as profound and powerful spiritual discipline, to coercion that transfers other people’s resources while denying them the power to choose and all but snatching from their hand most opportunities to be generous. It is apparently perceived that by thinking in the terms of secular ideologies in imitation of various secular and anti-Christian movements, the Catholic Church is growing enough to take an effective approach that will make a real difference. Or perhaps it is not growth but a failure to understand what exactly is going on in Christ’s movement.

Links: But the New Testament is not pure capitalism.

Dexios: Indeed not. I operate within a capitalist system because that is where God has placed me; but that doesn’t mean that I have to make capitalism my God.

Links: I’ve read that in the ancient Church there were some rather communist people who were big into selling lands and liquidating property.

Dexios: Yes, and they are not a support for imposing communism.

Links: They seem pretty communist in what they chose to me.

Dexios: They seem pretty communist in what they chose to me too. The Bible has high praise for people who in their sonship choose to give away everything that makes them wealthy. I’ve heard today about one man who gave away his Ferrari to become a monk. That discipleship is singularly beautiful, and it is not the same thing as imposing a plan that takes away other people’s wealth and the opportunity to even be generous in giving it away. There are few things a capitalist community needs more than the salt and light of people who show that there are bigger things in life than wealth.

But that does not mean that the high virtue of selling one’s property and giving away the proceeds should be forced and have its virtue and power flattened out. The story of Ananias and Sapphira seems to have a clear point. Ananias and Sapphira owned their property and were under no obligation to sell it. When they did sell it, although they pretended to lay all of the money at the apostles’ feet they were under no obligation to donate any of it, let alone all of it. Their sin was in lying to God and saying that they had given everything when they kept something back. For that sin alone God struck them both dead. Even if the story implies something deeper about selling one’s property and laying the proceeds about the apostles’ point, it gets to that point by explicitly saying that there is no obligation to give. Which perhaps suggests that giving at its best is not a matter of what is required but the deiform, Christian, flowing, free virtue of generosity which is infinitely more than duty.

Links: I think I am beginning to see what’s wrong with thinking Acts encourages communism.

Dexios: I should hastily clarify that most of the Catholic social teaching I’ve read does not endorse communism; they take somewhat different positions but the general drift is that even though the encyclicals adopt features of socialism, socialism and communism were off limits to Catholics.

Links: Then why try so hard to show that the New Testament endorses voluntary giving rather than involuntary communism?

Dexios: Because people trying to get you to see things the Catholic social ethics say, in effect, “Why are you fussing so much about us asking for a few coercive measures to give from the rich to the poor? Can’t you see that the New Testament waxes eloquent about the glory of Early Church communism, which goes much further than the modest and sensible measures we happen to ask for?” But it doesn’t—perhaps Christians in their discipleship and giving went further than these social reforms would ask for; they went further in that. But the “communism” in the New Testament was a matter of voluntary discipleship and generosity, not coercion. And therefore the New Testament is a profound warrant to rising above greed and giving up possessions, but that passage at least is not a warrant for the kind of social reform it is used to endorse.

Links: If I can sum up what you’re saying, you’re saying, “Care for the poor in the Gospel is an aspect of spirit and discipleship, and by trying to institute compulsory programs that destroy the opportunity for voluntary generosity, you’re destroying the opportunity for spiritual discipleship.” Correct?

Dexios: That is correct.

Links: Then what do they say to that objection? Or do they not address it?

Dexios: Um… that is hard to unravel. Do you want me to try?

Links: At least try.

Dexios: Are you familiar with behaviorism? Behaviorism’s fallen out of favor, but it is a psychological school that dealt with how people behave after reward and punishment—but with no acknowledgment of emotions, beliefs, or other internal states—

Links: How does that draw people?

Dexios: That’s not clear to me, but it was influential. At any rate, and this is the analogy I’m trying to draw, that in behaviorist teaching, people do not say, “There is no soul,” but they draw the student to look at things so that the possibility of a soul is never even considered. This was said to introduce Michael Polanyi, a philosopher who worked with tacit and personal scientific knowledge. Similarly, the Catholic social ethics sources I’ve read do not raise the objection of sonship and voluntary giving to explicitly rebut it, but rather frame things so that concept is never even thought of or considered.

There are a couple of ways of doing this, but besides not considering it, they quote Biblical and patristic praise for voluntary giving as a straightforward example for why we should support coercive social programs. No explanation is offered; no acknowledgment is given that giving as a matter of New Testament spiritual discipleship could be something other than a support for institutional and partly statist programs that work by coercion. Most readers, I expect, will look at things the way they’re supposed to see, and think that New Testament praise of giving applies to giving through social programs.

One thing that did surprise me was that it wasn’t just conservatives who were offering criticism. There were apparently some people on the left who were all for social programs and planning, but weren’t entirely thrilled that the Pope was entering their domain. It might have come across as an intrusion from another domain, like advice to mathematicians on how to solve the 3x+1 problem.

Links: The 3x+1 problem? What’s that?

Dexios: Take a counting number; if it’s even, divide by two, but if it’s odd, multiply by three and add one. If you get a calculator and keep doing this, you’ll see that any number you try gives 4, then 2, then 1, then cycles back to 4, 2, 1, etc. But even though if you’ll do this many times and the same thing keeps happening, it’s proven obnoxiously hard to prove that the thing that happens every time you try does, in fact, happen no matter what number you start with. A lot of mathematicians have spent a lot of effort without solving it, but actually solving the problem has proven as elusive as designing a society without problems, or at least without major ones. Solving the problem will be an incredibly big deal, maybe the mathematical event of the century, should it ever be solved.

But can you imagine how the mathematical community would respond if the Vatican tried to advise it on the most productive way to try to solve the 3x+1 problem?

Links: Um… but the Papacy is not ordinarily associated with authority in mathematics. Isn’t ethics a little less unusual of a thing for the Vatican to be talking about?

Dexios: It’s not strange that a Pope was talking about ethics; the surprising thing is that the Pope was answering a question that has little in the way of spirit. Almost every little question and every specific answer in these encyclicals is about what is to be coerced. The encyclicals manage to talk about care for the poor without almost ever exhorting Catholics and the rich to be generous. The idea that caring for the poor could be an occasion for virtue has remnants here and there, but the basic substance of the answer was in terms of what coercive mechanisms should take of those who have, not how the rich should voluntarily give or how people should grow in virtue.

Spirit is not something abstract from daily decisions; it is present, among other things, in being generous to beggars and allowing your money and what you do with it to be progressively transformed into spirit. When the question of caring for the poor becomes something where one person’s generosity is ridiculed and the question is framed as what should be coercively taken from people and made as a coerced gift without generosity, then an area that has much room for spirit to be manifest is drained of spirit.

Other criticisms came that papal teaching was Utopian, that it was a thinly disguised Marxism, and I forget what else—there was one encyclical entitled “Mater et Magistra”, “Mother and Teacher”, and one pundit said there was something making the rounds about “Mother, yes; teacher, no.” Usually the critiques came from conservatives, but there were liberals who wished the Vatican would proclaim the Gospel. Maybe I’m being naive, but it doesn’t seem impossible to me that atheists who are big into social planning, and who do not believe in the Gospel, none the less think that the Pope can give something by preaching the Gospel that they with their social plans cannot. I think there’s a lot of respect in that. What I would suggest is running through most, if not necessarily all, is that once upon a time the Pope used his authority to make saints, and now he seems to be exchanging his birthright for something much less, making social blueprints.

Links: But you must acknowledge that society is better off for such efforts, right?

Dexios: There is a certain set of blind spots that accompanies those assumptions; it is blind spots, I suggest, that has people look at pre-Vatican-II Catholics living in terms of spirit, giving to the world as saints, and caring for the poor in their generosity, and treat that as something murky and confused that Catholics have outgrown in the progress since Vatican II.

One of the things that comes with the social prescriptions, alongside a coercive character that stunts generosity, is that whatever the solution is, the answer is an institution, perhaps a state organization or something done by it. And no one questions whether this is the best way to do things; one would think it was the only way conceivable. But in fact it is not the only way.

In the ancient world, a great many things that have today been transformed into big, impersonal institutions—charity, hospitality, medicine, what would today be insurance, manufacture and production, commerce, and so on and so forth—were handled by smaller and more personal institutions. I might comment by the way that it’s lost on most people today is that when women were associated with the home that meant they were associated with the beating heart of charity, hospitality, manufacture, and many other things, so that the image of the depressed housewife with no company and nothing but housework to do is as anachronous to read into the ancient world as telephones or the internet: what feminism is reacting to is not the traditional society’s place for women, but what is left of it after that place, and most of what is connected to it, is torn to shreds.

Even today there are some things we do not relegate to impersonal institutions—romantic love and friendship, for instance. And I don’t know if there is a resurgence of home business due to the internet—perhaps certain modern changes cannot represent the last word.

But when Popes started to decide they needed a social teaching to fill out a deficiency, everything besides being coerced is filtered through impersonal institutions. And though one may see a pause once or twice to make fun of people being generous to beggars the way they did on the ancient world, the vision of progress does not stop to question whether filtering everything through a big institution was a big idea. I haven’t read through all the sources, but I haven’t read anything yet that stopped to explain “Here’s why John 3:16 did not say, ‘For God so loved the world that he formed a sanitized, impersonal organization.'”

Perhaps I am asking society to open a door that was forever closed; the earliest encyclicals tried to resurrect medieval-style guilds, and it is not clear to me why other sources mock this decision to try to resurrect a vibrant institution that worked long and well in one time in favor of speculation about institutions not proven to work in any time. My point is not that many things are done by impersonal organization today but that when the Catholic Church opens its mouth for social teaching, no one seems to consider that anything besides an impersonal organization powered by coercion could be desirable. By contrast, our social program is spirit: God so continues to love the world that he continues to send his saints, his sons, that whosoever believes through their life of spirit and their divine love might have eternal life from his only-begotten Son. (And a million smaller and less eternal changes, too.)

Links: So then another way to get at the point of “Our social program is the Trinity” is to say, “The Orthodox Church’s approach to living socially does not need a Utopian blueprint for society.”

Would I be correct in hearing queer quotes when you use the word “progress”?

Dexios: I usually hear “fashions” when I read a Catholic social ethicist writing about progress. It is progress given the assumptions of a particular perspective, and (usually) given a lack of understanding of what was moving away. Again to return to my example of depracating pre-Vatican-II days when Catholics tried to become saints and, I would say, benefit society by becoming spirit—and the “progress” to an activist approach to society—what we have is not a movement from the less advanced to the more advanced but a fashion shift from something that has fallen out of favor to something that will presumably fall out of favor. And in this case, a step back.

Links: What do you mean?

Dexios: To borrow an image which Catholic author Peter Kreeft borrowed from C.S. Lewis, ancient ethics asked three ethical questions while modern ethics answers one (usually, but maybe two). To visualize these questions with the image of a fleet of ships at sea, the first question is how the ships can avoid bumping into each other, and this question is shared by ancient and modern ethics. The second question is how the ships can keep shipshape and maintain themselves inside, and even though this question cannot really be separated from the first question, only some modern ethics addresses it. The third question, which is the most important one, is why the ships are out at sea in the first place.

If we look at the depracated, Orthodox model of becoming saints and being Heavenly minded enough to be of earthly good, then on a proper understanding that approach is something that says something to answer each of these questions; on that count at least, it is robust. If we look at the activist model, then things are reduced to one question, how the ships can be kept from bumping into each other, perhaps forcibly. It does reasonably well given that narrowing of focus, but it only answers that one question.

Now I would suggest that it is dubiously a moral advance to addressing three major questions to addressing one. Perhaps moral depth cannot always be settled by counting questions addressed, but this moral “advance” has been achieved by almost completely shutting off two out of three substantial questions. Which would appear to be not progress, but impoverishment.

Links: I think I can see how when you see the word “progress” you want to supply an English translation of “fashion”. Or would you rather say “regress”?

Dexios: I don’t want to analyze whether “regress” would be true, but I would rather speak of “fashion.” When fashions shift, people go from emphasizing some things to others. People become sensitized to some things and blinded to others. And, perhaps, sometimes, there will be real regress some times and real progress others. But there is a tendency for a fashion to see its waxing popular as progress, and I wish people could have the ability to say, “Maybe this is progress, maybe this is regress, and maybe this is just a fashion shift that, like most fashion shifts, looks like genuine progress once you adopt its peculiar sharp sensitivities and its pecular blind spots.” And no fashion shift is devoid of spirit, but if you are looking for where spirit is to be found, the house of fashion delivers less than it promises.

Links: It seems to me that Utopian dreams have never been fully realized but they have been realized somewhat, and that makes a big difference. You know that the wealthy nations may owe some of their wealth to oppression but some of it is due to the Utopian dreams of Adam Smith among others, who have discovered Midas’s secret?

Dexios: Don’t you mean Midas’s curse?

Links: Don’t you mean Midas’s blessing?

Dexios: In the story of Midas, Midas gained the “blessing” of turning everything he touched to gold. And it was wonderful, or it seemed wonderful, to kick pebbles and watch gold nuggets fall to earth. But then food turned to inedible gold, and drink likewise, and if I understand the story correctly he embraced his daughter only to have her reduced to nothing but a golden statue. Then he began to be blessed, and spiritual gold was forged when he realized that maybe turning everything to gold wasn’t such a good idea. Unfortunately, we haven’t gained the same transformation to spiritual gold when we are bombarded by advertisements.

Malcolm Muggeridge said that nothing proves “Man does not live by bread alone” like discovering the secret of mass-producing bread, and we have not only enough bread for everybody but enough meat for most beggars to eat meat regularly. People say, “I’m not rich; I’m in debt,” and have no idea that they can purchase a month’s food without suffering real financial injury. Which, to a great many people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, might as well be the ability to buy a BMW without facing any real financial obstacles. It seems for many of us by definition rich means “having more money than us because we couldn’t possibly be rich.”

Links: What’s the downside?

Dexios: One U.S. woman was visiting a woman in Central America, I forget where. They were having coffee when she looked around her hostess’s kitchen and met a dawning realization… “There isn’t any food on your shelves.”

“No… but there will be… and it’s a good thing that I don’t have any food now, because if I had it, why would I need to trust God for? But I will have food later…”

Links: We’re spiritual kindergardeners, aren’t we?

Dexios: If even that. That woman is spirit. She is sonship and sainthood. She is the Sermon on the Mount, and if we patronize her when we patronize “those less fortunate than ourselves,” we might also patronize St. Francis of Assisi for not knowing how to make a difference in the world. Not that I envy her poverty. But I envy her finding the Sermon on the Mount in her poverty, and it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to have what she has.

If capitalism is the most effective Utopian vision, it produces a Utopia for spoiled children. It may well deliver what the Utopian specifics in Catholic social teaching wouldn’t get working, but what capitalism delivers and what much Catholic Utopianism tries to deliver does not make people better, or nobler, or wiser. In the particular classically liberal capitalist socities I know, most people have about as many creature comforts as we know how to make—air conditioning in Habitat for Humanity houses, meat for the homeless, television for everyone who’s not homeless—and medicine and safety push back suffering and death so that you have a good chance of not dying young, and many, many people die segregated off in nursing homes so the rest of society does not have to be visibly reminded that people grow old and die. Utopia is not something that may someday exist if social planners someday get things right; it exists here and now because social planners got what they were trying to do right.

Links: But is suffering good? Does the Bible ever talk about wonderful suffering?

Dexios: Let me quote:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Rom 5.3-4. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Rom 8.18-9. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. I Cor 1.5-7. …that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Phil 3.10. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Col 1.24. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. Heb 2.10. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. I Pet 4.13.

At least for people like us who live in Utopia, you can think that all the things a spoiled child wants are your right and if you are really suffering—maybe you won’t be so crass as to say that any suffering is God’s punishment, but you’ll still think it’s an interruption that keeps you from the normal course of Christian life. But honoring God in suffering is the normal course of Christian life. Besides what I quoted, there’s the book of Job where God lays his honor on the line based on what Job will do when he has miserable suffering. I don’t know how to capture all the complexity of the Biblical views on suffering, but if suffering is praised as a sharing in the sufferings of the Son who was made perfect through suffering, then maybe it’s not doing the world a favor to engineer away suffering, even if that is possible.

It’s not just that the Gospel works best without suffering and now we may have good enough social plans to get the Gospel to where it works best. I fear Catholic social plans if they botch and have weird side effects like social plans sometimes do, but I fear them even more if they achieve what they want. Perhaps this is easy to say from Utopia, but having what Utopia provides, I have real doubts about whether it makes me spirit. In those things that most make me a mature man, I think Utopia is overrated. I may have some maturity through the discipline of going against the flow, but there’s a way where comfort can make faith lukewarm where intense persecution would make it stronger.

Catholic social planning is trying to make good that is only available to a majority available to everyone. I wish they had a somewhat bigger version of good to be sharing.

Links: So you are suspicious of efforts to help the poor.

Dexios: I am suspicious of some efforts and participate in others. I try to feed the hungry, and besides directly showing kindness to beggars I support charities—but these charities provide more than a spoiled child would want. They support people’s spiritual needs, like churches. I don’t believe education needs to be put on quite as high a pedestal as some people give it, but I support education.

I guess I need to clarify. My point wasn’t to say exactly what everybody in the world should have; when someone speaks to me out of pain, I rarely talk about pain as occasion for spiritual growth. But in Catholic social teaching people seemed to be saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if people had this, and this, and this,” and listed a number of things that for the most part do not make people better, or nobler, or wiser. There may be a discussion of duties alongside rights, but much of the encyclicals were about how much it would be better to have such things, and living in a society where most people do have those sort of things, I needed to say, “This is not what you think it is.”

Links: Is there anything specific that you would say that you want for the poor, and that you would try to help them come to it?

Dexios: Absolutely.

I want them to become spirit in as full a sense as possible. I want them to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I want them to live the life of Heaven that is meant to be here and now and not just after our resurrection. I want them to be transfigured, spirit, soul, and body, into the likeness of Christ, and to be little Christs. I want them to become divine, partakers of the divine nature. I want them to own the Kingdom of Heaven and live the Divine Life. And maybe it would be nice if some of them could send missionaries to the first world, to share some of their riches. And I would like the world to profit from their wealth as the poor are chosen to shame the rich. And not just to follow the vogues of the first world.

Links: Question: What do you think about non-Christian texts, like the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita, or Gospel of Thomas?

Dexios: Um…

Links: You’re going to say something nasty about Eastern religions, aren’t you?

Dexios: Asking what I think about non-Christian texts like the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Gospel of Thomas is like asking what I think about different forms of indoor exercise, like weightlifting, aerobics, and sticking your face in the fan.

The Tao Te Ching is spirit, and indeed words can be spirit, not just Christian words. So is the Bhagavad-Gita. From all I have heard, they are deep, deeper than a whale can dive, and they have taught healthy communities what it means to be human for thousands of years.

But a society that embraces Gnosticism sticks its face in the fan. Gnosticism unlike Hinduism and Taoism comes up again and again and each time it’s a downward spiral that does not give spirit to a society that embraces it the way Hinduism and Taoism do.

Links: I’ve read some Gnostic sacred texts and they engaged my spirit like almost nothing else; they drew me in.

Dexios: I’m not surprised. Gnostic scripture is spiritual porn. Sorry to use that image, but…

Links: Are you just calling names, or is there a substantive reason for that unflattering comparison?

Dexios: Marriage is spirit, and it incorporates a number of things into its partnership, including what repeated studies have found is the best environment to enjoy sex. But no marriage that’s lasted much longer the honeymoon has got there simply by sailing on pleasure; marriage is a crown of thorns, like monasticism, and part of the benefit it provides is not just an environment for children to grow up, but an environment for the parents to grow up. The best marriages are not a Utopia for spoiled children but a little Utopia for mature adults.

Marriage is like spirit and spirit is like marriage, including what can be misunderstood as the spiritual erotic, a haunting, exotic factor that belongs there even if it is ultimately beyond the erotic. But that doesn’t mean that exotic haunting all day long is what you should be getting. It doesn’t mean, in other words, that Gnosticism is the best way to be spirit.

Links: Have you read the Gnostic Scriptures?

Dexios: I’ve read a good number of Gnostic sacred texts.

There are a lot of people today who’ve heard that the Gnostic scriptures show the human face of Jesus, and the canonical Gospels make him seem so divine he’s not human. I’ve heard some people say that the best way to rebut that is to actually get people to read the Gnostic sacred texts, because the Gnostic sacred texts give some people what other people try to get from LSD, and their Christ is exotic and spiritual and several other things that do not include being human, not like the Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ death and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane with sweat like drops of blood—something medical that occasionally happens when people are too stressed out to possibly describe and that we do not need to explain away.

Links: So if people actually READ the texts they’ll stop saying “Here at last is the human face of Jesus.”?

Um, from the look on your face, you don’t like that question.

Dexios: Let me draw an analogy. There was one time when some art was displayed at a coffeeshop, and some people thought it was a big deal because it showed nudity. It struck me as… maybe I haven’t always been chaste in looking at nude artwork, but I honestly didn’t see what the big deal others saw. In a sense it wasn’t any more exciting than a cartoonish schematic diagram; it didn’t pose a problem to me because I didn’t understand how the art worked.

Then… I had been looking at the art and not understanding it, and suddenly something clicked and I did understand it, and when it communicated to me… Other artwork can just celebrate the human form, if this was like a schematic diagram it was schematic and focused attention on the sexual. When it clicked, the artwork went from simply being weird to being much more seductive than what we’re told a “celebration of the human form” is supposed to be.

And that is exactly what happened when I read enough Gnostic scripture. I read a little and it seemed weird. I read more and it clicked and I felt its pull. And I have been changed somewhat, and not entirely for the better.

Links: How could it change you?

Dexios: Once you have drunk from a well, you thirst for it.

Links: Do you really think that Gnosticism and The da Vinci Code are such a bad well to thirst for, such a bad spirit? There’s more spirit in The da Vinci Code, though maybe not as you’re using the term, than anything else to hit the shelves for a while. And it’s well-written.

Dexios: I know it’s well-written; after reading a bunch of Christian reports accusing it of being garbage literature, I feel its pull. I read it and to my consternation I want Mary Magdalene to be the Grail, and I seem to want to exchange a eucharistic Cup by which the Lord’s blood pulses in believer’s veins to believing that there is a very dilute royal bloodline alive in a few people I haven’t met, which is an exchange of gold for copper, but still something the book left me wanting. There is indeed a lot of spirit in it; it makes a good lure.

Links: Calling the book’s good points a “lure” is harsh, if the only real thing you’re going to acknowledge it is—what is it that this “lure” points to?

Dexios: Despair.

I was quite struck when I read a book entitled Against the Protestant Gnostics, written by a Protestant, by the way, and it said that Gnosticism besides being an a-historical phenomenon entirely hinged on one mood: despair.

The hope Dan Brown offers in The da Vinci Code is a hope of despair. It’s a hope that there’s some sexy secret to be had behind appearances, behind the here and now, and whatever else he may have wrong about earlier forms of Gnosticism being lovely and humane, he’s dead right about digging for something deeply hidden. You may have heard that some Gnostics taught that the world around us was made by an impotent, inferior, evil God and is evil. Even if not everybody said that in so many words the here and now that God gives us is something despicable. It is something to despair in and try to get around for some good that maybe more spiritual people can find. Is this good news?

Links: Hmm. I’d just assumed that the worst thing about Dan Brown was his anti-Catholicism. But you’re pretty critical of the Catholic Church too.

Dexios: Indeed, because it misses the mark. It comes close in some ways, but it misses the mark. But Dan Brown doesn’t seem hostile to the Catholic Church because of where it misses the mark, because of where it hits it. Whatever its imperfections may be, the Catholic Church has for about two thousand years been teaching people to be human and live lives of spirit, and live them in the here and now. Whatever other fussing I may make of the Catholic Church, it would be strange of me to deny that the Catholic Church offers something better than despair. Maybe I could wish they would do a better job of it, but the Catholic Church offers hope, and not just because a recent Pope had some very uplifting words about living in hope. Hope is a very deep root in the Catholic Church, and it lends shape to all sorts of other things.

Links: So maybe Dan Brown doesn’t offer the purest form of spirit, or maybe people would be better off if they could get to spirit in not such a despairing way. But doesn’t Dan Brown deserve credit for at least getting people to devote attention to matters of spirit?

Dexios: There’s a story where a princess is having a dreamlike meeting with her fairy grandmother many generations removed. Her nurse doesn’t believe the princess’s extraordinary tales about the grandmother, and when the princess wants to know, “Is it naughty of Nurse to not believe in you?” the grandmother only says, “It would be naughty of you.”

Quite probably there are people for whom Dan Brown is a step up, who move from unspiritual despair to spiritual despair. Quite certainly there are people learning from better sources, such as Taoism and Hinduism again, and are brought into spirit. And certainly I am glad that the high school students who ask, “Why go to mass?” can join monastic Catholic worship, not so much because it is monastic as because it is worship worthy of human beings. But I as Orthodox could not join them.

Links: Why not?

Dexios: Because however God deals with other people, it would be naughty of us.

God can move through non-Orthodox resources, and non-Christian ones. But when he places someone in full communion with his Church, the Orthodox Church, things that are permissible under partial communion are no longer permissible: though I am loth to speak of communion as a resource, God will work through other resources in a genuine way to people who only have those other resources, but when we have the opportunity to drink from the pure source we are not to take our substance from downstream. And it would be naughty of us, whether or not it would be naughty of others, to refuse to recognize the Orthodox Church of Christ as the fountain from which we drink.

Links: It would be depriving spirit of flourishing in body, wouldn’t it?

Dexios: I know that I’d say that for Dan Brown and other people who think that being Gnostic is the hidden root of spirituality. Against these I say that spirit is a great banner that when it unfurls gives shade to people-watching, travelling, listening to music, Starbuck’s—

Links: Starbuck’s? Doesn’t that, well—

Dexios: If you mean to purchase your identity at Starbuck’s then it will run short. But if you learn to enjoy things in the spirit, if you know there is more to life than food and drink, then an occasional treat can include Starbuck’s. Stewardship isn’t tight-fisted, and if you don’t need commercial products like some kind of sacrament, you are freed to truly enjoy them.

Links: But what if the way people are naturally led to approach Starbuck’s is as a sacrament?

Dexios: What if? So we live in a wealthy society. So when someone asks, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” people just hit the snooze button. So advertising is an abominable manipulation to make people covet things they don’t need. If you are to live a life of spirit, then that means living a life of spirit in this economy, living simply and generously, and not laying the reins on the horse’s neck. Your responsibility is to let what you buy be body where your life of spirit is manifest, and if Starbuck’s tries to sell you an identity, and that identity is inimical to living a life of spirit, your responsibility is still to life a life of spirit that unfurls itself in how you use wealth.

Links: This makes sense now that you say it, but where did you get that?

Dexios: That is one of the things that may, or may not, be added to us if we seek first the Kingdom of God, and it is not essential for everyone.

Links: Then what is essential?

Dexios: Spirit. Contemplation. Don’t ask where to strike the balance between action and contemplation. Pursue contemplation, and don’t be surprised if after a time the way God tells you to contemplate is to plant a tree.

Links: Where did you get “plant a tree” from?

Dexios: Martin Luther. When he was asked what he would do if he knew the Lord were returning tomorrow, instead of talking about praying long prayers or wailing about his sins, he simply said what he was planning on doing, which was to plant a tree. If it was really OK for him to plan to plant a tree, as he did, then there’s no particular reason that if the Lord were returning the next day he should be suddenly embarrassed about legitimate, spiritual activity and try to be super-spiritual.

Contemplation seems to include a lot of planting a tree. It can mean entering a monastery, but it can also mean working a job, making friendships, shooting hoops, and playing with the neighbor’s children. If we go to church, or try to cultivate a discipline of quiet, that means quite a lot of “secular” things, a “secular” body for spirit to be manifest in. And people who give up on doing big things for God often end up doing tremendous things for God as part of their contemplation.

Links: Huh? How does that work? Or are you just being down on activists?

Dexios: Ever hear about a Wesley boy trying to do serious work for God?

Links: No.

Dexios: One of the Wesley brothers believed that missionaries were the biggest super-Christians, and so got everything arranged to be a big missionary for God.

And then he hit rock bottom. He failed as a missionary, returned a failure, and then fell lower than rock bottom when, on the ship, there was a terrible storm, and he was afraid for his life and puzzled about why there were men on deck singing. When he asked them if they were afraid, they said that no, they were not afraid, because they believed in Jesus. That finished him.

Only after that happened did he become one of the biggest forces in American Christianity.

Links: You make God sound cruel.

Dexios: If you expect God to share an activist mentality then God looks very cruel, but God isn’t a secular activist. This wasn’t even a social justice issue; Wesley said “God, I’ll be a really good hammer and do really impressive work,” and if anything, God said, “I don’t want a hammer. I want a son.” People who try to be activists sometimes make the best sons after they fail as activists, but the reason God didn’t endorse Wesley’s plan about how he was going to make a difference was that God makes a difference through people, and however big and important the work is that needs to be done, God makes sons first and foremost, and never circumvents sonship to “cut to the chase” and get to the important part, because to him sonship is the important part, and he can equip people to do results once they fail as hammers if need be.

There’s a big difference between “I’ll do the best I can” and “I’ll lay myself before God and work as he is at work.” The difference is whether your power is a matter of spirit. There was a visiting African pastor who came to the U.S. and said, “It’s amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit;” that stinging compliment is one God’s sons need not hear. The Sermon on the Mount says more about where our power should come from than what we should achieve; the Gospel is about trusting God, not just about the fate of our souls but getting things done here on earth. It’s challenging and it becomes all the more challenging when you realize how broken of a world we live in.

And perhaps God also does things through people who think they know how mountains are moved here on earth and try to short-circuit God’s call to become a son like his Son. God could still work with them if they more fully spirit. Spirit has its own power in God.

Links: Let me change the subject, or maybe I’m not changing the subject. Where do the seven sacraments fit into this?

Dexios: Baptism, Holy Communion, Holy Matrimony, the Sign of the Cross, reverently Bowing, the Holy Kiss, and the Blessing of Fruit—

Links: —that’s a rather strange list of seven sacraments!

Dexios: It seems perfectly natural to me. If it seems strange to you, then perhaps there’s something you don’t understand about the usual list. Holy Communion, Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination, Marriage, and Unction for Healing are not the Seven Exceptions. They may be the biggest seven—but you don’t understand them until you realize that there’s either one sacrament or a thousand, and that a thousand little things in our piety are the same sort of thing as The Big Seven. Like blessing fruit to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration!

Links: But why bless fruit then? Do you also bless candles to celebrate the Annunciation?

Dexios: I’d have to look up when we bless candles, but it does not seem strange to me to bless fruit. The Transfiguration is not just when the Son of God shone, but it is specifically when his body, the first of the material world to be drawn into spirit, shone. It was a first taste of the Transfiguration when the rest of his kingdom comes in force, and the Holy Transfiguration of Christ ultimately becomes the holy transfiguration of the whole Creation, and its fruits. Today people might pick something else to represent Creation’s productivity, but grapes and fruit come from Creation and are a part of it, and in a sense by blessing fruit on the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration we know what it means, that it’s not just something way back when that’s only about Christ, but about something that is meant to expand through the whole Creation of which Christ is head. Just as Christ is to be the first of many sons and draw mankind into him, so his body is the first case of matter drawn into the divine, of body that is spirit, and his coming was the beginning of a shockwave that keeps reaching out.

Links: So is the Transfiguration a big enough deal that it’s worth adorning with a sacrament, like many other holidays.

Dexios: That makes it sound like something external. The spirit of the Transfiguration is the spirit of sacrament, and of icons. I’ve said earlier that spirit transforms body, or should; now I’ll go further and say that God makes us spirit through body. If you try to understand Holy Communion and ask the wrong questions, you’re in danger of stopping at learning what happens after the priest has consecrated the elements, even though it’s important that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of Christ they represent. That’s only half the story. The rest of the story is when this bread and wine that have become the body and blood of Christ are partaken by the faithful, and the faithful are transformed. Our bodies are not a mere ornament as we partake of the divine nature; we partake of the Church and Creation, and the divine life, precisely when we receive what has been transformed that it may transform us. God makes us spirit through not only our bodies but his material creation: the Word became flesh, and the flesh became Word, and the Word keeps becoming flesh, and the flesh keeps becoming Word, and the shockwave ever reaches outward.

Links: And the Church has a lot of blessings, from a traveller’s blessing to blessing Pascha baskets, doesn’t it? And there are many sacred actions as we say our prayers, aren’t there? I imagine if you counted all the sacramental rites and sacred actions you’d actually wind up with more than the figure of one thousand that you grabbed.

Dexios: But the nature of a sacrament doesn’t really end up there. Ultimately the world is icon and sacrament. A man is the microcosm of the universe, but you have to understand that the “universe” is the spiritual as well as physical world, and that “microcosm” means that the spiritual and physical are all bound up in miniature. In a man who is spirit, they are more tightly bound together: you can look at most people’s faces and if they’re not masking then you can see into their spirit; spirit and body do not war against each other. And if you understand how our bodies are in fact the bodies of our spirits, and our spirits are the spirits of our bodies, then you understand that in “man writ large”, the universe that is the opposite of man the microcosm, then matter is pregnant with spirit.

Perhaps the crowning jewel is the kind of rite over which a priest presides. It is a crowning jewel of the warp and woof of “mundane” life, if life is ever “mundane” properly understood. For one example, you may have heard of the clergy shortage in Alaska: something like a third of the state population is Orthodox but there are precious few priests. And a congregation asked the bishop what to do as they cannot often have a priest to worship. The bishop said only two things. One of them I will not mention. The other was to eat together.

Holy Communion casts a long shadow. Part of this means that a priest can bless fruit and anyone can partake of it, and maybe there’s a blessing even if it’s not a big deal as the Eucharist. But you’re missing something if that’s the only place you look.

A meal with other people is part of the Eucharist unfurling. It’s not directly the Eucharist, but if you understand what the Eucharist is then a common meal stands in its luminous shadow. The bishop’s advice was not simply a substitute for imperfect times; even when there is a priest it is good for the Eucharist to unfurl into a common meal, and however nice it is for the priest to bless the food that’s not all that is going on. Table fellowship is common communion and “common” conceals a wealth of majesty. It’s not a really different thing from the Eucharist.

Links: [pause] It seems like I want to learn it all. What else is there to learn?

Dexios: Not to learn everything. You can learn about the priest, whose role I haven’t covered, but what I’ve said about us needing monks applies even more strongly to one person given over to be spirit in a way that helps others be spirit. There is spiritual discipline, which almost as many different shapes as sacrament—I haven’t talked about fasting: the demons always fast but only someone like us with body and spirit can be transformed and have his body become spirit by fasting. I haven’t talked about—

If you want to become more spirit, why don’t you think of an act of spirit and do that?

Do We Have Rights?

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

Plato: the allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

The Watch

Singularity

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Herodotus: And what say thou of these people? Why callest thou them the Singularity, Merlin?

John: Mine illuminèd name is John, and John shall ye call me each and every one.

Herodotus: But the Singularity is such as only a Merlin could have unravelled.

John: Perchance: but the world is one of which only an illuminèd one may speak aright. Call thou me as one illuminèd, if thou wouldst hear me speak.

Herodotus: Of illumination speakest thou. Thou sawest with the eye of the hawk: now seest thou with the eye of the eagle.

John: If that be, speak thou me as an eagle?

Herodotus: A point well taken, excellent John, excellent John. What speakest thou of the Singularity?

John: A realm untold, to speak is hard. But of an icon will I speak: inscribed were words:

‘Waitress, is this coffee or tea?’

‘What does it taste like?’

‘IT TASTES LIKE DIESEL FUEL.’

‘That’s the coffee. The tea tastes like transmission fluid.’

Herodotus: Upon what manner of veneration were this icon worshipped?

John: That were a matter right subtle, too far to tell.

Herodotus: And of the inscription? That too be subtle to grasp.

John: Like as a plant hath sap, so a subtle engine by their philosophy wrought which needeth diesel fuel and transmission fluid.

Herodotus: [laughs] Then ’twere a joke, a jape! ‘Tis well enough told!

John: You perceive it yet?

Herodotus: A joke, a jape indeed, of a fool who could not tell, two different plants were he not to taste of their sap! Well spoke! Well spoke!

John: Thou hast grasped it afault, my fair lord. For the subtle engine hath many different saps, no two alike.

Herodotus: And what ambrosia be in their saps?

John: Heaven save us! The saps be a right unnatural fare; their substance from rotted carcasses of monsters from aeons past, then by the wisdom of their philosophy transmogrified, of the subtle engine.

Herodotus: Then they are masters of Alchemy?

John: Masters of an offscouring of all Alchemy, of the lowest toe of that depravèd ascetical enterprise, chopped off, severed from even the limb, made hollow, and then growen beyond all reason, into the head of reason.

Herodotus: Let us leave off this and speak of the icon. The icon were for veneration of such subtle philosophy?

John: No wonder, no awe, greeteth he who regardest this icon and receive it as is wont.

Herodotus: As is wont?

John: As is wanton. For veneration and icons are forcèd secrets; so there is an antithesis of the sacra pagina, and upon its light pages the greatest pages come upon the most filled with lightness, the icons of a world that knoweth icons not.

Let me make another essay.

The phrase ‘harmony with nature’ is of popular use, yet a deep slice of the Singularity, or what those inside the Singularity can see of it, might be called, ‘harmony with technology’.

Herodotus: These be mystics of technology.

John: They live in an artificial jungle of technology, or rather an artificial not-jungle of technology, an artificial anti-jungle of technology. For one example, what do you call the natural use of wood?

Herodotus: A bundle of wood is of course for burning.

John: And they know of using wood for burning, but it is an exotic, rare case to them; say ‘wood’ and precious few will think of gathering wood to burn.

Herodotus: Then what on earth do they use wood for? Do they eat it when food is scarce or something like that?

John: Say ‘wood’ and not exotic ‘firewood’, and they will think of building a house.

Herodotus: So then they are right dexterous, if they can build out of a bundle of gathered sticks instead of burning it.

John: They do not gather sticks such as you imagine. They fell great trees, and cut the heartwood into rectangular box shapes, which they fit together in geometrical fashion. And when it is done, they make a box, or many boxes, and take rectangles hotly fused sand to fill a window. And they add other philosophy on top of that, so that if the house is well-built, the air inside will be pleasant and still, unless they take a philosophical machine to push air, and whatever temperature the people please, and it will remain dry though the heavens be opened in rain. And most of their time is spent in houses, or other ‘buildings’ like a house in this respect.

Herodotus: What a fantastical enterprise! When do they enter such buildings?

John: When do they rather go out of them? They consider it normal to spend less than an hour a day outside of such shelters; the subtle machine mentioned earlier moves but it is like a house built out of metal in that it is an environment entirely contrived by philosophy and artifice to, in this case, convey people from one place to another.

Herodotus: How large is this machine? It would seem to have to be very big to convey all their people.

John: But this is a point where their ‘technology’ departs from the art that is implicit in τεχνη: it is in fact not a lovingly crafted work of art, shaped out of the spirit of that position ye call ‘inventor’ or ‘artist’, but poured out by the thousands by gigantical machines yet more subtle, and in the wealth of the Singularity, well nigh unto each hath his own machine.

Herodotus: And how many can each machine can convey? Perchance a thousand?

John: Five, or six, or two peradventure, but the question is what they would call ‘academical’: the most common use is to convey one.

Herodotus: They must be grateful for such property and such philosophy!

John: A few are very grateful, but the prayer, ‘Let us remember those less fortunate than ourselves’ breathes an odor that sounds truly archaical. It sounds old, old enough to perhaps make half the span of a man’s life. And such basic technology, though they should be very much upset to lose them, never presents itself to their mind’s eye when they hear the word ‘technology’. And indeed, why should it present itself to the mind his eye?

Herodotus: I strain to grasp thy thread.

John: To be thought of under the heading of ‘technology’, two things must hold. First, it must be possessed of an artificial unlife, not unlike the unlife of their folklore’s ghouls and vampires and zombies. And second, it must be of recent vintage, something not to be had until a time that is barely past. Most of the technologies they imagine provide artificially processed moving images, some of which are extremely old—again, by something like half the span of a man’s life—while some are new. Each newer version seemeth yet more potent. To those not satisfied with the artificial environment of an up-to-date building, regarded by them as something from time immemorial, there are unlife images of a completely imaginary artificial world where their saying ‘when pigs can fly’ meaning never is in fact one of innumerable things that happen in the imaginary world portrayed by the technology. ‘SecondLife’ offers a second alternative to human life, or so it would seem, until ‘something better comes along.’

Herodotus: My mind, it reeleth.

John: Well it reeleth. But this be but a sliver.

For life to them is keeping one’s balance on shifting sand; they have great museums of different products, as many as the herbs of the field. But herein lies a difference: we know the herbs of the field, which have virtues, and what the right use is. They know as many items produced by philosophy, but they are scarce worse for the deal when they encounter an item they have never met before. For while the herbs of the field be steady across generations and generations, the items belched forth by their subtle philosophy change not only within the span of a man’s life; they change year to year; perchance moon to moon.

Herodotus: Thou sayest that they can navigate a field they know not?

John: Aye, and more. The goal at which their catechism aims is to ‘learn how to learn’; the appearance and disappearance of kinds of items is a commonplace to them. And indeed this is not only for the items we use as the elements of our habitat: catechists attempt to prepare people for roles that exist not yet even as the students are being taught.

Though this be sinking sand they live in, they keep balance, of a sort, and do not find this strange. And they adapt to the changes they are given.

Herodotus: It beseemeth me that thou speakest as of a race of Gods.

John: A race of Gods? Forsooth! Thou knowest not half of the whole if thou speakest thus.

Herodotus: What remaineth?

John: They no longer think of making love as an action that in particular must needeth include an other.

Herodotus: I am stunned.

John: And the same is true writ large or writ small. A storyteller of a faintly smaller degree, living to them in ages past, placed me in an icon:

The Stranger mused for a few seconds, then, speaking in a slightly singsong voice, as though he repeated an old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:

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

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

The storyteller saw and saw not his future. ‘Tis rare in the Singularity to fabricate children ‘by vile arts in a secret place’. But the storyteller plays us false when he assumes their interest would be in a ‘cunningly fashioned image of the other’. Truer it would be to say that the men, by the fruits of philosophy, jump from one libidinous dream to another whilest awake.

Herodotus: Forsooth!

John: A prophet told them, the end will come when no man maketh a road to his neighbors. And what has happened to marriage has happened, by different means but by the same spirit, to friendship. Your most distant acquaintanceship to a fellow member is more permanent than their marriage; it is routine before the breakable God-created covenant of marriage to make unbreakable man-made covenants about what to do if, as planned for, the marriage ends in divorce. And if that is to be said of divorce, still less is the bond of friendship. Their own people have talked about how ‘permanent relationships’, including marriage and friendship, being replaced by ‘disposable relationships’ which can be dissolved for any and every reason, and by ‘disposable relationships’ to ‘transactional relationships’, which indeed have not even the pretension of being something that can be kept beyond a short transaction for any and every reason.

And the visits have been eviscerated, from a conversation where voice is delivered and vision is stripped out, to a conversation where words alone are transmitted without even hand writing; from a conversation where mental presence is normative to a conversation where split attention is expected. ‘Tis yet rarely worth the bother to make a physical trail, though they yet visit. And their philosophy, as it groweth yet more subtle, groweth yet more delicate. ‘Twould scarcely require much to ‘unplug’ it. And then, perhaps, the end will come?

Herodotus: Then there be a tragic beauty to these people.

John: A tragic beauty indeed.

Herodotus: What else hast thou to tell of them?

John: Let me give a little vignette:

Several men and women are in a room; all are fulfilling the same role, and they are swathed with clothing that covers much of their skin. And the differences between what the men wear, and what most of the women wear, are subtle enough that most of them do not perceive a difference.

Herodotus: Can they not perceive the difference between a man and a woman?

John: The sensitivity is dulled in some, but it is something they try to overlook. But I have not gotten to the core of this vignette:

One of them indicateth that had they be living several thousand years ago they would not have had need of clothing, not for modesty at least, and there are nods of agreement to her. And they all imagine such tribal times to be times of freedom, and their own to be of artificial restriction.

And they fail to see, by quite some measure, that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than being without clothing; or that their buildings deaden all of a million sources of natural awareness: the breeze blowing and the herbs waving in the wind; scents and odours as they appear; song of crickets’ kin chirping and song of bird, the sun as it shines through cloud; animals as they move about, and the subtleties and differences in the forest as one passes through it. They deaden all of these sensitivities and variations, until there is only one form of life that provides stimulation: the others who are working in one’s office. Small wonder, then, that to a man one woman demurely covered in an office has an effect that a dozen women wearing vines in a jungle would never have. But the libertines see themselves as repressed, and those they compare themselves to as, persay, emancipated.

Herodotus: At least they have the option of dressing modestly. What else hast thou?

John: There is infinitely more, and there is nothing more. Marriage is not thought of as open to children; it can be dissolved in divorce; it need not be intrinsically exclusive; a further installment in the package, played something like a pawn in a game of theirs, is that marriage need not be between a man and a woman. And if it is going to be dismantled to the previous portion, why not? They try to have a world without marriage, by their changes to marriage. The Singularity is a disintegration; it grows more and more, and what is said for marriage could be said for each of the eight devils: intertwined with this is pride, and it is only a peripheral point that those who further undefine marriage speak of ‘gay pride’. A generation before, not mavericks but the baseline of people were told they needed a ‘high self-esteem’, and religious leaders who warned about pride as a sin, perhaps as the sin by which the Devil fell from Heaven, raised no hue and cry that children were being raised to embrace pride as a necessary ascesis. And religion itself is officially permitted some role, but a private role: not that which fulfills the definition of religare in binding a society together. It is in some measure like saying, ‘You can speak any language you want, as long as you utter not a word in public discourse’: the true religion of the Singularity is such ersatz religion as the Singularity provides. Real religion is expected to wither in private.

The Singularity sings a song of progress, and it was giving new and different kinds of property; even now it continues. But its heart of ice showeth yet. For the march of new technologies continues, and with them poverty: cracks begin to appear, and the writing on the wall be harder to ignore. What is given with one hand is not-so-subtly taken away with the other. The Singularity is as needful to its dwellers as forest or plain to its dwellers, and if it crumbles, precious few will become new tribal clans taking all necessities from the land.

Herodotus: Then it beseemeth the tragedy outweigheth the beauty, or rather there is a shell of beauty under a heart of ice.

John: But there are weeds.

Herodotus: What is a weed?

John: It is a plant.

Herodotus: What kind of plant is a weed? Are the plants around us weeds?

John: They are not.

Herodotus: Then what kinds of plants are weeds?

John: In the Singularity, there is a distinction between ‘rural’, ‘suburban’, and ‘urban’: the ‘rural’ has deliberately set plants covering great tracts of land, the ‘suburban’ has fewer plants, if still perhaps green all around, and the ‘urban’ has but the scattered ensconced tree. But in all of them are weeds, in an urban area plants growing where the artificial stone has cracked. And among the natural philosophers there are some who study the life that cannot be extinguished even in an urban city; their specialty is called ‘urban ecology’. The definition of a weed is simply, ‘A plant I do not want.’ We do not have weeds because we do not seek an artificial envionment with plants only present when we have put them there. But when people seek to conform the environment to wishes and plans, even in the tight discipline of planned urban areas, weeds are remarkably persistent.

And in that regard, weeds are a tiny sliver of something magnificent.

Herodotus: What would that be?

John: The durability of Life that is writ small in a weed here in the urban, there in the suburban is but a shadow of the durabiity of Life that lives on in the sons of men. Mothers still sing lullabyes to their dear little children; friendships form and believers pray at church far more than happened in the age where my story was told, a story dwarfed by what was called the ‘age of faith’. The intensity of the attacks on the Church in a cruel social witness are compelled to bear unwilling witness to the vitality of the Church whose death has been greatly exaggerated: and indeed that Church is surging with vitality after surviving the attacks. The story told seems to tell of Life being, in their idiom, ‘dealt a card off every side of the deck’—and answering, ‘Checkmate, I win.’ I have told of the differences, but there are excellent similarities, and excellent differences. For a knight whoso commandeth a wild and unbridled horse receiveth greater commendation than a knight whoso commandeth a well-bred and gentle steed.

Herodotus: The wind bloweth where it listeth. The just shall live by his faith. Your cell, though it be wholly artificial, will teach you everything you need to know.

John: Thou hast eagerly grasped it; beyond beauty, tragedy, and beyond tragedy, beauty. Thou hast grasped it true.

[Here ends the manuscript]

“Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:” Beyond “The Secret” and the Law of Attraction

Surgeon General’s Warning

This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

(To the family who gave me my copy of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives—You know who you are: you are appreciated and you are loved!)

Perfecting the core of The Secret

The Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives begins,

1.1 Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.

In Christ the Eternal Tao, there is a work similar to the Tao Te Ching, but it is introduced not as a translation of the ancient Chinese classic, but as a New Testament building on and perfecting the original Tao Te Ching. The Christian understanding of the New Testament is that it fulfills and completes the Old Testament. Where the Old Testament mostly forbids toxic actions and says “Do not murder” and “Do not commit adultery,” the New Testament forbids toxic thoughts and says “Do not hate” and “Do not lust,” offering a greater healing and freedom from evil and pain, even better than freedom from evil actions. And I would like to suggest that The Secret, a book loved by many, can be seen as an Old Testament that reaches its fulfillment and completion in Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

The Secret offers a very attractive promise. On the book’s account, the Secret is a Secret that can unlock youthful health at any age, spectacular and more spectacular wealth, professional success, romance, and more. But there is more one could want, much more. The Secret may offer a program to satisfy one’s conscious desires, but not so much is there a program to transcend one’s desires. Our unrefined desires, our common covetousness, may be for things which will not really satisfy us, especially not as much as some things we may not think to even covet in our present state. And having read and not accepted The Secret and its Law of Attraction which says (along with other New Age sources) that if you think of something your thoughts will become reality, I was blindsided by Elder Thaddeus in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, which had, if not a Law of Attraction in full, nonetheless something a lot like the Law of Attraction which said that our thoughts have a great deal more influence than we suspect. It said that if we have nastiness or conflict, it is rarely, or perhaps never, something that happens without our warring with others in our thoughts. Perhaps, as Elder Thaddeus does not specifically suggest, other people have contributed something, and perhaps some people start out with a chip on their shoulders. But they rarely, if ever, start warring against us, and continue their warfare, if we simply do not war against them in our thoughts. Others rarely remain hostile to us if we are gentle, respectful, and never strike back, not even in the most private recesses of our thoughts. And that is a Law of Attraction The Secret barely, if ever, even begins to hint at. It may be implicit, but The Secret never says that if you sow hostile thoughts, you will reap conflict.

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives says more than this. It also talks about thoughts that are in fact neither healthy nor truly our own. The demonic is real and operative, and part of spiritual health is declining an ongoing flood of thoughts that are not to our best interest. And some of the things touted as benefits in The Secret may be less helpful than they seem, even if they are true. It talks about how “…The end of the story about my own weight is that I now maintain my perfect weight of 116 pounds and I can eat whatever I want.” ThePhilokalia, by contrast, see the sin of gluttony as affecting much more than how one looks in a swimsuit: what overeating does to one’s waistline is incidental to what it does to one’s spirit, acting as a gateway drug to more serious sins.

Maxims for life

The famous 55 maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko include (Ancient Faith podcast):

  1. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  2. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  3. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  4. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  5. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  6. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  7. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  8. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.

I would draw something out of “Be defined and bound by God, not people,” in particular. When someone opposes us and we accept the warring thoughts that come so easily to all of our hands, we are being defined and bound by the people we are resisting, and not, or at least not only, by God. The satyagraha or nonviolent resistance highlighted by Gandhi draws on the Sermon on the Mount and has its power close to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount that simply says, “Do not resist an evil person.” If someone evil to you is hostile and you do not dish out hostility even in the secrets of your heart, that is powerful. If you are only “defined and bound by God, not people,” and turn the other cheek, the roots of hostility begin to melt away. I personally do not know how my life would have been different if I had always shown the perfection of this teaching, but there have been some very rough situations that could have been very different if I had answered each and every hostility with unruffled meekness.

We tend to think that changes in our exterior life will make us happy, and this is part of why The Secret is such a runaway bestseller. It promises means to abundant success in various worldly concerns, and never asks the (at times terrifying) question of “What if I get the BMW SUV my heart is dying for now, and it does not deliver lasting satisfaction?” Someone who is a little bit sensitive to memories and experiences may note that sometimes getting some hot luxury item does not give us satisfaction, at least not for terribly long. ButOur Thoughts Determine Our Lives offers a Law of Attraction that recognizes that the transformation that we need, and the transformation that will yield lasting satisfaction, is much more a transformation of our interior lives than anything external. And in regard to the interior life, God wants to give us much better than a cost-of-living raise. He wants to give abundant interior riches, and part of why external circumstances sometimes do not change is that he knows we need something more. Something beyond what The Secret even pretends to offer.

One man’s crown of thorns

It would be true, but deceptive by itself, to say that Elder Thaddeus was a clairvoyant elder who lived to see quite a following. The reason that is deceptive by itself is that that fruit gives an impression that his wishes were fulfilled, when in fact Elder Thaddeus had a much more painful life, with many more wishes not fulfilled, than most of us. The life of a saint is a difficult one with many more obstacles, not less, than your average Joe, and while I don’t want to try to make Elder Thaddeus a saint speaking out of my own authority, his life was at least like that of a great many saints in seeing wish after wish simply denied. His own burden included serious health issues. It also included that his wishes in monasticism to simply be a lay monk, just praying in silence, never really happened. Instead he had, as a monk fulfilling the obedience of serving as an abbot, to take on himself the cross of addressing the great many cares and concerns of supporting the monks entrusted to him. Maybe some of us, in our worse moments, can covet offices and titles. The reality is different, and contains a great many things people coveting honor never imagine in connection with their coveting prestige and some office. If you ask how he was a clairvoyant elder, seeing into people’s hearts and thoughts, the answer is surprisingly simple. Elder Thaddeus had a heart that was pierced again and again until things that the rest of us were oblivious to were enough to pierce his heart. Now it is not particularly hard to make some imaginings and covet a clairvoyant elder’s abilities, but Elder Thaddeus was no fortune teller in the usual sense: when an author came to him and asked a prediction for how well his novels would sell, Elder Thaddeus said, “I am not a psychic!” (Now Elder Thaddeus may have had surprising insights when people came to him in faith seeking a balm for spiritual difficulties, but I insist that the pierced heart he knew was not in any sense what one imagines and fuels if one is coveting clairvoyance.) Holiness is taking up your cross and following in the footsteps of our crucified Lord, and the further you walk on that path, the less your life looks like fulfilling your wishes and desires.

Needless difficulties

I am choosing an example here to try to make my point strongly, as strongly as I see how. If this seems strange, hokey, or putting an unreasonable share of blame on myself, I apologize; you are welcome to skip to the next section.

I remember, to pick one of many examples, when a friend who helped me on my journey to Orthodoxy, decided on his own authority that there was something wrong with me and he was going to “fix” me (his term, with his quotes). I caught him in the act and firmly said, “No.” He said I was sending mixed messages. I said, more forcefully, “No.” He reiterated his claim and said that I was sending such mixed messages. I repeatedly said a forceful, “No,” and he kept on telling me I was sending a mixed message, and then, “You can say what you want to say, but I will do what I want to do,” meaning that he would continue trying to “fix” me after I said, “No.” Then I sent a “cease and desist” letter (and he was not so bold as to continue his campaign once the Gmail Abuse Team was in on the conversation). Since then, I’ve briefly reached out, but we have only spoken briefly since.

Now I would like to ask what was going on here. A psychologist would speak of boundaries, say that he was possibly doing something wrong at the beginning, and he was definitely wrong to persist after I had expressed a boundary. And I was absolutely right to send a cease-and-desist letter after he repeatedly tried to push past the boundary I was expressing. But I would point out something else. Did he start it? That’s not my concern. Was he in the wrong? Still not my concern, except perhaps as my replies exacerbated the temptations he faced. What really is my concern is that I met him with warring thoughts. And what is more, I spoke to him and answered him out of warring thoughts. Whether or not he had warring thoughts, or his warring thoughts came first, is not my concern. I wanted to have the upper hand as badly as he did, and I got what I really wanted, which was to have a scathing last word. And my warring thoughts (and words) did nothing to defuse the conflict, but only confirmed and agreed to being in conflict, and in fact an intense power struggle. (I had earlier given a cool reception to other attempts to help me out, perhaps part of why he decided that this time around, I wasn’t allowed to say, “No.” I may have been right to say “No,” but I could possibly have done so with more respect.) Some people might say that I was right to send a cease and desist letter, but even if I was right, that only came after I had failed at making the encounter into one appropriate to friends, really failed to even try. And, though I am glad he stopped trying to “fix” me, it is hardly a victory for me that our conversation as friends has not really resumed.

I got my way, which is unusual for a situation like this, but I did not truly win. I couldn’t, not with that attitude. Winning might have gently stopped the treatment plan, but it would have saved the friendship, and would have left me at peace instead of with an unhealed painful memory. I believe better was possible, or would have been possible if I had been more grown up.

(This kind of scenario is a good example of why Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.“)

I hesitated on whether to include this or cut it out: more than anything else I have had, this has the most potential to repulse a good reader as not being devout Orthodoxy, but simply dynfunctional. But harassment has figured prominently in my life, and there have been perhaps half a dozen times I’ve had harassment persist until I copied authorities on a forceful “No.” Usually the harassment has been from someone I regarded as a friend, and sometimes trusted a great deal. (If it is a friend who doesn’t get that “No means no,” starting the first time.)

This doesn’t make the harassment my fault, but when I have faced harassment, usually I have done something preventable that already antagonized the other party. (I am trying to learn what I can from the experiences.)

Surprising beauty

The converse is also true.

To quote Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives again:

4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.

This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord ´commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!

And I have experienced profound respect from people I have shown profound respect. At times I’ve been caught off guard until I remembered the hand I stretched out.

The Orthodox Tradition has a great deal to say about our thoughts, and contrary to modern psychology, demonic influence actually contributes a great deal of thoughts we think of as “ours.” The Secret says that admitting a little thought attracts others: if we think in kindness, it opens the door to more kind thoughts, and if we think in negativity, it opens the door to more negative thoughts. And it is right in this regard. Counselors have said in reference to addiction, “You have more power than you think,” and while we can hardly win involved engagements with destructive thoughts, as fighting them may only give them more power, we can refuse entry when they first come to us as very small temptations. (If a candle is extinguished just after it starts to fall, there will be no house fire to fight.) This watchfulness is not easy; monks take years to learn it. But it is possible. Fr. Thomas’s 55 maxims include, “13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.” And this is advice well worth following. Put out the smouldering spark when it is a spark: don’t wait to address the problem until your house is on fire.

Avatars and being divine

The Secret surges as it builds to its claim that You are God. It speaks of avatars, here meaning living and successful leaders whose words are highlighted in the book. (Note that this is a slight modification of how Hinduism understands avatars, who are essentially great lights from the past, and include the world’s great teachers as understood in the West.) The core idea of an avatar is God come down in human form, the idea being that God, who is at the core of each of us, is not simply represented by avatars, but becomes them.

So how does this relate to Christianity? Orthodoxy may be distinctive here, but Hinduism looks surprisingly familiar here to Orthodox. There was one point in a theology course where the professor, a Roman, talked about a Hindu friend saying that he appreciated the Christian teaching of the incarnation, but asked, why only once? Why not an overflowing stream of incarnations or avatars? And I challenged him (perhaps not very Orthodox or very wise in this matter) and said that there was, on a Christian understanding, not only one. The incarnation is perfected in the Church, and every saint, every faithful Orthodox Christian, is a place where the incarnation unfurls. Now I do not understand saints on the Hindu terms for an avatar; I do not believe that they are, like avatars or the Christ I worship, divine by nature, but something happens to created men that makes that matter less than one might think. St. Maximus the Confessor described five great transcendings of differences, the last being a transcending of the distinction between created and uncreated matter. In other words, when the sanctifying God works such a great miracle that the fact that saints and faithful were created and were not divine from the outset is simply not the issue. God has transcended the chasm between created and uncreated: that all the saints were created is entirely beside the point.

Christians who find Hinduism’s idea that God is at the core of each of us strange might wake up a bit. In the first chapter of the Bible, we read, “God created man in his image. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” A person is by nature connected to God, something by which God’s power operates, someone who breathes the breath of God. The image of God in us represents and embodies the Lord. This might be on slightly different terms from what Hinduism suggests, but the Hindu understanding is not strange and may be less different from Orthodoxy than it looks.

One chilling passage in Scripture reads (Matthew 25:31-46):

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Human nature is so much powered by the divine nature that we cannot rush past a beggar without rushing past God himself. Every kindness shown to even the least of those around us will be remembered at the crack of doom. And of course we all fall short, but giving half a loaf is better than giving no loaf.

And that brings me to one particular and not necessarily pleasant point. One question I’ve thought about is, “If you had the chance to do it over, would you fall in love with yourself all over again?” I’ve been pretty narcissistic, and I don’t think I can even imagine what my life would be like if I were more humble. I do know that the rest of the world has seemed a lot more interesting after I started to let go of trying to constantly stand awestruck at my “inner world.” (As G.K. Chesterton said, “It takes humility to enjoy even pride.”) If there is something about human nature that is deeply connected to the divine even among the worst of us, we would perhaps do better to think of our neighbor’s genuine glory than our own. As C.S. Lewis said at the peak of, The Weight of Glory [PDF]:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the most dull and uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet only, if at all, in a nightmare… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

There’s no time like the present

We live in rough times, but Elder Thaddeus, who wrote Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, was someone who had been repeatedly imprisoned by Nazis. He lived in rough circumstances, too, and there is some confusion implied in believing that his words flow naturally out of an unspoiled paradise and do not apply to our world with its rough realities. They do, and they are for here, and now.

I have had a lot of difficulty appreciating the here and now. This has not usually been because there is nothing to appreciate, but because I had, and still have, thoughts like the “before” of the young woman’s “before and after” scenario quoted above. I am tempted to want a different setting, and perhaps for unrelated reasons such would be beneficial. But refusing to war against others in thoughts is for here and now, for the people I am actually connected with. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives talks about a parish priest who kept persisting in asking his bishop to send him to another parish, and the bishop, to restate more boldly, said, “You’re not unhappy because you have the wrong external settings. You’re unhappy because you have the wrong thoughts and internal state.” And the fact that the publication date of The Secret, ©2006, was when middle-class American families with Fords wanted BMW’s, not when large numbers middle-class American families are struggling to keep their houses, does not change the core issues. Elder Thaddeus’s life was still under more difficult circumstances, and we may perhaps connect Elder Thaddeus’s words (not quoted here) about spoiled children not knowing what they want and turning to dark alleys, with our going from unusually good times, historically speaking, to bearing a heavier cross. God is still with us whatever circumstances he puts us in, and his words are for us here and now, not hypothetical inhabitants of a perfect world.

In my own story, I have great hope arising from this text. I’ve had some real difficulties and I’ve warred against other people in my thoughts. Part of me wishes I had seen this text when I was twenty, but another part of me is wondering at new vistas that may be open to me if I repent of warring against my neighbor in my thoughts. I’m excited at possibilities in interviewing, job hunting, and employment beyond my current contract. I’m experiencing more zest for life than I have had in a long time.

Alice in Wonderland

Programming expert Alan Perlis said, “The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.” And a word of caution is due here.

His Eminence KALLISTOS in The Orthodox Church wrote of Orthodoxy, “It is not something Oriental or exotic,” and I chafed at those words, but they were very wisely chosen. My parish priest commented that people drawn in by the beauty of the liturgy sometimes didn’t stick; it takes more than aesthetic pulls to stick with the liturgy, and as the priest who received me into confession said, “Orthodoxy is slog.” I chafed at that too, but he was right. Nothing is permanently exotic, not Orthodoxy, nor anything else. And in that sense, I believe my treatment thus far is misleading; whatever of the Law of Attraction (or something better) may be present, it is much less exotic than my account of it; it is here and now, perhaps slogwork, and is no more exotic than the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy is in the West. And there is nothing tantalizing or exotic about an adult in the West seeing a self-fulfilling prophecy in a youngster’s words about homework of, “I don’t understand this, and I’m never going to get it!”

I may have read or at least skimmed through Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives before, but this time I stumbled on it, courtesy of some friends’ generosity and modest praise of the book, as treasure in a field that was completely unexpected to me. However, however much I value it, Elder Thaddeus’s basic claim is only one of many things God may say in drawing people closer to himself. This is only one of the thirty rungs of The Ladder of Divine Ascent (if even that). A great many wonderful classics do not make clear that our hostile thoughts can poison our interactions with others, and praying for others and stopping our warring thoughts can make a world of difference. This is only one flower from a field filled with many flowers.

This basic principle as I describe it sounds exotic, and that is a liability I don’t see how to iron out. Its working out is mundane, or perhaps works in the mundane until we can accept the here and now. For me, it is loving the daily grind, in which regard I am fortunate. (I have a remarkably pleasant daily grind as far as external circumstances go.) It is loving God and my neighbor and working through my work and my dealings with others, as all of Orthodoxy is.

And that has made all the difference.

Plato: The Allegory of the… 𝐹𝑙𝑖𝑐𝑘𝑒𝑟𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑆𝑐𝑟𝑒𝑒𝑛?

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

 

Socrates: And now, let me give an illustration to show how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! a human being in a darkened den, who has a slack jaw towards only source of light in the den; this is where he has gravitated since his childhood, and though his legs and neck are not chained or restrained any way, yet he scarcely turns round his head. In front of him are images from faroff, projected onto a flickering screen. And others whom he cannot see, from behind their walls, control the images like marionette players manipulating puppets. And there are many people in such dens, some isolated one way, some another.

Glaucon: I see.

Socrates: And do you see, I said, the flickering screen showing men, and all sorts of vessels, and statues and collectible animals made of wood and stone and various materials, and all sorts of commercial products which appear on the screen? Some of them are talking, and there is rarely silence.

Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Socrates: Much like us. And they see only their own images, or the images of one another, as they appear on the screen opposite them?

Glaucon: True, he said; how could they see anything but the images if they never chose to look anywhere else?

Socrates: And they would know nothing about a product they buy, except for what brand it is?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: And if they were able to converse with one another, wouldn’t they think that they were discussing what mattered?

Glaucon: Very true.

Socrates: And suppose further that the screen had sounds which came from its side, wouldn’t they imagine that they were simply hearing what people said?

Glaucon: No question.

Socrates: To them, the truth would be literally nothing but those shadowy things we call the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

Socrates: And now look again, and see what naturally happens next: the prisoners are released and are shown the truth. At first, when any of them is liberated and required to suddenly stand up and turn his neck around, and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the images; and then imagine someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is asking him to things, not as they are captured on the screen, but in living color -will he not be perplexed? Won’t he imagine that the version which he used to see on the screen are better and more real than the objects which are shown to him in real life?

Glaucon: Far better.

Socrates: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

Glaucon: True, he now will.

Socrates: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and hindered in his self-seeking until he’s forced to think about someone besides himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? He will find that he cannot simply live life as he sees fit, and he will not have even the illusion of finding comfort by living for himself.

Glaucon: Not all in a moment, he said.

Socrates: He will require time and practice to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the billboards best, next the product lines he has seen advertised, and then things which are not commodities; then he will talk with adults and children, and will he know greater joy in having services done to him, or will he prefer to do something for someone else?

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: Last of he will be able to search for the One who is greatest, reflected in each person on earth, but he will seek him for himself, and not in another; and he will live to contemplate him.

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and is absolutely the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Glaucon: Clearly, he said, his mind would be on God and his reasoning towards those things that come from him.

Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Glaucon: Certainly, he would.

Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe what was happening in the world of brands and what new features were marketed, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master” than to reign as king of this Hell, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Glaucon: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness, and seem simply not to get it?

Glaucon: To be sure.

Socrates: And in conversations, and he had to compete in one-upsmanship of knowing the coolest brands with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went with his eyes and down he came without them; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would give him an extremely heavy cross to bear.

Glaucon: No question. Then is the saying, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king,” in fact false?

Socrates: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is crucified. Dear Glaucon, you may now add this entire allegory to the discussion around a matter; the den arranged around a flickering screen is deeply connected to the world of living to serve your pleasures, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the spiritual transformation which alike may happen in the monk keeping vigil or the mother caring for children, the ascent of the soul into the world of spiritual realities according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the Source of goodness appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

Glaucon: I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.

The Best Things in Life Are Free

Religion within the Bounds of Amusement

Silence: Organic Food for the Soul

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Mindstorm

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

>

The Alumnus: Hello. I was in town, and I wanted to stop in for a visit.

The Visionary: How good to see you! What have you been up to? We’re all interested in hearing what our alumni are doing.

The Alumnus: Well, that would take a bit of explaining. I had a good experience with college.

The Visionary: That’s lovely to hear.

The Alumnus: Yes, and I know that some alumni from our Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, also known as IMSA, didn’t. I got through college the same way I got through gradeschool, playing by the law of the jungle. I stopped and thought about how to approach college. I realized soon that higher numbered courses were easier than lower numbered courses, and how to find professors I could work with. And I understand why one alumna said, “IMSA didn’t prepare me for college. It prepared me for graduate school.” College will not automatically be a good experience for IMSA students, but there are choices the college won’t advertise but could be made.

The Visionary: I wish you could speak to some of our students.

The Alumnus: I’d like the opportunity. There are a lot of things to say—that there’s a normal scale of elementary-junior high-high school-undergraduate-graduate school, and IMSA doesn’t fit on it. It has high school aged students, but it’s not a modified high school; it’s close in ways to graduate school, but there’s something about it that is missed if you put it at any one point on the scale. And this has the result that IMSA students need to realize that when they enter college, they are not going from high school to the next step after high school; they’re going from IMSA to something that was not meant to follow IMSA. But something that has opportunities if they knock on back doors and take advantage of some things the university doesn’t know they need.

The Visionary: If you’re serious about talking to our students, I mean talking with our students, I can introduce you to the appropriate people.

The Alumnus: Thank you. I was mentioning this to lead up to a gem of a class I took, one on what you need to know to make user-friendly computer programs, i.e. usability. There was something that set me thinking, nettled me, when I was reading through some of the jargon file’s Hell desk slang, um, I mean help desk slang. The term “pilot error” meant much the same thing as “ID ten T error”.

The Visionary: I know what “pilot error” means in some contexts, but what does “ID ten T error” mean?

The Alumnus: It’s easiest to see if you write it out.

The Visionary [goes to a markerboard and writes, “I D 1 0 T” ]: Um… I assume there’s a reason you started to say, “Hell desk.” Aren’t they just blowing off steam?

The Alumnus: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the ways many help desk employees have blown off steam is to say, “Ok. If you’ll hold for a minute, I’m going to transfer you to my supervisor. Would you tell her that you appear to have an ‘eye dee ten tee’ error?” And they all gloat over what they’ve gotten the customer to say. No, seriously, you don’t need to keep a straight face.

But what really struck me was the entry for PEBKAC, acronym for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.” There was an example given of,

Did you figure out why that guy couldn’t print?

Yeah, he kept canceling the print operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.

This was philosophically interesting.

The Visionary: How?

The Alumnus: In a computer, you get these time wasting messages where a little window pops up and you can’t do any useful work until you click on the button. It becomes noise for the sake of noise; like the boy who cried, “Wolf!”, we have the computer that cries, “Worth your attention.” After a while, the normal thing most people do is click on the button automatically so they can get back to their work. It’s a waste of time to try to decipher the cryptic messages.

So when people go to print, another one of these waste-of-time windows pops up, except that this time, when you do the right thing and click on the button and make it go away, your print job fails. And this specific example is chosen as a paradigm example of PEBKAC.

For a lot of these errors, there is a problem between a keyboard and chair. But the problem isn’t between the user’s keyboard and chair. The problem is between the programmer’s keyboard and chair.

The Visionary: Ouch.

The Alumnus: That course was what led to what I did for my Ph.D.

The Visionary: And that was?

The Alumnus: My discipline of record is philosophy of mind/cognitive science.

The Visionary: “Discipline of record?” I’m curious to hear you drop the other shoe.

The Alumnus: Usability is connected to cognitive science—an amalgam of computer science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, and other areas, all trying to understand human thought so we can re-implement it on a computer. It’s a fascinating area for interdisciplinary study, and usability draws on it, just from a different angle: instead of making computers intelligent, it tries to make computers friendly to people who don’t understand how they are built. And a lot of things which are clear as day if you built the system aren’t automatically clear to customers. A system which is usable lets the user have an illusory cognitive model of how the system works that is far, far simpler than how a programmer would understand it. And programmers don’t consciously believe that customers understand the innards of their system, but there’s an assumption that creeps in, an assumption of, “My way of thinking about it is how a person thinks about it.”

The Visionary: That way of putting it makes the programmers sound ego-centric.

The Alumnus: I wouldn’t put it in such crude terms as that; they are thinking in a way that is human.

With languages, there is a lot of diversity. Aside from the variety of languages, there’s a difference between the U.S., where the majority only speak one language, and Sénégal, where it is common for people to speak five or six languages. There’s a difference between Italy, where people speak one national language in a fairly pure form, and India, where English and Hindi are spliced together seamlessly. For that matter, there’s the deaf outlet of speaking with your hands instead of your mouth. But with all these differences, language itself is not something which is added to being human. Language is not a custom that cultures may happen to include. There are exceptional cases where people do not learn a language, and these are tragic cases where people are deprived of a human birthright. The specifics of language may vary, but language itself is not adding something to being human. It is something that is basically human. The details and even diversity of languages are details of how language works out.

And a lot of things are like that. Understanding something that you’re working on is not something added to being human; it’s an interpretation of something basic. How one thinks, about technology and other things, is not something added to being human. It’s something basically human.

One very natural tendency is to think that “I” or “we” or “people like us” are just being human; we just have what is natural to being human. The “them” group has all sorts of things that are added to being human, but “we” are just being human. So we expect other people to think like us. We assume it so deeply and unconsciously that we are shocked by their perversity when they violate this expectation.

The Visionary: Wow. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. Do you think IMSA provided a safe haven from this kind of lockstep thinking for its students?

The Alumnus: I think it provides a safe haven for quite a lot of its students. But getting back to my Ph.D. program—

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: So I began, encouraged by some initial successes, to try and make the first artificial mind. For a while I thought I would succeed, after overcoming some obstacles that couldn’t have been that bad.

The Visionary: What were these obstacles?

The Alumnus: Just a special case here and there, an unrepresentative anomaly. But when I worked, I had a sneaking suspicion dawn on me.

Freshman year, I had a college roommate who was brilliant and eccentric. He turned out stunning proofs in math classes. He was also trying to build a perpetual motion machine. He was adjusting this and that; I listened, entranced, when he traced the history of great experiments in physics, and talked about how across the centuries they went from observing obvious behavior to find subtle ways to trick nature into showing you something you weren’t supposed to see. Think of the ingenuity of the Millikan oil drop experiment. And so he went on, trying to adjust this and that, seeking to get things just right for a perpetual motion machine. There were times when he seemed to almost have it. It seemed there were ten things you needed for a perpetual motion machine, and he had an almost working machine for any nine of them. But that tenth one seemed never to fall into place.

And I had a sneaking suspicion, one that I was going to try awfully hard to ignore, that for a long time I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was expecting. But deja vu kept creeping in. I had just succeeded with a project that met every clearly defined goal I set for it… but I had just found another way not to make artificial intelligence.

The crusher was when I read von Neumann’s 1958 The Computer and the Brain. Then I stopped running from deja vu. Here was crass confidence that in 1958 we discoved the basis for all human thought, and all human thought is add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Here was an assumption in lieu of argument. And here was the air I breathed as a cognitive science.

The Visionary: But I’ve looked at some reports, and artificial intelligence seems to be just around the corner.

The Alumnus: Full artificial intelligence is just around the corner, and it’s been just around the corner since at least the fifties—arguably much longer, because for a hundred years before the brain was a computer, it was a telephone exchange. (I think that’s why we talk about a person being “wired” a particular way.) The brain is always understood as the state of the art technology we’re most proud of.

I hit rock bottom after thinking about how I had convinced myself I was creating a working artificial intelligence by obtaining results and reinterpreting results as success. It’s very seductive, and I was thinking about what some skeptics had said about magic.

What emerged was… The effort to make computers think has found ways that the human mind is much more interesting than we thought. And I began to push in a new direction. Instead of trying to understand human intelligence to make computers more intelligent, I began to try to understand human intelligence to make humans more intelligent.

The Visionary: What exactly do you mean?

The Alumnus: There are a lot of disciplines that teach you how to think. I think scholars in many disciplines see their discipline as the discipline that teaches you how to think, where truly different disciplines are a sort of no-man’s land that doesn’t qualify as “how to think.” But these are a coupled subject matter and how to think about the subject matter. This was, in abstracted, crystalline, and universal form, “How to think.” The analogy I used at the time was that it was the elementary school number line (1, 2, 3, …), abstracted from sets of one physical object, two physical objects, three physical objects…

The Visionary [pausing]: It sounds like you’re pioneering a new academic discipline. Would you like IMSA to highlight this?

The Alumnus: I am working that out. Not exactly whether what I am doing would qualify as an academic discipline—I’m pretty sure of that—but whether going down that route would be the wisest choice. For now, I’d rather wait.

The Visionary: Are you sure you wouldn’t want the prestige? Hmm… on second thought, I can see that.

What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?

The Alumnus [pause]: That question is one of the first ones people ask me. It’s automatic.

In tandem with what you might call my loss of faith in cognitive science, I began to question the cultural place of science. Including that in a question like this, the nearly immediate question people ask is one that assumes the answers are fed by science. Three of the most difficult mental accomplishments I’ve made are learning to think like a scientist, crafting this discipline of how to think, and learning to genuinely ask “How else could it be?” when people automatically go charging in with science.

The Visionary: But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?

The Alumnus: Both your questions, “What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?” and “But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?” are examples of the tendency I’m talking about. Your latter question assumes that “understanding the body” and “study the science of the body” are interchangeable terms; they often are treated that way in Western culture, but they need not be.

The Visionary: But how else could it be?

The Alumnus: In journalism and some writing classes, students are taught a technique of cubing, which asks six questions, one for each side of the cube. The six questions are all “w” words: who, what, when, where, and how.

In most aboriginal cultures, for instance, people ask more than one question, but the big question is, “Why?” The stories provide explanations for why the world is as it is.

In science, the big question is, “How?” Laws and theories provide mechanisms for how things happen. “Why?” isn’t just de-emphasized; it’s something people learn not to ask, something that is subtly stamped out like much of a child’s creativity. Asking “Why?” is a basic error, like asking how much an idea weighs. One philosopher of science I read gave an example of a father asking a teenaged son, “Why is the living room light on?” and getting the answer, “Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, closing the circuit and causing electricity to flow through the bulb.” That isn’t why, that’s how. And if students are taught science without being taught how to be independent from science, or for that matter if they are in a culture influenced by science as ours has been, they’ll come to share the assumption that this is the one and only serious answer to, “Why is the living room light on?”

That puts things too simply, but my point is that science does not represent the full range of inquiry. Science has cast a powerful shadow, not just in that science is scientific (which is as it should be) but in that non-scientific inquiry is not as independent as it should be.

But I’m getting off topic. What I was meaning to say was that I use science, but my discipline is dependent on an independence from science as well.

The Visionary: Could I backtrack a fair distance?

The Alumnus: Sure, to what?

The Visionary: There was something in the back of my mind when you answered my question about IMSA shielding its students from a lockstep environment. May I ask a more specific question?

The Alumnus: Certainly.

The Visionary: Did IMSA shield you from a lockstep environment?

The Alumnus: IMSA was unquestionably a better environment for me than a mainstream school.

The Visionary: You’re being diplomatic.

The Alumnus: Ok. IMSA tries to be a magnet school serving the gifted population. Instead of memorization, it tries to produce critical observers, right?

The Visionary: Yes, and this isn’t just for IMSA. We want to be a beacon of hope, for educational progress to the state and to the world.

The Alumnus: IMSA still doesn’t have a football program, right?

The Visionary: IMSA students still don’t really want one. If there was enough demand, we’d have one.

The Alumnus: What would you say to a football coach who wanted to liberate the tough, aggressive quarterback struggling to get out of every IMSA bookworm?

The Visionary: I think I see where you’re going. Let me play devil’s advocate for the moment. Our society has recognized football as an endeavor for some. But don’t we recognize that education is a goal for all?

The Alumnus: All analogies break down, and I can’t force you to see my point if you don’t want to. My reason for drawing that analogy is that the average mind learns by memorization of given material, and that mind is ill-served by trying to liberate that critical observer just as many bookworms would be ill-served by trying to liberate that hidden quarterback. The kind of student that does well at IMSA doesn’t do so well with the memorization that serves the average student. But it’s a two-way street.

The Visionary: And I think I see a connection to what you said about programmers assume that how they think about a product is how everybody will think about it. And…

The Alumnus: Yes. But there’s something else.

The Visionary: So how do you think IMSA’s outreach should be changed? Should we stop outreach?

The Alumnus: I’d want to give that some thought. That isn’t why I brought this up. I brought up this two-edged sword to make it easier to see another two-edged sword.

The two-edged sword I’ve suggested is that, just as IMSA students tend to be uncomfortable with the instructional methods at most schools, average students would be uncomfortable with instruction that seeks to liberate a hidden critical observer. It’s a bad match both ways. The other two-edged sword has to do with the nature of giftedness. How would you define giftedness?

The Visionary: I try not to, at least in not as strong terms as you do. IMSA is trying to liberate the genius of every child.

The Alumnus: I think your actions are wiser than your rhetoric. How much thought goes into your admissions decisions?

The Visionary: Our admissions staff give a great deal of thought! Do you think we’re careless?

The Alumnus: I would have been disturbed if IMSA made a random choice from among the students whose genius would be nurtured. Are you sure you don’t want to define giftedness?

The Visionary: Every child has some talent.

The Alumnus: I agree, although your words sound suspiciously like words that many IMSA parents have learned to wince at. There are a lot of parents who have bright children who have learned that “All of our children are gifted.” means, in practical terms, “Your daughter will be educated according to our idealization of an average student, no matter how much it hurts her, and we won’t make accomodation.”

But you are, unlike me, an administrator whom everybody blames for problems, and you know that there are many occasions where coming out and expressing your candid opinions is an invitation to disaster. I groused about the administration to no end as a student; it is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the difficult and delicate task of being an administrator, and what kind of performance on an administration’s part lets me focus on my work.

I’m going to put on my suspicious and mistrustful observer cap and read into your actions that it would be politically dangerous for you to say “This is the kind of gifted student we look for at IMSA.” But I am not an administrator. I am more of a private person than you can afford to be, and there are more degrees of freedom offered to me. Would you mind my giving my opinion on a matter where you in particular need to be very careful in what you say?

The Visionary: I’m always open to listen, and I’m not just saying this as an administrator.

The Alumnus: I should also say that because something is politic, I don’t automatically translate “politic” to “insincere.” I believe you’ve been as successful as you have partly because you sincerely want to hear what people have to say. When someone says, “political sensitivity,” I’ve learned to stop being a cynic and automatically hearing, “Machiavellian intrigue.”

But when I teach, I try to have a map that accomodates itself to terrain, both old and new to me. There are surprisingly many things I believe that are human universals, although I won’t discuss them here. But diversity is foundational to how I communicate, and in particular teach.

By “diversity” I don’t just mean “affirmative action concerns.” I read what I can about minority cultures, and how Asperger’s or ADD minds tick. That much is important, and I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon. But diversity doesn’t begin when a student labeled as “minority,” “different,” or “disadvantaged” sits down in your classroom. Diversity begins much earlier. Diversity is every person. I’m fond of books like David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II which explore what temperament and Myers-Briggs types mean for personhood. I want to appreciate learning styles. I absolutely love when students come in during office hours, because then I can see exactly where a student is, and exactly how that student is learning and thinking, and give an explanation that is tailored to the student’s specific situation. I like to lecture too, but I’m freest to meet student needs when students visit me in my office.

And one very important facet of that diversity is one that is unfashionable today, more specifically IQ.

The Visionary: I remember seeing a report that your IQ was so high it was untestable by normal means. I’ve heard that polite drivers value politeness, skillful drivers value skill, and safe drivers value safety. Is there…?

The Alumnus: If you want to dismiss what I’m saying because of speculation about my motives, there’s a good case to do so. I know that. But please hear and accept or dismiss my arguments on their merits, and if you read books like James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child, you’ll see this isn’t just my idea. I accept multiple intelligence theory as a nuance, but I would point my finger to the idea that a single IQ was an adjustment in theory, made by people who started by assuming multiple intelligences.

But with all the debates, and in particular despite the unfashionability of “IQ”, there is excellent reason to discuss giftedness in terms of IQ. IQ may not be the whole story, but you’re missing something big if it is treated as one factor among others.

Several caveats deleted, I would point out that giftedness is not a binary attribute, any more than being tall is binary. There may be some people who are clearly tall and others who clearly aren’t, but regardless of where you draw the line, you can’t divide people into a “tall” group of people who are all exactly 190 centimeters tall and a “non-tall” group of people who are 160 centimeters tall. There is diversity, and this diversity remains even if you restrict your attention to tall people.

The Visionary: So then would you say that most high schools serve an average diversity, and IMSA serves a gifted diversity?

The Alumnus: Umm…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: An average high school breaks at both ends of its spectrum…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: Um…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: And IMSA breaks at both ends of its spectrum.

The Visionary: If there are some students who the administration overestimates, this is unfortunate, but—

The Alumnus: That’s not my point. Ignoring several other dimensions of diversity, we don’t have two points of “average” and “gifted” defining a line. Giftedness, anyway, is not “the same kind of intelligence as most people have, only more of it and faster”; it’s a different kind of intelligence. It diverges more the further you go.

Instead of the two points of “average” and “gifted”, there are three points to consider: “average”, “gifted”, and “profoundly gifted.”

I think it is to IMSA’s great credit that you have a gifted education, not a pullout tacked on to a nongifted education. Serving gifted needs isn’t an adjustment; it’s the fabric you’ve woven, and it is impressive.

But “profoundly gifted” is as different from the “moderately gifted” as “moderately gifted” is from “average”…

…and IMSA attracts a good proportion of the profoundly gifted minority…

…and the position of the profoundly gifted at IMSA is exactly the position many IMSA students had in TAG pullouts.

The Visionary: May I say a word in IMSA’s defense?

The Alumnus: Certainly.

The Visionary: IMSA began as a dream, a wild, speculative, powerful, risky vision. From the beginning, its place was tentative; some of the first classes did math problems before the state government because IMSA was threatened with closing. IMSA makes things happen that wouldn’t happen anywhere, and for all we’ve done, there are still people who would remove us from the budget. I’ve talked with alumni, both those who like and dislike the school, and I see something in them which I didn’t see in other places.

The Alumnus: And IMSA is a safe place to learn and grow, and IMSA alumni are making a powerful contribution to the world. All of this I assume. And IMSA seems like the kind of place that could grow, that does grow. IMSA could offer the world certain extraordinarily talented individuals that have been stretched to their limit, who have spent certain very formative years doing things most people don’t even dream of, and doing so not in isolation but guided and supported as powerfully, and as gently for their needs, as IMSA already offers to so many of its students.

The Visionary: If you have any plans, I would like to hear them.

The Alumnus: Before I give the plans as such, I would like to give a brief overview, not just of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted mind, but of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted spirit. Keep in mind that this is not a trichotomy, but three reference points on a curve.

The average mind is concrete. It deals in practical, concrete matters. There was one study which posed isomorphic problems to people, one of which was stated abstractly, and one of which asked in concrete terms who the “cheaters” were. The average respondent did poorly on the abstract isomorph, but was astute when it was put concretely. The average mind is more practical, and learns by an understanding which gradually emerges by going over things again. The preferred learning style is oriented towards memorization and is relatively slow, concrete, and (on gifted terms) doesn’t make connections. This person is the fabric with which society is woven; a person like this tends to understand and be understood by others. The average mind concentrates on, and becomes reasonably proficient, in a small number of skills.

The moderately gifted mind, around an IMSA IQ of 140, deals with abstractions. It sees interconnections, and this may be related to why the moderately gifted mind learns more skills with less effort. (If this is true, an average mind would be learning from scratch, while a moderately gifted mind would only make adaptations from similar skills.) This person is likely to have a “collection of skills”, and have a low self-assessment in those skills. (Today’s breathtaking performance is, tomorrow, marginally adequate.) Self-actualizing concern for becoming a particular kind of person is much more common. The moderately gifted mind enjoys an advantage over the average mind, and is different, but still close enough to connect. This person learns more quickly, and most of society’s leaders are moderately gifted. (Some have suggested that this is not just because people above that range are much rarer, but because they can easily connect.

There is controversy about how isolated the profoundly gifted person is, with an IQ around 180. Some researchers believe that the greater gap is bridged by the greater ability to connect; Webb suggests otherwise, saying that children with an IQ above 170 feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. He asks what the effects would be if a normal child grew up in a world where most people had an IQ of 50-55. Some profoundly gifted have discussed the feeling that there’s an instruction manual to life that everyone but them has. The unusual sense of humor that appears in the moderately gifted is even more pronounced in the profoundly gifted. Average people tend to believe some tacit and naively realistic philosophy. Moderately gifted people tend to believe some conscious and creative reinterpretation of realism. Profoundly gifted people tend to believe an almost automatic anti-realism. The realism assumed by most people doesn’t resonate with them. And I need to explain what I mean by “believe” here. I don’t mean that someone engaged them in a discussion and are convinced by logic or eloquence that an anti-realist philosophy is true. I mean something close to experience, as we believe that a radiator is hot after we touch it. Realism is obvious for someone of average intelligence. For someone profoundly gifted, coming to that perspective represents a significant achievement.

Furthermore, where the moderately gifted person has a “skill collection”, the profoundly gifted individual has what might as well be magic powers—

The Visionary: You mean is involved with the occult or psychic phenomena?

The Alumnus: Not exactly. Profoundly gifted individuals have been known to do things like reinventing the steam engine at age six. Some of them can walk into a room and in an instant infer what kind of presentation is going to be given, and what kind of organization is going to give it. They have been known to make penetrating observations of connections between vastly different disciplines. Some have written a book in a week. Others remember everything they have read. Verbatim. Another still has invented a crude physics and using it to solve problems before she was old enough to talk. It’s entirely plausible for a profoundly gifted individual to think for a few hours about a philosophical school he’s just read about, and have a better grasp of the assumptions and implications surrounding that school than scholars who have studied the discipline for years. Many accomplishments are less extreme than that. Some are more extreme. I said that they might as well be magic powers because they are no more believable to many people than levitation or fairies granting wishes. Moderately gifted achievements are envied. Profoundly gifted achievements are disbelieved, and one social lesson the profoundly gifted learn is that there are certain accomplishments that you don’t talk about… which feels the way most people would feel if people were shocked and offended when they tried to say, “I can read,” or for that matter, “I can breathe.”

These people do not think of themselves as having magic powers. Their impressive abilities are no more breathtaking or astonishing to them than our impressive abilities of walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book are to us—and if you don’t believe that walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book is an astonishing mental feat, just spend a year in artificial intelligence. Artificial researchers know what kind of achievement is represented by these “basic” tasks. The rest of us misunderstand them as mundane. If you can understand how you can be better at understanding emotions than any computer in the world, and not think of yourself as gifted, you have a good start on understanding what it’s like to feel that it’s natural to tinker with your hands, imagine who you’re going to be when you grow up, enjoy cooking, and have dreams where your brain creates languages on the fly.

It’s a commonplace that the gifted can have a rough time of school. What IMSA does is place the profoundly gifted in the position of fixed pace classes designed for people significantly less intelligent than them.

It’s easier to criticize than it is to give a positive alternative; let me give a positive alternative.

First of all, profoundly gifted students can pick things up much more rapidly even than most IMSA students. Something like a factor of four speedup can happen again and again. Many of these students would tear through textbooks if you let them.

The Visionary: But at IMSA we don’t dump textbooks on students. We provide an environment where they can discover things for themselves.

The Alumnus: They will discover things for themselves. But if you look at learning styles, the profoundly gifted are some of the most able to understand a crystallized abstraction, and the most likely to work ahead in their textbooks.

IMSA may have a dozen or so profoundly gifted individuals at any one time.

The Visionary: And we’ve provided accommodation for a bright sophomore physics class.

The Alumnus: Yes, it is possible for students to lobby for accommodation on a specific point.

But it’s possible to go further, as IMSA has gone further than TAG pullouts.

There could be a small number of people who serve as tutors, in a sort of tutorial system as can be seen in Oxford’s and Cambridge’s history. They would be like thesis advisors, less responsible for knowing what the students need to learn than offering direction and referrals.

The Visionary: What would you have them do if they tear through IMSA’s curriculum sophomore year?

The Alumnus: Students that bright are likely to have their own axes to grind—good axes, axes which they should be encouraged. I really have trouble imagining a student flying through IMSA’s normal curriculum and then wanting to watch TV for two years. The problem of motivating these students is like the problem of defending a lion: the first thing is to get out of the way.

The teachers themselves should offer the kind of individualized instruction that is basic to special education, and deal with the “magic powers” that the main curriculum doesn’t know how to deal with.

The Visionary: Would the teachers have to be profoundly gifted?

The Alumnus: I don’t know. I would place more emphasis on understanding profoundly gifted students than necessarily being profoundly gifted oneself.

Furthermore, as well as standing in need of conceptual education, profoundly gifted students could benefit from personal development to help them meet the rest of the world. I don’t know whether it would be correct to say that average education should be about knowledge, gifted education should be about how to think, and profoundly gifted education should be about personal development. I think the idea is worth considering. And I would try to develop some things that aren’t needed in average education and less needed in moderately gifted education, such as how to bridge the gap and meet the rest of the world.

The Visionary: I’ll think about that. I would be delighted to say you’ve shown me how to solve this problem.

The Alumnus: I’d be surprised if I’ve shown you how to solve this problem. If I were asked what I could guarantee for this model, it would be that some part of it is wrong. I would ask you to consider what I’ve presented you as a rough draft. In my opinion it is a rough draft worth revising, changing course in midstream if need be, but it is a rough draft.

The Visionary: This is all very well for office hours, but how do you teach a class? You don’t try to individualize a lecture twenty different ways, do you?

The Alumnus: I believe what I said about diversity as foundational, but I also believe there are things that are common. I believe there are significant commonalities as well as significant differences.

What would you say is the dominant educational philosophy at IMSA?

The Visionary: There are several philosophies we draw on, and several things vary from teacher to teacher. But if I were to pick one school, it would be constructivism.

The Alumnus: Does constructivism see the student as an empty pot, to be filled with knowledge?

The Visionary: Quite the opposite. Constructivism sees the students as agents, trying to actively construct their models of the world, not as empty pots to be filled, or as formless clay for the teachers to shape. We see the teacher as supporting the student in this active task.

The Alumnus: And I agree that students should be active and encouraged by teachers. A related question—do you believe mathematics is something that research mathematicians invent, or something that they find out?

The Visionary: Well, the obvious answer would be that it’s something constructed.

The Alumnus: I disagree with you, at least about the “obvious” part.

The Visionary: Then I’ll trust your judgment that it’s something mathematicians discover. You’ve probably thought about this a lot more than I have.

The Alumnus: You don’t need to agree with me here. There are a lot of good mathematicians who believe mathematics is something invented.

The Visionary: Are you saying I should believe mathematics is constructed?

The Alumnus: No. There are also a lot of mathematicians who understand mathematics and say mathematics is something that’s found out.

The Visionary: Now I’m having trouble seeing where you’re going.

The Alumnus: There’s a debate among mathematicians as to whether mathematics is invented or discovered, with good mathematicians falling into either camp. The word ‘discover’ itself is ambiguous; one can say “I discovered the TV remote under the couch” and have “discover” mean “dis-cover” or “find out,” but one can also say, “I discovered a way to build a better mousetrap,” and have “discover” mean “invent”. “Invent” derives from the Latin “invenire,” which means “come into”, i.e. “find,” so that it would be more natural in Latin to say “I just invented my car keys” than “I invented a useful tool.”

The Visionary: I think I see what you are saying… Are you saying that there is a single reality described both by discovery and invention?

The Alumnus: Yes. Now to tie in with constructivism… What are students doing when they are constructing models?

The Visionary: They are shaping thought-stuff, for lack of a better term, in a way that’s different for each learner.

The Alumnus: And this is to break out of the Enlightenment/Diderot encyclopedia mindset which gives rise to stuffing the learner with facts?

The Visionary: Absolutely.

The Alumnus: Where would you place Kant? Was he a medieval philosopher?

The Visionary: He was one of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers.

The Alumnus: And Kant’s model of ideas was unchanged from Plato.

The Visionary: Um…

The Alumnus: Yes?

The Visionary: What Plato called “Ideas” and Kant ‘s “ideas” are two different things. For Plato, the Ideas were something strange to us: a reality outside the mind.

The Alumnus: Um… Plato and Kant would equally have affirmed the statement, “Ideas are internal.”

The Visionary: I don’t think so. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests that the Ideas are part of something that is the same for all people.

The Alumnus: If I may digress for a moment, I think that famous passage should be called “the Allegory of the Television.” I appreciate your limiting the place of television at IMSA. But back to the topic, for Plato the Ideas were internal, but were not private.

The Visionary: Huh?

The Alumnus: Kant was a pivotal figure in our—the Enlightenment’s—idea that the only real stuff outside our head is matter. When Kant says “internal,” he says “private,” and when we say “internal,” we say “private.” If you think this way, then you believe that thought is something done in a private corner. This privacy may be culturally conditioned, but it is privacy. And yet, however self-evident this seems to us, a great many philosophers and cultures have believed otherwise.

There is a private aspect to thought, but my research into how to think has led me to question the Enlightenment model and believe that we all think on the same contoured surface. We can be on different parts and move in different ways, but in thinking we deal with a reality others deal with as well. And I’m going to sound like a kooky philosopher and say that you have a deficient cosmology, and therefore a deficient corollary understanding of how humans are capable of learning, if you believe that everything is either inside the mind or else something you can kick.

The Visionary: But we’re questioning the Enlightenment model, and rejecting parts of it that have problems!

The Alumnus: I know you are. And I would encourage you to question more of it.

The Visionary: How does this belief affect teaching for you?

The Alumnus: Most immediately, it helps me say ways to identify with students—connect with their thought. There are some things that pay off long term. But in the short run, when a student makes a mistake, the student is not bad, nor is the mistake is not an anomaly to push away. A mistake is an invaluable opportunity for me to understand how a student is thinking and draw the student to a better understanding.

In terms of base metaphor, if you look at Dewey’s foundationalism, what it is that bothers many IMSA teachers and IMSA teachers are working to change, the basic idea is that the teacher is building up knowledge, from its foundations, in the student’s mind. If I were to try and capture it in a metaphor, I would say that the student is an empty lot, and the teacher is building a house on it. The teacher is actively doing teaching to the student.

The constructivism that resonates with many IMSA teachers doesn’t like the idea of the teacher being active and the student being the passive receptacle of teaching. It’s fine for the teacher to be active, but they don’t believe the student is passive because they were quite active learners themselves. Constructivist writers don’t refer to ‘students’ so much as ‘learners;’ they emphasize that the learner is active. The basic idea is that people are actively trying to build their own unique understandings of the world, and a constructivist teacher is trying to support learners in this endeavor. If foundationalism is crystallized in the image of a teacher building a house on an empty lot, constructivist learning theory is crystallized in the image of learners picking up what they can to build their own private edifices of thought, their interior castles.

The Visionary: What do you think of those?

The Alumnus: I think we’re comparing a hammer with a screwdriver. If you read debate on the web, you’ll see people who think constructivism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of foundationalism, and people who think foundationalism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of constructivism. The truth is neither; good foundationalist teaching like Direct Instruction is doing one thing well, and good constructivist learning is doing another thing well, and different people learn differently.

The Visionary: But do you have an alternative?

The Alumnus: Yes, and it is again suggested by basic metaphor. Instead of building a house, or helping learners construct their private models, I would suggest looking at a single word, katalabein. I am using a Greek word without an exact English equivalent, because it ties together some things that are familiar—part of the shared inner human reality which we can recognize. It can be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘understand’, and it provides for a basic metaphor in which what is understood is actively acquired, achieved even, but it is not necessarily idiosyncratic and private. We still have an active learner, and implications for how a teacher can support that active learner…

The Visionary: Go on.

The Alumnus: But it’s different. I was fascinated with one constructivist learning page that recast the teacher as a sort of non-directive counselor. They facilitated learning experiences, but they realized that students came in with beliefs, like “Weeds are not plants because they don’t need to be nurtured,” and what really fascinated me was that some of them found themselves in an ethical quandary about the appropriateness of using a science class to influence student beliefs, say to agree with a botanist that dandelions are plants.

The Visionary: None of the IMSA teachers are that squeamish about influencing student beliefs.

The Alumnus: One alum made a comment that “looney liberals” seemed to him to offer a similar service to coal miner’s canaries. It wouldn’t be fair to accuse most liberals of their excesses, but it was still worth keeping an eye on them: they could be a warning that it was time to rethink basic ideas. Even if those web pages may fall more into the “canary” category than anything else…

The Visionary: But what do you have instead of helping students build private world-pictures?

The Alumnus: Instead of helping students build private world-pictures, helping students grapple with, in the overcoming that is understanding and the understanding that is overcoming, the katalabein of material. And this is material that always has a personal touch, but is understood to be internal in a way that is not simply how one has arbitrarily exercised privacy, but connects with a sort of inner terrain that is as shared as the outer terrain. No two people are at—no two people can be at—the exact same place in the external, physical world, nor can two people see the same thing, because their personal bodies get in the way. But that does not mean we inhabit our own private physical universes. I can tell you how to drive to my house because to get there, you would be navigating some of the same reality as I navigate. But somehow we believe that our bodies may touch the same doorknobs and our shoes may touch the same carpets… Somehow we believe that when we turn inside, the “reality” becomes impenetrably private, influenced by culture perhaps but shared to so little an extent that no two people shares the same inner sun and moon.

The Visionary: But that’s the external world! You’re not talking about when people can make up anything they want.

The Alumnus: Hmm… As part of your job, you field criticism from people who want IMSA to be shut down, right?

The Visionary: Yes.

The Alumnus: And a good portion of that criticism comes from people who are certain you’ve never considered the objection they raise, right?

The Visionary: You’ve been reading my mail!

The Alumnus: And how many years has it been since one of those letters contained a criticism that was new to you?

The Visionary: You’ve been reading my… um… [pause] Wow.

The Alumnus: The introduction to the Handbook of Special Education tries to make a point by quoting the opening meeting of the International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children. The meeting had in all respects a typical (for today) discussion of how one should define special needs children. And the meeting was in 1923. The point was made that special educators assume they’re the first people to address new issues, when neither the issues nor their thoughts are new. An old internet denizen, writing about “the September that never ended”, talked about how each year in September new college students would flood newsgroup discussions with “new, new, new” insights that were, in the denizen’s words, “exactly the same tripe” that had been posted the previous year.

There is really not that much that is new, and this is tied to another observation. There is really not that much that is private. There is some. Even in the outer world there are some things that are private to each person. But in the inner world—and I am not talking aboutyour inner world, or mine, but a real world, the inner world, a place that has contours of its own and laws of its own and terrain of its own and substances of its own which are no more the subject of an idiosyncratic private monopoly than the outer world’s sun and moon. Perhaps it has a private dimension, but to assume that an inner world is by definition someone’s most private possession is almost like answering the remark “The Atlantic Ocean is getting more polluted,” with “Whose Atlantic Ocean?”

The Visionary: Is there a way to integrate the inner world with the outer world?

The Alumnus: I am guilty of a rhetorical fault. I have spoken of the outer world as if it were separate from the inner world, and the inner world as if it were separate from the outer world. The real task is not one of integration but desegregation, and that is a lesson I’ve been wrestling with for years. The biggest lesson I took from my Ph.D. thesis, where I achieved a fascinating distillation of how to think from learning as we know it, is that how to think cannot be distilled from learning, and learning cannot be distilled from the rest of life. It is all interconnected. It’s like a classic plot in fantasy literature where a hero is searching for a legendary treasure, and goes to strange places and passes amazing trials. We’re there learning with him, until there is an end where “nothing” happens, but by the time that “nothing” takes place, we’ve been with the hero all along and we have been transformed just as much as he is, and we see through the “nothing” to recognize the treasure that has been all around the hero—and us—all along.

The real world has an internal and an external dimension, and there is nothing like trying to crystallize purer and purer internal knowledge to see the interpenetration of the internal and the external. I learned that the internal is not self-contained.

The Visionary: Is there anything that has been written which deals with this connection?

The Alumnus: Are you asking me if you can borrow a truckload of books? There are some cultures where it’s hard to find material which doesn’t relate the connection in some form.

But let me tie this in with education. Postmodernism is fragmented, so much so that postmodern scholars tend to put “postmodern” in ironic quotes and add some qualifier about whether it’s even coherent to talk about such a movement. From the inside, there isn’t a single postmodern movement; talking about a postmodern movement is like talking about a herd of housecats. But this is not because talking about being “postmodern” is meaningless; it’s because one of the characteristics is fragmentation, and so if there is anything called postmodern, then it will be much more of a grab bag than something called modern.

Constructivism is postmodern, not in that anything called postmodern must resemble it, but because it can be placed on a somewhat ad hoc spectrum. It is internally fragmented, in that it is not helping students navigate the world of ideas, but in trying to reckon with learners’ development of private models of the world. In typical postmodern fashion, the movement shows exquisite sensitivity to ways in which student constructed models are parochial, and does not inquire into ways in which students may be grappling with something universal. (At best learners’ constructs are culturally conditioned.)

In what I am suggesting, learners are active, but students are working with something which is not so much clay to be shaped in the privacy of one’s mind. I am aware of the parochial dimension—as a culture, we’ve been aware of it to death—but I’m trying to look at something we don’t pay as much attention to today. I suggest, instead of a basic metaphor of learners constructing their own models, learners struggling to conquer parts of the world of ideas. Conquer means in some sense to appropriate; it means in part what we mean when we say that a mountain climber physically conquered an ascent and mastered its terrain. And this is not a cookie cutter, but it provides serious place for something that doesn’t have soil to root itself in in constructivism.

I suspect that this is a lot less exotic than it sounds. Would you say that IMSA teachers often understand their students?

The Visionary: I think they often try.

The Alumnus: I think they often succeed.

Communication in general draws on being able to identify with the other. It says, “Even if I disagree with you, I understand what it means that you believe differently from what I do.” You know what it’s like when someone is talking with you and simply cannot identify with where you are coming from. It feels clumsy. Good communicators can identify with other people, and even a partial understanding is much better than no understanding at all.

I think the teachers I had at least showed something wiser than constructivism. Read something like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and you will see appreciation of incommensurability and a communication divide between opposing camps; unlike the later Kuhn, you will also see that this claim of incommensurability, where opposing sides invariably argue past each other in debates, is applied to both major and minor paradigm shifts. Now if we look at a constructivist approach, where this kind of thinking is applied to individual peoples’ models as well as models that are shared across a camp, then we have an excellent reason not to teach.

We have an excellent reason to say that teachers’ and students’ models are not only conflicting but incommensurable, that the teacher may have more power but in a fair debate they would argue past each other, and that the basis for the teacher understanding and therefore successfully influencing the student is at very least questionable. In the end, we have something which affects the concept of teaching more profoundly than the observation that students will see things that teachers don’t realize. If you look at Kuhn, you will see a remark that the winning side of a scientific paradigm shift will naturally view the shift as progress. This contributes to an account for people thinking science progresses without science actually progressing. Science shifts. But the shift is not a step forward from less developed science to more developed science. It is a step sideways, from one reigning paradigm to another. And in like fashion, if you follow a natural constructivist path, you have an alternative to saying that the teacher knows more about science than the students. The teacher is more powerful, but there is a way out for someone who wants to deny that the teacher has more desirable knowledge that the students should learn. Not only can we argue that “teaching” communication is impossible, but we can argue that “teaching” communication is undesirable even if it were possible.

The Visionary: But that can’t be what our teachers believe! You have to be misunderstanding constructivism. That’s not how it works out.

The Alumnus: I agree with you that that can’t be what many IMSA teachers believe. It is only what they say. And what they think they believe.

The Visionary: You mean…

The Alumnus: Foundationalism is a bad account of how most IMSA teachers learn. They learn actively, and IMSA students learn actively. And constructivism offers a compelling metaphor for active learning. But teachers at IMSA don’t believe all its implications. Like the character in a George MacDonald book who was fond of saying, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure,” and had married in haste, but hadn’t really thought about repenting, even though she’d had plenty of leisure in which to repent. If constructivism may undercut the possibility of communication, and the possibility of the teacher drawing students to join her in expert practice, this is not yet a problem. In practical terms, teachers believe they can communicate, and they have something to share. And they do this. There may be problems where this goes down the road, but in practical terms IMSA teachers live a philosophy with communication that is often excellent.

And, as far as metaphors go, I think that the katalabein metaphor offers something valuable that the constructivist metaphor doesn’t. In particular, the fact that teachers can communicate, and leave students better off, doesn’t just happen to be true; it’s something that one can delve into. You don’t just take the metaphor into consideration when you communicate on a basis that doesn’t come from the model; the metaphor itself gives you a basis to communicate. And it’s different enough to compete in an interesting way. Or complement constructivism in an interesting way. Even if it’s not perfect.

The Visionary: Yes, I know. Do you regret the fact that it’s so messy?

The Alumnus: I regret the fact that it’s not messy enough.

When we describe a rainbow, we say that the colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But those aren’t the colors of the rainbow. If you pick a color at random on the rainbow, there’s a zero percent chance that you will exactly pick one of those colors. A rainbow is a spectrum, and if you have a wavelength for each of those colors, you have seven reference points for a spectrum with infinitely many colors. And a reference point can help you understand a spectrum, but a reference point is not a spectrum.

I’ve done, I think, a decent job of describing one reference point on a spectrum. But teachers rarely follow one educational theory in pure form; they tend to draw on several, and this is intended not to be a complete theory, but a reference point in a pluralistic theory. Most theories are a single point. This theory is meant to be a spectrum, but isn’t there yet.

And as much as a robust theory of education needs to be pluralistic, sensitive to the diversity that is every student, there also also needs to be a sensitivity to the diversity of knowledge. English is cursed to only have one word for knowledge.

The Visionary:But we have well enough established division of knowledge into subjects. In fact that’s what we’re trying to teach our students to get past.

The Alumnus: That’s not quite what I meant.

In most of the languages I know, there’s more than one word for knowledge. In French, there is savoir, which is the knowledge one has about facts, and connaissance, which is the knowledge one has of a person. It’s a different kind of thing to know about a fact and to know of a person, and this is reflected in different words. Conscience is not simply the French word for conscience; it means consciousness, and some of the more ethereal and personal aspects of knowledge. The Latin eruditio and notitia have other nuances. In English we do have “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “information,” which are as different from each other as an apple, an orange, and a pear.

And this is without treating ways of thought. One of the things I learned was that knowledge and ways of thought could be distinguished but not separated. If you look at Eastern ways, whether they are religions like Hinduism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or martial arts like Kuk Sool Won or Ninpo, you will find quite a different pedagogy from what we assume in the West. Instead of trying to open the mind and dump in knowledge, they begin by training the body, in actions, and then this begins to affect the soul and transform the spirit.

The Visionary: Isn’t constructivism more like that?

The Alumnus: It is. But instead of reinventing experiential learning, Eastern ways preserve a Tao, or for a Western word, a matrix. Most recently in the West, Matrix is the name of a trilogy where each movie was better than the next. But before that, a matrix was a mathematical construct, and are you familiar with what “matrix” meant before that? It was the Latin word meaning “womb.” And this concept of a womb, or a matrix, is something which has become alien to Western thought. A matrix is the medium in which you move, the air in which you breathe. It has the authority of your culture and your mother tongue. It is a very different kind of authority from the authority of a single leader, or a written rule; a matrix does not consciously command you, but provides you with the options which shape your choice. And the Eastern ways all preserve a matrix, a way, that provides their pedagogy. In a sense the difference between constructivist experiential learning and Eastern experiential learning is the difference between non-native speakers trying to speak a language and a community of native speakers continuing to use their language. Except to make the comparison more fair, constructivists are trying to construct a language, and put together something that works, and Eastern pedagogues have inherited something that works. The difference is kind of like the difference between an experimental kind of baseball glove that someone is trying out and a glove that is not only traditional but already broken in.

The Visionary: Um… I’ll have to think about what you have said about a “matrix.” Ok, you’ve given me a lot to think about. It would be premature for me to respond now. I’m going to need to think about what you’ve said. But let me change the susbject. What other ideas do you have about teaching, especially concrete ones?

The Alumnus: It’s a bit like a light—it makes other things easier to see. But let me talk about other ways of teaching, such as listening.

The Visionary: I know how you can listen if a student asks a question, but how do you listen when lecturing?

The Alumnus: Listening is about trying to understand the other person as a basis for communication. Apart from the feedback that’s in student questions—if you look for it—a person’s face is a window to what is going on inside, and a teacher sees student faces frequently. I know the ominous silence when the class is so lost that students are afraid to ask questions. I don’t just charge on because it’s important to cover the remaining material. I try to stop, back up, and help the students to genuinely understand, and then proceed from genuine understanding. Homework offers implicit feedback on what I succeeded in communicating, and what I did not succeed in. And there’s an implicit listening mindset behind trying not to inundate students with too much information at once.

There’s a book of little stories, and in one of them, a sage was asked, “What is your name?” He pondered for a moment and said, “My name used to be… Me. But now it’s… You.” I didn’t like that story at first, because I didn’t understand it. Now I understand enough of it to see that it has a profound truth. Talking is about “me”, and listening is part of a lifelong journey of learning to think in terms of “you.” Listening has far more to offer a teacher than a better understanding of student questions.

There are a lot of things I like about how IMSA works—your belief that the needs of the mind cannot be met if the needs of the body are neglected. How this you fit this in with Arbor food service is not clear to me—

The Visionary: Thanks, Dear…

The Alumnus: Any time. But I really like the understanding you have of the human person as interconnected on multiple levels, including the body and mind. I also take that as axiomatic, and teach so that students will understand concepts and preferably their connections, and many other things. Just as I haven’t read what I just said about listening in anything that came out of IMSA, but the teachers I had at IMSA were all examples of good listening.

The Visionary: Thank you.

The Alumnus: You’re welcome.

But another part of the Enlightenment I reject is its depersonalization of knowledge and teaching. Have you read any Polanyi?

The Visionary: Not yet. Should I put him on my reading list?

The Alumnus: I don’t know. He writes hefty, if understandable, material. It takes time to understand him, but he’s worth understanding.

Michael Polanyi was a philosopher of science, and his big work was on tacit and personal knowledge. The core idea is that scientific knowledge (I would say knowledge in general) is not a set of dessicated constructs that can be understood without reference to people; it is enfleshed in people who know it. He talked about how competing swimmers inhale a little more air and exhale a little less, so they always have more air in their lungs and therefore buoyancy than we would, but this knowledge is never thought of in so many words by the coach or by the student who “picks it up” from the coach, wordlessly. I don’t know if it’s a fair reading to say that the knowledge we can articulate is the just tip of the iceberg, but what I do think is a fair reading is to say that the knowledge we can put into so many words is not the whole picture. I think he would have liked IMSA trying to avoid teachers mindlessly regurgitating material so students can learn to mindlessly regurgitating material.

In tandem with the Enlightenment depersonalization of knowledge, is a depersonalization of the concept of teaching and a teacher. About two thousand years ago, one teacher tried to demote teachers from being human gods (who were superior to everyone else) to being human like the rest of us. Then, in connection with the Enlightenment there came a second demotion. A teacher was no longer someone responsible for initiating those in their care into humanity, but only a part of a person imparting a skill to another partial person.

That is an illusion; no matter how much keep our mouths shut on certain matters, we are humans teaching. The question is not whether or not teachers will be an ethical force; the question is whether, given that teachers will be an ethical force, whether they will be a positive force or a negative force. Because students are affected by what kind of people their teachers are—as well as what they say—a teacher should try to be a positive force. This means things like a humility that listens and appreciates other people, and caring, and is willing to listen both to “I don’t understand partial differentiation,” and “I’ve had a lousy week.”

This means that a teacher who sees past the present, and sees students as the concert pianists, research scientists, and ballerinas they can become, will by that very respect help make that potential a reality.

The Visionary [looks at watch]: Thank you. I need to be somewhere in a few minutes; do you have any closing comments?

The Alumnus: I think that one aspect of how we speak of teaching is unfortunate. We speak of the active teacher who teaches, and the presumably passive student who is taught. Nothing of this manner of speaking suggests a dialog, a two-way street—but if teaching succeeds, it must be because of a cooperation between student and teacher. Even with constructivist understanding of learning, we’re just looking at what the teacher can do.

I spend most of my time thinking about how I can see to my end of the partnership, not how students can handle their job. But there is something I would love to say to students, reinforced by a handout, on the first day of class, some toned-down version of:

Steal knowledge.

Prometheus stole fire. Your job is to steal knowledge.

The wrong way to think is that my job is to teach you, and you just sit there and be taught, and after enough teachers have taught you, you’ll be educated.

You will get a much better education if you think that whatever I do, however well or poorly I teach, is simply the baseline, and you can start from there and see what you can do to take as much knowledge as you can.

Listening in class and asking questions is one way to steal knowledge. Is there something I said that doesn’t quite make sense? If you just let my teaching wash over you, you’ve missed an opportunity to steal knowledge.

If you listen to my words, that’s good. It’s even better if you think about why I would say what I am saying. There may be a clue, maybe a little whisper in your intuition that something more is going on than you realize. That is a key that you can use to steal knowledge.

When you read the textbook, it will tell you more if you push it harder. Look at the problems. What are they asking you to know? What are they asking you to think about? There’s a powerful clue about what’s important and what’s going on, if you’re adept enough to steal it.

What do I assume about the material? I make assumptions, and some of those are assumptions I make because of what I know. If you’re willing to ask why I assume something, you may steal knowledge of how people think when they understand the material.

My office hours are meant for you. Come in and discuss the material. If I see you make a mistake, that’s good. It means you’re learning and I have an opportunity to clarify. If you don’t understand something, and all of us don’t understand things from time to to time, it will cost you points to wait until the test to find out that you don’t understand it. It won’t cost you anything if you come in during my office hours, and I’ll be glad you visited. And you might steal some knowledge.

Steal knowledge. There’ll be some days when you’re a little tired, and you can’t look for all the extra knowledge you can steal. That’s OK; just try to take the knowledge I clearly set out before you. But steal knowledge when you can.

You’ve gotten into IMSA, which is one of the best and one of the worst places in the world. Take advantage of opportunity. Learn to steal knowledge. And when you graduate from IMSA… Steal knowledge.

The Visionary: I definitely have some food for thought to take into the meeting. Do come and visit again! Goodbye!

The Alumnus: That I shall. Goodbye!

Gifted? Let me harass you!

On Mentorship

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Within the Steel Orb

The Not Martian But Human Complete Set of Working Instructions to Happiness

Michael: Robert Heinlein, in Stranger in a Strange Land, wrote, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being is organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” Would that we had such a set of working instructions!

Photios: But such exists, or rather such is not needed.

Michael: How? I’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land and can still only guess at it.

Photios: This reminds me of a forum where a young Asian told of some white guys driving by in a car and making “Chinese-like sounds” at him, and asked, “What about these white suburbanite middle-class…” and one of the more liberal members of the forum said, “Question asked, question answered.”

Michael: Ok, I’ll bite. What’s your point?

Photios: Well it’s hard to talk about Stranger in a Strange Land without discussing sex, and I’d like to start there.

In the real world, outside of the novel, there have been many studies to determine which maverick experiments make for the greatest sexual happiness. And to the dismay of the people running the study, the answer, unless they are willing to lie outright, is that a married couple in the traditional sense, straight, faithful, lifelong, no porn, open to parenting children, experiences far and away the greatest pleasure and overall happiness. And this is a finding of dismay because the assumption is that if you’re really going to have a good time, you’ve got to be breaking rules, and the question “Which rebels against traditional marriage have it best?” meets the one entirely unwelcome answer: “Traditional marriages have it best.”

Heinlein posits one maverick arrangement. Ok, this doesn’t constitute maverick now, but it did when Stranger in a Strange Land first came out, and it was a point Heinlein needed to make with a sledgehammer. He posited free love within a tightly guarded nest. And on that point I would recall a counselor who said that after decades of seeing people in every conceivable living arrangement and some he couldn’t conceive, only underscored more strongly that the traditional rules about sexuality are intended for our benefit and not to keep us away from the good stuff.

You seem to assume that the “complete working manual” would be some super-secret or super-elite document only available to a few, or some super-secret way of reading the Bible or whatnot. But remember the maxim learned by many in the military: “When you assume, you make an ass out of U and me!” There is something as good as a complete working manual, and your assumption is one best dismantled.

Michael: Oof. What about the Paleo diet or lifestyle: what do you think about that?

Photios: I practice a modified form of it, but I don’t preach it much more than I preached about the diet I practiced before then. And to be an un-modified form of the Paleo diet is at least a concession in Orthodoxy.

Michael: So Orthodoxy and its cooking traditions have a scientifically better basis than the Paleo diet?

Traditional Orthodox diets are based on the kinds of food people ate after the agricultural revolution; unless you believe the earth is younger than the agricultural revolution’s dates, no matter where you draw the line for the first humans, the departure from hunter-gatherer living is only an eyeblink compared to the total time people have been around.

Photios: And most Orthodox saints believed in a young earth; I don’t share that belief, let alone the crypto-Protestant “Creation Science” that was popular with Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and unknown to most saints. But that is beside the point.

Michael: Then what is your point? Why is the Paleo diet not scientifically superior?

Photios: I do not hold any other diet to be superior, on scientific grounds, to the Paleo diet. But scientific grounds are not the only grounds to judge by. Never mind that the authors of Proverbs were scientifically illiterate by our standards. The proverb still stands: Better is a dinner of herbs [including bread] than a fatted ox and hatred with it.

Michael: Can’t we allow for greater ignorance in the past?

Photios: We can allow for different ignorance, but not greater ignorance—and what an odd thing for a Paleo devotee to say! And thinking about some things on materialistic terms is a material error.

Michael: Such as?

Photios: Once upon a time surgeons would do surgery with dirty hands, horse spit and all, and Pasteur’s revolution came by and said to be sanitary, which is why to this day the preferred medical practice is for surgery to be done in as sanitary and sanitized conditions as possible.

And over-zealots of Pasteur’s style of sanitization thought that the best way to give an infant a best shot at life is to keep things as sanitary as possible, and for all this “Emperor’s New Clothes” improved sanitary conditions, the infant mortality in hospitals was atrociously high. And then someone had the very unscientific idea of bringing in old women to touch, cuddle, and hold infants for half an hour, or an hour, or two hours or whatever each day. And infant mortality plummeted overnight. With that one change, many more infants survived early hospitalization.

And something of the same error relates to kissing icons. Materialistic-minded people wince at kissing something that other people have kissed—but it is an overall strengthening, not weakening, that comes from paying reverence to icons and relics. And you can push it more forcefully and say that it’s as unsanitary as kissing all those people on the mouth, and for that matter the two or three kisses on the cheek given occasionally in some jurisdictions and frequently in other jurisdictions are a tamer version of kissing on the mouth—in fact, by liturgical implication, the kiss on the cheek by implication is a kiss on the mouth. And in areas of helping infants survive the beginning of life, or kissing icons, or kissing Orthodox Christians, the Pasteurized version is the wrong route.

It’s not just that we are justified in taking a health detriment if we do not practice Pasteur’s idea of sanitation. We actually are better off even in matters of health. With what is known about touch and the beginning of life, it would now be a foolhardy proposition to eliminate touch as far as possible from a baby’s life in order to obtain good sanitation. And with what is known about touch at the beginning of life, it is not considered ethical to explore the effects of reducing touch in infants’ lives. It is, however, ethical to explore the effects of increasing touch in infants’ lives, for instance by placing a newborn infant against its mother’s body for thirty to forty-five minutes before going to business as usual, and the effect of increased touch is not only decreased mortality but greatly improved well-being.

And if I may quote a second snippet from the Bible: Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

The Paleo Solution says that exercise is important and diet is indispensible. I would rather say that exercise and diet may be important, but godliness is indispensible. Perhaps the past few thousand years have been aberration from the naturally good diet our race has enjoyed, but however adamant we may be that Paleo living is better, keep in mind that the Bible and many of the Fathers lived in cultures where everyone up to the king ate bread as the main food, and it is bread and no other food that is honored in the Eucharist and in prosphora. You may hold if you want that it is seriously damaging to eat even the purest organic whole grain bread, but the Bible got its work done during millenia and cultures where the main staple food was bread, and the Gospel was much deeper than getting back paleo hunterer-gather eating and living. And hospitality trumps fasting in Orthodoxy, hospitality should trump diet as well. And that is the biggest area where I make the most concession against the paleo diet; I gratefully accept hospitality as it is given. If you’re far enough in the paleo diet that breaking its rules actually makes you sick—I’m not—then maybe it is appropriate to explain your dietary needs, but insofar as much as it is possible, let hospitality alike trump fasting and diet.

Michael: None the less, there is something haunting, something I wish to be true, in “Jubal learned that… (f) it was not possible to separate in the Martian tongue the human concepts: ‘religion,’ ‘philosophy,’ and ‘science’…”

Photios: Well said indeed, and you can have something better than a hope such things can be. Instead of hoping for things from another world, you can enjoy, in the legal sense, the things in this real world from whose pierced side they were taken. Religion, philosophy, and science are inseparable in “Physics”, and I encourage reading it.

But let me take a step back, far back. Let’s look at the world of television commercials, or a glitzy animated commercial on the Internet. Whether selling cars or clothing, internet access or movies, they are selling escape from the here and now. It may be a car, almost invariably portrayed as sensual, mysterious, and intimate—which are really not what we would best do to seek in a car—but a car that delivers from the burden of the here and now. Clothing adorns the wearer and relieves the wearer of the necessity of appearing as she appears here and now. Internet access is more than just bandwidth; it is portrayed by people who have escaped the here and now. Or a movie or a video game; you have seen the commercials blanketing people recently and saying everyone has a bit of a soldier in them. What they are selling is escape into another world.

On this point I would like to talk about the predecessor to the present Archdruid of Canterbury, who would have flatly have denied that any escape from reality satisfies, or perhaps that there is anywhere to escape to but reality. And even that way of talking violates his writing; in the ancient world, one said, “_______ said _______,” while in the modern world one says both “_______ said _______,” and “_______ would have said _______.” And this transformation is deep enough that students, trying to understand what a past author wrote, find it natural and not in the least provocative to ask, “What would _______ have said about ________?” when everybody in the room knows that the author never touched on the matter in question.

On this point, Anselm, admittedly after the schism, and for that matter Muslims are right. It is not the case that there are a large number of “possible worlds” and we happen to inhabit one of these fantasy-like worlds; there is a reality that Allah or God has created, and it is fundamental confusion to escape it, even in thought. So Stranger in a Strange Land makes a world where free love within a circle of people is allowed—and after ripping marriage apart re-constructs quite a large chunk of marriage in his free love. A man is not forbidden to seek love outside of his nest, but once inside the nest he is entirely free from desire for anyone outside of the nest. That is a reconstruction of what Heinlein has dismantled in marriage: one might speak of marriage as a nest of two, only a nest where fidelity represents not an inescapable preference but a legitimate and freely given choice. Heinlein divorced repeatedly, but a nest of water brothers is permanent. Stranger in a Strange Land‘s nest of water brothers is drawn from the wounded side of reality, only this time it is not the Lord’s doing. Eve may have been drawn from the wounded side of Adam, and the Church may have been drawn from the wounded side of Christ, pouring out blood and water, but this is a matter of “Satan cannot create, he can only mock”, and having rejected the real cistern: [M]y people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. And this is the choice of escape: to forsake the fountain of living water, and draw frorm the wounded side of reality broken cisterns that can hold no water. If you read Within the Steel Orb, it peddles escape and seemingly alien wisdom, but it is a mutilation of reality that is offered: the session about controlling the telescope is in fact based in riflery, but if it were not taken from riflery it would have to be taken from somewhere else. And the session about dropping Einstein’s name and claiming to ponder the deeper implications of relativity could just as well have been written in a story set in this world, or for that matter in actual live discussion.

And the emphatic choice of cannibalism among the book’s features is if anything further proof that there is no other reality out there to draw on. In terms of épater la bourgeoisie, cannibalism delivers shock and presumably offense. But, while Heinlein compares the alien Martian world’s cannibalism to the Eucharist at some point, and indeed it is an obvious comparison, one has to ask, “Where is the profound draw to cannibalism except for allowing something that is forbidden?” It is not clear to me, or to many others, what the advantage is of having one more form of meat available and even in the book the prevalence of cannibalism does not offer clear and sincere benefits like the water brotherhood, or great psychic abilities (or both water brotherhood and great psychic powers) that Heinlein builds up in the book. If you want to eat forbidden food, forbidden at least in American culture (which does not offer the only set of rules around), you can eat animals that are kept as pets and companions: eat dog, cat, or horse. All three of these are edible, and for that matter there are cultures on earth where any or all of these are permitted food. But if the question arises, “What is the benefit of eating these animals beyond the foods permitted in American culture?” I don’t see what the substantive answer would be, except for something related to our emotional reaction at the thought of eating a pet. The Paleo Solution and the call to return to more recent historical diets in Nourishing Traditions might never forbid eating cats, dogs, or horses, but neither one paints a nutritional picture where we are advised to eat the kinds of animals we keep as pets because they provide something we can’t get, or can’t as easily get, from eating animals Americans think of as meat. Come to think of it, neither text suggests that Jews or Muslims are missing out on any needed nutrients if they don’t eat pig or other unclean animals. The Paleo Solution argues that there are essential amino acids and essential fats but no essential carbohydrates: “essential” meaning something we need and our bodies cannot make from other foods. However, there is no suggestion at all that we need to eat more types of meats, let alone cherished dogs, cats, and horses, let alone human flesh, to be properly nourished. Now the Martian culture which was big on cherishing things admitted cannibalism of loved ones was a way of cherishing them, but even then the Wikipedia provides a motive for cannibalism that offers a more serious incentive than having yet another form of meat: “Both types of cannibalism can also be fueled by the belief that eating a person’s flesh or internal organs will endow the cannibal with some of the characteristics of the deceased.” This belief, which would offer some real motivation to desire “Martian” cannibalism, is entirely absent in Stranger in a Strange Land, and friends and killed enemies are both eaten without distinction for “food”.

Michael: Who are you to make such a judgment?

Photios: Let me tell you about one person who decided he was going to be an icefisher, so he purchased a bunch of equipment, walked over on the ice, and started to drill down. He got down two inches before a deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”

He looked around and quietly moved his equipment over 50 feet, and started to drill there. No sooner had he started than a deep booming voice said, “There are no fish there either!”

He picked up his equipment, moved over a hundred feet, looked around before drilling, when the same voice said, “Nor are there any fish there!”

He looked around and said, “Who are you, God?”

The voice said, “No! I’m the arena manager!”

I’m not the arena manager, but I am an arena employee.

Michael: [Pause] So we should all become monks, or something like that? I’ve heard some people say that every Orthodox Christian is called to be a monastic.

Photios: Every Orthodox Christian is called to be an ascetic, and asceticism, or spiritual struggle, is the beating heart of monasticism. And monasticism is higher than life in the world.

Michael: So married life in the world is sort of a “monasticism lite”?

Photios: Erm, kind of.

Michael: Meaning, “No.”

Photios: Meaning, “No.” The monastic who is saved is saved through the struggle of monastic ascesis, and the married man who is saved is saved through the struggle of caring for a family. Monasticism is higher than married life in the world.

Married life in the world is not the highest path, but it is not improved by trying to make it “virtual monasticism.” Maybe a monk requires obedience to a spiritual father, and an intentionally disruptive sleep cycle, and food deliberately cooked to be as bland as it can be. Married couples have another yoke to bear, and it is a sad thing for people to get married and then “try to make up for it” by imitating monasticism. Marriage is not a sin, but holy matrimony. And it brings with it childbearing, if God so wills, so that the couple is no longer living for themselves alone but for their children. You might have heard the saying, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair.” But if we return to the Heinlein quote you gave a while back, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being is organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” Happiness in monasticism is functioning the way the monastic ascesis is organized to function, and happiness in married life in the world is functioning the way the married ascesis is organized to function. It may happen that a couple marries, has children, much later live together as brother and sister, and then split off to separate monasteries. In that sense celibacy and marriage are not mutually exclusive, and the couple is still considered to be married even if they have passed the realm of carnal knowledge. But even this is not normative to marriage; it is one of many forms holiness takes.

And here a man is reminded of Confucius’s Analects, and its “ritual”, which the Western mind may have trouble understanding because in the West “ritual,” if not used metaphorically to speak of someone always giving a speech at family reunions, has a religious center of gravity. But in Confucius’s whole realm of thought, “ritual” was something like a graduation ceremony or a town parade, with a civic center of gravity. And on that point someone speaking to Confucius praised someone else for doing ritual very well. And Confucius, answering somewhat indirectly, essentially said, “Ritual dictates that only a monarch may place a gate in front of his door, but he has a gate in front of his door,” and mentioned one or two other areas where the man in question usurped privilege that did not belong to him. The implication is a strong criticism: this man, who is praised for his performance in ritual and who probably worked much harder to do ritual correctly than most, undercuts it in a way that is reminiscent of tithing mint, dill, and cummin, and neglecting justice, mercy, and faith. Performing the details of ritual correctly really didn’t help much for someone who lacked the humility that ritual was designed to foster. At heart, placing a monarch-like gate in front of his door made him less, not more, like a monarch, and in fact placed him further from the monarch than if he did ritual, in a way that was proper to his station, without copying the privileges of people in a higher place.

Michael: Well, at least it’s an obscure phenomenon, limited to people who are trying to be devout in the wrong way.

Photios: Obscure? Obscure? Obscure? The entire question of feminism hinges on a confusion that is the fruit of the same tree.

Michael: How so?

Photios: Let me quote three passages that sometimes you’ll see even conservatives trying to balance out, for instance by comparing what is asked of wives with what is asked of husbands:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Michael: And what do conservatives have to say for these, besides the fact that they are old and are culturally conditioned?

Photios: Well, they might start with the obvious and say that you are culturally conditioned.

Michael: And then what?

Photios: And then that someone who eats from the million year old paleo diet as the food that is optimal for Homo sapiens should not dismiss a two thousand year old text as just too old to be worth listening to.

Michael: Ouch. And then what?

Photios: Well, in the last and longest quote, compare what is asked of husbands and of wives and who bears the brunt of the pleas. The wife is told to submit to her husband as if to the Lord. And yes, I’ve checked the Greek. “Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” is a minor mutilation. The text says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord.”

But the burden of the text—incidentally, in the densest passage in the New Testament for references to the Church—falls on husbands. If wives are called to show the Church’s submission to Christ, husbands are to lay down their lives and die for their wives if needed. If wives bear the duty of submitting to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ, husbands are called to lay their lives down for their wives as Christ laid down his life for the Church. Wives are called to give to their husbands what the Church gives to Christ; husbands are called to give wives what Christ gives to the Church. One might say that the sigil of male headship and authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. People coming to this text afresh might be staggered at how much more is expected of husbands than of wives. And the same people might be even more staggered that the text is politically incorrect because of the claim it makes on wives.

Michael: So the text evens out to be egalitarian after all.

Photios: What was the venom the Serpent poured into Eve’s ear? Egalitarianism! “You shall be as gods,” meaning “You shall be equal to some greater than you.” And let’s pause for a moment.

There was a time—it happened to be brief, but that is beside the point—when the Serpent had stung Eve but Adam still reigned as mortal. Eve already felt the seed of death growing in her heart, even though it would be long years before the venom grew to the point of killing her completely. And let’s think about what was in her heart. She was mortal; Adam was still immortal. At some point she would die, and then what? God said, “It is not good for man to be alone;” would Adam simply be celibate? Or would rather God not give her another immortal wife, to be his forever? Was there anything Eve could do to prevent Adam reigning immortal as another woman’s husband?

Michael: Ouch.

Photios: It is said in some witchcraft that you knowingly allow a demon to possess you. And when that moment comes, you realize that you have allowed evil into you the same way you know that you are violently ill. You may not repent in the least, but demons are never merciful to those they inhabit. Perhaps they enable magic; but they never give the glow of spiritual health, nor can they.

Eve knew and felt the seed of death growing in her heart, that in her attempt to be like gods, she had lost her godlike ladyship over the whole Creation. And she made her second egalitarian move. The first move was to try to be equal to “gods”, perhaps exalted ranks of seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels. And her second egalitarian move was to make Adam her equal in mortality. And she succeeded; as the Serpent stung Eve, so Eve stung her then-immortal husband who would otherwise outlive her and belong to another woman.

This is the politics of envy. This is the root of the war on educational excellence. This is the radix of Janteloven. This is the vice that moved Saul to seek David’s murder as soon as he heard, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Envy says, in essence, “I don’t care if we’re three feet tall or ten feet tall. All I want is that you not be taller than me.” In conversations that cross denominations and confessions, one can say with Calvinists, “We are totally depraved and stunted in our spiritual growth; we have a spiritual height of about three feet.” Or one can say with Orthodox, “The image of God is present even in the most hardened sinner; the most spiritually astute Orthodox, especially monastics, find much good in the people they see; so we are at a spiritual height of about six feet.” But woe to the unwary soul who says, “Monastics are six feet tall and laity are five feet tall,” or “Clergy are six feet tall and laity are five feet tall,” or, to give a hypersensitive trigger, “Men are six feet tall and women are five feet tall.” That will unleash an explosion that dwarfs any response to Calvinists saying, “We are totally depraved and steeped in sin; we are spiritually three feet tall, if even that.” Better to say that everyone is exactly one foot tall than to say that heights vary somewhere around six feet and on average most men are taller than most women, let alone that men have one role and women another.

And this general point, perhaps more focally dealt with in matters of men and women, has to do with a broader sense of pseudomorphosis affecting all modern life. Are you familiar with the term ‘pseudomorphosis’ in its usual Church usage?

Michael: I’ve heard… things like icons being painted in a more Western fashion, or that figure… what was it… Cyril Lucaris, the bishop whose “profession of faith” really had much more to do with Calvinism than Orthodoxy; there was that book, called Protestant Patriarch, which I suppose I should read. I think there’s more, but I’m forgetting the examples. Wait, there was also something about people thinking theology was philosophy whose subject-matter was God…

Photios: Yes; the term ‘pseudomorphosis’ in Orthodox culture is something like the term ‘Oreo’ in African-American culture, for someone who is black on the outside but too white on the inside, and acts white. The examples you gave of pseudomorphosis are all valid.

Michael: Ok, so we’ve established the meaning of ‘pseudomorphosis.’ What next? Do we need to say anything more to establish that the politics of envy, as you call it, is no ingredient to human happiness?

Photios: We haven’t quite established it, not yet, because I want to use it as a metaphorical springboard to discuss something else.

Michael: What is that something else?

Photios: ‘Pseudomorphosis’ in standard Orthodox usage is a bit of a hydra; it’s not easy to pin down, but in traditional Orthodox unsystematic fashion, it is possible to get a sense of it. As I am using here, it has to do with all sorts of things in modern living. The paleo dietis one attempt to remedy a pseudomorphosis. I will not say if it succeeds or fails, but what it attempts to do is replace “foods” that are an anomaly in the human diet and which our body is not really well served by eating, with foods that are the standard tradition diet of the human race. The book also covers some other things, like what kind of artificially added exercise will best simulate the active lives of our forbears, and here at least I am not so interested in whether it succeeds or fails as the implicit powerful recognition that we are in an iron mask under unnatural conditions. If one were to ask Robb Wolf who he would intend The Paleo Solution to, if economics etc. were no obstacle, I believe he would answer, “Everyone who is not a hunter-gatherer today.”

That is one aspect of pseudomorphosis. Another aspect is how men and women are understood, or misunderstood, and how sex is seen. Another aspect is the politics of envy. Another aspect is how so many of us spend large chunks of time looking at a flickering screen.These are five of maybe a hundred holes that are being drilled down into the ice, and the arena employees’ lungs are sore from shouting, “There are no fish there!

Michael: Then where are the fish?

Photios: Some centuries back, though this may seem hard to imagine now, philosophy was understood differently; in our day philosophy is understood as an academic discipline, as something with arguments you study and respond to, and philosophy has always been that to an extent. But in ancient times philosophy was first a way one walked and secondarily about ideas. And a number of people, all men I think, arrived at the conclusion that the truest way of philosophy was that of monasticism, which kept things alive from Plato, for instance, that do not necessarily live in a philosophy department today.

The observation that monasticism is the height of a certain understanding of philosophy, where like Mike’s Martians’ philosophy, religion, and science are inseparable, is a profitable observation whether or not one is a monk. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, to pick one classic, addresses perhaps two sentences of exhortation to those outside the monastic world, but it has been read, it is said, with utmost spiritual profit to Orthodox in all walks of life. Perhaps the letter in its strict sense should not always be applied to laity. There is still much of benefit, as with the Philokalia the book Orthodox Psychotherapy is essentially a realization that before Freud began positing theories about what can go wrong with us, and how what is tangled in us can be untangled and freed, the Orthodox Philokalia which could be called ‘the science of spiritual struggle,’ takes on that territory and does a better job. And perhaps it would be better to talk with one’s priest about reading selections; reading the Philokalia when one has not been prepared for it can be an exercise in frustration. But this is best done with the consultation of one’s priest.

Michael: So, with all of this said, what can I get that will make me happiest?

Photios: Well, if you’re thinking in terms of dollars, let’s say you get however many million dollars you think would make you happy. Then you will discover that you still have all of your problems and the money doesn’t keep you happy—at least not for long. So you will have the rare opportunity to be wealthy beyond your wildest nightmares, and perhaps after you have one luxury after another lose its glamour, failing to give either lasting satisfaction or happiness, that you will come to a realization worth every penny of your millions of dollars: in seeking happiness from wealth, you might as well have been trying to coax a stone to lay an egg.

Michael: Then is there no hope?

Photios: So faith, hope, love abide, these three. Hope remains; you just have to look for it in the right places. You are assuming that your happiness will come from what you get, but you make a living by what you get and a life by what you give. [T]he Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, and this is the key to the happiness of functioning as a person is organized to function. Forbes’s survey of the happiest jobs in America found that there was little correlation between job happiness and the amount of money made: and in fact one of the twenty happiest jobs is one of the few Americans feel the need to cover up with euphemisms: no one is a plain old secretary any more; they are all executive assistants, administrators, and the like. But notwithstanding the fact that America thinks being a secretary needs a euphemism, being a secretary ranked as one of the twenty happiest jobs in America, alongside bank tellers who serve clients by helping them with financial nuts and bolts, and some customer service representatives. And there is a very simple reason for that. Among many others, secretaries serve.

And that is, if we may return to Heinlein one of the three keys that unlocks “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being is organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” Now Michael Valentine Smith mentions ‘faith’ as belonging among the list of obscene words Jubal told him not to use, and he is emphatic: not faith but climbing the peaks of spiritual discipline. However, the Philokalia in its embrace of faith does climb the peaks of spiritual discipline. And all of these are a preliminary that many people don’t need; human fulfillment is found, not in being served, but in serving. Such was Christ’s act; such was his example.

Not that reading the Philokalia is necessary to salvation. Monks have reached the peaks of mystic contemplation without having any books; among the many notable monastics who never read anything, and in fact did not know how to read, is St. Mary of Egypt. And one minor clergy said, “There are two books you do not read: the Philokalia and the Rudder,” not because they are bad—they are arguably the second and third most important collections to Orthodoxy outside the Bible—but because they have raw industrial strength power that has not been selected, boiled to essentials, and then packaged in a way that will just fit anyone who reads it. The Philokalia is a collection of texts at all various levels of spiritual maturity, and the Rudder is basically a book of rules for bishops to apply with strictness or leniency as is pastorally appropriate to the situation. And the Rudder has some of the most valuable rules the Orthodox Church owns; but it still should not be confused with ordinary devotional materials designed to build up and edify the lay faithful. And one may adapt St. Paul and say, “If I have all manner of knowledge of antiquarian texts and I read the Philokalia and the Rudder, but I do not serve in love, I am nothing.

Michael: So then it’s all we learned in kindergarden?

Photios: There are all sorts of minor insights along the way. There is a Rabbinic tradition of having a kelal, a nutshell that for its brevity none the less concentrates the distilled essence of Scripture; such as, He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?, and what I am going to quote is not a kelal; it’s from the rest of the Scripture and has something of a character of a footnote. But Ecclesiasticus tells us, Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him; for healing comes from the Most High, and he will receive a gift from the king. And there is a place for exercise; there is a place for diet. There may be also a place for “Let the buyer beware”, because fads come and go; the author of The Paleo Solution all but killed himself trying to eat healthily by being a vegetarian; the paleo diet is posed to be the next fad diet and that is reason to view it carefully. The medical community, like many others, has its fads and changes its conclusions much more quickly than developments in research would warrant. Still I wouldn’t make these things the center. “Honor the physician…” is not a kelal at all, let alone one that should be the rudder of your life.

Michael: If I may ask, what is the greatest kelal?

Photios: It’s one endorsed by a rabbi you’ve heard of.

Michael: Sorry, but I’m really not up to par on all things Jewish. Could you quote it for me?

Photios: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion

Looking at “Stranger in a Strange Land” as a Modern Christological Heresy

“Physics”

Plato: the allegory of the… Flickering Screen?