I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A pet Owner’s rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
You might also like…
A shorter introduction is available in A Small Taste of Jonathan’s Corner (paperback $7, Kindle $1). Some readers will also be interested in the King James Version-style Classic Orthodox Bible (hardcover $100, paperback $25, Kindle $7, on website free).
Anthologies & collections
Socratic dialogue: philosophy with more than a dash of drama. If you’re looking for a place to start, I reccommend The Watch.
- The damned backswing (short)
- A dialogue about a “damned backswing” that keeps coming up in life and society.
- Humans have long lived as hunter-gatherers, then in a geological eyeblink adopted the agricultural revolution, and then in an eyeblink even compared to the agricultural revolution, spin out in a cascading, coruscating, coruscating succession of technologies.
- The Law of Attraction: A Dialogue with an Eastern Orthodox Christian Mystic (medium)
- In shaky times, many people look to the Law of Attraction. Orthodox Christianity has a way to delve deeper.
MartianHuman Complete Set of Working Instructions to Happiness: Life, the Paleo Diet, (Paleo) Orthodoxy, and Other Things (medium)
- A Socratic dialogue between a fan of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and an Orthodox theologian about Martian and human life, happiness, and the Paleo diet.
- The mindstorm (medium)
- A dialogue which has a brilliant alumnus return to his school and discuss philosophy of education with its founder.
- A slightly updated look at Plato’s Allegory of the Cave… or perhaps not really an updated look at all. Should the most famous piece of Socratic dialogue have been called the Allegory of the Television?
- A Socratic dialogue about the present cultural singularity emanating from the West and reaching across the globe.
The dialogue is between Merlin, chrismated John, and Herodotus.
- Spirit (medium)
- God is spirit, and he invites us to be spirit too.
- Veni, Vidi, Vomi: A Look at “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?” (short)
- “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?” is a viral music video that is funny and demure by music video standards. At first glance, at least…
The watch (medium)
- On the surface, it’s about a watch that has another way of telling time. Under the surface…
Within the Steel Orb (medium)
- Does Einstein’s theory of relativity say anything that relativism does not? Or does relativism say anything that Einstein’s theory of relativity does not?
Is there a difference that matters?
A sleek car under starlight, a different kind of information technology, a deep, blue-robed host, and the wisdom of a Socratic dialogue in a science fiction world.
- Yonder (long)
- Yonder is a science fiction story that starts in a world where mind and body are separate. Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. You could also describe it as a miniature Divine Comedy, a journey which begins in Hell and ends in Heaven, but uses none of the traditional imagery: Hell is a place where you can have any pleasure you want, while Heaven is a place with intense suffering.
Here are short stories you can read online for free. Besides the short stories, there are some works of fiction in the assorted creations and free online novels. If you’re looking for a place to start, I suggest Unashamed.
- The commentary (medium)
- This is a piece of wisdom literature about a man who has been searching for the Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, in One Volume, Containing a Careful Analysis of All Cultural Issues Needful to Understand the Bible as Did Its First Readers… and why he is so very unhappy when he finds what he desires.
- A glimpse through a crystal (short)
- A dream about another world.
- The metacultural Gospel (medium)
- A fictionalized Gospel account set in contemporary America. It tries to convey how genuinely shocking a person is described in the Gospels—and how he’d still be stunning, today.
- The Monastery (short)
- The story of a traveller moving deeper and deeper into a monastery—in more ways than one.
- A picture of evil (short)
- What, exactly, is the nature of evil? Read about three painters who tried to show it.
- There is more to this man than meets the eye. He appears quite ordinary; he’s learned that skill well enough…
- Stephanos begins when a boy enters a temple to get away from his sister…
- A strange picture (short)
- Why was a picture of beauty so disturbing?
- Abigail loves to sit down at a keyboard and improvise with her father. Why is she afraid one day?
- The voyage (medium)
- A disillusioned young man wants to escape into another world, a magical world, and finds an old man who might help him.
- There’s more connecting these three items than you might think. But the differences are more than meets the eye, too.
A wonderful life (medium)
- It really doesn’t matter if the situation is ordinarily bad or extraordinarily bad. Not for what really counts.
- Ambrose Bierce wrote a classic of wit and satire, called The Devil’s Dictionary. This book follows in that tradition, and comments on any number of things in American life.
- Inclusive Language Greek Manuscript Discovered (short)
- There is a considerable buzz among New Testament scholars among the discovery of a nearly complete manuscript to the book of the Bible called Romans.
- Inspired by a visit to a “seeker service.” To those unacquainted with Christian lingo, this means a church service which tries to reach out to people seeking God—but “reach out to people seeking God” really means, “put on a circus.”
- A Strange Archaeological Find (medium)
- Read a 26th century historian as he extols the poetic beauty of a light bulb, praises Darwinism as a truly great myth… and analyzes a rather strange archaeological find.
- Unvera Announces New Kool-Aid Line (short)
- A leading nutriceutical supplement MLM announces a line of Kool-Aid for its distributors, containing some of the most powerful plant toxins available to humankind.
This section has free online novels. Other free online books include Yonder and Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary: A Free Online (Satire) Dictionary, or the how-to book Tinkering with Perl.
But the novels are right here, and several of them are Orthodox books. As well as these novels, you can also see short stories and other assorted creations. If you’re looking for a place to start, I suggest The Sign of the Grail.
- The Christmas tales (long)
- Several pilgrims speak over the Christmas meal.
- A Cord of Seven Strands (long)
- A novella which explores the connection between a circle of friends as they pass through harrowing experiences.
- Firestorm 2034 (long)
- A science fiction story about a medieval who is transported to the 21st century, and the chaos that ensues. It explores decades of shift in technology and culture. Heinlein fans will note a resemblance toStranger in a Strange Land, which I drew on—perhaps they’ll like this one, too.
The Sign of the Grail (long)
- In this Orthodox book, a college freshman explores his room and finds a book, Brocéliande, and his eyes begin to open when he starts to read legends of King Arthur’s court.
- The steel orb (long)
- The steel orb is an Orthodox book that tells a story from a world that has been simmering in my heart for years. It concerns a young pupil who wants to be a teacher, and the struggles he goes through on the way. It is a fantasy novella based on the patristic Orthodox East instead of the medieval Catholic West.
This is a “grab bag” of assorted creative works. Other sections have longer fiction and short stories; this offers a colorful collection of things you can’t find other places. If you’re looking for a place to start, I suggest A dream of light.
- Christian koans (medium)
- A koan is a unique kind of story that is both short and powerful.
A dream of light (medium)
- Dreamlike images flow throughout this narrative.
- Espiriticthus: Cultures of a Fantasy World not Touched By Evil
- An exploration of seven different cultures in a world of pure goodness, a world without evil. This comes to mean seven forms of goodness which are sharply different from each other.
Game review: Meatspace (medium)
- It is, in a sense, a description of the ultimate game.
- Fingerprinted collects (short)
- A short collection of prayers, in French and English.
- The grinch who stole Christmas (short)
- A twist on the classic Dr. Seuss story.
- I learned it all from Jesus (short)
- A poster in the tradition of “How To Be An Artist” and “I Learned It All In Kindergarden”.
- A marvelously silly game from planet Espiriticthus.
Jobs for theologians (short)
- An irreverent look at jobs available in theology.
- The modern baccaulaureate (short)
- You’ve heard of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major-General”? Here’s an update.
- The Portal (medium)
- The Portal is an interactive story. You’re the hero.
- Profoundly Gifted Magazine: An Interview With Maximos Planos
- This looks through a thin veil at meeting a grown-up prodigy.
- Romantic Impressions (medium)
- A set of vignettes trying to capture romantic impressions like the 19th century Romantics did.
- The Way of the Way (medium)
- An “early work” collection of poems underscoring something I sensed in Christianity that can be hard to see from the West.
Suggested starting points include The Angelic Letters, The Best Things in Life Are Free, The most politically incorrect sermon in history: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and Technonomicon: Technology, Nature,ascesis.
The Angelic Letters (medium)
- A collection of letters from a senior angel to guide a guardian angel watching over a man, as envisioned by an Orthodox Christian. Inspired by C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.
- Apprentice gods (short)
- A look at this life as an apprenticeship of becoming gods and time as the womb of eternal life.
- Apps and mobile websites for the Orthodox Christian smartphone and tablet: Best iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry mobile websites and apps (short)
- A look at the best that’s available for Orthodox Christian app seekers with iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets.
The Arena (short)
- A work of mystical theology that looks at life as a great spiritual arena and training ground.
- Athanasius: On Creative Fidelity (short)
- Ever hear a broken record talking about how Orthodoxy has always been a matter of creative fidelity and never a matter of parrot-like repetition?
The Best Things in Life Are Free (short)
- An exploration, connected with the chalice, of what it means that the best things in life are free.
- A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount intended to unfold just how it appears to be the most politically incorrect sermon ever.
- An Orthodox bookshelf (medium)
- An Orthodox bookshelf covering The Orthodox* Study Bible, some of the Fathers, Neo-Platonism, and one or two works today.
- An Orthodox ‘Physics’, or study of the nature of things, designed to respond to Aristotle’s ‘Physics.’
- Prayers (short)
- A collection of short prayers for different occasions and purposes, offered to and for the Orthodox Church.
- Public Portions of the Divine Liturgy, in Russian and in English
- This is not something I’ve written (besides a preface), but something I put together from The Divine Lutirgy to help me understand the public parts of the Russian Liturgy. I offer it in the hope it may help others.
- Refutatio omnium hæresium
- The Refutation of All Heresies
- The royal letters (short)
- Three intimate letters from a father to a son about God, kings, and men.
- Rules of Engagement
- Rules of engagement for spiritual warfare that has always been waged, and is becoming more intense.
- From Russia, With Love: A spiritual guide to surviving political and economic disaster (long)
- The Russian Orthodox Church has a lot of experience living with hard times. This piece talks about not only survival lessons but the spiritual beauty that can come in political and economic difficulties.
- As the text accompanying this beautiful icon begins, “St. John the Much-Suffering is a saint who fought industrial-strength sexual temptation for decades and WON in every sense of the term.”
- We are entranced by technology, and yearn for harmony with nature. But there is more to life than getting technology or taking walks in the woods.
- Twelve quotes on Orthodoxy, ecumenism, and Catholicism (short)
- Twelve quotes to explain in particular why Orthodoxy seems to have such a cold response to Catholic ecumenical advances.
- An akathist hymn celebrating St. Philaret the Merciful of Asia Minor, who was generous and merciful when he had much, and remained no less generous and merciful when he had little or nothing.
The Book of Thanks (medium)
All of us have a great deal to be grateful for. This is one text that looks through thankfulness at the scandal of the particular. It is part of a collection, A Pilgrimage from Narnia, that does not exactly narrate the author’s journey into Orthodoxy, but shows pictures of things that have been seen along the way.
- We may have hospitals to hide death from our eyes, but all of us are moving towards death, even if we are in denial as a society. But there is another way; love is stronger than death.
- A poem to hymn the glory of God.
- We thirst for glory. There is only one way that thirst is rightly slaked.
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist? (short)
- A musing prayer about how to open the eyes of an alchemist.
- A celebration of the resplendent beauty of the natural world.
- A meditation on the Maximum Christ we approach and maximum repentance as the true realization of God’s maximum ambition for our lives.
- Now (short)
- A poem pouring forth mystical theology of eternity, time, and that precious moment we call ‘now’.
- Open (short)
- A poem about closed fists, open hands, and true joy.
- Pilgrim (short)
- A prayer and poem about pilgrimage on earth.
A pilgrimage from Narnia (short)
- A poem about a pilgrimage that begins with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and ever presses ‘further up and further in.’
Silence: Organic food for the soul (medium)
- A meditation on spiritual discipline and silence as an organic diet for the soul reaching out to the whole person.
Why This Waste? (short)
- A poem that opens when a woman opens a priceless jar of perfume and a thief asks a question that was deeper than he knew: “Why this waste?”
- A Yoke That Is Easy and a Burden That Is Light (short)
- A prayer.