Truth to tell, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the Archbishop. He’s liberally daffy but more amusingly candid than most of that persuasion. Of course he has a very high opinion of himself, but he’s never tried to hide it. I particularly liked his public statement that he would have made a great Bishop of Salzburg in the time of Mozart but ended up as Bishop of Milwaukee in the time of rock and roll. There’s something perversely refreshing about a bishop who doesn’t mind saying that he’s too good for the people he’s called to serve.
If I had been meant to live in Salzburg at Mozart’s time, God would have done that. If I had been meant to live in the Middle Ages, in the desire that underpinned my second novel, God would have done that. And if I if I had been made to live in the age of many Church Fathers, God would have done that too. As it is, God’s providence has placed me here and now… and God may make of me a Church Father anyway, without a time machine. To nostalgic Romans, it may be a sadness that the door to the Middle Ages is closed, but to Orthodox living at the corner of east and now, the door to being patristic remains ever open, and I may die (or be subtilized by the returning Christ) a Church Father anyway. As things are, God has given me a whole lot of being in the right place in the right time, and put me in the days of… C.J.S. Hayward! I got onto the web by accident (or rather by providence that I did not see as significant) and I have multiple major websites and a big bookshelf on Amazon.
As I write, incidentally, the majority of U.S. flags I’ve seen are black and white with a strip of color, the old “Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake flag is seen not infrequently, and when I popped in to LinkedIn turned up a friend reflecting on a news item that grandmas are buying shotguns. I did not expect that, but I am not in the least surprised.
And one other thing: I can’t meaningfully prep apart from measures I have taken that have been unfruitful. I am on maintenance medications, and if I stop taking them, I’ll die within days. And as I write I seem to have COVID.
And in all this, I am grateful. St. John Chrysostom’s final words were, “Glory be to God for all things!” and I echo them. I have food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and really quite a lot of things that I do not need and I am not entitled to. I only need to be faithful today with what I have today. God will bring tomorrow, and not knowing what tomorrow may bring i s much less important if you know Who will bring tomorrow.
And my death is, basically, non-negotiable. God, in his great mercy, does not let us know ahead of time when we die, because we would put off repentance and be incorrigible sinners in the hour of death. A few saints know ahead when they will die. They are so secure spiritually that they will not be less faithful for knowing. For the rest of us, it is mercy that we do not know. I could, possibly, die within days. I could for that matter die sooner: when I got my first COVID injection, a blood clot formed in my leg and dislodged to make trouble in my lungs, and the doctor said I was lucky I got to the hospital when I did, because it could have killed me. I think COVID injections are the greatest breakthrough in human health since DDT, but I digress. I could die an old man, like my grandfather who lived to be 95. I could live to see the returning Christ. And which of these, or other possibilities, hold, is not my concern. Each day has enough trouble of its own—and I have found solving a life’s problems on a day’s resources to be an entirely preventable ticket to despair.
Some people think that this life is only a preparatory life and is therefore unimportant St. Nikolai, in Prayers by the Lake, talked (I forget exactly where) about how birth and death are only an inch apart, and the ticker tape goes on forever.
This makes what we choose in this life incredibly important. We can only “save for retirement” between birth and death. We can only repent between birth and death. After death, improving the lot we have eternally chosen in this life will be impossible. I wish to live in repentance for the rest of my life, but I have not gotten to monasticism yet, but if death cuts short my attempts, that matters less than you might think. God treats an active intent as if the person had done what is intended; I do not see I can rightly stop seeking monastic repentance, but if I am faithful and fail, I am in the same position as martyrs said to be “baptized in their own blood” because they were martyred before they could even reach baptism.
And, to borrow from a childhood favorite, A Wind in the Door (my esteem is much less for it now), the heroine “felt as though fingers were gentle fingers pushing her down,” I sought to stay when I visited Mount Athos and was told that the conditions for being made a saint are in America, and implicitly reminded that monastic “white martyrdom” is an artificial surrogate to the “red martyrdom” of the Church in a hostile world.
I would like to quote a unicorn in C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, though I’m not sure it applies to our world:
He said that the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve were brought out of their own strange world only at times Narnia was upset, but she mustn’t think that things were always like that. In between their visits there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful king followed peaceful king till you could hardly remember their names or count their numbers, and there was really hardly anything to put in the History Books.
As to the question of why God did not create Narnia and bring me to it, I reply that every excellence is incomparably excelled in what “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” I can’t get to a real Narnia, but I’m trying to get to a real “better than Narnia,” a “better than Narnia that begins on earth, as I discuss in A Pilgrimage from Narnia:
A Pilgrimage from Narnia
Wardrobe of fur coats and fir trees:
Sword and armor, castle and throne,
Talking beast and Cair Paravel:
From there began a journey,
From thence began a trek, Further up and further in!
A journey of the heart, barely begun,
Anointed with chrism, like as prophet, priest, king,
A slow road of pain and loss,
Giving up straw to receive gold: Further up and further in!
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,
Silence without, building silence within:
The prayer of the mind in the heart,
Prayer without mind’s images and eye before holy icons,
A simple Way, a life’s work of simplicity, Further up and further in!
A camel may pass through the eye of a needle,
Only by shedding every possession and kneeling humbly,
Book-learning and technological power as well as possessions,
Prestige and things that are yours— Even all that goes without saying:
To grow in this world one becomes more and more;
To grow in the Way one becomes less and less: Further up and further in!
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God:
The chief end of mankind,
Is to glorify God and become him forever.
The mysticism in the ordinary,
Not some faroff exotic place,
But here and now,
Living where God has placed us,
Lifting where we are up into Heaven:
Paradise is wherever holy men are found.
Escape is not possible:
Yet escape is not needed,
But our active engagement with the here and now,
And in this here and now we move, Further up and further in!
And for our world, I would quote C.S. Lewis in saying that “humanity has always been on a precipice.” Such study as I have had of Byzantine history leads me not to wonder that Constantinople fell, but that over a millennium after Constantine, after many times the Empire should have resolved, it took modern cannons to break through Constantinople’s walls and subdue the great city. “Humanity has always been on a precipice”–and it seems to be increasingly more of a precipice.
It is believed by some Orthodox that Hinduism has room for the demonic and OrthoChristian.com describes Orthodox mission in India as “Perpetual Embers,” but do not speak ill to a Hindu of Krishna and the milk-maids. However, it is not provocative to call Kali demonic: a goddess of death who wears a necklace of skulls and bestows madness as her special blessing. Or at least I don’t see why it need offend a Hindu.
I have what I would call an “unintendedly kept loan” in that I was loaned a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”) by an Indian woman, and then lost all contact and don’t see how to return it. Nor was the loan small; the Bhagavad-Gita was accompanied by commentary, as is Hindu tradition to unpack their greatest classic, in a beautiful two-volume boxed set. And the front matter talked about our being in the “Kali-yuga,” or age of Kali. I don’t know or understand what exactly a Hindu would mean by the Kali-yuga, but I can take a guess. And I have had some contact with the movement called “Traditionalists,” which find certain underlying themes in many world religions that are threatened in the modern way of life and are sympathetic to Hindus who would see a Kali-yuga:
There is a singularity which has developed over past centuries, was present in decisive breaks made in the scientific revolution that paved the way to hard science as we know it, and has been unfolding and accelerating, and now crassly has vomited TV’s and cellphones on Africa, the poorest continent. One obvious question is, “Do you mean the Book of Revelation?” and my answer is an emphatic “Yes… and No…” There are certain things which I believe we have been told will pass as Revelation is fulfilled. These include great tribulation, the coming of the Antichrist, and the return of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the glorious resurrection. But trying to pin down Biblical prophecy down in detail is essentially an attempt to get a crystal clear view into deep waters that are impregnably and unfathomably murky. Don’t, at least not before the prophecies have been fulfilled.
However, while I have extreme suspicion for detailed point-for-point pinpointing the events in Revelation, I think it is a much more possible and profitable measure to study the singularity we are in as a singularity, a point I explore with some video in Revelation and Our Singularity.
A student of World War II may be able to pinpoint a linchpin in German manufacturing. There was a single point of failure in a ball bearing factory. If that factory had been taken out, it would all but destroyed Nazi Germany’s capability to produce cars, trucks, tanks, and airplanes. Now let me ask: where is the linchpin in our technological society? Trick question! There are so many that no one knows how many there are. One of the most Luddite statements I’ve read is from a computer programmer: “If builders built buildings the way computer programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”
At Honey Rock, there was a delightful place called “the Web” that used World War II cargo netting to make a great amusement for kids. It, after several decades, fell beyond safe use, and the camp’s people tried hard to find replacements. There were none to be found, came the conclusion from their research. Furthermore, it is now a respectable number of decades since technological museum curators have computer media that they believe to likely be intact but which they have no idea how to interpret. Cryptanalysis can break all sorts of very well-engineered codes. However, storage media produced with neither the desire nor attempt towards secrecy cannot straightforwardly read media that was intended to be straightforward to read.
To put things in miniature, like almost any at least half-serious website I have switched from sending unencrypted HTTP to confidential HTTPS. This was a right decision, I believe. However, to do that I need to get a stream of certificates, and if someone by any means shut down my ability to obtain certificates, my website would practically be dead in the water. Search engines would now be linking to security error pages; even bookmarks wouldn’t work. I might be able to get the word out that my website was served via HTTP, if I wasn’t blocked from social media by that time, but my use of the recommended practice of serving webpages confidentially via HTTPS introduces one more single point of failure. (That’s why I’m revamping and roughly doubling my “Complete Works” collections in paperback. Amazon believes it has a total right to delete anything from a Kindle any time.) We are going from fragile to more and more and more fragile, to an effect like that in The Damned Backswing.
In a homily a few weeks back, my priest said,
Let us go to the Egyptian desert, and overhear a conversation taking place between a group of monks led by Abba Iscariot. This took place in the third century and the conversation went like this.
Abba Iscariot was asked, “What have we done in our life?”
The Abba replied, “We have done half of what our fathers did.”
When asked, “What will the ones who come after us do?”
The Abba replied, “They are doing the half of what we are doing now.”
And to the question, “What will the Christians of the last days do?”
He replied, “They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith, they will be glorified more than our fathers who raised the dead.
We live in an exciting time.
My spiritual director said, “We think we are not on Plan A any more, not on Plan B, not on Plan C, and so on down the alphabet, but God is always on Plan A.
I would like to talk about something I am grateful to my parents for. From a very young age, my parents tried to free me from advertising’s allure and the sacramental shopping of buying into brands. This did not, at least immediately, stop me from telling my parents I needed to have shoes or whatnot for which I had seen a really well-done ad, but it did take root, enough so that I was unpleasantly surprised when reading in a high school science class how in recording duplicable detail for a science experiment, the brand and model of all scientific equipment should be recorded among other details to try to give a scientific reader the ability to reproduce the experiment.
This may have been an overshot, and I don’t think my parents would have failed to see a legitimate exception if they had been posed the question, but my parents gave me a head start on something I would carry for life.
Where did branding come from, anyway?
Before there was really a brand economy, at least some cattle owners would brand animals with a hot branding iron to make a mark that would make it clear whose property a given bovine was. However, this is not at least in its form what we know as branding. There is an unsexy practice today that carries on branding cattle: in the business world, it is seen as due diligence to attach a label to equipment saying “Property of ABC Corporation,” and maybe add a serial number, and maybe add that there is a permanent, indelible mark under the sticker that police could trace. And perhaps corporate legal counsel would see this designation of property to be desirable as a matter of course, but this “brand” is not branding in the sense of today’s advertisements; the brand (in today’s sense) would be Apple, HP, or whoever else made a corporate asset. Perhaps no one really needs to put an equipment tag so it covers the manufacturer’s logo and says “I’m hiding who made this, to better claim it as OUR company’s property now.” And perhaps no marketer’s counsel was sought in the design of these branding asset tags; their job is to keep and maintain the company’s brand, or a product’s or the line of product, consistently presented and sold to the general public. Marketers do not normally need to make corporate property asset tags tell their company’s brand story so customers can better relate, any more than they normally feel the need to make markerboard markers or pads of paper tell their company’s brand story.
And what is wrong with branding, anyway?
I once told an economist that he didn’t understand money.
I was not much older than 20 at the time, so right time to be brash and arrogant, but I maintain my position.
What I stated then was that economics was a well-developed answer to the wrong question. The wrong question it addresses is, “How can a culture be manipulated so as to maximize economic endeavors?” when the question it should be asking is, “How can an economy best support a beneficial culture?” He answered, “We take people’s desires for granted.”
That response was a party line, was almost certainly entirely sincere, and was almost certainly entirely wrong. Somewhere in there I adapted a famous question: “Was economic wealth created for man, or man for economic wealth?”
The entire enterprise of marketing and a brand economy tacitly acknowledges that people’s natural greed will not stimulate enough purchases to meet the economy’s needs. Advertising isn’t reining in the horse of love of money and things. It isn’t even laying the reins on the horse’s neck. It’s kicking the horse in the side with your spurs as hard as you can kick.
I remember a later conversation where a professor echoed back what he heard me saying, and said, “So you’re an anti-capitalist?” and I winced. Usual objections to capitalism are Marxist in character and critique capitalism from the left. There is also a conservative vein of anti-capitalism, the perspective that motivated Dorothy Sayers to write “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” in which Sayers complains, “A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.” I quote at length what she wrote in the context of a rationed World War II England, because copies of titles with the essay are rare on Amazon:
Let us seize this breathing space [about gluttony in its crassest form], while we are out of temptation, to look at one very remarkable aspect of the sin of [gluttony]. We have all become aware lately of something very disquieting about what we call our economic system. An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age. Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one’s lot, it is now considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent on raising their standard of living. And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all citizens. It means much more and much less than this. It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being. The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before [World War II], the prime civic virtue. And why? Because machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.
We need not stop now to go round and round the vicious circle of production and consumption. We need not remind ourselves of the furious barrage of advertisements by which people are flattered and frightened out of a reasonable contentment into a greedy hankering after goods that they do not really need; nor point out for the thousandth time how every evil passion—snobbery, laziness, vanity, concupiscence, ignorance, greed—is appealed to in these campaigns. Nor how unassuming communities (described as backward countries) have these desires ruthlessly forced on them by their neighbors to find an outlet for goods whose market is saturated. And we must not take up too much time in pointing out how, as the necessity to sell goods in quantity becomes more desperate, the people’s appreciation of quality is violently discouraged and oppressed. You must not buy goods that will last too long, for production cannot be kept going unless the goods wear out, or fall out of fashion, and so can be thrown away and replaced with others.
If a man invents anything that would give lasting satisfaction, his invention must be bought up by the manufacturer so it may never see the light of day. Nor must the worker be encouraged to take too much interest in the thing he makes; if he did, he might desire to make as well as it can be made, and that would not pay. It is better that he should work in a soulless indifference, even though such treatment should break his spirit and cause him to hate his work. The difference between the factory hand is that the craftsman lives to do the work he loves; but the factory hand lives by doing the work he despises. We know about all this and must not discuss it now, but I will ask you to remember it.
The point I want to make now is this: that whether or not it is desirable to keep up this fearful whirligig of industrial finance based on gluttonous consumption, it could not be kept up for a single moment without the cooperating gluttony of the consumer. Legislation, the control of wages and profits, the balancing of exports and imports, elaborate schemes for the distribution of surplus commodities, the state ownership of enterprise, complicated systems of social credit, and finally wars and revolutions are all invoked in the hope of breaking down the thing known as the present economic system. Now it may well be that its breakdown would be a terrific disaster and produce a worse chaos than that which went before—we need not argue about it. The point is that, without any legislation whatsoever, the whole system would come crashing down if every consumer were voluntarily to restrict purchases to the things really needed. “The fact is,” said a workingman the other day at a meeting, “that when we fall for these advertisements we’re being had for mugs.” So we are. The sin of gluttony, of greed, of overmuch stuffing ourselves, is the sin that has delivered us into the power of the machine.
In the evil days between [World War I and World War II], we were confronted with some ugly contrasts between plenty and poverty. Those contrasts should be, and must be, reduced. But let us say frankly that they are not likely to be reduced so long as the poor admire the rich for the indulgence in precisely that gluttonous way of living that rivets on the world the chain of the present economic system, and do their best to imitate rich men’s worst vices. To do that is to play in the hands of those whose interest is to keep the system going. You will notice, that under a war economy, the contrast is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities and revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world; when we will not amend ourselves by grace, we are compelled under the yoke of law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of say, half a dozen dishes in a restaurant instead of forty.
In the matter of clothing, we are beginning to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and salvage waste products; and in learning do to these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure. For it is the great curse of gluttony that it ends by destroying all sense of the precious, the unique, the irreplacable.
But what will happen to us when the war machine to consume our surplus products for us? Shall we hold fast to our rediscovered sense of real values and our adventurous attitude of life? If so, we shall revolutionize world economy without any political revolution. Or shall we again allow our gluttony to become the instrument of an economic system that is satisfactory to nobody? That system as we know it thrives on waste and rubbish heaps. At present the waste (that is, sheer gluttonous consumption) is being done for us in the field of war. In peace, if we do not revise our ideas, we shall ourselves become its instruments. The rubbish heap will again be piled on our doorsteps, on our own backs, in our own bellies. Instead of the wasteful consumption of trucks and tanks, metal and explosives, we shall have back the wasteful consumption of wireless sets and silk stockings, drugs and paper, cheap pottery and cosmetics—all of the slop and swill that will pour down the sewers over which the palace of gluttony is built…
It was left for the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale and give it a title that it could carry like a flag. It occurred to somebody to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swash-buckling, piratical sin, going about with its had cocked over its eye, and pistols tucked into the tops of its jackboots. Its war cries are “Business Efficiency!” “Free Competition!” “Get Our or Get Under!” and “There’s Always Room at the Top! It no longer works and saves; it launches out into new enterprises; it gambles and speculates; it thinks in a big way; it takes risks. It can no longer be troubled to deal in real wealth and so remain attached to work and the soil. It has set money free from all hampering ties; it has interests in every continent; it is impossible to pin it down to any one place or any concrete commodity—it is an adventure, a roving, rollicking free lance. It looks so jolly and jovial and has such a twinkle in its cunning eye that nobody can believe that its heart is as cold and calculating as ever.
Sayers’s critique, in this passage, has aged extremely well. The chief differences I would note today are:
The factories are not first world factories in front of us but third world sweatshops whose workers could only drool over the conditions of first world factories, and:
So far as I can discern, Sayers does not open or foresee the Pandora’s box of branding.
This is, I would underscore, a conservative critique of capitalism. It touches on Marxist critique, or Marxism rather touches on this line of critique, when contrasting the craftsman and the factory hand; but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, including Marxism.
It is an essentially conservative outlook in Robert Grootazaard’s Aid for the Overdeveloped West, which makes at least one point I hadn’t thought of but almost instantly agreed with once I saw it. As a Christian economist, he studied the Mosaic Law and saw a blueprint for paradise, including both gleaning for the poor and an environment where it was very “difficult to get rich.” And his work can be taken as a brief, for a book, commentary on the premise that economic wealth is made for mankind and not mankind for economic wealth.
St. Paul wrote, “Love of money is the root of all evil,” (I Tim 6:10, KJV), and he did not do so in the context of our ecosystem of brands. He took up the task of taming the horse and reining it in; perhaps he has almost never been completely obeyed, but most of the Bible’s advice for a good life has almost never been completely obeyed. The verse has been softened in some translations to say, “Love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” (NIV), but no other sin receives the same indictment from St. Paul, and it is characteristic of the theology of the east that avarice or the love of money is not only named among the eight demons that would become the West’s seven deadly sins, but it is one of the top three “gateway sins” that opens the door to all others.
One lunch with Bruce Winter, the head of Tyndale House, commented on what advertising now sees as a sort of dark age before advertising would essentially get its act together. Before that, an ad advertising (for instance) fur coats, would show a fur coat, maybe with someone in it or maybe not, and the word “SALE” once or maybe repeated several times. (It strikes me as a stroke of brilliant wit that one nearby antiques dealer has, out front, a letter sign with the words “ANTIQUES! ANTIQUES! ANTIQUES!” That kind of nostalgic advertising might work for nothing else, it is perfect for communicating antique goods that in some cases would fit how some antiques were originally advertised.) Bruce mentioned the older school, and said that it comes from before advertisers understood what motivates people. Now, he commented, car ads sell on the premise that they are “mysterious, sensual, and intimate:” as I would later observe, one glitzy car ad ended with a woman’s low voice saying, “When you turn your car on… does it return the favor?” Bruce Winter was, I might underscore, not someone who would raise an objection to having something be “mysterious, sensual, and intimate” as such, and he spoke of it with awe. He was merely suggesting that we seek something “mysterious, sensual, and intimate” in the setting where we can enjoy it best.
(Australia is a bit of a special case as far as advertising goes. Advertising is legal as such, but advertisers have to sell their wares on the grounds of what their product actually provides; presenting that a product as making you magically irresistible to the opposite sex is off the agenda.)
One of many features of a favor that favors consumption has to do with fashion. In the Middle Ages, clothing styles subtly changed, perhaps once in a generation. It is not clear to me how long a garment would last, but clothing was not casually discarded. Today, fashion provides a social mechanism for frequent purchase of clothing, and the one truly good piece of advice I found in Tiptionary was to go for classic clothing rather than what is currently in vogue. Clothing is not built to last, and even if it would last, we have a social mandate that keeps selling us (mostly sweatshop) clothes. (One way to reduce one’s patronage of sweatshops is to keep clothing until it becomes genuinely unserviceable.)
Another change in habits has to do with why an appliance repair shop in my hometown closed down, having lost their lease. When an appliance breaks down, most people don’t want a fix that will restore the status quo. Most people prefer to find an occasion to upgrade. For another example, a senior I know has cookware made in the 1940’s or 1950’s. His cookware has plenty of use remaining before it will eventually decay. Its expected life, over a half century after when it was first made, is longer than brand new cookware because new cookware is specifically not built to last. Planned obsolescence is another form of life that keeps factory wheels turning. It’s not enough to have a darling brand in cars, phones, etc.; people feel an almost entirely unnecessary need to have the latest model.
I have been aware in my own life of a practice that I call “sacramental shopping.” Another term is “retail therapy,” and perhaps today the lexicon includes “Amazon therapy.” It is shopping that functions as an ersatz sacrament, and it may the chief sacrament in the ersatz religion of brand economy.
I might comment briefly, in a book that I’ve persisted in trying to track down, an analysis which says that brands do the work of spiritual disciplines for many today. The author commented that in one class he asked college students, “Imagine your future successful self. With which brands do you imagine yourself associating?” Not only could all of the students answer the question and furnish a list of brands, but he didn’t see any puzzled looks, a signal that would have blipped loud and clear on his radar as a teacher.
I believe that an example from my own life could be instructive.
When I was getting ready to study theology, in 2002 I purchased a computer that would see me through my studies up through 2007. It was an IBM ThinkPad, a brand and line that were respected and for good reason, and I purchased a computer with ample screen real estate, a 1GhZ processor that was probably overkill for my needs, and maxed-out 1G RAM. And after I did my research and set my heart on a particular purchase, and my conscience held me back. I ran from my conscience and then faced up to it, a conscience saying, “No.” And I let go of buying it altogether, and as soon as that my conscience gave me an instantaneous green light.
There were a couple of issues going on here. One of them was the purchase of a practical computer all but necessary for my studies. But the other part was that I was drooling over a major purchase in sacramental shopping, and the way things unfolded was an unfolding grace that let me buy a practical and useful computer but not making a purchase of sacramental shopping.
Now some of you may be wondering why I named and endorsed a brand of computer; my response is that I was not acting on a mystique, but on rational analysis of a brand’s track record. Though a Ford was not my first choice, I drive a Ford now, as a brand that creates physically sturdy vehicles that hold up well in a collision. One accident, in which I was hit from behind when I stopped, left me hitting the Honda Accord in front of me, and… um… I saw very directly why people refer to a Honda Accord as a “Honda Accordion.” The Accordion suffered severe damage in its trunk. I suffered a bent front license plate. When I went computer shopping, I wanted a good computer that would last, and several years after purchasing it I gave it to my brother in working order. The specs were carefully chosen, and the five or so years I used it vindicated my purchase.
Nonetheless, I believe that moment was permitted me so I could acquire the computer without it being an act of sacramental shopping, which is something quite significant. It has been my experience that when my conscience says, “Let it go, all the way,” sometimes I am freed from XYZ forever, and sometimes the instant I fully let go is the instant I get an unexpected green light. After years of struggle about posting from my story at Fordham, at all, ever, I let go… and my conscience gave me a surprisingly sudden green light, the only condition being that I not name individual figures. So I posted Orthodox at Fordham.
It is a great gift to be able to stop drooling before you buy something, or maybe instead of buying something. It is a price of inner spiritual freedom—and a doorway to contentment, for it is the characteristic of items purchased in sacramental shopping to lose their allure surprisingly quickly.
Advertising promotes a spirit of perennial discontent and a failure to be able to enjoy the things one already has. By rejecting sacramental shopping, perhaps, I was able to enjoy the ongoing use of that one laptop for several years.
Do I have a personal brand? Should I?
I don’t think we should buy into personal brands, no matter how many people exhort us to do.
The front matter to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People notes a fall that had occurred, from a character ethic to a personality ethic with characteristic exhortations to believe in yourself. Now we have had a second fall, from genuine (if shallow) personality with glimpses of character, to recommended best practices being to post stuff to Twitter that’s about 70% professional and 30% personal, giving a persona and an illusion of personality but not giving people even your real personality when the rubber hits the sky.
I do not speak highly of personal branding, but I would like first to field an objection that may occur to some of my readers: do I, great critic of brands as I am, am unusually gifted, an Orthodox author who writes in the fashion of some of the great English-language apologists, see things from a different angle, and so on; and, also, I have a distinctive look to my favorites among the books I have written. It would make sense to say, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, isn’t it a personal brand?”
My response, beyond saying that the objection is entirely understandable, is to talk about what some figures have called a “canon within the Canon.” Now this is a perspective that isn’t particularly Orthodox and I usually only invoke it with good reason, but there is a tendency for authors in theology to disproportionately quote certain areas in the canon. I imagine if you were to tally Scriptural references in my own writing, you would find heavy reference to the Sermon on the Mount, and the Pauline letters. Now I have no reticence about a debt to the Sermon on the Mount. However, one professor talked about St. Paul as “the Apostle to the heretics,” because heretics of many stripes pay disproportionate attention to the letters of St. Paul. So, while I might say “I hope to live up to it” if I am asked how I relate to the Sermon on the Mount, I am more inclined to regard my primary heavy citations of St. Paul as a liability, a holdover from when I was Protestant, and a way I have failed to live up to the Bible’s grandeur.
So, if you are to ask, “Do you have a canon within the Canon?” I would answer, “Yes, and I’m not proud of it.”
However, this is an “after the fact” canon within the Canon. I never set out to focus on the Sermon on the Mount and the letters of St. Paul, they were what came to mind when I was recalling from a lifetime of reading Scripture. I never decided to privilege the letters of St. Paul; I just gravitated a certain and imperfect way.
Some considerable distortion, and perhaps a practice that does little to warm Orthodox hearts to the whole concept of canon within the Canon, is in academic theologians who make step one of an article being to identify the canon within the Canon. Honestly, no. That doesn’t cut it. An author’s “after the fact” canon within the Canon may be to some extent unavoidable, but the idea that you start by taking a scissors to the Bible goes beyond putting the cart before the horse. It is trying to unload the cart at its destination before packing it at its source.
I may well enough have an “after the fact” personal brand. (Also, my brief popping in and out of social media when I have something to announce is not intended as the message I want my brand to portray; it is because I feel a need to sharply reduce and limit my time in these unsavory neighborhoods.) And as branding is identified and explained, your brand is the one thing that is essentially you. Besides the points mentioned above about what may be my personal brand, I have had a profound interest in social and religious aspects of technology, and it may well be that my lasting contribution to the conversation will be The Luddite’s Guide to Technology and not my general-purpose collection of theological favorites in The Best of Jonathan’s Corner. Social implications of theology are a central and guiding emphasis, but not in any way that engenders an exclusive fidelity. I hardly see The Angelic Letters or the even more exalted Doxology as peripheral to my “after the fact” marketing proposition, even if I do not recall either saying much about technology and even if my autobiography is titled Orthodox Theology and Technology.
However, out of all this there have been few things intended to address concerns of branding. My website has a distinctive and beautiful appearance and background image; and that visual identity flows onto book covers. And in a case of “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you,” from (appropriately enough) that Sermon, I have been told that my work is largely known and often endorsed among conservative converts to Orthodoxy, and I’ve even been told that my name has trilettered on Facebook to CSH (meaning C.S. Hayward) which caught me off guard. And I would briefly like to address one question some people have: why am I happy to have fame among conservative converts to Orthodoxy? Why not write for all Orthodox? My answer, I believe, lies in communication style. Any Orthodox Christian, along with other intersested parties, is welcome to read my writing. However, the way I write is shaped by English language apologists, as is probably a shared experience with many more converts than people who grew up in the Church, and writing style may be a barrier. There have been some times I have tried to write with a more patristic style, such as The Arena, Apprentice gods, and Technonomicon, but it is a liability and a limitation to my stature as an Orthodox writer that people raised in the Orthodox Church might not as easily connect with my writing.
And in any case, I have not made a marketing decision to specifically target conservative converts to Orthodoxy. I have instead attempted to write works of wonder and beauty such as I am able to and have not found already written. I judge my readership to be a case of “Man proposes, God disposes.” And I regard the fact that I have an audience at all is to me astounding. I have prayed for God to guide, help, and support me as I write. I have never prayed to be a household name among certain people.
The human cost of a brand economy: a decoy answer
Vincent J. Miller, in Consuming Religion (a Marxist text which I checked out because I confused it with Tom Beaudouin, Consuming Faith, which I read at Fordham), writes in his introduction, in reference to voluntary simplicity:
[Marketers] want to know where the nerves are so they can position their products to hit them. A stroll through the supermarket illustrates this marketing strategy. Foodstuffs and personal care products are packaged as plain, simple, and honest. The color schemes of labels as well as the products themselves are muted. Beige, lavender, and pale green provide the palette for iced tea and shampoo, risotto mixes, and aroma therapy candles. At the checking, we encounter this color scheme again, this time on the cover of a magazine that includes articles on getting organized, simplifying family life, and making Campari-grapefruit compote. It is full of glossy photo spreads of food, interiors, and clothing. A soft, minimalist aesthetic dominates these images—a hybrid of Martha Stewart and Zen Buddhism. The target audience of this magazine is professional women with incomes above $65,000 a year. Its title? Real Simple. Examples could be multiplied.
Before the point where I dropped reading the title, it also talked about how marketers made a real extravaganza of the 150th anniversary of the printing of the Communist Manifesto.
I mention this as an example of a distraction I would like to clear out. I had people say I wasn’t sure what I was doing at a jobhunter’s group where I balked at creating a personal brand to serve my jobhunt. However, I do not want to gaze endlessly down this chasm.
Albert Einstein is popularly quoted (or misquoted—for the moment I only care about the words) as saying, “The problems we face cannot be solved by the kind of thinking that created them.” And here I would say, while I honestly do not know and honestly do not care whether I am representing Einstein, that level of analysis and critique is valid up to a point but we need to move beyond them if we are to reach higher ground.
Two events shape the liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples, and the betrayal of Judas. The meaning of both is in love. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s redeeming love for man, of love as the very essence of salvation. And the betrayal of Judas reveals that sin, death and self-destruction are also due to love, but to deviated and distorted love, love directed at that which does not deserve love. Here is the mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy, where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which depends the eternal destiny of each one of us. “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come… having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end…” (John 13:1). To understand the meaning of the Last Supper we must see it as the very end of the great movement of Divine Love which began with the creation of the world and is now to be consummated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
God is Love (1 John 4:8). And the first gift of Love was life. The meaning, the content of life was communion. To be alive man was to eat and to drink, to partake of the world. The world was thus Divine love made food, made Body of man. And being alive, i.e. partaking of the world, man was to be in communion with God, to have God as the meaning, the content and the end of his life. Communion with the God-given world was indeed communion with God. Man received his food from God and making it his body and his life, he offered the whole world to God, transformed it into life in God and with God. The love of God gave life to man, the love of man for God transformed this life into communion with God. This was paradise. Life in it was, indeed, eucharistic. Through man and his love for God the whole creation was to be sanctified and transformed into one all-embracing sacrament of Divine Presence and man was the priest of this sacrament.
But in sin man lost this eucharistic life. He lost it because he ceased to see the world as a means of Communion with God and his life as eucharist, as adoration and thanksgiving. . . He loves himself and the world for their own sake; he made himself the content and the end of his life. He thought that his hunger and thirst, i.e. his dependence of his life on the world—can be satisfied by the world as such, by food as such. But world and food, once they are deprived of their initial sacramental meaning—as means of communion with God, once they are not received for God’s sake and filled with hunger and thirst for God, once, in other words, God is no longer their real “content,” can give no life, satisfy no hunger, for they have no life in themselves… And thus by putting his love in them, man deviated his love from the only object of all love, of all hunger, of all desires. And he died. For death is the inescapable “decomposition” of life cut from its only source and content. Man thought to find life in the world and in food, but he found death. His life became communion with death, for instead of transforming the world by faith, love, and adoration into communion with God, he submitted himself entirely to the world, he ceased to be its priest and became its slave. And by his sin the whole world was made a cemetery, where people condemned to death partook of death and “sat in the region and shadow of death” (Matt. 4:16).
But if man betrayed, God remained faithful to man. He did not “turn Himself away forever from His creature whom He had made, neither did He forget the works of His hands, but He visited him in diverse manners, through the tender compassion of His mercy” (Liturgy of Saint Basil). A new Divine work began, that of redemption and salvation. And it was fulfilled in Christ, the Son of God Who in order to restore man to his pristine beauty and to restore life as communion with God, became Man, took upon Himself our nature, with its thirst and hunger, with its desire for and love of, life. And in Him life was revealed, given, accepted and fulfilled as total and perfect Eucharist, as total and perfect communion with God. He rejected the basic human temptation: to live “by bread alone”; He revealed that God and His kingdom are the real food, the real life of man. And this perfect eucharistic Life, filled with God, and, therefore Divine and immortal, He gave to all those who would believe in Him, i,e. find in Him the meaning and the content of their lives. Such is the wonderful meaning of the Last Supper. He offered Himself as the true food of man, because the Life revealed in Him is the true Life. And thus the movement of Divine Love which began in paradise with a Divine “take, eat. ..” (for eating is life for man) comes now “unto the end” with the Divine “take, eat, this is My Body…” (for God is life of man). The Last Supper is the restoration of the paradise of bliss, of life as Eucharist and Communion.
But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. “And it was night” (John 13:30). Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the Gospel, and his fateful love is stressed again and again in the hymns of Holy Thursday. It does not matter indeed, that he loves the “silver.” Money stands here for all the deviated and distorted love which leads man into betraying God. It is, indeed, love stolen from God and Judas, therefore, is the Thief. When he does not love God and in God, man still loves and desires, for he was created to love and love is his nature, but it is then a dark and self-destroying passion and death is at its end. And each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, do I follow Judas into the darkness of his night?
The human cost of a brand economy is that it draws us into the love of Judas Iscariot.
Fr. Alexander, in this passage, is extremely clear that Judas is not dead to love: he loves what should not be loved, and he loves in the wrong way. He loves “silver:” one could just as well say “even worse, brands.” And the love we love when we covet brands—and it is love—is love of what is unworthy and the same destructive love by which Judas renounced his Lord to obtain a pittance of silver, the price of a slave and nothing more.
We can do one of two things. We can love God and our neighbor, or we can attend to brands, but we cannot do both.
Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace. He cannot free himself from evil thoughts, words and actions, and because of these thoughts and actions he will not be able freely to pass the lords of hell when he dies.
Saint Theodora lived at Constantinople during the first half of the tenth century. She had been married, but was widowed early on and led a pious life, caring for the destitute and hopeless. Later, she became a nun and lived under the guidance of Saint Basil the New (March 26), living the monastic life in a solitary cell in her own home.
Saint Theodora died in great old age in the year 940. Gregory, a disciple of Saint Basil the New, asked his teacher to reveal to him the fate of the deceased nun. “Do you want this very much?” asked Saint Basil. “Yes, I do,” Gregory replied.
“You shall see her today, if you ask with faith, and if you believe that your request will be granted.”
There is some slight controversy surrounding Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted’s teaching on the phantom tollbooth. His position, as carried forth by others, is that practically every major element of The Phantom Tollbooth is already in the Fathers and is attested in quite ancient liturgy. Consequently, many argue, the book The Phantom Tollbooth is no mere imaginative children’s tale, but an entirely literal factual account describing life beyond the mundane.
When I was a catechumen, one thing the priest who received me into confession hammered on was that “There never was a golden age.” He presumably admires the saints of the great Christological councils but the point he made was that the Ecumenical Councils were a supreme medicine because the problems were so bad.
I do not recall him ever mentioning 19th century Russia in “There never was a golden age,” but he was presumably trying to prepare me for the nostalgia a convert into Russian Orthodoxy would encounter for 19th century Russia; I have said that my own jurisdiction may be the most nostalgic for 19th century Russia, although at least one OCA member lightheartedly suggested the OCA might have that title.
A somewhat different perspective was taken up, in a piece of correspondence I have long since lost contact with, saying that 19th century Russia was the worst century in Orthodox history, a sort of Gnostic wonderland with something to offer every idle curiosity. And while I have read truly edifying stories from 19th century Russia in a Cathedral bulletin, I’ve also read things that are more… X-Files in their toxicity.
It is reported that Church Fathers and ancient liturgy attest to the existence of tollhouses, but the average devotee of Fr. Seraphim of Plantina I have met knows more details about Tollhouses than all the ancient sources I have read put together, and it has been asserted to me that the obligation to bring all of your sins to confession is true to the point that it entails a binding obligation to successfully remember all of your sins, specifically meaning that if you confess every sin you ever remember in confession, but you forget one sin, the demons can stop you at the Tollhouses and you can go to Hell.
I think that, with such considerations, it might be valid to distinguish between tollhouses and Tollhouses. The former teaching, of ancient attestation, is such that the demons will grab you by any sin they can, and there is a need for repentance that includes straightforward, honest, and perhaps even soul-searching confession; hiding sins in confession makes your fault all the more serious. But it seems unbalanced, at least, to say that you can try with your whole heart to meet the needs of confession because there was one sin that you forgot to confess despite your best efforts.
Tollhouses may be a feature of 19th century Russian spirituality, but the full version with all the bells and whistles goes considerably further than do the tollhouses in the Philokalia for instance. I do not recall reading in any source not downwind of Saint Theodora’s story. Furthermore, I would suggest that legitimate interpretation recognizes tollhouses as one image among others, like Kalamiros’s “River of Fire” in which God pours out his Light on all, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced through the rejection of Christ, the only route through which the Light of Heaven appears with such joy. Legitimate belief in tollhouses should naturally coexist with saying that various Roman era martyrs who were martyred before they had any opportunity to give confession and be baptized are said to be “baptized in their own blood,” a term that applies to martyrs who were burned or otherwise killed through something other than blood loss, and should naturally coexist with the woman who was sanctified and later canonized after a single hour of repentance during which she had no access to a human priest and it is not stated that she confessed her sins to an angel or the like. Demons will try to stop us by any means they can, but the teaching of tollhouses is not a polestar among doctrines, much less a full cast-iron and legalistic insistence on Tollhouses.
St. Dionysius wrote, in the rising crescendo that would conclude The Mystical Theology:
In The Divine Names I have shown the sense in which God is described as good, existent, life, wisdom, power, and whatever other things pertain to the conceptual names for God. In my Symbolic Theology I have discussed analogies of God drawn from what we perceive. I have spoken of the images we have of him, of the forms, figures, and instruments proper to him, of the places in which he lives and the ornaments which he wears. I have spoken of his anger, grief, and rage, of how he is said to be drunk and hungover, of his oaths and curses, of his sleeping and waking, and indeed of all those images we have of him, images shaped by the workings of the representations of God. And I feel sure that you have noticed how these latter come much more abundantly than what went before, since The Theological Representations and a discussion of the names appropriate to God are inevitably briefer than what can be said in The Symbolic Theology. The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing. In the earlier books my argument this downward path from the most exalted to the humblest categories, taking in on this downward path an ever-increasing number of ideas which multiplied what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.
Now you may wonder why it is that, after starting out from the highest category when our method involves assertions, we begin now from the lowest category involves a denial. The reason is this. When we assert what is beyond every assertion, we must then proceed from what is most akin to it, and as we do so we make the affirmation on which everything else depends. But when we deny that which is beyond every denial, we have to start by denying those qualities which differ most from the goal we hope to attain. Is it not closer to truth to say that God is life and goodness rather than that he is air or stone? Is it not more accurate to deny that drunkenness and rage can be attributed to him than to deny that we can apply to him the terms of speech and thought?
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can be neither seen nor touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of this can either be identified with it nor attributed.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or any other being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name or knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation, it is also beyond every denial.
Language about God is necessary, but for people to whom the obligation falls, it is necessary to know that all images, even those sanctioned in Scripture, are limited. I remember being a bit grossed out when one acquaintance interpreted Genesis 1 to mean that God spoke with literal lips and a tongue, but I did not correct her; such a belief was appropriate for her spiritual condition and correcting her might have been the de-mythologizing sin of the monk in Everyday Saints and Other Stories who with his book-knowledge told a peasant that God had no need for physical food, that it couldn’t have been God who drank the offering bowl of goat milk the peasant offered nightly, and stayed up with the peasant until he saw that it was “just” a little fox who drank the milk. The angel accused the monk with his book knowledge of taking what little the peasant had, and explained something the monk had never thought of: that God had sent that fox every day to drink the milk in divine acceptance of the offering. De-mythologizing is a legitimate enterprise and St. Dionysius offers a much fuller and more robust version than anything Bultmann ever point out, but I do not see it as an obviously blessed thing for people who have reached de-mythologizing to go on crusades to take away the little that is all a less mature Christian may have.
The existence of ?ollhouses has been debated, and the OCA website features an article by Fr. John Breck that speaks of “the dubious teaching of tollhouses.” I would reply that tollhouses are evidently something that at least one Father in the Philokalia mentions in passing but precisely no one in the first four volumes makes a terribly big deal of. The lives of the saints cover a number of people whose logistics did not allow one final life confession with a priest, and here we have an air, “liberal” in the best and highest sense of the term, that is generous and has us interceded for in Heaven by saints who partly did not have the logistics to make a full life confession before death, and in no saint’s life that I remember is a saint alleged to have remembered every sin he ever committed to be able to successfully confess every sin on pain of going to Hell if he forgot one.
tollhouses are a feature of ancient Christianity, but I have never read in classic spiritual literature not cited above there being some kind of spiritual currency that a saint passing “the lords of hell” has to feed to demons standing on the way. Thus it may be that the Orthodox Church’s classic tollhouses are in fact not ?ollhouses of any description. In other words, for all I know, they may not be ?ollhouses, by definition, because they are not houses (or booths, or gateways), that collect tolls.
This is one area where I confess a degree of ignorance, but it is an ignorance I retain after reading ancient sources that really do not, in works I remember reading, offer such an account of Tollhouses that pander to any idle curiosity those drawn to a Gnostic wonderland could want. Furthermore, it has been my invariable experience that people who push Tollhouses on others are best avoided in the first place.
I do not see the image of tollhouses as really being subject to the debate. It’s part of the Orthodox collection of images, and it is an icon. Nonetheless, on the information I have, I don’t know that tollhouses collect tolls. And as regards fruit in my own life, I have given better confessions when I have not thought about Tollhouses and felt an obligation to remember every sin to the letter. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” and I believe I have confessed better when I have tried to bring my real sinfulness to Christ in the person of my priest and not when I was trying as hard as I could to keep tabs on all my sins.
You can believe in tollhouses without bearing the legalistic burden of belief in Tollhouses.
I’d like to open by flatly contradicting something that is openly stated in Scripture. St. Paul in defending Christ’s resurrection and our own (1 Cor 15:19, RSV), writes if there is no resurrection, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
Now I believe there is a resurrection, and furthermore that the significance of this life lies precisely in the fact that by our lives on earth we are making an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell. But I would like to submit something that may seem a straight-out opposite: suppose that there is no final resurrection, no judgment, no life or experience or existence after death, just nothingness, and the only life to be had is this life. That is all. In that case, what kind of life is to be desired? My answer is “Exactly the same as what Orthodox Christians try to live today.”
In regard to future punishment and rewards, Martin Luther was right when he said, “If we knew what Christ came to save us from, we would die of fear. If we knew what Christ came to save us for, we would die of joy.” And for that matter, C.S. Lewis was right when he portrayed Heaven as infinitely eclipsing Hell. And it is in regard to future reward that St. Maximus Confessor distinguished from three ranks among the Lord’s disciples: slaves, who obey out of fear, mercenaries, who obey out of hope for future reward, and sons, who obey out of love.
Now all three of these have a place, and I have obeyed as a slave at times, knowing that suicide would be a direct door to Hell, and on that point I would recall the Philokalia saying that strange as it may sound, we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, because more people have been saved through fear of Hell’s torments than through hope of Heaven’s joys. But mercenaries are more noble than slaves, and sons more noble than both. And in the end mercenaries are more insulated from Hell’s torments than slaves, sons even more insulated than mercenaries, and sons are more handsomely rewarded than mercenaries in the next life.
But with this as a big picture I cannot rightly disown, I’d like to narrow things down and focus solely on mercenary concerns, and even more unusually focus on this life.
People have said that virtue is its own reward, enough so that Calvin and Hobbes, with a Spaceman Spiff wanting to teach aliens that virtue is its own reward, despite the fact that I have never seen in the entire Calvin and Hobbes history evidence of Calvin having any concept that virtue could be its own reward. But what does it mean? I am wary of assuming that the reader knows what this means, or whether the saying is understood in addition to being quoted mindlessly.
Ask a recovering alcoholic who’s been dry for years which is better: being sober, or being drunk all the time. Now being drunk, or today toking, may bring great pleasure if you’re basically sober. However, I believe that most recovering alcoholics would vehemently affirm that being sober is better than being a slave chained to a bottle more constricting than a genie’s lamp. It has been said that alcoholism is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy! Or to quote Chesterton about another topic, “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.” Humility is a vaster thing than pride. And even within the limits of this life, on purely mercenary concerns, virtue is better today than vice.
There is an interesting point about how happiness is conceived in classical Greek, as represented by Plato and others, where the word, ευδαιμονια or eudaimonia, literally means “good spirits” and describes the happiness that derives from one’s spirit being in good condition. Thinking of happiness without particular regard to the health of one’s spirit is a bit like thinking about the endocrine rush provided by a good exercise program without any real regard to the health of one’s body: absurd, and how absurd it is is partly unpacked in the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke: The Republic. As to how this is unpacked, I refer the reader to the classics; but the idea of achieving happiness without one’s spirits being in good condition comes across as out of place, perhaps perhaps simply inconceivable, perhaps impossible, or perhaps just absurd and undesirable.
And this much may be said without touching any merits or joys that are specific to Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy. But in fact living the life of Christ already starts on earth, acquisition of the Holy Spirit already starts on earth, and Heaven itself starts on earth, and if there is (I speak hypothetically) no Heaven awaiting the faithful after death, I would rather live the beginning of Heaven on earth, and then stop existing or experiencing, than never touch Heaven at all.
And in terms of virtues and vices, I have something to say about the occult that may wound some of my dearest readers. It is unnatural vice.
The concept of unnatural vice in Orthodoxy is broader than sexual perversions including porn, and it may be hard to see why an informed person would call unnatural a nature religion like Wicca. My response is this: As far as standardized tests like the SAT go, there are some test preparation strategies that can legitimately raise scores. Kaplan, or its competitors, can raise scores. But there is another school that says that if you’re not cheating you’re not playing hard enough, and are strategies to cheat on tests. And the occult amounts to approaching cheating as how you raise your score, and is not satisfied with legitimate test preparation. It is an unnatural vice, and heavy nature theming and self-presentation as a route to harmony with nature do not change the fact that the empowerment Wicca claims is empowerment through nature-themed unnatural vice. Unnatural vice that works with plants is unnatural as artistic pornography in beautiful natural surroundings (eveandherfriends DOT tumblr DOT com) is an unnatural vice that disenchants the entire universe. Attempts to engage in an unnatural vice in a natural way do not remove the fact or the problem of a draining unnatural vice that destroys the possibility of joy. One acquaintance talked about how one person considered himself not to be an alcoholic, because he only drank gourmet wines!
I fear by saying this much, I may have already lost much of my audience by now. However, to help bring you to your senses, I would bring a poem (simply text with punctuation based on per cola et commata’s lines):
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Mother of God, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
G.K. Chesterton said something relevant to much more than poets and logicians:
The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
The Blessed Augustine wrote that if a master sends two slaves by routes that will cross, their meeting is an accident from the slaves’ perspective but by design from the master’s perspective. What is lost in all this is, if I may take a cue from astrology, dancing the Great Dance, where the dance is led by a little girl with a tambourine. Sin constricts; occult sin seeks to draw Heaven down to fit your desires. What we need is not to reduce Heaven to fit us; we need to open ourselves to fit Heaven. And when we pray, odd but wonderful coincidences can happen, and God draws us out of the Hell of self.
Applications in Our Day
Yes, that is well and good for easier times, but what about today?
Let me return to an example I have used earlier. The Bible contains warnings against drunkenness in both the Old and New Testaments. In Bible times, wine fermented to about 4% alcohol, which is a third of the alcohol in wine and slightly less than in a standard beer. In the Graeco-Roman world, that wine was mixed 1:2 with water, so we’re bringing the alcohol content down to significantly less than lite beer. It takes (or at least it takes us—I unofficially suspect that major dietary differences influence how well you can hold your liquor) a fair amount of drinking to get drunk.
Since ancient warnings about using wine in moderation or not using it at all, we have developed not only strong beer but wine that used to be 12% alcohol (that number tends to steadily increasing), and eighty proof, and Everclear if you wish, and now cannibalis—er, cannabis—is legal, with stronger drugs illegal but still available in 50 States.
Q: Is sobriety still relevant?
A: Now more than ever.
It’s harder to reach, but this sort of thing is if anything even more essential. (There is more on spiritual sobriety in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, which I highly recommend.)
Do not worry for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by worrying? You might as well try to worry your way into being a foot taller!
I have found that trying to solve a life’s problems on a day’s resources is a sure road to despair. The Sermon on the Mount is very practical in an everyday here and now. Some people have gotten the impression that I am better at planning and orchestrating than they are. I categorically deny the charges.
When I was in high school, there was a game of sorts called “Wargames,” that showed a world map and had a button to launch missles. When you clicked on “Launch,” you could see the missile trajectories as missiles launched from the God-blessed USA to the godless USSR—and from the godless USSR to the God-blessed USA, resulting in essentially total world annihilation. Then a preachy enough message appeared: “The only way to win this game is not to play at all.” And so it is with worry: The only way to win this game is not to play at all.”
Inner peace does not come when you have worried your ducks all into a row. Inner peace comes when you solve today’s problems, or even the problems of part of today, on today’s resources, and you let go.
This has got to be near the top of things in the Bible that we want to drag our heels on, but let me ask almost a riddle:
Would you rather meet people you admire and are in awe of, or people you look down on and despise?
If you’d like to be in the presence of people you admire, admire other people by in humility considering others better than yourself.
It’s that simple!
In the Philokalia we read St. Peter of Damascus’s “A Treasury of Divine Knowledge”:
…Thus through self-control he practices the other virtues as well. He looks on himself as in God’s debt for everything, finding nothing whatsoever with which to repay to his Benefactor, and even thinking that his virtues simply increase his debt. For he receives and has nothing to give. He only asks that he may be allowed to offer thanks to God. Yet even the fact that God accepts his thanks puts him, so he thinks, into still greater debt. But he continues to give thanks, ever doing what is good and reckoning himself an ever greater debtor, in his humility considering himself lower than all men, delighting in God his Benefactor and trembling even as he rejoices (cf. Ps. 2: I 1).
It is no accident that positive psychology tries to crank gratitude to the max. But there is ideally a feedback loop between gratitude and humility, and humility is deeper; it could almost be called the fourth Christian or theological virtue.
It is a wondrous experience to recognize that one is unworthy even to thank God for his many blessings, and thank him for his many blessings anyway.
So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord… (1 Peter 3:5-6)
This passage is not politically correct, but it is a hinge of joy and it respects the nature of women however much we try to grind it out of them. Snow White sang, “Some day, my prince will come,” and it is the desire of every little girl to marry a prince. This is true in all the older Disney cartoons except maybe Aladdin: a princess like Ariel and a commoner like Belle are both happy in being married to a lord. Out of this I have advice: if you want to be married to a lord then you might well see, and treat, your husband as your lord.
Ok, more people probably lost there. Despite my best wishes.
I have presented a paltry few aspects of the layer Christianity has to offer to those who seek mercenary reward, and are concerned within the bounds of this life.
Christianity is not just pie in the sky when you die. It is also steak on your plate while you wait.
Steak on your plate while you wait
I would like to give links to works on this site that significantly address mercenary concerns within the scope of this life, at least as one layer. This layer may not in the end be separable from obeying God out of sheer and undiluted love, but they are meant to speak here now and address our own interests.
If you want to know what set of eyes you should be looking through, look through these eyes here. It tells of a glory offered us that begins here and now: and what kind of glorious God governs the here and now.
Each of us has a guardian angel assigned at baptism, and a personal tempting demon allowed to test us for our strengthening. C.S. Lewis writes about a personal tempter. I write about our guardian angel.
I don’t know if I can call this any sort of upgrade to Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, but if a Christian may be be sustained by the riches of pagan philosophy, a fortiori an Orthodox Christian may be sustained by the riches of Christian theology
This piece arose from a conversation with a fairly bright friend I had where I realized I had been putting important points of data out but not explaining or clarifying very well how they were connected, assuming connections were obvious when they weren’t. This piece is not intended to add anything new to my portfolio of documents, but to explain and/or re-explain with more “connective tissue” where the reader will be told how they fit together.
Clearing away one distraction
The effort to go virtual made more painfully apparent the resource disparities affecting the underprivileged. I acknowledge such, but my point has nothing really to do with that. No objections to such discussion, but I am not attempting such a discussion here. I am discussing something else.
An example of a gap
To illustrate the kind of gap I am talking about, I would like to look at Bridge to Terebithia, which is partly driven by a cultural gap between a poor farmboy and an urban gal whom the author marks as being Privileged with a capital ℙ. It’s not just that, as the Wikipedia article points out, that her family is the one family in town where “Money is not the issue.” Her family does not own a television, a point which prompted the farmboy to assume her family is too poor to own a television. Other markers where the author attaches a bold-font label of “Privileged” are that she does not know the Easter story, but listens to it with some wonder and says it’s like the story of Socrates’s trial and death, or Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia.
The story is largely a story of cross-cultural encounter, and it is so no less because the two central characters are both U.S. citizens, both white, of the same age, and for that matter are both can run. The privilege is not just that the girl’s parents are wealthy and purchase a rural house to take a break and re-evaluate their priorities. Not owning a television is a major marker of the girl’s Privileged family, and I will consider that very important in the points that follow. But my other major reason for presenting this, besides my wanting to underscore that the girl’s family Does Not Own a Television, is that studying and exploring a gap across what really amounts to culture is a large portion of what drives this story and makes this Newberry Award winner interesting.
Gaps like these, in my opinion, are well worth paying attention to, and it is my intent in this post to understand a few gaps and reap something very worthwhile from minding the gaps.
Why I disagree with “In the future, we’ll all be Harry Potter”
By saying that we’ll one day be like Harry Potter, I don’t mean that we’ll fly around on broomsticks or play three-dimensional ballgames (though virtual reality will let enthusiasts play Quidditch matches). What I do mean is that we’re about to experience a world where spirit inhabits formerly inanimate objects.
Much of the Harry Potter books’ charm comes from the quirky magic objects that surround Harry and his friends. Rather than being solid and static, these objects embody initiative and activity. This is precisely the shift we’ll experience as computational power moves beyond the desktop into everyday objects.
I do not contest Jakob Nielsen’s assertion that in the future we will have technology that sounds astounding by today’s standards. That much is indisputable. However, I strongly dispute the implication that to people living in that reality, it will be a world of wonder, or a world that we could wish were real to us, the way Harry Potter fans wish on some level they could live at Hogwarts.
I wish to assert, unfold, and unpack that however much some technologies may initially wow people who don’t have them, the future is this shimmering, desirable place the way Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is a place people so much wish that they could be their real world.
A meme about a gap: Old Economy Steve
There is a group of memes that rub in the smiling, pimply white face of some poor guy’s high school yearbook photo with a generic, mid-70’s hairstyle. They spitefully rub things in about a clueless, out-of-touch Old Economy Steve, and rub in that he is specifically clueless about the gap separating young people from himself:
Goes to law school.
Pays student loans with first paycheck.
Brought a house in his 20’s with a 9 to 5 job that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree.
“Kids these days have it easy.”
“When I was in college my summer job paid the tuition.”
Tuition was $400.
Pays into Social Security.
Becomes homeowner at 22.
Tells son’s generation it’s lucky because it can afford $200 smartphones.
Said, “Too many C____s, not enough I____s.”
Middle manages minimum wage employees.
“At my first job I only made $15k a year.”
In 1979 that was the equivalent of $47k.
Got my dream job,
By answering a classified ad.
“Why don’t you call and ask if they’re hiring?”
Hasn’t been on a job hunt since 1982.
“I worked all summer to buy a car.”
Grows up in one of the world’s best economies.
Creates the worst global economy the world has ever seen.
(“And all this before COVID,” one might add!)
Now I would like to ask you to keep one eye on what Old Economy Steve doesn’t get about our economy today, and watch a series of famous 1993 ad campaign run by AT&✁✆✇.*T.
In all or almost all of these things, we have pretty much what the advertisement stated, or something that makes said prediction simply obsolete. I admit readily that electronic toll collection is far more convenient than keeping track of various denominations of coins and stopping at a tollbooth and trying to throw the coins into one of those funnels, and the demolition derby to get back on to the regular highway. For that matter I see our toll collection as more convenient than what the commercial promises: we don’t even need to swipe a credit card through a reader to pay a toll; we just drive through at full speed and are charged the toll…
…but the actor in the ad displays an almost sexual thrill at being able to pay a toll while driving at full speed, and whatever the experience is like for us to whom it is an everyday activity, our experience is hardly an orgasm.
What we have now is simply not Old Economy Steve’s economy with draining charming and wonderful phones tacked on. And this has something to do with why I believe technology is part of our poverty.
Here and now, I submit, we are already living “In the future, we’ll all be Harry Potter.” The clarification on Jakob Nielsen’s part of “By saying that we’ll one day be like Harry Potter, I don’t mean that we’ll fly around on broomsticks or play three-dimensional ballgames” is already obsolete: we have flying motorcycles and with some basic Internet of Things features we could make three-dimensional ballgames no more dangerous than Harry Potter’s Quidditch. And it is probably child’s play, for initiates, to print an ornamental level of broomstick-themed decoration, even though a flying motorcycle may still look like a flying motorcycle:
“In the future we’ll all be Harry Potter” and “YOU WILL and the company that will bring it to you is AT&✁✆✇.*T” meet together. The prediction that we will carry our medical records in our wallets is obsolete because we have Internet-enabled health records. It is beside the point that a credit card sized device can carry our medical records. It is also obsolete to predict that in the future we will be able to get custom concert tickets from an ATM. We can buy tickets, pick seats, and show a QR code on our smartphones. And there is something quaint about the image of an enchanted mother giving best wishes to a baby through video phone booths; we can Zoom chat with laptops and mobile devices but some of us find mandatory Zoom chats depressing next to conversing face-to-face.
All this said, we ain’t in Old Economy Steve’s economy any more, and technology is part of our poverty.
In one post to a friend, I wrote,
Have you ever drained yourself by compulsively checking your phone easily a hundred times a day?
Have you ever had several Big Brothers know your every every step, every heartbeat?
Have you ever had every keystroke you’ve ever typed be recorded and available to use against you for all your remaining life?
Have you ever met people from the last generation that remembers what life was like before the world went digital?
and AT&T ain’t the only company that will bring it to you!
Conclusion: My own privilege
Having discussed how we have at least somewhat “Harry Potter”-like technologies, but we ain’t enjoying Old Economy Steve’s “Hasn’t applied for a job since Jimmy Carter—’You need to hit the bricks to find work. That’s what I did.'” living conditions any more, I would like to add an additional note, and tie in something from the beginning of this article, the Privileged girl in Bridge to Terebinthia.
I am in at least one privileged position comparable to the girl whose family doesn’t have a television.
I own a cellphone, and it doesn’t run my life.
(One I purchased a couple of years ago, used.)
I used to get sucked into social media, but have backed away to 5-10 minutes’ social media interaction per month, generally to announce something.
I read (among others) Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul, and realized I was compulsively checking email and checking my phone a hundred times per day. I now check email often just once or twice a day, not compulsively. I also don’t really check my cellphone. I’ve turned off almost all notifications that I can. I still use my phone, for instance for GPS navigation, but on an opt-in basis. I try to limit what is initiated by my phone, and avoid what I have elsewhere called an intravenous drip of noise like the plague.
I’ve seen a very frequent Twitter poster ask, “Is there anywhere in the world that does not have Internet?” and in one sense the answer is almost a complete “No:” every continent, including the poorest continent of Africa, has expensive phones as common possessions.” But in another sense, the answer is, “It’s right under your nose. But don’t go to buy airfare. Read a couple of books, and make some lifestyle changes, and in an older word, repent.”
I would ask the reader to buy two books: The New Media Epidemic and my own The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. Please consider buying both of them in paper (“kids-go-ask-your-grandparents”), and if you buy just one, buy the first. I’ve found that it is possible to have an oasis or at least a relative oasis. It is not entirely easy, and it is even less obvious, but it exists for real. The New Media Epidemic also covers, as I do not, clinics and programs that exist for smartphone / internet addiction. (This is also somewhere a good Orthodox priest can help.)
I have other privileges besides having taken charge, at least mostly, of my cellphone and internet usage. I’m really book-smart, and I can’t simply give that to you, though I can write brainbuilding materials. I am also, in some circles, a famous author, or at least I’ve been told my name has trilettered on Facebook to “CSH,” i.e. “C.S. Hayward,” along the lines of “C.S. Lewis,” and even a scathing personal attack mentions that I am well-known among conservative converts to Orthodoxy. Despite all this Amazon has ways of interpreting its contracts so my income from Kindle books is a total of about $10 to $20 per month (I think I earn more if you buy one of the paperbacks from my bookshelf (or the one hardcover worth mentioning, but I’m not clear my income from Amazon will break three figures monthly, as it did before Amazon reinterpreted its contracts). I have, in God’s Providence, everything I need; I am retired on disability, and it is not uncommon for me to receive some boost on top of that. I really try to pray “Give us today our daily bread,” and beyond that cast my cares upon the Lord and upon a favorite saint, St. Philaret the Merciful, whose life is a testimony to everything the Sermon on the Mount says about treasures in Heaven and proper use of wealth.
And the Sermon on the Mount, with its teachings on wealth, is the true Oasis amidst a parched technoscape. Almost everything else that is good to be had is first drunk from that Fountainhead.
“If you keep your guitar in the case and get it out before you play it and put it away afterwards, you’ll spend less time playing your guitar.”
This advice was mentioned in reference to another Internet addiction, but I recently leveled up about not having my phone control my life.
I carry my phone turned off completely. Not sleeping and ready for action when I hit the sleep/wake button. Off.Completely. As off as I can do.
If I have a legitimate justification to use it, I turn it on for long enough to do whatever I need to do, and then I immediately turn it all the way off. It’s wonderfully inconvenient, and it lets me keep my phone with me as much as I want, have it available, but then be in a place in the world that does not have convenient, non-stop Internet access. And I can get there without needing to shell out for an expensive plane ticket to some faroff forgotten world, or for that matter shell out any money for anything at all.
Extra credit for fuller benefit: Don’t piggyback multiple activities at a time. If you use your phone to do GPS navigation, and realize you need to send a text, turn your phone off completely, when you arrive at your destination, then turn it on again, then send the text, then turn it off again completely, and you’re off!
And while you’re at it, upgrade to a watch that cannot be controlled by the government or hacked into by faceless intruders from across the world, perhaps the watch you had before getting a smartwatch—ine is a Casio Men’s Pathfinder Casual Watch PRW2500T-7CR Titanium. (Though I felt very small and shamed when I saw a doctor wearing a cheap $5 digital watch with no special features.)
I am presently attending a Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia archdiocesan seminary, and one of the perks is that I am getting to meet Fr. Seraphim of Plantina and see some of why he is respected.
Fr. Seraphim, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church does not downplay at least some of the concerns I’ve had about the Blessed Augustine. I’ve heard Orthodox complaints in the past that when Evangelicals say “I’ve been reading the Fathers,” it usually means “I’ve been reading Augustine and no one else,” and my last real comment on the matter was that Blessed Augustine was a Church Father the way Evangelicals would imagine a Church Father: a philosopher whose subject matter was God and who heavily quoted Scripture. Fr. Seraphim acknowledges Blessed Augustine’s overreliance on reason, but suggests that balanced such concerns with a suggestion that Orthodox view him as a Church Father, if not necessarily of the first rank. His overuse of reason is seen as a liability; but it is apparently not seen as the end of the world.
(I’m not completely sure what to do with the book’s claim that an Ecumenical Council placed Blessed Augustine as equal to the Three Heirarchs except maybe as an exuberant tangent spun off a Council’s long list of Church Fathers that included the Three Heirarchs, Blessed Augustine, and many more. However, this is not my main focus.)
To cite the preface to Fr. Seraphim’s title: “When I made a disapproving facial expression and stated that the Church does not give him the full title of “Saint” but only calls him “Blessed,” he replied, ‘Show me another Father who speaks stronger than Augustine on repentance.'”
My most immediate response is, “I don’t know about the Greek Fathers, but I’ve written more about repentance.” I invite you to read my chief work on the topic, Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret. The Orthodox Church speaks in her liturgy about “hope in repentance,” and repentance is something joyful that reaches well beyond what remorse even dreams of. A Protestant framing of repentance is to speak of it as unconditional surrender; Orthodoxy does not deny this but reaches further to compare repentance to awakening. There are more than glimmers of this in Augustine, but the most vivid quotes in Augustine’s Confessions look on evil with a horrid fascination. Things of goodness, sweetness in the Lord, are mentioned joyfully. However, there is nothing like this horrid fascination that has in regard to good things the forceful underscoring and unpacking that Blessed Augustine has for his sins. And really, evil cannot be as evil as good is good. I wrote of repentance about being blindsided by reward, to unpack one aspect of repentance. The goodness of repentance has much more to unpack than the evil of sin, and if there is anything wrong with Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, it is how far it falls short of properly unpacking what a good thing and a blessing repentance is.
The process of repentance is an unconditional surrender to something you think you absolutely must have (the Philokalia says, “People hold on to sin because they think it adorns them), and when you surrender, if you surrender, you have lost nothing but a shackle, and you realize that you need a hole in your head like you needed that sin. You are blindsided by reward, and you realize that you were clinging to what was in fact a piece of Hell. However, the main focus is not on how horrible that piece of Hell was. It is, as my priest put it, that you have been clogged and in repentance you get unclogged, having a new freedom you had not even dreamed of. And, really, there are more things in repentance than are even dreamed of in our prior immediate mindset.
With all that stated, I would like to quote some of the most heavily underlined quotes in Fr. Seraphim’s copy of Blessed Augustine’s Confessions:
I disobeyed, not from a better choice, but from love of play, loving the pride of victory in my contests, and to have my ears tickled with lying fables, that they might itch the more, for the show and games of my elders.
I lusted to thieve, and did it, compelled by no hunger, no poverty, but through a cloyedness of well-doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but I joyed in the theft and sin itself.
Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, I flung them away, my pnly feast being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin.
These are the kind of quotes that put the “Augustine” in “Augustinian,” and remorse gets more fascination than repentance.
When I was received into the Orthodox Church, I thought it was best to confess my sins vividly to help me in my remorse. Admittedly, I know that sins of lust and anger are not to be confessed in great detail lest the penitent reawaken the sin. But in fact what is preferred is to state your sins briefly, and I do not think that this is in the first instance either because of logistics or efficiency on the one hand, or on the other hand tied to what a fellow parishioner commented that you should just state the sin, because the further you go in detail the more likely you will be accusing yourself. While I don’t want to slight joyful compunction, the goal of repentance is not to stay in remorse. The goal is simply to wake up and be freed from your infirmity.
Remorse in itself does not save. Judas was remorseful, and hanged himself. Repentance would be turn to Christ and wash his feet with his tears. And Judas did not do that.
Seeing this book helped me understand why Augustine has repented, and it takes some guts to defend perhaps one of the most vilified of the Fathers of the Church. Or at least a contrarian mind. And some of the things I find questionable in Augustine seem to have some resonance with Fr. Seraphim.
Remorse is not repentance. Repentance vastly eclipses remorse, and it draws one’s eyes towards what Fr. Tom Hopko advised in, “Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.” Part of repentance leaves one realizing, “I was holding onto a piece of Hell!”—but that is not what fascinates a mind beholding the beauty of God and Light.
This book is written primarily to document a large-scale behavior problem. It is also meant to provide a preliminary analysis of what is going on. The movement is Protestant converts to Orthodoxy who are still fundamentalists and rally under the banner of Fr. Seraphim.
FATHER SERAPHIM ROSE was by nature a warm-hearted man. Often he used to say, “It is noble to defend the underdog.” He felt obliged to defend those who were considered by society to be somehow in the wrong. He believed that God was not necessarily on the side of those who are considered right, and that those who are dismissed and held in a negative light are in a position to be pitied. The latter, said Fr. Seraphim, are the ones whom Jesus Christ came to save; and therefore when he saw them being looked down upon, he took their side…
Our Lord Jesus Christ said: Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1). Psychologically, this means that in each act of judging another, the judge identifies the negative aspect in himself which he does not like, and thus projects it onto the other, thereby receiving gratification. He thinks that in this way he is getting rid of that negative aspect of himself, whereas in reality he is only breeding and nurturing it.
Our contemporary converts have a tendency to do likewise. They quickly [become] Orthodox, and then assume that by their conversion they have automatically become infallible. Thus they feel free to point out in others what in reality are their own faults, disguising this as righteous judgment. Instead of humbly seeing their own shortcomings, which are the outgrowth of preceding generations of Western apostasy, they often carry their Western legalism in the midst of the Orthodox Church, and as a result they deform the ancient Orthodox tradition and substitute it with modernism. In Russia this sickness has been identified by the term “renovationism.” If the course of contemporary converts will continue in the renovationist style, making Orthodoxy fit into their own mentality rather than vice versa, then their understanding of Orthodoxy will end up as a kind of “anti-Western” legalism, or to put it another way, Western legalism in an Eastern Orthodox guise. As Fr. Seraphim saw, this very legalism lies at the core of the “Eastern Orthodox” attacks on Blessed Augustine, and he wanted to avoid it at all costs.
The opening quotes Fr. Seraphim as saying, “I myself fear the cold hearts of the ‘intellectually correct’ much more than any errors you might find in Augustine. I sense in these cold hearts a preparation for the work of Antichrist (whose imitation of Christ must also extend to correct theology); I feel in Augustine the love of Christ.”
The more the author reads of Fr. Seraphim, the more wondering there is if Fr. Seraphim might be appalled by those who were under the banner of “Blessed Seraphim Rose.” This book, when it was new, was an underdog position, and to date the author knows no disciple of Fr. Seraphim’s legacy who has decided to defend this particular underdog, nor of any disciple who writes a review of this work in which this book is found to represent serious error but represent the work of an errant brother who is to be pitied but never hated. The author has refrained from praying, “Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, protect me from your followers!” but now wonders if Fr. Seraphim now stands before the throne of God and would welcome such prayers.
“Our contemporary converts have a tendency to do likewise. They quickly [become] Orthodox, and then assume that by their conversion they have automatically become infallible,” reasonably describes many of this book’s reviews, and the amount of poison to be found in them leaves the author to wonder if Fr. Seraphim would see him as an underdog.
My seminary has Holy Trinity Monastery’s (of what jurisdiction I do not know) Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, five-star-reviewed on Amazon (a lone dissenter gave only four stars), and I decided in prayer to read the commentary on the Book of Revelation, which was translated by Fr. Seraphim and published by his St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.
It helped, in part, to help me see why Fr. Seraphim is so respected in some quarters, and it does not strike me, as do other translations from the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, as being laced with an occult dimension or TMI that monks should normally flee from exposing to laity. It was, overall, a good and lucid translation of a classic commentary, but… I’m a little bit “not surprised” that the translation of Vladyka’s commentary on Revelation was the one translation that appears to be Fr. Seraphim’s doing. It has certain fingerprints. And at risk of irony as someone who dipped into the beginning of the commentary and then honed in on Revelation, it might gently be pointed out that Revelation is the one book of the New Testament that is intentionally not read in Orthodox services.
Among the positive points that may be mentioned, in a text that Fr. Seraphim chose to translate and that bears the Brotherhood’s imprint, are that Revelation needs to be interpreted with extreme caution, and that responsible interpretation is layered. For instance, without any pretension of a single, exhaustive exegesis, he notes,
9:7-10 And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
This description of the monstrous locusts causes some commentators to think that these locusts are nothing else than an allegorical description of human passions. Each of such passions, when it reaches a certain limit, has all the signs of these monstrous locusts. In describing the coming day of the Lord, the holy prophet Joel describes also the appearance before it of destroyers who in part remind one of these locusts.
I suppose that by these locusts one should likely understand the evil demons who have prepared themselves for battle with us, and as signs of victory, wear crowns when we submit to them as having received an evil victory through pleasure. The hair of women [in cultures where women covered their hairs, out of modesty—CJSH] testifies of the demons’ love of pleasure and arousal to fornication; the teeth of lions indicate their hardheartedness; their tails, which are likened to those of scorpions indicate the consequences of sins, which produce the death of the soul, for sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (Jas 1:15). (St. Andrew, Chapter 26)
But then he goes on:
Contemporary commentators, not without a certain reasonableness, find a kinship of these locusts with airplanes and their bombing attack.
This notes a similarity with admitted caution; Fr. Seraphim’s translation earlier quotes the reference to hail, and earlier says, without such restraint, “Does this not refer to an aerial bombardment with its destructive and incendiary bombs,” and follows with “Some people see also in this frightful mounted army tanks which spurt forth fire.”
What is at issue here? It has been said, “Nothing is as dated as the future.” And the text, should future scholars wish to date it, could date this text fairly closely by what technology it sees and what it has no hint of.
There is a counterbalance to “Nothing is as dated as the future.” Things fade in. Prophecy collapses time without sharply distinguishing similar events that occur at different period, and when oca.org/saints, before the prophecies of St. Nilus, the party that posted St. Nilus’s story wrote:
Saint Nilus has left a remarkably accurate prophecy concerning the state of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, and a description of the people of that time. Among the inventions he predicted are the telephone, airplane, and submarine. He also warned that people’s minds would be clouded by carnal passions, “and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger.” Men would not be distinguishable from women because of their “shamelessness of dress and style of hair.” Saint Nilus lamented that Christian pastors, bishops and priests, would become vain men, and that the morals and traditions of the Church would change. Few pious and God-fearing pastors would remain, and many people would stray from the right path because no one would instruct them.
The person who assessed the text as referring to the mid-twentieth century was in fact not quoting a timeline given by St. Nilus but giving a gloss by the presumably mid-twentieth century author of his life, and St. Nilus did not in fact give any timeline or date that my historical sensitivities could recognize. I have read his prophecies, the real ones that tell what the wording of the Mark of the Beast will be, a point I have never seen on the urban legend channel. But things are fading in. The original life posted referred to the “radio,” not the “telephone.” As far as men being indistinguishable from women, we have far eclipsed the summary of the prophecy above, which has no concept of widespread sex-change attempts. As far as passions go, we now have a sewer’s worth of Internet porn. The prophecy could apply as much to scuba diving even better than submarines, but the oca.org/saints wording has not been changed. The prophecies stated that wisdom would be found that would let men speak in one place and be heard across the world, a prediction which has faded in in the radio, then also the telephone, then also the Zoom chat. What next? Who knows if haptics might make a “remote touch” that offers some ghastly and obscene parody of a mother touching her baby, remotely and from a phone? As far as the morals and tradition of the Church, contraception has transformed into being broadly seen as a legitimate option to Orthodox. Examples could easily be multiplied, but I think it would be better to recognize the singularity we live in, a singularity that is unfolding on many dimensions (the gender rainbow, the river of blood from black-on-black murders ever since “Black Lives Matter” took to the forefront (could we please reverse course and go for “All Black Lives Matter?”), a singularity following a century that with artists like Picasso radically transforming artistic conventions that a historian should regard as being like an eyeblink. Now changes are continuing to roll out, at an accelerating pace in a singularity. In a matter of weeks, models who were not half-starved began to be rolled out. Politically correct pictures of people usually did not show white people alone; they included a person of color. Now a further installment has been made: some pictures have a woman wearing Muslim hajibs, and increasingly common are wheelchairs to include people with disabilities (please note that most disabilities, including mine, do not have people using a wheelchair). And dominoes are falling: not only BLM, which seems to always and only be in reference to blacks needlessly killed by white police and by white police alone, but Islam’s surge (with atheislam in which the West accepts under an iron yoke what it spurned under a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light), the cyber-quarantine, vaccines that will be socially mandated, transgender being in truth a prominent and well-integrated addition to what was once really just mostly “LBG”, with schoolchildren being told “There’s no right or wrong age to fall in love” (one archpriest called a spade a spade and said, “Putting the P in LGBTQP+”), and so on.
(“Singularity” is intended by analogy to what the term means in physics. Gravity in physics has been compared to weighted balls moving on a level, stretched-out rubber sheet. Heavier balls stretch the fabric more than light balls, and they tend to draw each other in. They stretch the fabric, but don’t break it. A black hole is when something stretches the fabric so singularly that the fabric of space folds in on itself, and you get potential wormholes etc. The difference between regular gravity and a singularity is loosely the difference between stretching the sheet by your weight on the one hand, and on the other hand ripping a hole in it.)
Furthermore, if I may offer what may seem an overly fine distinction, I think that matching up current events to details of Revelation is best avoided, but understanding that we are in a singularity and understanding that similarity may have value.
I had conversations with an adviser who really should have known better, who asked me, in asking if I was meeting basic duty, “Do you make allowances for greater ignorance in the past?” I answered:
I don’t make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. And I would quote General Omar Bradley: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
I don’t want to give an uncritical endorsement of the “Nature Connection” movement, as it seemed as I went through the eight shields thinking always, “This is overall good but I’m holding my nose at the spot we are in now,” and eventually “I don’t need Coyote as a totem.”
However, any serious attempt to hear out nature connection, even as literature one does not give more than a willing suspension of disbelief, is that we have lost things that were known to past generations, and that surviving hunter-gatherers have an incredible richness in sensitivity to their surroundings and layers of patterns suburbanites can miss. And the advisor, in my opinion, had read too many ancient texts, and in the original, to have legitimate innocence in seeing the difference in knowledge as ancient Aramaic texts fail to reflect the victories of the Scientific Revolution.
I might briefly comment on the singularity we are in:
Recorded history does not really date past ten thousand years. The non-Neanderthal subspecies all living humans belong to dates back to perhaps forty times that length, and our genus dates back to two or four hundred times that length. Less than one percent of all humans who have ever lived have ever seen a written/printed word, let alone mass produced technology even on par with a pencil or knife.
I might comment briefly, if perhaps only to Jerry Root and other C.S. Lewis fans, that C.S. Lewis raised an objection to standard evolution that was a form of what is called self-referential incoherence. If evolution is true, then it explains why we have good enough brains to find food, avoid being eaten, and produce offspring… but not why we would have good enough brains to put together a true theory of evolution. Knowledge of evolution is no more than a biochemical reaction as romantic love is no more than a biochemical reaction, and it reflects philosophical confusion of a major order to say it is even theoretically possible that our theory of evolution could be true. This has been answered in part with a suggestion that evolution would select for brains that could find things that were true, but if that is the case, assuming evolution is true, it is an extremely parochial elite, less than 2% of the age of civilization and less than .0001% of the time people have been around that evolution has given anyone the kind of brains that evolution selects for. In my opinion that response to an objection shows serious philosophical muddle. And, incidentally, I believe that Fr. Seraphim was right, at least as regards popular culture, that evolution is not doing the job of a scientific theory, but the job of philosophy that allows atheism to account for what over 99% of humans have ever lived have seen as the work of some form of spirit.
Now before getting back to Fr. Seraphim, let me get back to my advisor. Elsewhere in our discussion, he hypothetically mentioned ancient prophecies of “mushroom clouds” that would “flatten cities,” and benighted ancients failing to understand a reference to nuclear warfare that is neither particularly like toadstools in a forest, nor something that would make a smooth, level surface out of a city. I think I thought of, but did not mention, a suggestion that “mushroom clouds” are not the only way an ancient prophecy could describe global thermonuclear war; “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (Rev 6:14) could be read as a surprisingly straightforward ancient prophetic description of conditions of nuclear war.
And there are other comparisons that could be drawn. I intentionally don’t want to belabor where tempting comparisons could be made, but the Internet and the whole locus of electronic technology could be described as fire from Heaven in “great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,” (Rev 13:13), and “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” (Rev. 17:5), where a basic utility, a socially mandated technology, includes an endless sewer of porn if you want it, and really at least soft porn if you try to research innocent topics on YouTube. There is more I could belabor: SecondLife fascinates the public and has been called SecondWife, with stern moralists saying, “Fornicate using your OWN genitals!” And about Babylon being thrown into the sea, I believe that it will be at some point as easy to take down any technological Babylon as start a nuclear war, and that inadvertently. Read The Damned Backswing as written in fifteen feet high blinking neon about our stack of technologies.
(Fr. Seraphim quotes, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of this prophecy, God shall take away his share in the tree of life,” and the commentary underscores that Revelation ends with “a strict warning not to distort the words of the prophecy under threat of the application of the plagues that are written in this book.” I might suggest that it may be, if not exactly clear-cut wrong, at least in a gray area to add exact historical correspondences where fire and hail simply refer to aerial bombardment—or fire from Heaven (some people believe Elijah’s “fire from Heaven” as being lightning), simply as neither more nor less than the lightning-like electricity that powers electronic gadgets. There are some points of contact, but it is not clear to me that it is right to make such a simple and complete identification of one historic detail with one text in Revelation.)
(And I might briefly state that I believe the examples I gave, if there is far future history to assess this article, will be much more dated than Einstein’s simple prediction: “I know not what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” That kind of statement tells scarcely less but is far less dated.)
And I would like to state now a cardinal point:
I would be very careful about recognizing prophecies fulfilled in Revelation, but I would be much faster to observe ways in which we live within a singularity, and that is a singularity on par with what is called a singularity in modern physics when a black hole is formed.
There was a classic set of AT&T ads, dated to 1993, with the classic AT&T Death Star logo, looking like a dark vintage science fiction movie:
And on a humor newsgroup someone followed up with:
Have you ever received an automated sales pitch,
while you were still in your pajamas?
Have you ever had thousands of calls all over
the world charged to your stolen account number?
Have you ever had your paycheck deleted
by faceless intruders from across the globe?
Have you ever had an employer know more about your
whereabouts and activities than your spouse?
Have you ever been snuffed to dust by a
satellite laser while lying on the beach?
________ | | | | | YOU | | | | WILL | | | |______|
And the company that will bring this to you
There was one thing that AT&T wasn’t straightforward about: No technology is permanently exotic.
The AT&T commercial portrays a world of wonder. However, “YOU WILL” is not especially wondrous to those of us living in that dark science fiction reality. We do not wonder at electronic toll collection; we do not wonder at being able to access webpages on another continent. No technology is permanently exotic, and we can obtain momentary relief by upgrading to the newest and hottest gadget, but then, alcoholics can obtain momentary relief of the living Hell of alcoholism by getting really drunk. The short-term fix does not work in the long run, and is in fact counterproductive. As far as (anti-)social media go, we have delivered the equivalent of a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. And tofu does not just feel and taste gross; it is nutritionally an absolutely terrible surrogate for real, honest animal protein. And even the parody left out one point in retrospect: “Have you ever been drained at compulsively checking your phone at least a hundred times a day? YOU WILL, and the companies that will bring it to you include AT&✁✆✇.*T.”
A Bookshelf for Our Day
Let me give a few titles that I would strongly recommend reading, preferably in paper (kids, go ask your great-grandparents):
I’m going to open this list with a dud. I am, or at least have been, a medievalist at heart; one of my books is a take on Arthurian legend, The Sign of the Grail, although I have since done something that is overdue. I have backed away from Arthurian legend as however enchanting it may seem if you don’t know it, not being particularly edifying or profitable to explore.
It has been said that the singularity we live in now is the fruit of what developed in the Middle Ages. However, The Medieval Experience left me completely underwhelmed, and furthermore the more background knowledge I had of an area, the more hollow a failure to walk in another person’s shoes the text appeared to be.
In the last real chapter, about precursors to feminism, the author quotes a non-medievalist Ibsen in words I wish to repeat in gory detail:
HELMER: To forsake your home, your husband, and your children! And you don’t consider what the world will say.
NORA: I can pay no heed to that. I only know that I must do it.
HELMER: This is monstrous! Can you forsake your holiest duties in this way?
NORA: What do you consider my holiest duties?
HELMER: Do I need to tell you that? Your duties to your husband and your children.
NORA: I have other duties equally sacred.
HELMER: Impossible! What duties do you mean?
NORA: My duties towards myself.
HELMER: Before all else you are a wife and a mother.
NORA: That I no longer believe. I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are—or at least that I should try to become one.
It is a sign of feminism’s hegemony that at least some women, despite every effort to want a career, ask “What is wrong with me?” because after all feminist direction they have received, they still can’t dislodge a fundamental desire to get married and have kids. This last major chapter in The Medieval Experience falls squarely in the “She shall be saved from childbearing” camp, and all accounts of the good and/or improving state of women in the Middle Ages describes precursors to feminism’s desire that a woman not be a homemaker. It doesn’t just say that a woman should have other options besides being homemakers; it is that precursors to the good estate of women are always in terms of dislodging women from the role of wife and mother no matter how much women should want to be homemakers. And on this count, not a word of the book’s account of proto-feminist tendencies shows the slightest acknowledgment and respect for some women wanting to be wives and mothers.
I do not count it as a strike against this book that it takes some effort to appreciate; I am more than willing to recommend a book that will challenge its readers. But nonetheless, I see one or two major strikes against the book. Quite simply, it leads the reader to covet magic and many of its most tantalizing passages tantalize with magic from Atlantis. Furthermore, the character of Merlin is singularly riveting. One definition that has been used to describe the difference between a flat and a rounded character is, “A rounded character believably surprises the reader.” Merlin comes awfully close to delivering nothing but believable surprises. And even if Ransom sharply limits Merlin’s initiative, Merlin’s presence is a problem. And I say that as someone who bore the nickname “Merlin” in high school.
However, this book is valuable in offering a sort of literary “YOU WILL” commercials, which admittedly did not portray how we are glued to mobile devices. The heroes are a delight to read about; the villains are more of a chore to read about, and the banality of evil comes through loud and clear. Furthermore, it is a description of a singularity, and on that point it is the closest work of fiction I know to a fictionalized telling of the singularity we are in.
A couple of comments about the author of this book. First, he is an important figure in the history of English-speaking Orthodoxy and did major work rendering the Philokalia in English. Second, he is a hypocrite and an old rogue. He has blasted the Western musical tradition, which an Orthodox might legitimately do, but one friend came to visit him and found him blasting out Wagner’s opera, and that’s Wagner’s opera as in “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds.” I would also comment on how he writes.
The Rape of Man and Nature deals in caricatures and not the written equivalent of photorealism. However, this has usefulness if it is taken as caricatures and not a literal account of facts. It is a finding in psychology that people recognize someone more readily from a caricature than from a photograph, and the caricature artist’s job is to take the most striking and salient features in e.g. someone’s face, and then portray them in exaggeration that yields a striking clarity. And if Sherrard is a caricature artist in The Rape of Man and Nature, he is an excellent caricature artist.
This book really is a close “near miss,” and I would readily recommend it for people who want a little bit of a feel of what was lost in the Scientific Revolution, and of what developments contributing to our ongoing singularity lost alongside scientific and technical gains.
I’m not going to write at length about why I believe my work is relevant, but my suspicion is that this book and not the overlapping The Best of Jonathan’s Corner will be my most lasting contribution, if (of course) the Lord tarries.
“These days of final apostasy” is not a new phrase; St. John Chrysostom in fact said that the world was breaking apart and coming to an end, but while antiquity ended, the world has continued.
The world has continued, and C.S. Lewis, on the eve of World War II, famously addressed students, “Life has never been normal. Humanity has always been on a precipice,” although it may be that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night because the end of the world has been so insistently predicted over the ages that no one takes the message seriously.
I think it is worth understanding to what extent we live in a singularity, and we have multiple things that could be apocalyptic events: apart from the obvious threat of global thermonuclear war in a world where each city and each major university has a hydrogen bomb aimed at it, the Internet could collapse like an increasingly brittle house of cards, and take the economy down with it. Or things could continue to change and new societal vulnerabilities could develop. The pace of change has been accelerating, and it might well continue accelerating until there is a step that is sui generis, on par with C.S. Lewis in the nonfiction fraternal twin to That Hideous Strength: The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis describes the final step in “man’s victory over nature:”
The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature…
Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car…
Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever.
I do not know how the world will end, or whether the apocalypse will turn out to be anything like any of the possibilities I mentioned. There has already passed a moment when a nuclear power ordered a military officer to launch global thermonuclear war. That was during the Cuban missile crisis, and all of us are alive today only in the wake of a soldier who refused to obey an unconditional order. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” God provided a way out of global thermonuclear war then, and he may shelter us, at least for a time, from a meltdown of the Internet. We live and die as God allows, and he may sustain us still. He may give us more to repent. Since Christ’s First Coming, his Second Coming has always been imminent, and part of what I omitted from C.S. Lewis’s passage above is a reality that has not literally been fulfilled even when That Hideous Strength‘s Pragmatometer is live in what is fed to us by the Internet:
The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.
It is my own opinion that “a perfect applied psychology” is by definition a pipe dream, a materialist’s explanation of spiritual phenomena such as is discussed in How to Think About Psychology: An Orthodox Look at a Secular Religion. But it is possible that Nature’s final conquest of Man as described above will come without needing all-powerful eugenics, prenatal conditioning, or a perfect applied psychology. Pipe dreams have already become real. And one world government is an increasingly real possibility on more grounds than technology.
All the same, I hope to have shed some light in the process, and introduced a useful distinction between donning X-Ray goggles that let you infallibly identify historic details cryptically referred to by the details of Revelation, and recognizing and understanding that we live in a singularity very different from that of over 99.9% of humans who have ever lived.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a letter to the editor after a newspaper requested answers to the question, “What is wrong with the world?”
His answer, “Sir, I am.” was the shortest letter to the editor in newspaper history.
St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a spirit of peace within yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”
Everybody has an opinion about what needs to change after the riot.
Fortunately, with me the one political necessity is within my power: to recognize that “It is a trustworthy saying, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,'” and to repent of my sins and take them to confession.
(It may be noted that a book contest to come up with the most politically incorrect book was won by a book about Orthodox priest and monk Fr. Seraphim of Plantina: Not of This World, which was pointed out to be barely political enough to be politically incorrect: but the best politics are in fact not of this world.)
But I am preparing for something tomorrow that is more political than my voting.
I am going to confession and own up to my sin as best as I can. And try to do better.
There was a private email conversation I had with a friend, when I really thought that what I had written should be adapted for public use.
What of the situation of people who may agree with me about Orthodoxy and Contraception and believe that children are the crown and glory of marital relations, but while married they are childless? Let me say a few things.
First, I feel your pain, and I am praying for you, and I have held children born to childless couples. I would love to hear of a new life.
Second, if you were married before you joined the Orthodox Church, and have not requested to have your marriage crowned, ask for your marriage to be crowned. If you have received communion together after being received into the Orthodox Church, you are married in the Church, so no question of illegitimate relations. However, crowning is a blessing on marriage that you should have.
Third, Saint Anna loves you! In the story of Saints Joachim and Anna, they reached old age without having children, and Saint Joachim was not only childless but he was jeered at because, people thought, he and his wife were childless as punishment for their sins. In fact they were not being punished for their sins; they were just childless. While repenting of sin is almost always good for all of us*, in their old age God granted Saints Joachim one single child: a daughter, who bore one single grandson for them to rejoice in: the Son of God Jesus Christ.
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken,
God has heard Joachim and Anna.
He has clearly promised them that beyond hope, they would bear a divine child,
by whom the uncircumscribable One was born as a mortal Man,
Who commanded the angel to cry to her:
“Hail, O full of grace,
the Lord is with you!”
Kontakion — Tone 4
(Podoben: “You have appeared today…”)
Today the world keeps festival
at Anna’s conceiving, wrought by God;
for she bore her who inexpressibly conceived the Word of God.
Troparion — Tone 4
Divinely-wise Anna, you carried in your womb the pure Mother of God, who gave life to our Life.
Therefore, you are now carried joyfully to the inheritance of heaven,
to the abode of those who rejoice in glory,
where you seek forgiveness of sins for those who faithfully honor you, ever blessed one.
Kontakion — Tone 2
We celebrate the memory of the progenitors of Christ,
and with faith we ask their help,
that deliverance from every affliction be granted to those who cry out:
“Be with us, O God, who in Your good pleasure glorified them.”
There is a saying in some Orthodox forums, “As always, ask your priest,” and if you want to pray one or more of these hymns in your morning or evening prayers, or something else like that, ask a blessing of your priest or spiritual father, whose prayers and blessings are ever relevant.
I was at a parish where one wonderworking icon of Saint Anna was passed from one formerly childless couple to another, and I gave a well-received birthday gift, a plastic horse with wheels, to the son of one couple that had had the icon. Furthermore, this is not specific to St. Anna, but my best friend’s wife had medical treatment that in an attempt to save her life was expected to destroy her ability to bear a child. My friend saw this as a sadness, but said, “We can always adopt.” When I prayed I only asked for her life to be spared. Since then I have held a toddler and a baby they have had; God can give children even when one would medically expect treatments to cost the ability to bear a child.
Fourth, there is a miraculous vine on Mount Athos whose raisins are given, along with ascetical instructions for their use. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here. The sample letter below is not any specific required or special form; it’s just something I wrote; but I offer it for people who wouldn’t know what to say or what the address is. One possible letter is as follows:
[Your postal address, including your country]
Monks keeping St. Symeon’s Vine
Dear Monks Keeping St. Symeon’s Vine;
My wife and I have been married for [such-and-such amount of time] but have not yet been blessed with children.
We would like to have raisins from St. Symeon’s vine and ascetical instructions for their proper use.
By way of thanks, please accept the enclosed freewill offering [Note that this is not required; it’s just a nice gesture. As far as amount, maybe $20?]
[Signatures of wife and husband.]
Fifth, and on a more minor secular note, while I classify “Natural Family Planning” as contraceptive timing for people not honest about committing contraception, the principles of “Natural Family Planning” can be used to time intercourse so as to make it less likely that a child will be conceived, but they can also be useful to time intercourse to make it more likely for a child to be conceived. On that note, if you’ve prayed and you and your priest or spiritual father think this is something you want to pursue, check with a doctor. In a word, the advice is “Try to make a baby at the times of month that it would be most delightful for her, and other times as well.”
This is submitted in respect and love, and with the hope that you may welcome a little one!
* One question which some people have is, “Am I being punished for my sins?” and there is a natural human tendency to think that people deserve what good and bad things happen to them. I don’t know whether God is chastening you to bring you closer to him, and that question is above my pay grade; it’s something a clairvoyant elder might answer. Nonetheless, I would like to offer a word of advice that is in season whether or not God is trying to bring you to a better condition. (And in any case God does not want to punish sin; he wants to heal it, sometimes through hard measures when we do not mend after gentler correction.) And there is one point I would make clear: God does not punish for the sake of punishment. He disciplines, chastises, and speaks through painful circumstances when we do not obey the gentler voice of our conscience. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers in our pleasures and shouts in our pains,” and sometimes he shouts where we need the message but don’t hear a whisper. God may use childlessness to help you grow spiritually, to seek him and experience even greater blessings. Or he may not; Saints Joachim and Anna were childless so that God could do something that changed everything. I don’t know, if you are having trouble having children, whether God is speaking with a hammer to give you good, or whether you are just childless for the glory of God. But in any case God is not punishing you in the sense of gleefully saying, “You tripped up, sinner, and now I get to make you suffer.” God provides things so that you may grow close to him, and this is true whether this is God chastising you to help you reach higher ground, or God has some other reason,
Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and it is joyful and hopeful, an opportunity to be freed from spiritual dead weight and enjoy what it’s like to let go of one more thing that is a miniature Hell. All of us need repentance, and if we take one step closer to God in repentance, God steps a million miles closer to us.
So whether or not you are being disciplined for your sins, certain advice is always in season. Repent, for the Kingdom of God draws nigh, and repentance is a privilege. Make repentance part of your entreaties to God to bless you with little ones, a bit like you make prayers that God would bless you with little ones. Offer God ascesis. Offer God efforts to seek his heart. And you may find yourself blindsided by reward, and not just pregnancy. And this is not just a principle for childless couples; it is a principle for life and for all of us sinners, of whom I am chief.
I would like to close this section with a poem someone sent me when I was having a really rough time. It applies, I believe, for any situation where you have a holy desire to welcome a child, and God hasn’t answered “Yes” to yet:
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
And I might gently suggest that God is weaving our lives for eternal glory if we will take it, and much as in the story of St. Joseph in the Bible is a tale of one difficulty after another where Joseph is thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, thrown in jail on a false accusation… and ends with all of this putting him into place to be second only to Pharoah in Egypt, reconciled with his brothers, and saving the known world.
I apologize if this is unwelcome, but in terms of our life stories that we will have all at once in eternity, there is a deep spiritual beauty in the story of a couple who wants a child pounding on Heaven’s gates in prayer, seeking God’s face, seeking purity and holiness, and maybe or maybe not finally have a child, and that beauty might have never developed if the couple had a pregnancy as soon as they really wanted one.