The Anti-Game: Better than Materialist Magic

I grew up on technologies but became more and more suspicious of inattentive use of technologies as marketed to us. Enough so that my reaction to having my cell phone disappear was almost, “I have a GPS. Beyond that, I might be experiencing an early start on one of the privileges of monasticism already,” a reaction that would not surprise a reader of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.

I am also a former gamer, and I have long wanted to put down on paper why one might unplug from games as I have unplugged from TV as far as I reasonably can. “Everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial,” and this applies to games and iPhones apps alike.

Let me start by looking at the archtypal Game.

The Game

In the movie The Game, there is a game which the player is dumped into that has a profound element of transcendence. Nothing that is portrayed as happening is presented as intrinsically supernatural; the creators, so far as I know, are materialists, and so far as I can recall the audience is never taxed with a request for even a willing suspension of disbelief: the viewer is in the movie and in the end never asked to entertain that there could have been even one faintest magical blessing from the tiniest fairy.

Nonetheless, there is something that is transcendent in the movie, and though Hollywood normally capitalizes movie titles, capitalization convention is not the real reason I believe that this is not a movie about a “game,” with a lowercase G, but the Game, with a very uppercase G. Some very bizarre things happen at the beginning of The Game that are ordinarily what Christians would associate with the bizarre operations of demons, and there is a long plot with questions about what is real and shifting sands until everything is unveiled at the end as impressive, but believable on terms of materialism. On the recommendation of my brother I also watched The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects, but I was disappointed in because they did not drop you into an obvious maze of a Game specifically. In retrospect, I was disappointed after my brother recommended to me some astonishingly similar movies to one which with I was enthralled. Nonetheless the other movies’ essentially isomorphic plots unfold with much shifting sand and bewilderment about what is real, until in the last minute everything is clear and the stage magician explains, on materialist terms, how all the big illusions were pulled off.

My sister-in-law’s mother, an independent bookstore employee, has talked about how people have a right to know what they’re getting in a book, and (without divulging explicit details for the rest of us to struggle to un-see mental images) talks about speaking with patrons about The Hunger Games to let them know that they contain XYZ. However, everything I’ve known about the books is that they are books dealing with an epic Game, capital G: again, shifting sand, a hidden rules game, and the question of whether the strangeness of the details are literally supernatural really seems to matter less than one might think at first. Apparently another capital ‘G’ Game.

If I may pick a title that has not to my knowledge been Hollywoodified, the milder An Invitation to the Game has characters trapped in an unfortunate ersatz leisure class in a ruined world; someone gives children golden tickets to go to play a game, and they get temporarily knocked out of the game when they make a mistake that would kill them; and when they say in the game, “I wish So-and-So were here,” and the other person, who had been much better off, suddenly gets kicked down into the leisure class. Eventually, the game becomes real, and a pod of eight kids are sent among others to begin a new life on a beautiful new world such as they had virtually visited in the Game. Now in this instance the roller coaster activity is rated PG instead of being rated R, but we are still talking about something transcendent: the Game, with a capital G please.

Switching our attention from the Game to (g)ames

The English language, and some religious communities, have a distinction between God, with a capital G, and ‘gods’, with a lowercase G. The pagan gods of the Israelites’ neighboring nations, or the Greeks, have been described as little more than humans with super powers and endless life, and sometimes much less. The Christian God is something different, enough so that it represents confusion to place another god alongside him or speak of another God, and Orthodox Christianity goes through this looking-glass to say that its children are made gods, because the Deity has a Oneness so thorough that to let humans share in the divine Life and become themselves gods cannot threaten the One God, but fulfill his oneness. And at this point I would like to comment that games, with a lowercase ‘g’, are in the shadow of the Game that appears in literature, and in a dilute and less sharpened peak offer a participation of the characteristic of the transcendent Game.

Materialist Magic

One point is that whether or not the entire tale of the Game is told as involving a single physically occult feature, the Game is occult. It has the same heart as magic. For a fantasy version, The Labyrinth that enthralled me very much asks for major willing suspensions of disbelief, but as a hidden rules game, the shifting sand and the question of what is really going on has the same heart as The Game in any materialist implementation. The heart of the Game has an occult resonance such as I dissected in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics, and this is not irrelevant to the heart of games, in which something is overlaid atop real life.

C.S. Lewis, in and outside discussion for The Screwtape Letters, says that demons have two lies to offer us: that they do not exist, or that they are all-powerful. He says that which one you believe matters less than one might think: they are both devastating, and he asks the reader to avoid both errors if we are to have spiritual health. He also, and more pointedly, posits that demons might have a holy grail (he does not use such language) in the “Materialist Magician,” given that demons are equally satisfied to make of us a Materialist or a Magician, but it is not at all clear how one would go about making both of the same man. I would pose that The Game, The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects offer a maelstrom of magic, unveiled to run materialistically at the very ending. The Game, whether or not it is available to us in real life, is the locus of Materialist Magic. The ordinary (g)ames we can buy, download, or create, and become absorbed in, are never as impressive as the Game, but they participate in its Materialist Magic. The mechanism appears materialist; the resonance is in a real sense occult.

A journey of repentance

The usual reasons Protestants leave role playing game is that one is in one’s heart, pretending to do magic or do other things. The issue of violence may be treated less forcefully, but I remember in college when one friend was trying to recruit me back to Dungeons & Dragons, and he made the point that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t just battle. He talked about how in a recent campaign, in actions that the players imagined, his character had used magic and charmed a jeweler, and conned him into giving him jewels, and he didn’t say much more than “bad example” so that his picture of Dungeons & Dragons being more edifying was saying that his character:

  1. Used magic,
  2. Lied, and
  3. Stole bigtime.

My conscience boiled down to the question, essentially, of “Would you be right to do with your hands what you are doing vicariously in your heart by saying that your character does XYZ?” And I left Dungeons & Dragons with concerns of imagining one’s viceroy to be using magic and violence well beyond the bounds of any version of “just war” theory I’ve heard Christians assert. People training with firearms can be told, “The second last thing you want to do is pull that trigger.” Trying to “stop” real, live opponents with a real, live gun is one notch away from being the last resort. By contrast, Dungeons & Dragons makes getting into at least some fights to be desirable, a form of entertainment, and a way for characters to gain experience to advance in the game. The combat rules are very different from traditional duels in the West, where there was a protocol to try to avoid duels, but usually there was not so much a winner or a loser as:

  1. One disputant who died one to two weeks later as a direct result of injuries sustained in the duel, and:
  2. One disputant who died six to eight weeks later as a results of indirect infections stemming from injuries sustained during the duel.

I’ve never heard of a game in Dungeons & Dragons where there was a significant chance of dying due to infection from a wound from an enemy’s dirty blade. I’ve heard of pacifist characters every once in a blue moon, or players refusing to use violence, but I’ve never heard of gashes and wounds that modern medicine could heal ending up getting infected and a character dying from sepsis.

But the real, central reason Dungeons & Dragons and kin have been called demon games is vicarious magic use, and I believe that the temptation and what Orthodox would call the passion are the same thing. Some time after leaving Dungeons & Dragons, I decided that imaginary play as such was not wrong, and pioneered and playtested The Minstrel’s Song, set in an unfallen world. And possibly it could be played in weaning someone from harder-core activity, and I missed the second point argued in Escaping Reality: The Danger of Role Playing: that role playing games, including The Minstrel’s Song, deliver an escape from reality.

And this brings me to various points that are often not given any connection with gaming. It is a spiritual problem that is like stepping on a water balloon: a problem which I called, for lack of any other name that was better, The Hydra. Though I do not mention it in the article, I think of a very unpopular website I made in the early days of the web, called “The Revenge of the Hydra.” (If you visited, nine popup windows appeared, and if you closed one of them down, two more appeared.)

What I say in The Hydra, in which I criticize C.S. Lewis, is something I bundled up with in my recent title “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis, is:

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” added Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

When I read this, many times, I never was amped up to find Christ. I didn’t want Christ, at least not then. I wanted to be in Narnia with Aslan. And stay there in Narnia. And this relates to a recurring thread of what might be called my “sin life” that I found entirely deadly. And there is a spiritual poison I found in the Chronicles of Narnia that I have reproduced to varying degrees of my own work. Within the Steel Orb contains much real wisdom, but is laced with escapism.

On the point of escapism, I would briefly comment that monks, in the ancient world, were perennially warned about the perils of escape, which when they were tempted, were advised to pray through the temptation until they were through it. And without further ado, I quote below a work that already expresses my
concern about escape and Narnia…

Some of the heads of the Hydra sound related to gaming; some sound unrelated. For instance, I long had a futile desire for something from another world, and my heart ached when I read a story about a saint being given a ring that had miraculous powers: which I coveted, not for the miracle, but for a ring that (it seemed) did not have its origin from earth.

I’ve heard of an alcoholic who had a rum problem, and gave up rum altogether and tried whiskey, until he found he had a whiskey problem and foreswore whiskey in favor of vodka. In my case it was more a matter of developing a Moonlight Sonata problem, and then avoiding Beethoven and finding I had a problem with swimming, and dried up inside and out and then found myself repeatedly tripping over my shoelaces. The number of substances an alcoholic might get in trouble with can all be identified as including something you can get from a liquor store; the The Hydra neither begins or ends with (g)ames, though its trunk is hinted at in the (G)ame.

What we don’t see when we look into The Hydra:
The Silhouette and the Full-Color Portrait

G.K. Chesterton, writing on an immediate topic of madness (and not games in particular):

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: “Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, “All right! Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth.” Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

Today Chesterton’s use of the term “infinite” is opaque; a high school student studying classic geometry will be told of finite line segments and infinite lines, but the term “infinite circle” does not arise. However, there is a sort of logic that connects with where the term “infinite” comes from. It means, “without end.” On a geometric line segment, you can go a certain distance in either direction and have to stop cold, while on an infinite and proper line, you can go as far as you want in each direction and never meet an end. The same thing can be said of a circle that modern mathematicians would call “finite;” you can travel along the curve of the circle as far as you want in either direction and never have to stop before the circle runs out of curve and you’ve reached the end of the circle. In that sense Chesterton is saying something mathematically as well as literature-wise coherent when he talks about a circle that is infinite as any other, but cramped. And though Chesterton does not speak of it, there is something relevant in the Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose perimeter is nowhere.

I said that Chesterton is talking about madness and not games, but I caught myself crossing my fingers… but may have found a way to say it without crossing my fingers. Here’s what I think I can say: I see no evidence that Chesterton was thinking about games in any sense, and I do not recall reading him condemn games when he mentions them elsewhere, much less make the clain that I make here. None the less, a game is a way to step into another, smaller circle. It is the Materialist Magician’s way. In addition there is a scale of hard- to soft-core games, and I remember when I was trying to push the envelope on gaming, from tabletop role playing into a (re)invention of real life role playing, to make it harder core, that an occultist who respected me more than I think was due gently said that this is how magic works, and it’s real enough when you get a call at 3:00 AM to take down a Brujah (a type of vampire in the “World of Darkness” role playing game Vampire, the Masquerade), it feels about as real as you can get.

It is known even among secular behavioral health professionals that involvement in the occult can make you lose your mind and end up detached from the real world; as another head of the Hydra, the nexus of games, gaming and gamers seems too close a relative to this to dismiss the danger. The figure of the role player who has fallen off the deep end is known to role players as much as anyone else, and I can’t help but sense an implied need to establish that role playing is OK even among geeks, as stated in Lifehacker’s The Surprising Benefits of Role Playing Games and How to Get Started. Games in general are attractive enough, at least to some, that one might be surprised that they would need defending, as it is a pariah Protestant thing to warn about the evils of role playing game. The “Surpising Benefits” mentioned in the title evoke a French proverb, “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse,” literally “He who excuses himself (by that very fact) accuses himself:” or more loosely, “You only rationalize when you know you’re wrong.” Lifehacker mentions that role playing is a way to get instant friends. The same is true among bikers; come alone on a motorcycle to a group of bikers and you have instant friends. But there is something unsavory to both alike.

A corresponding silhouette and full-color portrait facing each other.

What does a gamer have if gaming is taken away? It’s not about changing which part of a silhouette you are in, but seeing a portrait in full color.

Watching a DVD of The Game is a whole lot more attractive of a proposition than turning around your chair and facing the wall while other people are at least watching the DVD; and if your pleasure and sense of well-being is drawn from the Game, only the Chesterton quote really hints at what could possibly be better if you think losing your participation in the Game and games is simply turning around and staring at a wall.

But in fact it is not a matter of being more constricted. G.K. Chesterton, if applied to gaming, does not stop at giving arguments or critiques. He wants to give the gamer air. He wants the small circles to be abandoned, not to be even more constricted, but to enter that Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He wants gamers to let go of their Game Master’s plans to be swept into the galaxies by the Lord of the Dance. A famed Far Side cartoon says:

A Far Side cartoon saying 'In the Days Before Television' and showing a family crouched around an empty space in a wall.

Some humor provokes laughter by pointing out what is clearly and painfully true. But this point, and even its truth, is accented by saying something ludicrous. The days before television, in the West, were not characterized by people vegging out in front of a blank wall. People often spent time in what geeks call “The Big Room,” namely outside. Children read, threw paper airplanes, built things, spent time playing with pets, built model airplanes, danced, manipulated physical toys such as jacks, played hide and seek, and for that matter played some make-believe games that bore a living and healthier organic link to today’s grown-up role-playing games. And what I believe is offered to gamers is not to turn a chair around and stare at the wall; it is to turn your chair a bit, get up, and go to the Big Room and get some fresh air. And start, just start, to see the Divine Face in full, living color that is not even hinted at in even a remote white part of a silhouette.

The Apocalyptic Anti-Game

There have been several earlier works which I tried to write, but the time was not ripe, or at least I had not grown enough to write them. I tried and failed to write an article called “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” but now consider The Luddite’s Guide to Technology to be one of my best books, even if it was years before a similar voice was heard in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. At much less of an interval, I tried and failed to write an article on “St. Clive” before writing St. Clive: An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (the Kindle edition was for several days the #1 topselling new title in “Christian Literature and Arts.”) This work, incidentally, began life as an attempt to write a dialogue called “Medieval Anti-Game”, in which the Middle Ages are not the medieval theming of classic role play, but the historical root that has now developed into what has now been called “Western cultural singularity;” we live in the logic of the medieval West played out; and the Middle Ages were thought of as a bridge that can go both ways and that we can follow the medieval bridge the other way into a greater sanity: the Middle Ages offer a kind Anti-Game, rightly understood. It is increasingly difficult to fail to see that we live in one spectacular unfolding singularity. We seem to be in the kinds of circumstances where saints are made. It is not in easy times that the arm of the Lord bares its power.

I had earlier hoped to wind this down with the classic monastic advice given when one is tempted to escape: “Persevere in alternating prayer and work, and one can eventually emerge a victor,” and with an anecdote that one of the times I repented of another layer of this vice I desired, instead of God putting me somewhere else as I sought escape, that a loving God had put me in quite an awesome place without escape, and that in the here and now where God has placed me I am in a very real sense in communion with the stars in the sky and the salt in the sea. And that is where the lesson ended when I began working on this article… but there is more.

In a discussion where conservatives said that liberals were well enough able to have one point on which they were conservative, one friend described a liberal launching off about how bad the possibility is that we might be ruled by one world government. My friend mentioned commenting, “I suppose this would be a bad time to mention the Book of Revelation,” and watching the color drain from the other person’s face. Gamers who have played Call of C’Thulu, in which a sleeping Old One is coming to life and wants to destroy the world, might let go of the game only to come to terms with the possibility that we might be in something very much like the Call of C’Thulu, in which an Old One that has been trying to come to this world may in fact show up. Such is called the Antichrist, whether he will openly appear in two years or two millenia.

Another friend (from what source I do not know and do not know whether I should trust), claimed that there was a prophecy that the present Pope would be the last real Pope and after him would only be anti-Popes. I do not know if that is true, but I am not terribly impressed with Poop Francis. He says deliberately ambiguous things that can be interpreted in an (o)rthodox way by Roman standards, but can be read in very different ways and sound pretty much like something a leftist journalist would want once his words pass through the alimentary canal of mainstream journalism.

It is increasingly known on the left and the right what Amazon represents, not only in closing regular bookstores but even in teaching bookworms to own fewer and fewer physical books, and rent rather than own Kindle books. I remember years back reading Richard John Neuhaus sounding the alarm that all of the major components of National Socialism were being redeemed in academic circles. I also remember my grammar professor at the Sorbonne saying how he would never forgive a former French president for earning political advantage by splitting the right into the right and the far-right: in hard economic times, giving all kinds of at least apparently preferential treatment to immigrants, and then insisting that the far-right Le Pen be given ample coverage and time to speak (“Les votes pour Le Pen sont a cent pourcent les troues de balle!“—”One hundred percent of the votes for Le Pen are bullet holes!”). Now we have a new white nationalism emerging after racism being un-respectable in most conservative circles for a while, and (I haven’t paid attention to what is this year’s installment) the taking down of Confederate flags and statues of Confederates is a masterful way to get white nationalism alive and kicking (I once wrote an Onion-style article about how frustrated filmmakers in our day erected another statue of a smiling Martin Luther King because they couldn’t figure out how to deal in film with their hero’s difficulties keeping something in his pants). But the problem extends beyond white nationalism. And it’s worse.

National Socialism in very large measure motivated by eugenics, one pillar of which was to hope that certain races be eliminated. Google, which no longer goes by the motto “Don’t be evil” of its former days, is open and direct in supporting the successor to eugenics: transhumanism, Eugenics 2.0, a transhumanism which I discuss in part of my thesis. A eugenic hope was that the only people left in the world would be people who were sufficiently white and acted sufficiently white. Transhumanism goes further, no longer satisfied to phase specific human races out, but instead hoping in its ideal that the human race itself be phased out in a posthuman science fiction eschaton. And what eugenics was to Nazi Germany, transhumanism is to Google. It’s just in an incubation stage.

Other things are playing out in the small. An increasing number of young people in the U.S. aren’t interested in driving; they are also not interested in earning their own income. One deacon I know said, “Conversation is like texting for adults,” and the concern is raised that youth are learning social skills that are anemic at best. Some people have said that Romans 1 might as well have been written about people today… and furthermore that reading Romans 1 aloud might be legally classified as hate speech in a political climate increasingly resonant with Terreurs past and present. Meanwhile smartphones are no longer any kind of rich kid’s syndrome; 85% of African homes have a television and many families incur debt for multiple mobile devices.

We’ve had several shellshocks now: Islam is finding its kairos or decisive moment, the U.S. Constitution is used to defend gay rights over and against the free and proper exercise of religion, and it’s been something like two decades since I heard journalists giving attention to our society’s increasing use of porn. I don’t think we’ve seen the end.

But there is more than this. When we have let go of the last dear shred of games and gaming, what we may need to face is that were are in fact in a real Game, that we are in a real game more spectacular than the most brilliant of created games, with the best possible Game Master of all. And there is one more thing to say: as an undead pirate in Pirates of the Carribean tells an unbelieving woman, “You best start believing ghost stories, Miss Turner… You’re in one.”

We may be the last to remember the medieval institution of face-to-face universities; perhaps as discussed in The Dying of the Light Christian colleges and universities may have disengaged from the Christian faith but they have kept as strongly as Anselm of Canterbury a face-to-face conversation for centuries; and companies and even unions may act unlike the practices of a medieval guild, but until recently work was part and parcel where you went and not only what you did. There is an unbroken stream of saints shining in Heaven, and they still beckon us to join their august College. And though we may only go into outdoor parks for picnics as a special occasion, comparable to medieval “Maying,” we do much more than the dungeoneer in classic Dungeons & Dragons: we are summoned to a company in age-long war against am ancient red dragon with seven heads and ten horns. We may be in a unique place to live cyberpunk; in a spiritual sense many of us are there already. And lastly, we may be in something more “Call of C’Thulu” than “Call of C’Thulu” itself, where an Old One has long been knocking on our door, and the door may be open soon. It may be that everything that is compelling in role play is in the real world setting offered to us today, where all games come together and, having long repented from the foolishness of infantile games, we find before us an embossed card saying, “An invitation to The Game“, and if we look at it closely, it is covered with etched letters saying, “Love, God.”

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“St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

"St. Clive:" An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

TL;DR

In this book, a brilliant Eastern Orthodox apologist looks back at C.S. Lewis as a formative influence, then up into Holy Orthodoxy.

C.S. Lewis fans will love “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback).

A Very Scripted Dialogue

Books

  • “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback)

    What People Are Saying

    The Midwest Book Review

    “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

    C.J.S. Hayward

    C.J.S. Hayward Publications

    9781794669956 $9.99 Kindle / $49.99 paperback

    Website/Ordering Links:
    cjshayward.com/st-clive (homepage)
    cjshayward.com/st-clive-kindle (Kindle)
    cjshayward.com/st-clive-paperback (paperback)

    “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis adopts an unusual perspective because most examinations of the spirituality of C.S. Lewis come from Western spiritual perspectives, and few adopt the approach of C.J.S. Hayward, who opens his book with a Lewis-type series of letters to a guardian angel, The Angelic Letters, a Heavenly analogue to The Screwtape Letters. The book is even more distinctive in reflecting back on Lewis from a perspective meant to be thoroughly Orthodox.

    Readers might anticipate a dry analytical style typical of too many Lewis analysis and assessments, but Hayward includes a wry sense of observational humor, evident in the first lines of his survey where a reflection on scholarly footnote traditions ventures into comedic cultural inspection: As it is now solidly established practice to add an a footnote skittishly defending one’s own choices regarding “gendered pronouns,” I would like to quote a couple of tweets. In response to a fellow user tweeting, “Nobody is safe in today’s society, man. It’s like walking on eggshells constantly. Someone will be offended, will be out to get you. It’s exhausting… and, I think somewhat that social media is to blame,” Titania McGrath coolly answered, “The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ is a microaggression against vegans. Reported and blocked. [Emoji depicting a white woman tending to her nails.]”

    This said, Lewis was a huge influence on Hayward’s Evangelical upbringing and religious perspectives and the starting point to his “pilgrimage from Narnia” (as one of his poems is titled) into Orthodoxy. St. Clive is not to be considered another scholarly inspection rehashing familiar spiritual pathways, but a unique compilation of Lewis-like reflections steeped in Orthodox beliefs and inspections for everyday readers. It produces a compilation of pieces that attempt to sound like Lewis himself, but which are original works meant to directly address these reflections and beliefs. This book is exciting, almost as if a hitherto unknown book of original works by C.S. Lewis had suddenly come to light.

    The writings are presented in four sections that hold distinctly different tones and objectives. The first “…quotes him, builds on him, and challenges him to draw conclusions he may not have liked.” The second focuses more on Hayward’s writings and style, but with a nod to Lewis’ influence. The third section addresses Lewis’ affection for the book The Consolation of Philosophy and offers perspectives from Hayward on how its ideas and Lewis’s expand different aspects of spiritual reflection; while the fourth section offers bibliographic keys to further pieces in the Lewis/Hayward tradition for newcomers who may be piqued by this collection’s lively inspections, and who want more insights from other sources.

    As far as the contentions themselves, “St. Clive” is a journeyman’s venture into the traditions of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to mysticism. It provides a lively set of discourses considering such varied topics as the failure of Christianity to superimpose itself on the pagan custom of Halloween and the notion that science is just one of the “winnowing forks” available for denoting pathways beneficial to mankind (natural selection being yet another; especially as it applies to diet choices).

    By now it should be evident that a series of dichotomies exist surrounding this effort, which is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ but a delightful compendium of reflections that represent something new. It’s not a scholarly work per se, but its language will appeal to many in the scholarly community (particularly since any discussions of Lewis usually embrace this community more or less exclusively). It’s also not an attempt to channel Lewis’ approach and tone, though these reflective pieces are certainly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. And it’s not a singular examination of spiritual perspectives, but offers a wider-ranging series of discussions that defy pat categorization.

    Indeed, this is one of the unique aspects of “St. Clive.” What other treatise holds the ability to reach lay and scholarly audiences alike, creates a wider-ranging series of connections between his works and similar writings, and expands upon many concepts with an astute hand to spiritual, philosophical, and social reflection?

    None: and this not only sets “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis apart from any other considerations, but makes it accessible to a lay audience that might have only a minimal familiarity with Lewis or the Orthodox Way.

    Go on and buy “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback)!

The Retortion Principle

In a mailing list, I wrote of the list’s beloved and missed founder, Graham Clinton:

I am in the process of remastering my paperback books, and came across the article at [A Strange Archaeological Find].

You can say that it’s a work of art, but the reason I’m posting this is because after writing it, with repeated allegations of ironic hypocrisy, and asked him permission to post the whole work (including the posting of his that I replied to), he said, “I don’t want toadies.” In other words, he forcefully put something he really meant, and then responded majestically to a work picking his work apart from bit to bit.

I miss that.

The basic principle I was appealing might be called “the retortion principle” or “the self-referential incoherence principle.” This principle is a theoretically modest principle, without the messianic fantasies of other winnowing forks, but it is pronounced in its effect and what it can winnow.

The now-unpopular “verification principle” says that we should only accept is verifiable from empirical data or by bare logic. And if we follow retortion, we find that the principle calls for its own rejection. It is, after something like a century, something we have no known way to verify apart from its standards.

If I may provide a pair of fictitious examples, compare the following two statements a Christian might make:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation.

And:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation (1 Cor 4:6).

There is a big difference between these two. The second example may or may not be true and it may or may not be a good and responsible analysis. I do not affirm its truth. But it does not disqualify itself.

By contrast, the first disqualifies itself immediately and without any need to check any external reference.

And I have seen many, many things that fail this winnowing fork, modest and limited as it may appear to be.

To provide one example, let me dismiss a couple of distractions for my purposes here, before showing an example C.S. Lewis seemed to be alarmed that others had so much difficulty seeing.

  1. First objection not really analyzed here: The theory of evolution, which is no longer a theory of evolution, has new features developing in geological eyeblinks in ways that make no statistical sense that is apparently reconcilable to the fossil records. Once evolutionists mocked a “God of the gaps,” where God lives in the areas unilluminated by present science. Now we have a “mechanism of producing new life forms of the gaps,” that seem to find the generation of new life-forms only in the gaps of our understanding of the fossil record.
  2. Second objection not really analyzed here: Some life-forms show mechanisms that are at least partly irreducible in their complexity, and it does not make sense statistically to assert that the basic Darwinian mechanism produces irreducibly complex biological mechanisms.

I do not ask you to avoid either objection; speaking as a mathematician, none of the people who have tried to convince me of today’s “theory of evolution” have found a way to assert their claims in a way that is statistically believable. However, I am mentioning these to ask that they be put aside as irrelevant to C.S. Lewis’s concern with any form of Darwinian evolution.

C.S. Lewis’s concern is essentially that if, as common biology implies, our thoughts and emotions and such all boil down to the biochemical, then we have reason to assert we have brains good enough to find food, but not reason to assert that we have brains good enough to find out the theory of evolution. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, true. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, false. A biological reaction is a biological reaction that is mistakenly classified as a sort of thing that can be “true” or “false.” Romantic love is just biochemical, and the same razor that slices through romantic love cuts itself on the backswing. The explanation explains away all explanation, including itself.

This is to me, a subtle and harder-to-see case of the same principle of retortion, that we should reject blades that cut themselves off in the backswing. The verification principle is self-referentially incoherent. In regards to postmodernism, neat analysis may be easier once postmodernism has been dead for centuries, but it has been commented broadly that relativism is always relativism for others’ principles, not one’s own. In a footnote, C.S. Lewis’s discussion of “The Green Book” in The Abolition of Man, discusses the authors’ own values and assumptions, documented by repeated quotes, as being just what was fashionable in certain social circles at a particular time. The authors have cut off values and assumptions, and this in principle and not just practice, but they are free to let assertion of those opinions concretely trump the principle they have asserted, which cuts up all values into meaninglessness.

In a philosophical theology class, I mentioned some argument of retortion, and the professor commented that thesis are often known to use retortion. He did not say exactly why that may be, but one possible reason, perhaps tacit, is a gentlemen’s agreement that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This leaves at least some theists free to throw stones, because some theists themselves live in thick-walled steel fortresses, at least as far as retortion is concerned. Right or wrong as theism may be, you do not need to contradict yourself from the start if you are to believe in the Christian God. You do need to contradict yourself from the start to be a materialist, because if materialism is true, no human biochemical state can in principle ever be true, and that includes belief in materialism.

I mention as possible a gentleman’s agreement; I wish to go further and say that people with self-referentially incoherent beliefs have a vested interest in not having self-referential incoherence be the sort of thing one brings up in polite company. It is attractive to have a sweeping principle that cuts through all nonsense to a core of real, genuine truth, and there is something very grand in sentiment in saying we should only believe what is demonstrated from sensory data (no comments from the peanut gallery about how we believe in an external world that extends beyond a solipsistic self, please), or logic itself. That sounds grand, striking, strong. Meanwhile, asking “Does it make a special exception in its own case?” is a much humbler-sounding question, not striking, not grand, but nonetheless a useful winnowing fork.

I would not make this argument central to any theism, and not to my own. I am Eastern Orthodox, and the Orthodox Way is much more about debugging one’s own vices than debugging poor philosophy. But I would propose, as a footnote deeply buried in the main text, that we might not be justified as adulating something so grand as the verification principle, but in apologetics and engagement with people who believe differently, this footnote might be worth looking up.

More Than Royalty

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

One element I remember from a documentary video at Avery Coonley School was talking about some Native American cultures. They commented that, like Christianity, there was an origins myth in which they were placed in a garden, a Paradise. But unlike Christianity, there was no story of leaving paradise. And yet in Orthodoxy, we insist that Paradise is wherever the saints are. (Paradise can be every bit here and now!)

There are certain ways that this is not an obvious thing to say for Christianity, especially if Hell exists, and great saints are often sanctified through great suffering. However, I wish to say more than I said in God the Spiritual Father, in which I said that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes all the difference.

There is something more to say, but words begin to fail me.

One point where we are in paradise is that every moral injunction, insofar as Orthodox ascesis is moral, is not for God’s benefit, but for ours. St. Maximus Confessor describes three grades of sonship: slaves obey God out of fear of punishment, mercenaries obey God for Heavenly reward, but sons obey God out of love. And the Philokalia contains the striking statement that we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, because more people have obeyed God out of the fear of Hell than out of desire for the delights of Paradise. Nonetheless, if the highest growth is to obey God out of love for him, we are the beneficiaries of our obedience and love. We can be saved from Hell by fearing the torments, or we can grow to seek Heaven’s rewards, or we can love as the least inadequate kind of response to God, but we do not benefit God. In the best spirit of de-mythologizing, it can be said that God is perfect from all eternity and has never had needs except in the person of your neighbor, and God is fundamentally beyond being made more perfect by our acts or our love, no matter how much we love him. We benefit ourselves the more we obey God out of love for him.

In something of the same sense, ambition, which includes trying to become a bishop, is a sin, but when things are rightly understood, there is a sense in which we cannot overreach and we cannot reach so high as to be guilty of overreaching ambition. Now maybe ecclesiastical office need not be sought after (but I do not condemn honorable seminarians in the world). However, when we talk about what is good for us, about humility, about prayer, about repentance, we cannot reach too far. And humility is a greater thing than the Philosopher’s Stone or the Holy Grail, as I just barely graze on in The Treasure of Humility and the Royal Race: in short, it opens your eyes and mine to the godlike beauty with which God has imbued every single human being. Humility transforms everything, or rather it transforms us so that we can be in Paradise anywhere. And monks may be forbidden to seek the lowest of elevations, let alone seek to be the next Ecumenical Patriarch, but there is no degree of the treasure of humility I know of that will bring a confessor’s rebuke of “Do you really think such a lofty humility is fitting for someone in your undistinguished rank? Have some more pride like the rest of us!” And humility, in monastics or in the world, is a far greater treasure than any external honor that is to be had. Humility may sometimes be followed by ecclesiastical rank, but the real high estate doesn’t wait for ecclesiastical office which may or may not come. The treasure and reward of humility is there, immediately, not just sometime later when authorities decide you are ready to bear a heavier cross and push you out of the nest for a greater service.

I would like to comment, very inadequately, on the monastic vow of wealth. It is said well enough that monastics renounce possessions and Orthodox in the world are to practice generosity and detachment, but he who renounces all possessions ends up with God Himself as pre-eminent among many possessions. The words “Do not store up treasure on earth” are but a shadow to “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and monasticism is scarcely more nor less than a community framework for storing up still more treasures in Heaven. The Gospel may censure the man who stores up treasures on earth and tears down his barns to build bigger barns: but in and out of monasticism Orthodox are summoned to reach positions where their barns are not big enough for the treasures in Heaven they have come to possess, and they need to tear down their spiritual barns and build up bigger barns. The Gospel implies nothing positive about the man who has great earthly wealth while considering himself much too poor and wearing himself out to acquire even more wealth, but God’s fullest blessings are on the monk who considers himself to have no appreciable treasures in Heaven and lives an insatiable desire to get even more treasures in Heaven. The monk who rejects an earthly endowment of wealth is instead given an incomparable Providence that gives him treasures he didn’t know to seek. Royalty have such privilege that they are not to touch money: monasticism takes this treasure to the utmost. The monk has lost two hundred and thirty-nine pounds in one vow: if you want to know true treasure, monks have the greatest treasure of all, in this world in the next. St. Constantine, equal to the apostles and great among princes, told one monk that if he had known what rewards monks have in Heaven, he would have exchanged his royal purple for a monk’s robes immediately. Monasticism is a unique realm of privilege in the Church. (And the security provided by merely earthly wealth is an illusion and does not compare to the Providence given to married and monastic who do not put their trust in riches.)

What does monastic work pay for a monastic or pilgrim? The answer “100% below minimum wage” is positively misleading. The coin which monastic work pays in, and is more important to a spiritual father than getting work done, is healing from our passions, and freedom from our sins is a coin which no amount of secular money is worth. As regards what monks receive by their labor, I would appeal to the Song of Songs: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

All this and more is to be said of monasticism, but it is also to be said that monasticism is no more than the rudiments of the Gospel. If you do not have a monastic spiritual father, all that really means is that you have God for a Spiritual Father. Monastics insist that salvation is possible at every time and everywhere, and is offered to all. However spectacular the blessings of monasticism sound, God’s blessings are offered everywhere. If you should be a monk, by all means become a monk. But if not, do not believe that the God who created and governs all of Creation cares for monks but does not care for you. Christ died for you, and you are made in the divine image to ascend to the divine likeness whether or not monasticism is your path. God has loved you from everlasting to everlasting, and even your ability to choose between Heaven and Hell is part of the glory he built into you.

Moreover the saints, and we are invited to this, are not dependent on their efforts succeeding. We often think of moral victory like a consolation prize, as a palliative to essential failure, but the saints don’t. St. Paul at the end of his life, when he had greater external achievement than almost anyone since, wrote to St. Timothy, “I have fought the good fight. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.” St. Paul, saint that he was, seemed to consider his moral victories of being faithful as more worthy of mention than external victories that included planting churches, writing half the books of the New Testament, and healing and even raising the dead. He did not need to be successful, and his gargantuan external successes were never mentioned when he claimed a faithfulness that many others can share. There is a crushing character to needing to succeed, and the example of the saints is liberating. We don’t need to succeed, however noble our endeavor may be. We need only pray and be faithful.

We live in a spiritual and visible world, and some say that man, as the recapitulation of the spiritual and visible worlds, as a microcosm of all Creation, is higher than even the angels. And in this world, there are devils and there is evil, but the devils are always and only on a leash. Meanwhile, the Church Triumphant, the Holy Trinity and every saint before, is watching and cheering us as we run the race. The Church has been called a large yet extremely close-knit family, and every saint standing before the throne of God is praying, or is willing to pray, for us.

And the world we live in is real. I am not the only person who has wanted to escape into another world; small literature brings escape from the world while great literature brings engagement with the world. I’ve wanted to be in Narnia, among other places, and C.S. Lewis says that many kids have their own little world, but for the children, it was real. And this world we are in is itself real. It may not be in its final greatness yet. But it is real and still profoundly great, and after one spiritual adventure I came to realize that being in communion with Christ, I was in a certain sense in communion with all Creation, with the stars in the sky and the starfish in the sea, and insofar as the human person is constituted in the image of the Trinity, I was more in communion with the heretics than they were with themselves. I am not sure this is officially endorsed language; but I do know that I reached the brink of death and Hell, and my salvation consisted in rejecting a passion of alienation with Creation, and that I am in fact in communion with the Orthodox Church, in communion with God, and in communion with Creation.

Even suffering has meaning. Before I became Orthodox, as a Protestant I said that Purgatory seemed to be a spiritual reality present on earth, whether or not it was a place after death. Now Orthodoxy has been clear in not preaching that some must pass through Purgatory to reach Heaven: but we share in the sufferings of Christ, and spiritual giants suffer more. Part of this is “No servant is greater than his master,” but suffering in our lives is neither random nor meaningless. Marriage and monasticism are both intended to be a crown of thorns to help us grow up; and unlike the world assumed by certain Church Fathers, we live in a world where blessed marriage is almost as much an exceptional holy light as monasticism, and it should be recognized both that marriage and monasticism serve the same goal of self-transcendence, and are different positions on one and the same team.

In The Orthodox Church, Vladyka KALLISTOS compares Christians today to the Early Church in terms of what society Christians are surrounded in. He does not make the complaint in ages past, when ancient Roman persecution ended and a saint said that easy times rob the Church of her saints. Now we live in times more reminiscent in pagan terms of Ragnarok or the Kali-Yuga, where Norse paganism sided with the good gods because they wanted to go down losing on the right side. But this is precisely not the Christian situation. It is more like a business with unrestricted Facebook use, where some people spent all their work hours sunk into social media, while the worker bees became even more focused. Things are darker outside for Christians, but for many the divine light shines more starkly. I have been blessed.

I have titled this piece “More Than Royalty” because whatever is distinctive about royalty, or giftedness, or wealth is a shadow compared to what is built into the human constitution in the divine image. The reference is obvious:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord

Paradise is wherever the saints are!

(What more is there to say?)

Examples of “Forms of Life”

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Common sense physics

There was one point where I was conversing with a former thesis advisor, and he asked if I made “allowance for greater ignorance in the past.” My reply was that I did not make allowance for greater ignorance in the past, but that allowances for different ignorance in the past were more negotiable.

The criteria that he seemed to be using was that of people thinking more scientifically; he had a significant scientific background, as I did, and an example he gave was of understanding of Biblical language of the moon turning to blood in terms of conditions of the earth eclipsing the moon that make the moon look red like blood every once in a blue moon. He also talked about how someone not conceptually familiar with nuclear weapons could over-literally interpret language of nuclear weapons “flattening cities” as mistakenly believing that the rubble from buildings left over after an explosion would be smoothly flat; or mistakenly interpret “mushroom clouds” as something one could reasonably extrapolate from inspection of mushrooms.

If his contention is that we think more scientifically, and that this includes less scientific members of society and not just those with good scientific credentials, I agree. A common (or at least understandable) interpretation for a student in the sciences learning some degree of physics might be as quoted from the Linux fortunes:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” — and all was light.
It did not last: the devil, shouting “Ho.
Let Einstein be,” restored the status quo.

The perception may be that Newtonian physics is mathematically speaking the physics of common sense, by contrast to subsequent relativity, quantum physics, and superstring theory, diverge from our common sense. Certainly they are more slippery and don’t just make sense the same way Newton does to an able student with good mathematical gifts, but I would turn things around and say that our version of “common sense” is in part a non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics is easier for inductees, whether or not they aspire to superstring theories; for most common applications the difference between Newton on the one hand and relativity or quantum mechanics on the other, is beyond negligible compared to the other sources of inaccuracy. Mechanical engineers use Newtonian physics for most purposes, even if they consider later theories a closer fit. To us, part of common sense is a non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian physics.

Something like this played out in the history of mathematics. Euclidean geometry, one of the original branches of mathematics, had both “axioms” and “postulates.” Today, in a fashion worthy of postmodernism, there is no real distinction between axioms and postulates; the basic idea is that if you are going to do Euclidean geometry you work with how that geometry is framed, and if you want to do some other kind of mathematics, you follow the non-negotiables of that other area of math. However, in Euclid’s formulation, “axiom” and “postulate” had palpably different meanings. Axioms were things that were self-evidently true and not subject to question, while postulates had more the sense of a well-tested educated guess that was used at least for the time being.

Of Euclid’s postulates, one that has received a historically disproportionate attention was the so-called “parallel postulate”, which states that given a line in a plane and a point not on that line, exactly one line passing through that point will be parallel to that line. The first couple dozen or so of Euclid’s theorems do not use the parallel postulate, and two of the more obvious alternatives that people explored were comparable to the geometry of the surface of a sphere (with “line” still being the shortest distance between two points), and a hard-to-visualize space where every point was like the center of a saddle. This latter was worked out in consistent detail by a geometer who is historically respected, Lobachevsky, who worked out the consequences of that alternative to Euclid’s parallel postulate and then published Euclid Freed of Every Flaw, on the thought that the consequences he worked out were so bizarre that Euclid’s parallel postulate had to be vindicated.

And something similar to what I have asserted of Newtonian physics is true of Euclidean geometry. To us, part of common sense is a non-mathematical paraphrase of Euclidean geometry. It is the closest geometry I know to our common sense, and people trying to prove the parallel postulate (perhaps by showing its denial to have absurd implications) were defending a geometry of common sense. Mathematics today may have an attitude of “If you want to play a game of chess, play by the rules of chess; if you want to play a game of go, play by the rules of go,” but the efforts to prove the parallel postulate were in significant (psychological) measure a defense of common sense.

But the idea of geometry as common-sense was perhaps furthest from Euclid’s mind. Euclidean geometry, to the spiritual community that formed it, had something of the character of a religious movement only meant for the elite. It was meant to be an abstract and slippery mental discipline, something that the unwashed masses would be able to grasp.

If this sounds odd, or you’re looking for concrete support, I would point out that the human visual surface is not a Euclidean plane, but curved, partially like a sphere. We humans have never seen a Euclidean visual space, but only a curved geometry close to “surface of a sphere” geometry. In my low-level undergraduate philosophy class, the TA was making the point that we do not always see right angles as right (visual) angles, and stood up on the table and said that only there, standing in the middle of the tables, could he see the table surface as having four right angles. I, pest that I was, made a point of “not even that“: I said that the human visual surface is curved, and if he were to hold an ordinary rectangular sheet of paper in front of a corner, with the paper perpendicular to his line of sight, he would see all four corners of the rectangle whose middle he was standing on as obtuse angles, wider than a right angle, and not summing to 360° as Euclidean geometry would have it for rectangles and other quadrilaterals. (If you are somewhere in the middle of a rectangular room you may be able to see much the same thing by looking at the ceiling and seeing four straight sides and wide angles at all four corners.)

A picture that makes a different compromise in rendering the human visual surface.
A picture that makes a different-from-usual compromise in rendering to the human visual surface.
Contact me if you would like to own this

But to my knowledge the initial “parallel postulate” initiatives never met either excitement or a sigh of relief that after millenia of bondage to Euclidean flatness, we finally threw off the shackles of planar geometry that fails to accurately model the human visual surface, and have nowfound out the geometry of the human visual surface. Defense of Euclid and the parallel postulate was in full measure a patriotic defense of common sense, and Westerners who have no idea how many sides a triangle has, still retain a common sense substantially shaped by non-visual Euclidean geometry.

Forms of life

I would like to take a slippery concept from Wittgenstein, and paraphrase “form of life” as “a formative assumption so deep you can’t really bring it to mind.” Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift was one where at face value you could point out the dominant paradigm before and after, in that both included something that would be straightforward to take at face value. “Forms of life” do not have this merit, and the Wikipedia is singularly uninformative, telling (and unintendedly demonstrating) only one thing about them: forms of life are slippery.

In a philosophy of religion class, the postmodern professor, who would constantly say “after Wittgenstein,” was asked by one of the students to give an example of a “form of life.” He was stumped, and after a while of watching the expressions in his face, I said, “You’re trying to do something that is almost a contradiction in terms. You’re looking for something so basic it’s hard to think about, but one that students in the class will almost immediately recognize once you point it out, and you’ve mentally rejected several ideas because they’re just one or just the other.” After a bit more struggle, he said that there had been a shift from “procreation being necessary to human flourishing,” to “limiting procreation being necessary to human flourishing.” And I would take this as meeting the nearly impossible job description I outlined.

A “common sense” that is shaped by Newtonian physics, and a “common sense” that is shaped by Euclidean geometry, are examples of forms of life, and if you’ve found my explanations slippery, I’m doing the best I can but I’m not disappointed. Regarding the question of how else something can be, spaces need not be seen as individual parts fitting on one and the same absolute grid. Madeleine l’Engle comments in wonder, possibly in Walking on Water, about a Western medieval icon that showed two saints from different centuries together. As I discuss in Lesser Icons, an icon is its own space, and the reverse perspective is actually surprisingly sophisticated compared to Western expectations. The lines look odd to a Westerner because they converge to a point behind you: you are present and included in the icon. On a secular level, you can visit in someone’s living room, without even thinking about the fact that if you were to bore a hole at a particular angle and keep on going for 463 feet, you would be in someone else’s garage. Just seeing the space is like just seeing the interacting elementary particles in a rainbow or a tree, as Owen Barfield opens his idolatrous history of idolatry.

I once jokingly advised a friend, who was seeing embarrassingly confused questions about basic (Newtonian) physics, that he should answer questions out of Aristotle’s Physics, but in fact Aristotle’s physics makes sense, on a level appropriate to Aristotle, in everyday interactions. If you don’t push a book that’s resting on a table, then push it so that it moves, then stop and it stops moving, Aristotelian and Newtonian physics can both explain this, but the Newtonian explanation has a good deal more levers and pulleys involved before it can explain what we see. The Aristotelian explanation is far simpler, and simplicity is a virtue recognized by science, where Ockam’s Razor is embraced and simple explanations are preferred to complex. I do not say that Aristotelian physics is as good as Newtonian physics for predicting the results of a series of high school physics experiments, but Aristotelian physics is a sort of thing that works like common sense. If we today have a quasi-Newtonian, and non-Aristotelian, “common sense physics”, that is a testimony to how a form of life can change, or how parts of our common sense are actually rather surprising things to find in a culture’s “common sense.”

Another form of life issue, where again our “common sense” is profoundly shaped by the attitudes of nascent science that continue to be formative today, is found in C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, on a point I quote him in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer:

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something to be dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their powers by tacking on the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”

What is here posited of Merlin is something the Orthodox Church has, in common with much of the natural law. It is very easy to relate to Nature as a machine. Even the environmentalist claim amounts to something like “Don’t crash the biosphere!” Environmentalists, as the interesting non-exception, want the human race to stop pulling the biosphere to bits. However, their primary vehicle for understanding the environment: science, and more specifically biology, and if they want to stop a particular problematic change from happening, they will (manipulate statistics and) warn about falling dominoes. Now environmentalism may be associated with New Age mysticism; however, at least from my upperclassmen-level environmental science, the view was mechanistic, with the occasional verse of a Psalm about how wonderful the natural world is. By and large, the assertion was that the biosphere has various complex interlocking systems, and it can be destroyed by (in one image endorsed in a video in my class) “throwing parts out of a car without knowing if you need them.” I don’t want to dictate to environmentalists whether or how they should proceed, but I will say that among those in at least tenuous contact with scientific ideas, the rebuttal to “We can take Nature to bits if it won’t work the way we please,” is “We can take Nature to bits and destroy a world where the human race can survive.” It’s not a reversal of the mechanical principle; it’s just a reversal of the retained moral principle.

What I would most immediately say of the Orthodox Church is that she does not have Reformers, at least among the saints. As I explore in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer, the figure of the Renaissance magus, the ancestor to political ideology as we know it, saw society as a despicable raw material which it was his place to improve. The Reformer follows in the magician’s footsteps and in a slightly tighter focus sees the society of the Church as a despicable raw material which was his place to improve. Orthodoxy does not natively have a concept of “raw material,” and if it is imported, its domain does not apply to the bride of Christ. Orthodoxy is far enough from the triplet of magician, scientist, and reformer not to even venture into the realm of systematic theology, a venture which both Western Catholics and Protestants pursued, even if the Reformers had an earful to say of the specific theology represented by scholasticism. I do not say that no Orthodox saint had a scientific worldview, even apart from worldview being a foreign concept to Orthodox which in better moments Western converts are discouraged from pursuing. However, I do say that Orthodox mystical theology is not a fertile ground for scientific outlooks.

When I was at Wheaton, I bristled when students in chapel spoke of “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge”, “knowledge about” and “knowledge of.” However, part of my conversion involved me recognizing that they were right. In Orthodoxy, the seat of knowledge is in the nous or νους, which could be called “the spiritual eye” (please note that this is my attempt at an appropriate term and not endorsed by the Orthodox Church). The dianoia or διανοια or “discursive reason,” which one uses for logic, exists and has a place, but (as I intruded on one conversation) the spiritual eye is the sun and the discursive reason is the moon. A standard churchman’s claim about academic theology is, like much of academia “hypertrophied [i.e. overgrown] dianoia, darkened nous.” This is part of why Orthodoxy is even further from heavy scientific influences in worldview, more like what C.S. Lewis’s Merlin represents than Merlin himself. Orthodox do far better than magic in working with spiritual and visible Creation.

Another rift surrounds the archetypes of the saint and the activist. It is said in Orthodoxy, “Make peace with yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved.” The activist model is to some degree the air most people breathe today, a desire to change the world. I discuss this, and Orthodoxy’s rejection of the modification, in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, which contains a deeper discussion than I would see here. I would say that if a desire to better the world naturally translates to some program, you would do well to be mindful of how G.K. Chesterton won a newspaper’s essay contest. The question for the contest was, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton answered with the shortest letter to the editor in that newspaper’s history: “Sir, I am.” Here I would note a difference in forms of life that is profound, and to someone steeped in a standard amount of activist outlook, the older position can be very difficult to understand. (I might comment that my advisor was involved enough to be a plenary speaker for Christians for Biblical Equality; I do not wish to address what is right or wrong about that organization and its positions, but simply note that his approach to making a difference was partly activist in character. Or maybe it was wholly activist and he was simply showing me his institution’s hard-earned hospitality in dealing with people whose opinions one does not completely share.)

And the saint and activist archetypes are very tellingly shown in one moment at the same university as the previous moment I discuss for forms of life. In the saint archetype, care for the poor is very important: a saying that has tumbled down the ages is, “Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead!” Furthermore, giving to the poor is under the saint’s archetypal umbrella of ascesis or spiritual discipline, alongside fasting, prayer, church attendance, and so on. Fasting is important, a point which is assumed when people say that fasting only benefits yourself while feeding the hungry benefits others as well as yourself. Meanwhile, the governing assumption of the activist is one of big government, with an unspoken thesis of, “The more important something is, and the more essential that it be done right, the more important it is that it be handled by government programs.”

One textbook for a class on social ethics quoted an Church Father’s exhortation to give to the poor as, without stated justification or defense, the saint giving full warrant to move care for the poor from under the heading of ascesis or spiritual discipline, to the heading of what a statist bureaucracy should be charged with.

I objected, but others did not engage with my objection. Possibly they were not conscious of the saint archetype except as a primitive, confused, and less refined precursor to what is handled much better by the activist model, and possibly they did not so much see my objection and dismiss it, so much as fail to see what my objection was in the first place.

Also in that paradigm I finally spoke up after hearing how nice it would be if we lived in such-and-such prior historical setting and didn’t need clothes. I commented there about something of the form of life that has people be in modern buildings much of the time, so (before telecommuting) certain kinds of work were handled from an office building. In terms of biological origins, the human race has for most of its time lived in the stimulating environment of dense forest, where the human body was one of many things presented to the senses. Today it is relatively easy to find out that among birding enthusiasts, people will detect birds much more quickly, and classify the birds they see with much greater and finer sophistication, than people who have no such outdoor hobby. Among people who grew up in a stimulating outdoor environment will see the whole thing with birding-like eyes. Offices, as discussed in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, are (comparably speaking) sensory deprivation chambers: no winds disturb stacks of paper, nor do birds flit around. The one remaining remnant of a stimulating natural environment is the human body, and this makes offices too often a sexual hotspot: the modestly clothed human body in such a sensory deprivation chamber is actually much more exciting than a totally nude body in a whole, active natural environment, particularly if the latter is what you’ve grown up with. And I commented that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than nudity, a point which my teacher quickly corrected to mean that one-on-one time in mixed company was more significant than nudity. But I neither said, nor meant, “one-on-one” alone. That was a retcon, and she knew it.

Examples could with some effort be multiplied, and we are going through a shift today from physical to virtual. From the side that is winning, being plugged in is much better than being isolated; from the side that is dying off it is noted with concern that plugged-in young folk are failing to develop traditional social skills. When the dust has settled on this one it may be difficult to see what could have possibly made life genuinely worth it in times when plugging in wasn’t even an option.

Possibly all or almost all successful social movements, once the desired goal becomes the new status quo, involve a change in forms of life that are all but invisible and unintelligible from the victor’s side.

Why We Should Believe in Hell

We live in an age where we wish that all should be saved; universalism is “in the air,” and every recent treatment I am aware of Hell being treated by an Orthodox author today, the author does not deny the doctrine of Hell, but none the less wishes to do so. Universalism is “in the air” both inside and outside of Orthodoxy (I think it’s a likely import to Orthodoxy), and the telling of a title is telling: Han Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? does not deny that people will go to Hell, but it wishes to do so. And on that topic I remember a homilectic comment I heard some twenty years back, about hoping that all would be saved: “Hope it all you want! But don’t preach it.

I might briefly comment that one author in the Philokalia says that we owe more to Hell than Heaven, because more people have been saved through fear of Hell’s torments than through desire of Heaven’s bliss [even if the latter infinitely outclass the former]. I know I owe a lot to the fear of Hell and the desire for a better balance sheet come Judgment.

Doctrine of God

In the interests of doing more than just stitch together a couple of quotations from previous blog posts, I would like to comment on what in formal academic language is called “doctrine of God,” and studies one angle of the One God in a way that is a mutual counterbalance to studying the persons of the Trinity.

In what may be the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, Anselm of Canterbury defines God to be that which is greater than anything else that can be thought [and is also greater than can be thought]. To exist in reality is greater than to exist only in thought, and so it would be a contradiction for the God who is greater than anything else that can be thought to only exist in people’s minds. (And if you’ve just come up with a counterargument to say that the same implies there must be an ultimate tropical island that rains Champagne and has filet mignon and lobster grow on trees, your objection and argument has been raised by one of Anselm’s contemporaries and refuted by Anselm.)

I personally do not accept this argument, although I am not interested in explaining why. What I am interested in is that Anselm is starting with the Christian God. Until you have seen why, it sounds odd that theologians deny that God is the largest element within a larger system, or that God is an instance of a class. It’s a bit slippery what is being asserted and/or denied, and even more slippery why. But there is a great deal to be said about doctrine of God, and I would dip into it with a joke.

There were four rabbis who were discussing Torah, and as was usual among them the three agreed on something and overruled the odd man out. They always said, “See? It’s three against one.”

One day the odd man out had enough, and he began to pray, “Show them that I am right,” and all of a sudden there was a soft rumble of thunder.

The odd rabbi out said, “So?”

The other three said, “That’s striking, but it doesn’t prove you’re right. It’s still three against one.”

The rabbi prayed, “G-d, I’ve given you so much and I’ve asked for so little. Please give them a sign that I’m right.”

When he finished praying, there was much louder thunder, and a small cloud appeared in the sky. He looked at the other rabbis, but they only said, “It’s still three against one.”

Then the lone rabbi knelt down, was able to pray just, “G-d, I—” when before his knee could even touch the ground, clouds suddenly filled the sky, a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, there was a thunderous earthquake, and a deep, booming voice thundered, “He’s right!

The lone rabbi looked at the others and said, “Well? Are you still going to deny it?”

The others said, “So what? It’s still three against two.”

The point of this scandalous joke is not just that when God has spoken, a discussion is over. It is that the Oneness of God is not the same as creaturely oneness; it can’t be added like we count physical objects. Saying “It’s still three against two” is at its core strict idolatry, because asserting One God is fundamentally beyond asserting that there happens to be one book on a shelf. Doxology asserts a monotheism that is more thorough than Islam; a monotheism that is large enough to be threatened neither by the non-numerical three persons in the Trinity, nor by faithful being made divine.

Recognizing an exception as an exception

And on this point I would like to point to something exceptional as something exceptional in Orthodox classics. The Our Father is understood to be a particularly special, divine prayer, and it is included in the Divine Liturgy after the holy gifts have been consecrated and almost immediately before the Holy Mysteries are received. “Our Father” is understood as tied to theosis, a prayer that belongs only to those deified as sons of God. And regarding the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” St. Maximus Confessor says that we stand before God as moral exemplars to him, and urge him to imitate our own virtue.

This much is legitimate, but it is deliberately striking, and it completely loses its force if the idea of us showing God the nature of virtue is a commonplace cliché. The claim is intended to be shocking, because he assumes his readers know that we don’t know holiness better than God. In the day that he wrote, it was very striking for men to attempt to inform God about the nature of holiness and virtue. In our day, the project is quite common.

On that point, I would like to look at a maxim I propose, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods and that makes all the difference.

God the Spiritual Father

In God the Spiritual Father, I wrote:

Let’s turn the clock back a bit, to 1755. There was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbonne in Portugal, and its untold misery shook people’s faith in the goodness of the world we live in. In the questioning that came afterwards, Voltaire wrote Candide in which the rather ludicrous teacher Pangloss is always explaining that we live in “the best of all possible worlds:” no matter what misfortune or disaster befell them, the unshakable Pangloss would always find a way to explain that we still lived in the best of all possible worlds. And Voltaire’s point is to rip that preposterous idea apart, giving a dose of reality and showing what the misery in Lisbonne made painfully clear: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But there is another shoe to drop.

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

Voltaire may be right when he explicitly explodes the claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but he is wrong when he implicitly fails to draw the readers to a more profound and important truth: we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and this best of all possible Gods cares for us in a way participated in by a spiritual father caring for a spiritual child.

I do not explore the afterlife in God the Spiritual Father, only the present life. However, what is asserted of the God who looks over our lives while we are living carries full force after our lives, too: the God who is the best of all possible Gods before our death remains the best of all possible Gods to us after our death.

One point when I was studying academic theology at Fordham there was a fashionable doctrine that was absolutely right. And that is that the freedom we have is not simply an identical and unchanging ability to make unrelated choices; one way to differ is to assert that by each choice we make we are making ourselves one notch more a creature of Heaven, or one notch more a creature of Hell. C.S. Lewis wrote that you can only get to Hell on your own steam, and said that in the end there are two classes of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” Though God may send people to Hell, the image of God sending people to Hell might be counterbalanced by the deeper image of God offering each person, saved and unsaved alike, an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell.

When I wrote the seriously flawed The Way of the Way, years before joining the Orthodox Church, one thing I commented was that to those who hold on to sin, even Heaven would be Hell. I understand that Kalomiros’s The River of Fire has undergone serious critique, but it is right at least in this: if the damned were to enter Heaven, they would experience Heaven as Hell. In Kalomiros it is said that the fire of Hell is nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced through the rejection of the only terms it can be enjoyed.

In this world we have theodicy, difficulty understanding how an absolutely Good God could create a world with suffering. In looking at the next world, the same impulse holds; we want to be exemplars to God in virtue, but I assert that if we wish to change God’s mind, we wish incoherently on several levels.

Suffering for others

In another work I do not wish to name, I wrote,

What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!

One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror. Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.

I used to find the close of the Beatitudes sung during the Divine Liturgy hard to accept as real: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” I found it hard to rejoice at verbal abuse.

Now I find those words difficult in a different way: the Philokalia briefly, and in a single passage, states that if you mistreat others, you will answer for their sin. I no longer find it so difficult to be glad I have a reward in Heaven, but the hard part now is that recognizing that my own reward comes at a terrible price. However, I trust that in this I am not more loving than God, and how he arranges things is beautiful, and it all fits in God’s heart, whether or not it fits in my head.

And this, I think, is the one thing I have going for me compared to Christians who wish they are universalist. It is not whether we would wish the salvation of all; it is whether notions about God that fit in my head are normative for God to reform by. I do not claim a final word on whether all will be saved, but I do suggest a palliative at least that the God who makes the saved co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ has imbued human nature with a genuine authority to choose between Heaven and Hell, and none arrive in Hell but those who choose it above Heaven.

An Orthodox clergyman said, in another context (namely what happens to us in our days on earth) that we should wish for whatever God has provided to happen, to be what happens. (In other words, wish for what exists, not what doesn’t exist.)

Perhaps this, together with an appreciation of Sovereignty and Mercy being in God one and the same thing, might help us to curb our wishes that God would comply with our universalism.

Here I Bow

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain humility—I do not accept the authority of the I-lost-count-how-many Protestant denominations and the sprawling bazaar of “Christian” books, for they have gone to the next level in unending contradictions of each other, vastly eclipsing of the the child’s play of Popes and Councils Luther complained about—my conscience is captive to the Holy Church that is inseparable from Christ the Word of God. I will not go out of the frying pan, into the lava. I cannot and I will not recant her Tradition for to go against the collected experience of Orthodox Christians and my holy guardian angel is neither right nor safe. Here I bow. I can do no other. Lord have mercy on me. Amen.

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The Consolation of Theology

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Author’s Note

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

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

Song I.

The Author’s Complaint.

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

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

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

I.

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

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

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

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

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

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

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

I stood in silence, all abashed.

Song II.

His Despondency.

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

II.

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

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

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

Song III.

A Clearer Eye.

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

III.

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

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

I sat a-right, a-listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these things were from Me.

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

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

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

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

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

Song IV.

Virtue Unconquerable.

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song V.

O Holy Mother!

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

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

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song VI.

Crossing the Great Threshold.

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

VI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song VII.

I Sing a Song to my Apple.

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

VII.

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

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

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

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

I answered, ‘Of a troth.’

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

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

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

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

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

I said, ‘Nay.’

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

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

Song VIII.

A Hymn to Arrogance.

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

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

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

VIII.

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

He said, ‘Doth that surprise thee?’

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

He said, ‘How readest thou that parable?’

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

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

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

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

He said, ‘Speak on.’

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

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

I said, ‘Yes.’

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

I asked, ‘Will I reach monasticism?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song 1: The Author’s Complaint

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

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

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

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

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

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

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

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

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

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

I stood in bashful silence.

Song 2: His Despondency

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

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

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

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

Song 3: A Clearer Eye

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

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

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

I sat, listening.

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

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

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

“As you have quoted the Philokalia:

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

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

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

“And again:

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

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

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

“The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these things were from Me.

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

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

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

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

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

Song 4: Virtue Unconquerable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song 5: O Holy Mother!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

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

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song 6: Crossing the Great Threshold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song 7: I Sing a Song to my Apple.

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

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

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

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

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

I answered, “Absolutely.”

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “No, not really.”

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

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

Song 8: A Hymn to Arrogance

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

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

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

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

He said, “Does that surprise you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said, “Speak on.”

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

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

I said, “Yes.”

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

I asked, “Will I reach monasticism?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Introduction: A study of secularization

Thomas Dixon in Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions, offers a model of societal secularization intended to be a more robust than just seeing “theology vs. anti-theology,” “theology vs. theology in disguise,” or “theology vs. anti-theology in disguise.” He argues for a process that begins with full-blooded theism, such as offered by almost any strain of classic Christianity, and then moves to “thin theism,” such as Paley (today think Higher Powers), then “anti-theology” that is directly hostile to theism, then “atheology” which is alienated from theological roots but is merely un-theological, “in much the same way as a recipe in a cookery book is un-theological.”

Dixon, like a good scholar, provides a good case study explored at greater length in his dissertation, and I am very interested in the case study he chose. He looks at the formation of a secular category of psychology, and the steps that have been taken to depart from older religious understandings situating the concept of passions, to a secular concept of emotions. The development of the secular category of emotions serves as a microcosm of a study of a society’s apostasy (a term Dixon does not use in his article) from understanding aspects of life as features of religion, to covering similar territory in terms of what is explained, but understanding things on secular terms, disconnected from religion. (Much prior to the transition Dixon documents, it’s difficult to see what the West would make of psychobabble about “Feelings aren’t right. They aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.“)

If I may summarize Dixon’s account of the apostasy, while moving the endpoints out a bit, in the Philokalia, passions are loosely sin viewed as a state, with inner experience (and sometimes outer) related to how we live and struggle with our passions. Orthodox Christians have quite an earful to give (and sometimes the maturity not to give it) if someone from the West asks, “What are your passions?” In an Orthodox understanding, taken literally, that question has nothing to do with activities we enjoy and get excited about (unless they are wrong for us to engage in). It is more the matter of a habit of sin that has defaced their spiritual condition and that they are, or should be, repenting of. That is one of the more “Western-like” points we can take from the Philokalia; another foundational concept is that many of the thoughts we think are our own, and make our own (such as authentic handling of non-straight sexuality as is broadly understood today), are the unending attempted venomous injections of demons and we need to watchfully keep guard and destroy what seems to be our own thoughts. This is not present, nor would be particularly expected, in Dixon’s account. However, the “before” in Dixon’s “before and after” clearly situates what would today be considered feelings as markers and features of spiritual struggle, spiritual triumph, and spiritual defeat. The oldest so-to-speak “non-influence” figure Dixon attends to lived his life well after the Orthodox eight demons, that attack us from without, were revised to become our own internal seven deadly sins.

The first alternative Dixon studies is a concept of emotion that is paper-thin. The specific text he studies, which is remarkably accurately named, is Charles Darwin’s The Expressions of Emotion in Man and the Animals. The title does not directly herald a study of emotion, but the expressions of emotion, with an a priori that diminishes or removes consideration of human emotional life being distinctive (contrast Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation; she believes very much that animals have a psyche, but takes a sledgehammer to all-too-easy anthromorphization of animal psyches). Furthermore, an emotion is something you feel. Emotion is not really about something, and emotional habits are not envisioned. Darwin’s study was a study of physiologically what was going on with human and animal bodies approached as what was really going on in emotion.

Later on, when atheology has progressed, this begins to change. After a certain point people could conceive that emotions are about something; another threshold crossed, and you could speak of emotional habits; another threshold crossed, and you could regard a person’s emotional landscape as healthy or unhealthy. All of this fits Dixon’s category of atheology if one is using his framework. There remain important differences from either the Philokalia or the earliest models Dixon studies: it is today believed that you should let emotions wash through you until they have run their course, an opinion not endorsed by any framing of passions that I know. However, I would recall G.K. Chesterton on why it was not provocative for him to call the Protestant Reformation the shipwreck of Christianity: the proof is that, like Robinson Crusoe, Protestants keep on retrieving things from the Catholic ship.

Perhaps the fullest atheological rediscovery of the concept of a passion I am aware of is the disease model of alcoholism lived out in Alcoholics Anonymous. The passions are, in the Philokalia, spiritual wounds or diseases of some sort, and the dominant metaphor for a father confessor is that of a physician or healer. While the important term “repent” is not included in the wording of the twelve steps, the twelve steps paint in powerful and stark relief what repentance looks like when it puts on work gloves. The community is in many ways like a church or perhaps is a church. Steps may be taken to qualify strict doctrine, but the teaching and resources are a sort of practical theology to help people defeat the bottle. (One thinks of Pannenberg’s essay How to Think About Secularism suggests that secularism did not arise from people grinding an axe against all religion; it arose from people wanting to live in peace at a time when it was mainstream to wish that people on the other side of the divide would be burned at the stake.) There is a bit of haziness about “God as I understand him,” but this is decidedly not the result of hazy thinking. The biggest difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Orthodox Church may be that Alcoholics Anonymous helps with one primary disease or passion, and the Church, which could be called Sinners Anonymous, doesn’t say, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It believes, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m the worst sinner in history.”

Where is the Orthodox Church in all of Dixon’s study?

At a glance, there may not be much visible. The Orthodox Church is not mentioned as such, the text seems to focus on English-speaking figures from the 17th century onwards, and the only figure claimed by the Orthodox Church is the Blessed Augustine, who is first mentioned in a perfunctory list of influences upon authors who retained significant grounding in older tradition. (The next stop seems to jump centuries forward to reach Thomas Aquinas.) The text does not seem to have even a serious pretension to treat Orthodoxy as far as the case study goes. Furthermore, while passions were and are considered important in Orthodoxy, the theological affections that counterbalance theological passions in the “before” part of “before and after” are obscure or nonexistant in Orthodox faith.

However, there is something that would feel familiar to Orthodox. To the Orthodox student in a Roman university, there may be the repeated effect of a Catholic student conspiratorially explain that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing that was daft and wrong, but now Rome is getting its act together, has progressed, and has something genuinely better to offer. To Orthodox, this whole topos heralds something specific; it heralds the dismantling of one more continuity that Rome used to have with Holy Orthodoxy. And while Dixon does not discuss “Catholic” or “Protestant” as such and does not even have pretensions of treating Orthodoxy, he offers a first-class account of Western figures dismantling one more continuity with Holy Orthodoxy. To many Orthodox, the tune sounds all too familiar.

Quasi-Mystical-Theology

In Orthodoxy, all theology is “mystical theology”, meaning what is practically lived in the practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Systematic theology is off-limits, as a kind of formal book exercise that is not animated by the blood of mystical theology.

Clinical psychology offers what Dixon terms quasi-theology, and I would more specifically term quasi-mystical theology. Not all psychologists are clinical practitioners; there are a good number of academic research psychologists who explore things beyond the bounds of what a counselor would ordinarily bring up. For instance, academic psychology has developed theories of memory, including what different kinds of memory there are, how they work, and how they fit together. These are not only more detailed than common-sense understandings, but different: learning a skill is considered a type of memory, and while it makes sense on reflection, the common, everyday use of “memory” does not draw such a connection.

This is a legitimate finding of research psychology, but it falls outside of common counseling practice unless the client has some kind of condition where this information is useful. Clinical practitioners attempt to inculcate aspects of psychology that will help clients with their inner state, how to handle difficulties, and (it is hoped) live a happier life. All of this is atheology that is doing something comparable to theology, and more specifically mystical theology; the speculative end is left for academics, or at least not given to clients who don’t need the added information. In Dixon’s framing, some atheology is additionally quasi-theological, meaning that it offers e.g. overarching narratives of life and the cosmos; he mentions science-as-worldview as one point. Clinical psychology offers a different, humbler, and vastly more powerful quasi-theological project. It offers an attempt at a secular common ground that will let people live their lives with the kind of resources that have been traditionally sought under religious auspices. As far as the Philokalia as the Orthodox masterwork for the science of spiritual struggle goes, at times the content of clinical psychology runs parallel to the Philokalia and at times it veers in a different and unrelated direction from the Philokalia, but it is almost a constant that clinical psychology is intended to do Philokalia work that will help overcome bad thoughts, preventable misery, regrettable actions, being emotionally poisoned by people who are emotionally poisonous, etc. There is of course an additional difference in that the works in the Philokalia are concerned with building people up for eternal glory, but clinical psychology is meant to build people up for a positive life, and that much is common ground.

What is a religion? Can religion be secular?

Q> With so many religions [in India], how do you stay united ?

A: A common hatred of stupid Americans.

An FAQ list written by an exasperated Indian

The term “religion” etymologically comes from Latin, “religare”, which means to bind. It is the same root as in “ligament” in the human body, which do a job of connecting bones to each other. And while the FAQ list contains some astonishingly silly questions, there is some degree of insight reflected in a realization of many religions in India leading to a question of, “How do you stay united?

I bristled when I read scholars saying that courtly love and chivalry was the real religion of knights and nobles late in the Middle Ages, but some years later, the claim makes a lot more sense to me. The medieval versions of Arthurian legend I read before and during The Sign of the Grail repeatedly talked about how people didn’t love (in courtly fashion) anything like the days of King Arthur, which is a signal warning that courtly love was present in a sense that was unthinkable in the claimed days of King Arthur’s court. The first widespread version of Arthurian legends outside of Celtic legend were in the twelfth century; the dates reported, with mention of St. Augustine of Canterbury, put Arthur as being in the sixth century. The number of intervening centuries is roughly the same as the number of years between our time and the tail end of the medieval world.

Furthermore, I have not read Harry Potter but I would offer some contrasts. First of all, Harry Potter is produced, offered, and among the more mentally stable members of the fan base, received as a work of fiction. The version of King Arthur that first swept through mainland Europe was a work of pseudohistory produced mostly out of thin air, but was presented and received as literal history. Secondary, Harry Potter mania is not expected to be a fixture for all of a long lifetime: the cultural place we have is like nothing else in its heyday, but it is a candidate for a limelight that shone on many other things before it and is expected to shine on many things after it. The Arthurian legends were more of a Harry Potter without competition. Today one can walk in the bookstore and see fantasy novels representing many worlds; Arthurian legends tended to absorb anything beside them that was out there (like the story of Tristan and Yseult, included in Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). It might be pointed out that the present Pope as of this writing is named after a medieval Western saint, Francis of Assisi, who was named under the inspiration of France and more specifically French troubadours. I am not sure where the troubadors’ lyrics began and ended, but Arthurian legends entered the vulgar (i.e. common, instead of Latin) tongue in France and troubadours were part and parcel to what spread. Notwithstanding that the Arthurian legends take place in England, they are to this day as well-known, or better-known, in France, than the story of the (French) Roland and his paladins. The Roman Catholic Church forbade reading “idle romances,” meaning, essentially, all Arthurian literature, but it seems that, in the circles of courtly love, the active endeavors of chivalry were much more on the front burner with Christianity assumed to be on the back burner, and chivalry was more of one’s real religion to knights and nobles than Christianity.

One Orthodox student, perhaps not making himself particularly well-liked in a theology program by complaining about Karl Rahner’s reliance on Western analytic philosophy (one particularly memorable cart-before-the-horse heading was “The presence of Christ in an evolutionary worldview”), and was answered by saying that it was to reach the unbeliever. He responded and said that he did not see why the common ground between all world religions was Western analytic philosophy. The professor said that it was to reach the unbeliever in us. The student said that Western analytic philosophy did not speak to the unbeliever in him. (The conversation moved on from there, but without uncovering any particular reason why Western analytic philosophy should fit the job description Rahner was conscripting it to do.)

In psychology today, the common ground that is legitimately given the job of a secular and artificial religion in a sense of what common ground binds us together is material derived by Buddhism and Hinduism (whether or not their incarnations would be recognized by the religious communities). Jainism is omitted perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with Indian religion. (The term “yoga,” for instance, means a spiritual path, in which sense it would be natural for a Christian to claim to be practicing the Christian yoga, but yoga in the usual sense is lifted from Hinduism. As to whether Orthodox may practice yoga, as always, ask your priest; I do not see why Christians need yoga, but many priests are much more lenient than I would be.) What is presented in psychology today is a secular religion, not specifically requiring one to reverence certain deities or providing as complete a moral code as world religions, and for that matter expected to be markedly different than the secular religions offered ten years in the past and ten years in the future, and no less meant to do a religion’s job because it is concocted.

Why are we seeking mindfulness from the East?
Perhaps because we because we have dismantled it in the West.

A cartoon about where morality is. /><br />
Buddhism has four noble truths, and an eightfold noble path in which a Western philosopher or historian of philosophy would recognize a path of virtue-based morality. One of them, “Right Mindfulness,” has been given a heyday in the sun, although mindfulness is best understood holistically in a society where self-identified Buddhists find license to treat morality as optional (Buddhist societies and religious texts seem to find a great deal of moral debt owed to other humans, as one can likely find by reading whatever the Wikipedia page for Buddhism mentions). Virtue-based moralities are common in many world religions and world philosophical traditions; if Christianity offers a virtue-based morality, this has never been a Christian monopoly. Besides Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, for instance in the East, and Aristotle and the Stoics in the West, approach morality by virtues. There are important differences in <em>how</em> they approach morality by virtues, but the concept of virtues as such is common. (A virtue is a disposition, or an internal state influencing action, that “points towards” some category of good action and/or “points away” from some category of bad action.)</p>
<p>As compared to Western philosophy without much Eastern influence, there is not a packaged standalone virtue of mindfulness. Another Indian virtue that is shared between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, <em>ahimsa</a> or not-harming, says in essence “I cannot harm you without harming myself,” and while it may be easier to see from pantheism, even secular grounds can recognize that divorce is not the only misfortune that hurts all involved. Various stripes of abuse are destructive for the victim, but they are also destructive to the abuser. To steal or lie to another is also a self-violation. This virtue may not be spelled out in older Western texts, but a philosopher who knows Western virtue philosophy should be able to immediately recognize mindfulness, ahimse, etc. as newly met members of the family of virtues, and possibly cardinal virtues to boot. (Cardinal virtues are virtues that are both important in themselves, and something that other virtues hinge on.)</p>
<p>Mindfulness is something that’s part of the terrain of virtue, in the West as well as the East; it’s just that with how something like a “political map” is drawn, it’s not framed as its own separate territory. (This kind of thing is familiar enough to students of philosophy and religion.) However, there are repeated points of contact between mindfulness and <a href=Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “55 Maxims for the Christian Life”:

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  3. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  4. Sit in silence 20 or 30 minutes a day.
  5. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  6. Live a day, or even part of a day, at a time.
  7. Be grateful.
  8. Be cheerful.
  9. Listen when people talk to you.
  10. Be awake and attentive, fully present wherever you are.
  11. Flee imagination, analysis, fantasy, figuring things out.

34 is not the only item that exhorts us to be mindful.

But we are rediscovering mindfulness after having dismantled it at home. One friend talked about how his grandmother complained about Walkmans, that if you are running through natural surroundings and listening to music, you are not paying due attention to your surroundings. There has been a stream of technologies, from humble, tape-eating Walkmans to the iPod’s apotheosis in an iPhone and Apple Watch pairing, whose marketing proposition is to provide an ever-easier, ever-more-seductive, ever-more-compelling alternative to mindfulness. Now an iPhone can be awfully useful (I have a still-working iPhone 7), but using technology ascetically and rightly is harder than not using it at all, and Humane Tech only reaches so far.

One CEO talked about how she wanted to share one single hack, and the hack she wanted to share was that her mother gave you her full attention no matter who you were or what you were doing. And evidently this was something the CEO considered important both to do and to invite others to do. However, her mother’s behavior, however virtuous, and virtuously mindful, was nothing distinctive in her generation, nor was it presented as such. Even with no concept of mindfulness as such, people in her mother’s generation were taught in life, faith, and manners to give mindful attention to everyone you dealt with.

G.K. Chesterton exposes the sadness of laboring in the prison of one idea, and something similar might be said by laboring in the prison of one virtue, especially if that is not a cardinal virtue that opens to a vista of other virtues. Mindfulness, for instance, is much more worthy of attention when viewed as part of an Eightfold Noble Path of interlocking virtues. A TED talk about what makes people beat the odds, presented as original research to a virtue the presenter calls “grit,” which (however much research is done) is quickly recognizable as the standard virtue of perseverance.

There may be hope for a TED talk about an interlocking family of virtues. Tim Ferris’s talk about Stoicism does not discuss virtue as such, but does introduce the oblong concept that life lessons learned in ancient times can be relevant and useful today, and discusses Stoicism as the substance of a play George Washington used to strengthen his troops, and discovered as a kind of ultimate power tool by some of the top coaches in the NFL.

The first book of the Philokalia, moved to an appendix by formerly Protestant editors, was misattributed to one saint and the stated reason for its banishment was that it was spiritually insightful but not written by a Christian; it was Stoic and not Christian in certain respects. That may be true, but the Philokalia is universally human and its authors have usually been quick to borrow from, and respect, Stoic virtue philosophy.

One influential book from the West is Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. C.S. Lewis gives its reception a cardinal place in The Discarded Image, and contests a tendency to have to choose between Boethius’s Christianity and his philosophy. Both should be taken seriously, and the book, among other excellences, shows a Christian who has profited from the best pagan philosophy had to offer, including important Stoic elements.

We’ve seen a TED talk that doesn’t name virtues but shows enthusiasm for ancient philosophy in which virtues were important. Perhaps someday we may have a TED talk about an ancient or modern family of virtues.

“Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is fundammentally not an “affirmation.”

I would like to look at the phrase, “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” to dismiss two ideas that might already be obviously ridiculous.

The first is that it’s sadistic, Alcoholics Anonymous rubbing member’s noses into the dirt because of some cruel glee. The practice of introducing yourself as an alcocholic is part and parcel of a big picture intended to free alcoholics from a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, perhaps reminding members that someone who has been fifteen years sober can return to bondage to alcohol. Furthermore, the main intended beneficiary of saying “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is simply the alcoholic who says it.

The second is that it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps there are some confused people who believe that it would be nice to be drunk all the time and drink more and more. However, for someone who knows the incredibly destructive suffering alcoholism inflicts on oneself and those one loves, it is an absurdity to think of “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” as a way to talk something into being, for someone who’s been stone cold sober lifelong to wish to be in cruel slavery to alcohol. “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” being an “affirmation” of wishful thinking belongs in a Monty Python sketch. The introduction as an alcoholic falls under the heading of facing already present reality.

“Here is a trustworthy saying which deserves acceptance: Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Such said St. Paul, and such is enshrined in two brief prayers before communion. Confessing oneself the chief of sinners is not a positive affirmation: but it is a handmaiden to being one Christ died for, and another saying which has rumbled down the ages, “The vilest of human sins is but a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.” The confession as the chief of sinners is not an endpoint. It is a signpost lighting up the way to, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” However vile the sins one owns up to, they are outclassed in every possible way by the Lord who is addressed in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (“Mercy” is said to translate chesed, a Hebrew word usually translated as “lovingkindness.”)

How do modern psychological affirmations look to a theist? A bit like trying to nourish yourself by eating cotton candy, but I’d really like to give more of an argument than an unflattering comparison. The introduction to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describe a shift in wisdom literature (written and other materials about how to live life well; the concept heavily overlaps both theology and psychology). The shift is from a character ethic, which says that you get ahead by moral character or moral virtue, to a personality ethic which does not call for submitting to inner transformation, and whose hallmarks include exhortations to “Believe in yourself.” (Since Covey wrote his introduction, the jobhunting world is not the only arena to undergo a second fall into a personal brand ethic, but affirmations have not gotten to that point, or at least not that I’m aware of.)

Spirituality and organized religion

One Orthodox priest mentioned, for people who want to be spiritual but express distrust of organized religion, “If you don’t like organized religion, you’ll love Orthodoxy. We’re about as disorganized as you can get.” But he also had a deeper point to make.

That deeper point is that “objection to organized religion” is usually at its core “objection to someone else holding authority over me.” And that is deadly, because someone else having authority over you is the gateway to much of spiritual growth.

Spirituality that is offered as neutral, and has been castrated enough not to visibly trample any mainstream demographic’s religious and spiritual sensitivities, may have some effect, but true growth takes place outside of such spiritual confines.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World almost opens on “spirituality.” He discusses its vacuity, and how it exacerbates an already secular enough life. The reader is directed to him for what one might have that is better than taking a secular life and adding spirituality.

For lack of knowledge my people perish

I would like to take a moment to talk about mental illness.

The teaching of the Orthodox Church on what we understand as mental illness (see some “hard pill to swallow” prayers), as articulated by an Orthodox MD/PhD, is that the terrain we frame as mental illness has already been analyzed and addressed. Mental illnesses, or what are called such, are tangles of passion. But the psychiatrist was clear that he could and did prescribe medications to lessen patients’ suffering.

One bugbear that needs to be addressed is the idea that if you are suffering from mental illness, you need more faith, and/or you just need to snap out of it. Now all of us really need more faith, and if you suffer from a mental illness, you obviously should pray. However, trying to pray hard enough to make it go away may not work any better than trying to snap out of it.

Now, with caveats, I would recommend Orthodox Christians with mental illness to see a psychiatrist and/or a counselor. Their methods can be very effective, and for all my writing about ersatz religion, they can significantly reduce suffering.

The caveat I would give is not theologically motivated. It is that there are excellent psychiatrists and counselors, but psychology is a minefield, with counselors who will tell you to use pornography and masturbate. If I were looking for a provider, I would do research and/or ask someone you trust to do research for you (if, for instance, you are depressed enough that it’s difficult to get out of bed). And if your provider seems to be acting inappropriately or displaying incompetence, it may be the entirely right decision to switch providers.

However, there is one piece more that the secular category of psychology does not understand. Mental illness can improve dramatically when you delve into new layers of repentance. While it doesn’t work to just try harder to have more faith, as you walk the Orthodox journey of repentance you will see things to repent of, and some of that repentance can slowly help untangle the knot of passions that the Fathers of the Philokalia knew, and St. Isaac the Syrian, a saint who has benefitted many mentally ill people.

The reason this section is titled “For lack of knowledge my people perish” is that we usually don’t see what we need to repent of to work at that level. We don’t know the steps. The solution I would expect is to work hard to repent, and make your confession include that one sin that you are wishing to forget when you confess. But walk on the journey of repentance: Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Monasticism is rightly called repentance, but the treasure of repentance is for everyone.

For those for whom this is a live option, the care of a spiritual director receives a central endorsement in Orthodox Psychotherapy, a classic which says that if patristic spiritual direction were to be introduced today, it would not likely be classified as religion so much as a therapeutic science. A good, experienced spiritual director who is familiar with mental illness as understood in Orthodoxy can be a much better alternative to fumbling around until you find out what sin you need to repent of and reject to turn your back on a particular point of mental illness. “For lack of knowledge my people perish” can be greatly alleviated by a spiritual director who understands classic Orthodox teaching on mental illness.

One more thing: a wise Orthodox protopresbyter said, “Avoid amateur psychologists. They usually have more problems than the rest of us!”

Et cetera

There are other things I do not wish to treat in detail. After it has been observed that clinical psychology often takes a person who is miserable and raise that person to feeling OK, but not rise above feeling OK, there has been a “positive psychology” meant for everyone, to help people rise above OK and make use of great talents. I would comment briefly that monasticism is both a supreme medicine for those of us who need some extra structure, and a school for positive excellence, and the latter is more central than the former.

In terms of “Christian psychology,” Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No is consistently violent to Biblical texts in the process of presenting secular boundaries as Christian. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is ludicrous hyperbole, and not properly understood until it is recognized as ludicrous hyperbole, in which the Good Samaritan goes through a road infested by brigands, gambles with his life when he gives in to what would ordinarily be the bait to brigands’ oldest and deadliest trick in the book, and so on. It was made to make the listener who asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” profoundly uncomfortable. Cloud and Townsend, however, present the Good Samaritan as giving a moderate and measured response, and asks us to imagine the rescued victim asking the Samaritan to give even more, and the Good Samaritan wisely saying, “No.

If you have to be that violent to the Bible to make it agree with you, you’re almost certainly wrong.

And there are other things. I’m not going to try to detail life without thinking in terms of boundaries, beyond saying that Christianity, and almost certainly not only Christianity, has a concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself” that unfolds into right relations with other people, but without psychology’s concept of boundaries.

Let me mention one more point.

Honest?

Perhaps most striking of all was a session under the heading of honesty, and showed a TED talk where a psychiatrist shared (in retrospect and in context, this seems like a deliberate name-drop) that he was named after his father, a Baptist minister. Then he came out as an illegitimate child, and I would like to repeat why my own parents do not like the term “bastard.”

While they wanted to teach polite language, my parents did not object to the term “bastard” because it is forceful enough to be a rude word. They objected to the term “bastard” because the term refers to someone who did not and could not have any say or any agency in a wrong decision. If there is a term forceful enough to be a rude word in this context, and the relevant act was consensual, the abrasive word should refer to the parents and not the child. And now that we’ve mostly retired the use of words like “adulterer” and “fornicator”, we have an abrasive term for the victim who had no choice in a matter and not those who made the victimhood and the victim. If the worst TMI delivery in the TED talk was that the psychiatrist was an illegitimate child, one could have answered, “Well, Christ was also born from a scandalous pregnancy.” But in fact this is not all the TMI psychiatrist was “sharing.”

Back to the TED talk. Coming out as a bastard was a softening up of the audience for behavior in which the psychiatrist genuinely did have agency. He then came out as a philanderer; he did not use any negative terms, but talked about honesty and authenticity when he opened up to his wife, now his 2nd ex-wife whom he presents as not really harmed, and shared to her, of himself, that he was both married and dating. It was, to adapt a striking phrase from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a confession with total absence of contrition or repentance.

No light bulbs went on above staff members’ heads when patients complained that this was the most autistic version of honesty they had yet seen endorsed by a mental health professional, and explained that you don’t open a coat and say “Here’s all there is to see, whether or not seeing it will help you,” or that you don’t bleed all over a casual acquaintance who asks “How are you?” in passing; as sometimes has to be explained to the autistic patient, it is rarely a shirking of due honesty to withhold a full-strength informational answer in responding to a merely social question.

And perhaps no light bulbs should have gone on over staff heads because the session on honesty had nothing to do with honesty. Staff members were in fact not ignorant of the major concept of “negative politeness” and that right speech usually both conceals and reveals. Ostensible “honesty” was just how an unrelated payload was delivered.

To spell it out, the payload is that whatever sexual practices you find yourself most drawn to pursue, and others pursue, is your real, authentic self, and honesty takes that as a non-negotiable foundation. The lecture was devoid of any clear or even vague reference to any stripe of queers (or whatever they are called this week), and if the speaker’s philarendering tried out dating a guy, he did not disclose this point. But as much as coming out as an illegitimate child paved the way for coming out as a philanderer, accepting his coming out as a philanderer on the terms he presented was masterfully crafted to pave the way to saying the only real payload to that TED talk: “The sexual practices you are most drawn to engage in are your real, authentic self, and authenticity starts with accepting these practices as its foundation,” and if one labors under the delusion that a successful straight marriage is what happens when one man, and one woman, lay the reins on the horse’s neck, one is in a position that has little to no ground to dissent from a position of, “If you allow straight marriage to be authentic, you have to give queers the same right too.”

The entire session ostensibly offered to teach honesty was itself treacherously dishonest.

(Queer advocacy has long since been baked into the societal common ground that psychology deems inoffensive to all religions.)

Conclusion: Beyond solipsism

The goal and lesson of psychology is quite often solipsistic. There are exceptions: positive psychology may cover three versions of the good life, the last and deepest version being the meaningful life, a non-solipsistic life of service to others. (Though this is seldom covered in psychology, service to others gives a real happiness). However, a session on boundaries covers how to establish and maintain our own boundaries, but probably does not cover respecting other boundaries, including when someone draws a boundary when you think it would be so much better not to establish the boundaries. The further you go, the tightest the constriction of solipsistic self-care. The endgame approached by most pillars of counseling psychology is a client with self-contained happiness.

In Orthodoxy, we do one better: “Only God and I exist.”

“Only God and I exist.” What does that mean? In a nutshell, the only standing that ultimately matters is your standing before God. Now the Orthodox Church has various forms of mediated grace, and that mediation may be included. However, the only one you need seek to please is God; if you are pleasing God, it doesn’t matter what people may do, or even the demons. Arrogance has a place; we are summoned to be rightly and properly arrogant of the demons in pleasing God. And trample them.

One major difference between ancient Judaism and its neighbors was that, as God’s people knew, there was only one God, and our problem before him was sin; if one has sinned, the one and only necessary remedy was atonement. The polytheistic neighbors believed in something much less rational, not to mention far less humane, was that one could do things that offended one or more gods, and the solution to this situation was to appease the offended deity, but unfortunately what appeased one deity could offend another. The unfortunate picture was much like the fool’s errand of being on friendly terms with everyone in a bickering junior high.

St. Moses is in fact one who confessed what Orthodox believe as “Only God and I exist.”

Once one has crossed that ground, and found that there is only one God to serve and offer our repentance, we move beyond the junior high of our life circumstances… and find that the one God is in fact the Lord of the Dance and the Orchestrator of all Creation. And this time everything besides onself again becomes real, but not ultimately real. There are billions of people in the world whom we should love, and we should show virtue and politeness to all we meet, but in the end only God has the last word.

Psychology offers a narrower and narrower constriction if you take it a guide to living with others. “Only God and I exist,” by contrast, opens wider and wider and wider, in a solipsism that is vaster than the Heavens that it, also, embraces. It is a solipsism in which you are summoned to dance the Great Dance with your neighbors and all Creation!

If you need psychology and psychiatry, by all means, use them. But remember that only God and you exist!

Much Love,
C.J.S. Hayward

Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Anathematized by the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins (RORB)

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

[Editor’s note: Our first reporter, assigned to investigate directly with the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins, ran away screaming. A more seasoned reporter was able to locate a Church scholar with a strong heresiological and religious studies background, who was willing to speak on the record; the official was available for comment but has requested conditions of anonymity.]

Reporter: So how do I get to the bottom of all this? What on earth is “the Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls?”

Scholar: Fr. Cherubim, like many after him and even those who anathematized him, retained significant Protestant attributes long after being received into the Orthodox Church. The concept of an Article by which the Church stands or falls stems from the Reformation, when Martin Luther rightly or wrongly pressed the entirety of theology as it was then known into a very small nutshell and cut off things that wouldn’t go in. He had a famed three Sola’s: “Sola gratia. Sola fide. Sola Scriptura,” that we are saved only by divine grace, saved only through faith, and accept Scripture alone as authoritative. The “Article by which the Church stands or falls” is that we are saved only by grace. It was, to Luther, the only doctrine that mattered: if you know whether the Church believes in salvation by grace alone, that is really the only question worth asking.

In Fr. Cherubim, called “Dead Cherubim Jones” by those who anathematized him, there are large bits of intact Protestantism that have survived and gotten a brushstroke or two of Orthodox décor. With or without anyone anathematizing anyone, the zealots, written CATOSDDDRORB, owe Fr. Cherubim a tremendous debt. There is no longer an Article by which the Church stands or falls, but now an Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls. Where the former was concerned with momentous questions of grace and salvation, this is concerned by how many miles across the universe is.

Reporter: Dead Cherubim Jones?!? How many mile—whaaa? Is there an indictment of ecumenism in all this?

Scholar: Hmm, yes, those types will give you quite an earful about ecumenism, but there is genuinely more going on. Let me take on a couple of housekeeping details before addressing the meat of the matter.

First, CATOSDDDRORB correctly notes that when people spoke of “Blessed Cherubim Jones,” they were making a twisted use of language. For many, many centuries, someone recently deceased in the Lord is referred to as, “Of blessed memory.” When Fr. Cherubim’s posthumous work came out, he is quite straightforwardly called “of blessed memory,” just like many people are referred to as being “of blessed memory” in the years following their demise.

It is an available alternative, and you find this in figures as ancient as St. Irenaeos, that instead of saying, “So-and-so of blessed memory,” things are packed in a bit to refer to that person of “blessed So-and-so.” So shortly after the death of an Alexander Schmemann or Vladimir Lossky, one can be entirely right to refer to “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Vladimir Lossky,” and this is not just for famous people. A recently reposed member of your parish may just as rightly be called “blessed So-and-so,” and other things as well.

Fr. Cherubim’s camp abused this custom to effectively give Fr. Cherubim a seemingly official honorific that sounds like a type of saint. The term sounded more and more official as “blessed” was hardened into a never-dropped “Blessed,” and since this did not satisfy, “Blessed” became “Bl.”

Then when Fr. Cherubim had the temerity to challenge Protestant assumptions in posthumous unearthed texts, the “Canonical True Autonomous Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins” split off from another jurisdiction whose name I don’t remember, and as their first act, anathematized Fr. Cherubim. Their second act was to collectively realized that “Bl.” really only meant “dead,” and that it would be calling a spade to refer to their former pioneer as “Dead Cherubim Jones.” With emphasis on “Dead.”

Reporter: Wow. You’re bending my brain.

Scholar: There’s more; if you need to, take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes. I’ll be here.

Reporter: Ok; thanks. Is there more?

Scholar: Ok. Have you heard Alan Perlis’s quote, “The best book on programming is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because it’s the best book on anything for the layman?”

Reporter: Now I have.

Scholar: Precise measurement as we know it didn’t exist. We have a platinum one meter bar under lock and key; we have measuring implements made to the most minute precision we can. Whereas, in the ancient world, under conditions of poverty that you can hardly imagine, having all kinds of measuring tools would be costly on tight purses. So, among other units of measure, they used parts of their own bodies for measurement. If a man straightens out his forearm, the distance from the outside of the elbow to the tip of the finger would be one cubit: a solution that was free, sensible, and practical. It, by the way, remains a brilliant idea today: circumstance permitting, if you want to measure a distance of a certain general neighborhood, if you don’t have a measuring implement handy, you can measure it in cubits, multiply it by some other tool and divide by the length of your body’s cubit. Voilà: approximate measurement in a pinch when you don’t have any artificial measuring-tool.

This may not be a direct observation of the Bible, but literature in the medieval West had creatures who at times appeared to be the size of insects and at others reached adult human stature, and there was a remarkable lack of interest in nailing down an exact size for such wondrous being. The astute viewer may watch some cartoons that take radical changes in size to be perfectly unremarkable, and entirely natural.

Now there are certain translation issues between the Hebrew and the Greek for the Old Testament, possibly stemming from relations between the arm and the leg. The “hand”, in modern Greek, interestingly extends to the elbow, and “daktulos” without further clarification can apply to either fingers and toes. Scientifically speaking, an arm and a leg are the same basic kind of thing; their proportions are different and their uses are different but they are each one of our four limbs.

And what gets really interesting is when you take Protestant fundamentalist efforts to determine the size of the Universe from the Bible.

Reporter: What’s that?

Scholar: According to the Hebrew and the Greek Old Testaments, the CATOSDDDRORB devotees yield a size of 4000 miles for the Hebrew, and 7500 for the Greek, and they decided to do things the Orthodox way and settle with the universe conclusively being 7500 miles in size.

Reporter: Um, uh, ok… does that do any real harm?

Scholar: Maybe, but that’s not really the point. The CATOSDDDRORB eagerness to straighten out scientists’ “backwards understanding of science” has irritated a number of members of the academy.

Reporter: That’s not too bad.

Scholar: There’s worse.

Reporter: Present CATOSDDDRORB members were scandalized when some further manuscripts were put to publication.

First, Fr. Cherubim said everything we said above and more. He said that a “foot” may be a unit of measure, maybe, but a foot of what? Of an insect? A dinosaur? Ezekiel seems to specify an explicitly human cubit. The Old Testament in either Hebrew or Greek seems to trade in “feet” (I will not comment on some ambiguities), but not “foot of man” as such.

Second, this draws on mathematical subtlety, but a distance on earth, straightened out as much as a sphere permits, corresponds to a certain angle of an arc. Distances between places can be a linear measure of how much surface is crossed, or (if they are straight) they can be an angle.

What this means is that distances, if we are dealing cosmologically, are cosmological distances. There are the difference represented by an angle between two rays from the earth’s center. In normal science, scientists are quick to use so-called “scientific notation” where the total size of the universe is a mouthful of 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles wide but you write it as 5.0e+23.

But here’s the interesting thing. Fr. Cherubim was not dogmatic, or at least not dogmatic about the size of the universe.

Reporter: Huh?

Scholar: Of course he was dogmatic about some things; he is dogmatic that this universe in entirety belongs to God, and scarcely less adamant that God could have created the universe at any size he wanted. However, his scholarship on the universe’s size never really nails down dogmatically that the universe is either 4000 or 7500 miles wide, or a number with lots of zeroes. If you are at all careful, you will recognize that he mentions something more devastating to CATOSDDDRORB: the size of the universe does not seem to be a particularly live question, or one that attracted particularly much debate. The Fathers didn’t really make a fuss about it. But he also fails to vindicate the standard model. Not only does he not make known use of scientific notation, but he does not seem to name the numbers that motivated people to create scientific notation in the first place, or for that matter numbers at all. One gets the impression that he envisioned a “middle-sized” universe, incredibly large to the CATOSDDDRORB crowd, ludicrously small to standard science. The gist of his writing is not to help people get the right numeric calculation. It is, here, to draw to people’s attention to how much they don’t know, and gently draw their attention to greater things.

Reporter: What was the reaction to that?

Scholar: In a heartbeat, “Blessed Cherubim Jones” became “Dead Cherubim Jones,” and the new Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins anathematized him. The chief complaint was that he failed to buttress their efforts to take a beloved Protestant ambiance in Biblical exegesis, substitute the Greek for Hebrew Old Testament, and make their calculation of a 7500 mile wide Universe into the Article by which the Church stands or falls.

Reporter: This has been very interesting. Do you have any further reading to recommend?

Scholar: Sure! Here’s my spare copy of Alice in Wonderland!