“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.“
The reader is now thinking about evolution. He is wondering whether Genesis 1 is right, and evolution is simply wrong, or whether evolution is right, and Genesis 1 is a myth that may be inspiring enough but does not actually tell how the world was created.
All of this is because of a culture phenomenally influenced by scientism and science. The theory of evolution is an attempt to map out, in terms appropriate to scientific dialogue, just what organisms occurred, when, and what mechanism led there to be new kinds of organisms that did not exist before. Therefore, nearly all Evangelicals assumed, Genesis 1 must be the Christian substitute for evolution. Its purpose must also be to map out what occurred when, to provide the same sort of mechanism. In short, if Genesis 1 is true, then it must be trying to answer the same question as evolution, only answering it differently.
Darwinian evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” Evolution is on philosophical grounds not a true answer to that question, because it is not an answer to that question at all. Even if it is true, evolution is only an answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” If someone asks, “Why is there this life that we see?” and someone answers, “Evolution,” it is like someone saying, “Why is the kitchen light on?” and someone else answering, “Because the switch is in the on position, thereby closing the electrical circuit and allowing current to flow through the bulb, which grows hot and produces light.”
Where the reader only sees one question, an ancient reader saw at least two other questions that are invisible to the present reader. As well as the question of “How?” that evolution addresses, there is the question of “Why?” and “What function does it serve?” These two questions are very important, and are not even considered when people are only trying to work out the antagonism between creationism and evolutionism.
I was enthusiastically introduced to Matthieu Pageau, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis, and enthusiastically looking forward to posting a review saying, “I speak of answering the question, “Why?” as is neglected in science, but in occasional hints and riddles. This is a full and direct treatment of the matter.”
The snake in the ointment
I viewed a podcast with the author, and on rational grounds this looks interesting. The best books to me are ones that challenge me enough to cause culture shock, and this did cause culture shock, and was as different and concerned with the question, “Why?” as I respected.
About two thirds of the way through the book, though, I put my finger on something I’d been ignoring to be able to see other things: reading the book was not prayerful. When my abbot loaned me a manuscript he asked feedback for, the most vital feedback I could give him was that when I began it reading was deliberative information processing, but well before the end reading was prayer, and good theology leads you into the presence of God. As a relatively minor symptom, the comments on divination were all secular in character, and though forbidding divination was mentioned at least once, it was never discussed as an evil sin and a shameful error that opens a gateway to demonic possession. The concepts of ‘space’ and ‘time’, put in quotes in the text itself to indicate a usage very different from any mainstream usage, brought the kind of interesting culture shock produced by good science fiction and fantasy, a bit like The Dark Tower that C.S. Lewis wisely refrained from publishing. Also somewhat unusual for an author presented as Orthodox is a claim to “carves Eastern Orthodox and other traditional images.” And the book freely refers to later parts of the Old Testament, but never the New Testament or the Church as realities shadowed in the Old Law.
A more serious problem is that the book tastes to me too much like Jung, and was recommended to me by a good friend in the process of leaving Jung behind. Carl Jung has been called the greatest threat to the Church since Julian the Apostate, and some people have said that at the beginning of every failed clerical career known to the speaker came finding insights in Jung. I do not object to a portrait of archetypes as such; I trade in archetypes myself and would never want to leave them behind. But whether this is a fruitful engagement… it is a hint and a riddle to point out that the book briefly mentions alchemy as something you’d never guess by studying today’s chemistry. It doesn’t mention alchemy as offering a shortcut by technique for inner transformation that all of the major world religions are inclined to answer, “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.” Even if conservative Protestants may be very eager to clarify that they believe you are sanctified by faith alone and not by elbow grease, they are also usually quite clear in a belief that if you have a living and a healthy faith and relevant opportunity, you had better be producing elbow grease. (Possibly Taoism is an exception? The Buddha left an interlocking eightfold path of ways to produce elbow grease.) But Pageau’s book never talks about alchemy as a cheap shortcut, and if you are going to declare that alchemy is different from anything you’d guess from looking at chemistry, you would do awfully well to say its techniques for producing spiritual transformation are shallow and flat next to any proper religious tradition.
There was one conversation I had with a famous egalitarian when I mentioned enthusiastically about John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, and he pointed out how the book was Jungian. And that was the hook when I swallowed a bait of quasi-traditional teaching about men and women at a time when live proponents of the position were few and far between.
I don’t want to repeat that error here, and I speak no words of ill-will if my friends fell for something I fell for hook, line, and sinker. But the book pulls off a reconceptualization big enough to provoke culture shock, and a many-layered understanding of symbol, but for all that it I found very little, if anything, that constituted a specifically patristic way of opening up the Old Testament to unhide the New, and while the book mentions details like alchemy and Tarot, I searched and failed to find mention of “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Church,” and so on.
I deem this book a failure, but I would really like to read another book that would succeed where it had failed.
I have generally found efforts to improve a backwards Philokalia of themselves backwards, not to mention a bit stupid and arrogant. The Seven Deadly Sins are what became in the West of the Philokalia’s eight demons, and I have read an official from my own theology department frankly ridicule the Seven Deadly Sins because it does not explicitly list hypocrisy. But in the Philokalia at least, the eight demons are the eight gateway sins, eight gateway drugs to other sins, and hypocrisy falls at least partly under the heading of pride, unreservedly condemned as the worst of the lot. The list of eight sins is not an attempt to catalogue each and every sins; another passage of the Philokalia attempts a catalogue and the list weighs in at over 100 named sins. However, this exercise is exceedingly rare compared to the efforts to warn us of gateway sins, of which a few the reader is warned about repeatedly. People who consider themselves to know better than the Philokalia have my suspicion and ordinarily seem to never have really gotten their feet wet in what is quite arguably the #1 Orthodox written treasure after the Bible.
I was surprised when my abbot (at least for now, and I hope it doesn’t just last for now and evaporate), Metropolitan JONAH of St. Demetrios Monastery, proposed an update as part of his Reflections on a Spiritual Journey. However unstintingly poor classic monasticism may have insisted on being (one passage gives a short list of allowed items and beyond them “not even a needle”), those who became monastics came from privileges that not only included a great deal of wealth and being born into the Old Boy’s Club, but could assume loving and healthy extended families. And maybe the spoiled rich could and should have regarded forms of pride as the nadir of human defilement, and perhaps such it is. In both East and West, in for example St. Seraphim of Sarov or G.K. Chesterton, fornication and drunkenness are considered the sins of men, and pride and rebellion are considered the sins of devils. And the little future St. Seraphim did not need to be cleansed from all human sin, but he absolutely needed to overcome the sin of devils.
However, Metropolitan JONAH points to certain differences today. The extended family has not stayed together but disintegrated into isolated nuclear families, and nuclear families have had a meltdown too. And so many people today have grown up with a broken childhood, with a whole array of situations that were abusive even if squeaky-clean legal (like Mom and Dad outsourcing most of their parenting to a series of daycare centers so they can both bring home the bacon), and the effect of suchlike abuse is a profound shame, a shame that people discover can be anaesthetized, at least temporarily, by engaging in various sins. Addictions, and things like addictions such as various sexual sins, anaesthetize a shame that says, “You’re worthless. There’s nothing left to love. You are horrible through and through.” And so my beloved Metropolitan, whom I am positive understands the Philokalia profoundly, has offered the first update to the Philokalia that I have found to even make sense—and it is a lot of sense that it makes.
A visit to Fr. John
Fr. John Whiteford, whom I have had the privilege of taking two classes with, is another figure I respect profoundly. He is something like a bulldog for Orthodoxy, with topics such as “The anus is not designed for the penis,” and he defends Orthodoxy in something like the fashion of previous bulldogs like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. (While he writes well, I don’t know if he is as epically good as a writer, but I have no hesitation in making the comparison in outlining the type of work by which he serves.) And he called to point an Orthodox Matushka (“Mommy”), meaning a priest’s or deacon’s wife (which in Orthodoxy is a real office), for saying that the cure for shame is empathy without whispering a word about repentance. And I have shouted a great many words about repentance as Heaven’s best-kept secret, but while the Mommy may have left out something important, she also kept in something important.
What was she right about?
There is an absolutely ancient image that has been repeated across centuries for the image of God in us, an image that cannot be damaged or destroyed. Our heart of hearts is like a mirror at the base of a fountain. The waters may be dirty; they may cloud or hide the mirror at the bottom, but there is a real and authentic mirror, and it will shine if the water is cleared up.
John Calvin is perhaps a most extreme example of Western abandonment of this understanding. His successor’s formulation of the essentials of Calvinist Christianity opens with a ‘T’ for “total depravity,” that we are profoundly corrupt all the way down to our very core. And Orthodoxy says no to this: in our very hearts is the image of God which is absolutely incapable of being deformed, dissolved, or destroyed. And to pull one example, St. Maximus the Confessor briefly speaks of adding to “the natural good of image” with “the voluntary good of likeness.” The term “human nature” as I encountered it as an Evangelical was always seen as something fallen; to admit “human nature” is to admit weakness, fallenness, sin. But the nature of human race was never created as fallen, and the natural good of image is incorruptible. It is not a spark of God, as in Origenism and Hinduism, but it is something created which is incorruptibly good, and thinking it is a spark of God may represent an understandable confusion. It is an image, a symbol, in which the whole God himself is indelibly present. Not even in Hell can this be undone: “Hell,” said Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, “is immersion in the love of God.”
Now the dirt in the water may hide the mirror to a profound degree. St. Maximus’s counterbalance to “the natural good of image” is “the voluntary good of likeness,” and the voluntary good of likeness is of water that is limpid, pure, and allows the mirror to shine gloriously. It is a life’s work to clear the water, and the clearer the water becomes, the more sharply people become aware of how much muck is still in the water, and the purest consider themselves the most defiled. But nonetheless even their defilement rests exclusively in the water above the mirror. The mirror remains as undefiled as the mirror that shone from Lord Adam in Paradise.
And where does gay pride fit into this? Or disability? Or, for that matter, topless?
The essential draw to all these spiritual diseases is that they self-medicate, and provide some degree of respite to the shame of being utterly worthless and having nothing good in you. And when the effect wears thin, it is possible that the sins of men can’t sear away the pain as strongly as devils’ sin.
And what about the profoundly gifted? What do we have to be humble about?
Let me bring one rabbit trail before getting on to my real point. If, in history, something goes wrong that leaves over a million murder victims, it is the fruit of profoundly gifted effort. Like Hitler, for instance, or the gospel of “St. Marx.” The whole singularity in which the whole world is sinking has the achievements of the profoundly gifted as instrumental. No intellectually disabled individual in history has created a black mirror. It is Steve Jobs who does it. Profoundly gifted can and do things with such good intentions as pave the road to Hell and lead legions down with them. There is something in this that we should be very humble about.
But let me talk about humility for an instant.
G.K. Chesterton says, “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.”
Humility is the spiritual wine that opens the eyes to the beauty of the universe, and humility is the spiritual wine that can let profoundly gifted look at IQ normals and see the glory of the image of God at work.
“In humility consider others better than yourself” (Phil 2:3) has got to be one of the least palatable texts in the Bible (or at least unpopular for us to apply it to ourselves), but “In humility consider others better than yourself” is another way of saying, “In humility be surrounded by other people who fascinate you, whom you admire, respect, and enjoy.” The Biblical text is more than that, but it really is an opening of the eyes to the glory of the precious other people in your life.
I do not know how to say enough about humility, besides saying in shorthand, “Read the Philokalia” as a shorthand quote. Humility ranks high on the Ladder; it is with discernment one of the two great virtues the Fathers in the Philokalia simply cannot stop talking about or praising enough. Humility is a powerful contributor to God-shaped love, a mother to joy, and it is a Heaven on earth. Heaven is where the saints are, and Heaven is where the humble are.
I don’t wish to condemn too strongly people who reach for devil’s sin when the sins of men cease to sufficiently anaesthetize pain. But really, even if we allow queers (or whatever they are called this week) to try to feel good on a lasting basis for pride, we might be able to think far enough the box to pursue humility.
And oh, by the way, people are less hostile if we are genuinely humble.
The militant Rational Wiki’s article on crank magnetism isn’t pretty. It shows a singular lack of sympathy for fellow human beings and one gets the impression that camps the authors don’t agree with are classified as cranks. For instance, its preppers link sounds like people making preparations for a political meltdown are complete crackpots for doing so. The more our present singularity unfold, the less plausible it seems to me that survivalists or preppers are complete kooks. The more things unfold, the more it looks like preppers were right the whole time.
Nonetheless, while I believe some beliefs tarred and featured in that article are right, including intelligent design (thus qualifying myself as an IDiot), and suspicion regarding how much vaccines and post-vaccine genetic therapy really help us, I was dismayed at seeing Young Earth Creationism 2.0 at an otherwise wonderful monastery where Fr. Seraphim of Plantina is held in high esteem, but entirely without the emotional toxicity I tried to document in The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. These people, some of which are converts, are none the less emphatically not “Axe-Wielding,” and have a profound respect for other human beings. None the less, I was sad when I realized that people living in Fr. Seraphim’s wake are embracing flat-earth theory as a method of virtue signalling. (Thus, perhaps, qualifying myself as a stopped clock, allowed to be right twice a day, but the term is still extremely pejorative.)
I do not say that one should necessarily disqualify a perspective or political or religious opinion on the grounds that it is tarred as “crank.” However, I regard crank theories as a liability, and the sort of thing one should prefer to avoid, and not try to seek out. Enough truth is labelled as crank that we need not scrape the barrel of theories that are labelled as “crank” that are just ridiculous. As far as flat earth theory goes, please, no. As far as the moon hoax theory goes, please, no. I do not trust the government and I can readily believe the U.S. government could and would have hoaxed a moon landing if a bona fide genuine man on the moon was not in reach or for some reason less politically expedient than going to all the trouble to make a real moon landing. I don’t trust the U.S. government, but in this case I trust the U.S.S.R. government to have every technical competency and obvious vested interest to expose a hoax. It would have been a coup for them to catch the U.S. with its pants down. As things stand, no matter how mainstream belief in a moon landing hoax may presently be in Russia, the U.S.S.R.’s silence about any unmasked hoax in the U.S. praising itself for landing a man on the moon is really quite deafening.
As far as intelligent design issues go, I’m unhappy with the new Protestant Creationism, but as someone with an M.S. in math, evolutionists approaching me apologetically to try to convince me of the truth of “evolution” repel me. I use the term “evolution” in scare quotes because Darwin’s theory of evolution, of a slow and gradual change over time, has not been live in the academy for ages; you’re not in the conversation now unless you believe, as my University Biology teacher at IMSA said, “Evolution is like baseball. There are long periods of boredom interrupted by brief periods of intense excitement.” Meaning that “evolution” is not an evolution in any older or non-biological use of the term, and “evolutionists” believe, along with old-school and new-school Protestant Creationists, that major new kinds of organisms appear abruptly and without preserved intermediate forms among the fossil record. The assertion of such evolutionists as I have encountered entails that it is statistically easy for a breeding pool to acquire and sustain a large number of beneficial mutations in a geological eyeblink, and I have met as an argument for this a claim that Indian prostitutes have evolved HIV resistance in a single generation. This is unlabelled crank theory in fifteen feet high blinking letters, but no one on the “standard model” raises a whimper about it.
And C.S. Lewis was over the time aghast about people failing to see how the assertion of evolution was self-referentially incoherent [though C.S. Lewis might not have put in these terms, it gets failing marks from the Retortion Principle. Romantic love is explained away as a biochemical state produced by evolution, but this explanation does not only neuter romantic love; the explanation explains away all explanation, including evolution. Evolution can explain why we should have good enough brains to find food, avoid being food, procreate, and other things animals with brains seem to be able to do. It does not in any sense explain, however, why we should have brains good enough to formulate a true theory of evolution. It has been suggested that there is survival value in brains that could find truths, but if that is true, very, very few people have the kind of brains that evolution selects for. (Less than 1% of people who have ever lived have ever seen a printed word, and far less than that have even had even the chance to believe Darwinian evolution. Most of them have believed that life is spiritual in some form, rather than a by-product of mindless forces that did not have any life form in mind in any sense.)
There is also the other intelligent design argument, an argument not addressing biology but physics. I’ve met evolutionary apologetics who denied that any information needed to be, so to speak, “injected” for the formation of new life forms. I have never met a physicist to deny the physics intelligent design claim that the physical constants have been unimaginably tightly fine-tuned just to allow our life forms to be possible. The more time has passed, the more we recognize the fine-tuning, and we have long passed the time when we realized that the fine-tuning is much more closely tailored just to allow us to exist than, for instance, shooting a particle of light from somewhere around one end of the universe and having it hit the dead center of an atom somewhere around the other side of the universe. The only other way I can state in non-technical terms how low the odds that randomly generated physical constants would let us live are to winning a fair multi-million dollar lottery prize by buying just one ticket at a time many, many times in a row. (It’s almost as bad as evolving a new life form by having a breeding population acquire and sustain enough beneficial mutations to make a new life form.)
I will not shy away from truth just because it is tarred as crank. However, I would say that each crank theory you embrace, and there are some I believe you should, is a liability in dealing with people on the “standard model” and you should believe them despite the fact that they are labelled out as crank.
Virtue signalling by seeking out additional crank theories represents serious philosophical and theological confusion. Defining oneself as different by seeking out crank theories represents serious philosophical and theological confusion. Counterculture for the sake of just rebelling against the common culture represents confusion. And both crank beliefs and counterculture represent a liability: one that should not be eliminated, but perhaps treated with some economy and recognizing that you are coming across as crank if you embrace crank beliefs.
And crank beliefs that are genuinely true should be treated with mystagogy: they should not be pushed on people not dislodged from the “standard model.” “I will not speak of Thy mystery to Thine enemies:” if you know a truth, and you know that another person will reject that truth if you say it, you do not say it. This is standard Orthodox mystagogy. Come Judgment Day, it will be better for that person not to be judged for hearing the truth and rejecting it: and it will be better for you, too, because you did not set that brother human being up for a greater degree of condemnation.
An adaptation of scientism’s much-loved “Ockham’s razor” may be helpful. Ockham’s razor, “Do not needlessly multiply [explanations],” is however sharp a tool intended to create better explanations by virtue of having fewer explanations. The same might apply to using crank theories to truth and edification.
Think about it. And maybe scale back on crank theories that are inessential.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One priest I know, former Evangelical Orthodox, said that a youth in the parish had asked him for a pastoral reference. When the priest got the form, it asked, “To your knowledge, has this person received Christ as his or her Lord and Savior?”
The priest said that what he wanted to write was, “Yes, almost every single Sunday!”
Protestant converts to Orthodoxy can take some things to excess, and The Protestant Phenotype tells of problems with converts I’ve never seen in other Orthodox. However, it is sad if tithing is only really done by Orthodox who were Protestant and when they were Protestant they recognized and practiced the Biblical necessity of tithing.
A financial advisor said, “I have never seen a person driven to financial ruin by tithing.” Neither have I.
One question which is asked is, “What do we get if we tithe?”
My answer to that question is as follows:
Every good thing you have was given to you from God. Your money, your possessions, your friends and family, the saints and angels’ care for you from Heaven, your life, God himself is in your life because of God’s generosity. And God does not owe you any of this.
And this generous God who has given you so much, said (Mal 3:10, Classic Orthodox Bible), “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.“)
Proverbs says a lot about money, and in it is the promise, Proverbs 19:17, “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD; and that which he hath given will he pay him again.” And this comes from the same source as tithing.
To thee, O camel who passed through the eye of the needle, we offer thanks and praise: for thou gavest of thy wealth to the poor, as an offering to Christ. Christ God received thy gift as a loan, repaying thee exorbitantly, in this transient life and in Heaven. Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures! (Repeated thrice.)
Giving to the Lord and the poor is something we owe… but God does not receive any of our gifts. He receives them all as loans, to be repaid at heavy interest.
Besides the fact that giving feels wonderful, it builds us a character of bubbling up generosity, like a fountain, a fruit of the Spirit, that is the very opposite of a tight fist. God wants you to live his own overflowing and abundant life. You get a character that is healthier and experience more of the abundance of Heaven itself.
And what may come with all that is that tithing may transform you into eternal life, where God himself repays you for all eternity with riches we cannot even imagine on earth.
Incidentally, this is the one point in Scripture where we are all called to put God to the test. The general rule is not to tempt God. And here we are not merely permitted but abundantly invited to tempt the Lord and find in it an occasion where God will give you good things you cannot even imagine now.
Ten percent is a baseline; God never remains in debt if you give him more, and if you give more than 10% you are entering a blessing.
But I do not want to go into that here.
God has given, and continues to give, everything we have. If we salute God with our tithes, his every blessing is on the 90% we keep.
Tithing is too good a treasure to only leave for converts.
Don’t miss out on the blessings of tithing!
And if you’re really not used to it, try this. Start giving just 1% of your income with your parish. Then, with each fast, increase it a little more, maybe another 1%, until you reach 10%. It’s easier than you think.
The clock is ticking, and many in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are counting the days, the hours, and even the minutes before Archbishop Rembert Weakland has to submit his resignation at twelve noon on his seventy-fifth birthday. I am told that the champagne bottles will be popped at 12:01 p.m. upon receiving the fax from Rome that the resignation is accepted. Truth to tell, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the Archbishop. He’s liberally daffy but more amusingly candid than most of that persuasion. Of course he has a very high opinion of himself, but he’s never tried to hide it. I particularly liked his public statement that he would have made a great Bishop of Salzburg in the time of Mozart but ended up as Bishop of Milwaukee in the time of rock and roll. There’s something perversely refreshing about a bishop who doesn’t mind saying that he’s too good for the people he’s called to serve.
If I had been meant to live in Salzburg at Mozart’s time, God would have done that. If I had been meant to live in the Middle Ages, in the desire that underpinned my second novel, God would have done that. And if I if I had been made to live in the age of many Church Fathers, God would have done that too. As it is, God’s providence has placed me here and now… and God may make of me a Church Father anyway, without a time machine. To nostalgic Romans, it may be a sadness that the door to the Middle Ages is closed, but to Orthodox living at the corner of east and now, the door to being patristic remains ever open, and I may die (or be subtilized by the returning Christ) a Church Father anyway. As things are, God has given me a whole lot of being in the right place in the right time, and put me in the days of… myself! I got onto the web by accident (or rather by providence that I did not see as significant) and I have multiple major websites and a big bookshelf on Amazon.
As I write, incidentally, the majority of U.S. flags I’ve seen are black and white with a strip of color, the old “Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake flag is seen not infrequently, and when I popped in to LinkedIn turned up a friend reflecting on a news item that grandmas are buying shotguns. I did not expect that, but I am not in the least surprised.
And one other thing: I can’t meaningfully prep apart from measures I have taken that have been unfruitful. I am on maintenance medications, and if I stop taking them, I’ll die within days. And as I write I seem to have COVID.
And in all this, I am grateful. St. John Chrysostom’s final words were, “Glory be to God for all things!” and I echo them. I have food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and really quite a lot of things that I do not need and I am not entitled to. I only need to be faithful today with what I have today. God will bring tomorrow, and not knowing what tomorrow may bring i s much less important if you know Who will bring tomorrow.
And my death is, basically, non-negotiable. God, in his great mercy, does not let us know ahead of time when we die, because we would put off repentance and be incorrigible sinners in the hour of death. A few saints know ahead when they will die. They are so secure spiritually that they will not be less faithful for knowing. For the rest of us, it is mercy that we do not know. I could, possibly, die within days. I could for that matter die sooner: when I got my first COVID injection, a blood clot formed in my leg and dislodged to make trouble in my lungs, and the doctor said I was lucky I got to the hospital when I did, because it could have killed me. I think COVID injections are the greatest breakthrough in human health since DDT, but I digress. I could die an old man, like my grandfather who lived to be 95. I could live to see the returning Christ. And which of these, or other possibilities, hold, is not my concern. Each day has enough trouble of its own—and I have found solving a life’s problems on a day’s resources to be an entirely preventable ticket to despair.
Some people think that this life is only a preparatory life and is therefore unimportant St. Nikolai, in Prayers by the Lake, talked (I forget exactly where) about how birth and death are only an inch apart, and the ticker tape goes on forever.
This makes what we choose in this life incredibly important. We can only “save for retirement” between birth and death. We can only repent between birth and death. After death, improving the lot we have eternally chosen in this life will be impossible. I wish to live in repentance for the rest of my life, but I have not gotten to monasticism yet, but if death cuts short my attempts, that matters less than you might think. God treats an active intent as if the person had done what is intended; I do not see I can rightly stop seeking monastic repentance, but if I am faithful and fail, I am in the same position as martyrs said to be “baptized in their own blood” because they were martyred before they could even reach baptism.
And, to borrow from a childhood favorite, A Wind in the Door (my esteem is much less for it now), the heroine “felt as though fingers were gentle fingers pushing her down,” I sought to stay when I visited Mount Athos and was told that the conditions for being made a saint are in America, and implicitly reminded that monastic “white martyrdom” is an artificial surrogate to the “red martyrdom” of the Church in a hostile world.
I would like to quote a unicorn in C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, though I’m not sure it applies to our world:
He said that the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve were brought out of their own strange world only at times Narnia was upset, but she mustn’t think that things were always like that. In between their visits there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful king followed peaceful king till you could hardly remember their names or count their numbers, and there was really hardly anything to put in the History Books.
As to the question of why God did not create Narnia and bring me to it, I reply that every excellence is incomparably excelled in what “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” I can’t get to a real Narnia, but I’m trying to get to a real “better than Narnia,” a “better than Narnia that begins on earth, as I discuss in A Pilgrimage from Narnia:
A Pilgrimage from Narnia
Wardrobe of fur coats and fir trees:
Sword and armor, castle and throne,
Talking beast and Cair Paravel:
From there began a journey,
From thence began a trek, Further up and further in!
A journey of the heart, barely begun,
Anointed with chrism, like as prophet, priest, king,
A slow road of pain and loss,
Giving up straw to receive gold: Further up and further in!
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,
Silence without, building silence within:
The prayer of the mind in the heart,
Prayer without mind’s images and eye before holy icons,
A simple Way, a life’s work of simplicity, Further up and further in!
A camel may pass through the eye of a needle,
Only by shedding every possession and kneeling humbly,
Book-learning and technological power as well as possessions,
Prestige and things that are yours— Even all that goes without saying:
To grow in this world one becomes more and more;
To grow in the Way one becomes less and less: Further up and further in!
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:
The chief end of mankind,
Is to glorify God and become him forever.
The mysticism in the ordinary,
Not some faroff exotic place,
But here and now,
Living where God has placed us,
Lifting where we are up into Heaven:
Paradise is wherever holy men are found.
Escape is not possible:
Yet escape is not needed,
But our active engagement with the here and now,
And in this here and now we move, Further up and further in!
And for our world, I would quote C.S. Lewis in saying that “humanity has always been on a precipice.” Such study as I have had of Byzantine history leads me not to wonder that Constantinople fell, but that over a millennium after Constantine, after many times the Empire should have resolved, it took modern cannons to break through Constantinople’s walls and subdue the great city. “Humanity has always been on a precipice”–and it seems to be increasingly more of a precipice.
It is believed by some Orthodox that Hinduism has room for the demonic and OrthoChristian.com describes Orthodox mission in India as “Perpetual Embers,” but do not speak ill to a Hindu of Krishna and the milk-maids. However, it is not provocative to call Kali demonic: a goddess of death who wears a necklace of skulls and bestows madness as her special blessing. Or at least I don’t see why it need offend a Hindu.
I have what I would call an “unintendedly kept loan” in that I was loaned a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”) by an Indian woman, and then lost all contact and don’t see how to return it. Nor was the loan small; the Bhagavad-Gita was accompanied by commentary, as is Hindu tradition to unpack their greatest classic, in a beautiful two-volume boxed set. And the front matter talked about our being in the “Kali-yuga,” or age of Kali. I don’t know or understand what exactly a Hindu would mean by the Kali-yuga, but I can take a guess. And I have had some contact with the movement called “Traditionalists,” which find certain underlying themes in many world religions that are threatened in the modern way of life and are sympathetic to Hindus who would see a Kali-yuga:
There is a singularity which has developed over past centuries, was present in decisive breaks made in the scientific revolution that paved the way to hard science as we know it, and has been unfolding and accelerating, and now crassly has vomited TV’s and cellphones on Africa, the poorest continent. One obvious question is, “Do you mean the Book of Revelation?” and my answer is an emphatic “Yes… and No…” There are certain things which I believe we have been told will pass as Revelation is fulfilled. These include great tribulation, the coming of the Antichrist, and the return of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the glorious resurrection. But trying to pin down Biblical prophecy down in detail is essentially an attempt to get a crystal clear view into deep waters that are impregnably and unfathomably murky. Don’t, at least not before the prophecies have been fulfilled.
However, while I have extreme suspicion for detailed point-for-point pinpointing the events in Revelation, I think it is a much more possible and profitable measure to study the singularity we are in as a singularity, a point I explore with some video in Revelation and Our Singularity.
A student of World War II may be able to pinpoint a linchpin in German manufacturing. There was a single point of failure in a ball bearing factory. If that factory had been taken out, it would all but destroyed Nazi Germany’s capability to produce cars, trucks, tanks, and airplanes. Now let me ask: where is the linchpin in our technological society? Trick question! There are so many that no one knows how many there are. One of the most Luddite statements I’ve read is from a computer programmer: “If builders built buildings the way computer programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”
At Honey Rock, there was a delightful place called “the Web” that used World War II cargo netting to make a great amusement for kids. It, after several decades, fell beyond safe use, and the camp’s people tried hard to find replacements. There were none to be found, came the conclusion from their research. Furthermore, it is now a respectable number of decades since technological museum curators have computer media that they believe to likely be intact but which they have no idea how to interpret. Cryptanalysis can break all sorts of very well-engineered codes. However, storage media produced with neither the desire nor attempt towards secrecy cannot straightforwardly read media that was intended to be straightforward to read.
To put things in miniature, like almost any at least half-serious website I have switched from sending unencrypted HTTP to confidential HTTPS. This was a right decision, I believe. However, to do that I need to get a stream of certificates, and if someone by any means shut down my ability to obtain certificates, my website would practically be dead in the water. Search engines would now be linking to security error pages; even bookmarks wouldn’t work. I might be able to get the word out that my website was served via HTTP, if I wasn’t blocked from social media by that time, but my use of the recommended practice of serving webpages confidentially via HTTPS introduces one more single point of failure. (That’s why I’m revamping and roughly doubling my “Complete Works” collections in paperback. Amazon believes it has a total right to delete anything from a Kindle any time.) We are going from fragile to more and more and more fragile, to an effect like that in The Damned Backswing.
In a homily a few weeks back, my priest said,
Let us go to the Egyptian desert, and overhear a conversation taking place between a group of monks led by Abba Iscariot. This took place in the third century and the conversation went like this.
Abba Iscariot was asked, “What have we done in our life?”
The Abba replied, “We have done half of what our fathers did.”
When asked, “What will the ones who come after us do?”
The Abba replied, “They are doing the half of what we are doing now.”
And to the question, “What will the Christians of the last days do?”
He replied, “They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith, they will be glorified more than our fathers who raised the dead.
We live in an exciting time.
My spiritual director said, “We think we are not on Plan A any more, not on Plan B, not on Plan C, and so on down the alphabet, but God is always on Plan A.
I would like to talk about something I am grateful to my parents for. From a very young age, my parents tried to free me from advertising’s allure and the sacramental shopping of buying into brands. This did not, at least immediately, stop me from telling my parents I needed to have shoes or whatnot for which I had seen a really well-done ad, but it did take root, enough so that I was unpleasantly surprised when reading in a high school science class how in recording duplicable detail for a science experiment, the brand and model of all scientific equipment should be recorded among other details to try to give a scientific reader the ability to reproduce the experiment.
This may have been an overshot, and I don’t think my parents would have failed to see a legitimate exception if they had been posed the question, but my parents gave me a head start on something I would carry for life.
Where did branding come from, anyway?
Before there was really a brand economy, at least some cattle owners would brand animals with a hot branding iron to make a mark that would make it clear whose property a given bovine was. However, this is not at least in its form what we know as branding. There is an unsexy practice today that carries on branding cattle: in the business world, it is seen as due diligence to attach a label to equipment saying “Property of ABC Corporation,” and maybe add a serial number, and maybe add that there is a permanent, indelible mark under the sticker that police could trace. And perhaps corporate legal counsel would see this designation of property to be desirable as a matter of course, but this “brand” is not branding in the sense of today’s advertisements; the brand (in today’s sense) would be Apple, HP, or whoever else made a corporate asset. Perhaps no one really needs to put an equipment tag so it covers the manufacturer’s logo and says “I’m hiding who made this, to better claim it as OUR company’s property now.” And perhaps no marketer’s counsel was sought in the design of these branding asset tags; their job is to keep and maintain the company’s brand, or a product’s or the line of product, consistently presented and sold to the general public. Marketers do not normally need to make corporate property asset tags tell their company’s brand story so customers can better relate, any more than they normally feel the need to make markerboard markers or pads of paper tell their company’s brand story.
And what is wrong with branding, anyway?
I once told an economist that he didn’t understand money.
I was not much older than 20 at the time, so right time to be brash and arrogant, but I maintain my position.
What I stated then was that economics was a well-developed answer to the wrong question. The wrong question it addresses is, “How can a culture be manipulated so as to maximize economic endeavors?” when the question it should be asking is, “How can an economy best support a beneficial culture?” He answered, “We take people’s desires for granted.”
That response was a party line, was almost certainly entirely sincere, and was almost certainly entirely wrong. Somewhere in there I adapted a famous question: “Was economic wealth created for man, or man for economic wealth?”
The entire enterprise of marketing and a brand economy tacitly acknowledges that people’s natural greed will not stimulate enough purchases to meet the economy’s needs. Advertising isn’t reining in the horse of love of money and things. It isn’t even laying the reins on the horse’s neck. It’s kicking the horse in the side with your spurs as hard as you can kick.
I remember a later conversation where a professor echoed back what he heard me saying, and said, “So you’re an anti-capitalist?” and I winced. Usual objections to capitalism are Marxist in character and critique capitalism from the left. There is also a conservative vein of anti-capitalism, the perspective that motivated Dorothy Sayers to write “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” in which Sayers complains, “A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.” I quote at length what she wrote in the context of a rationed World War II England, because copies of titles with the essay are rare on Amazon:
Let us seize this breathing space [about gluttony in its crassest form], while we are out of temptation, to look at one very remarkable aspect of the sin of [gluttony]. We have all become aware lately of something very disquieting about what we call our economic system. An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age. Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one’s lot, it is now considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent on raising their standard of living. And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all citizens. It means much more and much less than this. It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being. The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before [World War II], the prime civic virtue. And why? Because machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.
We need not stop now to go round and round the vicious circle of production and consumption. We need not remind ourselves of the furious barrage of advertisements by which people are flattered and frightened out of a reasonable contentment into a greedy hankering after goods that they do not really need; nor point out for the thousandth time how every evil passion—snobbery, laziness, vanity, concupiscence, ignorance, greed—is appealed to in these campaigns. Nor how unassuming communities (described as backward countries) have these desires ruthlessly forced on them by their neighbors to find an outlet for goods whose market is saturated. And we must not take up too much time in pointing out how, as the necessity to sell goods in quantity becomes more desperate, the people’s appreciation of quality is violently discouraged and oppressed. You must not buy goods that will last too long, for production cannot be kept going unless the goods wear out, or fall out of fashion, and so can be thrown away and replaced with others.
If a man invents anything that would give lasting satisfaction, his invention must be bought up by the manufacturer so it may never see the light of day. Nor must the worker be encouraged to take too much interest in the thing he makes; if he did, he might desire to make as well as it can be made, and that would not pay. It is better that he should work in a soulless indifference, even though such treatment should break his spirit and cause him to hate his work. The difference between the factory hand is that the craftsman lives to do the work he loves; but the factory hand lives by doing the work he despises. We know about all this and must not discuss it now, but I will ask you to remember it.
The point I want to make now is this: that whether or not it is desirable to keep up this fearful whirligig of industrial finance based on gluttonous consumption, it could not be kept up for a single moment without the cooperating gluttony of the consumer. Legislation, the control of wages and profits, the balancing of exports and imports, elaborate schemes for the distribution of surplus commodities, the state ownership of enterprise, complicated systems of social credit, and finally wars and revolutions are all invoked in the hope of breaking down the thing known as the present economic system. Now it may well be that its breakdown would be a terrific disaster and produce a worse chaos than that which went before—we need not argue about it. The point is that, without any legislation whatsoever, the whole system would come crashing down if every consumer were voluntarily to restrict purchases to the things really needed. “The fact is,” said a workingman the other day at a meeting, “that when we fall for these advertisements we’re being had for mugs.” So we are. The sin of gluttony, of greed, of overmuch stuffing ourselves, is the sin that has delivered us into the power of the machine.
In the evil days between [World War I and World War II], we were confronted with some ugly contrasts between plenty and poverty. Those contrasts should be, and must be, reduced. But let us say frankly that they are not likely to be reduced so long as the poor admire the rich for the indulgence in precisely that gluttonous way of living that rivets on the world the chain of the present economic system, and do their best to imitate rich men’s worst vices. To do that is to play in the hands of those whose interest is to keep the system going. You will notice, that under a war economy, the contrast is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities and revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world; when we will not amend ourselves by grace, we are compelled under the yoke of law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of say, half a dozen dishes in a restaurant instead of forty.
In the matter of clothing, we are beginning to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and salvage waste products; and in learning do to these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure. For it is the great curse of gluttony that it ends by destroying all sense of the precious, the unique, the irreplacable.
But what will happen to us when the war machine to consume our surplus products for us? Shall we hold fast to our rediscovered sense of real values and our adventurous attitude of life? If so, we shall revolutionize world economy without any political revolution. Or shall we again allow our gluttony to become the instrument of an economic system that is satisfactory to nobody? That system as we know it thrives on waste and rubbish heaps. At present the waste (that is, sheer gluttonous consumption) is being done for us in the field of war. In peace, if we do not revise our ideas, we shall ourselves become its instruments. The rubbish heap will again be piled on our doorsteps, on our own backs, in our own bellies. Instead of the wasteful consumption of trucks and tanks, metal and explosives, we shall have back the wasteful consumption of wireless sets and silk stockings, drugs and paper, cheap pottery and cosmetics—all of the slop and swill that will pour down the sewers over which the palace of gluttony is built…
It was left for the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale and give it a title that it could carry like a flag. It occurred to somebody to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swash-buckling, piratical sin, going about with its had cocked over its eye, and pistols tucked into the tops of its jackboots. Its war cries are “Business Efficiency!” “Free Competition!” “Get Our or Get Under!” and “There’s Always Room at the Top! It no longer works and saves; it launches out into new enterprises; it gambles and speculates; it thinks in a big way; it takes risks. It can no longer be troubled to deal in real wealth and so remain attached to work and the soil. It has set money free from all hampering ties; it has interests in every continent; it is impossible to pin it down to any one place or any concrete commodity—it is an adventure, a roving, rollicking free lance. It looks so jolly and jovial and has such a twinkle in its cunning eye that nobody can believe that its heart is as cold and calculating as ever.
Sayers’s critique, in this passage, has aged extremely well. The chief differences I would note today are:
The factories are not first world factories in front of us but third world sweatshops whose workers could only drool over the conditions of first world factories, and:
So far as I can discern, Sayers does not open or foresee the Pandora’s box of branding.
This is, I would underscore, a conservative critique of capitalism. It touches on Marxist critique, or Marxism rather touches on this line of critique, when contrasting the craftsman and the factory hand; but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, including Marxism.
It is an essentially conservative outlook in Robert Grootazaard’s Aid for the Overdeveloped West, which makes at least one point I hadn’t thought of but almost instantly agreed with once I saw it. As a Christian economist, he studied the Mosaic Law and saw a blueprint for paradise, including both gleaning for the poor and an environment where it was very “difficult to get rich.” And his work can be taken as a brief, for a book, commentary on the premise that economic wealth is made for mankind and not mankind for economic wealth.
St. Paul wrote, “Love of money is the root of all evil,” (I Tim 6:10, KJV), and he did not do so in the context of our ecosystem of brands. He took up the task of taming the horse and reining it in; perhaps he has almost never been completely obeyed, but most of the Bible’s advice for a good life has almost never been completely obeyed. The verse has been softened in some translations to say, “Love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” (NIV), but no other sin receives the same indictment from St. Paul, and it is characteristic of the theology of the east that avarice or the love of money is not only named among the eight demons that would become the West’s seven deadly sins, but it is one of the top three “gateway sins” that opens the door to all others.
One lunch with Bruce Winter, the head of Tyndale House, commented on what advertising now sees as a sort of dark age before advertising would essentially get its act together. Before that, an ad advertising (for instance) fur coats, would show a fur coat, maybe with someone in it or maybe not, and the word “SALE” once or maybe repeated several times. (It strikes me as a stroke of brilliant wit that one nearby antiques dealer has, out front, a letter sign with the words “ANTIQUES! ANTIQUES! ANTIQUES!” That kind of nostalgic advertising might work for nothing else, it is perfect for communicating antique goods that in some cases would fit how some antiques were originally advertised.) Bruce mentioned the older school, and said that it comes from before advertisers understood what motivates people. Now, he commented, car ads sell on the premise that they are “mysterious, sensual, and intimate:” as I would later observe, one glitzy car ad ended with a woman’s low voice saying, “When you turn your car on… does it return the favor?” Bruce Winter was, I might underscore, not someone who would raise an objection to having something be “mysterious, sensual, and intimate” as such, and he spoke of it with awe. He was merely suggesting that we seek something “mysterious, sensual, and intimate” in the setting where we can enjoy it best.
(Australia is a bit of a special case as far as advertising goes. Advertising is legal as such, but advertisers have to sell their wares on the grounds of what their product actually provides; presenting that a product as making you magically irresistible to the opposite sex is off the agenda.)
One of many features of a favor that favors consumption has to do with fashion. In the Middle Ages, clothing styles subtly changed, perhaps once in a generation. It is not clear to me how long a garment would last, but clothing was not casually discarded. Today, fashion provides a social mechanism for frequent purchase of clothing, and the one truly good piece of advice I found in Tiptionary was to go for classic clothing rather than what is currently in vogue. Clothing is not built to last, and even if it would last, we have a social mandate that keeps selling us (mostly sweatshop) clothes. (One way to reduce one’s patronage of sweatshops is to keep clothing until it becomes genuinely unserviceable.)
Another change in habits has to do with why an appliance repair shop in my hometown closed down, having lost their lease. When an appliance breaks down, most people don’t want a fix that will restore the status quo. Most people prefer to find an occasion to upgrade. For another example, a senior I know has cookware made in the 1940’s or 1950’s. His cookware has plenty of use remaining before it will eventually decay. Its expected life, over a half century after when it was first made, is longer than brand new cookware because new cookware is specifically not built to last. Planned obsolescence is another form of life that keeps factory wheels turning. It’s not enough to have a darling brand in cars, phones, etc.; people feel an almost entirely unnecessary need to have the latest model.
I have been aware in my own life of a practice that I call “sacramental shopping.” Another term is “retail therapy,” and perhaps today the lexicon includes “Amazon therapy.” It is shopping that functions as an ersatz sacrament, and it may the chief sacrament in the ersatz religion of brand economy.
I might comment briefly, in a book that I’ve persisted in trying to track down, an analysis which says that brands do the work of spiritual disciplines for many today. The author commented that in one class he asked college students, “Imagine your future successful self. With which brands do you imagine yourself associating?” Not only could all of the students answer the question and furnish a list of brands, but he didn’t see any puzzled looks, a signal that would have blipped loud and clear on his radar as a teacher.
I believe that an example from my own life could be instructive.
When I was getting ready to study theology, in 2002 I purchased a computer that would see me through my studies up through 2007. It was an IBM ThinkPad, a brand and line that were respected and for good reason, and I purchased a computer with ample screen real estate, a 1GhZ processor that was probably overkill for my needs, and maxed-out 1G RAM. And after I did my research and set my heart on a particular purchase, and my conscience held me back. I ran from my conscience and then faced up to it, a conscience saying, “No.” And I let go of buying it altogether, and as soon as that my conscience gave me an instantaneous green light.
There were a couple of issues going on here. One of them was the purchase of a practical computer all but necessary for my studies. But the other part was that I was drooling over a major purchase in sacramental shopping, and the way things unfolded was an unfolding grace that let me buy a practical and useful computer but not making a purchase of sacramental shopping.
Now some of you may be wondering why I named and endorsed a brand of computer; my response is that I was not acting on a mystique, but on rational analysis of a brand’s track record. Though a Ford was not my first choice, I drive a Ford now, as a brand that creates physically sturdy vehicles that hold up well in a collision. One accident, in which I was hit from behind when I stopped, left me hitting the Honda Accord in front of me, and… um… I saw very directly why people refer to a Honda Accord as a “Honda Accordion.” The Accordion suffered severe damage in its trunk. I suffered a bent front license plate. When I went computer shopping, I wanted a good computer that would last, and several years after purchasing it I gave it to my brother in working order. The specs were carefully chosen, and the five or so years I used it vindicated my purchase.
Nonetheless, I believe that moment was permitted me so I could acquire the computer without it being an act of sacramental shopping, which is something quite significant. It has been my experience that when my conscience says, “Let it go, all the way,” sometimes I am freed from XYZ forever, and sometimes the instant I fully let go is the instant I get an unexpected green light. After years of struggle about posting from my story at Fordham, at all, ever, I let go… and my conscience gave me a surprisingly sudden green light, the only condition being that I not name individual figures. So I posted Orthodox at Fordham.
It is a great gift to be able to stop drooling before you buy something, or maybe instead of buying something. It is a price of inner spiritual freedom—and a doorway to contentment, for it is the characteristic of items purchased in sacramental shopping to lose their allure surprisingly quickly.
Advertising promotes a spirit of perennial discontent and a failure to be able to enjoy the things one already has. By rejecting sacramental shopping, perhaps, I was able to enjoy the ongoing use of that one laptop for several years.
Do I have a personal brand? Should I?
I don’t think we should buy into personal brands, no matter how many people exhort us to do.
The front matter to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People notes a fall that had occurred, from a character ethic to a personality ethic with characteristic exhortations to believe in yourself. Now we have had a second fall, from genuine (if shallow) personality with glimpses of character, to recommended best practices being to post stuff to Twitter that’s about 70% professional and 30% personal, giving a persona and an illusion of personality but not giving people even your real personality when the rubber hits the sky.
I do not speak highly of personal branding, but I would like first to field an objection that may occur to some of my readers: do I, great critic of brands as I am, am unusually gifted, an Orthodox author who writes in the fashion of some of the great English-language apologists, see things from a different angle, and so on; and, also, I have a distinctive look to my favorites among the books I have written. It would make sense to say, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, isn’t it a personal brand?”
My response, beyond saying that the objection is entirely understandable, is to talk about what some figures have called a “canon within the Canon.” Now this is a perspective that isn’t particularly Orthodox and I usually only invoke it with good reason, but there is a tendency for authors in theology to disproportionately quote certain areas in the canon. I imagine if you were to tally Scriptural references in my own writing, you would find heavy reference to the Sermon on the Mount, and the Pauline letters. Now I have no reticence about a debt to the Sermon on the Mount. However, one professor talked about St. Paul as “the Apostle to the heretics,” because heretics of many stripes pay disproportionate attention to the letters of St. Paul. So, while I might say “I hope to live up to it” if I am asked how I relate to the Sermon on the Mount, I am more inclined to regard my primary heavy citations of St. Paul as a liability, a holdover from when I was Protestant, and a way I have failed to live up to the Bible’s grandeur.
So, if you are to ask, “Do you have a canon within the Canon?” I would answer, “Yes, and I’m not proud of it.”
However, this is an “after the fact” canon within the Canon. I never set out to focus on the Sermon on the Mount and the letters of St. Paul, they were what came to mind when I was recalling from a lifetime of reading Scripture. I never decided to privilege the letters of St. Paul; I just gravitated a certain and imperfect way.
Some considerable distortion, and perhaps a practice that does little to warm Orthodox hearts to the whole concept of canon within the Canon, is in academic theologians who make step one of an article being to identify the canon within the Canon. Honestly, no. That doesn’t cut it. An author’s “after the fact” canon within the Canon may be to some extent unavoidable, but the idea that you start by taking a scissors to the Bible goes beyond putting the cart before the horse. It is trying to unload the cart at its destination before packing it at its source.
I may well enough have an “after the fact” personal brand. (Also, my brief popping in and out of social media when I have something to announce is not intended as the message I want my brand to portray; it is because I feel a need to sharply reduce and limit my time in these unsavory neighborhoods.) And as branding is identified and explained, your brand is the one thing that is essentially you. Besides the points mentioned above about what may be my personal brand, I have had a profound interest in social and religious aspects of technology, and it may well be that my lasting contribution to the conversation will be The Luddite’s Guide to Technology and not my general-purpose collection of theological favorites in The Best of Jonathan’s Corner. Social implications of theology are a central and guiding emphasis, but not in any way that engenders an exclusive fidelity. I hardly see The Angelic Letters or the even more exalted Doxology as peripheral to my “after the fact” marketing proposition, even if I do not recall either saying much about technology and even if my autobiography is titled Orthodox Theology and Technology.
However, out of all this there have been few things intended to address concerns of branding. My website has a distinctive and beautiful appearance and background image; and that visual identity flows onto book covers. And in a case of “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you,” from (appropriately enough) that Sermon, I have been told that my work is largely known and often endorsed among conservative converts to Orthodoxy, and I’ve even been told that my name has trilettered on Facebook to CSH (meaning C.S. Hayward) which caught me off guard. And I would briefly like to address one question some people have: why am I happy to have fame among conservative converts to Orthodoxy? Why not write for all Orthodox? My answer, I believe, lies in communication style. Any Orthodox Christian, along with other intersested parties, is welcome to read my writing. However, the way I write is shaped by English language apologists, as is probably a shared experience with many more converts than people who grew up in the Church, and writing style may be a barrier. There have been some times I have tried to write with a more patristic style, such as The Arena, Apprentice gods, and Technonomicon, but it is a liability and a limitation to my stature as an Orthodox writer that people raised in the Orthodox Church might not as easily connect with my writing.
And in any case, I have not made a marketing decision to specifically target conservative converts to Orthodoxy. I have instead attempted to write works of wonder and beauty such as I am able to and have not found already written. I judge my readership to be a case of “Man proposes, God disposes.” And I regard the fact that I have an audience at all is to me astounding. I have prayed for God to guide, help, and support me as I write. I have never prayed to be a household name among certain people.
The human cost of a brand economy: a decoy answer
Vincent J. Miller, in Consuming Religion (a Marxist text which I checked out because I confused it with Tom Beaudouin, Consuming Faith, which I read at Fordham), writes in his introduction, in reference to voluntary simplicity:
[Marketers] want to know where the nerves are so they can position their products to hit them. A stroll through the supermarket illustrates this marketing strategy. Foodstuffs and personal care products are packaged as plain, simple, and honest. The color schemes of labels as well as the products themselves are muted. Beige, lavender, and pale green provide the palette for iced tea and shampoo, risotto mixes, and aroma therapy candles. At the checking, we encounter this color scheme again, this time on the cover of a magazine that includes articles on getting organized, simplifying family life, and making Campari-grapefruit compote. It is full of glossy photo spreads of food, interiors, and clothing. A soft, minimalist aesthetic dominates these images—a hybrid of Martha Stewart and Zen Buddhism. The target audience of this magazine is professional women with incomes above $65,000 a year. Its title? Real Simple. Examples could be multiplied.
Before the point where I dropped reading the title, it also talked about how marketers made a real extravaganza of the 150th anniversary of the printing of the Communist Manifesto.
I mention this as an example of a distraction I would like to clear out. I had people say I wasn’t sure what I was doing at a jobhunter’s group where I balked at creating a personal brand to serve my jobhunt. However, I do not want to gaze endlessly down this chasm.
Albert Einstein is popularly quoted (or misquoted—for the moment I only care about the words) as saying, “The problems we face cannot be solved by the kind of thinking that created them.” And here I would say, while I honestly do not know and honestly do not care whether I am representing Einstein, that level of analysis and critique is valid up to a point but we need to move beyond them if we are to reach higher ground.
Two events shape the liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples, and the betrayal of Judas. The meaning of both is in love. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s redeeming love for man, of love as the very essence of salvation. And the betrayal of Judas reveals that sin, death and self-destruction are also due to love, but to deviated and distorted love, love directed at that which does not deserve love. Here is the mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy, where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which depends the eternal destiny of each one of us. “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come… having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end…” (John 13:1). To understand the meaning of the Last Supper we must see it as the very end of the great movement of Divine Love which began with the creation of the world and is now to be consummated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
God is Love (1 John 4:8). And the first gift of Love was life. The meaning, the content of life was communion. To be alive man was to eat and to drink, to partake of the world. The world was thus Divine love made food, made Body of man. And being alive, i.e. partaking of the world, man was to be in communion with God, to have God as the meaning, the content and the end of his life. Communion with the God-given world was indeed communion with God. Man received his food from God and making it his body and his life, he offered the whole world to God, transformed it into life in God and with God. The love of God gave life to man, the love of man for God transformed this life into communion with God. This was paradise. Life in it was, indeed, eucharistic. Through man and his love for God the whole creation was to be sanctified and transformed into one all-embracing sacrament of Divine Presence and man was the priest of this sacrament.
But in sin man lost this eucharistic life. He lost it because he ceased to see the world as a means of Communion with God and his life as eucharist, as adoration and thanksgiving. . . He loves himself and the world for their own sake; he made himself the content and the end of his life. He thought that his hunger and thirst, i.e. his dependence of his life on the world—can be satisfied by the world as such, by food as such. But world and food, once they are deprived of their initial sacramental meaning—as means of communion with God, once they are not received for God’s sake and filled with hunger and thirst for God, once, in other words, God is no longer their real “content,” can give no life, satisfy no hunger, for they have no life in themselves… And thus by putting his love in them, man deviated his love from the only object of all love, of all hunger, of all desires. And he died. For death is the inescapable “decomposition” of life cut from its only source and content. Man thought to find life in the world and in food, but he found death. His life became communion with death, for instead of transforming the world by faith, love, and adoration into communion with God, he submitted himself entirely to the world, he ceased to be its priest and became its slave. And by his sin the whole world was made a cemetery, where people condemned to death partook of death and “sat in the region and shadow of death” (Matt. 4:16).
But if man betrayed, God remained faithful to man. He did not “turn Himself away forever from His creature whom He had made, neither did He forget the works of His hands, but He visited him in diverse manners, through the tender compassion of His mercy” (Liturgy of Saint Basil). A new Divine work began, that of redemption and salvation. And it was fulfilled in Christ, the Son of God Who in order to restore man to his pristine beauty and to restore life as communion with God, became Man, took upon Himself our nature, with its thirst and hunger, with its desire for and love of, life. And in Him life was revealed, given, accepted and fulfilled as total and perfect Eucharist, as total and perfect communion with God. He rejected the basic human temptation: to live “by bread alone”; He revealed that God and His kingdom are the real food, the real life of man. And this perfect eucharistic Life, filled with God, and, therefore Divine and immortal, He gave to all those who would believe in Him, i,e. find in Him the meaning and the content of their lives. Such is the wonderful meaning of the Last Supper. He offered Himself as the true food of man, because the Life revealed in Him is the true Life. And thus the movement of Divine Love which began in paradise with a Divine “take, eat. ..” (for eating is life for man) comes now “unto the end” with the Divine “take, eat, this is My Body…” (for God is life of man). The Last Supper is the restoration of the paradise of bliss, of life as Eucharist and Communion.
But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. “And it was night” (John 13:30). Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the Gospel, and his fateful love is stressed again and again in the hymns of Holy Thursday. It does not matter indeed, that he loves the “silver.” Money stands here for all the deviated and distorted love which leads man into betraying God. It is, indeed, love stolen from God and Judas, therefore, is the Thief. When he does not love God and in God, man still loves and desires, for he was created to love and love is his nature, but it is then a dark and self-destroying passion and death is at its end. And each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, do I follow Judas into the darkness of his night?
The human cost of a brand economy is that it draws us into the love of Judas Iscariot.
Fr. Alexander, in this passage, is extremely clear that Judas is not dead to love: he loves what should not be loved, and he loves in the wrong way. He loves “silver:” one could just as well say “even worse, brands.” And the love we love when we covet brands—and it is love—is love of what is unworthy and the same destructive love by which Judas renounced his Lord to obtain a pittance of silver, the price of a slave and nothing more.
We can do one of two things. We can love God and our neighbor, or we can attend to brands, but we cannot do both.
Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace. He cannot free himself from evil thoughts, words and actions, and because of these thoughts and actions he will not be able freely to pass the lords of hell when he dies.
Saint Theodora lived at Constantinople during the first half of the tenth century. She had been married, but was widowed early on and led a pious life, caring for the destitute and hopeless. Later, she became a nun and lived under the guidance of Saint Basil the New (March 26), living the monastic life in a solitary cell in her own home.
Saint Theodora died in great old age in the year 940. Gregory, a disciple of Saint Basil the New, asked his teacher to reveal to him the fate of the deceased nun. “Do you want this very much?” asked Saint Basil. “Yes, I do,” Gregory replied.
“You shall see her today, if you ask with faith, and if you believe that your request will be granted.”
There is some slight controversy surrounding Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted’s teaching on the phantom tollbooth. His position, as carried forth by others, is that practically every major element of The Phantom Tollbooth is already in the Fathers and is attested in quite ancient liturgy. Consequently, many argue, the book The Phantom Tollbooth is no mere imaginative children’s tale, but an entirely literal factual account describing life beyond the mundane.
When I was a catechumen, one thing the priest who received me into confession hammered on was that “There never was a golden age.” He presumably admires the saints of the great Christological councils but the point he made was that the Ecumenical Councils were a supreme medicine because the problems were so bad.
I do not recall him ever mentioning 19th century Russia in “There never was a golden age,” but he was presumably trying to prepare me for the nostalgia a convert into Russian Orthodoxy would encounter for 19th century Russia; I have said that my own jurisdiction may be the most nostalgic for 19th century Russia, although at least one OCA member lightheartedly suggested the OCA might have that title.
A somewhat different perspective was taken up, in a piece of correspondence I have long since lost contact with, saying that 19th century Russia was the worst century in Orthodox history, a sort of Gnostic wonderland with something to offer every idle curiosity. And while I have read truly edifying stories from 19th century Russia in a Cathedral bulletin, I’ve also read things that are more… X-Files in their toxicity.
It is reported that Church Fathers and ancient liturgy attest to the existence of tollhouses, but the average devotee of Fr. Seraphim of Plantina I have met knows more details about Tollhouses than all the ancient sources I have read put together, and it has been asserted to me that the obligation to bring all of your sins to confession is true to the point that it entails a binding obligation to successfully remember all of your sins, specifically meaning that if you confess every sin you ever remember in confession, but you forget one sin, the demons can stop you at the Tollhouses and you can go to Hell.
I think that, with such considerations, it might be valid to distinguish between tollhouses and Tollhouses. The former teaching, of ancient attestation, is such that the demons will grab you by any sin they can, and there is a need for repentance that includes straightforward, honest, and perhaps even soul-searching confession; hiding sins in confession makes your fault all the more serious. But it seems unbalanced, at least, to say that you can try with your whole heart to meet the needs of confession because there was one sin that you forgot to confess despite your best efforts.
Tollhouses may be a feature of 19th century Russian spirituality, but the full version with all the bells and whistles goes considerably further than do the tollhouses in the Philokalia for instance. I do not recall reading in any source not downwind of Saint Theodora’s story. Furthermore, I would suggest that legitimate interpretation recognizes tollhouses as one image among others, like Kalamiros’s “River of Fire” in which God pours out his Light on all, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced through the rejection of Christ, the only route through which the Light of Heaven appears with such joy. Legitimate belief in tollhouses should naturally coexist with saying that various Roman era martyrs who were martyred before they had any opportunity to give confession and be baptized are said to be “baptized in their own blood,” a term that applies to martyrs who were burned or otherwise killed through something other than blood loss, and should naturally coexist with the woman who was sanctified and later canonized after a single hour of repentance during which she had no access to a human priest and it is not stated that she confessed her sins to an angel or the like. Demons will try to stop us by any means they can, but the teaching of tollhouses is not a polestar among doctrines, much less a full cast-iron and legalistic insistence on Tollhouses.
St. Dionysius wrote, in the rising crescendo that would conclude The Mystical Theology:
In The Divine Names I have shown the sense in which God is described as good, existent, life, wisdom, power, and whatever other things pertain to the conceptual names for God. In my Symbolic Theology I have discussed analogies of God drawn from what we perceive. I have spoken of the images we have of him, of the forms, figures, and instruments proper to him, of the places in which he lives and the ornaments which he wears. I have spoken of his anger, grief, and rage, of how he is said to be drunk and hungover, of his oaths and curses, of his sleeping and waking, and indeed of all those images we have of him, images shaped by the workings of the representations of God. And I feel sure that you have noticed how these latter come much more abundantly than what went before, since The Theological Representations and a discussion of the names appropriate to God are inevitably briefer than what can be said in The Symbolic Theology. The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing. In the earlier books my argument this downward path from the most exalted to the humblest categories, taking in on this downward path an ever-increasing number of ideas which multiplied what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.
Now you may wonder why it is that, after starting out from the highest category when our method involves assertions, we begin now from the lowest category involves a denial. The reason is this. When we assert what is beyond every assertion, we must then proceed from what is most akin to it, and as we do so we make the affirmation on which everything else depends. But when we deny that which is beyond every denial, we have to start by denying those qualities which differ most from the goal we hope to attain. Is it not closer to truth to say that God is life and goodness rather than that he is air or stone? Is it not more accurate to deny that drunkenness and rage can be attributed to him than to deny that we can apply to him the terms of speech and thought?
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can be neither seen nor touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of this can either be identified with it nor attributed.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or any other being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name or knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation, it is also beyond every denial.
Language about God is necessary, but for people to whom the obligation falls, it is necessary to know that all images, even those sanctioned in Scripture, are limited. I remember being a bit grossed out when one acquaintance interpreted Genesis 1 to mean that God spoke with literal lips and a tongue, but I did not correct her; such a belief was appropriate for her spiritual condition and correcting her might have been the de-mythologizing sin of the monk in Everyday Saints and Other Stories who with his book-knowledge told a peasant that God had no need for physical food, that it couldn’t have been God who drank the offering bowl of goat milk the peasant offered nightly, and stayed up with the peasant until he saw that it was “just” a little fox who drank the milk. The angel accused the monk with his book knowledge of taking what little the peasant had, and explained something the monk had never thought of: that God had sent that fox every day to drink the milk in divine acceptance of the offering. De-mythologizing is a legitimate enterprise and St. Dionysius offers a much fuller and more robust version than anything Bultmann ever point out, but I do not see it as an obviously blessed thing for people who have reached de-mythologizing to go on crusades to take away the little that is all a less mature Christian may have.
The existence of ?ollhouses has been debated, and the OCA website features an article by Fr. John Breck that speaks of “the dubious teaching of tollhouses.” I would reply that tollhouses are evidently something that at least one Father in the Philokalia mentions in passing but precisely no one in the first four volumes makes a terribly big deal of. The lives of the saints cover a number of people whose logistics did not allow one final life confession with a priest, and here we have an air, “liberal” in the best and highest sense of the term, that is generous and has us interceded for in Heaven by saints who partly did not have the logistics to make a full life confession before death, and in no saint’s life that I remember is a saint alleged to have remembered every sin he ever committed to be able to successfully confess every sin on pain of going to Hell if he forgot one.
tollhouses are a feature of ancient Christianity, but I have never read in classic spiritual literature not cited above there being some kind of spiritual currency that a saint passing “the lords of hell” has to feed to demons standing on the way. Thus it may be that the Orthodox Church’s classic tollhouses are in fact not ?ollhouses of any description. In other words, for all I know, they may not be ?ollhouses, by definition, because they are not houses (or booths, or gateways), that collect tolls.
This is one area where I confess a degree of ignorance, but it is an ignorance I retain after reading ancient sources that really do not, in works I remember reading, offer such an account of Tollhouses that pander to any idle curiosity those drawn to a Gnostic wonderland could want. Furthermore, it has been my invariable experience that people who push Tollhouses on others are best avoided in the first place.
I do not see the image of tollhouses as really being subject to the debate. It’s part of the Orthodox collection of images, and it is an icon. Nonetheless, on the information I have, I don’t know that tollhouses collect tolls. And as regards fruit in my own life, I have given better confessions when I have not thought about Tollhouses and felt an obligation to remember every sin to the letter. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” and I believe I have confessed better when I have tried to bring my real sinfulness to Christ in the person of my priest and not when I was trying as hard as I could to keep tabs on all my sins.
You can believe in tollhouses without bearing the legalistic burden of belief in Tollhouses.
I’d like to open by flatly contradicting something that is openly stated in Scripture. St. Paul in defending Christ’s resurrection and our own (1 Cor 15:19, RSV), writes if there is no resurrection, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
Now I believe there is a resurrection, and furthermore that the significance of this life lies precisely in the fact that by our lives on earth we are making an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell. But I would like to submit something that may seem a straight-out opposite: suppose that there is no final resurrection, no judgment, no life or experience or existence after death, just nothingness, and the only life to be had is this life. That is all. In that case, what kind of life is to be desired? My answer is “Exactly the same as what Orthodox Christians try to live today.”
In regard to future punishment and rewards, Martin Luther was right when he said, “If we knew what Christ came to save us from, we would die of fear. If we knew what Christ came to save us for, we would die of joy.” And for that matter, C.S. Lewis was right when he portrayed Heaven as infinitely eclipsing Hell. And it is in regard to future reward that St. Maximus Confessor distinguished from three ranks among the Lord’s disciples: slaves, who obey out of fear, mercenaries, who obey out of hope for future reward, and sons, who obey out of love.
Now all three of these have a place, and I have obeyed as a slave at times, knowing that suicide would be a direct door to Hell, and on that point I would recall the Philokalia saying that strange as it may sound, we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, because more people have been saved through fear of Hell’s torments than through hope of Heaven’s joys. But mercenaries are more noble than slaves, and sons more noble than both. And in the end mercenaries are more insulated from Hell’s torments than slaves, sons even more insulated than mercenaries, and sons are more handsomely rewarded than mercenaries in the next life.
But with this as a big picture I cannot rightly disown, I’d like to narrow things down and focus solely on mercenary concerns, and even more unusually focus on this life.
People have said that virtue is its own reward, enough so that Calvin and Hobbes, with a Spaceman Spiff wanting to teach aliens that virtue is its own reward, despite the fact that I have never seen in the entire Calvin and Hobbes history evidence of Calvin having any concept that virtue could be its own reward. But what does it mean? I am wary of assuming that the reader knows what this means, or whether the saying is understood in addition to being quoted mindlessly.
Ask a recovering alcoholic who’s been dry for years which is better: being sober, or being drunk all the time. Now being drunk, or today toking, may bring great pleasure if you’re basically sober. However, I believe that most recovering alcoholics would vehemently affirm that being sober is better than being a slave chained to a bottle more constricting than a genie’s lamp. It has been said that alcoholism is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy! Or to quote Chesterton about another topic, “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.” Humility is a vaster thing than pride. And even within the limits of this life, on purely mercenary concerns, virtue is better today than vice.
There is an interesting point about how happiness is conceived in classical Greek, as represented by Plato and others, where the word, ευδαιμονια or eudaimonia, literally means “good spirits” and describes the happiness that derives from one’s spirit being in good condition. Thinking of happiness without particular regard to the health of one’s spirit is a bit like thinking about the endocrine rush provided by a good exercise program without any real regard to the health of one’s body: absurd, and how absurd it is is partly unpacked in the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke: The Republic. As to how this is unpacked, I refer the reader to the classics; but the idea of achieving happiness without one’s spirits being in good condition comes across as out of place, perhaps perhaps simply inconceivable, perhaps impossible, or perhaps just absurd and undesirable.
And this much may be said without touching any merits or joys that are specific to Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy. But in fact living the life of Christ already starts on earth, acquisition of the Holy Spirit already starts on earth, and Heaven itself starts on earth, and if there is (I speak hypothetically) no Heaven awaiting the faithful after death, I would rather live the beginning of Heaven on earth, and then stop existing or experiencing, than never touch Heaven at all.
And in terms of virtues and vices, I have something to say about the occult that may wound some of my dearest readers. It is unnatural vice.
The concept of unnatural vice in Orthodoxy is broader than sexual perversions including porn, and it may be hard to see why an informed person would call unnatural a nature religion like Wicca. My response is this: As far as standardized tests like the SAT go, there are some test preparation strategies that can legitimately raise scores. Kaplan, or its competitors, can raise scores. But there is another school that says that if you’re not cheating you’re not playing hard enough, and are strategies to cheat on tests. And the occult amounts to approaching cheating as how you raise your score, and is not satisfied with legitimate test preparation. It is an unnatural vice, and heavy nature theming and self-presentation as a route to harmony with nature do not change the fact that the empowerment Wicca claims is empowerment through nature-themed unnatural vice. Unnatural vice that works with plants is unnatural as artistic pornography in beautiful natural surroundings (eveandherfriends DOT tumblr DOT com) is an unnatural vice that disenchants the entire universe. Attempts to engage in an unnatural vice in a natural way do not remove the fact or the problem of a draining unnatural vice that destroys the possibility of joy. One acquaintance talked about how one person considered himself not to be an alcoholic, because he only drank gourmet wines!
I fear by saying this much, I may have already lost much of my audience by now. However, to help bring you to your senses, I would bring a poem (simply text with punctuation based on per cola et commata’s lines):
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Mother of God, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
G.K. Chesterton said something relevant to much more than poets and logicians:
The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
The Blessed Augustine wrote that if a master sends two slaves by routes that will cross, their meeting is an accident from the slaves’ perspective but by design from the master’s perspective. What is lost in all this is, if I may take a cue from astrology, dancing the Great Dance, where the dance is led by a little girl with a tambourine. Sin constricts; occult sin seeks to draw Heaven down to fit your desires. What we need is not to reduce Heaven to fit us; we need to open ourselves to fit Heaven. And when we pray, odd but wonderful coincidences can happen, and God draws us out of the Hell of self.
Applications in Our Day
Yes, that is well and good for easier times, but what about today?
Let me return to an example I have used earlier. The Bible contains warnings against drunkenness in both the Old and New Testaments. In Bible times, wine fermented to about 4% alcohol, which is a third of the alcohol in wine and slightly less than in a standard beer. In the Graeco-Roman world, that wine was mixed 1:2 with water, so we’re bringing the alcohol content down to significantly less than lite beer. It takes (or at least it takes us—I unofficially suspect that major dietary differences influence how well you can hold your liquor) a fair amount of drinking to get drunk.
Since ancient warnings about using wine in moderation or not using it at all, we have developed not only strong beer but wine that used to be 12% alcohol (that number tends to steadily increasing), and eighty proof, and Everclear if you wish, and now cannibalis—er, cannabis—is legal, with stronger drugs illegal but still available in 50 States.
Q: Is sobriety still relevant?
A: Now more than ever.
It’s harder to reach, but this sort of thing is if anything even more essential. (There is more on spiritual sobriety in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, which I highly recommend.)
Do not worry for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by worrying? You might as well try to worry your way into being a foot taller!
I have found that trying to solve a life’s problems on a day’s resources is a sure road to despair. The Sermon on the Mount is very practical in an everyday here and now. Some people have gotten the impression that I am better at planning and orchestrating than they are. I categorically deny the charges.
When I was in high school, there was a game of sorts called “Wargames,” that showed a world map and had a button to launch missles. When you clicked on “Launch,” you could see the missile trajectories as missiles launched from the God-blessed USA to the godless USSR—and from the godless USSR to the God-blessed USA, resulting in essentially total world annihilation. Then a preachy enough message appeared: “The only way to win this game is not to play at all.” And so it is with worry: The only way to win this game is not to play at all.”
Inner peace does not come when you have worried your ducks all into a row. Inner peace comes when you solve today’s problems, or even the problems of part of today, on today’s resources, and you let go.
This has got to be near the top of things in the Bible that we want to drag our heels on, but let me ask almost a riddle:
Would you rather meet people you admire and are in awe of, or people you look down on and despise?
If you’d like to be in the presence of people you admire, admire other people by in humility considering others better than yourself.
It’s that simple!
In the Philokalia we read St. Peter of Damascus’s “A Treasury of Divine Knowledge”:
…Thus through self-control he practices the other virtues as well. He looks on himself as in God’s debt for everything, finding nothing whatsoever with which to repay to his Benefactor, and even thinking that his virtues simply increase his debt. For he receives and has nothing to give. He only asks that he may be allowed to offer thanks to God. Yet even the fact that God accepts his thanks puts him, so he thinks, into still greater debt. But he continues to give thanks, ever doing what is good and reckoning himself an ever greater debtor, in his humility considering himself lower than all men, delighting in God his Benefactor and trembling even as he rejoices (cf. Ps. 2: I 1).
It is no accident that positive psychology tries to crank gratitude to the max. But there is ideally a feedback loop between gratitude and humility, and humility is deeper; it could almost be called the fourth Christian or theological virtue.
It is a wondrous experience to recognize that one is unworthy even to thank God for his many blessings, and thank him for his many blessings anyway.
So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord… (1 Peter 3:5-6)
This passage is not politically correct, but it is a hinge of joy and it respects the nature of women however much we try to grind it out of them. Snow White sang, “Some day, my prince will come,” and it is the desire of every little girl to marry a prince. This is true in all the older Disney cartoons except maybe Aladdin: a princess like Ariel and a commoner like Belle are both happy in being married to a lord. Out of this I have advice: if you want to be married to a lord then you might well see, and treat, your husband as your lord.
Ok, more people probably lost there. Despite my best wishes.
I have presented a paltry few aspects of the layer Christianity has to offer to those who seek mercenary reward, and are concerned within the bounds of this life.
Christianity is not just pie in the sky when you die. It is also steak on your plate while you wait.
Steak on your plate while you wait
I would like to give links to works on this site that significantly address mercenary concerns within the scope of this life, at least as one layer. This layer may not in the end be separable from obeying God out of sheer and undiluted love, but they are meant to speak here now and address our own interests.
If you want to know what set of eyes you should be looking through, look through these eyes here. It tells of a glory offered us that begins here and now: and what kind of glorious God governs the here and now.
Each of us has a guardian angel assigned at baptism, and a personal tempting demon allowed to test us for our strengthening. C.S. Lewis writes about a personal tempter. I write about our guardian angel.
I don’t know if I can call this any sort of upgrade to Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, but if a Christian may be be sustained by the riches of pagan philosophy, a fortiori an Orthodox Christian may be sustained by the riches of Christian theology
Then I was hit from all sides, from family at home and slapped down at church, including being informed my heirarch Archbishop PETER had spoken with many Orthodox doctors and chose to be publicly vaccinated. I wrote and then took down, in the interest of not becoming heretical, one post critical of Archbishop PETER when my spiritual father helped me to see that if I was not in formal dissent, getting awfully close. And as I was reminded in Lenten reading, it is not helpful to criticize one’s spiritual authorities: not a monastic priest, not a spiritual father, and all the more not the bishop I answer to in the end. I asked, and received, a blessing to receive vaccination from my spiritual father.
As the time approached, I was aware of unending doubt about my rightness to receive a vaccine, and Rom 14.23). I do not want to give the debate in that passage in cultural context, but after having seen my Archbishop to whom I answer set an example of receiving the vaccine, and receiving a blessing and assurances from my spiritual father to receive the vaccine personally, I still had constant, nagging doubts about whether I should receive the vaccine, and that Biblical discussion was at the forefront of my mind, along with a thought about stopping COVID being justification to make an exception. I claim no confused ideas about the Biblical principle, nor any sense of mixed messages from my conscience, nor anything else of that sort. And I furthermore would point out that my spiritual father is big on listening to that inner voice; he has never to my knowledge put me in a position previously of choosing between obeying that still, small voice and obeying him—and while Orthodox spiritual direction usually requires obedience, he has been clear, when I asked a blessing to have my confessions heard by cathedral clergy, that this is not full monastic spiritual direction and that I do not owe him monastic-style obedience. He allowed me to choose freely whether I wanted to receive the vaccine, so I cannot blame him for how I exercised my freedom. (I see very little mitigating factors once I recognized consciously that something was wrong.)
I sinned by taking the first dose of a vaccine, when my conscience was not in a state where I could legitimately take the vaccine. I do not here make any evaluation of the vaccines in general or specific people; I mentally asked, “What could go wrong?”
I don’t know all of what could have gone wrong. What I did realize after paying the price for drinking a sugary drink two weeks later was that when I received the vaccine, I was told at the top of an information sheet that if certain vaguely COVID-like symptoms if they lasted for longer than 72 hours, and it was two weeks later and I was ignoring significant and ongoing COVID-like symptoms, including muscle pains, headache, nausea, and by the way the swelling at the injection site is still visible. And (as of two and a half weeks later) they weren’t going away. I received, in the language of Romans 1, received in my person a due penalty for my error.
At about two weeks, my conscience was overwhelmingly strong that I should cancel my second dose. It was getting stronger and stronger, and then by chance I read a friend’s comment in a paper and while he is not a religious authority I answer to, unexpected words brought my struggle against my conscience to the forefront of my attention. I canceled it and haven’t had any social consequences yet. But my doctor’s office gave what I regard as at best excusable advice that I go ahead with the second dose as originally planned. The people giving the vaccines warn people not to have a vaccine within 14 days of receiving any other vaccine or any COVID. My primary told me to go right ahead and receive the vaccine in a few days even when I had significant and ongoing COVID symptoms that prompted her office to ask me to take a COVID test before coming in to the office.
I’ve been in a mind fog. I don’t know if the COVID symptoms are permanent; they do seem to be lasting just a little long even by the standards of a real, honest, legitimate COVID infection, let alone reasonable aftereffects for a vaccine. And tomorrow’s concerns are not my concern today; tomorrow’s concerns will be my concerns when tomorrow comes.
The adverse reactions are only part of the picture of why I am repenting; I ignored something very clear and mentally asked, “What could go wrong?” and I believe both that God is just to allow me to experience COVID symptoms now, and that ignoring conscience or clear thinking and asking, “What could go wrong?” (in other words, asking in my heart “But what could possibly go wrong?” has historically been a dangerous position for me to be in spiritually.
However, while I absolutely cannot judge Archbishop PETER for his research, actions, or conclusions, repentance of my own actions is in my heart.
I, Christos Hayward, publicly repent of receiving the first dose of a vaccination.
Epilogue, July 9 2021
I am, by the grace of and generosity of God, my archbishop and his school, a seminary student.
The seminary has assigned some texts to read, and the hardest had been about, for instance, Old Believer and Old Calendarist schisms. The canonical Orthodox authority who in large measure pushed Old Believers into schism was being an incredible jerk towards people who were trying to mind their own business. The canonical Orthodox authority who led people to become Old Calendarists was a Freemason, among other disqualifications, and was something like the Messianic fantasy of a PC-USA radical in the office of an Orthodox bishop. In these and I believe other meetings, I was left with a terrible sense that I would have really liked to sit down for a meal with the non-canonicals (one high-ranking non-canonical bishop radiated the Uncreated Light from his prison cell), while the canonical figures, not so much. (Or to be less diplomatic about it, they mostly left me wanting to puke.)
The USA’s Assembly of (Orthodox) Bishops, I have been told, has come out presenting the somewhat bloodstained COVID vaccines as desirable, definitely permitted and encouraged by example even if there has not been a strict requirement made. And… I am willing to see a decision like the OCA decision described in Contraception, Orthodoxy, and Spin Doctoring where a jurisdiction advocated and allowed a practice St. John Chrysostom bluntly called “worse than murder” and tried to explain his horror about it. I have been asked if I had a heirarch’s blessing to write that. I’m willing to hold a position, if it comes to that, that I do not share with my bishop and perhaps not anyone in the Assembly.
I have told my spiritual director that if it comes to a choice between not receiving any further vaccination and being admitted to housing, I am willing to go homeless. However, I am not willing to go non-canonical. Never mind if I believe COVID injections are the greatest breakthrough in human health since DDT. If I have to choose between remaining not fully vaccinated and remaining canonical, I will take as many injections as are demanded of me rather than forfeit my status as a canonical Orthodox Christian.
(Also, as far as vaccine complications, I had a blood clot from my leg migrate to my lung. The ER doctor said I was lucky to get to the hospital before it killed me.)