I remember, from when I was a little boy, that I asked my parents some question about Halloween, and I was told that I would be welcome to dress up, but not as something occult or macabre, like a witch or a zombie. My Mom helped me put together several homemade costumes, and my parents accompanied me for years of trick-or-treating. I was, in essence, invited to celebrate Halloween as a secular holiday (in time, it became my second favorite holiday), but not to celebrate ghoulishness.
Some readers may see this as needless legalism about something harmless. A few Christians who have concerns about Halloween might wonder if I was being invited to participate in something un-Christian. But back in the eighties, where it was considered superstition to believe that witches really existed, my parents took seriously something that more people take seriously today: not everything about Halloween is trivial or absolutely harmless.
In retrospect, I am quite grateful for this decision, and I respect it, much as I appreciate their decision to limit my time watching television, while encouraging me to play outside, read books, and tinker with mechanical things. (I do not own a television now, and I am glad not to have one.)
Not, in particular, that I feel any guilt about dressing up as my favorite TV character (MacGyver), or creating homemade costumes, one of which won an award. But there seemed to be, if not absolute innocence, at least a grey area. There are many things I disagreed (and disagree) with my parents about, but I really saw no need to reconsider what my parents taught me here. Even if I was trying to smoke Halloween without inhaling anything macabre, there seemed to be a reasonable case for this attempt to “smoke, but not inhale.” I believed that I was succeeding in taking Halloween à la carte and dressing up without participating in anything either my parents or I would have objected to.
But something has changed. Even though it has again become fashionable for adults (as well as children) to dress up as Halloween, I am finding that I have concerns about what exactly it is that is fashionable. It seemed to be the sort of thing you could least give the benefit of the doubt, but that seems a harder benefit to give now. There are other things going on in this occult awakening; I would like to look at herbs. Perhaps people have thought of herbs simply as a seasoning for cooks to use. This is no longer true. It is no longer enough to say that people also see herbs as a natural alternative to chemically manufactured medicines, even if that is no doubt true. Herbs are part of a picture that is changing with a magical awakening. Seeing ads for herbs for witches’ use and growing witches’ gardens is the tip of an iceberg. Herbs are microcosm of a picture that is changing.
Before I go on, let me be very clear about something, as I am going to be talking a fair bit about herbs.
There is an old Orthodox saying that talks about spending Church money: “If you have two small coins, you use one to buy bread for the offering, and you use the other to buy flowers for the altar.” The point isn’t really about herbs, but it is entirely appropriate that herbs come to mind even when making a point that isn’t really about herbs. A great many of the holiest things in Orthodoxy come from herbs: flowers to adorn the icons regularly, adorning the whole Church along with other herbs for the greatest festivities; herbal aromatic resins making incense; olive oil, mingled possibly with herbs, for every sacred anointing, wood as the most fitting material for icons, and bread and wine for the greatest and holiest rite there is. There is one rite labelled as the rite for the blessing of herbs, but herbs are blessed on a number of other occasions as well. Nature, including herbs, keeps coming up in the liturgy.
But you really cannot understand what this means until you come to the tale of herbs, if you remember that trees are herbs. I am thinking about two trees in particular.
One of these two trees was set in the center of a garden of unequalled splendor, and our first mother looked at its fruit with greedy spiritual lust, saw what the fruit could do, and then ate from it. She experienced a thrill of almost indescribable ecstasy, which quickly vanished into horror, despair, and misery. She had been created immortal, believed the words, “You shall be like gods,” found that what was created godlike about her was slipping through her fingers, and felt the seed of death already working in her heart.
That is how our first mother fell. Her husband did no better, and Orthodox writers blame now one, now the other, but I am interested in something besides assigning blame.
That is not the last tree to bear fruit, nor is it the end of the story. The wound that came by the first tree had its answer and healing from the second tree. First there was a new Eve, who triumphed where the first had failed. Then the new Adam, fully God, fully man, whose life was a journey to not a living tree in paradise but a dead tree in a desolate place: for the Cross has been considered a tree from ancient times. But this last tree is ultimately transfigured to be the Tree of Life. We were forbidden to eat from the first tree. But the Tree of Life has its own fruit, and we are commanded to eat from its fruit.
Every herb that is part of the Church’s blessings is an outpouring of that last herb, the Cross. We can and should feed on herbs. But it matters a great deal which herb we are feeding on. And Halloween has the taste of the fruit of the first tree.
I am concerned about the history of Halloween, up to a point. It is said that various pagan customs in a fight against Christianity, are at the root of almost every Halloween custom we have today—Christianity was shaped by martyrs who chose to be killed rather than offer just a pinch of incense in pagan sacrifice, and some have said that people would intimidate Christians by threatening offensive acts of vandalism unless they gave them food to use in pagan sacrifice, and that when we say “Trick or treat,” we are carrying on a custom that began with a rather vile form of extortion.
This explanation may or may not be true, and my first thought—perhaps not the most Orthodox thought—was, “The origin of something is not its present meaning.” A standard illustration is that shaking hands is a custom from the far past that was originally to prevent another person from drawing a weapon—a bit like reaching for a can of pepper spray. As such, it is a poor candidate for a friendly greeting. But it really seems hard to believe that learning something like this is a reason to try to avoid shaking hands. And the fact that a particular practice has an origins Christians today might find vile is not decisive by itself. Even what those origins were is hard to tell, as the historical data are incomplete and highly ambiguous.
But there is another concern. Let’s set aside murky questions about where Halloween comes from. There is the question of what Halloween is now, which is far less murky on several counts. Whatever the good, bad, known, or unknown roots of Halloween may be, in its present form it is associated with magic or ghoulishness—you’re not barred from dressing up as something that is neither associated with the occult or ghoulishness, but you’re stretching things a little. That much was true in my childhood. What was not true in my childhood is that Halloween is quickly becoming a second national holiday. When I was growing up, you could buy or rent costumes, but now there seem to be large, heavily-funded Halloween stores. There were yard decorations—not just pumpkins—during my childhood, and I remember putting up a package of imitation spider web. Today there are, as before Christmas, large and elaborate yard displays that are much more impressive than a snowman. But gone are the days when my parents seemed quaint for saying that magic is real and to be avoided, or just for taking magic seriously. Even a skeptic would need to be trying to be obtuse to deny that a lot of people are trying to be magicians of some sort.
I am grateful to my parents for giving Halloween the benefit of the doubt. There was really something special to me. But I am coming to a point of saying that appearances do not always deceive, and that a festival celebrating the spooky, a festival to dress up as zombies and witches and decorate with the macabre, and so on may in fact be a spiritual force, an appetizer, if you will, for the herb that gave our race the seed of death.
If one is trying to make an Orthodox response to Halloween, there is one obvious response of keeping out of the holiday and praying. Another Orthodox response to Halloween has been to have a parish party for all the children, inviting them to dress up as their patron saints. This decision may sound like a shallow change, but it shows wisdom and theological beauty. Trying to be like your patron saint is not just a day’s make-believe, but a lifelong imitation and challenge. Your patron saint is to look out for you, praying before God. This adaptation is well-chosen, and is in the spirit of the original intent: “Halloween” abbreviates “Hallowe’en”, “All Hallows Eve”, the evening of all hallowed people, holy people, an evening that was in fact the beginning of All Saints’ Day. And perhaps there are others.
But perhaps the best response Orthodoxy is not obvious if you are trying to think of something to do.
The spiritual world, in Orthodoxy, is never really far; we can be insensitive to it but never escape it. Orthodoxy provides not a single holiday each year but unfolding seasons and cycles of spiritual discipline and life as they encounter all kinds of spiritual realities. (Many people look for the spirit world to be closer at Halloween.) Death is important in Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a mystery of life in death, and to fail to be mindful of death is a profound spiritual failure. Even if Halloween eclipses Christmas, the Orthodox concern is not that people are too interested in death, but that people are not engaging death enough, and the ways we are engaging death are not nearly deep enough. Nor is the line in the living and the dead within the Church any terribly great chasm. But although these things are present in the Orthodox Church—woven into its fabric—they all rest in the protecting shade of the Tree of Life, and it is a protection that they all need. The concern is not at all that people are getting interested in spiritual phenomena, but that they are pursuing that interest in the wrong way, tasting from the herb that is poison when they could be eating their fill from the herb that is life and medicine and healing. It is a “treasure hunting” that consists of digging around to find a few copper coins hidden in a dark place… when there are piles of gold out in the open.
If Jack’o’lanterns have the origin I have heard, then they are not a pagan custom, at least not in the sense that Druids used them in worship. The candle is of Christian origin, and more specifically, made to be a frightening mockery of the candles in Christian worship. In Orthodoxy today, beeswax candles still illuminate icons, which have a spiritual radiance shining through. (Heaven shines out through them.) They can take time to connect with, but people can look at them and continue to see something for years. I would have trouble finding new layers in a Jack’o’lantern over years, and not only because they would go bad. It’s not as deep a kind of thing. The difference between the two is like the difference between one of Bach’s fugues, and Bart Simpson butchering an advertising jingle.
I do plan on dressing up for Halloween one last time. Call it, if nothing else, a farewell, in addition to some more mundane reasons. It has been a cherished holiday for years. But only in the shallowest sense am I saying farewell to what I most valued about Halloween.
At Vespers, we chant, “The Lord is King; he has put on majesty.” This “put on” is a translation of a Greek word, enduno (ενδυνο), a word of being equipped. The Epistle to the Ephesians tells us to “put on” full Heavenly armor that includes the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. In Isaiah, it is God who puts on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation for spiritual war. Not to put too fine a point it, but we have a command to put on God’s own armor, and that is not all. At baptism, one of the most memorable parts is the verse chanted from Scripture, “As many as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.”
At an ordination, the ordinand is clothed in liturgical vestments that remain almost unchanged since Byzantine times when they were court regalia. But this is not a costume that people pretend for a day. The person is made into something new, and when the ordinand puts on the garments, he puts on a new blessing and sacred service. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that royal priesthood is only for those who are ordained and “wear vestments”: the bishop is called to put on the regalia of the Byzantine Emperor, but the whole Church is called to put on Christ. This is no mere costume but a transformation of the highest order.
Perhaps we need to give up our Halloween costumes, to make room to put on something far greater: Christ himself. But that is not simply something to do about Halloween: it is the work of a lifetime and it includes the entirety of Christian practice. (Even if it might be a good idea to simply pray over Halloween.)
With thanks to friends and family with whom I have discussed this.
I would like to talk about a religious experience. I use the term ‘religious experience’ with some caution as it is not what is usually called a religious experience. It did not include any dreams, or visions, or insights out of nowhere; intuition was present but did not help. But it was in the fullest sense a religious experience, at least as much as any semblance of vision or ecstasy that I’ve had.
I had been sinking into an increasing despair at politics, economics, and what that may mean for me. I was facing the possibility that I may well not die an old man. Furthermore, my jobhunt was slower than usual. And despite the Lord’s impressive Providence for me at earlier times and situations in my life, often seemingly miraculous, I was worried that I might eventually be thrown into a situation—possibly a concentration camp—where I might, in Bach’s words, “outlive my love for Thee.” Do not say, “It could not happen here;” stranger things have happened.
All quite a lot. This past Sunday (29/12/13), I went to the Cathedral, made a miserable confession, participated in the liturgy, and then drove to my favorite Indian restaurant to have a nice meal before going home to return and fight my darkness. On the sidewalk out of the restaurant, I ran into an old friend.
He mentioned another mutual friend he was going to meet, and I went to say hello to both of them before eating by myself: I didn’t shun their company, but I didn’t want to intrude on their meeting. But they had planned a get-together, and had not invited me only because they did not think of whether I would be in Wheaton. And so I joined them for dinner, in which I thawed in response to a friend’s conversation, and one of them picked up the cost of my meal. This was followed by several hours of sheer joy as we went to one of their apartments, and people played games and I enjoyed the company of old friends and two new.
And that was it. The gathering at the apartment dissolved after a couple of hours, and it doesn’t look like even half of that group of friends will gather together in the near future. (I asked.) But without words, without any special intuition—the only real intuition I had was while I was driving to the restaurant was that I should turn aside to another place—it was as if God had showed, “I am still sovereign. I can do whatever I want.” God can, in a heartbeat, make a job show up. He has not done so yet, in a heartbeat or otherwise. But he can still provide for me, and I am not in despair, but trust.
The rule in childbearing is a few minutes of ecstasy, nine months of carrying, and then two decades of raising children. And in another department, one tastes a meal for half an hour and then digests and acts on it. After that mountaintop experience, to use the Protestant term, I have been voluntarily dislodged from despair, and am off to work: jobhunting instead of a regular job, but off to spiritual work and repenting of my sins. It is the Orthodox understanding that God gives miracles to cover for human weaknesses, and if God gave me a powerful day’s experience with friends and good times, that is not a reward for grandeur so much as a crowbar to loosen real problems. And, God willing, a seed planted for me to grow. I do not seek to return to that experience, because, in the words of Lewis inOut of the Silent Planet, “A pleasure is full-grown only as a memory.” The latter part of that day was delightful, and I pursue it by doing the work I have after then: first writing the first part of Merlin’s Well, then working on publishing it on Amazon, then writing this article, then returning to work on the front end of a web application, all the while searching for my next job.
I have not acted worthily along the way, but I’m looking forward to the next installment.
Yet I am taking leave of Gandhi as the same Orthodox who took leave of C.S. Lewis. I take leave of Gandhi even as it unravels the style of nonviolence I found as a best interpretation of the The Sermon on the Mount. I find in the end not that I was too fixated on theThe Sermon on the Mount and took too much from it, but that I took too little. The Indian style of nonviolence has much to commend it, and I am impressed that Indian nationalism identifies with nonviolence instead of glorified violence that affects nationalism in so many other places. India and others have not let Gandhi be the last of a particular nonviolent alternative to violence. But there is a little bit of a burr under my saddle here. The Sermon on the Mount does not, in the main, offer an alternative answer to the questions addressed by just war and violence, not even the alternative answer of voluntary suffering that brought India’s freedom. It answers another question altogether.
How else could it be?
The rather obvious question to be raised, by just war Christian and by pacifist as well, is “How else could it be?” How does a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Do not resist evil” not call for nonviolent resistance if it is not taken as a hyperbolic statement that for more ordinary mortals means something like, “Be restrained when you must resist evil, and grieve when you must do so.”? And on this point I would place my own earlier position, and Blessed are the Peacemakers, in the same category as just war theory. It is an answer to what is the most effective legitimate means to address certain dark situations.
And the answer I would give is that the The Sermon on the Mount does not say, “Do not resist evil.” Or at least it does not stop there. It says in full,
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
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.
Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
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.
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 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? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
When Christ preached these words, the crowds were astounded.
What is at the heart of this is a Life, a life like the birds of the air and the grass of the field, the Divine life, that is as naked as Adam. One of the greatest idols and transgressions against the The Sermon on the Mount. One particularly illumining footnote in The Orthodox Study Bible reads:
Then [Jesus] spoke a parable to them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many good things laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ‘ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night [angels shall require] your soul of you; then whose things be which you have provided?’
“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.”
The comment reads:
“Whose will those things be by which you have provided?” is the key to understanding the saving up of material goods. St. John Chrysostom writes that the only barns we need we already have: “the stomachs of the poor.” St. Basil the Great taught that the bread in our cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in our closet belong to the one who has no shoes, and money we hoard belongs to the poor. St. Ambrose teaches, “The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die.” Even when Joseph stored up grain in Egypt (Gn 41), it was for the benefit of the whole nation.
Sandwiched between “Do not store up treasure on earth” and “No man can serve two masters” is the strange-sounding, sandwiched “The eye is the lamp of the body.” But this is of a piece with the text that surrounds it. Is our eye fixed on providing for ourselves through earthly means, or looking up to God in the trust that he will provide and the realization that he knows our needs better than we do and loves us better than we know how to love? If we are confused here then our eye is not “single”, but poisoned. Those of us who are not monastics are permitted some possessions, but better not to create an endowment that provides the illusion that we are not at the hands of the severe mercy of a providing God. And when we begin to loosen our grip on money, God’s providence is written in stronger, starker strokes.
And the point of this is not to fetter us, but to free us from what seems necessary and recognize the shackles we were bound to. On this point I am talking about money; but I might as well speak of a gun and self-defense lessons. The Sermon on the Mount‘s motto is not a Boy Scout’s Be prepared, but a carefree, Don’t be prepared. Be as naked as Adam.
The Divine Liturgy and its associated readings speak of “He who of old stripped you both naked,” meaning “The Devil who of old stripped you, Adam and Eve, both naked.” It wasn’t just that their flesh in its pure form raised no question of lust. Neither fire nor water nor the elements could touch Adam or Eve until they abdicated, and there are stories of a saint who threw down the gauntlet to a sorceror, walked into a fire and said “I’m unharmed,” and when the sorceror was thrown into the flame with him and was burned, healed him and sent him out unharmed. On a more mortal level, monks and nuns can dress almost or exactly the same in terms of layers of clothing between summer and winter, and that includes an American Midwest summer and winter. Paradise is where the saints are; the door may have been closed to Adam and Eve but it is open to the saints.
And all of this is an invitation to freedom, free and absolute, unencumbered and unchained freedom. It is not legalism that bids us, “If someone conscript you to go with him one mile, go with him two;” it is utter freedom even from selfishly stopping with what was asked. Christ the Lily of the Valley is the flower that leaves a fragrant scent on the heel that crushes it: but what we may find is that those things we expect to crush us, are just the removal of a shackle. And at the end saintly peacemakers are of a piece with the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake: there is a unity of the beatitudes and they are rightly sung as a shorthand for the entire Sermon on the Mount in every Orthodox Liturgy. There is freedom to trust in the Lord’s providence, freedom to every kind of generosity, freedom from lust, freedom from anger, every freedom that counts.
Q: So what’s the difference?
A: The Saint and the Activist.
Some readers may wonder where really I have departed from Gandhi. If he were alive, quite possibly he could say he agreed with most or all of it, not out of diplomatically seeking common ground, but out of a direct candour. But I assert there is a difference.
Military action and nonviolent resistance are two answers to the same question. Between the two, military action has much to commend it, and in fact Gandhi had great respect for soldiers: in Blessed Are the Peacemakers, I wrote:
Once the men of a village came, running, and told Gandhi that they had run away while the police were raping and pillaging. When they told him that this was because of his instruction to be nonviolent, he hung his head in shame. He would not have been angry with them if they had defended their families by the power of a sword. He would have approved had they stood in harm’s way, calling all injury to themselves without seeking to strike or to harm, to the point of death. But to run away like that and passively leave those who could not run was an act of great and terrible cowardice, the darkest possible answer to the problem.
From speaking with and listening to soldiers, I recognize military training and life as the cross of St. George, an ascetical framework that is much more disciplined than most life outside the military. Hard work and dedication are good things, and there is much to be praised about the cross of St. George. Nonviolent activism such as Gandhi offered, the practice of satyagraha which I refer to as ‘peacemaking’, perhaps questionably, has more to commend it. It is also disciplined, and it does not resist force with force. None the same, it is an alternative in the same orbit as military action. It does not stain its hands with others’ blood, but it is a tool you can use to achieve the same kind of end as military resources. India’s independence was won with nonviolent resistance. But it is the sort of goal that could have been achieved by warfare, and in fact it stands in stark contrast to other nations as “achieving without bearing the sword what elsewhere has not been gained except by bearing the sword.” And this falls infinitely short of resting in the hands of providence, naked as Adam.
By means an atheist and a religious person could equally recognize as effective.
Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. This means that you work sometimes in ways an atheist would see as foolish.
What is the place of nonviolence?
It is a tool for political influence.
It is a flower of spiritual growth.
What is the place of discipline?
If you are disciplined, you are more effective at getting things done.
Protestants have said, “Mission exists because worship does not:” no one, without exception, exists for the sake of missions. All mankind, without exception, exists for the sake of worshipping God. Some people, however, are deprived of the purpose for which they are created, and therefore some people are missionaries so that more people may enjoy the purpose for which they are made. In like fashion, spiritual discipline exists because contemplation does not. It is a corrective when we have lost touch with the life of contemplation.
What do you live to become?
A catalyst for a better world.
To become by grace what Christ is by nature.
What is the Bible for?
To push moral authority behind the causes we further.
Part of God’s work to shape us to grow in faith.
What is justice?
Equitable redistribution of resources, as conceived by assuming that political reforms included in this goal will do nothing to hinder the economy’s ability to do all that is asked of it.
One of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, that is at times interchangeable with spiritual righteousness.
What is the government’s role?
The more important a task is, the more essential it is that it is channeled through the government. Success usually includes bringing about governmental reforms.
Government has a place, but that place is not the place of a messiah. Success is not usually connected to governmental reforms.
Can human nature be improved on?
Yes; we can bring it about in others through political programs.
Yes; if we let God work with us we will be improved in the work.
What attitude brings real success?
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Be it unto me according to thy word.
What is wrong with the world?
A number of issues, most importantly the issues I am fighting and giving the most advcocacy for.
Where does Gandhi stand in all of this?
There was one document forwarded that listed a bunch of statements like, “If you disapprove of sport utility vehicles and private jets and own a sport utility vehicle and private jet, you might be a liberal.” And on that count, Gandhi cannot be called an unadorned Activist. He didn’t just say, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s wants;” his gaunt frame attests to the fact that he was attending to the beam in his own eye rather than the speck in his brother’s eye. His writing is devout; “God” is not, as with many of today’s Activists, a word not to be used in polite company. Gandhi cannot be completely understood except with reference to Saints, and what I would call the centerpiece of his Activism is drawn out of from Saint terrain. Gandhi’s particular genius is to take nonviolent resistance as one of many particular eddies in the flow of holiness in the plane of the Saint, and transform it to be a keystone in the plane of the Activist. That places Gandhi away from being at least a pure saint to being substantially an Activist. It makes him, in fact, more of an Activist than if he had merely used existing Activist tools; he was Activist enough to profoundly contribute to the bedrock of Activism.
Furthermore, I am concerned about the wake that he has left. Not that this is a unique concern about Mr. Gandhi; I have raised concerns about the wake left by Fr. Seraphim (Rose). I have seen one Gandhi quote in the wild that alludes to the Sermon on the Mount, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.” But this is an Activist argument; an atheist Activist and a Saint could equally agree that the basic argument is sound or unsound. And that’s it for religious quotes. In All Men Are Brothers, Gandhi unashamedly, frequently, and freely refers to God. But I have never seen a Gandhi quote in the wild that uses the G-word. And when Gandhi’s style of nonviolent resistance is imitated today, it is used in a way that is completely detached from the Saint’s freedom, that is more removed from the Saint than not protesting.
Rivers of living water
By contrast, I would tell the story of St. Photini, the Woman at the Well, or part of it. It was shameful for the Woman at the Well to come alone to draw water; women would come together to draw water in groups. No other woman would be caught dead with a woman of her reputation, and when she evasively answered Jesus’s “Go and call your husband,” she was dodging her shame. Earlier she had sought to enlist Christ’s help in running from her shame; her words, “Give me this water,” were not so that she could dodge the manual labor of drawing water, but so that she could run from the shame of having to draw water alone. And Christ did not give her what she wanted; instead, in answering her evasive “I have no husband” with, “You have truly said, ‘I have no husband’, for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband,” pulled her through her shame and opened her eyes to higher things. The story builds up to her running, free from shame, telling people, “Come and see a man who told me every thing I ever did!” She sought Christ’s help in covering up her shame; instead he made her unashamed as Adam. And it is in this unashamed woman that the story unfolded of a Great Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.
This is what it means to be naked as Adam. It is not a license for indecency; when she gave Christ an evasive answer, he called a spade a spade. But she did become like the Adam whom fire and water could not harm. The point of this is not that her story goes on to her being tortured and her whole company drinking poison and being unharmed by it, but that everything at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount was alive in her. In her later story much is told of miracles, but perhaps we should make less of the fact that she went to tortures and was miraculously delivered, and more of the fact that she went to tortures and was faithful. She did, in the spirit of giving more than was asked, when Nero decided to bring her to trial, she went ahead and tried to convert him. She didn’t succeed at that, but she did seem to convert practically everyone else she came in contact with. But what is significant is not just the results that she brought about. What is significant is that she was faithful, with the overflowing freedom that soars as the birds of the air. Perhaps we are not Saints on the level of St. Photini; perhaps it is not within our reach to be called Equal to the Apostles. But what is in our reach is to be a little more a Saint, a little less of an Activist.
Now, a word on being naked as Adam. St. Photini wore clothes and so should we. It is true that there are some saints who labored without clothing: the pre-eminent example is St. Mary of Egypt, and there have been male Desert Fathers who were naked. But we should wear normal clothes even as St. Photini did. What is forbidden to those who would be naked as Adam is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. What is forbidden is not trusting in God’s Providence but trying, in addition to the Lord’s Providence, or instead of it (if these are really two different things) to straighten things out for ourselves. The opposite of this is someone like St. Photini who, instead of waiting to be captured, went on her own initiative to Caesar Nero. She trusted in God’s Providence in a way that could be seen as blackmailing God. But there is something very like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, not in how the Saint deals with evil in the world, but how the Saint works with God. If a Saint were told, “You are making no provision to take yourself but it’s like you’re blackmailing God by your actions,” one Saint might respond, giving more than was asked, “Yes, I’m emotionally blackmailing God, and you should emotionally blackmail him too!”
Deep in our bones
Activism runs deep in our bones today; I surprised one professor who discussed disability and an “autism and advocacy” conference, that the natural way to seek the best interests of the autistic community is by political advocacy. And I tried, perhaps in vain, to show her that of the two assigned articles she gave on dealing with autism and disability, one offered a clear activist agenda for autism and disability, and the other was not political, at least not in an overly narrow understanding of politics, but was the father of an autistic child speaking of limitless love. My professor couldn’t see what would benefit the autistic besides rolling out one more theme in political activism.
And so, with activism deep in our bones, if we look for a saint, the kind of figure that so naturally comes to mind is Gandhi, or Martin Luther King if we insist on a Christian. Both admired and sought to imitate Christ; both led nonviolent resistance against laws that were legislated evil. Both sought a response to evils out of the Sermon on the Mount. And both contributed to the Activist outlook that is now non-negotiable in the academy. Not necessarily that Gandhi’s style of nonviolence is non-negotiable; Gandhi respected his enemies, while it is perfectly socially acceptable in some queer circles to break in to Catholic churches and vandalize them, and spray paint swastikas to identify Romans with Hitler. But the question in so much of the academy is not, “Are you a Saint or an Activist,” but, “On to the real question. What kind of Activist are you?” (If they have enough distance to recognize that that is the only real question in their eyes.)
You helped me reach where I am now, and I would be much poorer had our conversation been deleted from my past. I have sat at your feet. But now even what I have taken from you summons me to bid you farewell. If your right eye or your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. Holding on to your ecumenism, Mr. Lewis, or—it is a deeper cut—your nonviolence, Mr. Gandhi, is to lose everything you sought for. The journey in faith involves many times when we cut off a right hand or take out a right eye. Perhaps we lose nothing, or only a piece of Hell, when we do so. But God created man to glorify him and become him forever, and I cannot be an Activist: I can only strive to be a Saint.
Some people wince at terms like game changer today the same way they winced in earlier years when they heard, “paradigm shift”.
But the terms overuse suggests there might be something that triggered the buzz. When Apple introduced the Macintosh, they changed the scene, not only by causing a few Macintoshes to be sold, but by pushing a permanent shift for mainstream computers to be sold with Macintosh-style Windows, not the older command line MS-DOS. Apple may never have sold the same number of units as Microsoft, and they survived due to a Microsoft bailout, but once Apple introduced the Macintosh, Microsoft considered it non-negotiable to release Windows to compete with the Macintosh enviromnent (even if Vista was a painful enough imitation MacOS to earn the scorn of Microsoft’s usual fans). It may be in the end that Apple’s biggest gift to the world of desktop computing is Windows: Apple’s gift to desktop computing today is that you can now buy, as a mainstream choice, Windows 7 instead of something more like MS-DOS.
It is no longer a provocative statement that Apple’s introduction of the iPhone may be a more profound game changer than the Macintosh. It may turn out, in the end, that Apple’s gift to mobile computing may be the Droid and Google-based smartphones—Verizon’s “Before you choose a phone, choose a map”, and, “iDon’t”/”Droid does” marketing campaigns certainly reflect a realization on Verizon’s part that shooing Apple away when Apple wanted Verizon to be the iPhone’s exclusive carrier was perhaps not Verizon’s best decision. But the iPhone changed the game profoundly enough that it was the gold standard everyone was trying to beat, and at least before the Droid, no “iPhone killer” even came close.
In both of these cases, Apple didn’t offer their own brand of the existing options: while it was not the first graphical user interface, the Macintosh did not offer an attempt to improve on MS-DOS; it showed what a graphical user interface done right for desktop computing could look like. Likewise, the iPhone did not offer a miniaturized standard desktop environment like Windows Mobile, but it showed what mobile computing done right could look like. While the iPhone may no longer be the only phone that does mobile computing right, the Droid underscores that if you’re going to beat Apple now, you need to beat it by the same game as Apple is playing in the iPhone. In neither of these cases did Apple try to beat Microsoft at its own game by providing a better MS-DOS, or a better Windows Mobile. Instead, they changed the game.
In our lives, we want God to help us struggle better at the games we are playing. What God wants to do is something different: to change the game.
God the Game Changer at work: A story
Every Lent, Orthodox remember a great saint with a great story. There was a very accomplished priest and monk who was troubled by the idea that no one had gotten as far as him in ascesis (spiritual work). And he was sent to a monastery by the Jordan, where as the custom was, every Lent monks would go out into the desert. And after a while, he saw a person, and chased this person; after a time he asked for the other person to stop fleeing; the other person called him by name and asked for his cloak, since her clothes were long since gone. He was terrified.
She asked why a great ascetic like him could want to speak with a sinful woman like her. They bowed down and asked each other for a blessing; then she told him that he was a priest and he should bless her, terrifying him even more by knowing that he was a priest. Then they spoke, and the woman called herself a sinner without any single virtue, and asked him to pray. So they began to pray, and a long time the priest looked up and saw her above the ground, levitating. He fell to the ground, weeping in prayer. Then he asked her story.
The woman asked his prayers for her shamelessness; in modern terms, she was a sorority girl who majored in men, money, and margaritas, except worse. Much worse. She went to a religious festival, got to church, and a force kept her from going in. She tried to go around it, then prayed before an icon of Mary the Mother of God asking to be let in and then saying she would do whatever she was told. Then she was able to enter in; she worshipped, and returned to the icon and asked to be told what to do. Then a voice from on high said, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.”
She was given some money and purchased three loaves of bread as she left, and then went, and struggled and struggled and struggled in what seemed like endless temptations and struggles. She had given free reign to her vices for seventeen years, and for seventeen years in the desert she wanted men, wanted wine and lewd songs, wanted meat, and just kept on struggling. After a time—a long, long time—things got easier. And she had been living for almost half a century in the desert, eating desert plants and at the mercies of the elements. It came up in the conversation that she quoted from the Bible with understanding. The monk asked her if she had read them. She said she had never seen another person since making the journey, had no one to read holy books to her, and like most people then, she didn’t know how to read. Then she alluded to Scripture and suggested that Christ the Word may teach by himself.
She told him he wouldn’t be able to come the next year, but to come the year after and give her communion. The next year illness pinned him down, and the year after he went, then saw her on the other side of the river. She crossed herself and walked over the water. They met again like the first, and she asked him to come again in a year.
He returned in a year to find her dead, kissed her feet and washed them with his tears, and found written next to her her last request and her name, Mary. He didn’t see how he would bury her, as per her request, but when he took a piece of wood and began to dig, an enormous lion approached, and at his command dug her grave. Then he and the lion went their separate ways, and per an earlier request, the monk addressed numerous things that needed correction. Somewhere along the way, he asked in perfectly good faith if she would return to the city. Her answer was that no, she would be returning to temptation and ruin all her work. Old woman as she was, she still couldn’t handle the temptation of having all those young men around.
What can we learn from all this? In the Parable of the Talents, a master calls his servants and entrusts one with five “talents” (70 pound silver bars), one with two, and one with one talent. He returns and calls an account. The master commends the servant who was given five talents because he has earned five more, and likewise commends the servant given two talents who has earned two more. Then the we hear a different tune (Matthew 25:24-27):
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest…”
This is a bit of a hard passage. The master represents God quite clearly, and this parable not only has the servant say that his master is (to use different words) cruel, but he harvests where he did not plant seeds and gathers where he has not scattered. Worse than that, the master, i.e. God, seems to endorse the portrayal. What are we to make of this?
One thought is that this is rhetorically abstaining from pressing a point. In other words, we could paraphrase the master’s reply, “You wicked and slothful servant! Let’s say for the sake of agument that I harvest where I did not plant seeds and gather where I have not scattered. Shouldn’t you at least have invested it so I could have it back with interest?”
But in fact a deeper understanding is available, and it hinges on a question. What has God not sown? He created Heaven and earth, all things that can be seen and all things that cannot be seen. The demons themselves were created by God; everything from the highest of the angels to the lowest grain of sand, from the greatest saint to the Devil is a creation of God. What then could there be that God hath not sown?
The answer is that God has not sown sin, nor suffering, nor evil, nor pain, nor sickness, nor death. He created the Devil, but not the rebellion of angels once created pure. God has not sown this; he has not scattered us out of the glory he intended for us. And he has not planted sin, nor suffering, nor evil, nor pain, nor sickness, nor death, but he harvests them.
The servant’s accusation, which the master repeats, is that God is so intent on harvest that he harvests whether or not he has sown. The priest, monk, and saint Zosima is among the greatest of saints, and he lived a life of spiritual work and spiritually sober living before God. His life was full of seeds that God sowed, and probably from childhood. And God harvested Saint Zosima’s good works. But Saint Zosima needed something. He needed to be knocked completely flat on his back.
But to stop here is to miss the glory of God the Game Changer. The woman in the desert did a great many things that God would never sow. She was a worse sinner than a prostitute. But God harvested her and her sins too, and when Zosima had reached a point where he did not know if there was his equal on earth, God showed Saint Zosima, “Here is someone who leaves you completely in the dust.”
Saint Mary wondered how many souls she ensnared. The answer is certainly, “Many,” and this is tragic. But God harvested her sins, many as they were, and out of her person, her story, and her intercession God has helped innumerrably more people reach salvation. She is one of the greatest saints the Orthodox Church knows. And something is really destroyed in the story if you omit her numerous sins of sexual self-violation.
And in all this, God changed the game. He did not tear up the fabric of time, but he harvested what was planted in her even more than what was planted in Saint Zosima. God harvests where he has sown, and God the Game Change also harvests where he has never sown. And when he does, he pushes the game to another level entirely.
A present-day example of God’s game-changing, this time not with sin but with injury, is in the life of Joni Erickson. At a young age, Erickson dove the wrong way into shallow water and broke her neck, instantly paralyzing her in all four limbs. And she assuredly prayed what everybody who has such an accident prays if prayer is even considered: “Lord, heal me.” And some people are healed, miraculously. But an entirely different, in a way deeper, miracle occurred with her. She adjusted to her loss and is a woman who has not only discovered that her life is still worth living, but has become a vibrant and well-known ambassador for the claim, “Even after a tragedy like mine, life is still worth living.” None of this would have happened if she had not suffered an injury that cost her the use of all four limbs. For that matter, none of this would have happened if God answered her prayers by giving her the supernatural healing she wanted. Instead, God changed the game. He answered her prayers, not by giving what she asked for, but by moving the game to the next level. God did not plant her injury, but he has harvested where he did not plant and gathered in where he never scattered.
More than a game change
The Gospel is the story of God changing the game. It was much more than Pharisees who did not recognize Christ; his own disciples seemed to have their eyes equally wide shut.
Christ’s people looked for a military Messiah who would deliver the Jews from Roman domination. Christ changed the game; he did not offer salvation as military deliverance, but salvation from sin. He didn’t give people what they were looking for; he pushed the game to the next level.
Darkness reigned in the crucifixion of Christ. Something like a quarter to a third of the Gospels are devoted to Christ’s passion. The message appears to be very clear: “But this is your hour—when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53 NIV). Game over. All hope is lost.
Yet this profound evil is precisely what God harvested treasure beyond all beauty. In I Corinthians 15 Saint Paul writes,
But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
And Saint Paul knew a game change in his own life. English translations seem to put this point much more delicately, but Saint Paul, earlier in this chapter, compares himself to a miscarried child, as the least of the Apostles. He almost seems to be saying, “If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for anybody.” And yet God harvested from what was sown in this persecutor of the Church.
The Resurrection is the ultimate game-changing move. Saint John Chrysostom’s famous resurrection homily proclaims:
Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.
We would do well to remember the scene a short distance after the funereal scene of joy turned to weeping at the death of King Caspian in Prince Caspian:
“Look here! I say,” he stammered. “It’s all very well. But aren’t you—? I mean didn’t you—”
“Oh, don’t be such an ass,” said [King] Caspian.
“But,” said Eustace, looking at Aslan. “Hasn’t he—er—died?”
“Yes,” said the Lion in a very quiet voice, almost (Jill thought) as if he were laughing. “He has died. Most people have, you know. Even I have. There are very few who haven’t.”
Earlier in the Gospel, in Luke chapter 7, there is a scene where a widow’s only son is carried out on a bier, and Christ says something truly strange: before doing anything else, he tells her not to weep. He is speaking to a woman who has been twice bereaved, and with her last bereavement went her source of support. And he tells her, “Weep not!” He then goes on to raise her son from the dead. That isn’t what is happening in Christ’s resurrection.
Christ, the firstborn of the dead, opened death as one opening the womb. And he himself was sown a natural body and is raised a spiritual body. And God did more than simply flip the switch and make Christ’s body like it was before death. The marks of crucifixion remain imprinted on his body as Joni Eareckson Tada remains quadriplegic. But Christ moved forward in triumph. He remains forever imprinted with the marks of death suffered for our sakes, and he bears them as his trophy. His victory as God the Game Changer takes us, harvesting what he has sown in our good deeds and our repentance, and what he has not sown in our sins and in evils that happen to us, and alike transforms us as trophies in his wake. Christ God is victor over both sin and death, and this victory is not just something that could be ours at Judgment Day; it is the central reality of day to day life. Saint Seraphim would greet people with the Paschal greeting year round: “Christ is risen, my joy!” While that is not the usual Orthodox custom, that he did so is entirely fitting and not in any sense an exaggeration of the Resurrection’s importance. The Resurrection, the greatest act yet of God the Game Changer, is what God will do on a smaller scale in our lives. God sometimes gives us victory in the game we are playing, and sometimes changes the game and pushes us to the next level. It may be a painful and difficult process; it may involve loss and any amount of bewilderment. But when we seem to have lost, it may just be God the Game Changer’s power at work.
There was one time when I was sitting in Danada Convenient Care, waiting for a blood draw. A mother led in a little girl who was bawling, sat her down in the waiting area, and began to attend to all the little details: sign in on a clipboard, speak with the office staff, sign a waiver, present an insurance card. The girl was bawling because she had apparently slammed her thumbnail in a door. After a little while I came over and began talking with her. I asked her what her favorite color was. I asked, “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” (answer: a trombone). I tried to get her talking, but most of what I said went over her head. After a while, I realized two things. First, I was failing rather miserably to engage her in conversation; I literally could not think of many things to say that a child of that age could respond to. And second, she stopped crying. Completely. I was struck by the near-total lack of pain in her face as she looked at me.
Eventually, I was called in for my blood draw. When I came out, things were totally different. The mother was sitting next to her daughter, and paying attention to her. The daughter was drawn into her mother’s attention. I said goodbye and left.
On another occasion, I was at a dinner at someone’s house, and my eyes were drawn to a goldfish in a fishbowl. I asked the hostess how old the goldfish was, and her answer was followed shortly by my asking how she managed to keep a goldfish for that long. And I remember vividly her answer. She said, “I talk to it,” and then stooped down and began talking to the fish like it was a small child. The fish began eagerly swimming towards her, as if it were trying to swim through the glass to meet her.
Love is a spiritual force, and I thought her answer was looney then because I didn’t understand that there are more than material forces that can affect whether a fish is healthy. I thought that the idea of love or hate affecting how a plant grows made a great exotic feature in fantasy, but in the real world science accounts for all the factors in how long a fish lives. Of course it matters that the hostess fed the goldfish and kept the fishbowl clean, but the reason the fish was alive and healthy was because she loved it. (And she’s a woman with a big heart.) And it matters, no doubt, that I made eye contact with the little girl and squatted to try to be at eye level. But the reason I was able to draw her out of intense pain was the power that love has. I can count on my fingers the times I’ve been in worse pain than smashing my thumbnails as a child; her pain was atrocious. What was strong enough to pull her out of that pain wasn’t my posture, or anything suave at my clumsy failures to say things that were age-appropriate. What pulled her out of her deep pain was love, and I was delighted to see her mother, who had been so busy with a thousand necessary details, giving her attention and love to her now comforted daughter. The mother told me as I said goodbye, “You have a very gentle way about you,” and I hold that story in my heart as one of my triumphs.
It’s hard to pick out a theme more foundational to feminist ethics, and perhaps the whole of feminism, than caring. Many feminists understand feminism as trying to move from a world dominated by male aggression to a world nurtured through motherly love and caring. And I would like to talk about love in Orthodoxy after talking about aggression.
The term “male aggression” is used a lot. The word “aggression” has a double meaning. Narrowly, “aggression” means “unprovoked violence,” a violence that is evil. But there is another meaning to “aggressive,” when a doctor pursues an “aggressive” treatment, for instance. Here “aggressive” does not literally mean violence and need not be at all evil… but there is a connection between the two. There is a real reason why we speak of an “aggressive” business plan as well as an “aggressive” assault. Why does “aggressive” sometimes mean “energetically active,” something that can be good, when the “main” usage is for something despicable?
Men are more likely to be aggressive than women. In which sense? Actually, both, and there’s a link between the two senses that offers insight into what it means to be a man. Talking about “male aggression” is not simply man-bashing, even if it is often done in exactly that fashion. There is something spirited and something fiery that is part of manhood, something that can be very destructive, but something that can be channeled. I don’t think any of us need to be told that masculine aggressiveness can be destructive. But that is not the full story of masculine energy. Channeled properly, male aggressive energy means projects. It means adventures and exploration. It means building buildings, questing after discoveries, giving vision to a community. The same thing that can be very destructive can also energize a man’s gifts to society. It can be transformed.
I would pose the question: If masculine aggression can be transformed in this manner, what about feminine and motherly caring?
Love is big in Orthodoxy. God is love. God is light, and other things can also be said, but he is love. The entirety of ethics and moral law is about loving God and one’s neighbor. The entirety of spiritual discipline, which Orthodoxy as well as feminist spirituality recognize as important for sustained growth, is a spiritual support not simply to one’s salvation, but to love. If my spiritual discipline does not turn me in love towards you, it is fundamentally incomplete. Spiritual discipline without love for others is self-contradictory as a friendship without another person.
What’s the relationship between love and caring? Are they synonyms? There is a deep connection, but I believe that an important difference shows up in the question of abortion.
“My body, my choice!” makes a powerful and easy-to-remember political slogan. But nobody believes it, or at least people who have abortions don’t believe it. Post-abortion is not about assuring women that it was just a surgery that removed something unwanted, but quite to the contrary is about helping women grieve the loss of a child. You may be able to make a legal argument that the child is part of the mother’s body, or say it’s just a potential life that was stopped. But trying to use that in post-abortion counseling is like telling someone who’s drinking milk that has gone bad that the milk is really quite fresh. You might be able to convince other people that the milk is really quite fresh, but not the person who’s actually drinking it. And women who have abortions are the ones who are drinking the rancid milk. In coffee table discussions you can deny that the death of a child is involved and say it’s just unwanted tissue. If you’re not drinking the milk, you can be conned into believing it’s still fresh. But if you’re drinking it? Post-abortion counseling helps women grieve the loss of a child, and for that reason cannot say “It was just a potential life!”
If women who have abortions don’t believe the rhetoric, then why does abortion take place? Quite often, these women feel stuck between a rock and a hard place in which there seem to simply be no good options. This is part of why the pro-life movement has made a major shift to offering compassion and practical help to people in that position. It’s a difficult position, and feminists will often argue that abortion is the most caring way out. It is not caring, the line goes, to bring a child into a situation where it will not be cared for, and women should be caring to themselves by not saddling themselves with too much responsibility. And so the ethics of caring sometimes finds abortion the appropriate choice.
In many ethical frameworks you can get away with saying that a mother’s love is one love among others. That simply doesn’t fly here. In feminism, a mother’s love is considered the most intimate love and a mother’s caring is meant to be the foundation of a better way of living. It is feminists who have given motherly caring the greatest emphasis and the most central place, and feminists who most fervently defend what any woman who’s had an abortion knows and grieves as the loss of a child. It’s almost as if a coalition of historians and archivists were the ones most fervently defending the practice of burning old documents.
My reason for mentioning this is not simply irony. My reason for pointing this out is to suggest that something’s wrong, and maybe motherly caring isn’t strong enough to support the weight feminism asks it to bear. Part of this odd picture is surely rationalization: part of what feminists want is the freedom to live a certain way but not deal with its consequences: be sexually active and not deal with children when they don’t want to, and if killing, or in today’s carefully chosen terms, “reproductive choice,” is the necessary price for freedom on those terms, they accept that price. Part of this is rationalization, but not all. Part of this is the weakness of caring when it is asked to do what feminists hope it will do. Asking motherly caring to do what feminists want is kind of like trying to drive a top-notch car engine to work. It may be a very good engine, and an engine may be indispensible to any functioning car, but things go much better if we have the whole car. I’m not just saying that abortion is wrong. I’m saying that if the people who bear the banner of “mother’s love” as the healing balm for society’s ills are the ones who defend that practice, we have a red flag that may point to another problem: maybe caring might not do what feminists think it does. Maybe it’s not enough.
So what would a whole car look like?
I’d like to quote a passage that has one teacher’s take on love:
Then a Jewish law scholar stood up to test Jesus, and said “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
He said to him, “You must love the Lord your God out of your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole strength, and with your whole mind, and love your neighbor even as you love yourself.”
He said, “That’s right; do this and you will live.”
But the scholar wanted to be proved righteous before Jesus. He said, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered and said, “Someone was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and brigands assaulted him, stripping him and leaving him half dead. And by providence a priest was going down that way and saw him and passed by, giving him a wide berth. Likewise, a Levite was travelling the same way, saw him, and gave him a wide berth. Then a travelling Samaritan came across him and was moved with mercy, in the depths of his bowels, and came over, and dressed his wounds with oil and wine, mounted him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and nurtured him. And the next day he gave a good chunk of his wealth to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and if he needs anything more, I will repay you when I come back.’ Now which one of these three do you suppose showed himself a neighbor to the man who was assaulted by brigands?”
He said, “The one who showed mercy to him.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and live that way.”
(Luke 10:25-37, my translation) Cloud and Townsend’s appropriately titled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life argues that this story is a good illustration of their version of boundaries, and that was when I started listening to some nagging doubts about their theory. They said this was a good example of a measured response: the Samaritan made a moderate and limited response, got the Jew to safety and paid some moderate expenses, and left. Cloud and Townsend ask us to imagine the wounded Jew saying “I need you to stay here,” and the moderate Samaritan drawing a their-version-of-appropriate-boundary and saying “I’ve made a moderate response and need to move on.” and saying “No,” the way their version of boundaries draws a line and says, “No.” And I have not heard a treatment of this story that is further from the truth.
The route from Jerusalem to Jericho was up until the eighteenth century a dangerous place with bandits, and one well-known ruse was to have one bandit lying in the way, apparently grievously wounded, and if someone stopped, the bandits would take advantage of that mercy to assault and rob him. Jesus was saying that the Samaritan stopped in a bad part of Chicago in the middle of the night because a voice in a dark alley said, “Help me.” And the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; they didn’t have, like today, a setup where people want not to be racist. For that Samaritan to help that Jew was for one gang member to stick his neck out pretty far for a stranger who was from a hostile gang. This is near the top of stupid things you absolutely don’t do. Was Jesus exaggerating? He was making a quite ludicrous exaggeration to make the point that your neighbor is every person you meet and every person you do not meet, every person who you like, every person who bothers you, every person who is unkind, every enemy and every pest you loathe. Jesus was exaggerating, in fact, to respond to someone who was trying to be too comfortable and make him pointedly uncomfortable. I believe the other person was expecting Jesus to draw a reasonable line of reasonable boundaries to his love, and Jesus was quite blunt about setting an impossible and unreasonable standard.
If we try hard enough, we can shut our eyes and neutralize this story. We can neutralize how uncomfortable it makes us; we can neutralize any way this story might contradict today’s psychological dogma of boundaries… and we can neutralize the priceless pearl that this story is meant to help us find. And this story does hold a priceless pearl for us.
The point is not that if someone asks you into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you must go. I don’t really think the point is to set much of any kind of literal prescription for how far your love must go. The point is that what is being asked is impossible. Simply impossible, and beyond your power, and beyond my power. It’s a command of, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain.” If someone said, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds off the ground,” that would be possible for some people with dedicated training. But the most powerfully built athlete who goes through the most disciplined training cannot lift a medium-sized boulder, let alone a mountain. Jesus isn’t saying, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds,” which is something that some of us could achieve through a gargantuan effort. He’s saying, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain,” and he’s exaggerating, but the whole point is that he’s asking something impossible. Only the divine can love that way.
The whole secret hinges on that. The divine became human that the human might become divine. The Creator entered into the creation that the creation might enter into the Creator. Orthodoxy is not a set of rules, however good, to safeguard purely human love. The point of Orthodoxy is to be transformed by the divine love so we can live the life that God lives and love with the love that God loves. It is to live the life of Heaven, beginning here and now. It is to transfigure every human love so that it becomes divine love. Out of love, God became as we are, that out of love we might become as he is. And what feminism seeks in caring grows to its full stature in Orthodoxy.
There is something fundamental that is missed about Orthodoxy if it is understood as a set of practices organized around love, or a set of ideas in which love is prominent, or a movement which tries to help people be more loving. That has some truth, but the truth is more than that. The human cannot be understood without the divine; to be human is to participate, however imperfectly, in God. Orthodoxy can no longer be understood as a movement or a system of ideas and practices than a campfire can be understood as a collection of sticks. The sticks are not just arranged a certain way in a campfire; they burn, and you cannot understand even the arrangement of the sticks unless you are aware of the fire that is the reason they are arranged. Not only to be Orthodox but to be human is to be made in the image of God, which in Orthodoxy has always meant that we are not separate miniatures of God, but manifestations of his glory. God is not merely a First Cause who started things off; he is the blazing Sun whose light shines on everything that daylight illuminates.
Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of feminism. If feminism is a deep question, Orthodoxy is a deep answer that responds to the depths of motherly love with the limitless depths of divine love. This is not just with love. More spiritual feminists tend to like the idea of synchronicity, the idea that materialist causation isn’t the whole picture. Synchronicity is the idea that they’re not just isolated domino chains with one domino knocking another domino down; the chains are linked in ways that go beyond dominos bumping into each other. There is a richer picture. And Orthodoxy believes all this and more. Orthodoxy has never been through the Enlightenment, when people tried to argue that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that the kind of cause-and-effect science studies is not only valid but the only way things come about. People used to believe something richer, and in Orthodoxy we still do: that there can be reasons why things happen; there is an explanation for “Why?” and not just a mechanism that answers “How?” Dominoes do fall, but you will never understand the picture if you only think there are isolated chains of dominoes. All of this is part of the Orthodox understanding of divine providence. Yet providence is deeper than synchronicity. Synchronicity is a jailbreak; providence is a voyage home. Less flatteringly, synchronicity is providence with its head cut off. Synchronicity recognizes interesting designs in the events of our lives. Providence turns from those interesting designs to an interesting designer, and to some Orthodox, the idea of trying to be spiritual by delving into synchronicity and other themes of Jungian psychology is like inviting people over for wine and cheese and serving Velveeta. We have Camembert, we have Brie, we have goat cheese, and when Orthodox see how often “being spiritual” to a feminist means “digging into Jungian psychology,” we want to tell you that Velveeta isn’t your only choice! Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruits:” people’s lives can offer a serious red flag about whether you should trust them and trust what they say. Orthodoxy has saints with better lives than a psychiatrist widely known to have slept with his patients in a relationship that was far more problematic than a mere case of raging hormones. Velveeta’s the easiest cheese to find at most stores, but it’s possible to find better. Orthodoxy deeply engaged the pillars of Jungian psychology far earlier than Jung did, and the reason we reach for something better is that there is something better to reach for.
Feminism senses that there is something wrong with Western culture, and is searching for healing. One of the strange things about Orthodoxy is that you realize you were right all along. Becoming Orthodox has been a confirmation of things I’ve sensed, and this is not because I was a particular type of Christian or because I am a man, but because I’m human. I believe that becoming Orthodox, to a feminist, will mean much more than an affirmation of what feminism yearns for. But that’s not the only strange thing. One Calvin and Hobbes strip shows the two characters walking through a wood. Calvin asks, “Do you believe in evolution? You know, do you believe that humans evolved from monkeys?” Hobbes’ answer is simple: “I can’t tell any difference.” The strip ends with Calvin chasing Hobbes. Orthodoxy might answer the question, “Do you believe evolution is the right answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?'” by saying:
No, evolution is absolutely not the right answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” For that matter, it is not even a wrong answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” It is not an answer to any “Why?” question at all. It is an answer to a “How?” question, and even if evolution were the whole truth and didn’t have any problems answering, “How is there life as we know it?” it is a mechanism to tell how things happen and not an explanation of why things happened. To say, “Why is there life as we know it? Because life evolved just like the theory of evolution says,” is a bit like saying, “Why is the dining room light on? Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, causing electricity to flow so that the light glows brightly.” That’s how the light is on, but the reason why the light on is that someone decided, “I want light.”
The theory of evolution doesn’t answer that question. It might answer a different question, but the theory of evolution is not so much false as a distraction, if you are interested in the great and terrible question, “Why?” Instead of figuring out whether evolution is the correct mechanism, you might realize that it answers a different question, and start to ask the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”
“Why is there life as we know it?” is a meaty question, a you can grow into, and if you grow into it, you can learn about a creation that reflects God’s glory. You can learn about layers of symbol, and a physical world that is tied up with the spiritual and manifests its glory. You can learn about many layers of existence, and the body that has humanity as its head. You can learn that the mysteries in a woman’s heart resonate with the mysteries of life, and begin to see how a woman in particular is an image of the earth. You can learn about all sorts of spiritual qualities that the theory of evolution will never lead you to ask about. And you might learn that there are other questions, deeper questions to grow into, and start to grow into something even deeper than trying to answer questions.
So no, the theory of evolution is not the right way to answer the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”
And most of the time it happens without any philosophy or need to wrap your mind around some dense or subtle idea. Part of Orthodoxy is being caught off-guard by God again and again. It’s being informed, “I can’t tell any difference.” It’s asking how to pursue a great goal and learning that you shouldn’t have been pursuing that goal in the first place. It’s trying to find the best way to get all your ducks lined up, and asking the Lord’s help, and realizing that the Lord is calling for you to trust him and let him worry about the ducks. If he wants to. These are two sides of a paradox, and Orthodoxy presents them both to everyone.
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
“So why worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after these things all the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of these things shall be added to you. Therefore you do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
This text, from the Sermon on the Mount, is a central text, and it is to this text that everything else relates; it is by being anchored to the Sermon on the Mount that keeps the other practices anchored in faith and preserves them from becoming magical or superstitious.
God sometimes allows the Evil One to take away the jobs of the pious. But God is in command, and he will not allow us to be tested beyond our strength. Unemployment is a trial, but it will not prevent God from providing and exercising his own providence over people allowed to be tested.
The life of devotion
The most important foundation within this walk of faith is simply living the Orthodox life. This means prayers, confession, communion, and the entire sacramental Orthodox Way. This does not manipulate God; it may involve clearing away obstacless we have created, which is what we work on when we confess our sins. But there is not something alien that is added to the Orthodox faith to activate God’s providence; God’s providence is active even when we are trying to do everything and he doesn’t give what we think we need. And so the first thing is, “Do your rule.” (And “As always, ask your priest.”)
This is the point when things can get a bit scary. Christ, who promises providence, also tells us not to store up treasure on earth. Most of us have not made the monastic renunciation, but we miss the mark if we seek our security in what we can arrange with our own money and resources. That is the point where money becomes a false God and an idol.
(This may always be an idol, but the less money and financial security we have, the larger the idol looms.)
To thee, O camel who passed through the eye of the needle, we offer thanks and praise: for thou gavest of thy wealth to the poor, as an offering to Christ. Christ God received thy gift as a loan, repaying thee exorbitantly, in this transient life and in Heaven. Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures!
It is paradoxical to give more in response to losses. But it is vital.
Monster and other services offer a “free resume critique:” Buyer beware!
I was working with one friend on his resume and mentioned that Monster offered a free resume critique. He submitted his resume, and the feedback was deceptive and obnoxious. The reviewer said he was going to be “bluntly honest,” and was then bluntly dishonest and manipulative and wrote a doozy of a spiel that was engineered to scare him directly into their paid resume writing service. And it contained almost nothing that could be used to directly improve his resume.
He had asked me if it was worth a professional resume writing service; after seeing that specimen I said, “Maybe; it would be worth asking on LinkedIn, but not with these people.” If they were going to be that deceptive and manipulative in their free resume “critique”, they were the wrong people to trust with writing your resume.
If you attended college you may have privileges with your alma mater’s career services office, even if you didn’t graduate: these can be helpful in several ways, including a resume makeover.
There are a lot of job boards; I myself usually just use Monster as the main site where I post my resume.
There are several job search engines; Linkup is well worth considering as it pulls jobs from company’s websites that haven’t hit the “pay to post” boards like Monster.
Lastly for websites, I mentioned LinkedIn; to adapt a phrase, LinkedIn is Facebook for jobhunting. It doesn’t have the games, but it is a professional social network that is useful in several ways, including asking and answering questions. I’ve found that I’ve gotten a lot of valuable advice by asking questions on LinkedIn.
There will be a lot of details to keep track of. If you need help, you might use Jobhunt Tracker.
Research, research, research!
The biggest way you can send a perfumed letter in an interview is research. There are a number of tools at your disposal; you can visit the company website, search for them on Google news, and to give one “best-kept secret”, request a copy of the company’s annual report. I am not saying you should believe them all; every annual report I’ve read claims that things are going great and the last year may have been the company’s best year ever. As with the “About” section on a company’s website, that is how the company presents itself, not necessarily how the company is. Still, it is valuable for insight and the more you know about a company, the better. And if annual reports are a tad too optimistic, they none the less show a company’s line of business, where it is focusing, and show how the company would like to be seen.
Find jobhunting / networking groups
In many places, there are jobhunting support groups: not necessarily “support groups” in the counseling psychology sense, but groups where jobhunters can gather, sharing wisdom and expertise. You may find a career coach at one of them: you might get a free resume makeover, or have someone make sense of something puzzling to you. Which brings me to my next point:
Again, buyer beware
There has been one change to the information technology landscape in recent years. Job hunting sites like Monster allow applicants (whether in information technology or not) to state a geographic preference so they can request local opportunities. And there’s a whole brigade of recruiters, strange as it may sound, who will ask an applicant in Illinois who has requested Illinois positions to apply for a position in Silicon Valley or NYC, traveling at the candidate’s own expense for the in-person interview and perhaps signing a contract that would probably make an attorney really squirm (and assure you this is a standard business practice to protect their needs if you raise questions). Buyer beware; this is part of the cost of doing jobhunting in information technology.
The problem isn’t as bad as it used to be; the sheer quantity of these junk calls has dropped to be much more manageable than it was a few years ago. But I let non-local calls go straight to voicemail: there are a few non-local calls that aren’t from that class of recruiter, and you can hear them when you check your voicemail.
There are presumably other traps and pitfalls out there: “Be thou the defender of my soul, O God, for I walk through the midst of many snares; deliver me from them and save me, O Blessed One, for thou art the lover of mankind.”
I have covered, or rather briefly touched on, the sacred and secular dimensions of jobhunting. But this is more of a “table of contents” than a full book; I point the reader to books or other resources (What Color Is Your Parachute? and Games Companies Play on the secular side, and one’s rule of prayer and parish priest or spiritual father on the sacred). The offering seems insufficient, but I’m not sure I have better. Still, I offer this much in the prayer that God will provide for you in his gracious and eternal love.
This article was written while I was jobhunting and out of work. Later that day, I received and accepted a job offer.
All of us do the will of God. The question is not whether we do God’s will or not, but whether we do God’s will as instruments, as Satan and Judas did, or as sons, as Peter and John did. In the end Satan may be nothing more than a hammer in the hand of God.
C.S. Lewis, paraphrased
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
There are a lot of concerns on people’s minds. For those of us in the U.S., we’ve been facing an economic disaster. Is “the decade from Hell” over and done? Or has the economic depression just begun? Has the real nightmare just begun? People have faced unemployment, and some are worried about hyper-inflation. And the big question on almost everyone’s mind is, “Can I survive this? And if so, how?” And these quotes have something to say to the billion dollar question on almost everyone’s mind.
Let’s turn the clock back a bit, to 1755. There was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbonne in Portugal, and its untold misery shook people’s faith in the goodness of the world we live in. In the questioning that came afterwards, Voltaire wrote Candide in which the rather ludicrous teacher Pangloss is always explaining that we live in “the best of all possible worlds:” no matter what misfortune or disaster befell them, the unshakable Pangloss would always find a way to explain that we still lived in the best of all possible worlds. And Voltaire’s point is to rip that preposterous idea apart, giving a dose of reality and showing what the misery in Lisbonne made painfully clear: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But there is another shoe to drop.
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.
Once we have truly grasped that God the Spiritual Father is the best of all possible Gods, it becomes a mistake to focus on how, in fact, we simply do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps we all need to repent and recognize that we ourselves are far from being the best of all possible people. But we need to raise our eyes higher: raise our eyes and see that our lives and our world are under the love of the best of all possible Gods: God the Spiritual Father.
The Orthodox Church has understood this since ancient times. Let’s read some longer quotes:
We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:
Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue.
Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.
All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.
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 new St. Seraphim, of Viritsa was born in 1866. He married and had three children. In 1920, at the age of 54, he and his wife quietly separated and each entered monastic life. Eventually he became the spiritual father of the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg, where, as a clairvoyant staretz, he also confessed thousands of laity. He said, “I am the storage room where people’s afflictions gather.” In imitation of his patron saint, he prayed for a thousand nights on a rock before an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He reposed in the Lord in 1949 and the Church of Russia glorified him in August of 2000.)
The following is (slightly abridged) from a letter sent by St. Seraphim to a spiritual child of his, a hierarch who was at that time in a Soviet prison. It is in the form of consolation given by God to a troubled man’s soul.
St. Seraphim of Viritsa
Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.
I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.
I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.
I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.
I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.
You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.
With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.
Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.
Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.
Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.
All these things were from Me.
St. Seraphim of Viritsa
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? 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.
We may be entering an economic depression. We live in hard times, and things may get much harder. It is becoming more and more clear that this is no mere recession: it looks more and more like a depression. We see people asking, “Where is God when it hurts?” And there is something important about the answer to “Where is God when it hurts?”: something very important, something profoundly important.
I believe in one God, the Spiritual Father Almighty.
I’m not sure how to explain this without saying something about Orthodox monasticism, but the Orthodox concept of a spiritual father is of someone one owes obedience in everything, and who normally assigns some things that are very difficult to do, unpleasant, and painful. And this seems a strange thing to be getting into. But there is method to what may seem mad: we do not reach our greatest good, we do not flourish, we do not reach our highest heights, if we are the spiritual equivalent of spoiled children. And the entire point of this duty of obedience is to arrange things for the good of the person who obeys in this situation. The entire point of obedience in what the spiritual father arranges is for the spiritual father as a spiritual physician to give health and freedom through the disciple’s obedience.
In that sense, only monks and nuns are expected to have spiritual fathers to shape them. The rest of us have God as our Spiritual Father, and we can kick against the goads, but God the Spiritual Father is at work in every person we meet. God the Spiritual Father is God the Great Physician, working everything for our health and freedom if we will cooperate. People and situations he sends us may be part of his will for us as instruments, or they may be part of his will for us as sons of God, but God’s will unfolds in each person who acts in our lives: kind people and cruel, having excess and having lack, getting our way and having our will cut short as a spiritual father does to form a monk under his care, becomes part of the work of God the Spiritual Father. Even economic nightmares become part of “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
When God gives us our true good, nothing can take it away.
What exactly is our true good unfolds in the saints’ lives, which are well worth reading: many of them lived in great hardship. Some were martyred; the beloved St. Nectarios lost his job repeatedly for reasons that were not just unfortunate, but completely and absolutely unfair. God was still at work in his life, and he is now crowned as a saint in Heaven. God allowed things to happen, terrible things to happen, but not one of them took him away from God giving him everything he needed and ultimately working in him the glory of one of the greatest saints in recent times.
The Sermon on the Mount says some harsh words about how we use money, but these words set the stage for a profound treasure that we can still have, even in an economic depression:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, [or, today, where economic havoc can ruin our financial planning] but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal [or, today, where your treasures cannot be taken away even by a complete economic meltdown].
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…
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 be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more 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 being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like 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 the godless 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 yours as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
The life of St. Philaret the Merciful speaks volumes:
Righteous Philaret the Merciful, son of George and Anna, was raised in piety and the fear of God. He lived during the eighth century in the village of Amneia in the Paphlagonian district of Asia Minor. His wife, Theoseba, was from a rich and illustrious family, and they had three children: a son John, and daughters Hypatia and Evanthia.
Philaret was a rich and illustrious dignitary, but he did not hoard his wealth. Knowing that many people suffered from poverty, he remembered the words of the Savior about the dread Last Judgment and about “these least ones” (Mt. 25:40); the the Apostle Paul’s reminder that we will take nothing with us from this world (1 Tim 6:7); and the assertion of King David that the righteous would not be forsaken (Ps 36/37:25). Philaret, whose name means “lover of virtue,” was famed for his love for the poor.
One day Ishmaelites [Arabs] attacked Paphlagonia, devastating the land and plundering the estate of Philaret. There remained only two oxen, a donkey, a cow with her calf, some beehives, and the house. But he also shared them with the poor. His wife reproached him for being heartless and unconcerned for his own family. Mildly, yet firmly he endured the reproaches of his wife and the jeers of his children. “I have hidden away riches and treasure,” he told his family, “so much that it would be enough for you to feed and clothe yourselves, even if you lived a hundred years without working.”
The saint’s gifts always brought good to the recipient. Whoever received anything from him found that the gift would multiply, and that person would become rich. Knowing this, a certain man came to St Philaret asking for a calf so that he could start a herd. The cow missed its calf and began to bellow. Theoseba said to her husband, “You have no pity on us, you merciless man, but don’t you feel sorry for the cow? You have separated her from her calf.” The saint praised his wife, and agreed that it was not right to separate the cow and the calf. Therefore, he called the poor man to whom he had given the calf and told him to take the cow as well.
That year there was a famine, so St Philaret took the donkey and went to borrow six bushels of wheat from a friend of his. When he returned home, a poor man asked him for a little wheat, so he told his wife to give the man a bushel. Theoseba said, “First you must give a bushel to each of us in the family, then you can give away the rest as you choose.” Philaretos then gave the man two bushels of wheat. Theoseba said sarcastically, “Give him half the load so you can share it.” The saint measured out a third bushel and gave it to the man. Then Theoseba said, “Why don’t you give him the bag, too, so he can carry it?” He gave him the bag. The exasperated wife said, “Just to spite me, why not give him all the wheat.” St Philaret did so.
Now the man was unable to lift the six bushels of wheat, so Theoseba told her husband to give him the donkey so he could carry the wheat home. Blessing his wife, Philaret gave the donkey to the man, who went home rejoicing. Theoseba and the children wept because they were hungry.
The Lord rewarded Philaret for his generosity: when the last measure of wheat was given away, a old friend sent him forty bushels. Theoseba kept most of the wheat for herself and the children, and the saint gave away his share to the poor and had nothing left. When his wife and children were eating, he would go to them and they gave him some food. Theoseba grumbled saying, “How long are you going to keep that treasure of yours hidden? Take it out so we can buy food with it.”
During this time the Byzantine empress Irene (797-802) was seeking a bride for her son, the future emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (780-797). Therefore, emissaries were sent throughout all the Empire to find a suitable girl, and the envoys came to Amneia.
When Philaret and Theoseba learned that these most illustrious guests were to visit their house, Philaret was very happy, but Theoseba was sad, for they did not have enough food. But Philaret told his wife to light the fire and to decorate their home. Their neighbors, knowing that imperial envoys were expected, brought everything required for a rich feast.
The envoys were impressed by the saint’s daughters and granddaughters. Seeing their beauty, their deportment, their clothing, and their admirable qualities, the envoys agreed that Philaret’ granddaughter, Maria was exactly what they were looking for. This Maria exceeded all her rivals in quality and modesty and indeed became Constantine’s wife, and the emperor rewarded Philaret.
Thus fame and riches returned to Philaret. But just as before, this holy lover of the poor generously distributed alms and provided a feast for the poor. He and his family served them at the meal. Everyone was astonished at his humility and said: “This is a man of God, a true disciple of Christ.”
He ordered a servant to take three bags and fill one with gold, one with silver, and one with copper coins. When a beggar approached, Philaret ordered his servant to bring forth one of the bags, whichever God’s providence would ordain. Then he would reach into the bag and give to each person, as much as God willed.
St Philaret refused to wear fine clothes, nor would he accept any imperial rank. He said it was enough for him to be called the grandfather of the Empress. The saint reached ninety years of age and knew his end was approaching. He went to the Rodolpheia (“The Judgment”) monastery in Constantinople. He gave some gold to the Abbess and asked her to allow him to be buried there, saying that he would depart this life in ten days.
He returned home and became ill. On the tenth day he summoned his family, he exhorted them to imitate his love for the poor if they desired salvation. Then he fell asleep in the Lord. He died in the year 792 and was buried in the Rodolpheia Judgment monastery in Constantinople.
The appearance of a miracle after his death confirmed the sainthood of Righteous Philaret. As they bore the body of the saint to the cemetery, a certain man, possessed by the devil, followed the funeral procession and tried to overturn the coffin. When they reached the grave, the devil threw the man down on the ground and went out of him. Many other miracles and healings also took place at the grave of the saint.
After the death of the righteous Philaret, his wife Theoseba worked at restoring monasteries and churches devastated during a barbarian invasion.
This merciful saint trusted God the Spiritual Father. He cashed in on the promise, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.”
In terms of how to survive an economic depression, the right question to ask is not, “Do I have enough treasures stored up on earth?” but “Do I have enough treasures in Heaven?” And the merciful St. Philaret lived a life out of abundant treasure in Heaven.
The biggest thing we need right now is to know the point of life, which is to live the life of Heaven, not starting at death, but starting here on earth. C.S. Lewis lectured to students on the eve of World War II when it looked like Western civilization was on the verge of permanent collapse. I won’t try to repeat what he said beyond “Life has never been normal” and add that God’s providence is for difficult circumstances every bit as much as when life seems normal. God’s providence is how we can survive an economic depression. The Sermon on the Mount is no mere wish list only for when life that is perfect; it is meant for God’s work with us even in circumstances we would not choose, especially in circumstances we would not choose, and speaks of the love of God the Spiritual Father who can and will work with us in an economic depression, if we will let him, and work with us no less than when life is easy.
(Some have said not only that God provides in rough times as well as easy times, but that God’s providence is in fact clearer in rough times, such as an economic depression, than when things go our way and we can forget that we need a bit of help from above.)
God the Spiritual Father wants to use everything for our good. Everything he allows, everything in our lives, is either a blessing or a temptation that has been allowed for our strengthening. His purpose even in allowing rough things to happen is to help us grow up spiritually, and to make us Heavenly. The Great Divorce imagines a busload of people come from Hell to visit Heaven, and what happens is something much like what happens in our lives: they are offered Heaven and they do not realize Heaven is better than the seeds Hell that they keep clinging to because they are afraid to let go. Heaven and Hell are both real, but God does not send people to Hell. C.S. Lewis quotes someone saying that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done,” respecting their choice to choose Hell after Heaven has been freely offered to them. The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. Hellfire is nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced by those who reject the only possibility for living joy there is. And neither the reality of Heaven nor the state of mind we call Hell begins after death; their seeds grow on us in this training ground we call life. We can become saints, heavenly people like St. Philaret, or we can care only about ourselves and our own survival. God the Spiritual Father wants to shape us to be part of the beauty of Heaven, and everything he sends us is intended for that purpose. But in freedom he will let us veto his blessings and choose to be in Hell.
Heaven is generous, and that generosity was something Heavenly that shone during the Great Depression. People who had very little shared. They shared money or food, if they had any. (And even if you have no money to share, you can share time; if you do not have a job, you can still volunteer.) St. Philaret shared because he knew something: “Knowing that many people suffered from poverty, he remembered the words of the Savior about the dread Last Judgment and about ‘these least ones’ (Mt. 25:40)…” In this part of the saint’s life, the reference is to some of the most chilling words following The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
St. Philaret the Merciful will be greeted before Christ’s awesome judgment seat and hear, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I came to you and asked for a little wheat, and you gave me all six bushels you had, and your only donkey with them.” God did provide, but the reward is not just that a friend gave him forty bushels of wheat. The ultimate reward is that Christ regards how St. Philaret treated other people as how he treated Christ himself, and because St. Philaret was merciful, there is a reward for him in Heaven, a reward so great that next to it, the forty bushels of wheat from his friend utterly pale in comparison.
Remember this next time you see a beggar. If you can’t give a quarter, at least see if there is a kind word or a prayer you can give. This has everything to do with how to survive an economic depression.
We are at a time with terrible prospects for earthly comfort, but take heart. Let me again quote Lewis: “Heaven cannot give earthly comfort, and earth cannot give earthly comfort either. In the end, Heavenly comfort is the only comfort to be had. To quote from my ownSilence: Organic Food for the Soul:
Do you worry? Is it terribly hard
to get all your ducks in a row,
to get yourself to a secure place
where you have prepared for what might happen?
Or does it look like you might lose your job,
if you still have one? The Sermon on the Mount
urges people to pray,
“Give us this day our daily bread,”
in an economy
when unlike many homeless in the U.S. today,
it was not obvious to many
where they would get their next meal.
And yet it was this Sermon on the Mount
that tells us our Heavenly Father will provide for us,
and tells us not to worry:
what we miss
if we find this a bit puzzling,
we who may have bank accounts, insurance, investments
even if they are jeopardized right now,
is that we are like a child with some clay,
trying to satisfy ourselves by making a clay horse,
with clay that never cooperates, never looks right,
and obsessed with clay that is never good enough,
we ignore and maybe fear
the finger tapping us on our shoulder
until with great trepidation we turn,
and listen to the voice say,
“Stop trying so hard. Let it go,”
and follow our father
as he gives us a warhorse.
This life is an apprenticeship, and even now, when we may be in situations we do not like, God is asking us to be apprentices, learning to be knights riding the warhorse he gives us even in the situations we might not like. The life of Heaven begins on earth, even in an economic depression.
However much power world leaders may have, God the Spiritual Father is sovereign, and their summits pale in comparison for the work God the Spiritual Father is working even now.
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his Christ, saying,
“Let us rip apart their religious restrictions,
and throw off their shackles.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
For the conqueror says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I have removed the boundaries of peoples, and have plundered their treasures; like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as men gather eggs that have been forsaken so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing, or opened the mouth, or chirped.”
Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
World leaders may work his will as instruments or as sons, but they will always work his will. This is true in an economic depression as much as any other time. God the Spiritual Father rules the world as sovereign on a deeper level than we can imagine, and he works good out of everything to those who love him and are called according to his purpose to make them sons of God.
Some people really hope that if the right government programs are in place, we can get back on track to a better life. But even if governments have their place, “Put not your trust in princes,” or rather, “Do not put your trust in governments,” is not obsolete. Far from it: government initiatives cannot make everything better, even in the long haul, even with lots of time, sacrifices, and resources. But having given that bad news, I have good news too. Even if government initiatives fail to do what we want them to, we have God the Spiritual Father trying to give us the greatest good, and the time he offers us his will does not start sometime in the future: it is for here, and it is for now. He works his will alike through instruments like Satan and Judas, and sons like Peter and John, but in either case he works his will now, not sometime in the future when some human effort starts achieving results. Again, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man might become god and the sons of God.
St. Maximus Confessor
There was one time when two theology professors were talking when the weather was very rough. One of them said, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” and the other said, “Well, he’s done better!” And the joke may be funny, but sun and rain, heat and cold, are all given by God. We miss something if we only think God is working with us if it is warm and sunny, if we find ourselves in a violent storm and assume God must have abandoned us, if it seems that God can’t or won’t help us because the weather is so bad.
And we are missing something if we look at the news and the world around us, and want to say, “This is the day that the Lord has made… he’s done better!”
If we are in an economic depression, say, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” You’re missing something if you need to add, “Well, he’s done better!”
A friend quoted to me when I was in a rough spot,
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
And it is true. It is not just, as some have said, that God’s address is at the end of your rope. That is where you meet God best. It may be easier, not harder, to find God and his providential care in an economic depression. God is working a plan of eternal glory. Westminster opens with the great question, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But there is a deeper answer. The chief end of man is to become Christ. The chief end of man is to become by grace what Christ is by nature. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man and the sons of man might become gods and the sons of God. The Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God. The divine became human that the human might become divine. This saying has rumbled down through the ages: not only the entire point of being human, but the entire point of each and every circumstance God the Spiritual Father allows to come to us, as a blessing or as a temptation allowed for our strengthening, as God’s will working through instruments or sons, is to make us share in Christ’s divinity, and the saints’ lives show few saints who met this purpose when everything went their way, and a great many where God worked in them precisely in rough and painful circumstances. If we watch the news and say, “This is the day the Lord has made. Well, he’s done better,” try to open your eyes to the possibility that “Well, he’s done better” is what people want to say when, in the words of C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, “Aslan is on the move.”
Christ’s Incarnation is humble. It began humbly, in the scandalous pregnancy of an unwed teen mother, and it unfolds humbly in our lives. Its humble unfolding in our lives comes perhaps best when we have rough times and rough lives, in circumstances we would not choose, in an economic depression above all. You do not understand Christ’s Incarnation unless you understand that it is an Incarnation in humility, humble times, and humble conditions. You do not understand Christ’s humble Incarnation until you understand that it did not stop when the Mother of God’s scandalous pregnancy began: Christ’s humble Incarnation unfolds and unfurls in the Church, in the Saints, and Christ wishes to be Incarnate in every one of us. Christ wishes to be Incarnate in all of us, not in the circumstances we would choose for ourselves, but in the circumstances we are in, when God the Spiritual Father works everything to good for his sons.
Take heart if this sounds hard, like a tall order to live up to. It is hard for me too. It is hard, very hard, or at least it is for me. But it is worth trying to live up to. Even if we do not always succeed.
God became man that man might become God. In whatever circumstances God gives us to train us, as God the Spiritual Father, let us grow as sons of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The website for the Ubuntu Linux distribution announced that Ubuntu is “an ancient African word” meaning humanity to others. It announced how it carried forward the torch of a Linux distribution that’s designed for regular people to use. And this promotion of “an ancient African word” has bothered a few people: one South African blogger tried to explain several things: for instance, he mentioned that “ubuntu” had been a quite ordinary Xhosa/Zulu word meaning “humanity,” mentioned that it had been made into a political rallying cry in the 20th century, and drew an analogy: saying, “‘Ubuntu’ is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity'” is as silly as saying, in reverential tones, “‘People’ is an ancient European word meaning, ‘more than one person.'” There is an alternative definition provided in the forums of Gentoo, a technical aficionado’s Linux distribution: “Ubuntu. An African word meaning, ‘Gentoo is too hard for me.'”
The blogger raised questions of gaffe in the name of the distribution; he did not raise questions about the Linux distribution itself, nor would I. Ubuntu is an excellent Linux distribution for nontechnical users, it gets some things very much right, and I prefer it to most other forms of Linux I’ve seen—including Gentoo. I wouldn’t bash the distribution, nor would I think of bashing what people mean by making “ubuntu” a rallying-cry in pursuing, in their words, “Linux for human beings.”
The offense lay in something else, and it is something that, in American culture at least, runs deep: it was a crass invocation of an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom. It is considered an impressive beginning to a speech to open by recounting an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Awesome Nugget of Profound Wisdom: whether one is advertising a Linux distribution, a neighbor giving advice over a fence in Home Improvement, or a politician delivering a speech, it is taken as a mark of sophistication and depth to build upon the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom.
At times I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Awesome Nugget of Profound Wisdom is the mouthpiece for whatever is fashionable in the West at the time. Let me give one illustration, if one that veers a bit close to the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom:
One American friend of mine, when in Kenya, gave a saying that was not from any of the people groups she was interacting with, but was from a relatively close neighboring people group: “When you are carrying a child in your womb, he only belongs to you. When he is born, he belongs to everyone.” The proverb speaks out of an assumption that not only parents but parents’ friends, neighbors, elders, shopkeepers, and ultimately all adults, stand in parentis loco. All adults are ultimately responsible for all children and are responsible for exercising a personal and parental care to help children grow into mature adulthood. As best I understand, this is probably what a particular community in Africa might mean in saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
What is a little strange is that, if these words correspond to anything in the U.S., they are conservative, and speak to a conservative desire to believe that not only parents but neighbors, churches, civic and local organizations, businesses and the like, all owe something to the moral upbringing of children: that is to say, there are a great many forces outside the government that owe something to local children. And this is quite the opposite of saying that we need more government programs because it takes a full complement of government initiatives and programs to raise a child well—becacuse, presumably, more and more bureaucratic initiatives are what the (presumably generic) African sages had in mind when they gave the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom and said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is some degree of irony in making “It takes a village” a rallying-cry in pushing society further away from what, “It takes a village to raise a child,” could have originally meant—looking for advice on how to build a statist Western-style cohort of bureaucratic government programs would be as inconceivable in many traditional African cultures as looking for instructions on how to build a computer in the New Testament.
My point in mentioning this is not primarily sensitivity to people who don’t like hearing people spout about a supposedly “ancient African word” such as, “Ubuntu.” Nor is my point really about how, whenever a saying is introduced as an ancient aboriginal proverb, the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom ends up shanghied into being an eloquent statement of whatever fads are blowing around in the West today. My deepest concern is that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom hinges on something that is bad for us spiritually.
The Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is tied to what the Orthodox Church refers to as a “passion,” which means something very different from either being passionately in love, or being passionate about a cause or a hobby, or even religious understandings of the passion of Christ. The concept of a passion is a religious concept of a spiritual disease that one feeds by thoughts and actions that are out of step with reality. There is something like the concept of a passion in the idea of an addiction, a bad habit, or in other Christians whose idea of sin is mostly about spiritual state rather than mere actions. A passion is a spiritual disease that we feed by our sins, and the concern I raise about the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is one way—out of many ways we have—that we feed one specific passion.
The Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is occult, and we cannot give the same authority to any source that is here and now. If we listen to the wise voices of elders, it is only elders from faroff lands who can give such deeply relevant words: I have never heard such a revered Nugget of Wisdom come from the older generation of our own people, or any of the elders we meet day to day.
By “occult” I mean something more than an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom that might note that the word “occult” etymologically signifies “hidden”—and still does, in technical medical usage—and that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom has been dug up from someplace obscure and hidden. Nor is it really my point that the Nugget may be dug up from an occult source—as when I heard an old man, speaking with a majesterial voice, give a homily for the (Christmas) Festival of Lessons and Carols that begun by building on a point from a famous medieval Kabalist. These are at best tangentially related. What I mean by calling the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom occult is that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is the fruit of the same tree as explicitly occult practices—and they are tributaries feeding the same river.
Occult sin is born out of a sense that the way things are in the here and now that God has placed us in are not enough: Gnosticism has been said to hinge, not so much on a doctrine, but something like a mood, a mood of despair. (You might say a passion of despair.) Gnostic Scripture is a sort of spiritual porn that offers a dazzling escape from the present—a temptation whose power is much stronger on people yearning for such escape than for people who have learned the virtuous innoculation of contentment.
It takes virtue to enjoy even vice, and that includes contentment. As a recovering alcoholic will tell you, being drunk all the time is misery, and, ultimately, you have to be at least somewhat sober even to enjoy getting drunk. It takes humility to enjoy even pride, and chastity to enjoy even lust. Contentment does not help us escape—it helps us find joy where we were not looking for it, precisely in what we were trying to escape. We do not find a way out of the world—what we find is really and truly a way into where God has placed us.
One can almost imagine a dialogue between God and Adam:
Adam: I’m not content.
God: What do you want me to do?
Adam: I want you to make me contented.
God: Ok, how do you want me to do that?
Adam: First of all, I don’t want to have to engage in ardent, strenuous labor like most people. I don’t want to do that kind of work at all.
Adam: And that’s not all. I want to have enough bread to feel full.
Adam: Scratch that. I want as much meat as I want.
God: Ok, as much meat as you want.
Adam: And sweet stuff like ice cream.
God: Ok, I’ll give you Splenda ice cream so it won’t show up on your waistline.
Adam: And I don’t like to be subject to the weather and the elements you made. I want a home which will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
God: Sure. And I’ll give you hot and cold running water, too!
Adam: Speaking of that, I don’t like how my body smells—could we do something to hide that?
God: I’ll let you bathe. Each day. In as much water as you want. And I’ll give you deodorant to boot!
Adam: Oh, and by the way, I want to make my own surroundings—not just a home. I want electronics to put me in another world.
[Now we’re getting nowhere in a hurry!]
This may be a questionable portrayal of God, but it is an accurate portrayal of the Adam who decided that being an immortal in paradise wasn’t good enough for him.
Have all these things made us content?
Or have we used them to feed a passion?
We have a lot of ways of wishing that God had placed us someplace else, someplace different. One of the most interesting books I’ve glanced through, but not read, was covered in pink rosy foliage, and said that it was dealing with the #1 cause of unhappiness in women’s relationships. And that #1 cause was a surprise: romantic fantasies. The point was that dreaming up a romantic fantasy and then trying to make it real is a recipe, not for fulfillment, but for heartbreaking disappointment in circumstances where you could be truly happy. (When you have your heart set on a fantasy of just how the perfect man will fulfill all your desires and transform your world, no real man can seem anything but a disappointing shadow next to your fantasy.)
This is not just a point about fantasies in romance. It is also a point that has something to do with technological wonders, secret societies, fascination with the paranormal, Star Trek, World of Warcraft, television, Dungeons and Dragons, sacramental shopping, SecondLife, conspiracy theories, smartphones, daydreams, Halloween, Harry Potter, Wicked, Wicca, The Golden Compass, special effects movies, alienated feminism, radical conservativism, Utopian dreams, political plans to transform the world, and every other way that we tell God, “Sorry, what you have given me is not good enough”—or what is much the same, wish God had given us something quite different.
Why, in my life, is ______ so difficult to me about ______? (I don’t know; why has she forgiven every single one of the astonishingly stupid things I’ve done over the years?) Why can’t I lose a couple of pounds when I want to? (I don’t know; why do I have enough food that I wish I could lose pounds?) Why am I struggling with my debts? (I don’t know; why do I have enough for now?) Why did I have to fight cancer? (I don’t know; why am I alive and strong now?) Why does I stand to lose so much of what I’ve taken for granted? (I don’t know. Why did I take them all for granted? And why did I have so many privileges growing up?) Why _______? (Why not? Why am I ungrateful and discontent with so many blessings?)
Contentment is a choice, and it has been made by people in much bleaker circumstances than mine.
I write this, not as one who has mightily fought this temptation to sin and remained pure, but as one who has embraced the sin wholeheartedly. I know the passion from the inside, and I know it well. Most of my cherished works on this site were written to be “interesting”, and more specifically “interesting” as some sort of escape from a dreary here and now.
There is enough of this sin that, when I began to repent, I wondered if repenting would leave anything left in my writing. And after I had let go of that, I found that there was still something left to write. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, alluded to the Sermon on the Mount (where Christ said that if our right hand or our right eye causes us to sin, we should rip it out and enter Heaven maimed rather than let our whole body be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur): Lewis said that the journey to Heaven may cost us our right hand and our right eye—but when we arrive in Heaven, we will find that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Continuing to repent has meant changes for me, and it will (I hope) mean further changes. But I let go of writing only to find that I still had things to write. I gave up on trying to be “interesting” and make my own interesting private world and found, by the way, that God and his world are really quite interesting.
When we are repenting, or trying to, or trying not to, repentance is the ultimate terror. It seems unconditional surrender—and it is. But when we do repent, we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell,” and we realize that repentance is also a waking up, a coming to our senses, and a coming to joy.
What we don’t want to hear
I would like to say a word on the politically incorrect term of “unnatural vice.” Today there is an effort on some Christians to not distinguish that sharply between homosexuality and straight sexual sins. And it is always good practice to focus on one’s own sins and their gravity, but there are very specific reasons to be concerned about unnatural vice. Let me draw an analogy.
It is a blinding flash of the obvious that a well-intentioned miscommunication can cause a conflict that is painful to all involved. And if miscommunications are not necessarily a sin, they can be painful enough, and not the sort of thing one wants to celebrate. However, there is a depth of difference between an innocent, if excruciatingly painful, miscommunication on the one hand, and the kind of conflict when someone deliberately gives betrayal under the guise of friendship. The Church Fathers had a place for a holy kiss as a salute among Christians, but in their mind the opposite of a holy kiss was not a kiss that was what we would understand “inappropriate,” but when Judas said, “Master,” saluted the Lord with a kiss, and by so doing betrayed him to be tortured to death. A painful miscommunication is bad enough, but a betrayal delivered under the guise of friendship is a problem with a higher pay grade.
Lust benefits no one, and it is not just the married who benefit from beating back roving desire, but the unmarried as well. But when Scripture and the Fathers speak of unnatural vice, they know something we’ve chosen to forget. And part of what we have forgotten is that “unnatural vice” is not just something that the gay rights movement advocates for. “Unnatural vice” includes several sins with higher pay grades, and one of them is witchcraft.
To people who have heard all the debates about whether, for instance, same-sex relationships might be unnatural for straight people but natural for gays, it may be a bit of culture shock to hear anything besides gay sex called “unnatural vice.” But the term is there in the Fathers, and it can mean other things. It might include contraception. And it definitely includes what we think of as a way to return to nature in witchcraft.
Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.” And lest we look down on Adam, we should remember that I am Adam, and you are Adam.
We have not lost all his glory, but we are crippled by his passion.
Adam wanted something beyond what he was given, something beyond his ken. An Orthodox hymn says, “Wanting to be a god, Adam failed to be god.” More on that later. Adam experienced the desire that draws people to magic—even if the magic’s apparent promise is a restored harmony with nature. This vice shattered the original harmony with nature, and brought a curse on not only Adam but nature itself. It corrupted nature. It introduced death. It means that many animals are terrified of us. It means that even the saints, the holiest of people, are the most aware of how much evil is in them—most of us are disfigured enough that we can think we don’t have any real problem. There is tremendous good in the human person, too; that should be remembered. But even the saints are great sinners. All of this came through Adam’s sin. How much more unnatural of a vice do you ask for than that?
Trying to restore past glory, and how it further estranges us from the past
When I was visiting a museum promising an exhibit on the Age of Reason, I was jarred to see ancient Greek/Roman/… items laid out in exhibits; what was being shown about the Enlightenment was the beginning of museums as we have them today. I was expecting to see coverage of a progressive age, and what I saw was a pioneering effort to reclaim past glory. Out of that jarring I realized something that historians might consider a blinding flash of the obvious. Let me explain the insight nonetheless, before tying it in with harmony with nature.
When people have tried to recover past glory, through the Western means of antiquarian reconstruction, the result severs continuity with the recent past and ultimately made a deeper schism from the more remote past as well.
The Renaissance was an attempt to recover the glory of classical antiquity, but the effect was not only to more or less end what there was in the Middle Ages, but help the West move away from some things that were common to the Middle Ages and antiquity alike. The Reformation might have accomplished many good things, but it did not succeed in its goal in resurrecting the ancient Church; it created a new way of being Christian. The Protestants I know are moral giants compared to much of what was going on in Rome in Luther’s day, and they know Scripture far better, but Protestant Christianity is a decisive break from something that began in the Early Church and remained unbroken even in corrupt 16th century Rome. And it is not an accident that the Reformers dropped the traditional clerical clothing and wore instead the scholar’s robes. (Understanding the Scripture was much less approached through reading the saints, much more by antiquarian scholarship.) The Enlightenment tried again to recover classical glory, and it was simultaneously a time, not of breaking with unbroken ways of being Christian, but of breaking with being Christian itself. Romanticism could add the Middle Ages to the list of past glorious ages, and it may well be that without the Romantics, we would not have great medievalists like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. But it was also something new. Every single time that I’m aware of that the West has tried to recover the glory of a bygone age, the effect has been a deeper rift with the past, both recent and ultimately ancient, leaving people much further alienated from the past than if they had continued without the reconstruction. I remember being astonished, not just to learn that two Vatican II watchwords were ressourcement (going back to ancient sources to restore past glory) and aggiornamiento (bringing things up-to-date, which in practice meant bringing Rome in line with 1960’s fads), nor that the two seemed to be two sides of the same coin, but that this was celebrated without anybody seeming to find something of a disturbing clue in this. The celebrations of these two watchwords seemed like a celebration of going to a hospital to have a doctor heal an old wound and inflict a new wound that is more fashionable.
The lesson would seem to be, “If you see a new way to connect with the past and recover past glory, be very careful. Consider it like you might consider a skilled opponent, in a game of chess, leaving a major piece vulnerable. It looks spiritually enticing, but it might be the bait for a spiritual trap, and if so, the consequences of springing for the bait might be a deeper rift with the past and its glory.”
Not quite as shallow an approach to translate the past into the present…
Here is what you might do one day to live a bit more like prehistoric Grecians, or ancient Celts, or medieval Gallic peasants, or whatever. Keep in mind that this is at best half-way to its goal, not a full-fledged return to living like an ancient in harmony with nature to a day, but making a rough equivalent by using what is closest from our world:
However exotic the setting may seem to you, remember that it is a fundamental confusion to imagine that the setting was exotic to those inside the experience. We not only meet new people frequently; we see new technologies invented frequently. In The Historic Setting, people most likely were born, lived, and died within twenty miles, and even meeting another person who was not part of your village was rare. A new invention, or a new idea, would be difficult to imagine, let alone point to. So, for one day, whatever you’re doing, if it feels exotic, avoid it like the plague. Stop it immediately. Don’t read anything new; turn off your iPod; don’t touch Wikipedia. Don’t seek excitement; if anything, persevere in things you find boring.
Remembering that there was a lot of heavy manual labor, and stuff that was shared, spend your nice Saturday helping a friend move her stuff into her new apartment. Remember that while stairs were rare in antiquity, it would be an anachronism to take the elevator. Be a good manual laborer and do without the anachronism.
Remembering how the Sermon on the Mount betrays an assumption that most people were poor enough that houses would only have one room, spend your time at home, as much as possible, in one room of your house.
Remembering that the ancient world had no sense of “Jim’s trying to lose weight and is on an old-fashioned low-fat diet, Mary’s a vegan, Al’s low carb…”, but rather there was one diet that everybody day ate, go to McDonald’s, order a meal with McDonald’s McFries McSoaked in McGrease, and a sugary-sweet, corn-syrup-powered shake.If you just said to yourself, “He didn’t say what size; I’ll order the smallest I can,” order the biggest meal you can.
Remembering that in the ancient world the company you kept were not your eclectic pick, spend time with the people around you. Go to your neighbor Ralph who blares bad ’80s rock because he thinks it’s the best thing in the world, and like a good guest don’t criticize what your host has provided—including his music. Spend some time playing board games with your annoying kid sister, and then go over to visit your uncle Wally and pretend to tolerate his sexist jokes.
Lastly, when you head home do have a good night’s sleep, remember that a bed with sheets covering a smooth mattress was only slightly more common than a Frank Lloyd Wright home is today, go to sleep on a straw pallet in your virtual one room house. (You can use organic straw if you can find any.)
This may seem, to put it politely, a way you would never have thought to live like an age in harmony with nature. But let me ask a perfectly serious question:
What did you expect? Did you imagine dressing up as a bard, dancing on hilltops, and reciting poetry about the endless knot while quaffing heather ale?
G.K. Chesterton said that there is more simplicity in eating caviar on impulse than eating grape-nuts on principle. In a similar fashion, there is more harmony with nature in instinctively pigging out at McDonald’s than making a high and lonely spiritual practice out of knowing all the herbs in a meadow.
The vignette of harmony with nature as dancing on hilltops is an image of a scene where harmony with nature means fulfilling what we desire for ourselves. The image of hauling boxes to help a friend is a scene where harmony with nature means transcending mere selfish desire. There is a common thread of faithfulness to unadvertised historical realities running through the six steps listed above. But there is another common thread:
It chafes against a passion that people in ages past knew they needed to beat back.
Living according to nature in the past did not work without humility, and living in harmony with nature today did not work with humility.
There is a great deal of difference between getting help in living for yourself, and getting help in living for something more for yourself, and living for something more than yourself—such as people needed to survive in ancient communities close to nature—is the real treasure. It is spirituality with an ugly pair of work gloves, and it is a much bigger part of those communities that have been in harmony with nature than the superficially obvious candidates like spending more time outside and knowing when to plant different crops. If you clarify, “Actually, I was really more interested in the spirituality of a bygone age and its harmony with nature,” you are missing something. Every one of those humbling activities is pregnant with spirituality—and is spiritual in a much deeper way than merely feeling the beauty of a ritual.
Perhaps we would be wise to remember the words of the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself,” which does not say what we might imagine today. Those words might have been paraphrased, “Know thy place, O overreaching mortal!”
And, in terms of humility, that has much more to give us than trying to reach down inside and make a sandcastle of an identity, and hope it won’t be another sandcastle.
Should I really be patting myself on the back?
I try to follow a diet that is closer to many traditional diets, has less processing and organic ingredients when possible, and I believe for several reasons that I am right in doing so: medical, animal welfare, and environmental. But before I pat myself on the back too hard for showing the spirit of Orthodoxy in harmony with nature, I would be well advised to remember that there is far more precedent in the Fathers and in the saint’s lives for choosing to live on a cup of raw lentils a week or a diet of rancid fish.
Saints may have followed something of a special diet, but that is because they believed and acted out of the conviction that they were unworthy of the good things of the world, including the common fare what most people ate. My diet, like other diets in fashion, is a diet that tells me that the common fare eaten by most people is simply unworthy of me. This may well enough be true—I have doubts about how much of today’s industrially produced diet is fit for human consumption at all—and I may well enough answer, “But of course the Quarter Pounder with ‘Cheese’ eaten by an inner-city teen is unworthy of me—it’s just as unworthy, if not more unworthy, of the inner-city teens who simply accept it as normal to eat.” Even so, I have put myself in a difficult position. The saints thought they were unworthy of common fare. I believe that common fare is unworthy of me, and trying to believe that without deadly pride is trying to smoke, but not inhale.
In the Book of James, the Lord’s brother says that the poor should exult because of their high position while the rich should be humble because of their low position. The same wisdom might see that the person who eats anything that tastes good is the one in the high position, and the person who avoids most normal food out of a special diet’s discrimination is in a position that is both low and precarious.
The glory of the Eucharist unfurls in a common meal around a table, and this “common” meal is common because it is shared. To pull back from “common” food is to lose something very Eucharistic about the meal, and following one more discriminating diet like mine is a way to heals one breach of harmony with nature by opening up what may be a deeper rift.
If evil is necessary, does it stop being evil?
Orthodoxy in the West inherits something like counterculture, and there is something amiss when Orthodox carry over unquestioned endeavors to build a counterculture or worldview or other such Western fads. If Orthodoxy in the West is countercultural, that doesn’t mean that counterculture is something to seek out: if Orthodoxy is countercultural, that is a cost it pays. Civil disobedience can be the highest expression of a citizen’s respect for law. Amputation can be the greatest expression of a physician’s concern for a patient’s life. However, these things are not basically good, and there is fundamental confusion in seeking out occasions to show such measures.
Another basis to try and learn from the past
To someone in the West, Orthodoxy may have a mighty antiquarian appeal. Orthodox saints, for the most part, speak from long ago and far away. However, this isn’t the point; it’s a side effect of a Church whose family of saints has been growing for millennia. Compare this, for instance, to a listing of great computer scientists—who will all be recent, not because computer science in an opposite fashion needs to be new, but because computer science hasn’t been around nearly long enough for there to be a fourth century von Neumann or Knuth.
Some people wanting very hard knife blades—this may horrify an antiquarian—acquire nineteenth century metal files and grind them into knife blades. The reason for this is that metallurgists today simply do not know how to make steel as hard as the hardest Victorian-era metal files. The know-how is lost. And the hobbyists who seek a hard metal file as the starting point for their knife blades do not choose old metalwork because it is old; they choose old metal files because they are the hardest they can get. And there is something like this in the Orthodox Church. The point of a saint’s life is not how exotic a time and place the saint is from; the point of a saint’s life is holiness, a holiness that is something like a nineteenth century adamantine-hard metal file.
If there are problems in turning back the clock, the Orthodox Church has some very good news. This good news is not exactly a special way to turn back the clock; it is rather the good news that the clock can be lifted up.
There is a crucial difference between trying to restore the past, and hoping that it will lift you into Heaven, and being lifted up into Heaven and finding that a healthy connection with the past comes with it. The Divine Liturgy is a lifting up of the people and their lives up to Heaven: a life that begins here and now.
The hymn quoted earlier, “Adam, trying to be a god, failed to be god,” continues, “Christ became man that he might make Adam god.” The saying has rumbled down through the ages, “God (the Son of God) became a Man (the Son of Man) that men (the sons of men) might become gods (the Sons of God).” The bad news, if it is bad news, is that we cannot escape a present into the beauty of Eden. The good news is that the present can itself be lifted up, that the doors to Eden remain open.
In some ways our search for happiness is like that of a grandfather who cannot find his glasses no matter how many places he looks—because they are right on his nose.
Men are not from Mars!
I was once able to visit a Mars Society conference—a conference from an organization whose purpose is to send human colonists to Mars.
To many of the people there, the question of whether we are “a spacefaring race” is much weightier than the question of whether medical research can find a cure for cancer. It’s not just that a human colony on Mars would represent a first-class triumph of science and humanity; it is rather that the human race is beyond being a race of complete, unspeakable, and obscene losers if we don’t come to our senses and colonize Mars so the human race is not just living on this earth and living the kind of life we live now. The question of whether we colonize Mars is, in an ersatz sense, the religious question of whether we as a race have salvation. The John 3:16 of this movement is, “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever.”
The Mars Society holds an essay contest to come up with essays about why we should colonize Mars; the title of the contest, and perhaps of the essays, is, “Why Mars?” And, though I never got around to writing it, there was something I wanted to write.
This piece, having a fictional setting, would be written from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl who was the first person to be raised on Mars, and would provide another comparison of life on Mars to life on earth. And the essay would be snarky, sarcastic, angry, and bitter, because of something that people looking with starry eyes at a desired Mars colony miss completely.
What does the Mars Society not get about what they hope for?
When I was a student at Wheaton College, one of my friends told of a first heavy snowfall where students from warmer climates, some of whom had never experienced such a snowfall personally, were outside and had a delightful snowball fight. And they asked my friend, “How can you not be out here playing?” My friend’s answer: “Just wait four months. You’ll see.”
One’s first snowball fight is quite the pleasant experience, and presumably one’s first time putting on a spacesuit is much better. But what my unattractively cynical friend didn’t like about Wheaton’s winter weather is a piece of cake compared to needing to put on a spacesuit and go through an airlock on a planet where the sum total of places one can go without a bulky, heavy, clumsy, uncomfortable, and hermetically sealed spacesuit, is dwarfed by a small rural village of a thousand people, and dwarfed by a medium sized jail. If you are the first person to grow up on Mars, the earth will seem a living Eden which almost everyone alive but you is privileged to live in. And the title of the snarky, sarcastic, and bitterly miserable essay I wished I could write from the perspective of the first human raised on Mars was, “Why Earth?”
I’m used to seeing people wish they could escape the here and now, but the Mars Society took this to a whole new level—so much so that I was thinking, “This is not a job for science and engineering; this is a job for counseling!” People were alienated from the here and now they had on earth, and the oomph of the drive to go to Mars seemed to be because of something else entirely from the (admittedly very interesting) scientific and engineering issues. Having the human race not even try to live on Mars was so completely unacceptable to them because of their woundedness.
If you don’t know how to be happy where God has placed you, escape will not solve the problem. In the case of Mars, the interesting issue is not so much whether colonization is possible, but whether it is desirable. Escape may take you out of the frying pan and into the thermite. (What? You didn’t know that astronauts do not feel free, but like tightly wedged “spam in a can,” with land control micromanaging you more than you would fear in a totalitarian regime, down to every bite of food you take in? Tough; a real opportunity to colonize Mars won’t feel like being in an episode of Star Trek or Firefly.)
This is the playing out of a passion, and what the Mars Society seeks will not make them permanently happy. Success in their goals will not cure such misery any more than enough fuel will soothe a fire.
Confucius said, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.” Assuming you’re not from the Mars Society (and perhaps offended), do you see anything of yourself in the Mars Society?
A more satisfying kind of drink
I talked with a friend about a cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, which I like for the most part but where there was a bit of a burr: the author ground an axe against alcoholic beverages fermented by yeast. The stated position of the book is a report of a certain type of traditional nutrition, and the author overrode that when it came to traditions that used rum and such.
My friend said that what I said was accurate: certain more alcoholic drinks were traditional, and the principles of Nourishing Traditions did not support all the ways the author was grinding an axe against yeast-fermented alcohol, just as I thought. However, my friend suggested, the author was right about this. Lacto-fermented beverages, fermented by another ancient process that gives us cheese, sourdough, sauerkraut, corned beef, and the like, which Nourishing Traditions did promote, satisfy in a way that yeast-fermented beverages do not. People, it seems, use beer, wine, and liquor because they remind them of the satisfaction of the more ancient method of fermentation.
I’m not looking at giving up the occasional drink, but something of that rings true—and parallels a spiritual matter. People turn to a quest for the exotic, and that is illicit. But the Orthodox experience is that if you stay put, in the here and now, and grow spiritually, every year or so something exotic happens that is like falling off a cliff, when you repent. And that may be what people are connecting with in the wrong way in the pursuit of the exotic. If you give up on following the exotic, something beyond exotic may follow you.
There was another piece that I was thinking of writing, but did not come together. The title I was thinking of was, The Idiot—no connection to Dostoevsky’s work of the same name, nor to what we would usually think of as a lack of intelligence.
I was imagining a Socratic dialogue, along the same lines as Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? in which it unfolds that the person who doesn’t get it is someone who has great success in constructing his own private world through technology, introspection, and everything else. Etymologically, the word “idiot” signifies someone who’s off on his own—someone who does not participate in the life of civilization—and our civilization offers excellent resources to dodge civilization and create your own private world. And that is a loss.
And being an idiot in this sense is not a matter of low IQ. It is not the mentally retarded I have known who need to repent most, if at all. Usually it is the most brilliant I have known who best use their gifts and resources to be, in the classical sense, idiots.
Some adamantine-hard metal files that may hone us
At the risk of irony after opening by a complaint about words of wisdom from other lands selected for being exotic…
My mother recounted how a friend of hers was visiting one of her friends, a poor woman in Guatemala. She looked around her host’s kitchen, and said, “You don’t have any food around.” Her hostess said, “No, I don’t, but I will,” and then paused a moment longer, and said, “And if I had the food now, what would I need God for?” That woman is wise. Those of us who live in the West pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and probably have a 401(k) plan. Which is to say that “Give us today our daily bread” is almost an ornament to us. A very pious ornament, but it is still an ornament.
If we are entering hard times today, is that an end to divine providence?
We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:
Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue.
Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.
All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.
The story is probably apocryphal, but I heard of an African pastor (sorry, I don’t know his nationality) who visited the U.S. and said, “It’s absolutely amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit!” That is, perhaps, not what we want to hear as a compliment. But here in the U.S., if we need God, it’s been easy to lose sight of the fact. Homeless people usually know where their next meal is coming from, or at least it’s been that way, and homeless people have been getting much more appetizing meals than bread alone. Those of us who are not homeless have even more power than that.
An English friend of mine talked about how she was living in a very poor country, and one of her hosts said, “I envy you!” My friend didn’t know exactly what was coming next—she thought it might be something that offered no defense, and her hosts said, “You have everything, and you still rely on God. We have nothing; we have no real alternative. So we rely on God. But you have everything, and you still rely on God!” The point was not about wealth, but faith. The friend’s awe was not of a rich woman’s treasures on earth, but a rich woman’s treasures in Heaven. The camel really can go through the eye of the needle, and we may add to the list of examples by St. Peter of Damaskos, that we may thank God for first world wealth, because it gives us an opportunity to choose to rely on God.
Maybe we can add to St. Peter’s list. But we would do well to listen to his wisdom before adding to his list. We have been given many blessings in first world economic conditions, and if our economy is in decline—perhaps it will bounce back in a year, perhaps longer, perhaps never—we no less should find where our current condition is on the list above.
To have the words “Give us this day our daily bread” unfortunately be an ornament is rare, and perhaps it is not the most natural condition for us to be in. Whatever golden age you may like, centuries or millenia ago, there was no widespread wealth like we experience. Our natural condition is, in part, to be under economic constraint, to have limits that keep us from doing things, and in some sense the level of wealth we have had is not the most natural condition, like having a sedentary enough job that you only exercise when you choose to, is not the most natural condition. Now I don’t like being constrained any more than I have to, and I would not celebrate people losing their homes. However, if we have to be more mindful of what they spend, and don’t always get what we want, that may be a very big blessing in disguise.
Dorothy Sayers, speaking of World War II in “The Other Six Deadly Sins” (found in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World and other essay collections), discussed what life was like when the economy was enormously productive but as much productivity as possible was being wasted by the war effort. What she pointed out was that when people got used to rationing and scarcity, they found that this didn’t really mean that they couldn’t enjoy life—far from it. People could enjoy life when most of their economy’s productivity was being wasted by war instead of wasted by buying things that people didn’t need. She argued that England didn’t have a choice about learning to live frugally—but England could choose to apply this lesson once the war got out. England didn’t, and neither did the U.S., but the lesson is still good.
A recent news story discussed how adult children moved in with their parents as a measure of frugality, where the family was being frugal to the point of planning meals a month in advance and grinding their own flour. And what they found was that living simply was something of an adventure.
But the best of them have understood, as Wells and Stapleton did, that their main aim was imaginative. The were using ‘the future’ as a screen on which to project timeless truths for their own age. They were prophets primarily in the sense in which serious poets are so — spiritual guides, people with insight about the present and the universal, rather than literal predictors. For this purpose, it no more matters whether these supposedly future events will actually happen than it does for Hamlet and MacBeth whether what they show us actually happened in the past. The point of The Time Machine is not that the machine would work, nor that there might be Morlocks [a powerful, privileged technological elite] somewhere, some day. It is that there are Morlocks here now.
Note the last words. C.S. Lewis may quite directly and literally believe in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell, but Lewis understands Midgley’s closing point well, even if he wrote The Great Divorce decades before. He offers an introduction that ends with, “The last thing I wish is to arouse curiosity about the details of the after-world.” He may have no pretensions of knowing the details of the next life, but the reason he writes so compellingly about Heaven and Hell is not that someday, somewhere, we will experience Heaven or Hell. (Even if that is true.) He is able to write with such depth because Heaven and Hell are in us, here and now. And one of the cardinal spiritual factors in The Great Divorce is a cardinal spiritual factor here now. It is called repentance.
In The Sign of the Grail, Fr. Elijah brings George, a Christian, into the communion of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox speak of this as a conversion, but this means something beyond merely straightening out George’s worldview. Fr. Elijah may share wisdom with George, but he is interested in something fundamentally beyond getting George to accept a worldview. He is trying, in all of his various ways, to get George to wake up. It is the same as the blessed spirits in The Great Divorce who are in Heaven and keep saying to visitors from Hell, “Wake up! Wake up!” They do often discuss ideas with their visitors, but their goal is never merely to straighten out a tormented worldview; it is to open their visitors’ spiritual eyes so they will wake up to the reality of Heaven.
In The Great Divorce, visitors come from Hell, visit Heaven, keep receiving invitations to wake up and live in Heaven, and mostly keep on choosing Hell. If it is put that way, it sounds like a very strange story, but it is believable not primarily because of C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical powers, but because of the spiritual realities Lewis knows to write about. I have only heard one person claim to want to go to Hell, and then on the misunderstanding that you could enjoy the company of others in Hell. However, people miss something big about Hell if they think everybody will choose Heaven.
God does not send people to Hell, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the light of Heaven experienced through the rejection of Christ. Hell appeared as a seed in the misery when, as I wrote earlier:
Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.”
The Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But everyone will see God. God is love; his love is absolute and will flow absolutely. Because of that love, everybody will see God. And the saved will know this as blessing and as bliss beyond description. But to those who reject Christ, the light of Heaven, the light of seeing God, will be experienced as Hellfire. Hell is Heaven experienced through the rejection of the only ultimate joy that exists: Christ.
Repentance is recognizing that you are in a little Hell and choosing to leave by the one way you do not wish to leave. Elsewhere from the quotation from St. Peter, the Philokalia says, “People hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.” The woman addicted to alcohol may be in misery, but she has alcohol to seemingly anaesthetize the pain, and it is incredibly painful to give up the illusion that if you try hard enough and get just a bit of a solace, things will be OK. That’s a mighty hard thing to repent of: it’s easier to rationalize, decide to give it up by sheer willpower (perhaps tomorrow), or make a bargain to cut back to a more reasonable level—anything but wake up and stop trying to ignore that you’re standing barefoot in something really gross, and admit that what you need is not a bigger fan to drive away the stench while you stay where you are, but to step out in a cleaning operation that lasts a lifetime and cuts to your soul.
An alcoholic walking this path craves just a little bit of solace, just for now, and it is only much later that two things happen. First, the cravings are still hard, but they are no longer quite so overpowering. Second, she had forgotten what it felt like to be clean—really and truly clean—and she had forgotten what it was like to be doing something else with her life than trying to hide in a bottle. She had forgotten what freedom was like. And long after she gave up on her way of escaping life, she found she had forgotten what it was like to experience life, not as something to escape, but as something with joy even in its pain.
The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. This much is true of passion: we think our sins adorn us, and we try to flee from the only place joy is to be found. Fleshly lust disenchants the entire universe; first everything else becomes dull and uninteresting, and ultimately stronger doses of lust lose even the semblance of being interesting. Spiritual lust, the passion that seeks escape from where God has placed us is, if anything, a sin with a higher pay grade than the fleshly lust that is bad enough, but spiritual lust too is the disenchantment of reality, a set of blinders that deflates all the beauty we are given in nature. Spiritual lust is the big brother of merely fleshly lust. Spiritual lust is something really, really, really gross that we need to step out of and get clean. We need to realize that the passion does not adorn us, that the sparkle of an exotic escape from a miserable here and now is, on a spiritual plane, spin doctoring for experiencing the here and now with despair. We do not see that we need not an escape from what God has given us, but gratitude and contentment.
But what if the here and now is not the best here and now? What if it’s with an Uncle Wally who tells sexist jokes no matter how you ask him to stop? What if the people you are with have real warts? There are a couple of responses. You might also think of what your uncle has done that you might be grateful for. You know, like when he helped you find and buy your first car. Or you could learn the power of choosing to be joyful when others act unpleasantly. Or you might read C.S. Lewis, The Trouble with X, and then look at how you might stand to profit from praying, with the Orthodox Church, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Once, when things went from hard times to easy times, one saint complained, saying that easy times rob the Church of her martyrs and her glory. If we are entering hard times, that does not place us outside of God’s reach nor Christ’s promise in the Sermon on the Mount: “For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
I glorify Thee,
Who hast cast Adam out of Paradise,
That we might learn by the sweat of our brow
The joy and the life that Adam scorned
As King of Paradise.
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
And glory be to Thee,
Thou who blessest us
For better or for worse,
In sickness and in health,
In the Eternal Light and Love
Who illuminest marriage.
Glory be to thee whose blessings are here,
Not in an escape,
But in the place wherein Thou hast placed us.
Glory be to Thee,
Who offerest Eden,
To us men who forever dodge our salvation.
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Both here and now, and in Eternal Life that beckons us
The Son of God became a man in his here and now in Bethlehem.
In your forever honored place,
From this very moment,
Become a Son of God.
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,
Heaven awaits with open arms,
Step out of Hell.
Grieve for your sins,
That grief that holds more in her heart,
Than discovering that the scintillating escape from Hell
Scintillates only as a mirage.
And the repentance you fear,
So constricted it seems from outside,
Holds inside a treasure larger than the universe,
Older than time,
And more alive than life.
Glory beyond glory,
Life beyond life,
Light beyond life,
The Bread from Heaven,
The infinite Living Wine,
Who alone canst slake our infinite thirst,
Glory be to God on high.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages,
Glory forever. Alleluia!
At least some bishops explicitly allow their faithful flock to believe theistic evolution, young earth creation, or any of several other options.
This article is not meant to say you can’t be Orthodox and believe in evolution. It is, however, meant to say that you can’t be Orthodox and misrepresent Church Fathers as saying things more convenient to evolution than what they really said.
Two examples of a telling symptom: Fishy, suspicious arguments
Alexander Kalomiros is perhaps a forerunner to Orthodox finding a profound harmony between the Church Fathers and evolution. To pick one of many examples, Kalomiros’s On the Six Days of Creation cites St. Basil the Great as saying, “Therefore, if you say a day or an age, you express the same meaning” (homily 2 of St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation). So Dr. Kalamiros cites St. Basil as clearly saying that “day” is a term with a rather elastic meaning, implying an indefinite length.
Something really piqued my curiosity, because a young earth Creationist cited the same saint, the same book, and even the same homily as Kalamiros, but as supporting the opposite conclusion: “one day” means “one day,” period.
I honestly wondered, “Why on earth?” Why would the same text be cited as a proof-text for “days” of quite open-ended length, but also a proof text for precise twenty-four hour days? So I read the homily of St. Basil that was in question. The result?
The young earther’s claim is easier to explain: St. Basil does, in fact, quite plainly claim a young earth, and treats this belief as non-negotiable. And what Kalomiros cites? The text is talking about something else when St. Basil moves from discussing the Creation to matters of eternity and the Last Judgment. One of the names for eternity is “the eighth day,” and in explaining the timelessness of eternity, St. Basil writes, “Thus whether you call it a day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea.” Which is not exactly how Kalomiros quotes him, not exactly.
Kalomiros offers a quote out of context, and translates in a subtle but misleading wording, leading the reader to believe St. Basil clarified that a “day” [of Creation] can just as well be an “age” [of time]. This is sophistry. This is disingenuous. What is more, I cannot ever remember following one of Kalomiros’s footnotes supporting evolution and find an appropriate and responsible use of the original text. When I check things out, little if any of it checks out. And that’s a concern. When someone argues like that, the reader is being treated dishonestly, and deceptive argument is rarely the herald of truth.
Let me quote another of many examples celebrating a harmony between patristic Orthodoxy and evolution, Vladimir de Beer’s Genesis, Creation and Evolution. He writes:
The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense. Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution.
It has been my experience that for a certain kind of author one of the cheapest ways to dismiss a Father is to say that they were heavily influenced by some kind of non-Orthodox philosophy. Usually they don’t even give a footnote. St. Basil the Great is a Church Father and one of the Three Heirarchs, and if you are going to downplay whether his position is one we should believe, you should be doing a lot more than due diligence than making a dismissive bare assertion that he was heavily influenced by non-Orthodox forces.
St. Gregory’s commentary is not a allegorical interpretation, such as St. Maximus the Confessor’s way of finding allegory about ascesis and ascetical struggles in the details of the Gospel. It is if anything 90% a science lesson, or an Aristotelian science lesson at any rate, and at face value St. Gregory owes much more of a debt to Aristotle than St. Basil does. (At least St. Gregory spends vastly more time talking about earth, air, fire, and water.) St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation assumes and asserts that the days of Creation were, in fact, literal days. And that’s not the end. St. Gregory of Nyssa explicitly ascribes the highest authority and weight to St. Basil’s work and would almost certainly be astonished to find his work treated as a corrective to St. Basil’s problematically literal On the Six Days of Creation; St. Gregory’s attitude appears to be, “St. Basil made an excellent foundation and I want to build on it!” On all counts I can tell, St. Gregory does not provide a precedent for treating young earth creation as negotiable. De Beers may well have a friend among the Fathers, but St. Gregory is not that friend. And if this is his choice of friends, maybe he isn’t aware of many real, honest friends among the Fathers. St. Augustine may be his friend here, but if the Blessed Augustine is your only friend among the Fathers, you’re on pretty shaky ground.
Examples could easily be multiplied, but after a point it becomes somewhat tedious checking out more harmonizers’ footnotes and finding that, no indeed, they don’t check out.
Why it matters
Have you read much creation science seeking to use science to prove a young earth? The reason I’m asking is that that’s what scholars do when they use patristic resources to prove that Orthodoxy and evolution are in harmony. The kind of distortion of facts that they wouldn’t be caught dead in origins science is the kind of distortion of facts that is routine in those harmonizing Orthodoxy with evolution.
I myself do not believe in a young earth; I am an old earth creationist and have seriously entertained returning to belief in theistic evolution. I stand pretty much as far outside the patristic consensus as Orthodox evolutionists. But I don’t distort the Fathers to shanghai recruit them to my position.
It may well be that with knowledge that wasn’t available to St. Gregory and his fellow Fathers, the intellectual dishonesty and distortion needed to believe in a young earth may be greater than saying, “I know the Fathers’ consensus and I remain outside of it.” That’s not ideal, but it is infinitely better than distorting the Fathers’ consensus to agree with you.
It is better by far to acknowledge that you are outside the Fathers’ consensus than make them agree with you. If you are an Orthodox evolutionist, please stop shanghaiing recruiting ancient Fathers to your camp.
A helpful analogy: What are the elements?
Some Protestants made young-earth creationism almost “the article by which the Church stands or falls,” and much of young-earth and old-earth creationism in Orthodoxy, and evolution, is shaped by that Protestant “article by which the Church stands or falls.”
Today’s young-earth creationism and theistic evolution are merely positions on a ballot in single-issue voting, and single-issue voting that was unknown to the Fathers. There are other issues.
(What other issues are there, you ask?)
Let me give my standard question in dealing with young-earth Orthodox who are being pests and perhaps insinuating that my Orthodoxy is impaired if I don’t believe their position: “Are we obligated to believe that the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and maybe aether?”
If that question seems to come from out of the blue, let me explain:
St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation takes a position we can relate to readily enough even if we disagree:
“And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day… Why does Scripture say “one day the first day”? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day-we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
The emphatic alternative he offers is a belief in the four or five elements, earth, air, fire, water, and possibly the aether. This is something he finds in Genesis:
“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.
St. Basil takes the text to mean more than just that water exists; he takes it to mean that water is an element. Nor is St. Basil the only one to make such claims; as mentioned earlier, St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation is not in the business of condemning opposing views, but it not only assumes literal days for Creation, but the “science” of earth, air, fire, and water is writ large, and someone wishing to understand how ancients could see science and cosmology on those terms has an invaluable resource in St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation. Furthermore, the view of the four elements is ensconced in Orthodox liturgy: the Vespers for Theophany, which is arguably the central text for Orthodox understanding of Creation, enumerates earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements. To my knowledge, no Orthodox liturgy ensconces the implicit atheism of modern chemistry.
What are we to make of this? Does this mean that modern chemistry is off-limits to Orthodox, and that Orthodox doctors should only prescribe such drugs as the ancient theory would justify? God forbid! I bring this point up to say that the obvious answer is, “Ok, there is a patristic consensus and I stand outside of it,” and that this answer can be given without shanghaiing recruiting the Fathers to endorse modern chemistry. When science and astronomy were formed, someone was reported to say, “The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven, not a book about how the Heavens go,” and while it may be appropriate to say “On pain of worse intellectual dishonesty, I must accept an old earth and chemistry as worth my provisional assent,” it is not appropriate to distort the Church Fathers into giving a rubber stamp to beliefs they would reject.
Drawing a line in the sand at a young earth is a Protestant invention that has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but casting the opposite vote of theistic evolution in a single-issue vote is also short of the Orthodox tradition. In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” Single-issue voting here, even for evolution, is not an Orthodox phenomenon except as it has washed in from Protestant battle lines. If an Orthodox who questions the Orthodoxy of old-earthers is being (crypto-)Protestant, the Orthodox who cites the Fathers in favor of evolution is only slightly less so—and both distort the truth.
“When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
One Protestant friend said that I had a real knack for insulting analogies. The comment came after I said of mainstream Evangelical “Christian art” that it worked on the same communication principle as hard porn: “Make every point with a sledgehammer and leave nothing to the imagination but the plot.” And I have used that ability here: I have said that Orthodox evolutionists writing of harmony between evolution and the Church Fathers are treating patristic texts the same way creation scientists treat scientific evidence. Ouch.The Orthodox-evolutionary harmonizers are playing the same single-issue politics game as their young-earth counterparts, and are only different by casting the opposite vote. Ouch.
Is there a method to this madness?
I cannot forbid origins questions altogether, for reasons not least of which I am not tonsured even as a reader, let alone being your heirarch or priest. At least some heirarchs have refused to decide for their flock what they may believe: perhaps people are expected to find God’s hand at work in creation, but the exact mechanism of involvement, and time frame, are not decided. But I could wish something like the theology surrounding the holy mysteries, where in contrast to the detailed, point by point Roman account, the Orthodox Church simply says that at one point in the Divine Liturgy the gifts are only (blessed) bread and wine, and at a certain later point they have become the body and blood of Christ, and beyond that point speculation is not allowed.
There are some questions where having the right answer is less valuable than not asking the question at all. Origins questions in the scientific sense do not loom large in the Fathers, and what little there is appears not to match scientific data. But this is not a defect in the Fathers. It is, if anything, a cue that our society’s preoccupation with science is not particularly Orthodox in spirit, and perhaps something that doesn’t belong in Orthodoxy. Again, Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.
But for the interim, for people who need an answer and are good enough scientists to see through Creation Science, please do not shanghai recruit the Church Fathers to rubber stamp the present state of scientific speculation. For starters, science is less important than you may think. But that’s just for starters.
Roman Catholic readers are asked to seriously consider hitting the “Back” button and not reading further than this warning.
This piece is being kept online for the benefit of Orthodox readers.
Rome’s position is that Rome and Orthodoxy agree on all essentials needed for appropriate reunion. Orthodoxy’s position is that there are unresolved essential differences which need to be addressed before appropriate reunion. This piece is intended to specifically, clearly, forcefully, and bluntly articulate some (not all) of unresolved essential differences for what is held as essential in the Orthodox Church in response to Roman communication that acknowledged no genuine Orthodox objection to Roman ecumenism. It remains posted because it may be helpful for Orthodox who are searching for why Orthodoxy disagrees with Rome and Roman ecumenism.
You have been warned.
There is an elephant in the room.But Catholics are very skilled at NOT seeing it.
What might be called “the Orthodox question”
I expect ecumenical outreach to Orthodox has been quite a trying experience for Catholics. It must seem to Catholics like they have made Orthodoxy their top ecumenical priority, and after they have done their best and bent over backwards, many Orthodox have shrugged and said, “That makes one of us!” or else made a nastier response. And I wonder if Catholics have felt a twinge of the Lord’s frustration in saying, “All day long I have held out my hands to a rebellious and stubborn people.” (Rom 10:21)
In my experience, most Catholic priests have been hospitable: warm to the point of being warmer to me than my own priests. It almost seems as if the recipe for handling Orthodox is to express a great deal of warmth and warmly express hope for Catholics and Orthodox to be united. And that, in a nutshell, is how Catholics seem to conceive what might be called “the Orthodox question.”
And I’m afraid I have something painful to say. Catholics think Orthodox are basically the same, and that they understand us. And I’m asking you to take a tough pill to swallow: Catholics do not understand Orthodox. You think you do, but you don’t.
I’d like to talk about an elephant in the room. This elephant, however painfully obvious to Orthodox, seems something Catholics are strikingly oblivious to.
A conciliatory gesture (or so I was told)
All the Orthodox I know were puzzled for instance, that the Pope thought it conciliatory to retain titles such as “Vicar of Jesus Christ,” “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles,” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” but drop “Patriarch of the West.” Orthodox complain that the Roman bishop “was given primacy but demanded supremacy,” and the title “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” is offensive. Every bishop is the successor of the prince of the apostles, so reserving that title to the Pope is out of line. But Orthodoxy in both ancient and modern times regard the Pope as the Patriarch of Rome, and the Orthodox Church, having His Holiness IGNATIUS the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, has good reason to call the Patriarch of Rome, “the Patriarch of the West.” The response I heard to His Holiness Benedict dropping that one title while retaining the others, ranged from “Huh?” to, “Hello? Do you understand us at all?”
What Catholics never acknowledge
That is not a point I wish to belabor; it is a relatively minor example next to how, when in my experience Catholics have warmly asked Orthodox to reunify, never once have I seen any recognition or manifest awareness of the foremost concern Orthodox have about Rome and Constantinople being united. Never once have I seen mere acknowledgment of the Orthodox concern about what Rome most needs to repent of.
Let me clarify that slightly. I’ve heard Catholics acknowledge that Catholics have committed atrocities against Orthodox in the past, and Catholics may express regrets over wrongs from ages past and chide Orthodox for a lack of love in not being reunified. But when I say, “what Rome most needs to repent of,” I am not taking the historian’s view. I’m not talking about sack of the Constantinople, although people more Orthodox than me may insist on things like that. I am not talking about what Rome has done in the past to repent of, but what is continuing now. I am talking about the present tense, and in the present tense. When Catholics come to me and honor Orthodoxy with deep warmth and respect and express a desire for reunion, what I have never once heard mention of is the recantation of Western heresy.
This may be another tough pill to swallow. Catholics may know that Orthodox consider Catholics to be heretics, but this never enters the discussion when Catholics are being warm and trying to welcome Orthodox into their embrace. It’s never acknowledged or addressed. The warm embrace instead affirms that we have a common faith, a common theology, a common tradition: we are the same, or so Orthodox are told, in all essentials. If Orthodox have not restored communion, we are told that we do not recognize that we have all the doctrinal agreement properly needed for reunification.
But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!
I would like to outline three areas of difference and give some flesh to the Orthodox claim that there are unresolved differences. I would like to outline one issue about what is theology, and then move on to social ethics, and close on ecumenism itself. I will somewhat artificially limit myself to three; some people more Orthodox than me may wonder why, for instance, I don’t discuss the filioque clause (answer: I am not yet Orthodox enough to appreciate the importance given by my spiritual betters, even if I do trust that they are my spiritual betters). But there’s a lot in these three.
To Catholics who insist that we share a common faith, I wish to ask a question that may sound flippant or even abrasive. A common faith? Really? Are you ready to de-canonize Thomas Aquinas and repudiate his scholasticism? The Orthodox Church’s response to the Renaissance figure Barlaam and Aristotelianism.Orthodox faith is something incompatible with the “theology” of Thomas Aquinas, and if you don’t understand this, you’re missing something fundamental to Orthodox understandings of theology. And if you’re wondering why I used quotes around “theology,” let me explain. Or, perhaps better, let me give an example.
See the two texts below. One is chapter 5 in St. Dionysius (or, if you prefer, pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology. That gem is on the left. To the right is a partial rewriting of the ideas in the style of Thomas Aquinas’sSumma Theologiæ.
St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology”
Rewritten in the scholastic style of Thomas Aquinas
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense that we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, it is also beyond every denial.
Question Five: Whether God may accurately be described with words and concepts.
Objection One: It appears that God may be accurately described, for otherwise he could not be described as existing. For we read, I AM WHO AM, and if God cannot be described as existing, then assuredly nothing else can. But we know that things exist, therefore God may be accurately described as existing.
Objection Two: It would seem that God may be described with predicates, for Scripture calls him Father, Son, King, Wisdom, etc.
Objection Three: It appears that either affirmations or negations must accurately describe God, for between an affirmation and its negation, exactly one of them must be true.
On the Contrary, I reply that every affirmation and negation is finite, and in the end inadequate beyond measure, incapable of containing or of circumscribing God.
We should remember that the ancients described God in imperfect terms rather than say nothing about him at all…
Lost in translation?
There is something lost in “translation” here. What exactly is lost? Remember Robert Frost’s words, “Nothing of poetry is lost in translation except for the poetry.” There is a famous, ancient maxim in the Orthodox Church’s treasured Philokalia saying, “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian:” theology is an invitation to prayer. And the original Mystical Theology as rendered on the left is exactly that: an invitation to prayer, while the rewrite in the style of the Summa Theologiæ has been castrated: it is only an invitation to analysis and an impressively deft solution to a logic puzzle. The ideas are all preserved: nothing of the theology is lost in translation except for the theology. And this is part of why Archimandrite Vasileos, steeped in the nourishing, prayerful theology of the Orthodox Church, bluntly writes in Hymn of Entry that scholastic theology is “an indigestible stone.”
Thomas Aquinas drew on Greek Fathers and in particular St. John the Damascene. He gathered some of the richest theology of the East and turned it into something that is not theology to Orthodox: nothing of the Greek theology was lost in the scholastic translation but the theology! And there is more amiss in that Thomas Aquinas also drew on “the Philosopher,” Aristotle, and all the materialistic seeds in Aristotelianism. (The Greeks never lost Aristotle, but they also never made such a big deal about him, and to be called an Aristotelian could be a strike against you.) There is a spooky hint of the “methodological agnosticism” of today’s academic theology—the insistence that maybe you have religious beliefs, but you need to push them aside, at least for the moment, to write serious theology. The seed of secular academic “theology” is already present in how Thomas Aquinas transformed the Fathers.
This is a basic issue with far-reaching implications.
Am I seriously suggesting that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas? Not exactly. I am trying to point out what level of repentance and recantation would be called for in order that full communion would be appropriate. I am not seriously asking that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas. I am suggesting, though, that Rome begin to recognize that nastier and deeper cuts than this would be needed for full communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. And I know that it is not pleasant to think of rejoining the Orthodox Church as (shudder) a reconciled heretic. I know it’s not pleasant. I am, by the grace of God, a reconciled heretic myself, and I recanted Western heresy myself. It’s a humbling position, and if it’s too big a step for you to take, it is something to at least recognize that it’s a big step to take, and one that Rome has not yet taken.
The Saint and the Activist
Let me describe two very different images of what life is for. The one I will call “the saint” is that, quite simply, life is for the contemplation of God, and the means to contemplation is largely ascesis: the concrete practices of a life of faith. The other one, which I will call, “the activist,” is living to change the world as a secular ideology would understand changing the world. In practice the “saint” and the “activist” may be the ends of a spectrum rather than a rigid dichotomy, but I wish at least to distinguish the two, and make some remarks about modern Catholic social teaching.
Modern Catholic social teaching could be enlightened. It could be well meant. It could be humane. It could be carefully thought out. It could be a recipe for a better society. It could be providential. It could be something we should learn from, or something we need. It could be any number of things, but what it absolutely is not is theology. It is absolutely not spiritually nourishing theology. If, to Orthodox, scholastic theology like that of Thomas Aquinas is as indigestible as a stone, modern Catholic social teaching takes indigestibility to a whole new level—like indigestible shards of broken glass.
The 2005 Deus Caritas Est names the Song of Songs three times, and that is without precedent in the Catholic social encyclicals from the 1891 Rerum Novarum on. Look for references to the Song of Songs in their footnotes—I don’t think you’ll find any, or at least I didn’t. This is a symptom of a real problem, a lack of the kind of theology that would think of things like the Song of Songs—which is highly significant. The Song of Songs is a favorite in mystical theology, the prayerful theology that flows from faith, and mystical theology is not easily found in the social encyclicals. I am aware of the friction when secular academics assume that Catholic social teaching is one more political ideology to be changed at will. I give some benefit of the doubt to Catholics who insist that there are important differences, even if I’m skeptical over whether the differences are quite so big as they are made out to be. But without insisting that Catholic social teaching is just another activist ideology, I will say that it is anything but a pure “saint” model, and it mixes in the secular “activist” model to a degree that is utterly unlawful to Orthodox.
Arius is more scathingly condemned in Orthodox liturgy than even Judas. And, contrary to current fashion, I really do believe Arius and Arianism are as bad as the Fathers say. But Arius never dreamed either of reasoning out systematic theology or of establishing social justice. His Thalia are a (perhaps very bad) invitation to worship, not a systematic theology or a plan for social justice. In those regards, Catholic theology not only does not reach the standard of the old Orthodox giants: it does not even reach the standard of the old arch-heretics!
Catholics today celebrate Orthodoxy and almost everything they know about us save that we are not in full communion. Catholic priests encourage icons, or reading the Greek fathers, or the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But what Catholics may not always be mindful of is that they celebrate Orthodoxy and put it alongside things that are utterly anathema to Orthodox: like heartily endorsing the Orthodox Divine Litugy and placing it alongside the Roman mass, Protestant services, Unitarian meetings, Hindu worship, and the spiritualist séance as all amply embraced by Rome’s enfolding bosom.
What we today call “ecumenism” is at its root a Protestant phenomenon. It stems from how Protestants sought to honor Christ’s prayer that we may all be one, when they took it as non-negotiable that they were part of various Protestant denominations which remained out of communion with Rome. The Catholic insistance that each Protestant who returns to Rome heals part of the Western schism is a nonstarter for this “ecumenism:” this “ecumenism” knows we need unity but takes schism as non-negotiable: which is to say that this “ecumenism” rejects the understanding of Orthodox, some Catholics, and even the first Protestants that full communion is full communion and what Christ prayed for was a full communion that assumed doctrinal unity.
One more thing that is very important to many Orthodox, and that I have never once heard acknowledged or even mentioned by the Catholics reaching so hard for ecumenical embrace is that many Orthodox are uneasy at best with ecumenism. It has been my own experience that the more devout and more mature Orthodox are, the more certainly they regard ecumenism as a spiritual poison. Some of the more conservative speak of “ecumenism awareness” as Americans involved in the war on drugs speak of “drug awareness.”
Catholics can be a lot like Orthodox in their responses to Protestants and Protestant ideas of ecumenism; one might see a Catholic responding to an invitation to join an ecumenical communion service at First Baptist by saying something like,
I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as an Evangelical… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…
…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.
But Catholics seem to be a bit like Protestants in their ecumenical advances to Orthodox. If I understand correctly, whereas Rome used to tell Orthodox, “You would be welcome to take communion with us, but we would rather you obey your bishops,” now I am told by Rome that I may remain Orthodox while receiving Roman communion, and my reply is,
I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as any Catholic… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…
…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.
If the Roman Church is almost Orthodox in its dealings with Protestants, it in turn seems almost Protestant in its dealings with Orthodox. It may be that Rome looks at Orthodoxy and sees things that are almost entirely permitted in the Roman Church: almost every point of theology or spirituality that is the only way to do things in Orthodoxy is at least a permitted option to Roman Catholics. (So Rome looks at Orthodoxy, or at least some Romans do, and see Orthodox as something that can be allowed to be a full-fledged part of the Roman communion: almost as Protestants interested in ecumenism look at the Roman Church as being every bit as much a full-fledged Christian denomination as the best of Protestant groups.) But the reverse of this phenomenon is not true: that is, Orthodox do not look at Rome and say, “Everything that you require or allow in spiritual theology is also allowed in healthy Eastern Orthodoxy.” Furthermore, I have never seen awareness or sensitivity to those of Orthodox who do not consider ecumenism, at least between traditional communions, to be a self-evidently good thing to work for: Catholics can’t conceive of a good reason for why Orthodox would not share their puppyish enthusiasm for ecumenism. And I have never heard a Catholic who expressed a desire for the restoration for full communion show any perception or willingness to work for the Orthodox concerns about what needs to feed into any appropriate restoration of communion, namely the recantation of Western heresy represented by figures like Thomas Aquinas and not only by Mater et Magistra or liberal Catholic dissent (but I repeat myself).
Conclusion: are we at the eve of an explosion?
I may have mentioned several elephants in the room. Let me close by mentioning one more that many Orthodox are painfully aware of, even if Catholics are oblivious.
Orthodoxy may remind Western Christians of Rome’s ancient origins. But there is an important way in which I would compare Orthodoxy today to Western Christianity on the eve of the Reformation. Things hadn’t exploded. Yet. But there were serious problems and trouble brewing, and I’m not sure it’s that clear to people how much trouble is brewing.
Your ecumenical advances and efforts to draw us closer to Rome’s enfolding bosom come at a rough and delicate time:
What if, while there was serious trouble but not yet schisms spreading like wildfire, the East had reached out to their estranged Western brethren and said:
Good news! You really don’t need scholasticism… And you don’t exactly need transsubstantiation either… And you don’t need anywhere such a top-down Church heirarchy… And you really don’t need to be in communion with the Patriarch of Rome… And…
There is a profound schism brewing in the Orthodox Church. It may not be within your power to stop it, but it may be within your power to avoid giving it an early start, and it may be within your power to avoid making the wreckage even worse.
The best thing I can think of to say is simply, “God have mercy on us all.”