There was a letter to the editor I wrote long ago and have tried and failed to find. It did not seem to come up in a search on the magazine that printed it; but I do not fault the magazine or its website because I also could not find it in my Gmail archives. My Gmail account is over a decade old, but the core conversation was a couple of years before I opened my Gmail account.
What I essentially said was as follows:
The common terminology of “inclusive language” and “exclusive language” is loaded language and harsh, exclusive language… It would be better to speak of “belabored inclusive language” and “naturally inclusive language.”
Confidence and timidity
When I was on one consulting gig at a prestigious client, political correctness in language was present but not enforced. What I mean by that is this: I heard both the old style and the new style of language. I never heard someone get even a little upset at someone using “he” in an inclusive way, but there was a good chunk of my colleagues who used naturally inclusive language (N.B. including some immigrants), and a good chunk of my colleagues who used belabored inclusive language).
When people spoke in naturally inclusive language, without exception it was bold, confident, assured. And they did not seem to be thinking about being confident; they seemed to be quite undistracted in making whatever point they wanted to make.
When men at very least spoke (I don’t clearly remember a woman speaking in anything but naturally inclusive language, although that was probably included), there was a timidity and a bad kind of self-consciousness. Even a divided attention. A man saying “they” for a single person of unspecified sex always had a question on his face of “Is this un-sexist enough?” Even men who were current with the belabored inclusive language of political correctness as it existed then had a perennial distracted question on their faces of, “Have I done enough?” with significant doubt as to any definite and positive answer.
This kind of divided mind is not especially good for business communication, or non-business communication for that matter.
Feminists don’t even use inclusive language
Feminism is a bazaar not a cathedral, and one can find a mainstream feminist classic saying that “all the central terms [in feminism] are up for grabs” (and, presumably, one could also find numerous disagreements to those words). Even the term “feminism” may appear dated when this work is new; as of classes a decade ago feminism was working on a far-reaching rebranding as “gender studies”, and I tolerate both that this work’s treatment of feminism will likely appear dated in five or ten years, and for that matter might have appeared dated to feminist readers ten years ago. However, as no form of feminism that has emerged that I am aware of has yet been stable, I am not particularly interested in endlessly updating a minor work to keep up with fashions.
My point is this. I have read feminists at length. I have spoken with people and met its live form. I have taken a graduate course in feminist theology. One of my advisors was big enough in egalitarian circles to be a plenary speaker at Christians for “Biblical” Equality. And I have yet to read a feminist author use inclusive language. Ever.
What do I mean by that?
The essential feminist bailiwick, the area of primary feminist concern, is members of the human species and the human race, Homo sapiens, who are female, for the entirety of life, from whenever life is considered to begin, to whenever life is considered to end.
And the universal feminist-used term for a member of this bailiwick is not “human female” or “female human.” It is “woman.”
Do you see something odd?
Without imposing nearly so great a reform program to create a politically correct English, we have a mainstream English term that begins and ends neatly where the bailiwick begins and ends, and a pronoun that works perfectly: “she.” This amounts to a much smaller shift in language than migrating from “man-hours” to “work-hours”, “waiter” or “waitress” to “server” and “waitstaff”, and selling “five-seat licenses,” a term which engenders considerable confusion about what part of the body most makes us human. By contrast, even cattle have historically been given enough dignity to be counted by the head. “Head” may be taken to have an undesired second meaning now, but couldn’t we at least be counted by the spine?
But every single feminist author I’ve read is content to refer to the entire bailiwick as “women.”
“Woman,” age-wise, is not inclusive language. It refers to adults alone, according to the shallow view of communication, and if “man” excludes “woman”, “woman” excludes “female children.”
It happens that feminist authors, at least for a present discussion, will talk about human females who are seniors and cope with issues about aging, or girls in math classes (classes which seem to always being given an ‘F’). And if a feminist author is writing about minors alone, she may refer to the human females in question as “girls.” But I have yet to read a feminist source of any decade use any other term at all for any member of the whole bailiwick. The sense is that when you write “woman,” female minors are spoken for. There is no felt need to specify “women and girls” (or, to perhaps pursue a familiar logic, “girls and women”) when the group of females in question is mixed and includes minors. Nor, as far as principles and general approach, is there any concept that a good solution for adult women might be misguided if applied to minors. There might be storms of protest at some strain of literature that says, “A man should watch his step carefully all the days of his life,” and the required, and almost hysterical, allegation placed that the author in question had not conceived of any advice that considers women, and this hysterical enough allegation may be accompanied by ostensible clarification that the text should only be quoted as “A man [Sic] should watch his [Sic] step carefully all the days of his [Sic] life.” But there is no uproar, there is not a whisper of dissent, when discussions of “women” are taken to obviously fully include girls unless excluded by context such as discussion of distinctively senior needs.
If you look at feminist use of the term “woman”, with blindingly obvious concern for all human females, you have a remarkably good working model for how a good, naturally inclusive language might function.
He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”
But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of such beauty would be a joy forever.
But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly in my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and be silent?
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.
These two striking Western quotes need some counterbalance. Orthodox confess before communion: “I believe that thou hast come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And though this is above my pay grade, there are some very important words (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for instance) about longing for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, an experience that I believe is very different from the inside and from the outside. The experience of reaching a new level of pride may be exultant for an instant, but the natural course of that sin, if we do not repent of it, is to hold on to the sin while its pleasure necessarily vanishes. My suspicion that those who long for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, retain the virtue while its sting gives way to joy. Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and the monastic longing for dishonor may also bring joyful surprises.
With all of that stated, the story about the globe is the best picture I’ve seen of the heart of humility. And the humblest people I have known don’t really try to impress upon me how horrible people they are. They bear a striking resemblance to the figure Lewis describes: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what you have to say, and wanting to understand you. Their style, the practical living effect of their belief that God is everything and they are nothing, is marked by joy in whatever person’s company God deigns to grace them with.
One verse that I’ve found profoundly difficult to appreciate is, “In humility consider others better than yourself.” I suspect others don’t find it pleasant either. But there is treasure inside.
I’d like for you to imagine yourself sitting next to your hero: your favorite person, past or present, near or far, someone you know or someone you might never meet. What is it like to be next to that person?
Now imagine someone who is a jerk and acts like an absolute scumbag. Do you enjoy the company?
Which one of these two is humbly considering others better than yourselves?
Pride is blinding; the term “hubris” refers to a blinding arrogance. The greatest degree of pride that has a label I’m aware of is called “prelest” or spiritual illusion, a term that doesn’t even mention self-opinion but describes being completely and destructively out of touch with reality and what will benefit oneself and/or others.
But with humility it is quite different. Some have said that the only true intelligence is humility. Humility opens people’s eyes, and it opens them to everything that is beautiful, honorable, and noble in others.
Humility allows us to see and enjoy the royal race.
The royal race
What do I mean by “the royal race?”
Let’s visit Confucius.
One nice, opaque snippet states that Confucius learned of a fire in the horse stables. Confucius asked, “Were any people hurt?” And we are explicitly told that he did not ask about the horses.
Today this story lends itself to thinking, “I guess Confucius just wasn’t the world’s biggest animal lover,” and trust me if I say, “Please ignore that; something completely different was going on culturally.”
In the China of Confucius’s day, a stable worker was a slave, here meaning a mere commodity worth only 20% of the value of a horse. Please contrast this with U.S. Southern slave owners who rationalized slavery at infinite length because they knew it was wrong, and they rationalized because they knew that it was morally wrong to keep African-American slaves in conditions unworthy of human beings and unfit for human consumption. In Confucius’s day, they didn’t even know it was wrong. The socially expected response from Confucius, upon hearing that there had been a major fire in the horse stables, would be to ask about what was the most valuable and important: the precious horses, not the expendable stable hands.
Confucius’s question about people in the stable left the obvious, socially expected response highly conspicuous by its absence. The point he sledgehammered was of the supreme value of every human life, whether at the top of the social scale, or the bottom, or anywhere in between. He didn’t say that all human life is sacred, and possibly it would not have occurred to him to connect life with the sacred, but the essential point he drove home is the supreme value of human life.
And that is really a dignity of the royal race.
Having mentioned race, I would like to comment something on the biology of the royal race. If we lay out on a football field the whole millions of years since humans first appeared, the first ninety-nine yards, or perhaps even the first ninety-nine and a half yards, show to the best of my knowledge our ancestors as living in Africa in the Sahara Forest. Then, a geological eyeblink ago, there was an Ice Age, and some of our ancestors bundled up against the cold and migrated under sub-Arctic conditions to what was eventually Europe. And they suddenly changed from needing lots of dark pigment to block out the mighty African sun, to vastly decreased levels of our built-in sunscreen because they needed to get as much of the precious little sun as they could. The whole change was only reducing the amount of one particular chemical: that’s it. And that is one major factor of the difference between dark and light skin.
What I would like to comment here is that this is an extremely shallow biological adaptation. Never mind that a dark-skinned and a much lighter-skinned person look quite different to the uninstructed.The biological difference is shallow. It is quite literally only skin-deep. None of us as the royal race grow feathers and have the ability to fly like birds, or can breathe underwater without technology, or can sleep while standing up unsupported. Nor, apart from birth defect, accident, etc. have we lost toes, or lose the full support of a circulatory system, or anything like that. Unless disability or adverse circumstances stop us, we all walk and we all trade in the miracle of language. There is one set of human anatomical features to be had with distinction between the sexes. We all need food, water, sleep, and so on. We tend to think we are very different because we look different, but the adaptations we have are biologically the shallow adaptations of a single, royal human race. There are admittedly other adaptations besides the pigments in our skin, but race as we know it hinges on people leaving Africa an extremely short time ago on geological terms and not enough time for much of any particularly interesting evolution to have occurred. We are all from the same species, Homo sapiens. For that matter, we are also all from the same, more specific subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens!
Now I would balance my remark in biology and acknowledge any number of the most profound cultural differences across the world and possibly right in each other’s back yards, but again this is the royal race. Humpback whales have a culture; wolves have a culture; but there is essentially one culture for an animal community in a wild ecosystem. So far as I know the vast number of cultures that exist today attest to an unparalleled flexibility built into the royal race.
And if we look at Genesis 1, perhaps the two biggest takeaways are that we are made in the image of God, constituted by the divine presence in us, and that the entire human race is one family. The person before you is great: and he is your brother.
A note on beggars
And I would like to make one comment, very specific: “He is your brother” includes beggars.
I know some people, who do or do not give to beggars, who have made a careful and considerate decision and act in a situation where evaluating the best action is hard to do. I know of some people whose considered judgment is that giving money to beggars does more harm than good, and their refrain from giving is harder to them than giving would be. I might also suggest that one could give things other than money; one can carry a bag with easily peeled Cuties citrus fruit, or a Halloween-style bag of tiny chocolate bars if the weather won’t melt them.
However, I have heard, and wince, when someone says “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin.They are not. They are made in the image of God, as you, and the Orthodox Church’s teaching is that you should give, and when you give, you are respecting others made in the image of God. It is possible that their begging is sinful; that is not your concern and you do not share in the guilt by a gift. I’ve heard multiple Orthodox priests address the topic, and they never seem to suggest giving particularly much; the specific suggestion is to give little at least most of the time, without any suggestion that you have to furnish all that a beggar with a story of need lists as the needed expense.
But there is a more basic concern than meeting beggars with an open hand, and that is meeting them with an open heart. Monastics are said to be “above alms”: those who have placed themselves above possessions may not have a single bite of food to offer at the moment. But the literature quotes, “Is not a word better than a gift?”, with the implication explicitly explored that if you have nothing you could give (or, perhaps, you have a $20 bill but have run out of the quarters or singles you carry in a separate pocket to give), a warm welcome is itself giving a gift. Monastics are spoken of as “above alms”, but they are not above loving beggars. Those monastics, perhaps more than people who are not above alms, are called to fit the picture of humility towards beggars: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what they have to say, and wanting to understand them. This kind of warm welcome is a much bigger gift than a quarter.
But may I suggest a view of beggars that has more sharply defined contours?
Look at beggars as altars. The beggar, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God and can never be rightly understood without reference to God. He who despises the poor shows reproach for their Maker; God loves everybody at every level of the social scale, and to show kindness to a beggar is to show a kindness to God. It is possible to embrace without touching, or embrace in an offered fist bump. Insofar as you are able, give a quarter or dollar (if you are in the U.S.) / a Cutie / chocolate / …, and what is more, try to give in the generosity of a monk above alms who meets the dues of hospitality.
Look on beggars as altars on whom you can show kindnesses to God.
One more quote to squirm by
Here is one more quote that makes people squirm; it is a personal favorite (Mt 25:31-46, NIV):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ, in his own person, has no needs beyond the Trinity and could not possibly benefit from any generosity from any person.
But Christ in the person of a beggar is another story. There we can welcome him as Christ; there we can ease his hunger; there we can show a million kindnesses that will answer for us on that dread day when we are judged before his throne.
Someone who had a large collection of books asked, “Will I have any of these books with me in Heaven?” The answer came, “Probably.” The book lover then asked, “Which ones?” The answer came, “The ones you gave away.”
When our life is spent, none of the possessions we cling to will offer us any hope. However, even the tiniest of gifts given in the right spirit will answer for us. Even a smile, when you didn’t have change available, counts!
In humility consider beggars better than yourself. They, too, belong to the royal race!
I was given a copy of Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church. I’ve read some but not all of it, and I’ve read the introduction in full. I really have more to say than that the Orthodox tacit response to hearing an Evangelical say, “I’ve been reading the Fathers” when they have only been reading the Blessed Augustine is, “Ouch!” Saint as he may be, the Blessed Augustine is not any kind of legitimate polestar for navigating the Fathers, and when Singled Out deals with a Tertullian who fell into heresy and gave Augustine a singularly bad precedent, the best thing to say to Evangelicals is, “You do not understand monasticism as it exists in the Orthodox Church.” Possibly parts of the book I didn’t get to start to bring in quotes from the Orthodox Church’s Greek Fathers, but I have not found such a passage and it certainly doesn’t set the stage. Alan Perlis said something entirely relevant to Protestants who wish to understand Orthodox monasticism: “The best book about programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because the best book about anything for the layman is Alice in Wonderland.” And the best book for Evangelicals on Orthodox monasticism is decidedly Alice in Wonderland.
I wish to state briefly, and without explanation, that the first step in understanding Orthodox monasticism is understanding it is nothing Protestants can project. One routine moment in a conversation with a respected parishioner, informally called “the godfather of us all” within the parish, came when he had said he wanted to understand Orthodoxy and asked an Orthodox Christian what books to read, was told, “You don’t understand Orthodoxy by reading books. You understand Orthodoxy by participating in the services.” And if the Orthodoxy of the parish is not something to analyze, it is all the more confusing to understand monastic Fathers without even being Orthodox. Regarding sexuality, for instance, monasticism knows as well as anything else that sex is a powerful impulse, and it has powerful built-in features intended, ultimately, to transform carnal desire into a desire for God. Part of this is an extreme caution in monks’ dealings with women, but the same caution is present in the (admittedly less numerous) warnings by Mothers for nuns dealing with men. One nineteenth-century Russian monk compared the Christian living in the world to a wildflower, with the monastic (male or female) compared to a flower that needs to be in a “hothouse” (i.e. a heavily curated greenhouse) to flourish. Marriage is a good and honorable thing, but it’s not just marriage where sexuality serves a legitimate purpose. Monasticism does not provide a track where sexual impulses become simply absent or unimportant; it provides a track where sexual impulses are to be one of several areas where the human is transformed according to divine glory.
A theology of failure
My first real point about Singled Out is that is that the introduction does not call for a new theology of celibacy. It calls for an old theology of failure.
Let me take an instance with St. Paul, and for the moment ignore his celibacy completely, which is not my point here. His accomplishments include raising the dead, planting numerous churches, and writing half the volumes of the New Testament. Sometimes people speak of someone having nothing left to prove; on human terms his accomplishments are about as stellar as mortal Christian has achieved. When he wrote 2 Timothy in particular, and knew that his end was near, he had about as much claim as anybody in Christian history to say, “I came. I saw. I conquered.” But what he instead says is “I have fought the good fight. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.” These words do not bear a whisper of saying, “I achieved.” They say instead, “I was faithful.”
Saints on the whole are faithful and are not affected terribly differently by success and failure, and this is normative. If we look at school sports, there is a momentous spiritual edifice of sportsmanship, however imperfectly applied: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” Now teams of athletes who have to give a game their best may end up winning remarkably often, but this is not a best strategy of winning. It is a best strategy above winning.
Saints seem to exhibit something like sportsmanship in that they are concerned about being faithful rather than succeeding or failing. This adds a certain tint to the whole moral atmosphere, and saints, which one tries to tell even in a work from the Anabaptist tradition like Martyr’s Mirror, show in the living color of story what a holy life looks like. “Every Christian must bear his cross,” and this applies to successes and failures alike. Marriage is meant to be blessed by as many children as God is generous enough to give, and childlessness is a curse. Some have said that marriage is not an institution for children to grow up in, but an institution for parents to grow up in. To those who are married with children, the children should be a joy, but raising them is the cross by which parents are to be saved. However, God does not always give this blessing, and to parents who want to welcome children but are not able to do so, childlessness is itself a cross by which the parents to be saved. Lastly for now, I would suggest that if there are people who endorse marriage is normal, and want to be married but end up always a bridesmaid but never a bride, lack of marriage is itself a saving cross. Disrespect for marriage is a sin, and the career path of monasticism provides a practical and valuable resource, nost just to monastics themselves, but also to devout Orthodox families who tend to visit monasteries. But if, as described in Singled Out authors grew up hoping for marriage and their dreams did not come true, what is needed is not a new theology of celibacy but an old theology of failure and the crosses by which we are saved. And so far as I can tell, the authors are entirely innocent of contact with Orthodox monasticism.
I am trying to get to Mount Athos and become a member of a respected monastic community. However, I am not obligated to succeed in connecting with any of the monasteries on the planned pilgrimage. I am furthermore not obligated to succeed in being able to pay for the trip. I am trying, and under the conditions I feel fully obligated to give it my best, but I am not obligated to succeed. (Willing to make a donation?)
Here we are still on the outside porch of Orthodox monasticism, and not on the inside. But I would suggest that the Orthodox understanding of monasticism provides a robust and excellent old theology of celibacy, and also that “every Christian must bear his cross” and the old theology of failure have every relevance to those who seek marriage but do not arrive at it.
Robert A. Heinlein’s cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a book which was published in 1961, inspired many flower children, and has never gone out of print, is a Western book, and Western in a sense in which most Western Christians legitimately disavow. Early on in the book when Heinlein is loosening up his readers’ boundaries, Heinlein has the hero and heroine basically naked together in the strictest innocence and for entirely legitimate reasons, and the reader is invited to judge the cop who has a dirty mind because of what he reads into them being naked together. When the cop needlessly strikes the heroine, the hero kills him with psychic powers, but only after Heinlein assures us that the cop did not strike her as hard as he used to hit his wife. The episode serves as a sort of gateway drug en route to a Utopianism in which promiscuity is fêted, and for the only time I’ve seen in literature being raped is a helpful and invigorating experience, and while Heinlein grinds the most massive axe against firearms for no explained reason, killing (and cannibalism) become even more casual than promiscuity. Charles Manson, a serial killer who viewed murder as just a habit like smoking a cigarette, denied having read the title at all, although the book’s influence was in some circles ubiquitous, and one of Manson’s own children bore the hero’s first, middle, and last name, “Michael Valentine Smith.” All of this makes for a singular profile even as far as Utopias go.
While Heinlein eagerly rips marriage to shreds, there is a covenant (although not called by that name) of “water brotherhood”, which is some combination of reinventing marriage, only dumber, and reinventing the Church, only dumber. The “Thou art God!” epiphany Michael shares with the fatherly Jubal and the joke about one worm saying to another, “Will you marry me?” and the other saying, “Marry you? I’m your back end!” are reinventing Hinduism, only dumber. While certain aspects of the book show Heinlein has apparently “taken inspiration” from Hinduism, in the sense a web designer might use as a euphemism from outright theft of their intellectual property, Hinduism itself is deeper than a whale can dive. Now I am not endorsing Hinduism but I recall, if nothing else, words which I thought came from G.K. Chesterton but cannot now trace, that if you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by exploring just Christianity and Hinduism: Islam is just a Christian heresy and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy. And really, it’s not just Hinduism that offers a more interesting theology than Heinlein. Buddhism and Taoism are themselves more interesting than Heinlein’s sporadically cherry-picking bits of Hinduism. (And it might at least be helpful to place, “Thou art nothing!” alongside “Thou art God!”) I recall one class at Fordham where the professor spoke of speaking with a Hindu scholar (I think he mentioned lots of wine having been consumed), and the professor saying that he was perfectly happy with God being incarnate in Christ, but why only one? (The great teachers in the Western understanding, plus perhaps various mythological figures, are held in Hinduism to be Avatars in which God / gods came down in human semblance; there are points of contact with Incarnation, although those interested in theological exactness might note that the conception of an Avatar is not that of Incarnation but of the kind of Docetism which sees Christ as human only in a deceptive appearance, the Divine Nature being incapable of being made man.) But let me return to incarnation in a moment.
And finally on the point of this Utopian novel, what Stranger in a Strange Land offers is a Gospel, but only a Gospel made dumber. One Christian editor, in personal conversation, talked about choosing the name for an article. Editors often do this better than authors, by the way. The title amounted to “Maximum Christology,” which asserted that the findings of the Christological Councils are in every way those of a Maximum Christ: maximally God, maximally human, maximally united, with the divine and human natures maximally distinguished. And some of these heroes are of a sub-maximum Christ figure. As I said in an overly long and complex homily in The Sign of the Grail, the figure of Merlin, if pushed to absolute fullness and depth, becomes the figure of Christ. The same is true of the hero, Michael Valentine Smith. No matter what attacks Heinlein places on Christianity and the morals he falsely assumes to be distinctly Christian (by the way, Christianity is in general much more comfortable about legitimately acceptable touch than Hinduism: if you want touch in Hinduism, Kali’s Child comes highly recommended; Kali is a demon-goddess who wears a necklace of skulls and madness is the special blessing she bestows), Heinlein’s debt to the Gospel is incalculably greater than his debt to Hinduism. Even the hero’s martyrdom owes its debt to Christianity; the Bhagavad-Gita may have Sri Krishna exhorting Arjuna the Conqueror of Sloth to enter a battle and strike those doomed to death; I am out of my depth as far as interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita goes but martyrdom is celebrated neither on the part of divine charioteer nor human noble, even if some commentators (like Gandhi) held martyrdom in the most profound respect. There is no sense I get that either charioteer or ruler gave his life as a ransom for many, nor that martyrdom is the noblest death to die, nor, so far as I know, planted a Church that we marked by referring to years as AD and BC in its infinite shadow. The whole story is the Gospel made dumber, a point I tried to argue in Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy.
But there is one point of redeeming virtue. Michael, the hero, says, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being is organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” And in fact we have such a complete working instructions in monasticism. Now I would like to underscore that marriage is a sacrament and the normal choice it is expected that most Orthodox will follow; I will not extol marriage at length but it is worth extolling, as in this beautiful video about Saints Peter and Fevronia (with English subtitles).
Beggars and the divine
There was one point where I was hospitalized with, among others, a woman (a former ballerina, but that’s beside the point), bordering on homelessness. I wondered, “Is there any way I can lighten this cross?” and in fact there was, and I did so when closing out the visit. Part of the difficulty was that she needed to keep track of numerous mostly small items, and that is difficult when homeless. I had an item now not available new, a geeky messenger bag, which was then cheap, easily replaceable, and like nothing else I’ve found anywhere near the price point. And it had both large capacity and multiple compartments. Before I gave it to her our dealings were polite if distant; we never connected interpersonally. And after her warm thanks, our dealings remained polite if distant; while I struck up a friendship with another guy, she and I never clicked as friends, let alone something romantic. And I really think neither of us was obligated to any friendship.
Then why the gift?
To put things in melodramatic terms, none of us goes to sleep knowing we will wake up. Were I to fall asleep that night in time and wake up in eternity, I would have greatly preferred the bag to be in her possession than mine.
If that sounds melodramatic, read to this apocalyptic passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’ And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye who are damned, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ Then shall they also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not serve thee?’ Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
It is the clear teaching of Westerners I know who care for the poor that giving money to beggars is making a problem worse, and it is the clear teaching of the Orthodox Church to give something. I’ve never really heard any Orthodox authority say you should give a lot; the suggestion, without a number being ever stated that I have heard, is that you should give a small amount that is entirely within your power. If they use that money to buy drugs that is no more your fault than it is God’s fault for giving you free will that you use to commit abominable sins. Furthermore, I have heard even my relatives pronounce the word “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin. They are not. When we answer before Christ’s throne, we will answer a great deal more for how we have treated homeless beggars than we will for those in our family and our social circles. I personally view beggars as altars by which I may show small kindnesses to Christ.
A monastic living under a vow of poverty may be under a slightly different set of rules. Monastics are said to be “above alms,” and to a visitor of the same sex, the words “Is not a word better than a gift?” apply, the point being that you can meet the dues of hospitality even if there is nothing you could give even if you wanted. But the core principle is this unchanged: beggars, like everyone else, are made in the image of God, and the point of becoming a Christian is neither more nor less to become by grace what Christ is by nature. None of us is divine “without any help,” so to speak, and the Hindu “Namaste” meaning “I recognize that the innermost part of you is a drop of God,” which I have only heard from New Agers (Hindus have treated me with respect enough but they usually greet me with “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good morning,” etc.) is not in the literal sense Orthodox. Christ and Christ alone among mankind is divine by nature. However, Christ’s action is to make men divine by grace, and ultimately rise above the wall which separates God and Creation. And in that sense, while Orthodox Christianity does not have a great collection of avatars who are all divine by nature, it does have a great collection of saints who are genuinely and properly divine by grace. Even among the rest of us, what is most at our core may not be directly and properly a drop of God himself, but it is to be created in the divine image: to be human is to be a symbol of God in an extraordinarily profound sense, a symbol that both represents and embodies, so that every act of kindness or cruelty rendered to our neighbor is by that fact kindness or cruelty rendered to Christ. My response to my teacher about “Why only one avatar?” and the teacher clarifying that he meant only real avatars, was more than technically correct on my part. “Divine by grace” is real. It is perhaps not, in terms of origins, something that came to be with “divine by nature” built in, but that is not the point. Heaven will be filled by people who were and will be even more “partakers of the divine nature”, genuinely and really divine by means of grace, and this is what we were created for in the first place. We were created to come to a place where the very distinction between Uncreated and created is transcended.
Monasticism as supreme privilege within the Orthodox Church
As I wrote on a social network:
There is a saying that virtue is its own reward, epigrammatic enough that Spaceman Spiff / Calvin wants to teach horrid aliens that virtue is its own reward.
Both physically and spiritually, virtue really is its own reward. Though athletes might train for competitions, the advantages of physical health are not mainly looking better in a swimsuit, but having your body function as it was meant to function and your mind clearer as well. For another example, a recovering alcoholic who has been years sober, or perhaps with slips treated as a real problems and stopped as real problems, the main advantage is not removing the expense of heavy alcohol purchases, nor improved nutrition as alcohol is a genuine nutrient that in large quantities can displace alcoholics’ intake of more balanced nutrition, nor the annoyance of other people constantly getting on their case for drinking too much. The chief reward for being years sober is that you have abandoned a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: the reward for sobriety is sobriety, including feeling much, much, much better. (I opened with drunkenness in the homily A Pet Owner’s Rules.)
But without contradiction to virtue being its own reward, virtue is also the reward of repentance. The Philokalia says that people hold on to sin because they think it adorns them. My understanding is that Evangelicals have said that repentance is an unconditional surrender, and it is. My godfather talked about it as the most terrifying experience at all. God demands an unconditional surrender of us, not for his sake, but for ours. Once we surrender we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” The primary Orthodox metaphor for repentance is awakening, and I’ve been happiest when I’ve repented of something I’ve been in the grips of. In one sense I’m at my happiest when I am writing something new. (And in that sense, I wrote, Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret“)
One last point. The terms of monasticism are the terms of the highest privilege the Orthodox Church has to offer. I also expect that it will cut certain sins much shorter, but there is more than a resource I really think I would wiser not decline. Monasticism is spoken of as repentance, and while it is desirable to have tears and the joyful sorrow of compunction, entering monasticism to repent of your sins ideally bears Heaven’s best-kept secret. If you repent, however great the sorrow it straightens out your heart, and commonly straightens out the body somewhere along the line. Monks (actually, all of us) are forbidden ambition to seek any ordination, but seeking to become a bishop, besides being a temptation, is a confused way to drop the real treasure in a perturbed haste to grab a consolation prize. God’s blessing may be on ordained monks who just want to be monks, such as abbots and bishops, but the highest position of privilege is not that of the highest bishop. It is that of a mere monastic whose sights are set much higher than mere ecclesiastical office. And on that note I wrote A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop.
I am not seeking misery. I am seeking great privilege, much greater privilege than my educations.
Monasticism as “a complete set of working instructions“
The Blue Zones, coming out of a study of where people live the longest, identifies certain hotspots of the map researchers originally marked in blue. There are, according to the Wikipedia entry, nine common themes:
Moderate, regular physical activity.
Moderate calories intake.
Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
Engagement in spirituality or religion.
Engagement in family life.
Engagement in social life.
On Mount Athos, the place I hope to go, and God willing repent of my sins into great old age, every single one of these things is present. (I do not know if Athos is an unstudied hotspot; Athos is a bit hard to reach even for Orthodox, and possibly it is a curiosity that was unknown.) Now there is not the usual sense of engagement with family life, but a healthy Orthodox parish, let alone monastery, is in a deep sense family and “family” is not simply one metaphor among others. The fact that there are probably fathers and sons, or brothers, or uncles and nephews, on the holy mountain is beside the point. However, I would like to drill down on the least “spiritual” of them all.
In a monastery (see a video of Holy Cross Hermitage that gives monasticism a concrete face), there is prayer in liturgy and prayer in near-constant work, with no divide between sacred and secular. People, or at least young monks, are kept occupied, but this is primarily for their needs rather than the monastery and there are stories of ancient monks who would rather make an enormous pile of baskets every year and burn them than be idle. Like in the blue zones, large amounts of time are spent in moderate activity. And one of the the things I realized is that “fitness nut” level exercise, with one qualification mentioned below, is really a consolation prize compared to always being engaged in obedience. It’s a bit like saying, “Well, I don’t have leisure in my schedule for a glass of wine with my dinner, so once a week I’ll have 100 grams of Everclear.” The analogy may break down in that alcohol is hardly a need, but the point stands that sipping one glass of wine with dinner is for most of us good, while blasting a throat-parching payload of 100 grams of absolute alcohol all at once is for most of us dubiously helpful.
The one exception I will mention is that there are cases where people push farther, but in the long term moderate exercise is better than world-class exercise. Remember the former ballerina I mentioned? She wasn’t especially old. Top-notch ballerinas don’t retire because audiences don’t like wrinkles; top-notch ballerinas retire because you can only put that heavy a load on your body for so many years, and the number of years is short compared to normal aging. The usual lifespan is short among an African people that run around eighty miles a day hunting deer by running after it until it collapses from exhaustion; these people don’t die old. And I remember one bodybuilder at my high school who looked quite impressive asking if it was healthy to lift weights, and the presentation giver, perhaps insensitively, said that an extra pound of muscle was just as hard on the heart as an extra pound of fat: it may be striking to have incredibly thickly muscled arms and legs, but there’s more than an unofficial consensus among women that ridiculously huge muscles are ugly. The human body as a whole is not at its health when those are its proportions. The human body can be pushed to marathons or triathlons, but there are long-term problems that you don’t get from hours a day of moderate activity. There are many excesses above near-constant moderate activity that can be sustained at least for a time, but the moderate version is optimal.
And there is a further point I would like to mention, which is simply that the Fathers are very clear that when you are doing an obedience, nine tenths of your attention should be on cultivating and maintaining your inner state, and only one tenth on the physical act. This point was underscored with infinite gentleness when I visited one monastery and the Archimandrite stated that he was assigning obediences for the day and asked if anybody wanted to request anything. I asked him for something with vigorous exercise. He assigned me to work with a monastic aspirant on firewood; what this meant practically was that he and I would work together to gather trees that had been cut up with chainsaws but not further dealt with, and load them into the back of a truck and then unload them at the woodpile. The exercise was delightfully invigorating, and I was able to relieve a partner who was exhausted after being asked to move bigger and bigger and bigger wood; on my end, there were moments where I knew that my weight plus the wood block’s weight amounted to well over three hundred pounds, and it was pushing my feet into the ground hard enough that I worried my workboots might come off when I lifted my feet and pulled them out of the mud they were sunk in. But vigorous as that may have been, there was a significant problem: I wasn’t really praying that much. When I mentioned this, the abbot expressed deep gratitude for my work, and apologized for his shortcoming with me, saying he had not served me adequately in what he had asked me to do. The apology was, with infinite politeness and gentleness, correcting me for a basic beginner’s mistake: doing an obedience without sufficient prayer, and the next obedience he assigned me was something else that was manual labor but not nearly as much force. While the work he assigned was useful to the monastery and would help keep them warm at winter, he was far more concerned about whether the obedience was a practical help to my prayer than what external work I accomplished. And the practice of assigning obediences to visitors is not primarily a message of, “You are staying with us and we would like you to pull at least some of your weight,” even if that may also be true, but “We invite you to join us by praying with us in the temple as we sing our prayers, and we would also like to invite you to join us to pray as you engage in prayerful work with us outside the temple.” And the work is not secular; it is sacred even if it could be performed in a secular way.
Let’s look at the three classic vows.
I’m a bit of an outsider looking in as far as monastic obedience goes, but I would prefer that my writing, at least in theology, were something I was working with and receiving a blessing, including periodically being expected to submit.
One sliver of a window came from a remark I needed to explain (as well as translate) to my parents. We were at a Mexican family-run restaurant, and as we were almost heading out the door, I said something that positively lit up the restaurant staff. I said, “La comida esta hecha con amor,” possibly making some minor language error; the phrase literally translated was “The food is made with love.” Which needed some explanation about why I would say that and why the staff would light up. There is a belief in Mexican culture that food made with love is delicious, while on the opposite end food made in anger and upset will taste terrible and possibly cause indigestion or other nastiness.
That belief is properly part of Mexican culture, but it is of much earlier vintage. One tidbit from monastic literature has a king or someone from a king’s court asking an abbot why food at the monastery, which was made from the simplest ingredients, tasted so good, while food at the royal court made with the best ingredients available tasted worse. The abbot said that food at the court could easily be made amidst conflict and anger, while at the monastery everything was done after receiving a blessing; under normal circumstances “obedience” includes monks seeking the abbot’s blessing for essentially any action. But this is more than asking permission, or at least more than receiving permission. If an abbot gives a monk a blessing to do something, the monk has not just gotten an OK to move ahead. The abbot has declared the blessing of God, and one result of obedience and submission that asks blessings is that what you do has many more blessings pronounced on it than most non-monastics ever see.
People who are above my pay grade, who know obedience from within, speak of obedience as utter freedom. I’m not in a place to confirm that firsthand, but I believe I’ve identified an obedience-shaped void in my life. In writing related to theology, what I have to say is tapering down, but even more than that I want to write in an asymmetrical collaboration of obedience where I am writing under a blessing if I write, and not writing but asking a blessing upon my person if I am not giving a blessing to write. Furthermore, and more poignantly, I’ve been pretty wrong at certain things, and dangerously wrong at that. Part of monasticism that is most repellent to outsiders is that you don’t just confess your sins, but you make a daily confession of all your thoughts to your abbot. I want that. I want to be in a situation where I may still be wrong, perhaps very wrong, but the “wrong” is stopped quickly by an abbot who may see red flags much sooner than I do. And I see monasticism as a sort of ultimate privilege in terms of cleaning house spiritually.
There was one class I remember the professor voicing an existentialist sentiment: “Total liberty is the very worst of prisons.” On a not entirely unrelated note, Aristotle said, “He who teaches himself has a fool for a master.” Political freedoms may be valuable, but they are nothing compared to freedom from one’s sin and one’s passions. The words “May you have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it” sound pleasant to begin with but they are pure and simple a curse. Being spiritually in such a state is worse than a physical lack of health, and Orthodoxy tries to develop each person as is best for that specific person. It also, like the lighter-grade analog to older spiritual work found in today’s non-directive counseling, stipulates that the spiritual healer is to have no interest or personal benefit in directing a disciple. Binding myself to discipleship is placing myself in the care of a spiritual father whose job description is to help me grow into the greatest freedom there is. And right now I do not know what true freedom is. I am the prisoner and slave of my sins and passions, and a good spiritual father has the keys to unlock that prison. I do not expect every freedom that is available from an abbot. I only expect the one freedom that matters.
The chief benefit of celibacy is enumerated by St. Paul. He gives no decisive commandment, but clearly outlines a spiritual advantage to chastity. The married person needs to have a divided attention split between God and spouse. The celibate person is free to have 100% devotion to God.
I might comment briefly that there are three options that can be acceptable, even if it is possible to fail spiritually in all three. The first is marriage, something that is expected of most of the faithful. The second is monasticism, which essentially offers a full complement of spiritual resources meant to entirely maximize the kind of goodness that can stem from celibacy. The third is celibacy outside of monasticism, which is less than ideal but can be appropriate (especially under a theology of failure). I’ve been in the third option and am presently wishing I had joined monasticism ages ago. But I cannot change the past; I can only influence the present and the future, aiming for monasticism and accepting a possibility of failure.
A few details about sexuality:
While I was researching the the holy kiss, I was assigned, among other texts, to read Foucault’s history of sexuality. That’s one reading recommendation I should have dropped faster than a hot potato. The text may not be in any sense sexy, but it does porn-style spiritual damage well enough. However, I wish to pull one minor point and one major point.
The minor point is that understanding another age’s sexuality is an Alice in Wonderland matter. Meaning that before study you don’t understand another world’s sexuality and you are wrong about assumptions you don’t even have.
In the Greek world, appealed to by those who wish to “re-queer” society, the completion of training might well be a consummation between teacher and pupil. We have dirty jokes about “Confucius say secretary not part of furniture until screwed on desk,” but they are “just” dirty jokes, not automatic expectations for practical action. The usual pagan paterfamilias would rape all slaves (male or female didn’t matter much) as an assertion of absolute authority over slaves.
And having said this much, I would like to put one particular point pulled from those dreary books: one pagan philosopher was asked, “How often should I have sex?” and answered, “As often as you wish to deplete your energy.” This is not an absolute interdiction, nor does it suggest Christian ideas of marriage between a man and a woman, but it provides a profound glimpse into a monasticism in which, on the Holy Mountain, there are no women, nor youths who may look too much like a woman’s beauty, and in monasticism there is an exhortation, almost a leitmotif, of “Refrain from embraces.”
Sexuality does not become unimportant in monasticism. It becomes an infinitely sharper peak, and it is transformed to unending desire for God.
Years before I joined the Orthodox Church, there was a Sunday school type class, and I walked in really wincing, expecting a secular investment lesson and knowing that the parishioner who would be giving it was a lawyer. To my astonishment the substance of his lesson, illustrated and underscored with stories from his professional experience, was to say that the book of Proverbs hit the nail on the head in everything it said about wealth. The one sentence I remember from that class was, “Endowments aren’t so great.” He asked what it meant to be “independently wealthy,” and clarified that what that really meant was “independent from God”, and state that seeking God’s providence was far better than chasing after more and more wealth.
In my own time I have become more and more skeptical about how much wealth and property give us. My work The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, which I’m a bit disappointed hasn’t received more attention, has as its premise that individual technologies have both upsides and downsides and that the people selling technologies are a whole lot quicker to sell you on the upsides than on downsides that may be terrible but are often not obvious.
Monasticism is in many ways simply living the Gospel, and the Gospel says, “Do not store up treasures on earth.” Monastics take this as straightforward guidance for optimal living. In addition, though I do not know all of what factors into this conclusion, those above my pay grade spiritually seem as quickly to identify monastic poverty with freedom as they are to identify monastic obedience with freedom.
My mother told a story of a friend visiting one of her friends in Puerto Rico. The visitor looked around and said, “You don’t have any food in your pantry.” The hostess said, “No, I don’t, but I will. And why would I need something now? I wouldn’t need God.”
This may be sharper than monastic communities which look after monastics’ needs, but to my knowledge the monastic embrace of poverty is an embrace of God that seeks everything needed from his providence, rather than make an ersatz providence by providing for oneself financially.
I’ll take an educated guess that some monastics view their poverty as having gotten rid of a great many things to worry about. Almost, if vulgarly, as a man saying, “I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!”
A note on historical background
To put something baldly, I believe that the iconoclasm of the Reformation was significantly less guilty than the iconoclasm that was rejected by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
I remember one time going through Spink’s Catalogue of British Coins, and watching in horror as the Western understanding of symbol disintegrated across the centuries before my eyes. Originally there were simple figures on coins, but nothing seriously attempting photorealism. Then there was a frenzy of detail that created a “gold penny” (the word “penny” does not automatically mean minimal economic value in the world of those who study coins), and then things settled to such more restrained portraits as adorn coins today.
I saw the same horror and the same story as I visited the Cloisters, New York City’s medieval art museum built from bits of monasteries from Europe, and saw the same disintegration across the centuries from icon proper to stronger and stronger (or, if you prefer, stranger and stranger) attempts to be three dimensional until paintings started to morph into being half-statue. All of this was in late medieval Europe, and the situation was what an Evangelical might call “bankrupt” or “spiritually dead.” Some of this I trace in more detail in Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art.
The icons rejected by iconoclasts in the Byzantine Empire at the time were those of full-blooded Orthodox usage, and iconoclasts then were guilty of rejecting the full force of something good. The icons rejected by iconoclasts in the Reformation were “icons” that had been depleted and dead for hundreds of years. If a Reformation iconoclast were to look at the icons around and say, “All those icons should be burned!” one Orthodox response might almost be, “Ok if I bring matches and kindling?”
Something of the same played out in a disintegration of monasticism into proto-University. The Universities we know were started by monks, if later taken over by Renaissance men; monasteries in the West were great centres of learning. Some people have said that after the Great Schism the West got the head and the East got the heart; I have heard an Orthodox parish priest (incidentally, a parish priest with a doctorate) say, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our head to our heart.” His point is not uniquely monastic, but Orthodox monasticism is very directly intended to help those of us who are too much in our heads to reach our hearts.
The difference between Eastern and Western monasticism came to a head in the dispute between St. Gregory Palamas and the Renaissance man Barlaam. The conclusion reached by the Church, even without an ecumenical council, was that St. Gregory was defending Orthodoxy in what he held, and Barlaam was importing a heresy. I do not claim that Barlaam spoke for the entire Western fashion, nor do I deny the near-certain presence continuities between Western monastic practice and Eastern hesychastic prayer. However, I do assert that Barlaam represented something that was in the mainstream range of Western monasticism and broader trends.
What did Barlaam teach, some readers may want to know. In a nutshell, it was the Renaissance ideal. The answer I would give is, “Something like the liberal arts ideal today,” the cultured liberal arts ideal in so many Christian-founded colleges whose apostasy from any sense of Christianity is documented in The Dying of the Light, in a pattern that sheds unflattering light on how effective it is to found a Christian university. Barlaam taught, like a good Renaissance man, that the noblest exercise of human dignity was to reason and philosophize about God. St. Gregory taught that the noblest exercise of human dignity was to behold the uncreated Light of God and directly experience God. Barlaam wanted monastics to be educated and cultured. St. Gregory wanted monks to prayerfully contemplate inner stillness; Barlaam gave the pejorative term “navel-gazing” for one specific way some people have taught stillness. St. Gregory wanted monasticism to remain what it had always been; Barlaam wanted monasticism to adapt to features of what was then in vogue in the broader European cultures.
One interstitial note as I have at least hinted at Orthodox wariness towards the Blessed Augustine: he is essentially a Church Father as an Evangelical who would conceive of a Church Father. He reasons philosophically about God, and constantly references Scripture. Evangelicals may object to the Renaissance, but the Renaissance and Reformation are tangled with each other more than one might, and Barlaam’s approach is not irrelevant to Evangelicalism. The Blessed Augustine is an astute philosopher and his analysis has layers of depth, but he doesn’t have St. Gregory’s strengths. That stated, there are also Church Fathers as a Church Father would conceive of a Church Father. St. Maximos Confessor readily comes to mind, although he’s not the easiest author to cut your teeth on. St. John Chrysostom wrote dozens of volumes, too many for most people to really read, but he is an eminently clear communicator.
At this point I am ready to make some comments about Martin Luther that wouldn’t have made much sense earlier. Martin Luther took a vow of celibacy and then had the most prodigious exploits of a man who cannot keep his willy where it belongs. Alongside Reformers destroying icons were Reformers “liberating” monastics, many of whom served Luther’s pleasures. (It has been said that Luther’s doctrine of the “bondage of the will” is not something you get by reading the Bible, but a theological rationalization that absolved Luther of guilt for his exploits.) This much is not in dispute historically; it’s just something his Protestant successors are not eager to divulge. (A study of Luther’s incontinence provides the concluding chapter for Degenerate Moderns.)
The Reformers attacked what remained of holy icons, and what remained of holy monasticism. We don’t quite have 100% conformity here, as there have been (and are) Anglican monastics, the famous Taizé monastery in France, and perhaps others, but there have also been Mennonites who want to have icons. There remain pockets in Protestantism of almost everything the Reformers ever attacked. None the less, monasticism was a healthy bedrock in the east, then started to become shifting sand in the West, and then for entirely understandable reasons, as understandable as initial Protestant iconoclasm, the Reformers saw monasticism as simply not helpful.
My point in mentioning this offensive point is to say that certain things in Orthodoxy are not something that Protestants have weighed in the balance and found wanting but something not encountered in the first place, and furthermore that the oddities of a Roman Church after half a millennium’s separation from Eastern Orthodoxy in fact do not speak for Orthodoxy, no matter how strong the subtle temptation fill in understanding of bottom-up Orthodoxy with top-down Roman assumptions. Monasticism in the Orthodox Church is an Alice in Wonderland matter for Protestants.
However true that may be, the real reward for repentance is not a pleasant mood. The real reward, and the reward one should seek most of all, is then untangling and straightening out of one’s tangled and sinful soul, and being in a better condition spiritually.
(And by the way, there is nothing mercenary whatsoever about repentance out of the hope of being in a better condition spiritually, and gaining more virtue and being cleansed of more sin. Those are right and proper things one should be seeking as rewards for repentance.)
Repentance is foundational to monasticism, enough so that monasticism is spoken of as repentance. In my partially informed opinion, there may be a case to be made that repentance is more basic or essential to monasticism than even the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity; and that poverty, obedience, and chastity provide a structure or shelter in which the real work of repentance can grow.
And repentance, and live spiritual life after awakenings of repentance, may be the core reality of why monasticism is the supreme condition of privilege within the Orthodox Church. It is a strong medicine for spiritual health, and I believe it may eclipse even poverty, obedience, and chastity, however cardinally important each one may be.
A Utopia that works
I remember one class, years back, where the professor summarized a Utopian ideal that called for (among other things) turning the oceans to sweet lemonade as “a Utopia of spoiled children.” And there seem to be a lot of Utopian visions that end up as Utopias of spoiled children.
I’m not current on Utopian visions from feminists (or, if you would rather put it this way, every feminist author and more that I have read in my studies offers some highly unstable Utopian vision), but Utopian visions by men, without such a restraining hand, call for men to have free and easy access to essentially as many women as they wanted. Not, perhaps, that this is a new feature to the Western form of life of Utopian visions; many pre-Christian giants were polygamists and the Solomon who asked for wisdom and left us three books of the Bible lost his salvation after his prolific efforts in this field. I’ve read, if only in summary form, of a text suggesting that men are capable of great extraneity, summarized some of the people and objects men have used for sexual pleasure, and concludes that a man who reaches a successful marriage does so by a great deal of restraint and discipline, and not by simply laying the reins of male desire on the horse’s neck. And even more offensively, the text suggests that gay men are largely capable of straight marriage, have often tasted heterosexual pleasure, and suggests that the level of discipline for a gay man to have a successful marriage to a woman is really not by leaps and bounds greater than the discipline required of a straight man. (If I recall correctly, the author was not straight. He just chose not to be ruled by base desire.)
Stranger in a Strange Land‘s Utopian vision has a fatherly Jubal and a main hero male readers should identify with who is some sort of superman with a harem of four (or more) women who all worship him and never seem to make real demands or have real needs. (The living situation reminds of one book, by a counselor a good deal to the left of me, who said that as a counselor in California he has seen people in every living situation you could think of and probably some you couldn’t think, and the more he has seen other living situations work out in practice, the more he thinks God’s rules are meant to help us and not to harm us.) And the grounds of Heinlein’s Utopian living situation places his Utopia as a Utopia of spoiled children where boys do not grow into proper men. I would suggest that the Orthodox concept of marriage is fundamentally more interesting. It calls for something the hero never reaches, at least not before provoking martyrdom. It calls for men (and women) to grow up and act as adults. It calls for self-transcendence
The tale of Saints Peter and Fevronia mentioned earlier has one brief segment where Saints Peter and Fevronia are sailing on a boat, and the man handling the boat starts looking at Saint Fevronia and having ideas. Saint Fevronia tells him to take a bowl and dip it in the water by one side of the boat, and taste the water, and then dip it in the water on the other side and taste it. She asks him if the water tastes the same or different as drawn from the two sides. He says that they both taste the same. She says then, “So it is with women,” and asks why he is thinking of her when he has a wife who is just as much a woman. St. John Chrysostom, in decrying a theatre that was largely that day’s version of internet porn, or at least awfully uncensored, constantly spoke of theatre that insulted the shared nature of women. There is a tremendous good that is possible in a man being married to one and only one wife. Is there really more good to obtained from more women? Or do you wish to go to the gas station and spill ten or fifteen gallons of gas on the ground because you keep on pumping twice as much gas as your tank will hold?
Monasticism offers a Utopia for mature adults. Stranger in a Strange land lays the reins on the horse’s neck. Monasticism reins things in further and offers a path that is even more a challenge to grow to adulthood. Not that it is a denial of sexual desire; no monastic literature I’ve read assumes monastics are sexless (most seem to assume monks have plenty of hormones to cope with), and the choice made is to provide a supportive environment to restrain sexual desire and then lead sexual passions, among others, to ultimately be transfigured if it is a successful monastic vocation.
Utopias seem to not work out much as perpetual motion machines do not keep working. Perpetual motion machines are attempted out of confusion about basic physical realities, and Utopias are attempted out of confusion about basic spiritual realities. But monasticism is that odd gem of a Utopia that works.
Becoming a true member of this Utopia, if I succeed, will probably be the hardest thing I ever do, but it is the best choice I can make.
I was not happy with this when it was new, and think that something in it still isn’t quite right. However, I still think there is much in it that’s worth reading.
As a child of perhaps ten, I told friends that I was going to make a martial art, made up a name that sounded Asian to me (“Tong Fior”), and got into an argument about it with a classmate (nowhere near physical blows). The preferred term for this in the academy is the highly abrasive term “Orientalism,” although the better tempered anthropologists would regard it as the normal and natural contact when any one culture starts to meet another, and is really the same Orientalism by which the nationalistic Independence Day movie enjoyed tremendous popularity well outside of U.S. political borders. In the one kind of Orientalism, there are people in the West who want to be some romanticized image of the East; in the other there are people in the East who want to be some romanticized image of the West. I have difficulty finding much of any real difference between these instances of “diffusion” as the term is understood in an anthropology department.
Obligatory quotation from G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton, in a passage that is politically incorrect enough today, wrote,
I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not suddenly of pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is in the very worst spirit of the East. But there is no force so hard to defeat as the force which is easy enough for conquer; the force that always yields and then returns.
But hold that thought for a second, and I speak as a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun for ages. (And not just for that one single Google AdWords ad impression that changed eBay’s AdWords presence forever: “Buy Japanese sushi on eBay! New and Used.“)
Someone said, in response to a Quora question about whether anyone had regretted getting a PhD, and one of few PhD’s to say “yes” said basically that you don’t get a doctorate to get a superhuman high social status and be addressed as “Doctor”; he said “a PhD is just a paper that comes along the way as you are doing something you love.”
The personalities of martial arts
Something very much like that related to what what we now understand as a belt system. A martial artist wouldn’t be awarded a blackbelt (or anything else besides a white belt) on the grounds of a formalized test. When you started, you got a white belt that would be slowly blackened by the practice involved in developing expertise for years and years and years. And I believe that most of the better martial artists today would say that the older approach is still foundational in better practices today; it’s just obscured and harder to discern, and certain entirely justified concessions to societal needs have been made.
I remember being offended when I saw how parts of Aikido in Aiki Ninjutsu work; it brought up memories of very frustrating matters of conversation, where a friend (and I do really mean friend) gave infuriating claims of agreement where he would say “I agree with you that [fill in the blank]”, and the beginning, middle, and end of every such “agreement” was to wrench some belief of my mine out of context, placing himself as someone in a position to understand, interpret and explain my beliefs far better than I could, and use it as a sledgehammer against something else that were just as foundational to those beliefs. During those years, he never claimed agreement except as the presentation of an attack. And that is specifically what I saw in physical form in how to respond to an opponent’s punch. You grabbed your opponent’s arm, and so to speak “corrected” the direction it was moving, and add exaggerated force to what your revision of the punch has become. This was disappointing enough to be offensive after reading the tale of a martial art founded by a legendary, great O Sensei who stood unarmed and kept dodging a master swordsman until the attacking swordsman collapsed from fatigue.
I’d be a little cautious about glibly identifying this as “Aikido,” which etymology means something close to “Way with harmony and energy,” as Aiki Ninjutsu represents a new fusion that draws on several older sources and has modern elements. The fusion may not particularly Western elements, but it has a Creed (with an apparently deliberate uppercase ‘C’ as in “Craptastic”), with the Creed beginning with “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals,” and when I started to give a thinking Christian’s objections to believing in oneself (see Chesterton’s take below), I saw in verbal form the foundational lesson of “Become the center.” What I never heard was so much as lip service to “harmony between opponents” that is a leitmotif in so many genuine martial arts. The technique associated with “Become the center” forces all else to resolve around oneself, and the teacher seemed a bit “become the center” in that he spoke with decisive authority and I was not allowed to even contribute anything to the conversation beyond accepting decisive authority.
G.K. Chesterton incidentally has something to say about “become the center” or rather just believing in yourself. The sting with which he opens chapter 2 of his book Heretics make the stinging remarks of Sumo wrestling quoted above almost sound like praise:
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the name of the lunatic asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
Enough of Chesterton; like The Onion, he has something to offend every palate. (He was beyond being dismissive of the thought of his joining the Orthodox Church.
Some people might be surprised by remarks above; my memberships in 3-4 martial arts lasted for a few months, and while I have had some successes (Kuk Sool Won and the local Shokotan paired me with blackbelts or blackbelt candidates by the end, and one fellow Karate student was getting very infuriated when I responded to him about a quarter second earlier than expected; I moved to meet him as he was moving, not after, without the faintest interval between the two), I found that spirituality was very dry until I repented of it as sin (a mistake I should have made once, if even that). And just to be clear, everyone I’ve heard of in any martial art at all says that you improve after a couple of months, but real mastery takes years and years and years. (I think my case was simply not how things work normally.)
God practices Ju-Jutsu, and we should too, as an act of submission
Perhaps the single greatest illustration of Jiu-Jutsu in the Bible is where a Saul burning with wrath and destruction, trying in overweening pride to annihilate the Church, was stopped cold by the uncreated Light of Heaven, the Light who strikes terror in those not indwelt by It, and provides what may be the only place in the Bible where the Lord quotes a pagan Greek source: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The action of an Orthodox Christian is not, on the balance, to invade another’s mind and straighten it out. It is not, on the balance, either our place to really defend ourselves. It is to, in the words of a Protestant hymn, “Keep your eyes on Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face / And the things of this world will grow strangely dim / In the light of his glory and grace,” and remember that you too are a sinner and try to be merciful and forgiving as others join you as you continue kicking against the goads.
Furthermore, the more you are in trouble, the more stress you are in, the more conflict or worse, the more more essential that you grow beyond any abilities you know in deiform love to forgive, to have mercy, to pray, to turn the other cheek. The Sermon on the Mount is not an ornament for the beings of some mythical world more perfect than Star Trash. It is a battleplan for those of us who live in a world of conflict and violence.
Bultmann is a foundational character in the academy, enough so to have provoked C.S. Lewis to write The Elephant and the Fern-Seed. Bultmann came up with a new way of moving beyond mythological trappings found in the Bible and theology. Or at least that is how his progressive circles understood their stance; I’m not completely sure how an Orthodox might best respond, whether “You have a valid enough point, but why does it loom so suffocatingly large to you?” or, “Um, you ARE aware that your fresh and new discovery is a recycled version of a topic that an Orthodox Christian worked out with power, well over a millennium earlier than you, and by a canonized saint at that, and the saint did a profoundly better job than you?”, or extending an invitation for the distinguished scholar to simply become a catechumen!
However, I would like to take up Bultmann’s point, or rather that of the canonized saint of over a thousand years before (Pseudo-Dionysius), or rather God’s point. A standard illustration is, as we repeatedly read in Exodus, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This claim should not be taken literally; I’ve yet to read even someone very wrong read the text as meaning that God stiffened Pharaoh’s cardiac muscle (heart) the same way an arm or leg or back muscle stiffens with a cramp. But it goes deeper. The claim that God changed Pharoah at all is too crude. Pharaoh hardened his own heart with Satan’s help. God (and the image of Jiujutsu must eventually be dropped as well) exercised Jiujutsu and let Pharaoh reach destruction by the only way that Hell can ever be reached: by his own steam.
I now remember once feeling particularly squeamish about a mailing list conversation where one Orthodox sympathizer clarified, in perfect sincerity, that where Genesis 1 repeats, “And God said,” that was such a human way of speaking that it meant that God spoke, in her words, “with lips and a tongue” as one would expect of mortal man. And I made no effort to assume command of the situation and straighten out her mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, even if her assertion was analytically wrong enough to fill me with squeamishness, unless she is troubling others (in which case someone well above my pay grade should be laying down the law), it is not my place to use my book-learning to take away the little that is held by someone who is not even a member of the Orthodox Church. But that is just for practice. The beam in my eye has to with believing I need to have my way, that I should be in power or in control, or anything else. She might have thought it helpful to give Pharaoh an intake appointment at a cardiologist’s. I do much worse.
Perhaps one way of putting that is this: we are inclined to believe that God violated the free will of Satan and Judas, because they killed the Son of Man and He came back to life triumphant. But a slightly closer image is that he was on higher ground, he let their free will be as sordid as they chose, and in a way beyond Jiujutsu the God who is beyond motion met them fully and attentively, with a heart full of love, and the evil that cannot grasp love tried to give its strongest and most venomous strike, they struck where the everywhere-present God is not and the full force of their blow slammed into a brick wall and their sting was inflicted only on themselves.
But be careful:
One subtle note to those who find alluring the image of Satan slamming his horns full force into an adamant wall next to which diamond is as as a crumbling dust: if you find the image attractive, beware of adopting Satan’s ever-seductive, ever-destructive pride.
One joke good or bad that I heard many, many times as a child ran:
There were two morons working in a hot pit enduring the heat while their boss sat in a cool air-conditioned building outside of the pit on the ground above, not doing much of anything.
One day the morons got to talking and said, “How come we do all the work and our boss gets to sit in an air conditioned building? So the first moron got up from the pit and asked, “How come we work in a hot messy pit all day, and you’re in this office getting nearly all the money?”
The boss said, “Because I’m smarter than you.”
The moron asked, “Why?”
The boss walked over to a thick tree and held his hand in front of the trunk. “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”
The moron swung his best, and the boss deftly pulled his hand away, leaving the moron to slam the full force of his punch into the rugged trunk of the tree.
After he had stopped crying, the first moron climbed back into the pit.
The second moron said, “What did you find out?”
The first moron said, “I’m smarter than you.”
The second moron said, “Why?”
The first moron put his hand in front of his face and said, “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”
There are two, and no more than two, essential options to us. One is to join hands in the Church and dance with the Lord not only of men but of angels and eagles, cultures and corporate worlds, a vast universe held in the heart of a God so small as to be without parts, and join in the unfolding mystery of the Lord of the Dance in whom alone the Divine Providence unfurls. The other option is to help Satan rearrange your face. There is no inconsistent option which lets you remain impenitent in pride and yet remain impossibly free from Satan’s clutches. And more could be said than that: as Fr. Thomas Hopko famously crystallized, Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.
This is also the point expressed in what may be the most piercingly beautiful of St. Nicolas’ Prayers by the Lake in which, as I would offer images Hope is praised, the Hope Who is eternal, the Hope which glimmers in young children who race out of bed on Christmas morning in all the pageantry of the Great Dance and can’t wait to open the first present but hasn’t the faintest idea of what the first present may be. But there also hopes, with an ‘s’ as in “Shit“, hopes that have certainly plagued me enough hopes really that God will obey the plan that you have worked out to him, and set expections that God is to jump to your plan, and in the event of any problems, he should contact you immediately for further orders or instructions. It is, on reflection, an act of mercy that God sometimes says, “No” to people who give the most meticulously drafted orders, and perhaps work with people who order him around for decades to teach them, just a little, how to live a life that is dancing the Great Dance.
Gandhi and satyagraha
Having tried to underscore the absolute necessity of humility, I would like to move on to the next order of business and compare myself to Gandhi.
Gandhi was a Hindu, in one of three world religions that took its genesis in India. It is my considered judgment that Gandhi’s achievements could have been made solely within resources directly provided by his native Hinduism. However, that sounds like an outsider’s guess to anyone who understands this figure in history; however rich Hinduism may be, Gandhi through whatever reason chose to draw on outside sources.
The most shame I have ever felt about being a Christian was when a pastor in church explained that Gandhi wanted with his whole heart to become a Christian, and when he sought out a Christian evangelist, the racist evangelist rejected him for the color of his skin alone. That experience soured Gandhi enough that he was never again open to being a Christian, but please look at this closely.
I would draw out four decisive influences on Gandhi:
Gandhi’s native Hinduism about which I will now only say that it is deep as an ocean.
The “purer than the pure” Jainism from which he took profound inspiration without also membership (we proverbially say that someone “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, while to this day Jain monastics sweep the ground in front of them with peacock feathers to avoid accidentally stepping on a bug, as Jainism is also a world religion that came from India.
Christianity:this was the religion of the British colonists, and Gandhi spoke and acted warmly towards his sharpest critics. Gandhi also said things that would astonish people for a speaker who wasn’t Christian: “Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” He elsewhere states that his three heroes are Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates, all of whom saw their lives as nothing next to the salvation of their souls. And finally:
I do not know how to explain Gandhi’s towering stature in actively trying to adopt the strengths of Christianity and activism. True, he was soured by personally rejected by a Christian evangelist who was beyond moronic, but what I would ordinarily expect is for Gandhi to grind an axe against the English and Christians for the rest of his life, with an anger transparently visible to everyone else besides him, all the way icily insisting, “I am not angry!” As it was, he kept reaching out in love to English and other people who met him with total hatred, and by what is called “satyagraha” purchased the freedom of the one nation in history that achieved its from colonial domination by nonviolence rather than war, and remains the one nation in the world that I am aware of where rah-rah nationalism express itself by the study of nonviolence rather than by celebrating victory through warriors’ killing of others. And this is in a religion where the crowning jewel, the Sermon on the Mount, is a tale of epic heroism where God appears in human semblance and encourages and exhorts a prince who is so devoid of laziness that perhaps he doesn’t even sleep, to rise up in full power and annihilate all those marked for destruction. And Gandhi does nothing to downplay the text; he instead contributed yet one more commentary to the vast collection (and the Hindu preference, at least today, seems to be never give this crowning jewel without opening it up by commentary). And now we are in a position to drill down slightly.
Gandhi said very emphatically, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” And I would take this as entirely without sloppiness or guile. However, I would like to delve into a word he used. For the purpose of this section, I will treat Gandhi’s use of “nonviolence” and “satyagraha” as two sides of the same coin, or even closer. The term “satyagraha” is not taken from Hindi (which is, along with English, India’s modern national language), but from the classical Sanskrit, classical in India as Latin and Greek are European classical languages. My best understanding both as a historian and also as an author is that Gandhi went on a word hunt, searching to find the perfect word to crystallize the consuming quest, as Madeleine l’Engle found a word “kythe”, a Scottish word if I remember correctly, that originally meant something like “to truly come to be”, and became the central term in her classic A Wind in the Door. Madeleine l’Engle did not use the word as anyone before her did, and Gandhi seized on a word that had previously not been a term about violence or its absence, a term that meant something like “steadfastly holding on to the Truth no matter what.”
And there is no either-or between Gandhi’s embarking on a quest that ended with a deep term from classical Sanskrit, and his full and direct assertion that truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. The key to this is found in Christ’s words: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” A study of Gandhi’s use of the term “satyagraha” is a study of bringing forth out of a treasure things new and old which are one on the same.
I freely enough compare myself to Gandhi as an author. I do not feel the need to compare myself to Gandhi on forgiveness or anything else truly important besides that we are both made in the image of God, and both sinners.
What is pain? What is yielding?
Here I will not discuss what the image of God is at length, nor dissect that the highest command is to love God with one’s whole being and the second which is like it is to love your neighbor as yourself. However, I will say that the God who defines health is the model for healthily function and life, and Jujutsu is not just how God acts, it’s how we act if we’re doing right. It means that even in the most intense conflict or combat one is looking up for light. The U.S. in World War II referred to the Japanese Jiujutsu as “chop-socky”, and for all their following the universal wartime rules of due diligence in demonizing the enemy, the most patriotic U.S. foot soldiers learned very, very quickly that their Western boxing completely fell to pieces when it ran into “chop-socky.”
It is said by at least some martial artists and athletes that “Pain is weakness exiting the body.” It should equally be said by Orthodox Christians not only that repentance is sin exiting the soul, but that repentance is misery exiting the soul, if there is any difference at all: repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. And the struggle with anger that is called forgiveness, when we reach victory, is also misery exiting the soul.
Jiu-jutsu is a word meaning “yielding”, and comparisons with Jiu-jutsu should not be pushed too far, as may be admitted. It is one image among others and one not present in Scripture. But there is a distinction in Asian martial arts (and perhaps Capoiera, for instance), between “-jutsu” and “-do” that is well understood. “Jutsu” means a technique or skill, like woodworking, and “do” means a philosophical or spiritual path. The Western tradition (apart from when Asian martial arts came to be a substantial influence) is entirely “-jutsu”. This is true with a couple of bumps, as Jiu-jutsu is of an ancient provenance, the art of Samurai who had not even their weapons, while Judo may be seen as a modern attempt to simplify and cleanse Jiu-Jutsu into a simpler art that would be effective self-defense while eliminating locks and other destructive features. And all of the martial arts have their own personalities and characteristics, some better than others, but none yet let the stillness of Orthodox hesychasm or silence eclipse the meditation that is structural to internal martial arts.
So when am I going to start opening dojos? The answer I am hoping for is, “Never.” The one possible exception I see is that if the Church is really, really scraping the bottom of the barrel and makes me a bishop in some vague sense, or even worse a real bishop charged with fully competent administration, love, and care of a diocese, instead of the nominal formality, the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” concession of being honored on paper as the more-than-a-bishop of some long-lost city without a second living representative. If I bear the heavy cross and heavy crown of thorns of a real bishop, then I would have the right to start opening dojos, except that wouldn’t be the right way of thinking of it at all: most people would call it “the responsibility to continue opening parishes.”
I winced when I heard Exodus International was closing its doors… until I found out why, and it was a concern that I held since I first heard of it, no matter how much I respected its mission. Exodus International was trying alone to shoulder a responsibility that belonged to the entire ecosystem of the Church. And one question I had already been asking before I saw the Gay Nineties taking over was why on earth that class of sin was its own world, a separate detached from the rainbow fragments forgiven by Christ at Sinners Anonymous, or as it is more often called, the Church. The reason for the coming of the Son of God was to destroy the Devil’s work, and then to keep on pushing for bonus points well past when people can go Heaven: but for starters, let us to say to take each broken fragment of a fractured rainbow, whether pride or envy or the occult or drunkenness or any shard of lust whether gay or straight, and take these broken fragments and restore them to the to the pure, whole, white, bright, radiant, scintillating Light beyond beauty of the uncreated Son.
The martial arts classic A Book of Five Rings, in a brevity comparable to the Sermon on the Mount, covers five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and the void. The chapter about the void is by far the most terse: all else is summarized and transcended.
I have come to nearly the end of writing what I wanted to write, and I have covered almost everything on topic to cover except one thing: the original, central point that motivated the construction of the work. It would not be strange to call the topic “satyagraha:” I do not complain that others may do so, but I would rather look at hagiography.
The canonized saints trample on the rules of nature again, and again, and again. Saints walk on water; one monk, the only one on a monastic coast worthy to retrieve an icon miraculously floating on water, when he absolutely had to do so, crawled on top of the surface of the water on all fours like a dog, because in his great humility he considered himself utterly unworthy to stand up normally and walk on top of the water like Christ did. Saints pass through fire unharmed, although not every time. Many saints have been burned to death as martyrs, but it seems to happen that when the fire went out the martyrs looked as if they were merely sleeping, with a smile on their faces, and without a thread of their clothes or a hair on their heads singed or the faintest scent of smoke. In the lives, it seems that the only way that persecutors can get certain saints to die and stay dead is to behead them (hello, ISIS?), and even then, the saints occasionally pick up their heads, walk over to their preferred resting place, and there set down their severed heads and only then give their consent to really die.
Furthermore the God who works in the heart of hearts to giants among the saints is also works in the hearts of the faithful. Monastic giants trample on scorpions with bare feet; many more faithful trample on pride. Majestic saints open the eyes of the blind; and men reject lust and find their sight truly opened. St. Paul the Apostle raised the dead more than once, and innumerable more among the faithful, across many centuries, have fed the hungry; and furthermore, in a point that many, many officially canonized saints have driven home across the centuries, feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. The term “saint” referred originally to every member of the Church without exception, and one and the same God works in every stripe of saint to ultimately transcend the chasm between what is created, and what is uncreated. The wall between God and we who are merely created is there so that we may rise above it.
And in all this, the inner struggle of the Philokalia is vibrant in its nature. Its watchfulness or inner “nipsis” acts in moral and ascetical character like an author searching from just the perfect word, ever attentive, never hurrying, never impatient, always expecting. It is like the great Noah, who followed God’s command to build a huge boat in the middle of the desert, and was then the sole survivor from a deluge. It is like a diligent martial artist, who lives by the words, “The more you bleed in the dojo, the less you will bleed in the street.” It claims no exemption from suffering, nor entitlement to wishes fulfilled: if the Measure by whom all saints are measured was the great King who only wore a crown once, and then only a crown of twisted thorns, then we are advised to properly take up our crosses in this earthly vale while we can still repent, because once our life has gone, the opportunity to repent will vanish forevermore. But sometimes there is an an inner struggle of building a boat in the desert, and trusting the Lord of the Dance to know that he knows what is the right order and that if your next step is to leap before you look and only find out why after you have leapt. For those of us who are children at least, God shows us the reason why just after we have leapt because he knows that out of our weakness we will not exercise faith if he presents us with the reason beforehand, and identically knows that out of our weakness we will not maintain faith if too great a delay comes between the obedience and reward: in all things he meets our weakness that we might meet his strength. And all of this has every connection to how we can be entangled in our world’s conflicts, get hurt again and again, and meet a joy that is beyond any of the conflicts and hurts.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy talks about “ego-reading”; reading to push through a text, or as the problem appears among hiking, rushing to get to a point as forcefully and as quickly as possible. He points out that paradoxically those who rush to just get something done tend to not arrive at the intended destination at all. People who make progress in one activity or the other are, although I do not recall if they are stated in these terms, are people who have something in mind other than forcing their way to an external goal. Had the book been written later, it might have used the term “auto-telic”, which describes an activity that is its own goal. Where martial arts like Aikido are called “goalless” by practitioners, it would be more literal, at some loss of striking contrast, to use a presently preferred term of auto-telic and say that an Aikidoko is not worrying about if he as a student will reach black belt, or on a much lower scale how interminably long it will take to master what should be a simple technique, or whether there will be enough progress in managing anger or weight, or anything else. A proper practitioner of Aikido’s attention is fixed on Aikido itself, rather than paralysis by analysis over whether Aikido can be successfully used as a bridge to something external. You practice Aikido in order to practice Aikido.
The Philokalia offers something that seems much less but ends by being much more. The basic framing of work is different, and quite at odds with today’s conception of interesting work. The usual physical craft of self-supporting monks in the ancient world was basket weaving, cynically understood by some in academia today as a legal fiction to let high-value football players keep the alumni without needing to perform proper academic work. The most common craft of self-supporting monasteries today is crafting incense, which at least supplies something elevated to Orthodox parishes. But this way of thinking misses the point for both the ancient and the modern arrangement, which I personally only understood when watching my brother’s Mythbusters show and hear Adam gush at how “meditative” the repeated monotonous physical action of weaving a braided kangaroo leather bullwhip was. The chief merit of basket weaving and incense making alike is that they are repetitive motions that occupy the hands, and it is not clear to me that it is particularly helpful to think of incense as a high-status thing. The ancient and modern monasticism alike the preferred obedience is something that engages the hands while the heart pursues purity. That is the center of gravity. And in modern monasteries, there may be some non-meditative work that needs to be done, but the general pattern is to have most monks heavily engaged in meditative labors for the benefit of the monks themselves in a setting where people do not distinguish sacred from secular or work from prayer. The work is there to help prayer reach perfection. And really, cleaning toilets is more often mentioned as the standard example of honorable obediences than making incense.
But the same center of gravity applies outside of the monastery; it can just be frustratingly more difficult. One monk commented to a cleaning lady that she had a more fortunate position, and I as a programmer and knowledge worker had a less fortunate position, because it is entirely possible to be engaged in prayer while scrubbing tables, but significantly harder to be absorbed in prayer while your mind is chasing bugs in a computer program. And no, this was not a matter of the monk being gracious to someone with lower status and knowing that I would not be hurt or offended by the suggestion. It was unvarnished candor.
What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!“
One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror.Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.
But God has ordained things, and monastic and non-monastic alike need struggle, which often takes the form of conflicts, of things that we don’t think belong in our lives but God knows they do. And joy does not consist in being exempt from struggle. It consists of growing in struggle. It consists of having a good struggle. And if you earnestly engage your struggle you may experience the power in the final crescendo of Fr. Thomas’s crystallization:
Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.
In all these things and more, the Sermon on the Mount as it unfolds including the Philokalia, like as the Mishnah and Talmud, acts as a stone from Heaven of inexhaustible wealth:
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
These things slip through our fingers. They are simple, simpler than breathing, and we in our weakened state need some great systematic theology with slippery concepts we can pin down to grasp. So God meets in our weakness and gives the Philokalia to meticulously assess every detail of internal struggle and the eight demons that became the seven deadly sins in the West. “Do not store up treasures on earth” is a simple commandment; it does not only tell us we do not need Rolls-Royces to experience true blessedness, nor do we need our health (saints have lived to great spiritual heights amidst great illness, and not just because they were extraordinarily good), nor do we need our thoughts, or plans for our future in days or minutes, or an identity such as we try to have in the West, or “My Opinions”. We are to chase instead of the treasures that we can eat from today and forever, and come to that place where every drop of blood we bleed in the dojo eclipses a galaxy of diamond in its worth on the streets of Heaven.
Cooldown: The Alchemist
The Alchemist, like many favorite picks on Oprah, is the sort of thing that makes me nostalgic for when my brother still had a beautiful tropical bird as a pet, and moreover makes me positively yearn for the days the house still had a birdcage that still needed lining. None the less, there is a vignette that I would like to draw out.
The teacher-figure in the course is the towering alchemical figure of Melchizedek, who is immortal, can turn lead into gold, can already turn himself into wind, and presumably has numerous and extraordinary other cosmic powers not explored in the text, and teaches the student-figure after making a sweeping dismissal of all the other traditions in all the world’s other religions, and even a Western scholar whose heart was in the wrong place along with alchemy being dismissed for rhetorical weight.
The student figure never becomes immortal, never gains abilities to change metals personally, has no idea how to turn himself into wind (at least to start off with; the quest where he learns to make this self-transformation is core to the book’s plot), and ends up after a long heroic journey to and back finds out that there had been an enormous quantity of gold lying buried under his back yard right where he started.
But a major point is this: both Master and student are equally alchemists, or at very least at the end. The student does not have all the master’s cosmic powers, and even after he has turned himself to wind it is debatable whether he has any cosmic powers, but the question of whether they have identical arsenals of cosmic powers matters no more than whether their eyes are of the same color. Both are equally alchemists; the student follows his teacher in delving deeper into a pride that destroys all capacity for any joy, and an occult mindset that destroys the sanity of all those who practice it in the real world. They are both alchemists, master and pupil, and both participate fully in the tradition, on their own paths. That the teacher’s path includes having the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and the student does not, and the teacher can transmute lead to gold and the student cannot, is neither here nor there. Teacher and student both follow their personal paths within alchemy. Perhaps it would have been fundamentally humbler for the student to keep on asking that the teacher give him a sole drop of the Elixir of Life and induct him into turning lead to gold.
With all of the above efforts to rip The Alchemist to shreds, and others I’ve held my tongue on, I still wish to make one point clear: The book’s way of looking at difference is less than you think. The further you reach the Kingdom of Heaven, the less it matters that you have precious little money or gold. In fact wealth properly understood is a liability and a handicap more than really being much of any asset that puts you in a better position. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher and apologist who helped me along the way to Orthodoxy, found one great spiritual advantage to money: it doesn’t make you happy. If you are perennially struggling financially, and you see Break My Window around you on the street when your beater breaks down frequently, it’s awfully, awfully hard to avoid thinking that so many things would be better if you had a good bit of money. If, on the other hand, you have a top-notch chauffeur for a Rolls-Royce, and you’re still miserable, a great deal of the sting has been taken away from the temptation that just having more money is all you need. You can still be greedy and covet things, but it becomes a far weaker temptation to think that your spiritual emptiness actually comes from the fact that you are not in a position to have Michelangelo’s David in your garden and the Mona Lisa in your living room.
The martial artist I respect most was asked in class how many times he had had to use his martial arts skills. And he slowly, gently, humbly said, that he had really been fortunate and hadn’t needed to use his his martial art, even though there were a couple of awfully close calls [during years and years of study].
And I submit that his answer, as stated, is wrong, or at least his wording was deceptive and misleading.
He was at the time a third-degree blackbelt. I don’t know what he is now. For non-martial artists, as far as sparring goes, a first-degree blackbelt is a third-degree blackbelt’s chewtoy. He is past the point where people are said to be able to kill a tiger with their bare hands. I am all but certain that in every one of those close calls, he could have killed the other person immediately. His teacher, at a martial arts show, stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and then the teacher was simultanously attacked by five blackbelts with swords, and an instant later the teacher stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and all around him were five blackbelts, on the ground, crying.
The martial artist I most respect said, humbly, gently, modestly, that even in the close calls, he had said, “You’re the tough guy,” and backed down, or run away, or almost anything possible (whatever it took), coming out the loser in every social confrontation, and he went on to say, “Most people who think they want to fight don’t really want to fight.” And I submit that the proof of his profound mastery of his art was this: he has passed through minefield after minefield after minefield such as I almost certainly could not, without stepping on a mine even once. The point is not that he happened to be carrying a first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The point is not that he was carrying a very, very good first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The proof of his mastery is that, as of my last knowledge, he had never needed to open his first aid kit, not even once. And indeed martial artists often defuse a potential fight before most outsiders would recognize there was anything going out of the ordinary going on.
Incidentally, though there was no question of my ever wanting to give a physical attack when I was in his class, I was quite the jackass and quite the belligerent student, and he only ever answered me with humility and gentleness. In the end, his gentleness conquered me.
What about what I have somewhat whimsically called “Tong Fior”? In my own opinion, my credentials make for an pretty impressive parody of martial arts, unless you want to go through the ha, ha, only serious route. I’ve lifted weights (and lifted weight machines, and broken weight machines by applying too much force), climbed with devotion, in riflery went from no rank to Sharpshooter, Bar VIII in one week, punched at bags, dipped a finger in a few martial arts, made my own approximation of ninjutsu stealth (and unintendedly got a stunned “Whaaaaa?” when these skills came out in campers’ response to games in nature with me as their camp counselor, asking, “Did you go to some special Daniel Boone school [to be able to move so silently and be sensitive to sounds that were apparently around 0 dB]?”), and am gifted to the degree that professionals say “You’re smarter than most geniuses” or “The average Harvard Ph.D. has never met someone as talented as you” (the gifts are not magic powers but for some purposes they might as well be), and other things which should be preferably viewed as ornamental at best. One question outsiders ask of martial artists is how well they’d do in a real fight; the question comes perhaps with hope at a training that would make the asker all but invincible, the basic response to that question is “HTTP Error 404: Missing Page”: if you’re not already the one and only Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s “sword-saint”, no martial art can change that at all. I would show respect for Kuk Sool Won by saying that one second degree black belt said, “I would give myself one chance in two. But the more chances you give yourself, the less you have.” I’ve had experienced the martial arts practicality, as one martial artist’s parody ad said, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” There is one point where I expect victory would come, and that is if the Spirit of the Lord comes on me. Orthodox priests should not employ physical violence, and in the profound story of Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, people are flabbergasted when the weakened and aged monk Fr. Arseny steps where a fight has broken out and strikes a forceful blow. Possibly if the Spirit of the Lord falls on me, I might blast through a 9th kyu, or possibly for that matter a 9th dan. In all other cases it is not my concern.
The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount, and the struggles I now wrestle with are not flesh and blood, though they have brought me through mortal danger more than once. Kuk Sool Won in every school but one says, “We need more practice!” The Kuk Sa Bo Nim (Grandmaster)’s headquarters school says, “You need more practice!” I’ll go with “We need more practice!”, please, or better “I need more practice!”, or if I can bring it even closer to my true needs, “Lord, give me more time to repent.”
I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.
Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: It’s an occult book!
I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.
The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.
This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.
If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.
“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”
Wounded by “Wounded by Love:” Monastic TMI!
There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.
But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:
The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).
Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.
Beware of all fashions
Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.
The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.
One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.
A dark memorial, and a warning sign
I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.
There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.
The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.
And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.
Especially when we are preparing for the Feast of the Nativity, when the Word became flesh, we would do well to meditate on why the Word became flesh:
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God. The divine became human so that the human might become divine. 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 Word became flesh that flesh might become Word.
The chief end of mankind
The Westminster Catechism famously opens:
Question: What is the chief end of mankind?
Answer: The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
It is often (and rightly) pointed out that these are the same thing: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever are the exact same thing. The chief end of mankind is to contemplate God. And one thread of this is woven into St. John’s prologue: “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The disciples saw the uncreated Light of the Holy Transfiguration, and contemplated it.
But St. John the Theologian does not truncate contemplation. This follows, “But to as many as received him, he gave the authority to become the sons of God.” And contemplation and theosis/deification/divinization, becoming sons of God, are not two competing answers to the question, “What is the chief end of mankind?” Far from it: they are expressions of the same truth. Contemplating the uncreated Light, and being transformed to be one of the sons of God, are two connected aspects of the same goal. They come together, and we might well quote for contemplation of God words also spoken of the Eucharist: “Behold what you believe. Become what you behold.” For contemplation and theosis are of the same essence. They are of the same essence almost as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of the same essence.
Now it may need to be pointed out that God, and God alone, can be divine by nature. If theosis is open to us, there is no question of our becoming also divine by nature. That is impossible. God’s great work is to make us become by grace what he is by nature, and the infinite gulf between Uncreated and created can never be erased. But it can be transcended by a God who transcends not only Creation but transcends transcendence itself. And when his grace is at work, our spiritual sins and wounds remain, and we remain created, but that is no longer the point. It is no longer the issue. God transcends the chasm that we may by grace share in the divine nature and become by grace what he is by nature.
The great Incarnation was not something that was complete at the Nativity of Christ (or the Annunciation). Christ became incarnate in his own person that he might be incarnate in our persons as well. Word became flesh that flesh become Word. And Incarnation reaches its proper stature when it unfolds into our divinized life, when the Feast of the Nativity unfurls and Christ is born in us. The Annunciation of the Theotokos and the Nativity of Christ are still going on today!
It is a profound error to think of eternal life as something that begins after death. Eternal life is now; the door is open. The same uncreated Light by which Christ was transfigured, so saints have been transfigured, and this is why icons give halos to saints. Paradise is wherever the saints are; and not only canonized saints but in some measure the faithful who are called saints in Scripture.
In theosis, in divinization, in deification, we do not usurp God’s place; rather, Christ’s headship over us receives its proper place. That means not only that he is our Lord and Master, though he most certainly is, nor “merely” that we owe our very existence to him. Rather, to say that Christ is our head is the same thing as saying that we are Christ’s body. As is the Head, so is the body. As is the Christ, so is the Christian. Christ’s own blood flows in our veins. The royal, divine lifeblood courses through our veins. Everything in our lives is to be brought under Christ’s headship, and by the same token our lives are to be made divine.
There is no hair’s breadth of separation between being a follower of Jesus and being another Christ. If you follow Jesus, you are a vessel of his Incarnation, and the Incarnation of Christ is no faroff historical remembrance: it is what you work on today.
The messy circumstances of our lives
“All this is very well,” perhaps you may say, “but my life is not so perfect. We do not live in a perfect world.”
But these are not words from, or merely for, golden ages. When Christ came, no wonder people were looking for a military Messiah who would free the holy land from Roman domination. That was a natural enough thing to want! (And even today, people want someone to save our economy and political situation.) Christ came, as God does, catching people by surprise. People who were living under Third World economic conditions wanted a political savior. Christ came offering something else: saving people from their sins.
Perhaps not much has changed. Not everybody likes our world’s political and economic situation. We seek a savior: a political savior, an economic savior. And Christ comes to us to save us from our sins.
This salvation is a salvation which we overlook and the salvation that we need. Some people pass on the quotation, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us,” and the saying is worth repeating. We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us.
These messy circumstances, these bad economic conditions, not to mention politics, are what we think need to be cleared away for God to be at work with us. God has a word for us that is alike difficult and liberating: he wants to work with us in these circumstances. Even if economics and politics turn worse, he may want to deal with us, and deify us, precisely in the conditions lie furthest from his power.
Christ God the Savior doesn’t just deify us who were made in the image of God. He wants to place everything in our lives under his headship: every sin, every suffering, every tear, death itself. He wants to commandeer every evil, as he has Shanghaied the works of the Devil down from the ages. He is a hard man who gathers where he has never harvested, and he harvests not only righteousness and good works, but sin, evil, and death no less if we will but allow him. All of this is under his headship, and all of this he transforms to be deified. And he does not share our illusions about when he can really get to work.
We imagine well enough that only if something changes, only if we get a job, only if someone else changes can our lives move forward. God works to our good before that happens. Our engagement with God happens first, if there is any change to follow, and when we do discover the Kingdom of God which we keep on overlooking in our search for deliverance, everything changes. We may get what we want. We may not get what we want. But we do not need what we want. Even if we get what we want, we are placed far beyond it. We discover treasure hidden in a field and everything changes. And it is sometimes in the hardest trials that God shows the greatest grace and joy. It is like in the poem “Footprints.” When we see only one set of footprints, it was then that Christ carried us: and when we see only one set of footprints, it was then that he was most active in our deification.
Deification is the chief end of man; we were made to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and this is the chief end, not for some other people in some golden age, but here and now, in our political and economic condition. The benevolent, severe, and merciful God who provided for us in decades before is the same benevolent, severe, and merciful God who not only wills to provide for us now, but to work our deification. And he wills this, not sometime when we obtain what we want sometime in the future, but here and now. The same God who commandeers our sin and works such a wonder in us that it is no longer the issue that we injured ourselves, works with our suffering world in such a way that it is no longer the issue if we live in a time of global economic collapse. The same God who has deified men in every age wills our glory today.
The Feast of the Nativity
The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) has been called “Pascha in winter,” and in a very real sense it is. But there is a difference. Pascha was open triumph; Christ the Firstborn of the Dead forever triumphed over death, and the day is coming when Christ will return borne on rank on rank of angel and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him. But the Nativity was not open triumph; an angel chorus appeared, and only a few knees bowed. It was if anything an invasion in the dead of winter.
But the Feast of the Annunciation, the Feast of the Nativity, and the Feast of Theophany are the same thing, really: they are feasts of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is forever frustrated in its purpose unless it unfurls in us. We are to be brought under Christ’s headship. We are to be deified. We are made for theosis. We are to contemplate God. We are to be vessels of the Incarnation of Christ, and this is for here and for now, not for when we reach some other circumstances.
Preparation for the Feast of the Nativity includes important external observances intended to concretely foster a realization: Each and every one of us has a problem with sin. You need, and I need, to come to a point of wondering if God can work with such a sinner. But when we come to God and confess our sins, he answers not only with mercy, but grace: repenting from sin is greater work than raising the dead. We awaken when we come to realize we are standing in a sewer, and when we least expect God to work with us, then in particular our deification is alive. Repenting is greater work than raising the dead, for we ourselves rise from the death of sin into the eternal life that has already begun on earth. And when we wonder, not why God has not placed us in some nicer circumstances, but why God has not placed us in much rougher circumstances, that God is at work and Heaven opens.
I learned some pretty big things during the Y2k scare, and some of them have every relevance to how to survive an economic depression.
When year 2000 was approaching, I was part of the doomsday camp. I believed, wrongly, that technology would fail and everything around me would start to fall apart. But did a lot of digging and I think I learned something about what makes people survive really rough situations–and how to survive an economic depression. The economy is in deep trouble, and what I found out then has every relevance now that we are worried about how to survive an economic depression.
When Y2k was approaching, I found a lot of materials on physicalpreparation for such an event, but very little on psychological preparation. The most that I can remember reading about that was that when I said on a newsgroup that a Y2k doomsday would be psychologically as well as physically difficult, someone said that I was right and suggested that Y2k preparations include stocking up on board games and condoms.
That answer seemed, to put it politely, not up to snuff. As far as mental preparation goes, that was the equivalent of saying, “If bad things happen on January 1 2000, be prepared for great physical danger. Alwaysremember to look both ways before you cross the street!”
After failing to find something more informative on newsgroups, I went to the library, to look for more information on psychological survival in difficult situations. I did a lot of digging, reading whatever seemed like it might shed light, but finding very little of an answer anywhere that I looked. Even a book on psychology and the military said almost nothing about how either soldiers or civilians stood up psychologically to disaster, or what enables a survivor to overcome an incredibly difficult situation.
It was only after a lot of digging that I realized the answer was almost staring me in the face. What makes a survivor is not exactly psychological. It is spiritual. There was something spiritual about, for instance, people who had survived incredibly hostile situations as hostages and prisoners. It is not exactly that they had some special talent, or drew on some special mind trick or had developed what we would imagine as spiritual powers. It was something almost pedestrian.
It had something to do with religious devotion. Faith has something to do with how to survive an economic depression.
I imagine I may raise some eyebrows by suggesting faith has something to do with how to survive a disaster. But faith was how many people survived the Great Depression. Perhaps a great many survivors survived despite their useless faith, or maybe it was a crutch, but if it seems obvious to you that faith could have nothing to do with how people survived the Great Depression, then I would ask you to entertain a possibility you might not have considered. Maybe they know something we have forgotten.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Much of the Bible comes from disastrous times. In the Bible’s book ofHabakkuk, there is a prophet who sees great evil about him. He cries out to the Lord, and the Lord gives an answer that leaves the prophet stunned: the Lord will punish the wickedness of Israel by having an army of terrorists conquer their land. This was a disaster that might be worse than economic collapse. The prophet asks the Lord a question: how can a righteous God look on such wickedness? And the Lord responds without really answering the prophet’s question: the Lord responds without giving the prophet what he wants. But tucked away in the Lord’s response are some very significant words: “…the righteous shall live by faith.”
Those words were taken up in the New Testament and became a rallying-cry against rigid legalism. But they are more than a response to people who turn religion into a bunch of rules; they speak also in situations where legalism is simply not the issue. The prophet cried out to the Lord about rampant violence. The issue was not really legalism at all. And this is when the words were first spoken: “The righteous shall live by faith.” These words were given in terrifying times.
“The righteous shall live by faith” is a non-answer, and a quite deliberate non-answer. The prophet asked how such a pure God could allow such wickedness to exist, and God does not give the answer he is looking for. The Lord doesn’t really answer the prophet’s question at all. It’s almost like:
Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”
The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”
The Lord doesn’t tell the prophet what he wants. He gives him something much better; these brief words say, “I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do, and you may not look past the protecting veil that enshrouds me. But in the disastrous times you face, know this: the righteous shall live by faith.”
God doesn’t just refuse to tell the prophet what he wants. He gives Habakkuk something fundamentally richer and deeper. He tells the prophet what he needs. What God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith,” is a luminous thread appearing throughout Scripture, woven into the fabric of Proverbs and woven through and through in the Sermon on the Mount. This luminous, radiant thread declares that God is sovereign, in hard times as well as good, and that his divine providence is with his faithful no less. Even if we are in a depression, God can watch out for us.(Perhape especially if we are in a depression. The surprising report from many survivors is that God’s help is much more obvious in hard times than when things are easy.) Just witness this luminous thread in the Sermon on the Mount:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is there not more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add one hour to his span of life? (You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot and a half taller!) And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither work nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as gloriously as one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For people without faith seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own things to worry about. Each day has enough worries of its own.
The righteous shall live by faith, and the Sermon on the Mount has a great deal to say about exactly how the righteous shall live by faith. The radiant thread unfolds, unfurls, beams, “Money is unworthy of your trust: put your trust in God. Live in the security of faith. Have the true security of faith in God who provides, not the ersatz providence of what you can arrange for yourself. Do not spend your life building a sandcastle for your home and trying to keep it from collapsing. I offer you a way to build a solid house, built on the rock.”
And this is not just a statement about how we should not worry about the future when we have it easy. The Sermon on the Mount closes with words that are entirely relevant to surviving the storms of life when we wonder how to survive an economic depression:
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and its collapse was great.
These are not words about nothing more than how to relax and enjoy life when it is easy. These are words about how to prepare for hard times, and how to survive in a disaster. In other words, they are words about how to survive an economic depression.
In hard times as well as good, the righteous shall live by faith. Indeed, the words “the righteous shall live by faith” originally come from times with an industrial-strength disaster on the horizon!
The Apostle Paul: Portrait of a survivor!
Who can survive stress like an industrial-strength disaster? The Bible paints a picture of one person who survived a lot of really rough times, and not only survived, but genuinely thrived.
When I was in college, part of the general “foundations of wellness” class was taking the “Holmes Stress Point Scale,” which assigns points for stressful events to add up to a rough estimate of how stressful your life is. You get a certain number of points for each stressful experience you’ve been through, and they add up to your total score for how stressful the past year of your life is. The events include:
Death of a close friend…
Outstanding personal achievement…
Minor violation of the law…
The higher a score from stressful events, the more stressful your life is. The scale’s explanation is: If your score is 300 or more, you are at a very high stress level and probably run a major risk of illness in the next year. If your score is 200 to 299, your stress and illness risk are moderate, and if your score is between 150 to 200, your stress and risk are mild.
My teacher mentioned that one student had computed such a score for a year in the life of the Apostle Paul, who went through a number of events that should score major points for stress:
Attacked by a frenzied mob…
Shipwrecked in the mother of all storms…
Clandestine escape from a city when people were trying to kill him…
Physically assaulted by soldiers…
Survived an assassination attempt…
The student calculated a staggering 675 points for one year in the life of St. Paul!
But the odd thing is that if you read the Book of Acts, St. Paul does not really come across as someone we should pity. We read that some of his colleagues were harassed, beaten, and afterwards were rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of their Lord. When I read the accounts of these events, I walk away with a sense, not that these suffering heroes are poor and pitiable, but that they are giants and they utterly dwarf me. There is something greater in the Apostle, far greater, than a whopping 675 points worth of externally stressful events.
It is the same thing, really, as with people who survived a long time being hostages for terrorists. They had dug deep and built their house on the rock, and when stormwinds battered their house, it survived and stood firm. It is the same thing for the bedrock of how people survived the Great Depression. And if we may be battered by hard economic times, we would like our houses to stand firm as well.
Suffering and sonship
It may be that what we fear that in a potential disaster is that we will lose what is good for us. We may fear getting sidetracked when none of our dreams seem to come true. We may fear that God cannot really provide our good if our recession becomes a depression or even an economic collapse–that the Sermon on the Mount is presumably about how to live in easy times but wouldn’t be quite so helpful when we’re in a depression. But there is something we are missing. Some of the things that we fear may have a surprisingly positive place in a well-lived life. There is something we are missing in all this.
Suffering has a place in the divine discipleship—the divine sonship—that the Sermon on the Mount is all about. “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God,” as C.S. Lewis echoed the ancient wisdom, a wisdom that plays out in discipleship. Discipleship, service to God in difficulties, providence, and ascetical or spiritual practices all come together: God provides for us and disciples us in hard times as well as good. Sometimes he provides more plainly when we have nothing than when we have everything. In the Philokalia, we hear the words of St. Makarios as he explains the place of suffering in discipleship:
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?
Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.
The story is told of a woman who was told the Lord would be with her, and afterwards found herself an incredibly painful situation. When she cried out to the Lord and asked how this could be, the Lord answered: “I never said it would be easy. I said I’d be with you.” God’s way, it seems, is not to make things easy for us, but to strengthen us for greatness in what are often hard situations, and sometimes disasters. He gives us mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.
And we can climb mountains even if we are in an economic depression. Perhaps especially if we are in an economic recession. God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering. Not even if we’re really good Christians—especially not if we’re really good Christians! If you read the saints’ lives (see the links on the natural cycle clock), you will see that even with all the wondrous providence God provides for the saints, the saints in fact suffer much more than the rest of us; they know sufferings worse than most of us have ever been through.
There are saints whose prayers healed others—but who were for themselves never healed of their own major illnesses. If this sounds ironic, remember that Christ also was told, “Physician, heal thyself.” Christ is pre-eminent as one who saved others but could not save himself, and “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” is one way of defining God’s kingdom. Part of how people survived the Great Depression was that they carried the spirit of God’s kingdom and worked to save others, and not just themselves. Communities of people survived the Great Depression because, even if no one could save “Me! Me! Me!”, perhaps each one could help save others.
God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering, but he works with us in our suffering, often to do things with us that could never happen if we had things our way. It may be precisely on the mountain, in the act of climbing, that God gives us the strength to climb!
Sometimes God works with us despite our best efforts to fix things so we can have things our way. Wise people rightly tells us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and “You can’t always get what you want.” And perhaps if we did get what we wanted, we wouldn’t get what God wanted for us. Some of us may try to fix our problems and pray to God to take them away—when his plan is to use our problems to build us up. St. Makarios above quotes Hebrews, and in fact Hebrews is one of the clearest books of the Bible that God works with us in suffering—in fact, that Christ himself was perfected by suffering (source):
But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.
…But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.
Our view of suffering is often that if we are suffering, then we cannot be where we should be. It often seems we can only be where we should be when we are out of a difficult situation). It seems that we are sidetracked, and will only stop being sidetracked when we have things our way. But that is absolutely false. God worked with Christ in suffering. God worked with the saints in suffering. God worked with us in suffering. And that means that we can be in suffering and in pain, with our godly plans failing, and we are still just where God wants us: we may not see it, but sometimes our earthly failure is a heavenly victory. If God allows us to be in an economic collapse, he may be doing things with us, good things, that we might never happen if we had the comfort we seem to need. The last words above, about suffering and failure, lead directly into the famous “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.
What may be happening in our sufferings is that God is building us into greater people than if we succeed in getting what we want. Including if we are in an economic depression. This is a basic lesson of people growing up: many young people have big dreams for themselves, but grow by middle age into living for others, growing into something that could never happen if all their youthful dreams came true. And suffering has a place in this—and a greater and deeper value. The Son of God was made perfect through suffering. Innocent suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ: Christ’s suffering is made perfect in his people. St. Paul, the survivor who went through terrible suffering, wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col 1.24 RSV)
Suffering is not getting off-track, nor does it force us out of God’s plans, so that we only get into God’s providence as soon as things are the way we would like. What some of us fear in suffering is that if we are in difficult circumstances, then that must mean we are spiritual failures as well as failing on earth. If we are faithful and still fail in our plans, this does not mean that either God’s plans or providence have failed. Often he is working at us when we are suffering and we are so far afield from anything that makes sense to us.
Everything we meet is either a blessing from God, or a trial that God allows for our strengthening. You may say that there is something evil in your trials, and you would be entirely right: there is something evil, and perhaps demonic, in our trials and afflictions. Perhaps you may say that there seems to be something almost demonic about an economic collapse, and you would still be right. But, as C.S. Lewis observes, all of us do the will of God. We may do the will of God as Satan and Judas did, asinstruments, or we may do the will of God as Peter and John did, as sons. But all of us do the will of God, and ultimately Satan and may be no more than a hammer in God’s hand. And even if God allows rough trials, he allows them for our strengthening. St. Makarios is very clear: “The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to.” Evil is on a leash. Let us be faithful. Every move the Devil plays is one move closer to his loss and God’s victory, and ours if we are faithful.
I am not saying that the future holds much suffering. You or I may have a lot of suffering, or actually not that much. I am, however, saying that however much suffering God allows, he can still work with us. He can still work with us in an economic depression. (And that is even without going into how a great many people have been in situations they dreaded, and found life to still be beautiful.) As St. Paul, a survivor, closed Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Building a house on the rock—it’s not all about you!
Ascesis refers to disciplined spiritual practice. It’s a part of building a house on the rock. In the Orthodox tradition, these include sacraments, church attendance and daily liturgical prayers, reading and listening to Scripture, working to keep the Jesus prayer in your heart (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), growing into the liturgical seasons and internal and external fasting, hospitality, service, thanksgiving, repentance, giving to others who ask your help, cutting back on selfish pleasures, including icons in your prayer, solitude, community, and other practices. All of these can offer different help in growing to spiritual maturity.
But there comes a crucial caveat. None of these, if they are working correctly, are all about us. However essential they are to building a house on the rock, they are infinitely more than tools for how to survive an economic depression. They are tools to living in communion with God and being transformed by his grace. These disciplines, used rightly, can clear away obstacles to our growing in discipleship under God, but if they are used wrongly, they can be extremely harmful.
[Piglet picked some violets, decided to give them to Eeyore, and went to visit him.]
“Oh, Eeyore,” began Piglet a little nervously, because Eeyore was busy.
“To-morrow,” said Eeyore. “Or the next day.” Piglet came a little closer to see what it was. Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.
“Oh, Eeyore,” he began again, “I just—”
“Is that little Piglet?” said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.
“Yes, Eeyore, and I—”
“Do you know what this is?”
“No,” said Piglet.
“It’s an A.”
“Oh,” said Piglet.
“Not O—A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?”
“Yes,” said Piglet. “No,” said Piglet very quickly, and he came closer still.
“Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is—until somebody treads on it,” Eeyore added sternly.
Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.
“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”
“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”
“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”
“Oh,” said Piglet again. “I mean, does it?” he explained quickly.
“I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated—mark this, little Piglet—to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,” he added, “just something that anybody can come and breathe on.”
Piglet stepped back nervously, and looked round for help.
“Here’s Rabbit,” he said gladly. “Hallo, Rabbit.”
Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, “Ah, Eeyore,” in the voice of one who would be saying “Good-bye” in about two more minutes.
“There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?”
“What’s this that I’m looking at?” said Eeyore, still looking at it.
“Three sticks,” said Rabbit promptly.
“You see?” said Eeyore to Piglet. He turned to Rabbit. “I will now answer your question,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you,” said Rabbit.
“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becones Educated. He instigorates—I think that is the word he mentioned, but I may be referring to something else—he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way, I also, if I have the word right, am—am doing what he does. That, doe instance is?”
“An A,” said Rabbit, “but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.”
Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.
“What did Rabbit say it was?” he asked.
“An A,” said Piglet.
“Did you tell him?”
“No, Eeyore, I didn’t. I expect he just knew.”
“He knew? You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?”
“Yes, Eeyore. He’s very clever, Rabbit is.”
“Clever!” said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. “Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. “A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!”
We need to avoid being Eeyores with our spiritual discipline, or our spirituality, or our faith, or our religion. Letters serve a greater purpose, and so do ascetical practices: we should not, like Eeyore, stare at an A and tell ourselves that it is our Education and Learning, or Prayers and Church Attendance as the case may be.
The point of ascetical practices is to be steps of the Great Dance: living the life that God shares, and becoming one of the sons of God. It’s not merely a set of survival skills that work in an economic recession or depression, or even an economic collapse, even if “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is quite practical advice. The point is to seek first the kingdom of a God who knows our survival needs: as God told Habakkuk before a disaster, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The luminous thread beams brightly because it is more than just a white thread. It shines, and it shines with the light of Heaven, a light of divine love that illumines Creation.
What Eeyore doesn’t get about the luminous thread is that it is the light of Heaven shining on earth.
Better than an endowment
Some years before I became Orthodox, I was at a class where someone was commenting on Proverbs, and its texts that say, in essence, “Put your trust in God, not money.” (“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death,” Prov 11:4 RSV.) One point he made that particularly surprised me was, “Endowments aren’t so great.”
He asked a question: if we want to be independently wealthy, who do we want the “independently” to mean we are independent from? The answer he gave: “Independent from God.” If we want to be independently wealthy, we may want something more than mere luxuries. The basic fantasy of life as we imagine ourselves being independently wealthy, is a life that is in control and unlike the actual messiness of our real lives with so many things that are simply beyond our control. And his suggestion, based on real life as well as Proverbs, is that it is actually not good for us to have an endowment that we can trust.
One kind of person counselors work with is the person who cannot be happy without being in control of everyone around them. The basic problem is that a person who needs to be in control is a tragically shrunken person, and part of what a counselor will try to give a person is an opportunity to step into a larger world. If you believe, “I can’t be happy unless I’m in control of everyone I’m involved with,” that will set you up for a lot of unhappiness.
This is not just because it is really hard to control everyone else. A few people who want to control others really do manage to control others around them, but they are really as unhappy as others who want the same thing but don’t manage the control over others they always want to establish. As Chesterton observed, there may be some desires which are not achievable, but there are some desires which are not desirable.
If you want the world to be small enough that there is nothing outside your control, you want to live in a small and terribly shrunken world. If you let go of that kind of control, you may find that you have let yourself into a much bigger world than if you were the biggest thing around, and in the process you become bigger yourself. Instead of being a tin god ruling a world as cramped as a cubicle, you become servant in God’s vast mansions. And being one of many of these servants is a much better position to be in than dominating as a tin god.
And there is more to this larger world, the larger world of serving in God’s great mansions. The words, “The righteous shall live by faith” were given, in full force, when a brutal invasion was coming. Those words may not originally have been about how to survive an economic depression. They were originally more about how to survive something worse: your country being taken over by terrorists!
The words, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and the Sermon on the Mount, apply to some pretty rough situations, including an economic recession, economic depression, or economic collapse. Christ’s words about not worrying do not apply just to privileged people who have nothing seriously worth worrying about; many of the people who first heard theSermon on the Mount were on the bottom of the totem pole and would see less material comfort than the kind of person most Americans would imagine as a homeless person.
The model prayer Christ would give is not a prayer for something nicer for people stuck on a nasty diet of burgers and KFC; the one physical request is for bread—by American standards, quite a dull thing to eat day in and day out, and possibly poorer nutritional fare than fast food—and it is in thiscontext that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, beckons us to store up treasure in Heaven, and invites us to a spiritual feast that unfurls in hard times as well as when everything meets our expectations. He invites us to the spiritual feast, the larger world, that is at the heart of spirituality and religion and is unlocked by faith. The Sermon on the Mount neither assumes nor needs a high standard of living to have real treasure.
The invitation to dance the Great Dance is open to us now as ever. All of us are invited to the Great Feast. Even if we’ve snubbed words like, “Money doesn’t make you happy,” and, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” not only do those truths remain open to us, but the Divine Providence is no less open. If our external circumstances remove all the luxuries that serve us, we may discover that not only is it better to give than receive, but it is also better to serve and be served. We might take a tip from how people survived the Great Depression. If we are unemployed, we might serve others and find something that technologies and luxuries can’t give, and if our 401(k) plan becomes a 404(k) and vanishes, we might lean on God’s providence and discover that God’s providence gives us more than money could.
There’s a sign that was seen around my hometown that says, “Money may not do everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch!” And I wonder if that is precisely what we gain if we do not know what will meet our needs in the future: our material needs can “keep the kids in touch” for God. Especially in an economy in shambles. And if that happens, we have something no money could buy: keeping in touch with God in a way that is ultimately a Heavenly transformation.
There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the husks that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
Today, one of the ways parents might give money to children is letting them “borrow against their inheritance:” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back, but they lose that much of their inheritance when their parents die. And this is considered a fairly normal arrangement.
This isn’t what is going on here. The younger son’s request telegraphs something loud and clear: “I wish you were dead!”
We see a first glimpse of God’s love—a love to the point of madness. Out of all responses the father could have to this affront, he gave every last penny he was asked for. The love to the point of madness may be easier to see later on, but it is already present in the gift by which he answers the ludicrously inappropriate request.
The son goes off to live life the way he wants to. And living life the way he wants to hits rock bottom. The big party he imagined he’d make for himself turns into famine and dire straits that leave him coveting the unappepetizing husks that he is feeding to unclean, vile swine. He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots, not his father.
He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots. Just like some of us here. We don’t want to have to wait under the authority of a Father who calls the shots. We want money and control, with things lined up here and now. What is it we are telling God if we ask him to give us money and control on our terms? Something a bit like, “I wish you were dead.”
The younger son has discovered that life with his father out of the picture is not so glorious and wonderful. And he realizes the extent of his fall. So he resolves to go back and beg, not even for forgiveness, but possibly his father might even contain his wounded resentment enough to let him work for pay and be able to buy bread. (Who knows? Maybe a long shot, but what real alternative did he have?)
What was the father doing in all of this?
When husbands have gone off to war, there have been wives who have stood by the path of the doorway, looking for some hope that their husbands may return, looking and waiting, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… never giving up! And the father in our story was doing exactly that.
The father was looking, waiting, and saw his son far off, and completely cast off his upper-class dignity to run and embrace him. Love to the point of madness! He didn’t even wait for an apology before embracing him and kissing him!
And when the son made a full confession, hoping maybe to toil for his father’s scraps, the father pulls out all the stops: the best robe, a ring for his finger, and the best food possible for a royal feast. This is love to the point of madness!
But the story continues on to a more sobering note (source):
Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father, `Look, I have served you for all of these years, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf!’
And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
We have an Eeyore here.
This story has been called the parable of the two prodigals, meaning that not only did the one son tragically fall, but the other, elder son also tragically falls from the glory his father would have wished for him. At the beginning, the younger son wished that his father was dead. At the end, did the older son wish his father was dead?
The older son is a tragic spiritual Eeyore.
His statement could have come from a very different angle. For all of the years the older son was in his father’s service, he toiled, and he may not have had rich party food—only solid, nourishing, ordinary food day by day. For all these many years, he worked hard in the context of the father training him, and drawing him into mature manhood. In the meantime, his brother has been ripping up his own soul, losing even what he thought he had at the mercy of merciless people with no one else who cared for his well-being. The brother who all but told his father, “I wish you were dead,” was in every sense save the literal, himself dead.
If it is painful to lose one’s parents, it is another level of pain to lose one’s child, and the father had seen one of his sons—not to mention the older son’s only brother—die a living death. Now he was back, and in every sense including the literal, alive. Was killing the fatted calf even enough of a celebration?
The older son didn’t get it. How well did his service to his father work? Not very well; it went badly enough that instead of sharing in his father’s joy at a lost son who “was dead, and is alive again,” acts bitterly affronted and indicts his father searingly. Which is to say, the son’s hard work didn’twork, any more than Eeyore’s laborious staring at his three sticks achieved the true heart of “Learning” and “Education.”
The point, though, is not really the tragedy of the older son. The point is that God welcomes people who turn to him, and welcomes them with open arms. It is only one step to turn to God, even if you think you are ten thousand steps away. But when are we ready?
It is easy enough to wait for life to really begin. When? Maybe when the present illness is gone, or when we get that promotion, or maybe just when we get a job in the first place, or when someone we deal with will become not quite so difficult a person, or when we have something paid off, or when Washington gets its act together. When something big or small changes, then maybe we will be in God’s blessing. St. Herman of Alaska met some people who were waiting for their lives to really begin (source):
Father Herman gave them all one general question: “Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?” Various answers were offered… Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. “Is it not true,” Father Herman said to them concerning this, “that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?” They all answered, “Yes, that is so!” He then continued, “Would you not say, ‘Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men?’ Should we not then love God above everything, desire Him more than anything, and search him out?”
All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “If we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they did not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” continued the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”
The time for God is not at some indefinite point in the future when things will fit our hopes better. The time to work with God, in a sense the only time we should be concerned with, is now. Not later, now.
More precious than gold
When I was a child, I remembered a story about a fearsome dragon who told a knight that if the knight would tickle the dragon’s throat with a sword, he would have a great treasure. The knight rode up on his horse and approached the dragon, already afraid, and asked if the treasure was as good as a good horse and a good suit of armor. It was more, the dragon said. The knight asked if the treasure was as good as a silver suit of armor, and shield and sword to match. It was, the dragon assured him. The knight then asked if the treasure was better than gold. The dragon answered that it was more precious than rooms full of gold. So the terrified knight trembled and tickled the dragon’s throat with his sword, and asked what the treasure was. And the dragon turned and ripped the knight’s sword out of his hand, breathing out a tremendous deluge of fire and smoke and roared, “Your life!” And the terrified knight, having lost his sword, fled as best he could, and grasped a treasure far more precious than rooms and rooms full of gold.
Hard times may still let us know what is truly important, and what is truly treasure.
Even if we are in an economic depression, we have a treasure worth more than rooms and rooms full of gold: our lives.
For the righteous who walk by faith, hard times may even turn out to be good times.
St. John Chrysostom once wrote to people who think they are somebody if they conspicuously ride on a horse and have an armed servant clear the way before them, and told them that they were missing something and have all the wrong priorities. These words seem like they have nothing to do with how to survive in an economic depression—but on a very deep level, they have everything to do with how to survive in an economic depression where we may lose any number of things that seem so essential. St. John Chrysostom wrote (source):
And I know that I am disgusting my hearers. But what can I do? I have set my mind on this and will not stop saying these things, whether or not anything comes of it. For what is the point of having someone clear the way before you in the marketplace? Are you walking among wild beasts so that you need to drive away those who meet you? Do not be afraid of the people who approach you and walk near you; none of them bite. But why do you consider it an insult to walk alongside other people? What craziness is this, what ludicrous folly, when you don’t mind having a horse follow close behind you, but if it is a person, you think you are disgraced unless the person is driven a hundred miles away. And why do you have servants to carry horse ____, using the free as slaves, or rather yourself living more dishonorably than any slave? For truly, anyone who bears so much pride is more repulsive than any slave.
Therefore people who have enslaved themselves to this vile habit will never come within sight of true liberty. No, if you must drive away and clear away anything, do not let it be those who come near you, but your own pride. Do not do this by your servant, but by yourself, not by this material weapon, but by the spiritual one. Since now your servant drives away those who walk alongside you, but you yourself are driven from your rightful place by your own self-will, more disgracefully than any servant can drive your neighbor. But if, descending from your horse, you will drive away pride by humility, you will sit higher and place yourself in greater honor, without needing any servant to do this for you. I mean that when you have become modest and walk on the ground, you will be seated on the horse-drawn carriage of humility which carries you up to the very heavens, the carriage with winged steeds: but if falling from the horse-drawn carriage of heaven, you pass into that of arrogance, you will be in no better state than crippled beggars who are carried along the ground—no, much more wretched and pathetic than they are: since they are carried because of their bodies’ weakness, but you because of the disease of your own arrogance.
Some of us also need the carriage of humility, even if we are not even in a position to make everybody get out of our way. And some of us might benefit from the loving interdependence that was how people survived the Great Depression.
In tough times—and in tougher times—we may lose things we have set our hearts on, but it may be that however much we resist, God will give us something better. What if I lose my car, for instance? How could I get something better? But it is entirely possible that I could get something better than my present car. I might get something better than my own Rolls Royce, even better than my own private jet. I might get more inter-dependence, where I do not get around by what I do by my car. I may still be able to go places, but now by the love of my friends and family.
In that case, if I get some groceries, or a ride to church, I am not getting it as something run by me, me, me; I am riding on community and love. And the love of another who cares about me is a much bigger thing than economic self-sufficiency. It’s the same thing as food tasting better if it is prepared with love for hospitality—then it isn’t just food. You are, in a very real sense, eating a friend’s love, and that is a richer and deeper kind of sustenance—and a richer, deeper, and fuller goodness!
Who knows? I might ride even higher than this if my car is taken from me. Perhaps I might respond to the humiliation of losing my car by starting to let Christ chauffer me to Heaven in the flying Rolls-Royce of humility. Maybe I might even start being grateful, and be carried by the car of gratitude, and look for ways that I might launch into the heavens on the immense celestial starship of service to others.
And it is the starship of service to others—of saving others even though I cannot save myself—that shines with celestial glory. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”—the Sermon on the Mount again. Perhaps I might stop thinking about my own survival and instead think about how I can save others even though I cannot save myself. Some people did not just survive the Great Depression; they learned that life is beautiful. They stopped being tin gods trying to rule over a shrunken world and became servants of God and each other in the vast mansions of a glorious God. In the Great Depression, they did not have gold, but they grasped a treasure vaster than rooms and rooms full of gold. For some, the Great Depression was a wakeup call to what is truly important in life.
And that is true wealth.
Why are some of us not living this way already? Repentance is terrifying. In the tale of the prodigal son, the son who had devoured his father’s property was in far from his father’s house, and had real work to get back. He had to travel in a much rougher sense than taking a plane, train, or bus, and faced much nastier dangers than “Dinner in New York, breakfast in London, luggage in Sydney.”
Our word “travel” comes from the French travailler, referring to work, and not exactly easy work: with slightly different spelling, the same word appears in English as “travail,” meaning a mother’s struggle in childbirth. Travel was hard, gruelling, and dangerous labor, and not for the faint of heart. And the prodigal son undertook travel with far less of the strength—not to mention absolutely none of the wealth—by which he had gotten there. The feat would have been comparable to running a marathon, or at least a marathon where your path might well go through the turf of thugs lying in wait and quite willing to kill anyone who would travail into their ambush.
And yet this is exactly what the prodigal son did. His brother may have done the ascetical work of prayers and fasting; but the younger son undertook something much tougher: repentance which is, in a spiritual sense, what the younger son did to return home.
Repentance has been called unconditional surrender. It has been called other things as well, and it terrifies: it is a decision to return home and beg for mercy when you have no grounds to expect to be treated like anything but the vilest of the scum of the earth. Perhaps the Father’s love to the point of madness may respond otherwise when we have repented. Perhaps we when we surrender conditionally and expect to be razed to the ground, we find ourselves walking away triumphant victors whose refusal to surrender was holding on to defeat for dear life, terrified to let go of our defeat because we think it helps us. Perhaps we have nothing, really, to lose but our misery. But that isn’t our concern when we need to repent.
But if we can repent—for all of us have much to repent of—and step into the Sermon on the Mount and begin to live by faith, then the Father’s love will answer, and give us something better than whatever we grasp for in our forgetfulness that a provident God already knows our needs just as well in an economic depression as any other time. In an economic depression as much as any other time, the Father’s love can meet these needs much better than we will if we control our inheritance ourselves.
In hard times in the past the Lord’s arm and providence have shown more plainly than they sometimes do here. Do you want to know how to survive an economic depression? The answer is very simple. It’s not a matter of what you arrange. It’s a matter of what God provides. When there is no natural hope of God’s saints being taken care of, it may be a supernatural provideence that we don’t see as often when we have easy times.
In hard times as well as easy, the luminous thread woven throughout Scripture, appearing in one place in the words, “the just shall live by faith,” and another place in a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”—this luminous thread is at the heart of faith, spirituality, and religion—and this luminous thread is more. It is a participation in the life of a God of love to the point of madness.
The luminous thread is spun by a God of love to the point of madness.
It may be in hard times that we fear that in hard times we will lose what is good for us.
But it may be that hard times, whether a recession, depression, or economic collapse, serve as a divinely given clue-by-four when we discover that the Father’s love to the point of madness knows, and will give, what is much better for us. And on that point, I would like to quote a praise song about what is truly more precious than gold: the words go:
Lord, you are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.
In one variant, these words answer:
And the Father said:
“Child, you are more precious than silver.
Child, you are more costly than gold.
Child, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.”
These are the words of divine love to the point of madness, of a God who loves saints and sinners alike, of a God who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent. And this is a God who loves us in hard times as well as good, a God of providence who seeks our highest good whenever we turn to him.
It has happened occasionally that something I’ve written as a lone voice has a few years later become the mainstream. Such was my academic interest in the holy kiss, one tiny snippet of which is in The Eighth Sacrament and which is a theme in The Sign of the Grail. When I proposed study, my own advisor subjected me to social ridicule until I persisted and he said, “I don’t know. It seems not to be researched.” Five years later, it entered the Zeitgeist and I had people asking if I knew more than The Eighth Sacrament (a work which was in fact intended to be a tiny crystallization of a vast body of research about the only act the Bible calls holy).
The opening paragraph to this work states, “Alchemy is a more jarring image.” No, it isn’t, or at least not any more; alchemy has been coming out of the closet for years, and aside from bestsellers, I worked once at the American Medical Association, an organization founded to shut down homeopathic occult medicine in favor of medicine that would today be seen as mostly scientific, and in the place of artwork there was a large handmade quilt by the cafeteria explaining numerous alchemical symbols. Touchstone Magazine is kind of “C.S. Lewis meets Eastern Orthodoxy,” there was an article explaining that Harry Potter is not occult sin; it’s just clean alchemical imagery that is perfectly innocuous, included just the same as other English greats, including C.S. Lewis.
Usually when I find I’ve served as a forerunner heralding the future Zeitgeist, I don’t get too puffed up. It’s more like an occasion for self-examination where I try to understand how I got things so wrong.
This piece is available. Use with caution.
As I write, I am in a couch in a large parlor looking out on an atrium with over a dozen marble pillars, onto another parlor on the other side. I have spent the day wandering around a college campus and enjoying the exploration. I’ve gotten little of the homework done that I meant to do (reading and writing about a theologian), and spent most of my energies trying to dodge the sense that the best way to explain what I want to explain about time is to begin with a classical form of alchemy. (The other alternative to lead into the discussion would be to start talking about Augustine, but that could more easily create a false familiarity. Alchemy is a more jarring image.)
Alchemy is one of those subjects most people learn about by rumor, which means in that case that almost everything we “know” about it is false. Trying to understand it through today’s ideas of science, magic, and proto-science is like trying to understand nonfiction reference materials, like an encyclopedia, through the categories of fiction and poetry, or conversely trying to understand fictional and poetic works through (the non-fiction parts of) the Dewey Decimal system.
It is much more accurate to say that alchemy is a particular religious tradition, perhaps a flawed religious tradition, which was meant to transform its practitioners and embrace matter in the process. It may be rejected as heresy, but it is impossible to really understand heresy until you understand that heresy is impressively similar to orthodox Christianity, confusingly similar, and ‘heresy’ does not mean “the absolute opposite of what Christians believe.” (Heresy is far more seductive than that.) Perhaps you may have heard the rumor that alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. The verdict on this historical urban legend, as with many urban legends, is, “Yes, but…”
Alchemy sought a way to turn lead into gold, but it has absolutely nothing to offer the greedy person who wants money to indulge his greed. Alchemy is scarcely more about turning lead into gold than astronomy is about telescopes. A telescope is a tool an astronomer uses to observe his real quarry, the stars as best they can be observed, and the alchemist, who sought to make matter into spirit and spirit into matter was trying to establish a spiritual bond with the matter so that the metals were incorporated into the person being performed. An Orthodox Christian might say the alchemist was seeking to be transfigured, even if that was a spiritually toxic way of seeking transfiguration or transformation—which is to say that the alchemist sought a profound and spiritual good. The alchemist sought gold that was above 24 karat purity, which is absurd if you think in today’s material terms about a karat gold that was chemically up to 100% (24k) pure… but what we call a “chemist” today is the successor to what alchemists called “charcoal blowers”, and chemistry today is a more sophisticated form of what the “charcoal blowers” were doing, not the alchemists. But the desire for purer-than-24k-gold becomes a much clearer and more intelligible desire when you understand that gold was not seen by the alchemists as simply a “container” for economic value, but the most noble substance in the material world. (And a “material” world that is not just “material” as Americans today would understand it.) If you look at Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and “Do not store up treasures on earth,” the alchemists’ desire to transmute metals and eventually produce gold is much more of a treasure in Heaven than merely a treasure on earth. (Think about why it is better to have a heart of gold and no merely physical gold than have all the merely physical gold in the world and a heart of ice with it.)
Newton, introduced to me as one of the greatest physicists, spent more time on alchemy than on the science he is remembered for today. He was also, among other things, an incredibly abrasive person and proof that while alchemy promises spiritual transformation it at least sometimes fails miserably, and there are a lot of other scathing things one could say about alchemy that I will refrain from saying. But I would like to suggest one way we could learn something from the alchemists:
When I wanted to explain the term “charcoal blower” by giving a good analogy for it, I searched and searched and couldn’t find the same kind of pejorative term today. I don’t mean that I couldn’t find another epithet that was equally abrasive; we have insults just as insulting. But I couldn’t find another term that was pejorative for the same reason. The closest parallels I found (and they were reasonably close parallels) to what lie behind the name of “charcoal blower” would be how a serious artist would see a colleague who produced mercenary propaganda for the highest bidder, or how a clergyman who chose the ministry to love God and serve his neighbor would view people who entered the clergy for prestige and power over others. (It may be a sign of a problem on our side that while we can understand why people might be offended in these cases, we do not (as the alchemists did) have a term that embodies that reprobation. The alchemists called proto-chemists “charcoal blowers” because the alchemists had a pulse.)
To an alchemist, a “charcoal blower” was someone merely interested in what we would today call the science of chemistry and its applications—and someone who completely failed to pursue spiritual purification. Calling someone a “charcoal blower” is akin to calling someone an “irreligious, power hungry minister.” Whether they were right in this estimation or not, alchemists would not have recognized chemistry as a more mature development of alchemy. They would have seen today’s chemistry as a completely unspiritual parody of their endeavor: perhaps a meticulous and sophisticated unspiritual parody, but a parody none the less.
This provides a glimpse of a thing, or a kind of thing, that can be very difficult to see today. “Alchemy is a crude, superstitious predecessor to real chemistry” or “Chemistry is alchemy that’s gotten its act together” is what people often assume when the only categories they have are shaped by our age’s massive scientific influence.
Science is a big enough force that young earth Creationists deny Darwinian evolution by assuming that Genesis 1 is answering the same kind of questions that evolution is concerned with, namely “What were the material details of how life came to be?”What was the mechanism that caused those details to happen?” That is to say, young earth Creationism still assumes that if Genesis 1 is true, that could only mean that it is doing the same job as evolution while providing different answers. It is very difficult for many people to see that Genesis 1-2 might address questions that evolution never raises: neo-Darwinian evolution is silent or ambivalent about all questions of meaning (if it does not answer “There is no meaning and that is not a question mature scientists should ask.”). It is a serious problem if young earth proponents can read Genesis 1 and be insensitive to how the texts speak to questions of “What significance/meaning/purpose/goal does each creation and the whole Creation live and breathe?” This may be a simplification, but we live in enough of a scientific age that many people who oppose the juggernaut (in this case, neo-Darwinian evolution) still resort to disturbingly scientific frameworks and can show a pathological dependence of scientific ways of looking at the world, even when there is no conscious attempt to be scientific. Perhaps evolutionists may accuse young earth Creationists of not being scientific enough, but I would suggest that the deepest problem is that they are too scientific: they may not meet the yardstick in non-Creationist biology departments, but they try to play the game of science hard enough that whatever critique you may offer of their success in gaining science’s sight, nobody notices how perfectly they gain science’s blind spots—even when they are blind spots that make more sense to find in a neo-Darwinist but are extremely strange in a religiously motivated movement.
This is symptomatic of today’s Zeitgeist, and it affects our understanding of time.
Time is something that I don’t think can be unraveled without being able to question the assumed science-like categories and framework that define what is thinkable when we have no pretensions of thinking scientifically, along lines like what I have said of alchemy. I’m not really interested in calling chemists “charcoal blowers”: the Pythagoreans would probably censure me in similar vein after finding I ranked such-and-such in a major math competition, did my first master’s in applied math, and to their horror studied a mathematics that was completely secularized and had absolutely nothing of the “sacred science”spiritual discipline” character of their geometry left.
I may not want to call scientists “charcoal blowers”, but I do want to say and explore things that cannot be said unless we appreciate something else. That something else… If you say that alchemy disintegrated to become chemistry, that something else disintegrated in alchemy with its secrets and something else purportedly better than what was in the open. Alchemy has a host of problems that need to be peeled back; they may be different problems than those of our scientific age, and it may make a helpful illustration before the peeling back further and cutting deeper that is my real goal, but it is a problematic illustration.
I once would have said that classical (Newtonian) physics was simply a mathematical formalization of our common sense. My idea of this began when I was taking a class that dealt with modern physics (after covering Einstein’s theory of relativity). I grappled with something that many budding physicists grapple with: compared to classical physics, the theory of relativity and modern physics are remarkably counter-intuitive. One wag said, “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. The Devil howled, ‘Let darkness return!’ And there was Einstein [and then modern physics], and the status quo was restored.” Modern physics may describe our world’s behavior more accurately, but it takes the strangest route to get to its result: not only is light both a particle and a wave, but everything, from a sound wave to you, is both a particle and a wave; nothing is exactly at any one place (we’re all spread throughout the whole universe but particularly densely concentrated in some places more than others); it can depend on your frame of reference whether two things happen simultaneously; Newton’s mathematically simple, coherent, lovely grid for all of space no longer exists, even if you don’t consider space having all sorts of curvatures that aren’t that hard to describe mathematically but are impossible to directly visualize. (And that was before superstring theory came into vogue; it seems that whatever doesn’t kill physics makes it stranger.)
I would make one perhaps subtle, but important, change to what I said earlier, that classical Newtonian physics is a mathematical expression of common sense: I had things backwards and the Western common sense I grew up with is a non-mathematical paraphrase of classical physics.
One thing Einstein dismantled was a single absolute grid for space and a single timeline that everything fit on. That was something Newton (and perhaps others—see the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” in Science as Salvation, Mary Midgley) worked hard to establish. What people are not fond of saying today is that “It’s all relative” is something people might like to be backed by Einstein’s theory, but relativity is no more relativism than ‘lightning’ is ‘lightning bug’. In that sense the theory of relativity makes a far smaller difference than you might expect… Einstein if anything fine-tuned Newton’s timeline and grid and left behind something practically indistinguishable. But let’s look at Newton’s timeline and not look at almost equivalent replacements later physics has fine-tuned. All of space fits on a single absolute grid and all of time is to be understood in terms of its place on a timeline. This is physics shaping the rest of its culture. It’s also something many cultures do not share. I do not mean that the laws of physics only apply where people believe in them; setting aside miracles, a stove works as Newtonian physics says it should whether you worship Newton, defy him and disbelieve him whenever you can, or simply have never thought of physics in connection with your stove. I don’t mean that kind of “subjective reality”. That’s not what I’m saying. But the experience of space as “what fits on a grid”, so that a grid you cannot touch is a deeper reality than the things you see and touch every day, and the experience of time as “what fits on a timeline” is something that can be weaker or often nonexistent in other cultures. It’s not an essential to how humans automatically experience the world.
There is a medieval icon of two saints from different centuries meeting; this is not a strange thing to portray in a medieval context because much as space was not “what fills out a grid” but spaces (plural) which were more or less their own worlds, enclosed as our rooms are, time was not defined as “what clocks measure” even if people just began to use clocks.
Quick—what are the time and date? I would expect you to know the year immediately (or maybe misremember because the year has just changed), and quite possibly have a watch that keeps track of seconds.
Quick—what latitude and longitude you are at? If you didn’t or don’t know the Chicago area and read in a human interest news story that someone took an afternoon stroll from Homewood to Schaumburg, IL, would those two names make the statement seem strange?
What if you continued reading and found out that Homewood is at 41°34’46″N and 87°39’57″W and Schaumburg is at 42°01’39″N and 88°05’32W? Setting aside the quite significant fact that most of us don’t tell latitude and longitude when we see a place name, what would that say?
If you do the calculations, you see that saying someone walked from Homewood to Schaumburg and back in an afternoon is like a newspaper saying that the President was born in 671. Schaumburg and Homewood are both Chicago suburbs, but in almost opposite directions, and to the best of my knowledge no distance runner could run from Homewood to Schaumburg to Homewood in an afternoon—even in good traffic the drive would chew up more than a little bit of an afternoon.
Do you see the difference between how we approach and experience our position on the time-grid on the one-hand, and our latitudinal and longitudinal position on the other? Setting aside various questions about calendars, I would suggest that the way most of us neither know nor care what latitude and longitude we’re at, can give a glimpse into how a great many people neither know nor cared not only what a watch says but what century they’re in. (Quick—does your country include the “turn of the century” for degrees latitude or longitude?)
There are other things to say; I want to get into chronos or kairos, and some of the meaning of “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” (One facet, besides the wordplay, is that time is an image of not only eternity but the Eternal One.) There are several images of time, or names of time, that I wish to explore; none of them is perfect, but all of them say something. But first let me give the question I am trying to answer.
Before I say more about time in the sense of giving names to it, I would like to explain the question I am trying to answer, because it is perhaps idiosyncratically my own question, and one that may not be entirely obvious.
There is a book on college admissions essays that listed cliché student essays that almost immediately make an admissions reader’s eyes glaze over. Among these was The Travel Experience, which went something like this:
In my trip to ________, I discovered a different way of life that challenged many of my assumptions. It even challenged assumptions I didn’t know I had! Yet I discovered that their way of life is also valid and also human.
Note that this boiled down essay is ambiguous, not only about what region or what country, but for that matter what continent the writer has been to. And thus, however deep and interesting the experience itself may have been, the writeup is cliché and uninteresting.
This, in my opinion, is because the experience is deep in a way that is difficult to convey. If something funny happened yesterday on the way to the store, it is perfectly straightforward to explain what happened, but a deep cross-cultural counter is the sort of thing people grasp at words to convey. It’s like the deepest gratitude that doesn’t know how to express itself except by repeating the cliché, “Words cannot express my gratitude to you.”
I’m from the U.S. and have lived in Malaysia, France, and England (in that order). I was only in Malaysia for a couple of months, but I was baptized there, and I have fond memories of my time there—I understand why a lot of Westerners come to Malaysia and want to spend the rest of their lives there.
One thing I changed there was how quickly I walked. Before then, I walked at a swift clip. But walking that way comes across somewhere between strange and bothersome, and I had to learn to walk slowly—and that was the beginning of my encounter with time in Malaysia. In the cliché above, I learned that some things that were to me not just presuppositions but “just the way things were” were in fact not “just the way things were” but cultural assumptions and a cultural way of experiencing time, which could be experienced very differently.
Some of this is an “ex-pat” experience of time in Malaysia rather than a native Malaysian experience of Malaysian time (there are important differences between the two), but the best concise way I can describe it is that there are people in the U.S. who try and want to escape the “tyranny of the clock,” and the tyranny of the clock is frequently criticized in some circles, but in Malaysia there is much less tyranny of the clock—I was tempted to say the tyranny of the clock didn’t exist at all. People walk more slowly because walking is not something you rush through just to get it done, even if it’s important that you arrive where you’re walking to.
Every place I’ve lived I’ve taken something away. The biggest personal change I took from Malaysia had to do with time. That experience gave me something I personally would not have gained from hearing and even agreeing with complaints about the tyranny of the clock. The first domino started to topple in Malaysia, and the chain continued after I returned to the U.S.
What I tried to do on the outside was move more slowly and rebel against the clock, and on the inside to experience, or cultivate, a different time more slowly. (I was trying to be less time-bound, but interacted with time in ways I didn’t do before Malaysia.) I still tried (and still try) to meet people on time, but where I had freedom, the clock was as absent as I could make it. And it was essentially an internal experience, in a sort of classically postmodern fashion. I wore a watch, but changed its meaning. Augustine regarded there being something evil about our existence being rationed out to us, God having his whole existence in one “eternal moment”; I equated time with the tyranny of the clock and “what a clock measures”, and called timelessness a virtue. If we set aside the inconsistency between trying to “escape” time as not basically good and digging more and more deeply into time, you have something that was growing in me, with nuance, over the years since I’ve been in Malaysia.
That sets much of the stage for why I began to write this. In one sense, this is an answer to “What can time be besides what the tyranny of the clock says it is?” In another sense it is recognizing that I took something good from Malaysia, but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head: I regarded time as basically evil, something to neutralize and minimize even as I was in it, which I now repent of. That is an incorrect way of trying to articulate something good. I would like to both correct and build upon my earlier living-of-time, beginning with what might be called the flesh of the Incarnation.
The Flesh of the Incarnation
One time several friends and I were together, and one of them, who is quite strong but is silver-haired, talked about how he couldn’t put a finger on it, but he saw a sadness in the fact that the closest place for him to be buried that would satisfy certain Orthodox concerns was a couple of states over. I said that there were Nobel prizes for literature and economics, but there would never be a Nobel prize for scamming seniors out of their retirement. In that sense the Nobel prize is not just an honor for the negligible handful of physicists who receive that accolade, but every physicist. Perhaps there are a great many more honorable professions than there are Nobel prizes, but the Nobel prize doesn’t vacuously say that physics is a good thing but specifically recognizes one physicist at a time, and by implication honors those who share in the same labor.
I said that “God does not make any generic people,” and I clarified that in the Incarnation, Jesus was not a sort of “generic person” (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”) who sort of generically blessed the earth and in some generic fashion sympathized with those of us specific people who live in time. God has never made a specific person, and when Christ became incarnate, he became a specific man in a specific place at a specific time. As much as we are all specific people who live in a specific place at a specific time, he became a specific person who lived in a specific place at a specific time, and by doing that he honored every place and time.
“The flesh of the Incarnation,” in Orthodox understanding, is not and cannot be limited to what an atheist trying to be rigorous would consider the body of Christ. The Incarnation is a shock wave ever reaching out in different directions. One direction is that the Son of God became a Man that men might become the Sons of God. Another direction is that Christ the Savior of man or the Church can never be separated from Christ the Savior of the whole cosmos, and for people who are concerned with ecology, Christ’s shockwave cannot but say something profound from the Creation which we must care for. Sacraments and icons are part of this Transfigured matter, and the Transfiguration is a glimpse of what God is working not only for his human faithful but the entire universe he created to share in his glory.
To me at least, “the flesh of the Incarnation” is why, while the Catholic Church is willing to experiment with different philosophies and culture, because they are not part of the theological core, the Orthodox Church has preserved a far greater core of the patristic philosophy and culture. It is as if the Catholic Church, getting too much Augustine (or even worse, DesCartes), said “Spirit and matter are different things; so are theology and philosophy. We must keep the spirit of theology, but matter is separate and can be replaced.” An Orthodox reply might be “Spirit and matter are connected at the most intimate level; so are theology, philosophy and culture. We must keep the spirit of theology without separating it from the philosophy and culture which have been the flesh of the Incarnation from the Church’s origin.”
If Jesus was not a “generic person”, and I am not supposed to be a “generic person”, then the place in time he made for you is to be transfigured as the flesh of the Incarnation. What I mean by “the flesh of the Incarnation” is that Christ became Incarnate at a specific time and place, and by so doing he honored not only your flesh and mine—he is as much a son of Adam as you and me—but every time and place.
There is a major Orthodox exegesis which looks at the Gospels and says that when Pilate presented Christ to the crowd and said, “Idou ton anthropon.” (“Behold the man”, Jn 19.5), he was prophesying like Caiphas and (perhaps without knowing it) completing the Genesis story; when Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” he announced that the work of Creation which was begun in Genesis had come to its conclusion—not, perhaps, the end of history, but the beginning of the fulness which Creation always needed but is only found at the cross. There are theologians today which answer the question “When did God create the earth?” by giving the date of the crucifixion: not that nothing existed before then, but then it was made complete. 25 March 28 AD is, in commercial terms, not the beginning of when prototypes began to be assembled and plans began to be made towards a product release, but the date that the finished product is released and thereafter available to the public. The Cross is the axis of the world, so that the Incarnation is not simply the central event in history but the defining event, not only in the time and place that we falsely consider remote which Jesus lived in, but your time and mine.
A Paradox: Historical Accuracy and Timelessness
I read a cultural commentary on the Bible cover to cover (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, New Testament), and in one sense I’m glad I read it, but in another sense, I think I would have been better off reading the Bible cover to cover another time. Or, for that matter, creating computer software or pursuing some other interest outside of the Bible and theology.
Years earlier, I said I wished I could read a cultural commentary on the Bible, but reading it drove home a point in a Dorothy Sayers essay. The essay suggested that “period awareness”, our sharp sense of “That was then and this is now” that puts such a sharp break between the past and the present, is a product of the Enlightenment and something a great many periods do not share. When one reads the Canterbury Tales and asks what they thought about cultures, the answer is that though the stories begin in classical times there is no modern sense of “These people lived in another time so I need to try to be historically accurate and keep track of lots of historical context to take them seriously.”
What I have realized, partly in writing my first theology thesis in Biblical studies, was that a lot of cultural commentary is spiritually inert when it is not used as a tool to manipulate or neutralize the Bible for contradicting what’s in vogue today. Even when the sizeable “lobbyist” misuse of cultural context is ignored, there is a big difference between scholarly cultural and historical inquiry and a cultural sermon illustration—and it’s not that less scholarly pastors do a half-baked job of something “real” scholars do much better. Cultural sermon comments are selected from a vast body of knowledge specifically because they illuminate the text and therefore at least can enhance how the text speaks to us. “Serious”, “real” scholarship tends to bury the text’s meaning under a lot of details and result in the same kind of loss of meaning that would happen if someone asked what a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel meant and the answer was to explain try to explain everything about how the novel came to be, including how the author’s food was prepared, how the editing process was managed, and perhaps a few notes on how a Pulitzer Prize novel, after the award is received, is marketed differently from novels that haven’t received that award.
I would like to suggest that in this piece my opening historical illustration did not detail everything a “historical-critical” study would get bogged down in, and showed independence from the historical-critical version of what scholarly accuracy means precisely as it challenged a popular historical misunderstanding of alchemy.
How does this fit together? There are two things. First of all, I disagree with most scholarship’s center of gravity. “Historical-critical” scholarship, in a bad imitation of materially focused science, has a material center of gravity, and almost the whole of its rigor can be described in saying, “Look down as carefully as you can!” There is a painting which shows two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. You can tell them apart because Plato is pointing up with one finger, and Aristotle is pointing down to material particulars with one finger. The problem with “historical-critical” scholarship in theology—and not only “historical-critical” scholarship—is that it asks Aristotle to do Plato’s work. It asks the details of history to provide theological meaning. (Which is a bit like using a microscope to view a landscape, only worse and having more kinds of problems.)
Dorothy Sayers points out that up until the Enlightenment, people producing Shakespeare plays made no more effort to have the actors dress like people did in Shakespeare’s days than Shakespeare himself felt the need to dress ancient characters in authentic Roman styles of clothing. Shakespeare’s plays were produced because they had something powerful that spoke to people, and people didn’t have this rigid historical dictate that said “If you will produce Shakespeare authentically, that means you go out of your way to acquire costumes nobody wears today.” In the Globe Theatre, people were dressed up like… well, people, whether that meant Rome or the “here and now”. And now theatre companies will be provocative or “creative” and change the setting in a Shakespeare play so that things look like some romanticization of the Wild West, or classy 20’s gangsters, or (yawn) contemporary to us, but if you exclude people who are being a bit provocative, the normal way of putting on Shakespeare is not by having people dress the way people normally dress, but by doing research and putting people in exotic clothing that clearly labels the characters as being From Another Time.
Shakespeare’s plays are produced today because they speak today, in other words because they are timeless. Being timeless doesn’t mean literally being unrelated to any specific historical context (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”). It means that something appears in a particular context and in that context expresses human-ness richly and fully enough that that human fingerprint speaks beyond the initial context. It means that there is a human bond that can bridge the gap of time as beautifully as two people having a friendship that simultaneously embraces and reaches beyond the differences of culture that exist between their nations. And it reflects a center of gravity that the important thing about Shakespeare is not that his English was hard to understand even hundreds of years ago, nor that people dressed a certain way that is different from any country today, but a human, spiritual center of gravity that not only speaks powerfully in the West centuries later but speaks powerfully outside the West. Shakespeare’s center of gravity is not in this or that detail, but in a human pulse.
Wind and Spirit
Let me look at something that appears to be unrelated.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is every one who is born of the Wind.
The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
I can count on my fingers the number of points where I would gripe about the best English translations (if a euphemistically mistranslated Song of Songs only counts as one gripe). You don’t need to study ancient languages to know the Bible well. But there are occasional points where a language issue cuts something out of the text.
One particularly Orthodox gripe about Western translations is that they use the word “Christ” for the Son of God and “anointed” to have a range of meanings and include kings priests, objects that were considered sacred, and the whole religious community (this latter in both Old and New Testament). This is not because of what is in the original language. People may hear—I heard—that Messiah or Christ means, “Anointed One”, but the English translations I know introduce a sharper distinction than the text supports, and really drains the realization of verses that show another side of the New Testament’s language of us being called to be sons or children of God. I remember the shock I had when I was reading the (Latin) Vulgate and David, refusing to call Saul, called him “christum Domini” (“the Lord’s christ,” but the Latin, like Hebrew and Greek before it, did not distinguish i.e. “Christum” from “christum”.) I John 2:20 in the RSV says, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.” That obscures a dimension to the text that legitimately could be replaced by a different part of speech and clarified, “But you have been made christs by the Holy One, and you all know.” (If you don’t like changing a part of speech, you could look at texts like Sometimes you get C.S. Lewis saying “Every Christian is to become a little christ. The whole purpose of being a Christian is simply nothing else. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God.” But something of the knowledge of who we are to be in Christ is crippled when translations split up XPICTOC or its Hebrew equivalent because they are afraid to let people see that not only is Christ the Son of God and the Christian son of God, but one who is in the Christ is a christ.
That is the translators’ fault. In the text cited above (Jn 3.8), from Jesus’ discussion of flesh and Spirit/spirit, the same word in Greek (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ) carries the meaning of “Spirit”, “spirit”, and “wind” in the broader passage. I was tempted to write that ΠΝΕΥΜΑ carries that range of meanings, but that’s a little more deceptive than I’m comfortable with. It would be more accurate to say that neither “spirit” and “wind”, nor “Spirit and spirit”, represented sharply distinguished categories. In a way Jesus is punning but in a way he is making an observation about spirit/wind that does not rest on the distinction.
Let me quote the RSV for the longer passage (Jn 3.1-12):
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
This is a rather big passage to try to unravel, but let me point out one thing. Jesus is dealing with a spiritual leader, and that leader’s question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” is probably not just a failure to recognize that Jesus was speaking figuratively (especially if “figuratively” means what it means today, i.e. “a consolation prize for something that is dismissed as not true, at least not literally”). Besides saying that Nicodemus might not be stupid, I might suggest that his failure to understand underscores that he was being told something that’s difficult to understand.
I’m almost tempted to write ΠNEYMA instead of spirit or Spirit because that forces a distinction that isn’t there at all in the Greek New Testament and often may not belong in good theology. With that noted, I’m going to write Spirit with the understanding that it is often not meant to be read as separated from spirit and often not distinguished.
A group of people misunderstood this and other Spirit/flesh texts to mean that we should live in the part of us that is spirit and the part of it that was flesh, and they made a number of theological errors, and unfortunately some Christians have since treated the Spirit/flesh texts as a “problem” that needs to be “handled” (and, one might infer, not quite something that was put in the Bible because it would help us). This reaction makes it harder to understand some passages that say something valuable.
We are to become all Spirit. This does not, as those Gnostics believed, mean that our bodies are evil, or that any part of God’s Creation is created evil. To become Spirit is to begin to live the life of Heaven here on earth. That doesn’t mean that what is not-God in our lives now is eliminated; it means that our whole lives are to become divine. It means that the whole cosmos has been in need of salvation, and Christ comes as Savior to his whole Creation and his whole Creation is to be drawn into him and made divine. If you buy a gift for a friend, let us say a watch, and delight in giving it, that watch is no longer merely a possession you can horde, not just something a machine spat out. It is part of your friendship with that friend and it has been drawn from the store aisle into that friendship. To use an ancient metaphor, it has been drawn into the body under the head of friendship. (And now it means something a factory could never put into it.) If you have begun to believe that things don’t boil down to a materialist’s bottom line, the watch has become more real. In the same sense, not just our “souls” or “spirits” misunderstood as opposite to our bodies, but all of us and all of our lives are to become Spirit, or in the more usual Orthodox terminology become deified or divinized.
To say that the here and now that God has placed us in is “the flesh of the Incarnation” is not intended as some kind of opposite to Spirit. That fleshis spiritual; it is the whole Creation as it becomes Spirit and as it has become Spirit.
That much is generic; it is legitimate to say about time, because it is legitimate to say about almost anything. I would now like to turn and say something more specific about time.
I don’t like to put things in terms of “synchronicity.” For those of you not familiar with synchronicity, it’s an idea that there is more to causality and time than isolated particles moving along a linear timeline, which is well and good, but this is a body missing its head, the Spirit. It’s kind of a strange way of being spiritual while not being fully connected to Spirit.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
To live in the Spirit, and to become Spirit, is for one and the same reason the proper footing for synchronicity, synchronicity done right, and moving beyond “subjective time.” Let me talk about subjective time before talking more about synchronicity.
Subjective time is what some people have observed when people have realized that a watch is a poor indicator of how we experience time. Time flies; it can drag; but whatever watches can do, they don’t tell how fast it seems like time is moving. In other words, subjective time at least is not what a watch measures. Now this is good as an answer to the question “What can we call time besides ‘what a watch measures’?” but doesn’t go far enough. Subjective time is the subjective time of a “me, myself, and I”. It is the time of an atom, that cannot be divided further. And that limits it.
Time in the Spirit is an orchestrated, community dance. Not that the specific person is annihilated, but the specific person is transfigured. And that means that what is merely part of the private inner world of a “me, myself, and I” is in fact something vibrant in a community. Liturgical time, which I will talk about later, is one instrument of this sharing. But it is not the only one. God is the Great Choreographer, and when his Spirit orders the dance, it is everything in synchronicity and everything in subjective time and more. What was eerie, a strange occult thing people try to mine out in Jungian synchronicity becomes a pile of gold out in the open. If Jungian synchronicity is a series of opportunities to shrewdly steal food, the Dance is an invitation to join the banquet table.
Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. (Old Shaker hymn)
Immortalists and Transhumanists
I was reading a novel by one of my favorite authors in which some troubled characters constantly waxed eloquent about a movement, the “Immortalists”, which struck me as rather far-fetched, too preposterous a motivation for literature… until I found a group very much like them, the Transhumanist movement, on the web.
The idea of Transhumanism is that we have lived in biological bodies so far, but we are on the cusp of making progress, and “progress” is improving on the human race so that we humans (or transitional humans—”Transhumanism” abbreviates “transitional-human-ism”, and transhumanists consider themselves transhuman) can be replaced by some “posthuman” (this is supposed to be a good thing) creatures of our own devising which are always as high as if they were on crack (or higher), can run and jump like superheroes, and in general represent the fulfillment of a certain class of fantasies. (It’s like disturbing science fiction, only they’re dead serious about replacing the human race with something they consider better.) It’s the only time reading philosophy on the web has moved me to nausea, and that broad nexus of spiritual forces is something I tried to lampoon in Yonder.
Setting that obscure movement aside, it seems a lot like the progress of technology has been to achieve watered-down transhumanist goals while we live in the bodies God gave us. I read an interesting article describing how before electric lights even though there were candles most of society seemed to shut down at sundown. Now people tend to kind of sleep when it’s dark and kind of sleep when it’s light, but we have made ourselves independent of something most humans in history (let alone before history) were tightly attuned to. I can also buy pills to take to subdue pain, or slightly misuse my body and not feel as much of the natural pain. If I don’t care either about my health or breaking laws that are there for our good, there are illicit pills that could make me colossally strong: I’m moderately strong now but I could become stronger than most professional athletes. As a member of my society I have space-conquering tools—a telling name—which mean that I can move around the world and I can email and talk with people without knowing and perhaps without caring if they are next door or a thousand miles away. I can also take other pills when I get much older and defeat the normal limits age puts on lust. There are a lot of limits humans have lived with time out of mind, but we’ve discovered how to push them aside.
I heard of a dialogue where one person said, “I don’t have enough time,” and received the answer, “You have all the time there is.” In many cultures people experience time more as something that surrounds them but they’re not terribly aware of, like the air they breathe, than a sort of scant commodity one cannot have enough of. And that is a clue to something.
However much we’ve figured out mini-transhumanist ways to push back limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is one we can’t eliminate. We can fudge a bit with coffee or buy into some time management system, but there is a specific significance to time in our culture that wouldn’t be there in other cultures where people rise at sunrise and go to sleep at sunset. Compared to how much we can neutralize other limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is a limitation that resists most neutralization.
That sounds terrible, but I would draw your attention to what Transhumanism is really after. I heard one professor refer to a centuries-old Utopian vision of turning the sea into lemonade (among other things) as “une Utopie des enfants gaspillés” (“a Utopia of spoiled children”). The Transhumanist vision, which has already happened in miniature, is the ability to pursue “bigger better faster more” of what spoiled children want. What it is not is a way to grow into what a mature adult wants.
I’m not saying we should get rid of medicine, or anything like that. Medical knowledge has done some impressive things. But I would pointedly suggest that the kind of things technological advances give us give us much more what spoiled children want than what a mature adult would recognize as an aid to maturity. There are exceptions, and I would not argue any sort of straight Luddite position: I try to moderate my use of technology like I try to moderate a lot of other good things, but I am very glad for the opportunity to live in an age where webpages are possible, and to have gotten in at a good time. But the “all the time there is” limitation is in fact the kind of boundary that helps mature adults grow more mature, and if we are willing to take it there is an occasion for maturity because we can’t take a pill to have all the time we want.
From the Fifth Gospel to Liturgical Time
The Gospel According to Thomas isn’t the Fifth Gospel. (At least, in ancient times when Christians said “the Fifth Gospel” they didn’t mean the Gospel According to Thomas. No comments from the peanut gallery about the Gospel According to Thomas being the Fifth Bird Cage Liner.)
If a couple of people meet, become acquainted, become friends, start dating, become engaged, and get married, when does the marriage begin? In one sense, the wedding is a formal threshold: before then they aren’t married, afterwards they are. But in another sense the engagement becomes part of the marriage, as does the courtship, the friendship, the acquaintance, even the first meeting and possibly things in their lives that they would say prepared them for the meeting. The marriage moves forward from the wedding date but it also reaches backwards and creates something in the past. What may have been an improbable or forgettable first meeting is drawn into the marriage; the same thing is going on as with the watch which becomes not simply matter but part of a friendship.
John Behr has provocatively suggested that the worst thing that has happened to Christianity in the past 2000 years has been the canonization of the New Testament so it is placed as Scripture alongside the Old Testament, and becomes the second and final volume in a series. What he means by that may not be obvious.
The relationship between the Old and New Testament is misunderstood somewhat if the New Testament is simply the final chapter of the Old Testament. It would be better, if still imperfect, to say that the New Testament is Cliff’s Notes on the Old Testament, or the Old Testament was a rich computer game and the New Testament was the strategy guide that we need to unlock it’s secrets. It is no accident that the first people we know of to put the New Testament alongside the Old Testament, and make commentaries on both Testaments, were Gnostics who tried to unlock the New Testament when orthodox Christians let the New Testament unlock the Old.
Quick—which Christ-centered Gospel did Handel use in the Messiah to tell of the Messiah or Christ? The answer is the Fifth Gospel: Isaiah. The passages cited in the Messiah are not a few prophetic exceptions to a non-Christ-related Old Testament; they are part of the Old Testament unlocked, and that same reading is how the earliest Christians read the Old Testament Scriptures.
Now it was Mary Mag’dalene and Jo-an’na and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma’us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, named Cle’opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.
They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
There’s a lot going on here; I’m not going to address why Mary Magdalene was known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but I would suggest that instead of saying today what a feminist would be tempted to say, that the men were sexist and wouldn’t believe a woman when she bore the glad tidings, there was a veil over their minds, much like Paul describes in II Cor 3. If a woman’s witness did not suffice, Jesus standing with them in person and talking with them still had no effect until the very end. And there is something going on here with a number of resonances in our lives. They couldn’t see Christ in the Scriptures (which were then the Old Testament, because the Gospels and Epistles had never been written), and they couldn’t see Christ appearing before them, even literally. And that is not because they are imperceptive and we are perceptive. The story is a crystallization of how we often meet Christ.
What is the point of all this? The most immediate reason is not to say that the Bible is 80% documents produced by Judaism before Christianity came around and 20% Christian documents, but transformed, transmuted if you will, into 100% Christian documents. When the book of Psalms opens with, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of cynics,” that refers first and foremost to Christ. I myself have not gotten very far in this way of reading the Scriptures, but I hope to, and I believe it will pay rich dividends.
And there is something going on here that is going on in when a marriage reaches backwards, or a watch becomes part of a friendship. It is connected with what is called “recapitulation”, which I think is an unfortunate technical theological term because the metaphor comes across as in “Ok, let me try and recap what we’ve said so far,” which is a wishy-washy metaphor for something deep. Orthodox talk about deification, and for us to be deified is a specific example of recapitulation in Christ. Recapitulation means “re-heading”, and while in a sense very consistent with how recapitulation works, I’ve somewhat indistinguishably talked about how we can be Recapitulated or Re-headed in Christ, becoming body to his head and connected in the most intimate way, thereby becoming Christ (i.e. Recapitulation with a big ‘R’), and how something can become part of the body of something that can itself be recapitulated in Christ (recapitulation with only a little ‘R’). Perhaps that sentence should be dragged out into the street and shot, but when I talked about the gift of a watch becoming part of a friendship, the head of its reheading is something created, but both the watch and the friendship can be Recapitulated in Christ with the re-heading of the watch to be part of the friendship is itself part of what is Recapitulated in Christ, i.e. which is not merely brought under a head but connected to Christ as its head.
Let’s move on to clearer language and a clearer example—one that has to do with our time. The head of the whole body of time we live is our time in worship, liturgical time. This both that there is a liturgical rhythm of day, week, and year, with different practices that help us connect with the different liturgical rhythms (by the way, the first major piece of advice my spiritual father gave me was to take 5-10 years to step into the liturgical rhythm), but that’s not all. It means that our time in worshsip, which is not just time in a funnily decorated room with our particular club, sets the pace for life. It means that what is crystallized and visible in worship is perhaps hidden but if anything more powerfully manifest in a whole life of worship. It means that not just going to Church but working and playing are themselves worship, and they fulfill worship. It means, and I write this on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, that our worship is hollow and empty when we sing hymns to God on Sunday and then turn away in icy silence when someone asks our help—for it is not that someone we have icily turned away from, but Christ (see Matt 25:31-46). In the discourse at the Last Supper, Christ did not say that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you have the most beautiful services,” but that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you love one another.” (Jn 13.35) That is something that happens outside of Church first and foremost. Liturgical time is the basis for time in our lives.
Liturgical time is (or at least should be) the head of time in a life of worship (if “head” is used in the sense of “recapitulation” or “re-heading”), but it is not its own head. The head of time in worship is eternity in Heaven, and that means that just as life is the concrete manifestation of worship, in time but in other matters as well, but liturgical time is not people gathered in a room for an interval but people transported to Heaven in what is not exactly a time machine, or not merely a time machine, but an “eternity machine”. The head of eternity in Heaven is the Eternal One whose glory shines through Heaven on earth.
What does this concretely mean for our experience of time? It means much the same as whether the material world was created good by God or evil by someone lesser. Pains and physical pleasures, to give a superficial example, will be there whether we believe the material world is good or evil. But it makes a difference whether you believe the sweetness of honey is a touch of love from God or a hatefully baited barb from Satan. Now part of really coming alive is being more than pleasure and pain and letting go of pleasures that they may be recapitulated or re-headed and drawn into what is Spirit. But even then, the Christian ascetic who lets go of a good is very different from a Gnostic ascetic who hatefully rejects it as evil. Pleasures and even pains, and joys and sorrows, are fuller depending on their basis.
Augustine has been accused of inadequate conversion—maybe he became Christian, but he continued being too much of a Manichee. I am sympathetic to that view, and it makes good sense of Augustine’s sense that there is something violent to us about being in time, with our being stingily rationed out to us, infinitesimal bit by bit (some have said the present “barely exists” because it is an instantaneous boundary where the future rushes into the past without stopping to rest), while God has its being all at once. I was sympathetic to that view until not long ago; I thought of time as an evil thing we endure to get to the good of eternity—which is the wrong way of putting it.
Time is a moving image of eternity and is recapitulated in Christ. We miss something fundamental if we simply say that it is less than eternity; it participates in the glory. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that we misunderstand eternity if it is “frozen time” to us, if it is an instant in time which is prolonged, or even worse, is deprived of a moving timeline. Whatever eternity is, that can’t be it. That is something fundamentally less than the time in which we grow and learn and breathe. Eternal life, which begins in this world, is God’s own life, greater than created being but something that projects its glory into time. I once asked a friend if the difference between Maximus Confessor and Plato on Ideas was that for Plato there was one Idea that covered a bunch of material shadows (what we would think of as “real”, but the Ideas were more real), and he waved that aside without really contradicting me. He said that the Ideas, or ΛΟΓΟΙ (logoi), were static in Plato but dynamic in Maximus Confessor.Logoi are ideas loved in the heart of God from all eternity, and you and I only exist because we each have a logos in the heart of God which is what we are trying to become. And I don’t know how to reconcile what I know of dynamism with being outside of time, but eternity is not the deprivation of time, but something more time-like than time itself. Time becomes eternal when it is recapitulated in Christ.
Kairos and Chronos
Bishop K.T. Ware began one lecture/tape by saying that at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, there is a line that is very easy to overlook: the deacon tells the bishop or his deputy the priest, “It’s time to get started.” Except that he doesn’t say, “It’s time to get started,” but “It is time for the Lord to act.”
He pointed out both that the liturgy is the Lord’s work, even if both priest and faithful must participate for it to be valid (he said that the pop etymology of liturgy as “lit-urgy”, “the people’s work”, may be bad etymology but it’s good theology). But another point tightly tied to it is the exact Greek word that is translated “time.”
There are two words that are both translated time, but their meanings are very different. Translating them both as time is like translating both genuine concern and hypocritical flattery as “politeness” because you are translating into a language that doesn’t show the distinction. Perhaps the translators are not to be blamed, but there is something important going on in the original text that is flattened out in English. And when the deacon says “It’s time to get started,” it does not mean “My watch says 9:00 and that’s when people expect us to start,” but “This is the decisive moment.” In the Gospels, when Jesus’ own brothers and sisters failed to grasp who he was just as completely as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he tells them, “My kairos has not yet come, but your kairos is always here.” (Jn 7.6).
Orthodox do not have any kind of monopoly on this distinction, but we do have a distinction between what is called “chronos” and what is called “kairos.” Chronos is ordinary if we take a harsh meaning to the word, instead of “everything is as it should be”. Chronos at its worst is watching the clock while drudgery goes on and on. If chronos is meaningless time, kairos is meaningful time, dancing the Great Dance at a decisive moment. It is putting the case too strongly to say that the West is all about chronos and Eastern Christianity is all about kairos, but I do not believe it is putting the case too strongly to say that East and West place chronos and kairos differently, and kairos is less the air people breathe in the West than it should be.
I don’t think that chronos needs as much explanation in the West; chronos is what a clock measures; the highbrow word for a stopwatch is “chronometer” and not “kairometer”. The distinction between kairos and chronos is somewhat like the distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. But let me give “ingredients” to kairos, as if it were something cooked up in a recipe.
Rhythmic circular time with interlocking wheels.
Linear unfolding time.
Moments when you are absorbed in what you are doing.
Decisive moments when something is possible that was impossible a moment before and will be impossible a moment later.
Dancing the serendipitous Great Dance.
But kairos is not something cooked up in a recipe; chronos may be achievable that way, but kairos is a graced gift of God.
We Might All Be Alcoholics
A recovering alcoholic will tell you that alcoholism is Hell on earth. He would say that it is the worst suffering on earth, or that it is the kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
And the point that healing and restoration begins is exquisitely painful. An alcoholic has a massive screen of denial that defeats reasoning. The only semi-effective way to defeat that denial is by a massive dose of even more painful reality that can break down that screen, some of the time. (An intervention.)
If alcoholism is Hell, why don’t alcoholics step out of it? Some people in much less pain find out what they need to do to stop the pain and leave. They take off a pair of shoes that is too tight, or ask for an ambulance to treat their broken arm (and I believe someone who’s been through both experiences would say that alcoholism is a much deeper kind of pain than a broken arm).
Surely alcoholics must have a sense that something is wrong—and that’s what they’re trying to evade. That’s what half an alcoholic’s energy goes into evading, because stopping and saying “I’m an alcoholic.” is the greatest terror an alcoholic can jump into. It may be a greater fear than the fear of death—or it is the fear of the death, a step into where nothing is guaranteed.
And that is where to become Orthodox might as well be recognizing you are an alcoholic. Not, perhaps, that every Orthodox has a problem with alcohol, but we all have a problem, a spiritual disease called sin that is not a crime, but is infinitely worse than mere criminality. And the experience an alcoholic says saying, “My name’s Ashley, and I’m an alcoholic,” for the first time, is foundational to Orthodox religion. “Here is trustworthy saying that deserves acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”
There is a book, I have been told, among alcoholics called Not-God, because part of dealing with the cancer of alcoholism, as difficult as recognizing a terrible problem with alcohol, is recognizing that you have been trying to be God and not only are you not God, but your playing God has caused almost untold troubles.
Repentance is the most terrifying experience an Orthodox or an alcoholic can experience because when God really confronts you, he doesn’t just say “Give me a little bit.” He says, “Give me everything,” and demands an unconditional surrender that you write a blank check. This is as terrifying as the fear of death—or perhaps it is the fear of death, because everything we are holding dear, and especially the one thing we hold most dear, must be absolutely surrendered to—the Great Physician never tells us what, because then it would not be the surrender we need. We are simply told, “Write a blank check to me. Now.”
How does this square with becoming a little Christ?
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The two paragraphs, as I have broken up Phil 2:1-11 (RSV), are complementary. What the last paragraph says is that the equal Son of God emptied himself and kept on emptying himself further and suffering further until there is nothing left to give. And this is not a sinner, a mere creature, but the spotless and sinless Son of God showing what it means to be divine. It is not in Heaven that Christ shows the full force of divinity, but by emptying himself, willingly, to death on a cross and a descent into the realm of the dead. That is the moment when death itself began to work backwards—and humbling and emptying ourselves before God is the sigil of being exalted and filled with God’s goodness. But the other side of the coin is that if we think we can become divine, or even be human, while not being emptied, we are asking to be above Christ and expecting to have something that is utterly incoherent.
When we recognize that we are not God, then we become christs. When we empty ourselves, and let go of that one thing we are most afraid of giving to God, then we discover, along with the recovering alcoholic, that what we were most afraid to give up was a piece of Hell. We discover, with the alcoholic, that what we were fighting God about, and offering him consolation prizes in place of, was not something God needed, but something we needed to be freed from.
This emptying, this blank check and unconditional surrender, is what makes divinization possible. I was tempted in writing this to say that it is the ultimate kairos, but that’s exaggerating: the ultimate kairos is the Eucharist, but if we refuse this kairos, we befoul what we could experience in the Eucharist. If we are talking about a decisive moment that is not our saying “I want to make myself holier” so much as us hearing God say “You need to listen to me NOW,” then however painful it may be it is a step into kairos and a step further into kairos. And only after the surrender do we discover that what we were fighting against was an opportunity to step one step further into Heaven.
Repentance is appointed time. Repentance is the decisive moment, one we enter into again. Repentance is simultaneously death and transfiguration, the death that is transfiguration and the transfiguration that recapitulates death. Repentance is eternity breaking into time. Repentance is one eternal moment, and the moment we cycle back to, and the steps of climbing into Heaven. Repentance is being pulled out of the mud and painfully scrubbed clean. Repentance is fighting your way into the Great Peace. Repentance is the moment when we step out of unreality and unreal time into reality and the deepest time. Repentance is not the only moment in kairos, but it is among the most powerful and the most deeply transforming, decisive moments that appointed kairos has to offer.
I do not have time to write, and perhaps you do not have time to read, separate sections about some things I will briefly summarize:
Life neither begins at 18 nor ends at 30. Every age is to be part of a kaleidoscope. Contrary to popular opinion in America, not only is it not a sin to grow old, but each age has its own beauty, like the seasons in turn and like the colors in a kaleidoscope. And that is why I do not guiltily talk about having “hit 30” any more than I would guiltily talk about having “hit 18” or “hit 5”, because in the end feeling guilty about approaching a ripe age is as strange as feeling guilty about being born: not that there is anything wrong with being a child in the womb, but the purpose of that special age is not to remain perennially in the womb but to grow in maturity and stature until our life is complete and God, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and without whom not even a sparrow can die, come to the thing we fear in age and discover that this, “death”, is not the end of a Christian’s life but the portal to the fulness of Heaven where we will see in full what we can now merely glimpse.
When we reach Heaven or Hell, they will have reached back so completely that our whole lives will have been the beginning of Heaven or the beginning of Hell.
People make a dichotomy between linear and cyclical time. The two can be combined in spiral (or maybe helical) time, and the movement of time forwards in growth combined with the liturgical cycles makes a rhythmic but never-repeating helix or spiral. (If that is embedded in what Maximus Confessor said about linear, circular, and spiral motion.)
One step away from saying that time is a line is saying that time is a pole on which a living vine grows, making a richer kind of connection than a materialist would see. That is a little bit of why we are contemporaries of Christ.
The Horn of Joy
…Sandy called after [Meg], “And also in 1865 Rudyard Kipling was born, and Verlaine wrote Poèmes saturniens, and John Stuart Mill wrote Auguste Comte and Positivism, and Purdue, Cornell, and the universities of Maine were founded.”
She waved back at him, then paused as he continued, “And Matthew Maddox’s first novel, Once More United, was published.”
She turned back, asking in a carefully controlled voice, “Maddox? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that author.”
“You stuck to math in school.”
“Yeah, Calvin always helped me with my English papers. Did this Matthew Maddox write anything else?”
Sandy flipped through the pages. “Let’s see. Nothing in 1866, 1867. 1868, here we are, The Horn of Joy.”
“Oh, that,” Dennys said. “I remember him now. I had to take a lit course my sophomore year in college, and I took nineteenth-century American literature. We read that, Matthew Maddox’s second and last book, The Horn of Joy. My prof said if he hadn’t died he’d have been right up there with Hawthorne and James. It was a strange book, passionately anti-war, I remember, and it went way back into the past, and there was some weird theory of the future influencing the past—not my kind of book at all.” (Madeleine l’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)
It would be not only strange but presumptuous to suggest that this piece I am writing is what she was referring to. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use that title, although it may seem less presumptuous if one understands how special and even formative Madeleine l’Engle’s work has been to me. But what does not seem strange to suggest is that this work may affect the meaning of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. That would only be determined by other people’s judgment and is not my call to make, but I don’t think Madeleine l’Engle would be offended if someone said that this enhanced the value of her work, or added another layer to what she said about time. Her own words not only in that work but in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art about how a work can be enhanced by future insights would suggest the possible. It is quite possible that my work is not good enough or not relevant enough to serve as such a key, but the suggestion is not that strange to make.
But let us move on to one closing remark.
Extraordinary and Utterly Ordinary
The Enlightenment has left us with a lot of wreckage, and one of this is great difficulty seeing what causality could be besides “one domino mechanically toppling others.”
Aristotle listed four causes: the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The material and formal cause are interesting to me as something the Enlightenment would not think to include in causality: Aristotle’s Physics portrays the bronze in a statue as a material cause to the statue. If we listen to the hint, this could suggest that causality for Aristotle is something besides just dominoes falling. He does deal with mechanical, domino-like causation when he describes the efficient cause, but I remember being taken with the “final cause”, the goal something is progressing towards, because I thought it was domino causation that had the effect before the cause.
The best response I can give now to what I believed then was, “Um, kind of.” Aristotle’s four causes address a broader and more human kind of causation that looks at questions like why something happened and not just how it was produced. It is in fact an utterly ordinary way of looking at things. It’s not the only serious way of describing causality (my favorite physics teacher said in class, “If Aristotle said it, it was wrong,” and I think he was right about much more than physics), but it’s one kind of richer view. And if you think it’s something exotic, you misunderstand it. It is an utterly ordinary, even commonsense way of looking at why things happen.
And an Aristotle’s-four-causes kind of time is better than an Enlightenment-domino-causation kind of time, for a number of reasons. The best essay about time, which I cannot write, would encompass the better parts of what I have said above while remaining “normal” even when it underscored something extraordinary. Or at least would do better at that than I have.
Orthodoxy is not something absolutely unique; I have said things here which I hope resonate with some sense of home whether or not you are Orthodox. When I moved from being an Evangelical to becoming Orthodox, I did not move from absolute error into absolute truth but from something partial to its full expression. (And there are other clarifications I haven’t made, like how much of this essay is owed to Irenaeus and to John Behr helping Irenaeus come alive.) But let me close.
In Orthodoxy, here and now, there is an ordinary way to do what alchemy aimed at: be transfigured in a transfiguration that embraces the material world—and, as we have seen, time. Time is to be transmuted, or rather transfigured, until it becomes eternity.
The way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire.
The way to eliminate desire is through the eightfold noble path.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments
I was going to title this piece “On Covetousness” and there is much to say there, but on further reflection this piece is a piece about desire.
To start with, I would like to look briefly at Buddhism. I do not wish to advocate syncretism or carelessness about differences, but the combination of similarity and difference between Orthodox Christianity and some of Buddhism is instructive. Now to be clear, when I took a course in Asian philosophy, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta was the one I met with clear recoil and not with any sympathy: for those of you who do not know the term, it immediately means that there is nothing divine inside of us, and ultimately means that the heart of reality is not a heart of reality at all, but nothingness: life is like an onion, where you peel off layer after layer and find that there is nothing inside. And for that matter, the Orthodox understanding of demons may be a nobler matter than what Buddhism makes of mankind.
But for all of this there are real points of contact between Orthodoxy and Buddhism. There is a profound contact between the silence in Orthodox hesychasm and the silence of Buddhist meditation. What Orthodox say about the Western overgrowth of the logical mind is well enough to be found in Buddhism as well. That much may be worth exploring, but it is not my concern here.
What is my concern here is the point of desire. Nine out of the Ten Commandments dictate what outward actions are required or forbidden; the last commandment in Exodus does not mention any act at all, but only covetousness, a desire, an inner state, a disposition. And the list of things we are forbidden to covet barely scratches the surface of what we covet today. St. Job says, “I made a covenant with mine eyes? Why then should I think upon a maid?” (31:1), and lust is forbidden, at very least by implication. But the other enumerations of covetousness, one’s neighbor’s house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, or any possession is just the beginning of the list, or at least it is today.
What else do we covet? One acquaintance talked about a Western visitor who was with a group of pastors, out on motorcycles in very rural Africa, and the visitor did not know their language, but there seemed to be one term they were using quite a lot. Finally one of them cued in to what it was they kept talking about, and it was, “the pill, the pill” which is what they were calling Viagra. I have not heard him talk about anything sexual on any other occasion (though I admit a brief acquaintance), and he talked about how Iraqui workers said that the condition they required to work with U.S. troops was Viagra, which the troops dealt with by crushing up Smarties and giving it to them as Viagra.
Years before our spam filters swelled with offers of Viagra, some observers of social culture said that it used to be that our ancestors were concerned that their desires were too strong; now we seem rather to be concerned that our desires are too weak. And “certified male urologists” handing out Viagra like candy lands us squarely in the kind of desire where orthodox Buddhism has the most to tell us.
Buddhism does not offer help fulfilling desires; it offers help in eliminating desire. And is not just Buddhists but Church Fathers who see a tie between pleasure and pain, a link between desire and disappointment. If there is suffering caused by desiring more than you possess, then seeking to acquire what you desire is not the only strategy, not the only game in town. You can also subtract from the sum of your desires.
Buddhism’s picture of suffering is wrong as its picture of anatta and emptiness is wrong: it portrays a suffering that is empty and futile, like the Roman doctrine of Hell instead of Purgatory. And while the Orthodox Church does not believe that people die and go to Purgatory before entering Heaven, there is a great case that people go through some purifying suffering like Purgatory before they die. Purgatory, called “Heaven’s bathroom” by some, is a place of cleansing and purifying suffering and it is a full suffering with Heaven inside. And the nature of suffering in the service of God is precisely opposite the nature of suffering of Buddhism.
There is much else that one can covet besides the original list, and not only Viagra. We can covet honors; we can covet a romance that will banish all unhappiness just as we can imagine; we can covet imagined worlds of science fiction and fantasy; we can covet the pleasures of movie and video game, iPhone and Xbox. Our possibilities for pleasure, and the idea that such entanglement with pleasure is the norm, are as much stronger now than in the days of the Bible as 151 (rum at 75.5% alcohol) is stronger than the 4% lacto-fermented wine that pagan Greeks recoiled from drinking undiluted. It is a provocative statement now to tell the Resident of SecondLife: “Fornicate using your own genitals!”
But the solution represents one final departure from Buddhism. Buddhism sees no way to sweep away selfishness but to extinguish the self and extinguish desire. Orthodoxy transfigures desire and attaches it to its proper end, God. Pascal, heretic perhaps, lives only centuries away from us; he lived near the occult genesis of modern science, and he has a more encompassing view of what we may drink spiritual poison of covetousness besides our neighbor’s property:
All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever the different means that they employ, they all go to this end. This makes some go to war, and others do not go, and it is the same desire, which is in both of them, accompanied by different means. The will never makes the slightest deviation but to pursue this goal. This is the motive of all actions of all men, even to the point of those who go to hang themselves.
This is the motive of all the actions of all men even including those who go to hang themselves. And despite this after such a long number of years, no one ever, without faith, has reached the point that all continually have their sights on. All complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, weak, strong, educated, ignorant, healthy, sick in all countries, of all time, of all ages, in all conditions.
A test that is so long, so continually kept and so uniform should convince ourselves of our powerlessness to reach goodness by our efforts. But the example instructs us little. It is never so perfectly believable that there is some delicate difference and it’s there that we expect that our expectation will not fail on this occasion unlike the others, and the present never satisfies us ever, experience goads us, and from sadness to sadness brings us to death which is an eternal pit.
What then do this avidity and this powerlessness cry out to us,except that there was once in man a true happiness, of which there no longer remains to him anything but the empty mark and trace which he futilely tries to fill with all that is around him, seeking in things absent the salvation which he does not obtain from things present, but which are all incapable because this infinite void cannot be filled except by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself?
Pensées, VII: Morality and Doctrins, 415 [ 377]
There was contact between the East and West well before the twentieth century; Pascal’s contemporary Leibniz owned a copy of the I Chingbrought by Jesuit missionaries. However, Pascal shows a singular innocence of Buddhism. And at a time when Reformers tried to recruit Orthodox, Christian West and East also had contact. However, Pascal, who evinces little if any serious contact with Orthodox hesychasm, no less has his finger on the solution.
His statement is sweeping, too much on a literal count, but this bespeaks more his experience than rhetorical exaggeration: it is a crude reading that says Pascal speaks of those who hang themselves but did not really mean his observation would apply to Buddhists. In the realm of Pascal’s experience, he saw a uniform law, where men did not obtain relief from suffering no matter how much they chased their desires, but he saw the solution: not that desire or pursuit is to be eliminated, but that they are to be fixed to their proper object, their proper end: an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
We think of Pascal as coming from another world. Yet I assert that historians may treat him as a close contemporary of ours; his list of things pursued in covetousness comes much closer to the traps set for us today than the list provided in the ten commandments, which lists six things in particular, seem almost like six pebbles on a beach compared to what we are enticed to covet, and chase in vain.
Not, perhaps, that we may never reach them. It can happen that we do. But something we covet brings us brief pleasure and then an even greater sadness; covetousness and desire feed our pleasure-pain syndrome, and covetousness that reaches its desire finds sorrow close on its heels. There is a common enough saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, “There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get one’s desire. The other is to get it.” This is true of anything one covets. But not of desiring God, who is the right and proper goal of desire.
Humor was once very important to me; I had, at least, a subtle sense of humor and several submissions to the highly moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. But in one reading of the Philokalia, I saw that they, like St. John Climacus in the Ladder, viewed humor as not at all innocent. It wasn’t just that some jokes are dirty; it is that humor, like covetousness, is not as good as it looks on the outside. And since the time that I wroteOn humor, something has shifted and I have in large measure lost my taste for humor, and am more, not less, happy for it. There is something in humor that is like a scream and is not joyful, and there is something inside covetousness that says, not really “I will be happy if I have this,” but “I cannot be happy with what God has given me now.” Except that this is hidden from us; covetousness seems a conduit of happiness when it is actually its thief.
In the Prologue, one saint says that we should desire whatever God gives to us, or as he puts it, whatever happens to us. I seem to almost never stop planning, coveting, a better future. But the only moment we can obey God is now, and the only time we can accept God’s providence is now. And the Orthodox treatment of desire, unlike Buddhism that seeks to extinguish desire, but to clear the field of distractions so we can rightly and properly desire God himself, and here monks say something to us all. Monasticism and marriage alike provide a crown of thorns; they are meant not to fulfill selfish desires but transform them away from selfishness. The married person has an icon by which to transcend himself; the monk dispenses with the icon, but marriage and monasticisms are not opposite, not here, but two paths to the same goal. The real value of marriage, like monasticism, is to free a man from living for himself, for pursuing immature covetousness instead of maturing to a desire that is greater, not less, than the desire for plans, Viagra, SecondWife, education, a pay raise, financial security, a postmodern sweep of experiences, pleasures that linger on the palate, honors, recognitions, and achievements, revenge for a wrong (or at least one that is coveted in imagination), music and media always with us, “Orthodox” humor, and any number of things Orthodox ascesis is meant to free us from. But the freedom is not a freedom to desire less and less, but more and more, a freedom that is only parodied, even obscenely parodied, in the covetousness we know today.
St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all evil“, and we have unleashed a Pandora’s box of it. But the path of ascesis, of freedom of covetousness, of desire freed for God, is ever open, and ever abounds.
Let us let go of more and more covetousness to be free to grasp God himself.