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Another gale of laughter shook the table. “But it always seems like this,” Father Bill said. “The time for fasting has passed, and now we are ready to feast. People melt away from the parish hall to enjoy Christmas together, and there is finally one table. Outside, the snow is falling… falling… wow. That’s some heavy snowfall.”
Adam looked around. “Hmm… That car in the street is having trouble… Ok, it’s moving again. I wouldn’t want to be driving home in this snow.”
Mary smiled. “Why don’t we go around the circle, and each tell a story, or share something, or… something? I think we’re going to be here for a while.”
And so the stories began.
Innocent’s Tale: The Apostle
Adam’s Tale: The Pilgrimage
Mary’s Tale: Mary’s Treasures
Paul’s Tale: Another Kind of Mind
John’s Tale: The Holy Grail
Basil’s Tale: The Desert Fathers
Macrina’s Tale: The Communion Prayer
Barbara’s Tale: The Fairy Prince
Innocent’s Tale: The Apostle
Innocent said, “I was visiting with my nephew Jason, and he asked me, ‘Why are you called Innocent now, or Uncle Innocent, or whatever?’ I told him that I was named after one of the patron saints of America, called Apostle to America.
“He said, ‘Patron saint of America? I bet he wasn’t even an American! And I bet you’re going to tell me his boring life!’
“I smiled, and said, ‘Sit down, kid. I’m going to bore you to tears.'”
And this is how he tried to bore Jason to tears.
Where should I start? He was born just before 1800 into the family of a poor sexton. Stop laughing, Jason, that means a church’s janitor. The saint was reading the Bible in church at the age of six—the age he was orphaned at. He went to seminary, and aside from being the top pupil in everything from theology and rhetoric to languages, he was popular with the other seminarians because he invented a pocket sundial, and everybody wanted one. This wasn’t our time, you couldn’t buy a digital watch, and… I think that was cool. He loved to build things with his hands—later on, he built a church with his own hands, and he built a clock in the town hall of—I forget where, but it’s in Alaska, and it’s still working today. He would also teach people woodworking. So he was a tinkerer and an inventor. Among other things. Among many other things. At school, he learned, and learned, and learned—Slavonic, Latin, Greek, for instance, if you wanted to look at languages. At least that’s what he learned at school. That doesn’t count the dozen or two languages he learned when he got out into the world and started to travel—his version of courtesy seemed to include learning people’s languages when he traveled to their countries.
He was a bit of a Renaissance man. But he did more than languages. His biggest gifts were his humility, patience, and love for all people, but if we forget those, he had a spine of solid steel. He became a deacon and then a priest, and his wife broke down in tears when the bishop asked for someone to go to the terrifying and icy land of Alaska and he was the one volunteer for it. This man, who was not afraid of Siberia, was not afraid of Alaska either, and later on, when he became a bishop, he thought it was a bishop’s duty to visit all the parishes he was responsible for, and so would travel to all the parishes, by reindeer, by kayak, by dogsled. This wasn’t just cool that he could travel different ways. He would carry his little boat… and kayak up rivers of icewater… when he was 60. Yes, 60. This super hero was real.
He traveled a lot, and met peoples, and understood their languages and cultures. Back when Western missionaries were teaching Africans that they had to become European to be Christian, he came to people, learned their languages, and tried to model Christ’s incarnation by taking the flesh of their culture. There were some things he changed—he stopped child sacrifice—but, well, let me think. He did teach woodworking, and he gave the Aleuts a written language. But he never tried to make the people into copies of himself. And he was a very effective evangelist. He learned the dialects and languages of Aleutians, Koloshes, Kurils, Inuit, Kenai, Churgaches, Kamchadals, Oliutores, Negidates, Samogirs, Golds, Gulyaks, Koryaks, Tungus, Chukcha, Yakutians, and Kitians. And he wrote grammars for some of their languages, and his ethnographic, geographic, and linguistic works got him elected an honorary member of the Russian Geographical Society and Moscow Royal University.
What does this have to do with America? Jason, our country is bigger than just white people. Now we think of “bigger than white people” as recognizing how fortunate we are to have blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. But a lot of people in Alaska aren’t white. The first nations didn’t get exterminated. Saint Innocent is a large part of why the original Americans are to this day known to be over a third Orthodox. And Saint Innocent was elected Bishop of China—sorry, I forgot about that—and he also wanted a diocese for America, and wanted everything to be in English. He created written service books and translated part of the Bible for the Aleuts, and he had a sort of vision for an American Orthodox Church. If you don’t believe me that he has something to do with America, and you don’t count his extensive work in Alaska and beyond, you can at least take the U.S. Government’s word for it when they made him an honorary U.S. Citizen. What’s so special about that? Well, let me list all the other people in our nation’s history who’ve been granted that honor. There’s Winston Churchill, and the Marquis de LaFayette, and… as far as I know, that’s it. Jason, you know about the Congressional Medal of Honor? Being made an honorary citizen is much rarer than that!
After all these things, he was made Patriarch of Moscow—one of the top five bishops of the world, with huge responsibility. And after all he had done, and with the new responsibility that had been given to him… He was basically the Orthodox President of the United States, and he still kept an open door. Anyone, just anyone, could come and talk with him. And whoever it was, whatever the need was, he always did something so that the person walked out… taken care of. Now it’s not just amazing that there was one person who could do all of these things. It’s amazing that there was one person who could do any of these things.
Is your Mom here already? I haven’t talked about the humanitarian work he did, how when he came to power he worked hard to see that the poor and needy were cared for. I haven’t talked about what it was like for Russians to be at the Alaskan frontier—they called it, not West, but the utter East. And it attracted some pretty weird customers. I haven’t talked about the other saints he was working with—Saint Herman, for instance, who defended people against Russian frontiersmen who would kill them, and baked biscuits for children, and wore chains and dug a cave for himself with his hands, and… um… thanks for listening.
Just remember, this is one of the saints who brought Orthodoxy to America.
Adam’s Tale: The Pilgrimage
John said, “Adam, I haven’t heard you tell me about your summer vacation. You know, when you went to pick up the icons that our parish commissioned from St. Herman’s Monastery in Alaska. How was it?”
This is Adam’s story.
I probably already told you what happened this summer. It turned out to be somewhat exciting. I was going to drive from our parish, take my old car to my sister in L.A., and fly to the holy land of Alaska and buy icons from St. Herman’s Monastery.
I debated whether I needed to ask Father for a traveler’s blessing. When I went up and asked him how to best profit from a journey that looked too quiet, he said, “You do not know until tomorrow what tomorrow will bring.”
A day into the journey, I was passing through Chicago, intending to take a direct route through the south side of Chicago. I felt the voice of the Spirit saying, North side.
My stomach got tighter as I drove through the South Side, and got tighter until I was sitting at a red light, alone. The voice said quite urgently, Burn rubber.
I waited for a green light. Just a second before, six youths with guns surrounded the car. “Out of the car! Now!”
I almost wet my pants. The voice moved gently in my heart and said, Open the window and talk about Monty Python.
“What?” I thought.
Open the window and talk about Monty Python.
I opened the window and started half-babbling. “Do you watch Monty Python? It’s a TV show, has some nudity, you should like it, and has a sketch about the man with a tape recorder up his nose. There’s a self-defense series where this man is teaching people how to defend themselves against various types of fruit—what do you do if someone attacks you with a passion fruit or a banana, for instance?”
Talk about the orange on the dashboard.
“For instance, what would you do if I attacked you with this orange?”
“Out!” the youth bellowed.
Tell him you have GPS alarms and security cameras.
I grumbled in my heart: that’s not true, and it’ll just make him madder.
Tell him you have GPS alarms and security cameras. And that he’s on candid camera.
“Did you know this car has a GPS alarm and security cameras hidden all over the place? Smile! You’re on candid camera.”
He grabbed my coat and put his gun to my head. “You can’t lie worth beep! Shut your blankety-blank hole and get out now!”
I blinked, and listened to the still, small voice. “Did you know that my cousin works for the FBI? You can leave fingerprints on leather, like my jacket, if your glove slips the teensiest, weensiest bit—in fact, you’ve done so already. If you shoot me, you’ll have your fingerprints on a murder victim’s clothing, and in addition to having the Chicago Police Department after you, you’ll have a powerful FBI agent who hates your guts. Smile! You’re on candid camera.”
He looked down and saw that his glove had slipped when he grabbed my coat. He could see I was telling the truth.
Five seconds later, there wasn’t another soul in the place.
I pulled through the rest of Chicago uneventfully, drove into a super market parking lot, and sat down shaking for an hour.
From that point on it was a struggle. I was jumpy, like when you’ve drunk too much coffee. I jumped at every intersection, and prayed, “Lord, keep this car safe.” And it seemed odd. There seemed to be more people cutting me off, and driving as if they wanted an accident with me. Maybe that was my jumpy nerves, but this time I didn’t even notice the scenery changing. Finally, I came in sight of my sister’s suburbs, and prepared to get off. I relaxed, and told myself, “You’ve done it. You’ve arrived safely.”
A car cut me off and slammed on the brakes. I swerved to the right, barely missing it, but scraping off paint when I ran into the shoulder’s guardrail.
I turned my head to see what on earth that person was doing. And slammed into an abandoned Honda Accordion in front of me.
I was doing about 77 miles per hour when this started, and I totaled both cars. Thank God for airbags; I was completely unscathed. My cell phone still worked; I called the state troopers, and then told my sister what had happened. It seemed forever before the troopers came and filled out a report; I eventually called for a cab.
I arrived at my sister Abigail’s house, obviously looking like a wreck; we talked a bit, and she went up to bed. I could hear her snoring, and I wanted to read a bit before going down. I opened her Bible, when I realized something unpleasant. The basement door was open—I couldn’t see down the steps.
Her cat was at the top of the stairs, his back arched, every hair raised, hissing. I very slowly closed the Bible and—
Open the Bible.
I got up.
I stood all the way up.
I sat down, and a kind of spiritual seeing came as I followed.
Open the Bible to the concordance and look up ‘Emmanuel’.
I was trying hard not to get up and dial 9-1-1. That was nearly the only thought in my head, but I saw the references to Emmanuel. I immediately began flipping to the passage in Matthew, where Christmas tale has the prophecy of the virgin bearing a son, and… Not Matthew, but Isaiah. It was about all I could do not to get up immediately and dial 9-1-1. But I looked, and read… That’s the passage where the king of Israel is trembling before the kings of two neighboring powers, and God tells him that if he does not stand firm in his faith, he will not stand at all, and then—
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son… and before he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land of those two kings you dread will be desolate ruins.
I thanked the Lord for that reading, and got up, and sat down when my stomach got tighter, and finally made the decision to wait as long as the Spirit said, or not call 9-1-1 at all.
I raced over to the phone as quickly as I thought I could move quietly.
The operator exuded an air of calm and competency, and began telling me what the police were doing. “There are several police officers nearby. [pause] They’re coming onto your property. They see you’ve left the back door open, so they’re coming through your back door—”
She didn’t pause, but I saw four police officers moving very quickly and very quietly. All of them were wearing bulletproof vests. Three of them were big, burly men, with their guns drawn. One of them was a sweet-looking petite policewoman with both hands on a massive shotgun. These police were not messing around.
“They’re going through the house. They’re going down the basement—”
“Police! Freeze!” a voice barked.
Then I heard laughter.
How dare the police laugh in a situation like this? Did they not fear intruders?
One of the police officers came up, trying hard to maintain his composure.
He wasn’t succeeding.
My sister Abigail came down with a classic bedhead. “What’s going on?”
I heard a voice say, “Come on. Up the stairs you go.” The last police officer was dragging a large golden retriever, which had its snout in a leftover ravioli can and a food wrapper stuck to one of its paws, and looked none too dignified.
The first officer managed to compose himself. “I’m sorry. Your back door was left open, and someone’s dog was downstairs rummaging through your trash. This gentleman was concerned that it might have been an intruder.”
Abigail glared at the dog. “Jazzy! Bad dog!”
The dog dropped the can, put its tail between its legs, and backed up, whimpering.
The officer looked at her. “You know the dog?”
“Yes, Officer,” she said. “We can check her tags to be sure, but I think she belongs to a friend who is absolutely sick worrying about where the dog is. Is the number on the tags 723-5467? I’ll call her in a minute, and don’t worry, I can handle this lovable rascal. Can I get you anything to drink? I’ve got soy milk, apricot nectar, Coca-Cola, Perrier, Sobe, Red Bull, and probably some other energy drinks in the fridge.”
The officer now seemed to be having less difficulty composing himself. He looked at the dog’s tag, and said, “Thank you; that won’t be necessary.” He turned to me. “You did all the right things calling. If there’s something like this, you have every reason to dial 9-1-1. Thank you for calling us. Is there anything else we can do for you?”
“No; thank you, officers. It was very reassuring to have you come.” As the officers prepared to leave, Abigail looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about the car; it was still on insurance. I prepared a sleeping bag for you on the couch, and there’s Indian take-out in the fridge. Can you get to bed?”
I said, “It’ll probably take me a while. This has been an eventful day, and my heart is still thumping. Besides, I just saw you with your bedhead, and I’ll need extra time to recover from that.”
She threw a cushion at me.
When I finally did get to sleep, the words I had read kept running through my mind.
Get up, the voice said. “I’m waiting for my watch alarm,” I grumbled, or something like that, only much muddier. I wanted to sleep in. Then I looked at my watch.
When I saw the time, I was very suddenly awake. I threw my suitcase together, and shouted Abigail awake. In less than ten minutes we were on the road.
I waited for the fear to begin. And waited and waited. We hit every green light except two—only two red lights on the way to the airport, and on the way to the airport everything went smoothly. This was the fastest time I’d gotten through airport security in my life—at least since 9-11, and I got on to the airplane, and slept all the way. A stewardess had to shake me awake after we landed.
What can I say about Alaska? There’s so much that you miss about it if you think of it as another U.S. state. It belongs to its own country, almost its own world.
When I arrived, it was the time of the midnight sun, a time of unending light. It was rugged, and nobody seemed… This is a tough land, with tough people. And it’s a holy land, the land where saints struggled and first brought Orthodoxy to this continent. The first holy land was one where people struggled in searing heat. This holy land was one where people met unending light, unending darkness, warm summers and bitter winters, Heaven and Hell. Its chapels are like Russia still survived, like Russia wasn’t desacrated in 1917. There are poor and simple wooden chapels…
The best way I can describe it is to say that a veil has been lifted. We live in the shadow of the West, and we see with Western eyes. It’s so easy to believe that there is no spirit, that dead matter is all there is. Pentecostals today have exhortations to believe that Jesus still heals today; the people who asked for healing in the New Testament did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God; they just had the windows of their souls open enough to ask him for healing and believe it could happen. The West has closed our souls to believe that there is nothing a skeptic could deny, there is no chink for wind to blow. And that’s not how it is where I went. The veil was lifted; there were chinks for the wind, the Spirit to blow. When I walked into the wooden chapels and churches, they looked poor and crude and nothing like our perfectly machined churches with perfectly smooth, airtight walls, and the saints were there. I wasn’t looking at the icons; I was looking through them, to see Heaven. And I had a feeling that the saints were looking through the icons to see me.
The monks at the monastery received me as if I were a saint; it was one of the most humbling welcomes I’ve received. I hope someday that I’ll treat others as well as they treated me.
Before I left, I prayed before St. Herman’s remains, and I could almost reach out and touch him, he was so present. There were hardships on Alaska, hard beds and few luxuries and no Internet connection, but I don’t remember that. It was—
And then… I don’t know what to say. I didn’t want to leave. I prayed. You are needed back home. You cannot stop time. I left, with reverence.
It was back when I was sitting in my mass-produced office, when I realized that my heart had not left Alaska. It wasn’t just that I wished I was back there. There was something deeper. When I prayed before the icons I had brought back for our parish, I could feel the saints watching me and praying for me. Then other icons seemed to be more… alive as windows of Heaven. I left to Alaska and found that veil over the reality of spirit had been pulled aside. I left Alaska and believed that only in Alaska could that veil be pulled aside—that outside of Alaska, everything worked as a skeptic would predict. And I found to my surprise that I have never left Alaska. Temptations no longer seem to just happen. Neither do icons just seem boards with paint. It’s like I don’t see in black and white while straining to see color any more; I see color, or at least a little bit more in color. And it can be terrifying at times; visible demonic activity is more terrifying than things that is masked as just an unfortunate coincidence, whether it is a temptation or things going wrong, but…
I think that God sent me to Alaska so I could do a better job of serving him here.
Mary’s Tale: Mary’s Treasures
John finally spoke. “What’s that you’re humming, Mary? A penny for your thoughts.”
Mary continued humming for a moment, and then sung, in a far-off, dreamy, sing-song voice,
Raindrops on roses,
And whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles,
And warm woolen mittens,
Brown paper packages,
Tied up with strings…
“I was just thinking about what I have to be thankful for, about a few of my favorite things.”
Her husband Adam held out his hand. “What are they?”
She slipped her hand into his. “Well…”
I am thankful for my husband Adam, the love of my life. He is a servant to God, the best husband in the world to me, and the best father in the world to our daughter Barbara.
I am thankful for my mother. She is practical and wise. She is also beautiful. If you think I am pretty, you have seen nothing of the loveliness etched into her face, the treasure map of wrinkles around her kind, loving eyes. She taught me… I don’t know how to tell you all the things she taught me. And I am fortunate to have my mother and her mother alive.
My grandmother… When I close my eyes, I can still smell her perfume. I can walk through her garden and see the ivy climbing on the trees, the wild flowers roosting. She thinks her garden has lost what she used to give it. I only see… I don’t know how to describe it.
I am thankful for my father. He was a gruff man with a heart of gold. I still remember how every Christmas, as long as he was alive, he gave me a present carved out of wood.
I am thankful for my daughter Barbara, the other love of my life. I remember how, it was only this year, she asked for some money to go shopping at school, where they have a little market where you can spend $2.00 for a bottle of perfume that smells… to put it delicately, it hints at a gas station. I gruffly said that there were better ways to spend money, and that if she really needed something, she had her allowance. That day I was cleaning her room, and saw her piggy bank empty. She came back after lunch and said, “I have a present for you.” I looked, and saw a bottle of perfume. That bottle is on the shelf for my best perfumes, because it’s too precious for me to wear when she doesn’t ask me to.
I am thankful for the flowers I can grow in my garden. Right now it looks nothing like my grandmother’s garden. I still hope I’ll learn to make a garden beautiful without neat little rows, but for now I work hard to see the flowers in neat little rows.
I am thankful for God, and for metanoia, repentance. There was something I was struggling with yesterday, a cutting word I spoke, and I was terrified of letting it go, then when I did… it was… Repenting is the most terrifying experience before and the most healing after. Before you’re terrified of what will happen if you let go of something you can’t do without, then you hold on to it and struggle and finally let go, and when you let go you realize you were holding onto a piece of Hell. I am thankful for a God who wants me to let go of Hell.
I’m thankful for wine. That one doesn’t need explaining.
I’m thankful for babies. It’s so nice to hold my friends’ babies in my arms.
I’m thankful for—if you go to the Orthodox Church in America website at oca.org and click on Feasts and Saints of the Church followed by Lives of the Saints, there are the lives of many saints. There’s a whole world to explore, and it’s fascinating to see all the women to look up to. I’m not saying I could measure up to any of them, but… it’s something to read, even if I couldn’t be like any of them.
I’m thankful for Beethoven’s moonlight sonata. Every time I hear it, it’s like a soft blue fog comes rolling in, and I’m in a stone hut in the woods lit by candlelight, and I can see the softness all around me. I can feel the fur of the slippers around my feet as I dance in the woods, and I can feel the arms of the one I love wrapped around me.
I’m thankful for all of my husband’s little kindnesses.
I’m thankful I didn’t run out of any office supplies this week.
I’m thankful our car hasn’t broken down this month. We’ve gotten more mileage out of it than we should have. but we can’t afford a new one.
I’m thankful that all of the people in my family, near and far, are in really good health.
I’m thankful that Adam screws the cap onto the toothpaste and always leaves the toilet seat down.
I’m thankful that April Fool’s Day only comes once a year. Believe me, in this family, once a year is plenty!
I’m glad that the Orthodox Church is alive and growing.
I’m thankful for all the dirty laundry I have to do. We have dirty laundry because we have enough clothes, and we have dirty dishes because we have food.
I’m glad that Barbara has helped me make bread and cookies ever since she was big enough to stand and drool into the mixing bowl.
I’m profoundly grateful my husband doesn’t make me read the books he likes.
I’m glad Adam always remembers to bring a half-gallon of milk home when I ask him, even if he’s had a busy day.
I’m glad that when Adam comes home, he asks me to tell him everything that happened in my day, so that I can help him concentrate on what he’s thinking about.
I’m thankful that Adam doesn’t criticize me when I know I’m wrong, and never humiliates me.
I’m glad that Adam doesn’t stick his thumb in my eye like he did when we were dating, and sometimes he doesn’t even step on my foot when we dance together… and sometimes he doesn’t even—Ow! Ok, ok! I won’t tell that one!
Let’s see. This is getting to be all about Adam. I really appreciate having confession, where you let go of sin and it is obliterated. I appreciate how the worship at church flows like a creek, now quick, now slow, now turning around in eddies. I appreciate that our parish is more than a social hub, but it’s a place I can connect with people. And I appreciate… let me take a breath…
Mary dimpled. “And…” She squeezed Adam’s hand. “There’s one more thing. Thank you for praying and keeping us in your prayers for well over a year. We’re expecting another child.” She blushed and looked down.
And Mary pondered all these treasures in her heart.
Paul’s Tale: Another Kind of Mind
Paul leaned forward and began to tell…
When I was younger, I had the nickname of “The Razor.” It seemed like my mind would cut into anything I applied it to. When my friends saw the movie Dungeons & Dragons, they were appalled when they asked me for my usual incendiary review and I said, “As far as historical fiction goes, it’s better than average.” It wasn’t just the line where a dwarf told an elf he needed to get a woman who weighed two hundred and fifty pounds and had a beard he could hang on to—that single line gave an encounter with another culture that is awfully rare in a classic like The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I had liked the beginning impassioned “How dare you fail to see that everybody’s equal?” Miss America-style “I get my opinions from Newsweek” speech about the evils of having a few elite magi rule. That was mercifully hitting you on the head with something that’s insidious in most historical fiction—namely, that the characters are turn-of-the-millennium secular people in armor, conceived without any empathy for the cultures they’re supposed to represent. It had the courtesy not to convince you that that’s how medievals thought. Plus the movie delivered magic, and impressive sights, and people who enjoyed the benefits of modern medicine and diet, a completely inappropriate abundance of wealth, and everything else we expect in historical fiction. The movie is clumsily done, and its connection to the medieval way of life is tenuous, but it has a pulse. It delivers an encounter that most viewers weren’t expecting. Namely, it provides an encounter how D&D is played—despite what some critics say, it’s not a botched version of “Hollywood does fantasy”, but a good rendering, even a nostalgic rendering, of a rather uninspired D&D session. And at least for that reason, it has a pulse where most historical fiction doesn’t. As far as a seed for discussion goes, I said I’d rather start with Dungeons & Dragons than with most of the historical fiction I know of.
I was known for using the term ‘assassin’s guild’ to refer to any organization that derived profit from causing people’s deaths. This meant not only a cigarette manufacturer like Phillip Morris, or Planned Parenthood, but included more respected organizations like Coca-Cola, which murdered South American unionizers, or department stores, where human blood was the price paid to offer items so cheap. I’m sure you’ve seen the email forward about what happened when a young man asked Nike to sell him a pair of shoes with the word “sweatshop” on the side. There are disturbingly many things like that that happen, and I was acute at picking them out.
So D&D and the assassin’s guild represent two of the things I could observe, and I observed a great deal of them. Wherever I placed the cynic’s razor, it would slice. I was adept at cutting. No one could really stand against me.
I still remember a conversation with one friend, Abigail. She said to me, “I don’t doubt that everything that you see is there.” Abigail paused, and said, “But is it good for you to look at all that?” I remembered then that I gave her a thousand reasons why her question was missing the point, and the only response she made: “Have you ever tried looking for good?”
I had no response to that, and I realized that the back edge of the razor was dull when I tried to look for good. I looked and I saw evil, but it was years of work before I could perceive the good I never looked for. Earlier I thought that politeness was in very large measure a socially acceptable place to deceive; now I saw that ordinary politeness, such as I used to scorn, had more layers consideration and kindness that I would have ever guessed.
Some years later, I met with an Orthodox priest, and we began to talk. It was Fr. Michael; you know him, and how he welcomes you. After some time, I said, “You don’t know how much better it is now that I am using my intellect to perceive good.” He looked at me and said, “What would you say if I told you that you don’t even know what your intellect is?”
I looked at him. “Um… I have no place to put that suggestion. What do you mean?”
He closed his eyes in thought. “You’re a bookish fellow. Have you read Descartes, or the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason, or even the popularizations of science that good scientists wince at?”
I said, “A little.”
He said, “I think you mean yes.”
I tried not to smile.
He continued, “Read Plato for something that’s a little saner. Then read John Chrysostom and Maximus Confessor. Try on the difference between what they say about the mind.”
I said, “I’m sure I’ll find interesting nuances on the concept of mind.”
Before leaving, he said, “So long as you’ve found only nuances on a concept of mind, you have missed the point.”
That remark had my curiosity, if nothing else, and so I began to read. I began trying to understand what the different nuances were on the concept of mind, and… It was a bit like trying to mine out the subtle nuances between the word ‘Turkey’ when it means a country and ‘turkey’ when it meant a bird.
When someone like John Chrysostom or Maximus Confessor talks about the “intellect,” you’re setting yourself up not to understand if you read it as “what IQ is supposed to measure.” Intellect does mean mind, but in order to understand what that means, you have to let go of several things you don’t even know you assume about the mind.
If you look at the vortex surrounding Kant, you think that there’s a real outer world, and then we each have the private fantasies of our own minds. And the exact relation between the fixed outer world and the inner fantasy varies; modernism focuses on the real outer world and postmodernism on the private inner fantasy, but they both assume that when you say “inner” you must mean “private.”
But what Maximus Confessor, for instance, believed, was that the inner world was an inner world of spiritual realities—one could almost say, “not your inner world, not my inner world, but the inner world.” Certainly it would seem strange to say that my inner world is my most private possession, in a sense even stranger than saying, “My outer world is my most private possession.” And if you can sever the link between “inner” and “private,” you have the first chink between what the intellect could be besides another nuance on reason.
Out of several ways that one could define the intellect, one that cuts fairly close to the heart of it is, “Where one meets God.” The intellect is first and foremost the spiritual point of contact, where one meets God, and that flows into meeting spiritual realities. Thought is a matter of meeting these shared realities, not doing something in your mind’s private space. The intellect is mind, but most of us will have an easier time understanding it if we start from the spirit than if we start at our understanding of mind.
The understanding of knowledge is very different if you have a concept of the intellect versus having a concept of the reason. The intellect’s knowing is tied to the body and tied to experience. It has limitations the reason doesn’t have: with reason you can pick anything up that you have the cleverness for, without needing to have any particular character or experience. If you’re sharp, you can pick up a book and have the reason’s knowledge. But the intellect knows by sharing in something, knows by drinking. Someone suggested, “The difference between reason and intellect, as far as knowledge goes, is the difference between knowing about your wife and knowing your wife.” The reason knows about the things it knows; the intellect knows of things, by tasting, by meeting, by experiencing, by sharing, by loving.
And here I am comparing the intellect and the reason on reason’s grounds, which is the way to compare them as two distinct concepts but not to meet them with the deepest part of your being. We know Christ when we drink his body and blood. Something of the intellect’s knowing is why words for “know” are the main words for sexual union in the Bible: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife”, and things like that. While the reason puts things together,by reasoning from one thing to another, the intellect sees, and knows as the angels know, or as God knows.
And when I asked him, “When can I learn more of this?” Fr. Michael said, “Not from any book, at least not for now. Come, join our services, and they will show you what books cannot.” I was startled by the suggestion, but Orthodox worship, and the Orthodox Way, gave me something that Maximus Confessor’s confusing pages could not. The concept of the intellect does not appear as a bare and obscure theory in Orthodoxy any more than the concept of eating; people who have never heard of the ‘intellect’, under any of its names, are drawn to know the good by it. It’s like a hiker who sees beauty on a hike, strives to keep going, and might have no idea she’s getting exercise.
The lesson I’m now learning could be narrowly stated as “Theology is not philosophy whose subject-matter is God.” I pretended to listen politely when I heard that, but philosophy is reason-knowing and theology is intellect-knowing. It’s unfortunate that we use the same word, “know,” for both. Christ said, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all these things shall be added to you.” Originally he was talking about food and drink, but I’ve come to taste that “all these things” means far more. I sought a knowledge of the good, and so I was trying to think it out. Since I’ve begun to walk the Orthodox Way, as how God wants me to seek the Kingdom of Heaven, I’ve tasted good in ways I would never have imagined. When I first spoke with Fr. Michael, I was hoping he would give me more ideas I could grasp with my reason. Instead he gave me an invitation to step into a whole world of wonder I didn’t know was open to me, and to enter not with my reason alone but with my whole life.
When we worship, we use incense. I am still only beginning to appreciate that, but there is prayer and incense ascending before God’s throne, and when we worship, it is a beginning of Heaven. When the priest swings the censer before each person, he recognizes the image of Christ in him. When we kiss icons, whether made of wood or flesh, our display of love and reverence reaches God. Our prayer is a participation in the life of the community, in the life of Heaven itself. We are given bread and wine, which are the body and blood of Christ, and we drink nothing less than the divine life from the fountain of immortality. Christ became what we are that we might become what he is. The Son of God became a Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God. And we live in a world that comprehends the visible and invisible, a world where spirit, soul, and matter interpenetrate, where we are created as men and women, where eternity breathes through time, and where every evil will be defeated and every good will be glorified.
And there is much more to say than that, but I can’t put it in words.
John’s Tale: The Holy Grail
Mary looked at John and said, “Have you read The da Vinci Code?” She paused, and said, “What did you think of it?”
John drew a deep breath.
John said, “The Christians I know who have read The da Vinci Code have complained about what it presents as history. And most of the history is… well, only a couple of notches higher than those historians who claim the Holocaust didn’t happen. I personally find picking apart The da Vinci Code‘s historical inaccuracies to be distasteful, like picking apart a child’s toy. Furthermore, I think those responses are beside the point.”
Mary said, “So you think the history is sound?”
John said, “I think that a lot of people who think they’re convinced by the history in The da Vinci Code have been hoodwinked into thinking it’s the history that persuaded them. The da Vinci Code‘s author, Dan Brown, is a master storyteller and showman. The da Vinci Code isn’t a compelling book because someone stuck history lectures in a bestseller. The da Vinci Code is a compelling book because it sells wonder. Dan Brown is the kind of salesman who could sell shoes to a snake, and he writes a story where Jesus is an ordinary (if very good) man, is somehow more amazing of a claim that Jesus is the person where everything that was divine met everything that was human.
“The da Vinci Code boils down to a single word, and that word is ‘wonder.’ Dan Brown, as the kind of person who can sell shoes to a snake, leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the ideas he is pushing are more exotic, alluring, and exciting than the Christianity which somehow can’t help coming across as a blob of dullness.”
Mary said, “But don’t you find it an exciting book? Something which can add a bit of spice to our lives?”
John said, “It is an excellent story—it gripped me more than any other recent bestseller I’ve read. It is captivating and well-written. It has a lot of excellent puzzles. And its claim is to add spice to our lives. That’s certainly what one would expect. But let’s look at what it dismisses as ho-hum. Let’s look at the Christianity that’s supposed to be boring and need a jolt of life from Brown.”
Mary said, “I certainly found what Brown said about Mary Magdalene to be an eye-opener. Certainly better than…”
John said, “If I found the relics of Mary Magdalene, I would fall before them in veneration. Mary Magdalene was equal to the twelve apostles—and this isn’t just my private opinion. The Orthodox Church has officially declared her to be equal to the twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all list her first among women who followed Christ to the cross, and John lists her as the one who first saw the secret of the resurrection. She has her own feast day, July 22, and it’s a big enough feast that we celebrate the Eucharist that day. Tradition credits her with miracles and bold missionary journeys. The story is told of her appearing before the Roman Emperor proclaiming the resurrection, and the Emperor said, ‘That’s impossible. For a man to rise from the dead is as impossible as for an egg to turn red!’ Mary Magdalene picked up an egg, and everyone could see it turn red. That why we still give each other eggs dyed red when we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. There are some ancient Christian writings that call Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles, because it was she herself who told the Apostles the mystery of the resurrection.”
Mary said, “Wow.” She closed her eyes to take it in, and then said, “Then why did the Catholic Church mount such a smear campaign against her?”
John said, “I said I didn’t want to scrutinize The da Vinci Code‘s revision of history, but I will say that Brown distorts things, quite intentionally as far as I know. And he counts on you, the reader, to make a basic error. Brown is working hard to attack Catholicism—or at least any form of Catholicism that says something interesting to the modern world. Therefore (we are supposed to assume) Catholicism is duty-bound to resist whatever Brown is arguing for. Catholicism isn’t an attempt to keep its own faith alive. It’s just a reaction against Brown.
“Putting it that way makes Brown sound awfully egotistical. I don’t think Brown has reasoned it that consistently, or that he thought we might reason it that consistently, but Brown does come awfully close in thinking that if he’s pushing something, Rome opposes it. He extols Mary Magdalene, so Rome must be about tearing her down. He glorifies a mysterious place for the feminine, so Rome must be even more misogynistic than the stereotype would have it. I hate to speak for our neighbors at the Catholic parish down the street, but—”
Mary interrupted. “But don’t you find something romantic, at least, to think that Mary held the royal seed in her womb?”
John said, “The symbol of the chalice… the womb as a cup… I do find it romantic to say that Mary held the royal seed in her womb. And it’s truer than you think. I believe that Mary was the urn that held the bread from Heaven, that she was the volume in which the Word of Life was inscribed, that her womb is more spacious than the Heavens. Only it’s a different Mary than you think. I’m not sure how much you know about angels, but there are different ranks, and the highest ranks were created to gaze on the glory of God. The highest two ranks are the cherubim and seraphim, and the cherubim hold all manner of wisdom and insight, while the seraphim burn with the all-consuming fire of holiness. There is no angel holier than these. It is of this different Mary that we sing,
More honorable than the cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
In virginity you bore God the Word;
True Mother of God, we magnify you.
“Her womb, we are told, is more spacious than the Heavens because it contained uncontainable God. It is the chalice which held something which is larger than the universe, and that is why it is more spacious than the Heavens.
“I reread The da Vinci Code, and I don’t remember if there was even a passing reference to the other Mary. This seems a little strange. If you’re interested in a womb that held something precious, if you’re interested in a woman who can be highly exalted, she would seem an obvious choice. I don’t think The da Vinci Code even raises her as an alternative to refute.
“Not even Dan Brown, however, can get away with saying that the Catholic Church ran a smear campaign against Our Lady. He may be able to sell shoes to snakes, but thanks in part to the Reformation’s concern that the Catholic Church was in fact worshipping Mary as God, that’s almost as tough a sell as stating that the Catholic Church doesn’t believe in God. We Orthodox give Mary a place higher than any angel, and it’s understandable for Protestants to say that must mean we give her God’s place—Protestants don’t have any place that high for a creature. The Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, has a cornucopia of saints, a glorious and resplendent plethora, a dazzling rainbow, and it’s possible not to know about the glory of Mary Magdalene. So Brown can sell the idea that the Catholic Church slandered one of her most glorious saints, and… um… quietly hope he’s distracted the reader from the one woman whom no one can accuse the Catholic Church of slandering.”
Mary looked at him. “There still seemed to be… There is a wonder that would be taken away by saying that Mary Magdalene was not the chalice that held the blood.”
John said, “What if I told you that that was a smokescreen, meant to distract you from the fact that wonder was being taken away?”
“Look at it. The da Vinci Code has a bit of a buildup before it comes to the ‘revelation’ that the Grail is Mary Magdalene.”
Mary said, “I was curious.”
John said, “As was I. I was wishing he would get out and say it instead of just building up and building up. There is a book I was reading—I won’t give the author, because I don’t want to advertise something that’s spiritually toxic—”
Mary smiled. “You seem to be doing that already.”
John groaned. “Shut up. I don’t think any of you haven’t had ads for The da Vinci Code rammed down your throat, nor do I think any of you are going to run and buy it to learn about pure and pristine Gnos— er… Christianity. So just shut up.”
Mary stuck out her tongue.
John poked her, and said, “Thank you for squeaking with me.
“Anyway, this book pointed out that the Holy Grail is not a solid thing. It is a shadow. It’s like the Cross: the Cross is significant, not just because it was an instrument of vile torture, but because it was taken up by the Storm who turned Hell itself upside-down. Literature has plenty of magic potions and cauldrons of plenty, but all of these pale in comparison with the Holy Grail. That is because the Holy Grail exists in the shadow of an even deeper mystery, a mystery that reversed an ancient curse. Untold ages ago, a serpent lied and said, ‘Take, eat. You will not die.’ Then the woman’s offspring who would crush the serpent’s head said, ‘Take, eat. You will live.’ And he was telling the truth, and he offered a life richer and deeper than anyone could imagine.
“And so there is a mystery, not only that those in an ancient time could eat the bread and body that is the bread from Heaven and drink the wine and blood that is the divine life, but that this mystery is repeated every time we celebrate it. We are blinded to the miracle of life because it is common; we are blinded to this sign because it is not a secret. And it is a great enough miracle that the chalice that held Christ’s blood is not one item among others; it is the Holy Grail.
“In the ancient world, the idea that God could take on a body was a tough pill to swallow. It still is; that God should take on our flesh boggles the mind. And there were a lot of people who tried to soften the blow. And one of the things they had to neutralize, in their barren spirituality, was the belief that Christ could give his flesh and blood. The legend of the Holy Grail is a testimony to the victory over that belief, the victory of God becoming human that we might become like him and that he might transform all of our humanity. It says that the cup of Christ, the cup which held Christ’s blood, is a treasure because Christ’s blood is a treasure, and the image is powerful enough that… We talk about ‘Holy Grail’s, as in ‘A theory that will do this is the Holy Grail of physics.’ That’s how powerful it is.
“I would say that there were people in the ancient world who didn’t get it. In a real sense, Dan Brown picks up where they left off. And part of what he needs to do is make Mary Magdalene, or some substitute, the Holy Grail, because we can’t actually have a cup that is the Holy Grail, because we can’t actually have a Table where Christ’s body and blood are given to all his brothers and sisters.
“And that is the meaning of Mary Magdalene as the Holy Grail. She is a beautiful diversion so we won’t see what is being taken away. She is a decoy, meant to keep our eyes from seeing that any place for the Eucharist is vanishing. And I’m sure Mary Magdalene is rolling over in her reliquary about this.
“But in fact the Eucharist is not vanishing. It’s here, and every time I receive it, I reverently kiss a chalice that is an image of the Holy Grail. What Dan Brown builds up to, as an exciting revelation, is that Jesus left behind his royal bloodline. This bloodline is alive today, and we see something special when Sophie wraps her arms around the brother she thought was dead. And that is truer than Dan Brown would ever have you guess.
“Jesus did leave behind his blood; we receive it every time we receive the Eucharist. And it courses through our veins. You’ve heard the saying, ‘You are what you eat.’ You do not become steak by eating steak, but you do become what Jesus is by eating his flesh. Augustine said, ‘See what you believe. Become what you behold.’ That’s part of the mystery. In part through the Eucharist, we carry Christ’s blood. It courses through our veins. And it’s not dilute beyond measure, as Dan Brown’s picture would have it. We are brothers and sisters to Christ and therefore to one another. There is an embrace of shared blood at the end of The da Vinci Code, and there is an embrace, between brothers and sisters who share something much deeper than physical blood, every time we share the holy kiss, or holy hug or whatever. Is the truth as wild as what Dan Brown says? It’s actually much wilder.”
Mary said, “I can’t help feeling that The da Vinci Code captures something that… their talk of knights and castles, a Priory that has guarded a secret for generations, a pagan era before the testosterone poisoning we now call Christianity…”
John smiled. “Yes. It had that effect on me too. These things speak of something more. When I was younger, one of my friends pointed out to me that when I said ‘medieval’, I was referring to something more than the Middle Ages. It was a more-than-literal symbol, something that resonated with the light behind the Middle Ages. And the same is happening with the golden age Brown evokes. All of us have a sense that there is an original good which was lost, or at least damaged, and the yearning Brown speaks to is a real yearning for a legitimate good. But as to the specific golden age… Wicca makes some very specific claims about being the Old Religion that Wiccans resume after the interruption of monotheism. Or at least it made them, and scholars devastated those claims. There are a few Wiccans who continue to insist that they represent the Old Religion instead of a modern Spiritualist’s concoction. But most acknowledge that the account isn’t literally true: they hold the idea of an ‘Old Religion’ as an inspiring tale, and use the pejorative term ‘Wiccan Fundamentalists’ for people who literally believe that Wicca is the Old Religion.
“And so we can yearn for a Golden Age when people believed the spirit of our own age… um… how can I explain this. People who yearn for an old age when men and women were in balance have done little research into the past. People who think the New Testament was reactionary have no idea of a historical setting that makes the New Testament look like it was written by flaming liberals. Someone who truly appreciated the misogyny in ancient paganism would understand that rape could not only be seen as permissible; quite often it was simply seen as a man’s prerogative. Trying to resurrect ancient paganism because Christian views on women bother you is like saying that your stomach is ill-treated by your parents’ mashed potatoes so you’re going to switch to eating sticks and gravel.
“But I’m getting into something I didn’t want to get into…
“There is something from beyond this world, something transcendent, that is shining through Brown’s writing. The Priory is haunting. The sacred feminine is haunting. There is something shining through. There is also something shining through in Orthodoxy. And that something is something that has shone through from the earliest times.
“In The da Vinci Code, knighthood is a relic of what it used to be. Or at least the knight they visit is a relic, more of a tip of the hat to ages past than a breathing tradition. The Knights Templar at least represent something alive and kicking. They’re a society that continues alive today and is at once medieval and modern. They bear the glory of the past, but they bear it today. In that sense they’re a glimmer of what the Church is—a society alike ancient and modern, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“What I meant to be saying is that knighthood is more a tip of the hat than something alive. I’ve read the Grail legends in their medieval forms, and I’ve met knights and ladies in those pages. It takes some time to appreciate the medieval tradition—there is every reason for a modern reader to say that the texts are long and tedious, and I can’t quickly explain why that understandable reaction is missing something. The knights and ladies there aren’t a tip of the hat; they’re men and women and they kick and breathe. And they represent something that the medieval authors would never have realized because they had never been challenged. They represent the glory of what it means to be a man, and the glory of what it means to be a woman. We speak of the New Eve, Mary, as ‘the most blessed and glorious Lady;’ we are called to be a royal priesthood, and when we receive the Eucharist we are called ‘the servant of God Adam’ or ‘the handmaiden of God Eve’—which is also meant to be humble, but inescapably means the Knights and Ladies serving before the King of Kings.
“The Orthodox Church knows a great deal about how to be a knight and how to be a lady. It can be smeared, but it has a positive and distinctive place for both men and women. It may be a place that looks bad when we see it through prejudices we don’t realize, but there is a real place for it.”
“I know a lot of people who think it’s not gender-balanced,” Mary said.
John said, “What would they hold as being gender balanced?”
“I’m not sure any churches would be considered gender-balanced.”
John said, “All right, which churches come closest?”
Mary said, “Well, the most liberal ones, of course.”
John said, “That doesn’t mesh with the figures. Men feel out of place in a lot of churches. With Evangelicalism and Catholicism, men aren’t that much of a minority, about 45%. Go to the more liberal churches, and you’ll find a ratio of about two to one, up to about seven to one. Come to an Orthodox parish, on the other hand, and find men voluntarily attending services that aren’t considered mandatory—and the closest to a 50-50 balance in America.”
Mary said, “But why? I thought the liberal churches had…”
John interrupted. “What are you assuming?”
Mary answered, “Nothing. Liberal churches have had the most opportunity for women to draw things into a balance.”
John continued questioning. “What starting point are you assuming?”
Mary said, “Nothing. Just that things need to be balanced by women… um… just that men have defined the starting point…”
“And?” John said.
Mary continued: “And… um… that women haven’t contributed anything significant to the starting point.”
John paused. “Rather a dismal view of almost two millennia of contributions by women, don’t you think?”
Mary opened her mouth, and closed it. “I need some time to think.”
John said, “It took me almost four years to figure it out; I won’t fault you if you’re wise enough to take some time to ponder it. And I might also mention that the image of being knights and ladies is meant to help understand what it means to be man and woman—Vive la glorieuse difference!—and the many-layered mystery of masculinity and femininity, but an image nonetheless. All statements possess some truth, and all statements fall immeasurably short of the truth.”
Mary said, “Huh? Are all statements equally true?”
John said, “No. Not all statements are equally true; some come closer to the truth than others. No picture is perfect, but there is such a thing as a more or less complete image. And what I have said about knights and ladies, and many things that could be said about the Church as a society guarding a powerful truth, point to something beyond them. They are great and the truth is greater. There is something in the Priory and the Knights Templar that is poisoned, that infects people with a sweetly-coated pride that ends in a misery that can’t enjoy other people because it can’t appreciate them, or indeed respect anybody who’s not part of the self-same inner ring. That ‘inner ring’ is in the beginning as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword, so that struggling to achieve rank in the Priory is a difficult struggle with a bitter end. And in that sense the Priory is an image of the Church… it is a fellowship which has guarded an ancient truth, a truth that must not die, and has preserved it across the ages. But instead of being an inner ring achieved by pride, the Church beckons us to humility. This humility is unlike pride: it is unattractive to begin with, but when we bow we are taller and we find the secret of enjoying the whole universe.”
“What is this secret?” Mary asked.
John closed his eyes for a moment and said, “You can only enjoy what you appreciate, and you can only appreciate what you approach in humility. This is part of a larger truth. It takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. If you want to see the one person who cannot enjoy drunkenness, look at an alcoholic. Virtue is the doorway to enjoying everything, even vice.
“There is a treacherous poison beckoning in ‘the inner ring’, of a secret that is hidden from outsiders one looks down on. The inner ring is a door to Hell.”
“You believe that Knights Templar will go to Hell?” Mary said.
John looked at her. “I believe that Knights Templar, and people in a thousand other inner rings, are in Hell already. I don’t know how Christ will judge them, but… In the end, some have remarked, there are only two kinds of people: those who tell God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God finally says, ‘Thy will be done.’ The gates of Hell are sealed, bolted, and barred from the inside, by men who have decided: ‘I would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!’ In one sense, Hell will never blast its full fury until the Judge returns. In another sense, Hell begins on earth, and the inner ring is one of its gates.”
Mary said, “Wow.”
John said, “And there is a final irony. What we are led to expect is that there is a great Western illusion. And Brown is going to help us see past it.”
Mary said, “And the truth?”
John said, “There is a great Western illusion, and Brown is keeping us from seeing past it.
“There’s a rather uncanny coincidence between Brown’s version of original, pristine paganism and the fashions feminism happens to take in our day. Our version of feminism is unusual, both in terms of history and in terms of cultures today. It’s part of the West that the Third World has difficulty understanding. And yet the real tradition, call it restored paganism or original Christianity or the Old Religion or what have you, turns out to coincide with all the idiosyncracies of our version of feminism. It’s kind of like saying that some 1970’s archaeologists exhumed an authentic pagan burial site, and it was so remarkably preserved that they could tell the corpses were all wearing bell-bottoms, which was the norm in the ancient world. If we made a statement like that about clothing, we’d need to back it up. And yet Brown does the same sort of thing in the realm of ideas, and it comes across as pointing out the obvious; most people wouldn’t think to question him. And this is without reading classical pagan texts about how marriage might lead a man to suicide because of feminine wrangling, and how any man who couldn’t deny his wife anything he chose was the lowest of slaves. Brown is a master of showmanship, at helping you see what he wants you to see and not see what he doesn’t want you to see.
“If we decline Brown’s assistance in seeing past illusions, it turns out that there’s another illusion he doesn’t help us see past. And, ironically, it is precisely related to symbol.
“Something profound happened in the Middle Ages, or started happening, that is still unfolding today. It is the disenchantment of the entire universe. There are several ways one could describe it. Up until a certain point, everyone took it for granted that horses, people, and colors were all things that weren’t originally created in our minds… wait, that was confusing. It’s easier to speak of the opposite. The opposite, which began to pick up steam almost a thousand years ago, was that we think up categories like horses and colors, but they don’t exist before we think of them. As it would develop, that was a departure from what most people believed. And a seed was planted that would take deeper and deeper root.
“That’s the philosophy way of putting it. The symbol’s way of putting it is that the departure, the new thinking, drove a wedge between a symbol and what that symbol represented. If you represented something, the symbol was connected to what it represented. That’s why, in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits mention Sauron and Gandalf makes a tense remark of, ‘Don’t mention that name here!’
“Why is this? The name of Sauron was a symbol of Sauron which bore in an invisible way Sauron’s presence. When Gandalf told the Hobbits not to mention that name, he was telling them not to bring Sauron’s presence.”
Mary said, “That sounds rather far-fetched.”
John answered, “Would you care to guess why, when you say a friend’s name and she stops by, you always say, ‘Speak of the Devil!’?”
Mary shifted her position slightly.
John continued. “Those two things are for the same reason. Tolkein was a medievalist who commanded both an excellent understanding of the medieval world, and was steeped in paganism’s best heroic literature. He always put me to sleep, but aside from that, he understood the medieval as most modern fantasy authors do not. And when Gandalf commands the hobbits not to speak the name of Sauron, there is a dying glimmer of something that was killed when the West embraced the new way of life.”
“The name of something is a symbol that is connected to the reality. Or at least, a lot of people have believed that, even if it seems strange to us. If you read the Hebrew Prophets, you’ll find that ‘the name of the Lord’ is a synonym for ‘the Lord’ at times, and people write ‘the Lord’ instead of saying the Lord’s actual name: ‘the Lord’ is a title, like ‘the King’ or ‘the President’, not a name like ‘Jacob.’ People were at first cautious of saying the Lord’s name in the wrong way, and by the New Testament most Jews stopped saying the Lord’s name at all. This is because people believed a symbol was connected to the reality, and a failure to show proper reverence to the Lord’s name was in fact a failure to show proper reverence to the Lord.
“When the Bible says that we are created in the image of God, this is not just a statement that we resemble God in certain ways. It is a statement that God’s actual presence operates in each person, and what you do to other people, you cannot help doing to God. This understanding, too obvious to need saying to the earliest readers, is behind everything from Proverbs’ statement that he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, to the chilling end of the parable in Matthew 25:
“When the King returns in glory… he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, a stranger and you did not welcome me, lacking clothes 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 you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or sick or in prison and did not care for you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘I solemnly tell you, insofar as you did not do it for the least of these brothers of mine, you did not do it for me.”
Mary thought, and asked, “Do you think that bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood?”
John said, “Yes. I believe they are symbols in the fullest possible sense: bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ, and are the body and blood of Christ. Blood itself is a symbol: the Hebrew Old Testament word for ‘blood’ means ‘life’, and throughout the Bible whenever a person says ‘shedding blood,’ he says, ‘taking life.’ Not only is wine a symbol of Christ’s blood, Christ’s blood is a symbol of the uncreated, divine life, and when we drink Christ’s blood, we receive the uncreated life that God himself lives. This is the life of which Jesus said, ‘Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life in you.’ So the wine, like the bread, is a symbol with multiple layers, Christ’s body and blood themselves being symbols, and it is for the sons of God to share in the divine life: to share in the divine life is to be divinized.
“Are these miracles? The question is actually quite deceptive. If by ‘miracle’ you mean something out of place in the natural order, a special exception to how things are meant to work, then the answer is ‘No.’
“The obvious way to try to incorporate these is as exceptions to how a dismembered world works: things are not basically connected, without symbolic resonance, with the special exceptions of the Eucharist and so on. But these are not exceptions. They are the crowning jewel of what orders creation.
“Things are connected; that is why when the Orthodox read the Bible, they see one tree in the original garden with its momentous fruit, and another tree that bore the Son of God as its fruit, and a final tree at the heart of the final Paradise, bearing fruit each season, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. This kind of resonance is almost as basic as the text’s literal meaning itself. Everything is connected in a way the West has lost—and by ‘lost’, I do not simply mean ‘does not have.’ People grasp on an intuitive level that symbols have mystic power, or at least should, and so we read about the Knights Templar with their exotic equal-armed crosses, flared at the ends, in red on white. Yes, I know, pretend you don’t know there’s the same kind of equal-armed cross, flared at the ends, on the backs of our priests and acolytes. The point we’re supposed to get is that we need to go to occult symbolism and magic if we are to recover that sense of symbol we sense we have lost, and fill the void.
“But the Orthodox Church is not a way to fill the void after real symbols have been destroyed. Orthodoxy does not need a Harvard ‘symbologist’ as a main character because it does not need to go to an exotic expert to recover the world of symbol. Orthodoxy in a very real sense has something better than a remedy for a wound it never received.
“To the Orthodox Church, symbols are far more than a code-book, they are the strands of an interconnected web. To the Church, symbols are not desparate escape routes drilled out of prison, but the wind that blows through a whole world that is open to explore.”
Mary pondered. “So we have a very deaf man who has said, ‘None of us can hear well, so come buy my hearing aid,’ and Orthodox Church as a woman who has never had hearing trouble and asks, ‘Why? What would I need one for?’
“And is there something deeper than symbol, even?”
John closed his eyes. “To answer that question, I’m having trouble doing better than paraphrasing Pseudo-Dionysius, and I wish we had his Symbolic Theology. ‘I presume this means something specific. I assume it means that everything, even the highest and holiest things that the eye, the heart… I mean mind… I mean intellect, the intellect which perceives those realities beyond the eye… I mean that everything they can perceive is merely the rationale that presupposes everything below the Transcendent One.’
“Yes, there is One who is deeper than all created symbols.”
Basil’s Tale: The Desert Fathers
Father Basil said, “When I read the introduction to Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, I wasn’t disappointed yet. At least, that’s where I first met these people; Waddell gives one translation of an ancient collection, and if you search on the Web for The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, you can find them easily enough.
“The introduction led me to expect important historical documents in the life of the Church—you know, the sort of first try that’s good for you because it’s dull and uninteresting, kind of like driving a buggy so you can appreciate what a privilege it is to ride a car. Or like spending a year wasting time on your PC, reinstalling Windows and trying to recover after viruses wreak havoc on your computer, so that when you finally upgrade to a Mac, you appreciate it. Then I actually began to read the Desert Fathers, and…”
John asked, “Can you remember any of them? There’s…”
Father said, “Yes, certainly.”
An old monk planted a piece of dry wood next to a monk’s cell in the desert, and told the young monk to water it each day until… So the young monk began the heavy toil of carrying water to water the piece of wood for year after year. After three years, the wood sprouted leaves, and then branches. When it finally bore fruit, the old monk plucked the fruit and said, “Taste the fruit of obedience!”
Three old men came to an old monk, and the last old man had an evil reputation. And the first man told the monk, “Make me a fishing net,” but he refused. Then the second man said, “Make me a fishing net, so we will have a keepsake from you,” but he refused. Then the third man said, “Make me a fishing net, so I may have a blessing from your hands,” and the monk immediately said, “Yes.” After he made the net, the first two asked him, “Why did you make him a net and not us?” And he said, “You were not hurt, but if I had said no to him, he would thought I was rejecting him because of his evil reputation. So I made a net to take away his sadness.”
A monk fell into evil struggles in one monastery, and the monks cast him out. So he came to an old monk, who received him, and sent him back after some time. But the monks as the monastery wouldn’t receive him. Then he sent a message, saying, “A ship was wrecked, and lost all of its cargo, and at last the captain took the empty ship to land. Do you wish to sink on land the ship that was saved from the sea?” Then they received him.
An old monk said, “He who finds solitude and quiet will avoid hearing troublesome things, saying things that he will regret, and seeing temptations. But he will not escape the turmoil of his own heart.”
There was a young monk who struggled with lust and spoke to an older monk in desparation. The old monk tore into him, scathing him and saying he was vile and unworthy, and the young monk fled in despair. The young monk met another old monk who said, “My son, what is it?” and waited until the young monk told everything. Then the old monk prayed that the other monk, who had cruelly turned on the young monk, would be tempted. And he ran out of his cell, and the second old monk said, “You have judged cruelly, and you yourself are tempted, and what do you do? At least now you are worthy of the Devil’s attention.” And the monk repented, and prayed, and asked for a softer tongue.
Once a rich official became a monk, and the priest, knowing he had been delicately raised, sent him such nice gifts as the monastery had been given. As the years passed, he grew in contemplation and in prophetic spirit. Then a young monk came to him, hoping to see his severe ascetic discipline. And he was shocked at his bed, and his shoes, and his clothes. For he was not used to seeing other monks in luxury. The host cooked vegetables, and in the morning the monk went away scandalized. Then his host sent for him, and said, “What city are you from?” “I have never lived in a city.” “Before you were a monk, what did you do?” “I cared for animals.” “Where did you sleep?” “Under the stars.” “What did you eat, and what did you drink?” “I ate bread and had no wine.” “Could you take baths?” “No, but I could wash myself in the river.” Then the host said, “You toiled before becoming a monk; I was a wealthy official. I have a nicer bed than most monks now. I used to have beds covered with gold; now I have this much cruder bed. I used to have costly food; now I have herbs and a small cup of wine. I used to have many servants; now I have one monk who serves me out of the goodness of his heart. My clothing was once costly beyond price; now you see they are common fare. I used to have minstrels before me; now I sing psalms. I offer to God what poor and feeble service I can. Father, please do not be scandalized at my weakness.” Then his guest said, “Forgive me, for I have come from heavy toil into the ease of the monastic life, and you have come from richness into heavy toil. Forgive me for judging you.” And he left greatly edified, and would often come back to hear his friend’s Spirit-filled words.
A monk came to see a hermit, and when he was leaving, said, “Forgive me, brother, for making you break your monastic rule of solitude.” The hermit said, “My monastic rule is to welcome you hospitably and send you away in peace.”
Once a group of monks came to an old monk, and another old monk was with them. The host began to ask people, beginning with the youngest, what this or that word in Scripture meant, and each tried to answer well. Then he asked the other old monk, and the other monk said, “I do not know.” Then the host said, “Only he has found the road—the one who says, ‘I do not know.'”
One old monk went to see another old monk and said to him, “Father, as far as I can I say my handful of prayers, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards Heaven. His fingers blazed as ten lamps of fire and he said, “If you desire it, you can become a fire.”
A brother asked an old monk, “What is a good thing to do, that I may do it and live?” The old monk said, “God alone knows what is good. Yet I have heard that someone questioned a great monk, and asked, ‘What good work shall I do?’ And he answered, ‘There is no single good work. The Bible says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. And Elijah loved quiet, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, find the desire God has placed in your heart, and do that, and guard your heart.”
Macrina’s Tale: The Communion Prayer
Mary looked at Macrina. “And I can see you’ve got something in your purse.”
Macrina smiled. “Here. I was just thinking what a blessing it is to have a prayer book. It is a powerful thing to raise your voice with a host of saints, and this version, the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius’s A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, is my favorite.” She flipped a few pages. “This prayer, and especially this version, has held a special place in my heart.
“And… I’m not sure how to put it. Westerners misunderstand us as being the past, but we are living now. But in the West, living now is about running from the past, trying to live in the future, and repeating the mistakes of the past. Ouch, that came out a lot harsher than I meant. Let me try again… in the East, living now leaves you free to enjoy the glory of the past. You can learn to use a computer today and still remember how to read books like you were taught as a child. And you are free to keep treasures like this prayer, from St. Simeon the New Theologian (“New” means he died in the 11th century):
From lips besmirched and heart impure,
From unclean tongue and soul sin-stained,
Receive my pleading, O my Christ,
Nor overlook my words, my way
Of speech, nor cry importunate:
Grant me with boldness to say all
That I have longed for, O my Christ,
But rather do thou teach me all
That it behoveth me to do and say.
More than the harlot have I sinned,
Who, learning where thou didst abide,
Brought myrrh, and boldly came therewith
And didst anoint thy feet, my Christ,
My Christ, my Master, and my God:
And as thou didst not cast her forth
Who came in eagerness of heart,
Abhor me not, O Word of God,
But yield, I pray, thy feet to me,
To my embrace, and to my kiss,
And with the torrent of my tears,
As with an ointment of great price,
Let me with boldness them anoint.
In mine own tears me purify,
And cleanse me with them, Word of God,
Remit my errors, pardon grant.
Thou knowest my multitude of sins,
Thou knowest, too, the wounds I bear;
Thou seest the bruises of my soul;
But yet thou knowest my faith, thou seest
My eager heart, and hear’st my sighs.
From thee, my God, Creator mine,
And my Redeemer, not one tear
Is hid, nor e’en the part of one.
Thine eyes mine imperfection know,
For in thy book enrolled ar found
What things are yet unfashioned.
Behold my lowliness, behold
My weariness, how great it is:
And then, O God of all the world,
Grant me release from all my sins,
That with clean heart and conscience filled
With holy fear and contrite soul
I may partake of thy most pure,
Thine holy spotless Mysteries.
Life and divinity hath each
Who eateth and who drinketh thee
Thereby in singleness of heart;
For thou hast said, O Master mine,
Each one that eateth of my Flesh,
And drinketh likewise of my Blood—
He doth indeed abide in me,
And I in him likewise am found.
Now wholly true this saying is
Of Christ, my Master and my God.
For he who shareth in these graces
Divine and deifying is
No wise alone, but is with thee,
O Christ, thou triply-radiant Light,
Who the whole world enlightenest.
Therefore, that I may ne’er abide,
Giver of Life, alone, apart
From thee, my breath, my life, my joy,
And the salvation of the world—
For this, thou seest, have I drawn nigh
To thee with tears and contrite soul;
My errors’ ransom to receive
I seek, and uncondemned to share
In thy life-giving Mysteries
Immaculate; that thou mayst dwell
With me, as thou hast promised,
Who am in triple wretchedness;
Lest the Deceiver, finding me
Removed from thy grace by guile
May seize me, and seducing lead
Astray from thy life-giving words.
Wherefore I fall before thy face,
And fervently I cry to thee,
As thou receiv’dst the Prodigal
And Harlot, when she came to thee,
So now my harlot self receive
And very Prodigal, who now
Cometh with contrite soul to thee.
I know, O Savior, none beside
Hath sinned against thee like as I,
Nor done the deeds which I have dared.
But yet again, I know this well,
That not the greatness of my sins,
Nor my transgressions’ multitude,
Exceeds my God’s forbearance great,
Nor his high love toward all men.
But those who fervently repent
Thou with the oil of lovingness
Dost cleanse, and causest them to shine,
And makest sharers of thy light,
And bounteously dost grant to be
Partakers of thy Divinity;
And though to angels and to minds
Of men alike ’tis a strange thing,
Thou dost converse with them ofttimes—
These thoughts do make me bold, these thoughts
Do give me pinions, O my Christ;
And thus confiding in thy rich
Good deeds toward us, I partake—
Rejoicing, trembling too, at once—
Who am but grass, of fire: and lo!
—A wonder strange!—I am refreshed
With dew, beyond all speech to tell;
E’en as in olden time the Bush
Burning with fire was unconsumed.
Therefore, thankful in mind and heart,
Thankful, indeed, in every limb,
With all my body, all my soul,
I worship thee, yea, magnify,
And glorify thee, O my God,
Both now and to all ages blest.
Barbara’s Tale: The Fairy Prince
Adam looked at his daughter and said, “Barbara, what do you have to share? I can hear you thinking.”
Barbara looked at her father and said, “You know what I’m thinking, Daddy. I’m thinking about the story you made for me, the story about the fairy prince.”
“Why don’t you tell it, Sweetie? You know it as well as I do.”
The child paused a moment, and said, “You tell it, Daddy.”
Here is the tale of the fairy prince.
Long ago and far away, the world was full of wonder. There were fairies in the flowers. People never knew a rift between the ordinary and the magical.
But that was not to last forever. The hearts of men are dark in many ways, and they soon raised their axe against the fairies and all that they stood for. The axe found a way to kill the dryad in a tree but leave the tree still standing—if indeed it was really a tree that was still standing. Thus begun the disenchantment of the entire universe.
Some time in, people realized their mistake. They tried to open their hearts to wonder, and bring the fairies back. They tried to raise the axe against disenchantment—but the axe they were wielding was cursed. You might as well use a sword to bring a dead man to life.
But this story is not about long ago and far away. It is about something that is recent and very near. Strange doings began when the son of the Fairy Queen looked on a world that was dying, where even song and dance and wine were mere spectres of what they had been. And so he disguised himself as a fool, and began to travel in the world of men.
The seeming fool came upon a group of men who were teasing a young woman: not the mirthful, merry teasing of friends, but a teasing of dark and bitter glee. He heard one say, “You are so ugly, you couldn’t pay a man enough to kiss you!” She ran away, weeping.
The prince stood before her and said, “Stop.” And she looked at him, startled.
He said, “Look at me.”
She looked into his eyes, and began to wonder. Her tears stopped.
He said, “Come here.”
She stood, and then began walking.
He said, “Would you like a kiss?”
Tears filled her eyes again.
He gave her his kiss.
She ran away, tears falling like hail from her eyes. Something had happened. Some people said they couldn’t see a single feature in her face that had changed. Others said that she was radiant. Others still said that whatever she had was better than gorgeous.
The prince went along his way, and he came to a very serious philosopher, and talked with him, and talked, and talked. The man said, “Don’t you see? You are cornered. What you are saying is not possible. Do you have any response?”
The prince said, “I do, but it comes not in words, but in an embrace. But you wouldn’t be interested in that, would you?”
For some reason, the man trusted him, and something changed for him too. He still read his books. But he would also dance with children. He would go into the forest, and he did not talk to the animals because he was listening to what the animals had to say.
The prince came upon a businessman, a man of the world with a nice car and a nice house, and after the fairy prince’s kiss the man sold everything and gave it away to the poor. He ate very little, eating the poorest fare he could find, and spent much time in silence, speaking little. One of his old friends said, “You have forsaken your treasures!”
He looked at his friend and said, “Forsaken my treasures? My dearest friend, you do not know the beginning of treasure.”
“You used to have much more than the beginning of treasure.”
“Perhaps, but now I have the greatest treasure of all.”
Sometimes the prince moved deftly. He spoke with a woman in the park, a pain-seared woman who decided to celebrate her fiftieth wedding anniversary—or what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of a long and blissful marriage, if her husband were still alive. She was poor, and had only one bottle of champagne which she had been saving for many years. She had many friends; she was a gracious woman. She invited the fairy prince, and it was only much later that her friends began to wonder that that the one small bottle of champagne had poured so amply for each of them.
The prince did many things, but not everybody liked it. Some people almost saw the prince in the fool. Others saw nothing but a fool. One time he went into a busy shopping mall, and made a crude altar, so people could offer their wares before the Almighty Dollar. When he was asked why, he simply said, “So people can understand the true meaning of Christmas. Some people are still confused and think it’s a religious holiday.” That was not well received.
Not long after, the woman whom he met in the park slept the sleep of angels, and he spoke at her funeral. People cried more than they cried at any other funeral. And their sides hurt. All of this was because they were laughing so hard, and the funny thing was that almost nobody could remember much afterwards. A great many people took offense at this fool. There was only one person who could begin to explain it. A very respected man looked down at a child and said, “Do you really think it is right to laugh so much after what happened to her?” And then, for just a moment, the child said, “He understood that. But if we really understood, laughter wouldn’t be enough.”
There were other things that he did that offended people, and those he offended sought to drive him away. And he returned to his home, the palace of the Fairy Queen.
But he had not really left. The fairy prince’s kiss was no ordinary kiss. It was a magic kiss. When he kissed you, he gave his spirit, his magic, his fairy blood. And the world looks very different when there is fairy blood coursing through your veins. You share the fairy prince’s kiss, and you can pass it on. And that pebble left behind an ever-expanding wave: we have magic, and wonder, and something deeper than either magic or wonder.
And that is how universe was re-enchanted.
Adam looked down at his daughter and said, “There, Sweetie. Have I told the story the way you like it?”
The child said, “Yes, Daddy, you have,” climbed into her father’s lap, and held up her mouth for a kiss.
No one spoke after that.
Finally, after a time, Barbara said, “Can we go outside, Daddy? I bet the snow’s real good now.”
Father Basil said, “Why don’t we all go out? Just a minute while I get my gloves. This is snowball making snow.”
Five minutes later, people stepped out on the virgin snow. Macrina said, “This is wonderful. It’s like a fairy wonderland.”
Paul said, “No. It’s much more wonderful than that.”
Then the snowballs flew, until Adam said, “See if you can hit that snowplough!”
And then it was time to go home.