A Yoke That Is Easy and a Burden That Is Light

CJSHayward.com/yoke

O Lord, who hast said with thine own most pure lips, Without me you can do nothing, and My yoke is easy, and my burden is light, grant to me fortitude to cast down the iron yoke of passions which thou willest to work in me to destroy. Grant me courage and trust to accept the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light, like the birds of the air, like unto the lilies of the field, where even Solomon in all his glory mighteth not make a yoke strong enough to, overpowering, subdue.

Grant unto me a calm no storm hath shaken: or rather, grant me that peace wherein thou calledst forth, Peace! Be still! And if I be in fear after thou hast commanded so, let it be no more fear of wind and wave, but a terror of wonder at thou thyself, to whom all things in life must needs answer.

Free me from making iron yokes in my lack of trust, in my laziness. Free me to take on thy yoke thou it beseemeth madness and do thou break into pieces the idolatrous iron yoke I have tied to my back and not lifted a finger to release. Forgive my doubts, my lack of faith, my seeking sovereign lordship and control over the circumstances of my life. Give me easy circumstances, if thou wilt, or hard, and in either let me find a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. Save me from trying to make a light yoke out of iron; do thou Carpenter, who hath never created an iron yoke, free me from my flight to escape the easy yoke and light burden which thou preparedst for me before the world was created, and ever summonest me to, whatever my fugue by which I flee from thy weal.

Do thou grant me this, together with thy Father of all Providence, and thine all-holy, ever-present, and life, bestowing Spirit. Amen.

Akathist Hymn to St. Philaret the Merciful

The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

Doxology

Silence: Organic Food for the Soul

Work-Mystic

Surgeon General’s Warning

This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.

CJSH.name/work-mystic


Read it on Kindle for $3!

Gentle Reader;

An intriguing book… found in questionable quarters

I have found a watershed moment after a friend gave me a copy of Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. I don’t know that everybody will have a watershed moment; perhaps others will understand its central point much more naturally than I do. But I am very grateful to be given the book.

Before going further, and talking about “work-mysticism”, there are some hesitancies I would like to mention. And I really don’t know how to say this with due kindness and courtesy to fans of Fr. Seraphim (Rose), including one dearly loved member of my parish.

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives bears the “warning label” of the St. Herman of Alaska brotherhood Fr. Seraphim started. Let me blandly state that I have associated Fr. Seraphim’s following with some harassment, and it has resonated with others when I’ve said Fr. Seraphim’s following “tastes like Kool-Aid.” Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, like other titles from that movement, is exotic to the Western reader, really too exotic, almost as if works were chosen on unconscious, tacit criteria that included appearing sufficiently exotic to a certain kind of Western convert, and bears the mark of a rebellion against the common things of the West, where a more Orthodox response would be to be alienated from Western things without expending the energy to constantly fight it. It is also characteristic, though not universal, to read texts associated with Fr. Seraphim and get the feeling of a magic spell falling over me: after praying and being comfortable with the decision I read the “Nine Enneads” of Christ the Eternal Tao, but not more; my conscience felt almost like an instruction to “take two stiff drinks and stop cold.

One person who commented to me over email knew quite specifically that I was a member of ROCOR (quite probably the one Orthodox jurisdiction with the most nostalgia for nineteenth-century Russia), and tried to specifically make the point that nineteenth century Russia was no golden age. That much was not news to me; the priest who received me into the Church repeatedly emphasized, “There was never a golden age.” He didn’t mention nineteenth century Russia so much, but he talked about the Age of the Councils as being an Age when Ecumenical Councils were called because of how truly bad the problems and heresies were. But the other correspondent argued to me that nineteenth century Russia was a “Gnostic wonderland,” with something for every idle curiosity, and in his opinion the worst century in Orthodox history, and this is a problem for Fr. Seraphim because Fr. Seraphim got his bearings in Orthodoxy primarily from nineteenth century Russia. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives tells of an elder who answered questions by speaking out of the Philokalia. I’ve read the Philokalia more than once, and the ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, and the Bible many times more, and everything that is interesting about Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is something I have never picked up even a little fromthe Bible, St. Isaac, and the Philokalia. Perhaps I haven’t read them enough, or grown enough, or something else enough, but I have not been able to pull a hint of Elder Thaddeus’s main points in any of the older classics mentioned.

With all that stated, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is a pearl.

Perhaps one place to begin is to challenge the simplified psychology of “I have my thoughts going on in my head and you have your thoughts going on in your head.” Someone who knows a bit of actual psychology may recognize something contagious about emotion, but let’s wave this aside: psychology is basically about your self-contained mind.

Not so, according to Elder Thaddeus and the Orthodox Tradition. What the West speaks of today as “the seven deadly sins” was originally known as “the eight demons,” demons who tempt us with particular temptations. A great deal of what we today classify as psychology has to do with the activity of demons intruding on our thoughts and experiences. Destructive thoughts may be something we make our own: but they are not our own, not from the beginning. They are stings where demons inject venom into our hearts. Now we do have a say in whether the injection succeeds: God help us if we had no defense or no say in the matter! The Philokalia works at length on the science of spiritual struggle and how “a stitch in time saves nine.” To quote the rather technical definition of “temptation” in the English glossary to the Philokalia:

Temptation (πειρασμος — peirasmos): also translated in our version as ‘trial’ or ‘test’. The word indicates, according to context: (i) a test or trial sent to man by God, so as to aid his progress on the spiritual way; (ii) a suggestion from the devil, enticing man to sin.

Using the word in sense (ii), the Greek Fathers employ a series of technical terms to describe the process of temptation. (See in particular Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 138-41, in vol. i of our translation, pp. 119-2-; John Klimakos, Ladder, Step 15, translated by Archimandrite Lazarus [op.cit., pp. 157-9; Maximos, On Love, i, 83-84, in vol. ii of our translation, pp. 62-63; John of Damaskos, On the Virtues and vices, also in vol. ii of out translation, pp. 337-8.) The basic distinction made by these fathers is between the demonic provocation and man’s assent: the first lies outside of man’s control, while for the second he is morally responsible. In detail, the chief terms employed are as follows:

(i) Provocation (προβολη — proslovi): the initial incitement to evil. Mark the Ascetic defines this as an ‘image-free stimulation in the heart’; so long as the provocation is not accompanied by images, it does not involve man in any guilt. Such provocations, originating as the devil, assail man from the outside, and so he is not morally responsible for them. His liability to these provocations is not a consequence of the fall: even in paradise, Mark maintains, Adam was assailed by the devil’s provocations. Man cannot prevent provocations from occurring; what does lie in his power, however, is to maintain constant watchfulness (q.v.) and so reject each provocation as soon as it emerges into his consciousness — that is to say, at its first appearance as a thought in his mind or intellect (μονολογιστος εμφασις — monologistos emphasis). If he does reject the provocation, the sequence is cut off and the process of temptation is terminated.

(ii) Momentary disturbance (παραρριπισμος — pararripismos) of the intellect, occurring ‘without any movement or working of bodily passion’ (see Mark, Letter to Nicholas the Solitary: in out translation, vol. i, p. 153). This seems to be more than the ‘first appearance’ of a provocation described in stage (i) above; for, at a certain point of spiritual growth in this life, it is possible to be totally released from such ‘momentary disturbance’, whereas no one can expect to be altogether free from demonic provocations.

(iii) Communion (ομιλια — homilia); coupling (συνδυασμος — syndyasmos). Without as yet entirely assenting to the demonic provocation, a man may begin to ‘entertain’ it, to converse or parley with it, turning it over in his mind pleasurably, yet still hesitating whether or not to act upon it. At this stage, which is indicated by the terms ‘communion’ or ‘coupling’, the provocation is no longer ‘image-free’ but has become a logismos or thought (q.v.) and man is morally responsible for having allowed this to happen.

(iv) Assent (συγκαταθεσις — synkatathesis). This signifies a step beyond mere ‘communion’ or ‘coupling’. No longer merely ‘playing’ with the evil suggestion, a man now resolves to act on it. There is now no doubt as to his moral culpability: even if circumstances prevent him from sinning outwardly, he is judged by God according to the intention in his heart.

(v) Prepossession (προληψις — prolipsis): defined by Mark as ‘the involuntary presence of former sins in the memory’. This state of ‘prepossession’ or prejudice results from repeated acts of sin which predispose a man to yield to particular temptations. In principle he retains his free choice and can reject demonic provocations; but in practice the force of habit makes it more and more difficult for him to resist.

(vi) Passion (q.v.). If a man does not fight strenuously against a prepossession, it will develop into an evil passion.

To put the same in nontechnical language, if there is a smouldering spark where it doesn’t belong, put it out as soon as you can. If you don’t, and its smouldering set an armchair on fire, drop everything and use use a fire extinguisher as soon as you can. If you let the fire spread to your whole house, call the fire department as soon as you can: there is a divine Fire Chief Who mightily rescued St. Mary of Egypt. However, the best portion by far is to be attentive and do whatever it takes to snuff out sparks when they’re still only sparks.

Mysticism that relates quite directly to work

“Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”

“Make peace with yourself, and Heaven and earth will make peace with you.”

These words are tantalizing, and Elder Thaddeus’s contribution in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives may be to offer a big picture of a world in which our thoughts matter, and not simply for us. A great deal of human misery stems from our needlessly warring against others in our thoughts.

Before digging further into workplace applications, I would orient things with a vignette of Elder Thaddeus’s biography:

In 1978 Fr. Thaddeus told G., one of his spiritual daughters, of another [rare] vision he had seen in a dream. “I had barely fallen asleep when I dreamt that I had died. Two young men led me into a room and had me stand on some sort of platform between them. To my right were the judges. Someone in the far left corner of the room was reading the charges against me. ‘That’s him! That’s the one who cannot get along with anyone!’ I stood there dumbfounded. The voice repeated the same accusation two more times. Then the young man standing on my right hand said to me, ‘Do not be afraid! It is not true that you cannot get along with anyone. You just cannot get along with yourself!'”

To take a work-related example of the basic issue, I remember feeling really sorry for a train conductor who said it made things easier to say that there was “one Monday, then three ‘Almost Fridays’, and then Friday.” My concern is not that this was a crutch; some crutches are legitimate and quite helpful. My concern was that this is not a crutch that makes work bearable at all; it is a crutch that makes work simply unbearable. It’s a crutch that makes you relate to work as something you have to barely endure.

Now some jobs are barely endurable, or simply unendurable. In areas of the third world, there are sweatshops where women are expected to work fifteen hour days, seven days a week, even if they are violently ill, and rape is used as a mainstream disciplinary measure. On a lesser scale, I’m not sure I’d do well as a customer service doormat constantly dealing with verbally abusive customers. And I know that various grades of harassment exist in the first world as well. But beyond that, how many jobs in the U.S. really are beyond all endurance? I’ve left one job, not when my boss was rude to me and humiliated me in front of all my colleagues, but because the work was other than as advertised in a way that was increasingly impacting my health (and other attempts had failed to produce results), and I think that I may have been justified, but there are still things I would rather have handled differently. But even if “people don’t stop working for companies; they stop working for bosses,” the number of times it’s the right thing to leave is rare compared to how quickly we do resign.

Let’s look at this on a bit deeper level. The issue is not that the situation does not need to improve; the work situation quite probably does need to improve. But not from the angle of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “a geographical solution,” moving in the hope that your problems will go away. Elder Thaddeus wrote:

4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.

This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!

There is, at least in the U.S, the issue of what is called “an instrumental view of labor.” That is to say, work is a necessary evil we do to get money, and there would be no reason to work if we didn’t need the money. And work has indeed been cursed and disfigured by the Fall, but not created in the curse of the Fall. And really the “thorns and thistles” affects all our work, not just agricultural workers. There is no job under the sun that is free of thorns and thistles. Some jobs may have a honeymoon period, but as with a real honeymoon, it stops at some point and lets the real work begin. Life may indeed be easier with the wisdom Elder Thaddeus puts forth, but Elder Thaddeus had a difficult life; one of the dimensions of holier living is that it is more of a crown of thorns the more closely you approach the Christ God Who wore a Crown of Thorns en route to his crucifixion.

Returning to an instrumental view of labor, it treats the here and now that we are often to work in as the sort of thing that one endures, a negative to obtain a positive. And that much is fundamentally mistaken. We are created to work. Certain classes of work, such as a broad stretch of volunteering, activism, developing open source software, and also artistic activities like writing, musicianship, provide additional outlet to work beyond one’s regular job. We really are made to work. An allergic reaction to the experience of (paid) work is part of the U.S. culture that need not be there, like finding waiting more than a few minutes to be unpleasant (there are cultures where people can wait an hour without being ruffled), and it is possible to enjoy working. And be at peace with oneself.

Twelve Strategies

Here are twelve strategies drawn from Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and the Orthodox spiritual Tradition:

  1. Be grateful.Count your blessings and be aware of how many blessings you have. Does your body work? That’s a blessing.I’ve studied several languages, and the more I’ve studied languages, the more I’ve become convinced that if you are knowing to know one word or phrase in your neighbor’s language, it should be “Thank you:” Spaseba—Russian; Terima kasih—Malaysian/Indonesian; Sheh-sheh—Chinese; Muy muchas gracias—Spanish. (See “Thank you” in many languages.)When I’ve said “Thank you” to people in their own heart language, they’ve been surprised and delighted at the gesture. No one seems to be offended at my pronunciation. Ever. If anything, clumsy execution only makes the endeavor more endearing.I’m not specifically suggesting that you learn languages, if that is not your thing. (For most people, it isn’t.) But please, pretty please, by all means, learn to be grateful, to say “Thank you” in letter and in spirit.
  2. Cultivate a deep respect for others with whom you cross paths.What can be respected about a mean boss or a crotchety co-worker? They are made in the image of God, and they are part of the royal family of the human race. There is something made for eternal glory that God himself respects in each person you meet. This doesn’t mean it is always easy to respect others, but the holier a person is, the more he finds something to respect in each person he meets. Some people are wary of giving compliments that feed a person’s vanity, but even then there is a lot of respect that can be given without inflicting needless temptation.
  3. Thirst for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor.This is a difficult step, and I one I have not mastered well. I want the most glorious assignment, or the most interesting, or whatever else would be most attractive to me, but I endure those that are menial. But it is a stroke of the masters to want the most menial work, and then perhaps be pleasantly surprised when some of their work is not menial.One health-oriented poster said, “Take the worst parking spot!” because it means a scant minute or two more walking. But it would be better, spiritually as well, to pick the least attractive parking spot. This point is made in the Gospel, Luke 14:7-11:

    And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, “When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, ‘Give this man place;’ and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, ‘Friend, go up higher:’ then shalt thou have veneration in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

  4. Be obedient, in thought and action.As far as it is not sin, obey your boss, however wrong he may be, and offer him obedience on as many spiritual levels as you can.
  5. Pray for your co-workers, especially the ones who are difficult.We should pray for everyone, but watchful prayer that quashes, as far as possible, the faintest thought of hostility is best.
  6. As far as you can, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek.There is only so much we can do, but the Sermon on the Mount is clear on this point and gives it attention. Also relevant are the words of The Ladder of Divine Ascent: “[Humility] is to forestall one’s neighbor at a contentious moment and to be the first to end a quarrel.”
  7. Let the other person have the upper hand, be “higher.”It seems entirely natural to establish the upper hand if one can, and so much of our conversation, even banter, has a thread of control. But if one can seek the lower room, you will be someone no-one struggles against.
  8. Forgive seven billion times.In a Biblical culture where most people could not count to twenty without taking off any shoes, the strong rule was “Three strikes, you’re out!” St. Peter made a rather ludicrous question of the Savior: “Should I forgive seven times?” The Lord’s answer was even more ludicrous: “Not seven, but seven times seventy [or, more accurately, seventy-seven].” He might as well have said seven billion.We are to keep on forgiving.
  9. Beware the “demon of noonday”.Today we speak of a “midafternoon slump” and perhaps “low blood sugar.” The ancient monastic tradition spoke of a demon that tempts us to escape and makes the early afternoon something tedious that makes the here and now something intolerable, to escape. It is fought by rejecting escape as far as we can and by praying through it, until we realize God’s Creation is not the sort of thing one rightly wants to escape from.
  10. Be watchful of your thoughts, especially warring thoughts or negative thoughts.Different times have had different ideas of the worst sin; in caricature at least, Victorians were imagined to have made sexual sin the ultimate sin, while contemporary Protestantism usually gives that place to pride. In ancient times, apparently echoed by Elder Thaddeus, the worst sin was anger.One of the central themes that he keeps coming to is that we keep on holding warring thoughts, that if we would work on repenting and praying of, we would defuse a problematic situation, but we keep on holding onto our piece of the problem. Read Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives for all of the many things it says about the warring thoughts we are unaware of holding against our neighbors, including every boss and co-worker.
  11. Blessed are the meek: Be meek!One repeated characteristic of martial artists is that those who are truly good tend to be the last person you would ever find in a fight, and the more likely to put up his hands and say, “You’re the tough guy!”I’m not specifically recommending martial arts, but if martial arts produce in its experts what the Tao Te Ching says as “A great warrior is not warlike,” what then is to be expected of the true brothers and true sisters of the Prince of Peace? Quite a lot, in fact.
  12. Lastly, keep in touch with your priest or spiritual father, and do not engage in spiritual warfare above your strength.If following this advice would represent a basic change for you, then it is normally the sort of thing you should check in with your priest or spiritual father about. And there are some people you should, perhaps, leave alone, and there are some activities you should, perhaps, leave alone. Every spiritual father is different, but there have been a few specific situations where my spiritual father has advised me, appropriately under the circumstances as far as I can tell, not to try to mend fences. And if your priest or spiritual father does think this is helpful, you will have his blessing to boot!

Quotes and broader context

If I could fairly quote all of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives without threatening others’ income or running afoul of the law, I would. However, here are a few gems from the collection. I am limiting myself to the first chapter, “On Thoughts:”

1.1. Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If out thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.

1.7. A man who has within him the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, divine thoughts. The Kingdom of Heaven creates within us an atmosphere of Heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in this world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.

We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will imperceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak to people about this. The atmosphere of Heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things. It will radiate from us even though we may not be aware of it.

1.16. An old woman came to me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. But the old woman said she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, “You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.”

1.19. Thoughts are planted in our minds all the time, from all sides and directions. Were it given us to see the radii of thoughts, we would see a real net of thoughts. Everyone has a “receiver” in his mind, one that is much more precise and sophisticated than a radio or television set. How wonderful is the mind of man! Unfortunately, we do not always appreciate this. We do not know how to unite ourselves with the Source of life and to feel joy…

Conclusion

It is my suggestion that Elder Thaddeus’s mystical theology in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives has every relevance to the world at work. It has relevance to other places as well; in passages not quoted, the author speaks emphatically about family life and Chapter 1, “On Thoughts,” is followed up by Chapter 2, “On Family.” But it is no diminution of Elder Thaddeus to look at what his wisdom and legacy spell out for success at work. Perhaps Christians are not called to worldly success in the sense of abundant wealth; the Bible includes very wealthy business owners like St. Abraham and St. Job the Much-Suffering, and very poor prophets like St. Elias (Elijah) and St. John the Baptist and Forerunner. But I think of my Aunt Gail talking about a conversation she had with her son about his business, and praying that he would always have “enough.” And she was emphatic about “enough”: although she did not use the terms “wants” or “needs”, she was clearly praying that her son would enjoy the kind of success that was truly beneficial for him as a person. And usually that’s not “as much money as you want.” But it is “enough.”

And if this work-mysticism is not a door to abundant treasures on earth, at least not for all, it is a door to treasures in Heaven. It is an invitation to find treasure in difficulties as well as pleasant times, in conflict and dishonor as well as people who are easy to get along with, a door to living the life of Heaven starting here on earth. The joy is intertwined with suffering—but the joy is deeper than the suffering.

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

Spaseba,
Christos

The Way of the Way

Surgeon General’s warning

I read a book I shouldn’t have read and got way too intoxicated with Taoism for way too long. This sydnrome is not unique in those who have come to Orthodoxy.

This posting is kept live for archival purposes.

CJSH.name/way

C.J.S. Hayward's Early Works
Read it on Kindle for $3!

I Beyond

Beyond doing, there is being.

Beyond time, there is eternity.

Beyond mortality, there is immortality.

Beyond knowledge, there is faith.

Beyond justice, there is mercy.

Beyond happy thoughts, there is joy.

Beyond communication, there is communion.

Beyond petition, there is prayer.

Beyond work, there is rest.

Beyond right action, there is virtue.
Beyond virtue, there is the Holy Spirit.

Beyond appreciation, there is awe.

Beyond sound, there is stillness.
Beyond stillness, there is the eternal song.

Beyond law, there is grace.

Beyond even wisdom, there is love.

Beyond all else, HE IS.

II Order

Love and the Spirit are the basis for all true order.

When love and true religion have departed, there is honor and morality.
When honor and morality have departed, there are rules.
Rules do not depart when they have lost their power. They grow and multiply.
When rules have grown to their full measure, there is chaos.

The more the rules, the less the order, and how does that profit anyone?

III Silence

The value of silence, of stillness, of meditation, of rest, is great.

I will not attempt to explain it with words.

IV Power

Strength is made perfect in weakness.

A vessel that is solid is worthless.
A vessel that is empty and hollow has room to be filled.

If you wish to become strong, learn weakness.

V The Heart

Thought goes before deed; that which fills the heart will fill the hands.

Greater than any conquest without, is the conquest within.

Remove the log from your own eye, and you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. Master the mountain within, and you will be in a right state to challenge the mountain without.

Do you consider yourself ready for the task? You do not take it seriously.

Do you despair of ever accomplishing it yourself? You are ready to receive help.

VI Wealth

Poverty is a deadly bane. Yet it can be made a blessing.

If you wish to see the power of love and the Spirit of God at work, look at those who have nothing else.

Wealth is a blessing. Yet it can become a deadly bane.

Look at the wealthy.
There are few who own and are served by many possessions.
There are many who are owned by and serve many possessions.

Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy their children toys, video games, and cars.
There are few who pick their children up and hold them.

Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can afford any pleasure they want.
There are few who know joy.

Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy any vacation or entertainment device they want.
There are few who ever know leisure, rest, peace.

Look at the wealthy.
There are many who have more money than the poor would know how to spend.
There are few who are as generous as the poor.

Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy the softest and most luxuriant pets.
There are few who truly know the feel of a human touch.

Look at yourself.
Look at most of the people in the world.
Are you not wealthy?

VII Through

Joy comes through suffering.

Freedom comes through discipline.

Glory comes through humility.

Security comes through letting go.

Masculinity comes through not being macho.

Femininity comes through not being a sex toy.

Life comes through death.

VIII The Kingdom

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a kingdom of this world.

It is a kingdom in which the weak have been chosen to shame the strong.

It is a kingdom in which the foolish have been chosen to shame the wise.

It is a kingdom in which the poor have been chosen to shame the rich.

It is a kingdom in which the humble have become the friends of God.

It is a kingdom in which that which the world has told, “You are worthless,” God has told, “You are priceless.”

It is a kingdom in which there is more rejoicing over one filthy sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous men who do not need to repent.

It is a kingdom in which vulgar peasants have been chosen to shame great theologians and sages.

It is a kingdom in which many wealthy men gave great and ostentatious gifts, and a poor widow, dropping in two pennies, surpassed them all.

It is a kingdom in which the power to conquer is held, not by the man who is able to stand behind the barrel of a gun, but by the man who is willing to stand in front of it.

It is a kingdom in which, to become a leader, you must become a slave.

It is a kingdom which begins, not with the love that you pour out, but with the love that is poured out on you.

IX Service

A river in health has water flowing in and water flowing out.

If it dams its outflow, saying, “I will gain more fresh water this way,” then it only grows stagnant. Its greed and selfishness create an illusion of gain, that is only loss.

It must give out as it has received, and then it will be filled with water fresh and pure as it was first filled.

So it is with men.

Proclaim Christ at all times, and use words if need be.

Words are powerful, and can speak mightily.
Deeds are more powerful, and can speak more mightily.

The way to teach is not as a master.
It is as a brother, as a friend, and as a slave.

The one who seeks to control and dominate does not understand how to lead. Manipulation is not much different from dominating by intimidation; it is only better hidden. Both are hurt and pain lying and saying that they are health. If you wish to become a leader, scrub out a wastebasket.

X Lessons

Once, after years of teaching, the Buddha was walking with his students, and one of them asked him for one last, final lesson.

He bent down, and picked a flower.

All of his students looked intently, waiting for an explanation.

All but one.

The one student smiled.

And to this one student, Buddha smiled back.

Lessons are everywhere. They are in books and in the classroom, to be certain. But there are many, many other places.

Look at a single blade of grass. Its beauty bears the fingerprints of the Creator. There is a lesson there.

Feel the warmth of a friend when you give him a hug. We were not created to spend time only in solitude, but also in community, and touch is vital. There is a lesson in the touch of another person.

Write a story or draw a picture. You will learn something when you do it.

Pray. There is a lesson in the simplest prayer.

Where is there not a lesson to be learned?

XI Children

Children are a lot like everyone else, except that they have not fully learned how to act like everyone else. Therefore there is much to learn from them.

There is nothing like a child seeing that you are hurt, and coming up and giving you a hug. There is nothing like a child making a gift to give to someone.

There is also nothing like a child being loud, rude, and inconsiderate, ripping a toy away from someone smaller because he wants it and he is strong enough to take it. There is nothing like a child staring into your eyes with eyes of ice and saying, “I hate you.”

Children embody good things that others have forgotten. A child knows how to imagine, how to look at how pretty a flower is, and they have not yet learned that it’s not OK to say that you’re hurting and need help. Children also embody pure and unmasked vice; it is very easy to see a child lie, manipulate, tear apart the one who doesn’t fit in, and fight anyone who dare stand in the way of his selfishness.

Confucius said, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.”

XII Untainted virtue

Become as a little child, but do not become childish.

Become loving, and yet become firm.

Become strong, and yet become gentle.

Become wise, and yet do not rely on your own wisdom.

Become great, and yet become humble.

Become filled with imagination and dreams, and yet do not forget the world.

Become as a skillful warrior, and yet become peaceful.

Become ancient, and yet do not lose your childhood.

Become timeless, and yet use time wisely.

XIII Shadows

When people are unwilling to draw near to God and neighbor, they become religious.

When people shun worship, they create ceremonies.

When people are afraid to pray, they babble endless words.

When people abandon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they try to create order by rules and regulations.

When people refuse to let themselves be drawn into holiness, they ordain priests.

When people flee from confronting the evil that lies within, they become self righteous and holier-than-thou.

When people do not accept the glory of the reality and substance that is found in Christ, they flee to familiar comforts and embrace mere shadows.

XIV Fullness

Once a father gave each of his three sons a penny, as a test; he would bestow his inheritance on the son who could go into the marketplace and, in a day, buy something to fill the room.

The eldest son came, with his pouch filled with sand. He took the sand and threw it, scattering it through the room. It covered a little of the floor, but not all of it.

The second son came, with his arms full of straw. He spread the straw on the floor, scattering it through the room. It covered all of the floor, but it did not fill the room.

The youngest son came, and, opening his hand, held out a tiny candle. He lit it,

and filled the room with light.

XV Wrong Questions

It is possible for an answer to a question to be wrong.

“Is murder good or evil?”

“Good.”

Yet it does not take an answer for there to be a mistake.

“How many times must I forgive my brother before I may bear a grudge against him?”

If you are asking such a question, you are already mistaken. Here are some, to avoid:

“What is the rational justification for faith?”

“What must I do to make myself good and make myself righteous before God?”

“Where should I seek out suffering in order to take up my cross?”

“How may I learn humility?”

“How do I decide for myself what is good and what is evil?”

“How much force is necessary to bring order to this situation?”

“How do I choose the lesser of two evils?”

“What words constitute a true prayer?”

“What is the necessary, time, place, and form for true worship?”

“Where do you draw the line between proper use of food and drink, and gluttony and drunkenness?”

“How much money do I need in order to be able to do something good?”

“What kind of rules should I use to infuse life to my spirituality?”

“What denomination should I join?”

“Who is my neighbor?”

XVI The Middle Path

In many ways, the Way a is balance. The temptation is not infrequent to try to avoid one error by embracing its opposite.

Good speech and writing does not contain words for the sake of words. Neither is it cut short for the sake of being concise.

Order is not gained by adding rules to what God has given, nor freedom by acting as if sin were not evil.

Wisdom is not gained by deifying the mind as something supreme which God must bow down and worship, nor humility by rejecting it as a piece of filth which God did not create.

In moderation and balance are work, play, rest, exercise, thought, meditation, words, music, silence, food, drink, and refrain, all good things.

XVII Evil

Do you wish to see twistedness and depravity beyond belief?

Look within.

XVIII Impossible

If a man were offered five dollars to not think of a glowing pink bear, he would not be able to claim the prize. Yet he would have been doing it perfectly until he tried.

Likewise, people act inconspicuous until they try to act inconspicuous.

That is easy; they are matters where something is done automatically until they are tried.

Were a plank of wood a foot wide laid across the floor, anybody could walk across it without falling.

Yet, were it crossing a yawning and abysmal chasm, firmly secured so that it would not shake, many people would try to walk across it without falling, because they would, seeing the possibility of falling, cease to walk perfectly across the plank and instead try to walk perfectly across it.

The prayer of faith is like this; he who offers a prayer of faith succeeds, and he who tries to offer a prayer of faith fails.

That is more valuable and more difficult; it is a matter where it is not done automatically, nor something that is done by trying, but something that can be done only by doing. It is easy; children do this with great power until they grow up and learn to try.

There is something greater yet, which is most valuable and impossible.

Man is fallen, and sin and evil have pervaded his whole being. Sin must be escaped to enter into life, for its wages are absolute death.

But what is the way for man to escape from sin? Automatic doing or trying or doing or not-doing? Wisdom or stupidity or knowledge or ignorance or tantrism or willpower or doing nothing?

That is like asking what brand of gasoline to use to extinguish a fire.

Such proceed from man and are inescapably tainted by evil. At their worst, they are straw. At their best, they are straw. They cannot save.

God emptied himself of divine power and majesty to become a man, and then emptied himself of even human power and majesty to die on a cross.

He who was without sin became anathema, bearing the curse for sins.

Now, to those who have earned in full the full measure of God’s wrath, he offers this: that they accept the gift of God taking the curse upon himself, so that they will not have to bear it themselves.

The impossible is freely given to whoever believes, praying, “Jesus, please forgive my sins and come into my heart.”

This is the message of the Cross. It is foolish and weak. There is no way around it, no escape.

You cannot stoop to such useless nonsense? There is some question which remains unresolved, which must be answered before you can accept it?

Then go, and extinguish your fire with gasoline.

XIX A Difference

Once a man was on a beach, where countless thousands of starfish had washed up, their life and water ever so slowly ebbing into dust.

Someone came along, and asked him, “What are you doing? Had you the rest of your life to spend doing this, you would not scratch the surface of the dying starfish. You cannot help more than a drop in the bucket. Why do you think that it matters?”

The man calmly, patiently, bent over, took a starfish, and threw it up in the air, arcing as it came down to splash back into the life giving water.

“It mattered to that one.”

XX Not

Teaching is not fallible men claiming divine authority.
It is divine authority claiming fallible men.

Righteousness is not, do what is right and you will be justified.
It is, be justified, and you will do what is right.

The beginning is not man reaching up to God.
It is God reaching down to man.

God is not a reflection of the best in man.
Man is a reflection of the best in God.

Wisdom is not mind establishing the place for faith and building it up.
It is faith establishing the place for mind and building it up.

You do not come to see the world as you should and therefore know God.
You come to know God, and therefore see the world as you should.

The Cross was the point where the power of sin and death crushed God.
It is the point where God crushed the power of sin and death.

XXI The Other Side

The foundation is that God loves you and your neighbor.
The foundation is that you shall love God and your neighbor.

Only those who believe can obey.
Only those who obey can believe.

A wise man will pursue love.
A man of love will pursue wisdom.

Christ shared in our life and died our death,
That we may share in his death and live his life.

The believer abides in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit abide in the believer.

Inside of your heart, there is a void that can be filled only by God.
Inside of God’s heart, there is a void that can be filled only by you.

XXII Necessary

If you have nothing that you are ready to die for, then you have nothing that you are ready to live for.

If you will not lose yourself, then you can not find yourself.

If you can not accept that your own wisdom is not the final measure, then you can not become wise.

If you can not let go of efficiency, then you can not use what has been entrusted you properly.

If you do not fear God, then you will not know either courage or peace.

If you do not renounce everything to gain Christ, then you can not truly gain anything.

If you do not see the net sum of all your good works as ——, then you can never produce good works.

XXIII Teaching

Once a man came out of a church service, visibly moved. He walked along with the town cynic, and began to speak.

“There’s a new preacher, and his message is totally different.”

“Really? What did the old one say?”

“He said that we have all sinned, and that Jesus died for our sins, and that, unless we accept his forgiveness for our sins, we’re all going to go to Hell.”

“And what does the new one say?”

“He says that we have all sinned, and that Jesus died for our sins, and that, unless we accept his forgiveness for our sins, we’re all going to go to Hell.”

“Bah! Doesn’t sound like much of a difference to me.”

“Oh, there’s a world of difference. He says it with tears in his eyes.”

XXIV Faith

The just shall live by faith.

Not, “The just shall live by works,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which works are a result.

Not, “The just shall live by meaning,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which meaning is a result.

Not, “The just shall live by rational explanation,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which rational explanation is a result.

Not, “The just shall live by mystery,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which mystery is a result.

Not, “The just shall live by power,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which power is a result.

Not, “The just shall live by security,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which security is a result.

Not, “The just shall live by happiness,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which happiness is a result.

The just shall live by faith.

XXV Means

The more haste, the less speed.

The more prudishness, the less purity.

The more rules, the less order.

The more will, the less power to obey.

The more excess, the less satisfaction.

The more license, the less freedom.

The more wrong means, the less right ends.

It is necessary, not only to believe that God has given the right ends, but also that he knows the best means to those ends.

XXVI Law

There is the Law for the lawless.

There is no Law for the righteous.

The Law is not a tool to help people obey. It is a mirror to show people that they can’t obey.

It is meant to show people that however hard they try, they need something greater: that the Something Greater is how they are to obey.

Alas, for how many have tried to obey with the Law?

XXVII Virtue and Vice

The one man perfect in virtue was the Man of Sorrows, and we are not greater. In this world, virtue is no escape from suffering.

Yet vice is anything from the path of joy. Joy, indeed, is a part of virtue, and can not truly be separated from it.

Virtue is hard to begin with, but ends in joy.
Vice is easy to begin with, but ends in misery.

What does Heaven look like?

He who is proud will see that every man present is present, not because of, but despite what he merits.

He who is rebellious will see people serve an absolute King.

He who desires self-sufficiency will see that joy is offered in community.

He who seeks wealth, prestige, power, and other ways to dominate others, will find his effort in Heaven to be like buying a gun in a grocery store.

He who strives will see that there is no one to strive with.

He who despises the physical will see a bodily resurrection.

He who desires his own interpretation and his own set of beliefs, will see absolute truth in crystalline clarity.

To those who will not let God change their character to virtue and love, even Heaven would be Hell.

XXVIII Wrong Tools

Does one use an ice cube to start a fire?

Does one use a chainsaw to mend a torn garment?

Does one use nerve gas to heal paralysis?

Then why do people use worry to create security, or wealth and power to create happiness, or excess to create satisfaction, or distortions of pleasure to surpass pleasure in its proper function?

Perhaps the reason that the Tempter is the Father of Lies, is that only a master of illusion could make sin appear desirable.

XXIX Fallenness

Fallenness is subtle, and appears in many ways.

People do reverence to nothings, and disturb the order.

What should be used is loved, and what should be loved is used.

People consider ends which are good themselves, to be merely means to other ends, ends which are trivia. It is like seeking to heal a man deaf and dumb, so that he can tell you what time it is.

People try to achieve the right ends through the wrong means.

People take the right action for the wrong reason.

People try to do good by themselves instead of relying on the Spirit.

As well to give a thirsty man a canteen, without first allowing it to be filled with water.

Man alone can not escape sin. Only in God is that power found.

XXX Peace

Peace is not the absence of violent conflict between men.

Peace is first of all a peace between God and man, and then virtue inside a man.

Peace is not an absence of anything, but the presence of love.

The manifest presence of love does not leave room for people to try to kill each other, but it is far more than an absence.

In that way, peace is like many good things. Right action does not lie, steal, or commit adultery, but its essence is not what it does not do, but what it does do: in the Spirit, act according to love and compassion. Virtue does not contain vice, but it is a positive thing, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, moderation, courage, justice, wisdom, honor, purity, timelessness, balance, obedience, submission, honesty, chastity, simplicity, penitence, faith, hope, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, humility.

Violence can not create peace. Only love can.

XXXI Nothing Else

Nothing can atone for the insult of a gift, except for the love of the person who gives it.

Nothing can allow the power to do good, except letting go of grasping power as the means to do good.

Nothing can sanctify any activity, possession, or skill, except offering it up completely to God.

Nothing can bless any activity of man reaching up to God, except for the activity of God reaching down to man.

XXXII Deprivation

Too much information; not enough wisdom.

Too many subtleties of interpretation; not enough understanding of the plain and simple.

Too much amusement; not enough leisure.

Too many activities; not enough true accomplishment.

Too much on the surface; not enough in the core.

Too much acceptance; not enough love.

Too much filled-by-man; not enough filled-by-God.

Sometimes, more is less.

XXXIII The Upside-Down Kingdom

The Kingdom of Heaven knows madness in which there is infinite method. The kingdom of this world knows method in which there is infinite madness.

It is a kingdom in which walking is a luxury, and driving a car is a necessity.

It is a kingdom in which lifelong marriage is less cherished than the isolated pleasure of sex.

It is a kingdom in which peace is pursued through intimidation and violence.

It is a kingdom in which men pursue freedom and joy by doing what they were never meant to.

It is a kingdom in which labor-saving devices destroy leisure.

It is a kingdom in which an unexpected moment of rest at a busy time, is considered an annoyance.

It is a kingdom in which certainty is pursued through doubt.

It is a kingdom in which men try to elevate and build up, by separating from foundations.

It is a kingdom which ignores, ridicules, or kills the prophets God sends it.

It is a kingdom which manages to be so terribly practical that it loses what practicality is meant to achieve.

It is a kingdom in which holding power is more esteemed than being loved.

Which kingdom is really the upside-down kingdom?

XXXIV He Who Is

He is the Way.

He is Truth.

He is Tao.

He is Light.

He is Life.

He is Love.

He is the Word.

He is Mystery.

He is Beyond.

He is the Origin.

He is Energy.

HE IS.

It is in him that we walk, and live, and breathe.

It is by knowing him that we know ourselves.

It is by being united with him that we become ourselves.

XXXV Rotting

When people forsake the Spirit, they embrace rigid asceticism.
Asceticism gives birth to libertinism, and libertinism gives birth to death.

When people forsake wisdom, they embrace rationalism.
Rationalism gives birth to anti-intellectualism, and anti-intellectualism gives birth to chaos.

When people forsake faith in God, they embrace faith in man.
Faith in man gives birth to faith in nothing, and faith in nothing gives birth to nothing.

There are ten thousand improvements on the Way. Do you know where they lead?

XXXVI Eden

In Eden, there were no temples.
There was no place where men did not come to meet God.

In Eden, there were no priests.
There was no one who did not know God intimately.

In Eden, there were no oaths.
There was no falsehood.

The words, “At that time, men began to call on the name of Yahweh,” do not tell of heights to which man had risen. They tell of the depths to which man had sunk.

The Kingdom of Heaven does not know a great many things.
Rather, it knows what was unspoiled in Eden, and something yet greater.

Its members are gentle, humble, and pure.
They carry a sense of timelessness about them, and they make peace.
They repay evil with good, and rejoice when persecuted.
They walk in the Spirit.
They have overcome the world.

Eden saw the image of God.
The New Jerusalem will see sinners redeemed, who are not only God’s image, but share in the divine nature.

In Eden, men saw by lights God had made.
In the New Jerusalem, there will never be a lamp, for God himself will be their light.

XXXVII Unconditional

Like is because. Love is despite.

If you begin to understand all of the reasons man has given God not to love him, you will begin to understand the nature of God’s love.

Love is not desire, nor is it want, nor is it even duty.
Love is love.

When does love prove that it is love?

When you look into a man, see some virtue, something beautiful, something great he has done for you, and love him more?

No. When you look into a man, see some vice, something ugly, some great wrong he has committed against you, and love him more.

It is perhaps those who are called unloveable who are easiest to love, for love for them will truly be love.

XXXVIII True Learning

A student, beginning the study of a new language, will first ask, “What does this word mean? What is the word for that?” Translation will be difficult.

As time passes, he will learn more of the skill of translation. He will know more words, and understand not only what word stands for what word, but what idiom stands for what idiom.

Then, gradually, something else will begin to happen. He will begin to understand the new language, not in terms of the old tongue, but on its own terms. He will learn to think in the new language. He will begin to understand that which lies a step beyond words or even idioms, that which can not be translated. His words in the new tongue will begin to sound, not like a new translation, but like the language itself.

Then, even more gradually, this will be done, not with effort, but as a part of him. His speech will flow, free and unconstrained, as in his native tongue. Translation, in the end as in the beginning, will be difficult; in the beginning, as an unnatural artifice to which there is no alternative, and in the end, as an unnatural artifice which does not compare to the beauty and simplicity of the language itself.

The language has been mastered, not when the student has become skilled in translation, but when he does not need to.

The Way, the Kingdom, the Spirit, are like this.

They are not new. They are ancient. But sin has grown so great that they are not even recognized.

Of course it is possible to strive to make these clear. It is in their nature that this be done. The Way has come, that those who are blind may see.

There are many parables which tell, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like.”

Yet the parables say always, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” never “The Kingdom of Heaven is.”

It can never be fully translated.

It must be learned.

XXXIX Heaven

The blind will see God’s face.

The dumb will sing praises to him.

The deaf will listen to the eternal song.

The lame will dance for joy.

Those convulsed by spasms will rest in perfect stillness.

The leprous will feel God’s touch.

But all this is dwarfed by the shadow of the wonder beyond wonders.

Sinners will be made holy.

XL God

Believe and know that which can be grasped by reason.
Believe that which can only be called mystery.

So also, know God who is very personal.
So also, know God who is beyond personality.

Call him firstly and finally, “Abba,” Daddy.
Rest in his bosom.

Know also that, though man is like God, God is not like man.

Embody Tao, and walk according to the Way.

The nature of God — three persons who are yet one — is vast and incomprehensible.

He is all of the things of which I have spoken, and more, far more.

XLI Better

It is good to love so that any sacrifice considered is made.
It is better to love so that sacrifice is no longer considered.

It is good to understand through profound symbols.
It is better to come to the point of understanding from which profound symbols are made.

It is good to have faith be a part of everyday life.
It is better to have everyday life be a part of faith.

It is good to abstain from what should not be done.
It is better to do what should be done.

It is good for the Way to become a part of you.
It is better for you to become a part of the Way.

It is good to know a friend so that you understand his words.
It is better to know a friend so that you understand without words.

It is good to see an enemy, with all the evil he has done you, and love him.
It is better to love so that you do not see an enemy.

XLII Knowledge

He does not know how to swim who can recite manuals and comment on them.
He knows how to swim who can fall into water and not be harmed.

Those who have pursued knowledge have learned that knowledge is never mastered when it resides only in the head.

This character of knowledge is difficult to describe; something of it is captured in that the word ‘know’ tells of the union of male and female.

Knowledge proceeds from faith. The call is to believe and know the truth.

There is much to wisdom that is not captured by systematic theology, and he is wise who knows systematic theology and the rest of wisdom.

The call to know God and know yourself is a call to truly know.

The one who knows the Way, knows it in the head, the heart, the hands; it rests in his spirit.

XLIII Sanity

Sanity builds an immense boat in the middle of a desert.

Sanity offers up the son of the promise on the altar.

Sanity leaves net and boat to obey the words, “Come, follow me.”

The only true sanity will let go of everything to grasp the Way.

Therefore,
He who follows the Way may have no possessions.
He who follows the Way may have no identity.
He who follows the Way may have no security.
He who follows the Way may have no good works.
He who follows the Way may have no friends.
He who follows the Way may have no family.
He who follows the Way may not have even his own life.

The Way costs everything. To follow it, one must let go of, renounce, hate all of these things, offering them up completely to God.

Then, and only then,
His possession will be the Kingdom of Heaven.
His identity will be Christ.
His security will be the providence of God.
His good works will be the good works of Christ.
His friends will begin with God.
His family will be all who follow the Way.
His life will be eternal.

Of the old things, he will expect nothing back.
That which is given back will be taken to be an unexpected gift.

Even then, he will not have them as before.
He will not have them except according to the Way.
They are not his; they belong to the Way.

XLIV Greatness

A great leader is not overbearing.

A humble man is not self-depracating.

A man of love is not accepting.

Why is this?

It is because they follow, not the pattern below, but the pattern above.

XLV Leaving Room

A great teacher does not spell out every detail.

He leaves room open for the student to understand.

Think about why a joke is funny. It causes no laughter if it is explained.

A great teacher leaves room for his students to learn.

XLVI Voice

Wind, earthquake, and fire are but heralds of something greater.
That something greater is soft and still.

That is the voice to listen to, and the voice to imitate.

It is shouting which makes a man hoarse.

If you wish to be heard, do not raise your voice.
Speak in a gentle whisper.

XLVII Between

The Way between man and God does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.

The Way between two people does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.

The Way between man and nature does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.

Where there is separation, the Way enters the separation and creates intimacy.
Where there is discord, the Way enters the discord and creates harmony.
Where there is absence, the Way enters the absence and creates presence.

In the beginning was the Way.
And the Way was with God.
And the Way was God.

XLVIII Slowly

Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly.

It is over untold aeons that coal is turned to diamond.

The Way is not speedy, hasted, or rushed.

It is always on time, because it is never in a hurry.

It is nonsense to pray, “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now.”
God gives patience, patiently.

God draws people into the Way, according to the way of the Way.
It is ever so slowly and imperceptibly that they grow in virtue.

The time to obey is now.
The time for results to come, is God’s concern, not yours.

Do not be in a hurry with God.
God is not in a hurry with you.

XLIX Prayer

Do not spend a season without food,
nor a week without drink,
nor an hour without air,
nor a second without prayer.

Prayer is not useful. Wonders come of it, but it is not useful.
Prayer makes innumerable petitions, but it is not a tool to get things.

Prayer is the step by which a man walks in the way.
Prayer is the letting go by which a man rests in the Spirit.
Prayer is the force by which God draws man into himself.

Prayer does not draw into communion with God to ask and receive.
Prayer asks and receives to draw into communion with God.

L Control

A microbe controls the biologist who studies it. It causes him to place it on a glass slide, and look at it through a microscope.

A mountain controls the climber who scales it. It causes him to flatten himself against the rock, grab on to tiny holds, and move according to their pattern.

A thermometer controls the patient who uses it. It causes him to sit still and close his mouth.

There are many other things that control, for good or evil, and the control rarely extends only to the moment.

Lust causes a man to look at a person and see only breasts and legs.

Devotion to mammon causes a man to think of “What does this cost? What am I willing to pay?”, and worry for his riches.

Playing a tactical assassination game causes a man to think about how to kill stranger and friend, and jump in fear at every sound, paranoid without cease about which stranger or friend is trying to kill him.

But,

The Way causes a man to be filled with peace and innocence.

Forgiving wrongs causes a man to be undisturbed by hate and anger.

Prayer causes a man to be filled with trust and security.

Mercy causes a man to be filled with love.

A man can choose what will control him.
He cannot choose whether or not he will be controlled.

It is those who most resist control, who are most under control, and whose master destroys.

What controls you?

LI Great

A step into the Way has been made by the person who ceases to say, “God, look how big my problems are!”, and instead says, “Problems, look how big my God is!”

Greatness is in God, and in everything that comes from him.

The Way is great.
The Kingdom of Heaven is great.
Tao is great.

I do not know words that will hold the greatness of God.

Greatness comes to a man, not by conquering a city, nor by earning a million dollars, but by growing into accordance with the Way.

To enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, become as a little child.

LII Accordance

A true climber will climb according to the shape of the mountain.

A true wayfarer does not stay in hotels, ride tour buses, and buy shiny trinkets; he steps into the culture, meeting its people, listening to its music, tasting its food.

A true architect will not take a medieval cloister and attach to it an addition that belongs in a shiny new mall. Rather, he will build new buildings that fit the pattern of the landscape, and new additions which fit the pattern of the old.

Being will do, but it is a doing which is in accordance with being and does not strive.

A man who walks in the Way will not strive with what around him is not evil.

One does not write poetry to defy the rules of a language; it is rather to write in accordance with the nature of the tongue.

A poet may change the structure of his language, but he does so only according to its spirit.

An intercessor can change the will of God, but he will do so only in accordance with what God wills.

God is eternal, constant, timeless, unchanging.
In time, he has constantly changed his will, that there may remain inviolate his unchanging love.

Therefore, to change the will of God is in accordance with God’s will.

Such change will be the nature of change made by a man who walks in the Way; he will never try to make changes which are haphazard or random. If that is how it is changed, even more accordance is how it is not changed.

He who walks in the way will know accordance.

LIII Freedom

Freedom of motion is the freedom of a skeleton intact. It is a freedom that allows a person to run, and jump, and dance.

What comes of breaking a bone is freedom to bend a limb in ways it was never meant to move, freedom to have sherds of bone tear at living flesh, freedom to writhe in agony, and freedom to die.

That is not freedom.

It is only in accordance with the Way that there is freedom.

It hurts to kick against the goads.

For freedom, all who walk in the Way have been set free. Freedom is the nature of the Way.

LIV Return

To the faithful, God shows himself faithful.

To the forgiving, God shows himself forgiving.

To the kind, God shows himself kind.

To the wise, God shows himself wise.

To the patient, God shows himself patient.

To the pure, God shows himself pure.

To the loving, God shows himself loving.

When the Spirit places virtue in a man, he is ready to see that virtue in God.

Seek what is right, and it will be accorded to you.

LV Title

“Master!”

“Do not call me master. There is but one.”

“Surely you know that you are a sage.”

“He is a fool who considers himself wise.”

“Teacher?”

“Do not think of me as teacher, either.”

“But I see in you such wisdom, such gentleness, such peace. If I may not call you master, nor sage, nor even teacher, then how may I call you?”

“Brother.”

LVI Growth

A wise man learns from the words of the simple.

Only a man of little learning says, “I have nothing to learn from you.”

In this, wisdom reflects the Way.

Growth is not like an empty room being filled with boxes, where each thing placed inside leaves less and less room for more.

It is rather like dominoes being placed on a table; the more are set in place, the more possibilities are created to add more.

The more a man grows in the Way, the more he is able to grow.

LVII Measure

Playing with one sniffly child and lecturing to one thousand eminent scholars,

Blessing a meal and commanding a mountain to be thrown into the sea,

Praying for a minute and praying for an hour,

Giving up a shoe and giving up life,

These things are not different in the Way; they are different only in men’s minds.

One who walks in the Way will not care for numbers, or fame, or so-called greatness. They come, and he will not be puffed up; they leave, and he will not be distraught.

There are many people who have faith to move mountains. Then why is it not seen? Because the Spirit does not lead them to perform parlor tricks to obviate the need for faith.

The Way is silent as light; ears filled with the din and noise of the world must grow silent to hear it. It performs great wonders, but they go unnoticed.

The Way has its own measure.

LVIII Behold

Behold the candle. It gives itself up, that others may have light.

Behold water. It does not resist one who pushes against it, yet it changes the shape of mountains.

Behold light. Men see it, and by it see all else.

Behold. Even the pebbles beneath your feet tell of God, of the Way, of the man who walks in the Way. They bear its imprint.

LIX Unity

When two believers come together, the power of their prayer increases tenfold.

A hand or a foot on its own is dead. The sum of such hands, feet, eyes, and other members is still dead. That it is larger and more complete means only that its stench will be greater.

Yet there is the breath of life, animating the body of every man alive.

Life is in each part, and each part is united with the whole.

The body is controlled by the head, which loves it, and the breath of life animates each member.

Christ is the head.
The Spirit is the breath of life.
All who follow the Way are the members.
There is infinite variety among them.

Why are they different?
Because they are members of one body.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

LX Increase

The step from boyhood to manhood has been made, not by the one who looks into the mirror and finds the first excuse to shave, but by the one who looks into the mirror and finds the first excuse not to shave.

Dignity is found, not by the one who tears others down, but by the one who builds others up.

Good works shine before men, not when they are paraded, but when they are done in secret.

Ceasing to make God the image of man comes, not by making God the impersonal image of not-man, but by letting God be God:
HE WHO IS,
mysterious and incomprehensible,
unlike a man,
far beyond anything that can be captured by personality,
and therefore more personal than any man.

He who loves God will have all the more love for his neighbor, and he who loves his neighbor will have all the more love for God.

The more love and joy are shared, the more they abound.

The more prayer, worship, and Communion abound, the more they become special, sacred.

LXI Sight

One who sees will look at a gift and see also the love which gave it.

One who sees will look at a face and see also a person.

One who sees will look at artwork and see also an artist.

One who sees will look at the physical and see also the spiritual.

One who hears will listen to the words of a friend, and hear both what is said and what is not said.

One who hears will listen to a question, and hear also the thoughts, the perspective, and the knowledge from which it came.

One who feels will sense the presence of God’s love in the dryness of the absconditus deus.

The Way is a way of reality and substance.

An artist who creates a masterpiece will care for the smallest detail, but the compilation of technical details never forms art. One who abides in the way will never despise accident, for he knows that a forest is never seen by chopping down trees; yet neither will he look at accident and fail to see substance.

Look at the surface and see into the depths.

LXII Practicality

Nobody who enjoys wine takes some grape juice, throws some yeast in, and hopes that it will be ready in ten minutes.

Instead, it is carefully prepared, and stored away to rest. Years will pass before it graces a table as fine wine.

This is how a wise man is like the master of a storehouse, producing from it treasures old and new.

In studying the Scriptures, looking into the wonders of Creation, listening to the voice of the Spirit, every morcel of wisdom will be carefully stored away, allowed to ferment for minutes or years until the right moment comes.

Even in use, the thought of utility does not come. Like all else in the way, wisdom is pursued, not for the sake of using, but for the sake of having.

The first lesson in practicality is to let go of it.

LXIII Gifts

To come into being is not something one causes; it is given by God.
The forgiveness of sins is not something one earns; it is given by God.
Obedience is not something one accomplishes; it is given by God.

The Father created man in his image.
The Son was crucified that men’s sins might be forgiven.
The Spirit is poured out that men be given the power to obey.

Do not do; obey.

LXIV Intimacy

It is only to a stranger that respect is shown by formality and distance. To a good friend, respect is shown by a love that has no need of such things.

It is only to a foreign student of language that thoughts of grammatical rules occur. To a native speaker, the language flows.

It is only to someone outside that obedience looks like willpower and rules. To someone inside, obedience flows from the motion of the Spirit and its fruit, virtue.

The Way is a way of closeness, intimacy. It knows the great order which lets go of the silliness of little order. It has no need for formal structure, ceremonial laws, and other such trivia.

It is in this Way that men greet each other with a warm embrace and address the Creator of Heaven and earth as “Daddy.” It is in this Way that men grow into all that is good and pure.

It is in this Way that men become of one spirit with HE WHO IS.

No distance.

LXV Invisible

Good acting does not cause people to think about what good acting there is. It allows them to see into the characters.

Good clothing does not cause people to think about what good clothing they are wearing. It allows them to move without discomfort or restraint.

Good government does not cause people to think about what good government they have. It allows them to go about their affairs without interference.

A good window does not cause people to think about what a good window it is. It allows them to see clearly what is on the other side.

A good waiter does not cause people to think about what a good waiter he is. He allows them to enjoy their meal.

A good temperature does not cause people to think about what a good temperature the air has. It allows them to live undisturbed by heat or cold.

A good preacher does not cause people to think about what a good preacher they have. He allows them to think about what a great God they have.

The Way is as silent as light. It is gentle, soft, and unobtrusive. One who walks in the Way does not seek his own glory.

It is from the Way that issued the words,

“My precious, precious child,
I love you and will never leave you.
When you see but one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

LXVI Mercy

When man embraced evil, he was expelled from Paradise and bestowed a curse. Accursed, that time would see him wither and die.

Yet even in that curse, was an act of great mercy.

The true curse would have been an imperishable body, filled with eternal youth.
A body forever young, as spirit and soul rot in vice.
Tine would see bitterness and suffering grow without end.
Worse than a curse to die away from the Way, is a curse to live apart from the Way.

But Mercy did not do that.

Mercy gave another gift, a gift greater still.

In the Way, though men waste away outwardly, inwardly they are renewed day by day.

The moment of death is transformed into a birth into life.

After death comes the resurrection; spirit, soul, and body filled with a life even greater than that of Eden. Men will become the sons of God, sharing in the divine nature.

HE WHO IS took death beyond death, and transformed it into life beyond life.

LXVII Not-Doing

Swallowing a pill is a difficult thing to learn.
It is difficult because a child will strive to do it, and it is something which can only be not-done.

Even discipline follows the path of not-doing.
Discipline does not force a square peg into a round hole; it slides a round peg into a round hole.

Six days of work were not evil, but it was one day of rest that was holy.
Rest surpasses work because it was before.

Before the worlds began, before even the creation of time, the Father is in glory with the Son.

In that glory is absolute rest.
In that glory will be the rest of all who follow the Way.

From being issues doing; from being and not-doing issue doing.

This is the order of the Way.

Not-doing leaves room open for God to fill.
Faith is a rest-in-God; it is a state of being and not-doing.
It is from faith that actions proceed.
Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

To those who not-do, abide, receive, believe, life is given.
The Son rests in the Father’s bosom, and the Spirit flows between them.
In this nature, rest, glory, and love, will they share.

Be and become.
Not-do and rest in God.
Let love flow into action.

LVXIII Honesty

To walk in the Way is to become honest.

Honesty certainly does not lie on an income tax form, but there is something more. To become honest is to become unmasked.

A mask is an armored shell.
It protects from feeling pain.
It protects from being healed.
It protects from growing and becoming real.

To remove it is to become naked and vulnerable.
It is to allow people to look into your eyes.

The pain of removing it is the pain of being healed.
It is like swallowing pride.
To swallow pride tastes foul, not because of the nature of humility, but because it is the taste of the foul and bitter nature of the pride that is swallowed.

After the mask is removed, there is a warmth and freedom like the freshness that comes after tears.

There is substance and reality in the image of God.
There is substance and reality in the Way.

There is too much substance and reality to fit inside of a mask.

LXIX Interaction

The Kingdom of Heaven does not know interactions based on power: “I will compel you to do this.”

Neither does it know interactions of economic character: “I will do this for you if you do this for me.”

Instead, its interactions are based on love, freely and lavishly bestowed.

This lavishness is embedded in the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

He who uses power to compel things from other people, or economic exchanges to bargain things from them, does so for a reason. He does so in order to gain what is good, desirable, and beneficial for himself.

The question, “Why does he want that?” is a misplaced question. He does not wish to benefit himself as a means to something else. He loves himself.

This is how you should love yourself.
This is how you should love your neighbor.

Love is not the son of want.

Love is the foundation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Love is the air which its citizens breathe and through which they see.
Prayer is love in communion with God.
Kindness is love wearing work gloves.

It is freely received and freely given, poured out without measure.
It is shared, and increases all the more.
It is generous, like the woman who poured pure nard over Jesus’s feet.
It is a cascade of flowing water, which cleanses what is soiled and heals what is wounded.
It is full of joy; finding something good, it seeks to share.
It is forgiving; it looks upon the person who has wronged it, and says, “I love you.”

Love God.
Love the brothers and sisters, all mankind, yourself.
Love the stars, the waters, the animals, the trees.

All that is written about the nature of godly living is an explanation of love.

Heaven, the hope of the ages, is the final hope of being united and immersed in love with God and the saints.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of love.

LXX Being

The rock, the foundation, the origin of all.
A state of being eternal and changeless.

All glory, all holiness, all authority, all wisdom.

Beyond all measure.

Infinite stillness.

Life beyond life.

Light without any darkness.

One.

LXXI Dim

Thomas Aquinas wrote many books; among numerous others, he wrote a Summa Theologica of encyclopaedic volume.

Late in life, he had a vision.
In this vision, Christ spoke to him from the Cross.

The vision profoundly affected him.
He became silent, and ceased to write.

And all his great and wonderful writings?

He declared them to be straw.

LXXII End

A journey is a long voyage that leads home.

Childlike faith meets testing and fire and new experiences, that it may become childlike faith.

Depths of theology, profound insight, and great learning, lead to hearing the simple words, “Jesus loves you,” and trusting them.

The Alpha is the Omega; the First is the Last; the Beginning is the End.

All good things come from God through the Way;
all good things return to God through the Way.

LXXIII Around

To worship is to take a little step into Heaven.

A candle which is lit, glows. It sheds light and warmth on all that is around it.

One who walks in the Way will carry little pieces of Heaven with him. He will bear with him a sense of timelessness, peace, joy, and love.

Bringing Heaven down to earth is very important.
It is to be not-done and done.

A relief worker, returning to a war zone, said, “I’m going back to Hell, to plant some flowers.”

LXXIV Maps

All mapmakers face a difficult task.
They have a flat surface with which to represent a surface which is not flat.

Many maps of the world look very different.
Some have a grid which preserves latitude and longitude.
Some preserve the area of each part.
Some preserve something else.

Someone who knows only flat surfaces may be confused.
He may think that each mapmaker has produced a map of his own perspective.
He may imagine something vague and indefinite, tell a parable of blind men feeling an elephant, and call it great arrogance when mapmakers examine something which looks like a map and declare it unacceptable.
This is not a mark of openmindedness, nor of nuanced understanding, nor of humility.
It is a mark of ignorance.

The truth is not something indefinite and unreal.
The truth is very definite and real.
Maps vary because they represent something too definite and too real to fully capture with a flat surface.
A mapmaker never alters geographical features which he doesn’t like or which do not seem to make sense to him.
Mapmaking is an activity of absolute fidelity.

LXXV Within

A parent has properly disciplined a child, not when he behaves properly upon sight of an authority figure, but when he behaves properly regardless.

Protection from drunkenness does not come from restricted access to alcohol, but from learning to know and respect one’s limits.

Order is not externally imposed; it comes from what is placed within.

Training does not give men the power to conform reality to their nature, but to conform their nature to the ultimate reality.
Fighting the evil without never comes without fighting the evil within.

To walk in the Way is always to look inwards.

LXXVI Bread

There is no need to worry about what to eat; God feeds even the birds of the air, and we are worth more than many sparrows. He knows our needs and desires before we begin to pray. He desires to give even more than we desire to receive.

It would seem that a man of faith would believe in this, and not annoy God by interrupting him with requests for bread.

Yet the model for prayer asks for the coming of the Kingdom, the forgiveness of sins — and, day by day, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Why is this?

It is because man does not live by bread alone.

God wishes that man be nourished in body and spirit.
As bread sustains the body, prayer and communion sustain the spirit.

Therefore, we are invited to share his presence in the smallest detail of our lives.
It is by prayer that we receive each meal as a gift wrapped in love.
It is by prayer that a blade of grass can draw us into the heart of the Father.

Pray continually.

LXXVII Meta

Cognition is made complete by metacognition.

Cognition sees that wealth will buy an abundance of possessions.
Metacognition sees that life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.

Cognition finds an edge in the rat race.
Metacognition climbs out of the rat race.

Cognition finds a way to admire the Emperor’s new clothes.
Metacognition asks, “Why is that man naked?”

Cognition gives the greatest volume of food to the highest number of beggars in the least amount of time.
Metacognition shares a human touch with at least one beggar.

Cognition asks, “What does this say?”
Metacognition asks, “Is this orthodox?”

Cognition asks, “How can I do this?”
Metacognition asks, “Is this right?”

Cognition thinks.
Metacognition thinks about how cognition thinks.

Cognition is necessary, but it is even more vital to take a step back and restore things to sanity.

LXXVIII Undisturbed

LXXIX Life

Of what is to be known, I know little.
Of what I know, I can explain little.

These words tell of the Way by which a man may find life.
Come to the Way of which these words tell.
These words are imperfect; the Way is perfect.
Do not come to these words to find life.
If you do, they will kill you.

LXXX Love

Love is the foundation and cornerstone of Law and virtue.
Love is the character of a saint.

The Law, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, care for the poor, worship God alone”, is an extended commentary on the actions which love dictates.

Virtue is only another name for the different sides of love. Patience and forgiveness are the nature of love when it is wronged.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
The greatest of these is love.

LXXXI Beyond

Beyond doing, there is being.

Beyond time, there is eternity.

Beyond mortality, there is immortality.

Beyond knowledge, there is faith.

Beyond justice, there is mercy.

Beyond happy thoughts, there is joy.

Beyond communication, there is communion.

Beyond petition, there is prayer.

Beyond work, there is rest.

Beyond right action, there is virtue.
Beyond virtue, there is the Holy Spirit.

Beyond appreciation, there is awe.

Beyond sound, there is stillness.
Beyond stillness, there is the eternal song.

Beyond law, there is grace.

Beyond even wisdom, there is love.

Beyond all else, HE IS.

Doxology

Open

Stephanos

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

In Celebration of Tribbles (and FurReal Pets, and Joy For All)

CJSH.name/tribbles

One note to the reader:

Please read the article below for a note on animal lovers who are not in a position to responsibly own a pet and don’t want to put a companion animal in solitary confinement throughout business hours.

If you’re just looking for links about what to buy, Tribbles were the best thing I knew of when this article was originally written. Since then, there are Furreal Friends, which seem designed to give pleasure to children, and Joy for All Silver Cat with White Mitts appears specifically created for the pleasure of adult animal lovers.

Years back, one friend, Cynthia, explained why she will never own a furry pet. An editor, her work often allows her to be in her apartment building during business hours, and when she walks through the halls, she hears so many whimperings, whinings, barks, and the like, every one of them saying, “Will you come in and be with me?

That conversation made an impression on me. I am an animal lover. I grew up with a dog about the house, kept kind and gentle care of a lab even when her barking cut into my sleep, and when I am visiting my brother Joe’s house, I love to see his cats. And I would love to have a furry cubicle pet. But the options there are somewhat limited, and not only because bosses sometimes have to say “No” to eccentric behavior. Though there have been workplaces where employees were welcome to bring well-behaved dogs, (see, for a rare example, Dreaming in Code), bringing a pet to work beyond a fish appropriately would include either transporting the pet with you or leaving your pet unattended for sixty or so hours straight each weekend, keeping the animal in an enclosed space without freedom to wander or explore, and so on. Now hamsters are solitary creatures and for what I know now, it might be possible to keep a hamster cage in a cubicle, leaving only problems like pet dander irritating other employees’ allergies. But on the whole, the question of how to keep an office pet without cruelty is a difficult question.

And, up to a point at least, for a single person to keep a pet at home is dodgy. Families and people who work out of their homes are a separate case, and two or more cats may be able to keep each other company, but if you have a fulltime job or serve as a consultant, the question of how to keep a pet without cruelty may be a bit of a challenge.

Some common and respected practices are in fact cruel. My brother has taken in rescue cats which were already declawed, but he and my sister-in-law have never declawed a cat they owned. The common statement is that even front declawing a kitten is like cutting a baby’s fingers off at the knuckles. My brother added that declawed cats are not, in fact, safer for owners to deal with: for a cat with front claws, the first line of defense is a swipe with claws which is only an abrasion, while for a declawed cat the first line of defense is abite, which is a puncture wound. Not only is that a more serious wound, but the puncture wound exposes you to whatever bacteria live in the cat’s mouth, and mouths tend to have lots of infectious bacteria. Strange as it may sound, if you have a cat, you want the cat to be able to swipe its claws at you if it’s cornered, angry, or afraid. It’s better than a declawed cat’s bite.

I have swing-mounted horses, and I would happily do so now if the opportunity offered to me. To swing-mount a horse, you crouch down, get a good grip of the horse’s mane with both hands, and leap up, pulling yourself up by the mane, and ideally land squarely on the horse’s back, and this is not cruel. Different species have different thresholds of pain, and a lot of animals are tougher than us; the average horse’s threshold of pain is seven times higher than the average human. This means, for instance, that you can grab a good bit of a horse’s mane in your hand and pull as hard as you can, and not only will it not injure the horse, it won’t cause pain or even really annoyance for the horse. Now horses can be skittish around people and may not be used to you, but if a horse is comfortable with your presence, yanking on its mane doesn’t mean anything.

And different thresholds of pain apply to dogs, too. The dog I had growing up would leap and dance for joy when she saw a famiy member starting to reach for her leash, because she knew that meant she would go for a walk outside. Years later, a dog a few months old would leap and dance for joy when he saw me reaching for a specific pair of workgloves, because he knew that meant he could bite me significantly harder when we were playing. He had a very high threshold of pain, unusual for even a dog, and he expected me to have the same high threshold of pain, and so things felt more natural and pleasant for him when I wore gloves and allowed him to bite me harder. And there’s no way those Thin gloves would have protected me if he were really trying to hurt me; if he had been trying to dodamage, he could have easily sliced through my gloves and cut me to the bone. He was pulling his punches with me, even when I was wearing gloves and I allowed him to bite me much harder. (It really was just horseplay.) Seeing as he didn’t draw blood on me, chances are pretty good it was just friendly horseplay to him. (Although dogs do not eat a meat-only diet, both cats and dogs are predators with powerful jaws, and both are well strong enough to cut to the bone.) And really, from my perspective those interactions with the puppy were pleasant play, and from his perspective they were nice, friendly horseplay. I have felt no inclination to bite any of my pets, but if I had started nipping at him with equal force, his enjoyment would probably have been so much the better. Nothing says love like a playful nip and ten or twenty slobbery kisses.

That is part of why I am puzzled when I occasionally hear of a man who was training dogs, and as something the dogs would relate to, bit the dogs for discipline, and he was rightly arrested for cruelty to animals. Part of my response was, “Um… why? Was he biting the dogs too hard? Did he draw blood? Did he misunderstand some detail of how an adult dog would use biting to discipline a younger dog? Did the police enforcing the anti-cruelty laws for animals have any idea of what normal social interaction between dogs looks like?” I thought of wearing gloves with that one puppy because I found his playful nips more painful than I wanted, but I can say in general of cats and dogs, that if it nips or bites you and it doesn’t draw blood, it almost certainly wasn’t trying to hurt you. Even if, perhaps, we need to draw lines and train dogs that they need to restrain their natural playfulness when horsing around with people, which most dogs purchased as pets can do well enough.

But more broadly than cats and claws, the question of how a single working person can responsibly own a furry pet without cruelty is difficult (I do not say necessarily impossible: but at least difficult). And I’ve explored a few things, starting when I was in grad school in 2007.

A tribble.For reasons I don’t completely understand, people have made electronic pets that you wouldn’t want to pet; there is a whole line of artificial cats, dogs, etc. that are usually not furry and do not look like something you’d want to pet. Just search for something like robot pet and look at the pictures.

But by accident, that’s not the whole picture. I managed to get a Furby 2.0, and it seemed to be very well-done for its target audience of children, but have unnerving “uncanny valley”-like effects on me as an adult. I got my money’s worth out of the purchase; I gave it to a friend’s two-year-old where it became an almost instant hit and may have become his favorite toy. (Before letting it go, I quite deliberately gave it a fresh set of batteries, and showed both his parents where the “Off” switch was.)

Cue Star Trek. I am not the world’s biggest Star Trek fan personally speaking; there was one conversation when cell phones had recently become a common thing to have, and a friend was gushing about Star Trek, and said, “And cell phones! What would our society be like today if there were no Star Trek?” (My response: “We would have had much better science fiction?“) But Star Trek has many devoted fans, enough that when conditions would support it, it was economically viable to sell live, robotic, spayed-and-neutered Tribbles.

There is a large variety of Tribble merchandise; I have had medium and small Tribbles, and the small ones have been much less interactive. But for a cubicle pet and for people like me who would like to own something furry but aren’t in a position to take on a live pet responsibly and without cruelty in solitary confinement or whatnot, a Tribble may be the nicest thing out there.

If you’d like something vaguely furry without worrying if you are treating a pet cruelly, I would recommend one of the following:

Tan Gray Brown

A Treatise on Touch

CJSH.name/touch

A Cord of Seven Strands
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Touch is something deep which is lightly explored in my culture. I wish to explore it here.

It is characteristic of Western thought, probably in a tradition reaching back to the Greeks, to pay a strong degree of attention to sight when studying perception, to the exclusion of the other five senses. (The sixth sense is not ESP; it is the internal, kinesthetic sense, commonly called the sense of balance, which enables us to tell up from down; when this sense fails (after, for example, spinning around or drinking too much alcohol), we feel dizzy and become disoriented as to how to keep from falling over.) For example, in the Myers Psychology text, the vast majority of the space devoted to perception studied how we extract information from what our eyes report, so much so that ESP (which the authors did not believe in) received more attention and space than hearing, smell, taste, touch, and balance put together!

(I might incidentally comment that psychology, for all but the most recent times, has been explored as a part of philosophy, and in some ways has suffered more than any of the hard sciences from the separation. A lot of what goes on in psychology is truly bad philosophy, and would improve greatly if its theories were grounded in good philosophy. Behaviorism is a prime example of this.)

In speaking about touch, I intend not to generally talk about sex, for a couple of reasons. The first is that sexual technique, along with massage, is perhaps the one (two) narrow and restricted area of touch that people are taking seriously; manuals on sexual technique exist in droves. And I might incidentally mention that I do not know sexual technique — that will come if and when I get married. But even to if I were expert in sexual technique, and were writing to an audience of married couples, I do not think that I would write about sex. It is not because I despise sex — I believe it right and good that an entire book of Scripture, the Greatest of Songs, is pure erotica. It is for another reason, a reason that lies deeper.

The conception of romance and relationships in American thought is not nearly so universal as might be thought by someone who is from our time. At this point, I might shock the reader to drawing attention to how, in a great many cultures across much of time, people were happily married, sexually satisfied, and enjoying life, without ever having occur to them what modern America understands by romance. Romantic love was one of the great discoveries of the middle ages — a genuine discovery, because it was not really known.

If we exclude the supernatural love of agape, and the love-beyond-love of worship that is due to Jesus Christ, then we are left with four natural loves between human beings. There is the love of all other human beings, which applies even to strangers and even to enemies. Then there is the love of friends — a friend is both to be loved as a human being, and in a special way as a friend. There is next the love of one’s own family — family are to be loved as human beings, in a special way as friends, and in a more special way as family. Finally, there is the last love, a love which is romantic and sexual. A spouse is to be loved as a human being, in a special way as a friend, in a more special way as kin, and finally in the most special way as a lover, a lifelong partner and mate.

This fourth love does not stand on its own, and was never meant to in the first place. If we look in the Song of Songs, we see that the lover calls the beloved a woman, that the two are addressed as friends, and in particular he calls her his sister and then his bride. Even in a book all about sex, we see not sexual love in isolation, but sexual love as the crowning jewel, united with the other loves to make a rich and full marriage.

Romance, its delightful intoxication, is a wonderful and God-given thing. But it is transient, and when it wanes, there is (or at least should be) something far deeper than sex alone; that deeper, companionate love is what God intended as the basis for marriage, as thrilling as romance may be.

God created us as his image, and the particular way he in his goodness chose to do so was as a unity of spirit, soul, and body. The spirit, with its ability to love, is the greatest part, and love is greater than even rationality. But it is not the only part, or the only good. And even the word ‘part’ is deceptive; it suggests a collection of compartmental modules, when in fact there is a unity.

And in that unity, there is a spiritual way of drawing near and embracing by love; this is what Aquinas (for example) described as the will, seen not in the modern Nietzchian sense of iron determination, but rather as a recognition of good that inclines towards something. And in the spirit-soul-body unity by which God has blessed us, there is a physical way of drawing near and embracing by love. It is called touch.

If nothing else, by analogy at least, we should be able to look and see that among human loves there is a highest and superlative form of love in marriage, and yet the romantic love does not and should not stand in isolation, then sexual touch may be the highest, holiest, and most exciting form of touch by which God has blessed our race, but it probably wasn’t created in isolation to be the only touch — even in marriage.

And if I may push the analogy even further, I would say that that touch is absolutely wonderful while it lasts, but it is not the fundamental or foundational touch of physical love, even in marriage. Something else is.

What I am saying here may be more transparently obvious to women than to men. Women tend to feel more the need for physical affection, men the sexual drive. And many men, especially those who grew up in households with little physical affection, man not only not see the need for physical affection, but be uncomfortable with it. Even then, I would ask you to bear with me.

Our society has inherited the disastrous wake of Victorianism, and is a post-Victorian culture; I will include here an appendix an essay which I wrote on Victorianism as the death knell to sexual purity in Western culture. Apart from referring the reader to that, I will simply say that we’ve inherited a mess.

The essay:

Victorianism, n. The death knell to sexual purity in Western culture.

Victorianism held sexual purity to be extremely important. All well and good, but it did not stop there. Victorianism believed sexual purity to be best approached via a Pharisaic guard around the Law. And, like every other guard around the Law, it did a trememdous amount of damage to numerous other things before destroying the very object it was meant to preserve.

Touch and community are vital elements of human health. This is witnessed in Scriptures that tell of John reclining in Jesus’s bosom and in the hands quickly extended to pets, one of the few situations where our society will allow an innocent touch to be an innocent touch. An infant who is not held will wither and die, and psychologists have a bluntly accurate term for the failure of parents to hold and cuddle their children a great deal: abuse. And of course the special kind of community that exists between a husband and wife is given a special kind of touch.

Victorianism looked at sex and did not quite see something which is fundamentally good within a certain context. It saw something which was essentially evil (but tolerable at best within a certain context). And, in progressively widening circles, encompassing different forms of touch further and further from what is necessarily foreplay, saw that there exists at least some possibility for that touch to be sexual (at least from the perspective of the younger monk), and placed on each one a label of “This is dirty. Avoid it.” Word such as “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” cease to be acknowledged as a divine command which was given for human good, and instead look like, um, an odd cultural thing which, um, shows, um, um, um…

The aim, it appears, was to end up with nothing that was sexual. The result was to make everything sexual, and create a major unanticipated problem.

God created people with certain needs, and when those needs are not met, Satan comes in with counterfeit substitutes. These things are hard enough to resist to someone whose needs are met with the genuine article; when there is an immense sucking vacuum coming from unmet needs, pushing away the counterfeits acquires a difficulty which is unbelieveable. A little girl who is deprived of a father’s hugs and kisses will grow into a young woman who has a tremendously difficult time avoiding sexual promiscuity, unsuccessfully searching in a series of abusive boyfriends’ embraces for enough love to fill the emptiness inside.

Fortunately, most of Victorianism did not quite leave a stain that dark and deep, but there is still a major problem with a culture that refuses to wholeheartedly say, “It’s OK. You may enjoy an innocent touch as an innocent touch.” There is still a failure to meet a need that God created people to have filled, and still an uphill battle to fight off the counterfeit substitutes.

In this century, Victorianism has crumbled, but, like every other evil, it fails to crumble in the ways that a sane person would want it to crumble. What disappeared was not the prohibition on friendly touch, but the belief that sexual sin is a deadly poison which should be fought tooth and nail. What appeared and took the place meant to be filled by innocent touch is something which is not innocent. Thus, Victorianism did a perfect job of making room and clearing the way for a great deal of lewdness.

Current Western culture is saturated with sexual sin, not despite, but because of the fact that it is the continuation of Victorian culture.

(There is one note I should like to mention before I forget. The careful reader may ask why I am undertaking to write about touch and have other people read it; the practice does not involve touch as thinking about logical reasoning involves reasoning. My response is threefold: (1) You have a point to an extent; reading or writing this is not an act of touch. (2) There is a place for thinking and theory in a way that is never intended to be complete or self-sufficient. Christian theology is not an insular system of ideas, but an integrated part of the walk of faith in which one loves and is loved by God. (3) Theory strengthens and furthers practice, as physics furthers engineering. The invention of devices is far older than any empirically accurate knowledge of physics — but that doesn’t mean that physics didn’t add a whole new dimension to engineering.)

Having talked about the philosophy and theology surrounding touch, the reader may well be wondering if I am going to say anything about touch itself. And the answer is ‘yes’. What I have been doing, or attempting to do at any rate, is to establish a framework that will make it possible to do so.

The first thing I will say about touch (perhaps belaboring the obvious, but remember George Orwell’s words, “It is the first duty of intellectuals to state the obvious.”), is that it is an immediate, proximal mode of perception. Sight, hearing, and smell, all work at a distance; touch only works when you are right with someone or something. This has rich potential for analogy — for instance, as you can only feel something if you draw near to it, so also there are ways in which you can only know something if you love it.

The second thing is that it is a baby’s primary sense — not sight. Only later does sight come to dominate. The baby is continually engaged in a tactile exploration of the world. He puts things into his mouth, not because plastic, cloth, wood, and stone taste wonderful, but because the tongue is the most sensitive part of the human body to touch — more sensitive than even the fingertips. And, long before the words “I love you.” have any meaning to a child, touch constitutes the baby’s awareness of his mother’s love. He is enfolded by her body for nine months as she carries him, and when born he is held, and hugged and kissed. He is fed, not in some abstract way, but by nursing — a very special and intimate touch. It is presumably not coincidental that the focus of a baby’s eyes is not twenty feet to infinity as with an adult, but eighteen inches — the distance between a mother’s breast and her nose.

The third thing I would like to say is that, thought touching is a surface to surface contact, it is anything but superficial. This is why doctors touch their patients when they want to know what is happening inside the body. In a few cases, exploratory surgery is necessary — they need to cut a person open to find out what’s inside. But most of the time, they can probe and find out what’s happening just by touching.

And, medicine aside, touch can communicate a wealth of information about a person’s emotions. Muscle tension, skin temperature, sweat, rate and quality of pulse — all have a story to tell about what’s going on inside a person’s heart.

The fourth thing is that touch is deep. I am not sure exactly how to convey this, as I am trying to express something greater than what I myself know. But, in the absence of perfect knowledge, I’ll give an analogy.

I have some training in martial arts. I have just enough knowledge to begin to appreciate the wealth of knowledge I do not know. I have seen the basics of pressure points, joint locks, and hip throws. I have seen enough to recognize that there are subtleties which elude me, and rich veins to explore. If I were to devote the rest of my life to the study of martial arts, I would not lament with Alexander, “Alas! I have no more worlds to conquer.” There would always be more there, always be more to explore.

For two specific kinds of touch — sex, and massage — there has been considerable exploration, and (though everybody can do them at least minimally) there are great books from which most people have a lot to learn.

Given what I know about God and his creation, I would be very surprised to learn that the rest of touch is shallow — that you learn a certain amount, and then there is nothing left to explore.

The fifth thing, in relation to the fourth, consists of a couple of analogies concerning what we may find in expoloring touch. I believe that we find something like a language, but a language, a communication, that is alogical and non-symbolic. (This may, indeed, be a lot like one of the things feminism is searching for. I’ll have to run this by a women’s studies professor.) I believe it also to be like art and music — in an act that is creative, and an expression of beauty. I believe it also to be qualitative rather than quantitative by nature — returning to the theme of an alogical language, this would communicate not the rule-based formal manipulations computers are capable of, but the qualities, the experience, of which computers are incapable.

I would now like to engage in a thought experiment. I will ask you to imagine three times that you put your hand into a dark hole in a wall, through which you cannot see.

The first time, you almost hurt yourself touching a sharp corner. As you feel inside, you recognize the shape of a box — a hard metal box. It is cold, unresponsive, and unyielding; it does not acknowledge your presence.

The second time, you meet no resistance; you have plunged your hand into a bucket of water. The water is too responsive and too yielding; there is nothing there but an acknowledgement of your presence. It has no shape but the shape of your hand; there is nothing there. So you pull your hand out and dry it off.

The third time you stick your hand in, you meet something that is yielding and yet solid, something that responds not out of what your hand is alone, but what it is. You meet something that is warm. You touch another human hand. As you touch, it wraps around, clasps, embraces your hand. You have finally found something very good.

Human touch is, or at least should be, like the third experience. It is not just a moderate between two extremes; it is something more. It is warm.


In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong understood very well that warfare is won, not by destroying soldiers, but by destroying soldiers’ morale. That is why they had a very poor kill ratio, and were fighting a modern war against an enemy that vastly outranked them in resources, and still were never defeated.

One of the many weapons in that arsenal was called a ‘ballbuster’. It was a non-lethal anti-personnel land mine with a three foot blast radius.

Of the U.S. soldiers hit by such mines, there were some that still had male hormones produced by their bodies afterwards. And investigations showed that they were the men who had been involved in real, intimate relationships beforehand. Not, presumably, the common soldier’s visit to the brothel, or the rape of local women that has been a part of warfare since time immemorial. That is a dismal rule whose exceptions are few and far between. But real relationships. Those men still had testosterone.

The most sexual organ in the human body is not the genital organ, nor even the gonads. It is the brain.

Sex goes much further than just a physical act. It unites souls. It was created as such.

And again seeing as God has created us as spirit-soul-body unities, isn’t there every reason to believe that this is not isolated to sex? That when we touch other people, it need not be only wiht our bodies, but can also be with spirit and soul?

Madeleine L’Engle wrote of kything in A Wind in the Door. In one way, it is a colorful and fantastic picture of prayer, that shows its beauty. In another way, it seems to capture, not so much the literal fact, as the way of the best touching.


Individualism is a very impoverished notion of personhood, and touch is not a thin bridge between two essential islands, nor an act that one person (subject) does to another person as to an inanimate object; the latter, if a picture of any kind of “touch”, is a picture of rape.

Aquinas viewed teacher teaching and learner learning as part of the same activity; another helpful notion is that of intersubjectivity — it is not between isolated subject and object, but between two connected subjects. This doesn’t mean that there is uniformity and absolute symmetry; nursing mother and child cannot simply swap places. But it is intersubjective.

This may be an interesting way to view what constitutes the difference between making love and rape. Physically, the two are not very different — they have much, much more in common than making love and nursing a baby do, or than rape and murder (or even two kinds of murder) do. But spiritually, they are leagues apart. Making love is between two connected subjects, and rape is done by a subject to an object; spiritually and philosophically, these are two very different things. And it might be that the way rape crushes a woman’s psyche has much less to do with the physical event than the fact that a subject, an ‘I’, is reduced to an object, an ‘it’.

(Of course, another aspect is that the greatest evils come from twisting the greatest goods; Hitler could not have done one tenth the damage he did unless he were the legendary leader that he was.)

Something like this is related to why the mystics refer to God as ‘I’ without blaspheming. If a person must be understood as a subject, as an ‘I’ and not an ‘it’, how much moreso the Lord God of Hosts?
I would like to now talk about different forms of touch. I will not attempt here to begin in a logical order, first things first, because I am taken by a whimsy, a quality. I will begin talking about one of my favorite touches, tickling.

In a lighthearted mood, I coined the following beatitude:

Blessed are the ticklish,
For the touch of a friend shall fill them with laughter.

Tickling is light. It is a tactile tease. It is carefree, spontaneous, and whimsical. It is trusting. It is the least solemn of all the touches; it is serious and intimate, but in a completely silly and nonsensical way — thank God! Its very seriousness and intimacy is ruined if it becomes heavy and what most people think of when they hear ‘serious’. There is something special about it, something so special that both tickling and other things are ruined if, for example, someone tickles a person whose friend just died. Tickling can greatly enrich and deepen our understanding of what it means to be serious, if we let it.

There is an infinite difference between a friend’s playful teasing, and a cynic’s sneering. Neither is solemn or formal, but they lack solemnity and formality for very opposite reasons, just as a baby and an old man can lack hair, not because they are of the same age, but because they lie at opposite extremes.

A friend’s teasing is infinitely respectful. It is a respect which lies far too deep to confine to being somber, a respect which must bubble up into exuberance and say, “I take you far too seriously not to take you lightly.”

At this point, I will treat a certain aspect that may run the risk of offending feminists; I will ask for a suspended judgment until at least I have made my case. I am going to say this: sometimes ‘no’ means ‘no’, and sometimes ‘no’ means ‘yes’.

I am not here justifying the claim that “Her lips said ‘no’, but her eyes said ‘yes’.” That is stated chiefly by men who lack the honesty to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that “Her lips and her eyes said ‘no’, but my lust said ‘yes’.” I will damn that alongside any feminist.

What I am rather saying is that tickling exemplifies a pattern, a pattern of love and community that does not reduce to words. Consent is an important principle, but using explicit verbal words to inquire is a last resort, usually only necessary when two people do not know each other very well. And there is something deep enough about consent that it, and furthermore its recognition, are entirely compatible with saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, or offering physical resistance.

As a paradigm example of this, I would point to a parent chasing around a little child in a back yard. The child is trying to escape, and in a sense doesn’t want to be caught. But in a deeper sense, he does want to be caught. (I at this point remember one woman, who, disappointed that I had stopped tickling her when she pushed my hands away, told me, “I am blocking you because I want you to push past.”) This is why it is good for a child’s psyche to be chased by a parent, even (especially) if he is caught, and it is very bad for a woman’s psyche to be chased by a rapist, even if she gets away.

Chasing, or tickling, is or at least should be an intersubjective act of love. What fundamentally distinguishes it from rape is not so much what lies on the surface as that deep below the surface, the one is done between two subjects, while the other is done by a subject to an object. The deep connection between two subjects is what enables ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’.

And tickling is not so much for the tickling as for the other person. It is not an act in isolation; it is a part of love. This provides another distinction between tickling and rape. The rapist does not truly desire the woman, even as just an object, an ‘it’; he desires the rape, the action, an action that exists self-sufficient, by itself and without any need of a larger context. Perhaps the rapist is to be greatly pitied alongside the victim; it does not cause consciously realized unending torment as being raped does, but it is a single act within oneself, an act of masturbation that involves an unfortunate woman, rather than an intersubjective act of love that transcends self. Even if rape did not violate a woman’s personhood and were not morally wrong, it would still be greatly be desired for his own sake that a rapist could let go of rape and give-receive a real hug.


The next touch I’ll mention is holding hands.

Someone once said, “If all other arguments failed, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.” The hand is one of the most beautiful parts of the body; it contains the glory of the whole body in miniature. If you haven’t done so already, at least once in your life, I would encourage you to notice hands, to look at someone’s hands (yours or somebody else’s) as you would an Impressionist nude. I don’t think it is quite an accident that Michelangelo’s David, the single greatest male nude in Western sculpture, has hands that are just a little bit larger than they are proportioned in real life. The David’s hands are exquisite.

The hand is in a sense the most useful tool we have. It is amazing, strong, dextrous, sensitive, and versitile. It is uniquely adapted both to manipulate, and to feel and explore. And so it is not a surprise that one of the touches God has given us is holding hands — an equal touch between two sensitive areas of the body, which can last.

Our culture understands holding hands primarily in a romantic context — which it certainly can be, but need not be. At least a hint of this is seen in that parents hold little childrens’ hands. I still hold my twelve year old brothers’ hands, and I am happy to do so.

In many Islamic nations, men hold hands in public. This is not a sexual act (and, unfortunately, is not extended to women — even wives), and the fact that it may take some effort to really realize by many of us is reflective of a fundamental problem in how many of us view sex and morality.

Dorothy Sayers, in her essay, “The other six deadly sins,” points out that a man could be a liar and a drunkard, greedy and avaricious, wrathful, prideful, and dead to every noble instinct, and still we would not call him immoral, because we reserve the term ‘immorality’ to talk about — well, you know, immorality. Thus a term that was meant to cover the whole range of vices is reduced to referring to just one, because we are two embarrassed to call that one vice by its name, lust. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins; it is not the deadly sin. And the Church has always recognized that the cold-hearted sins, the sins of mind and spirit such as pride and greed, are infinitely worse than the disreputable sins of the flesh, such as lust. In the Inferno, the incontinent occupy the very least and outermost circle of Hell proper; it is only far deeper that we find sins like pride, the sin by which the highest and holiest being in all creation became the Satan, the Accuser who stands before God accusing the saints day and night.

(One thing that I beg of you here — do not flatter me by saying that I am original in claiming this; do not credit me with this innovation. Christianity has taught this for ages; it has just become a bit obscured recently.)

Homosexual lust, in this scheme, is in a sense worse than heterosexual lust; it is a perversion of nature in a way that even adultery is not. But it is not the vice beyond all vices, and it does not compare even to pride. And it is really paid a far-reaching and very undue tribute when it is held in the fear that it is, in how (for example) many men in our culture fear touching each other. All sin is serious, but in most cases the possibility of homosexual lust is not that serious of a threat that men need to be afraid of each other. Therefore, the Islamic world has it right in the level of touchiness and contact that it has between men.

Holding hands is a touch that can be deepened by pressure, variations in pressure, and responsiveness; one of the most common and basic letters in this alphabet is in giving a squeeze or answering a squeeze with another squeeze; it is a theme which has infinite variations. And this provides a lot of depth to a touch, making a touch more touchy, the very opposite of holding hands like a dead fish.


I would like to make a brief interlude to talk about the question of what touches are sexual — and to refuse to give a Pharisaic catalogue.

The Pharisees attempted the doomed project of an exacting guard of rules, more specifically the wrong type of tules. By contrast, I would like to draw an analogy with what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity about modesty in dress across cultures. Different cultures vary greatly in what social rules they have concerning covering and showing different parts of the body. But having a principle of modesty does not, even in cultures that do not wear any clothing. It is like language; what sounds bear what meaning is highly variable. But having sounds that bear meaning, and parts of speech and grammar, is not. That is universal — and the deaf subculture is the exception that proves the rule; even when they can’t hear to be able to naturally converse as everyone else does, they use their eyes and hands in a language of hand signs.

Another analogy might be found in comparing the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Much (not all) of the Canadian border lies at a single latitude; there is a near-universal rule that tells, “One mile north of this latitude, you are in Canada; one mile south, you are in the U.S.A.” But no such rule exists between the U.S. and Mexico; there are some latitudes that (given that one is on land in North America) tell you that you’re in the U.S., and some latitudes that tell you that you are in Mexico, but a great many latitudes that could be either in the U.S. or Mexico.

However, the U.S.-Mexican border is just as sharply defined as that between the U.S. and Canada; the latitudinal rules fail in many cases, but there is still a razor sharp distinction to be made.

That distinction is made in the Holy Spirit; it is the Spirit who is the structure of obedience revealed in the New Testament, and that gives the believer the power to obey.

Any kind of touch can be sexual, and a good many can be non-sexual as well. And the power to be pure, the power to reserve sexual touch for its proper and special place, comes to the believer through the Holy Spirit.


I would like to say something more about tickling: it is dependent, not only on body, but also on mind. I will not belabor the obvious point that certain touches tickle some people, but rather point out something else: whether something tickles, depends on how it is perceived. A thin cotton shirt touches very lightly — but it does not tickle. And conversely, some vivid use of language can tickle from far away.


The kiss seems to receive the most attention in Scripture. The second verse of the Song of Songs says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” And half the New Testament epistles say, in their closing exhortations, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” In a sense, the kiss is a symbol of all contact in Scripture. And it is significant that the prophets record Elijah being told when he is desparate, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Ba’al, nor have their mouths kissed him.” It is so great of a touch that it cannot be bestowed on an idol.

To those who have seen it, I would recall the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The kisses in even a seriously flawed movie stand out; the emotional charge bristles, and the final kiss between Christ and Judas stands as a tribute to how even a non-sexual kiss can be intense and passionate. And the kisses recorded in Genesis stand as a hallmark of that book’s sensitivity to emotion.

Someone writing about music talked about how, as a person’s experience with music grows, the keys gain different and distinct emotional residues, different moods, different qualities. And the same is true of touch, only moreso. There are twelve major and twelve minor keys, and that is fixed; but with each of the basic touches, there are variants, and variants of variants. A kiss may be on the lips or not on the lips, just a peck or longer, and so on, and these allow not just discrete combinations, but a continuum. And this provides room for great subtleties in emotional significance.


I just got back from my cognitive science class, and I believe that touch provides a good illustration of what is lacking in the classical model of cognition.

The classical model of cognition describes human thought as an essentially rule-based manipulation of symbols, ideally manifested in a formal game such as chess. Of one area where it is lacking — that of simulation, where people manipulate in their heads models or representations of things — I will not treat here. But there is another area which I *will* treat; I am not contesting that there are parts of the human mind that are well described in that manner, but rather that it is a description of a part, and not, by a long stretch of imagination, the whole. And so I will outline seven differences.

The first is that chess is manifestation-independent, while touch is fundamentally qualitative. Perhaps the best way I can put it is this. Humans happen to refer to chess pieces by poetic names, such as ‘knight’ and ‘castle’. But that is entirely irrelevant to the game; Deep Blue beat Kasparov without having the faintest inkling of the romance we know, of knights in shining armor and fair maidens in distress. And chess would be the same if Bill Gates played it with helicopters on rooftops; that is, the real game of chess can be separated from the physical objects which happen to be used in its play.

But this is not true of touch — at all. Chess is still chess without a chessboard; and it happens in blindfolded masters’ games. But a kiss would not still be a kiss without bodies, and I could not touch in anything remotely resembling the way i do now, if my soul were transplanted to the body of a steel robot.

There is a formal sense in which the numbers 1297 and 1348 are different, and in which we can recognize them as such, but there is a much deeper way in which red and green affect us differently; there is a fundamental qualitative difference in looking at two objects of different colors that we cannot experience in simply thinking about two different numbers. This kind of quality, which occurs incidentally (if at all) in chess, is fundamental to touch.

And in some way, this touches on a problem in Western thought, an occurrence of the ancient Gnostic heresy which recognizes us as spirits and minds, but refuses to give any recognition to us as animals whom God created to be fundamentally physical as well as fundamentally spiritual. Our bodies are not a merely coincidental attachment to our minds; God created us to be a certain way physically as well as a certain way spiritually, and body is not to be dispensed with or altered as we please. Touching is an act of the body, involving mind and spirit as it may, and it is (God be praised) not something we can simply assign the way we assign a particular shirt to cover us. Seeing everything as chess makes us pure minds who have the misfortune to be encumbered by some (possibly mutable) matter; seeing some things as touch recognizes us as blessed with some particular bodies, which are a part of us as much as reason is a part of us. God has given us a very earthy spirituality.

The second difference is that chess is driven by a single objective in the future, to which any particular action is a mere instrument, while touch embraces now and recognizes things as intrinsically good. (Now the truth is not either alone but both, and if I do not talk much about our ultimate future goal, it will only be by a restriction of attention.) In chess, there is one objective — checkmating your opponent before he can checkmate you — and nothing else is done because it is good in and of itself, but only because it can function as a means to that end. A checkmate is never made by a single move, except between two terrible players; it is carefully prepared in anticipation. Now goals, ends, and sacrifices are very important, probably more important than what I am concerned with here. But touch doesn’t work that way. A touch is not given because of what it will enable at some later moment, as a mere means to an end; it is given as valuable in and of itself. And we do not touch in the future, but touch now; the now (as well as the future) is given by God’s hand.

The third difference, which is probably more restricted to chess and other games than formal systems in general, but which I will mention, is that chess is oppositional, while touch is synergistic. What is good for your opponent in chess is bad for you, and vice versa. The success of one person necesitates the failure of another. Now there are principles of good sportsmanship, but these come because people are better than chess, and not from chess itself. Chess sets people at odds with each other, in and of itself. Touch, on the other hand, is of a cooperative and synergistic nature; for one person to benefit means in general the benefit and not the detriment of another. You will fare badly with someone who plays chess well; you will fare well with someone whose touch is good.

The fourth difference is that chess is digital and discrete, while touch is continuous. Touch moves not simply from black and white to a greyscale, but even further — to colors, where there are many different ways of being bright. I have talked about this before, so I will not treat it in detail here beyond saying that it ties into the qualitative aspect.

The fifth difference is that chess is abstract, while touch is concrete. Abstraction extracts certain key features, and then leaves the specific instances behind, which is a powerful thing to do, and good, but not the only kind of thinking which people do, and not the kind of thinking that most people are best at. The concrete takes a specific instance and explores it in detail, in specific things that abstraction leaves out. Touch is concrete, and can push one specific contact much deeper than is possible abstractly with every contact at once. Touch has the depth of concreteness rather than that of abstraction.

The sixth difference is that chess is logical and rational, while touch is emotional and perceptive. The chess type of thinking is best done by someone who can retreat into himself, and carry out cool, logical operations without regard for the outside world. Emotions are irrelevant. Touch, on the other hand, is something which emotions and the external world matter a great deal for; touch should be moved and moving, and it depends far less on isolated calculation than a sensitivity to other people. It is perceptive, connected, and interactive.

The seventh and final difference I will mention here is that chess is self-contained, while touch resonates of something greater. Once you know the rules of chess, you have no need to refer to anything outside of it, but touch is part of something far greater. It is a part of love, of the very highest potential of the imago dei. To understand the profound difference between making love and rape, you need to go past the touch alone and look at far greater things — to see how one is part of the sacred one-flesh union which God has given us, and the other is one of the most crushing and dehumanizing blows that one person can inflict on another.

Another facet of what something greater there is, may be found in the older and somewhat broader conception of Romance. I am not only referring to the romance that goes on between a man and a woman, but a broader sense of — poetry. It is related to the innocent and childlike wonder that looks and sees the real beauty in so many things, that is obscured so often by jaded eyes.

There is something haunting and elusive, something which we can chase but cannot catch, something beautiful. This something is why so many people have looked at woods and believed that there might be fairies dancing, or looked at a pool of water and seen that there might be a nymph. There is a sense of poetry, a sense of something beautiful. You cannot pin it down and hold a gun to its head, but it will surprise you.

This Romance is something which makes itself manifest in touch, or to put it another way, touch is laced with Romance; it is one of those beautiful things by which beauty surprises us.


Having lived in France, I rather miss the custom of friends giving kisses on alternate cheeks when they meet; there is something about a kiss that is delicate and embodies a tiny beauty. We do not give each other kisses in consolation; hugs are more fitting to those times. Of all the different touches, I think that the kiss is (to me, at least — there is a good subjective element here) the one most laced with Romance.


The handshake originated as a means of occupying someone’s weapon hand so as to afford some protection when he was within striking range. That is, it was a gesture of mistrust.

To see what it has become, is in my estimation a tribute to the nature of touch, and a tribute to the better side of humanness. Touching hands upon a meeting has become a greeting, a welcome, and I have received some warm handshakes that felt like hugs.


Hugging is perhaps the most equitable and universal of touches (at least in our culture; I acknowledge and understand that much of what I am writing may be culture bound, but even a non-universal cultural perspective can have great merit). It is the one touch I can think of that is fitting both after something very good has happened and after something very bad has happened; when someone is at a low point especially, a hug is one of the most simple and human actions of love and support, from one person to another.

In the book of Job, we read before any of the lengthy speeches, that Job’s three friends came, and sat with him in silence for a week because they saw his misery was so great. And this is the one thing which they did for which they were not reprimanded. There is a time when sorrow and agony are great, and even the best of words are too much of a burden to bear. In that time, it is a tremendous comfort to have a friend who will come, forgo the usual bad habits about always having to do something, and sit in silence, sharing in your pain, sharing with you his presence. And a hug, moreso than any other touch, is very appropriate then.

But hugs are far more than that. They can also be soft hugs, bear hugs, gentle hugs, pick-me-up hugs, and all sorts of other possibilities.


There was a man by the name of Bob Sklar at one of the places I worked, who would give all manner of friendly insults; the only time he didn’t insult you was if he was angry with you, and then you were in trouble.

Something like this is descriptive of banter; it is a sign that everything is going well. As an example of how that can fail, I would point to its absence in the situation concerning racial humor.

If my guess is correct, at least some readers had a significant jump in tension level — am I going to advocate racism in the form of jokes? There are substantial racial tensions, so that people in many situations are walking on eggshells, afraid to tell jokes involving race because it might be taken as a sign of racism — nobody seems to consider the revolutionary idea that some people might tell jokes involving race for the same reason they tell jokes not involving race — because they find them funny, and want to share a bit of good-natured mirth.

The one major exception is the exception that proves the rule. It is acceptable to joke about your own race — we are not too completely thick-skulled to think that (for example) a Jew might have reasons besides anti-Semitism for telling jokes about Jews. The fact that an exception be of such nature is a testament to the strength of the rule.

If nothing else, I must regard such a state of affairs as unfortunate for the sake of humor. If you have had the good fortune to know a few Jews as I have, you will no doubt know that the Jewish consciousness has produced a number of jokes which are subtle, clever, and extremely funny. I will quote two of my favorite ones here:

At a Jewish wedding, how do you tell which branch it is?If it’s an orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. If it’s a conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. If it’s a reformed wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.

I take this one to be a good meta-joke as well as a joke. There are four branches of something called Judaism; the fourth, reconstructionism, is far out in loonie land, a sort of Jewish PC-USA. And it is both fitting and amusing that the joke doesn’t mention them.

A Jewish man named Jacob has fallen on hard times; he has lost his job, and goes to the synagogue to pray.”God? Could I please win the lottery?”

He doesn’t win the lottery, and not too much later his house is broken into, and everything of value is stolen. Visibly upset, he goes to teh synagogue again.

“God, I have done a lot for you, and I don’t ask for too much. Please, I beg you, please let me win the lottery.”

This week, not only does he not win the lottery, but his house burns down and his car is destroyed by a hit and run driver. Again he goes and prays.

“God, I have served you my whole life, and I don’t ask for too much at all. I have taken good care of my wife and children, and I want this money for them and not just for myself. I do so much and ask for so little. Please, God, please, can’t you let me win the lottery just this once?”

The voice of God booms forth, and fills the synagogue, saying,

“Jacob, meet me half way on this one. Buy a stupid ticket!”

One more:

Q: What do you say to a Puerto Rican in a three piece suit?A: “Will the defendant please rise?”

I mention these jokes specifically because they disturb how we are trying to have races live together peaceably. That such jokes are not often told may be slightly sad from a humor perspective, but it is also a sign of a much deeper problem, and for this problem I will again go to Jews for a treasure, an even greater treasure this time. I hope you might see why I would tell offensive jokes.

This treasure is the word ‘shalom’, which means peace — a rich and full peace, a peace which is not merely characterized by what is absent — physical, violent strife — but goes much further. Shalom as understood by Jews is a positive state of well-being, a state of justice and equity — “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing streams.” In my view, the best way to characterize this peace is to say that it is the manifest presence of love.

What we now have between races is not shalom; it is only a whitewashed wall. And it does not really help matters to put on another coat of whitewash, and proscribe racial humor because of how dangerously it threatens to reveal the racial tensions we pretend aren’t there, and how dangerously it threatens something even more terrifying — to make a human to human contact in mirth, to separate us from our separateness and let us see each other as brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of one man and one woman.

Roughhousing is very dear to my heart, in part because it can only exist where there is shalom. It is too energetic, too real, not to destroy a whitewashed wall, and therefore if roughhousing can be enjoyed, there is a real shalom there, a shalom deep enough to take a bit of mock conflict on the surface and still be the strong flow of love between real people. In its own way, its obnoxious roughness achieves what a thousand polite and distant handshakes can never accomplish.


Touch is not simply a tame thing in a box, and — while there are certain patterns of touch that are hit on more often than others — there is always more. I, for instance, am quite fond of grabbing my little brothers’ noses, and tugging on their ears, and so on and so forth. These silly — or sometimes not so silly — little touches we make up have their place, their niche, as well. And other cultures, while almost certainly sharing foundational elements such as hugs and kisses, will have their own touches and their own variations on themes. What exactly this may be is variable, as the exact sounds of a language are variable. Having a language capable of communication is not. What I am writing in these pages is only one of a legion of possibilities on the topic; others can and should address other things that I omit.


Another aspect of touch is that it is free and voluntary. The Christian understanding is not quite the same as the overblown (or underinterpreted) American notion, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantial freedoms.

“If you love something, set it free; if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours to begin with.”

Another critical aspect of touch is that it is voluntary, that saying ‘no’ is an option. A part of what makes a touch enjoyable is the knowledge that it is not forced on you, that it comes from a love not only great enough to touch, but also and furthermore great enough not to touch. Another part of what makes rape rape is that the victim has no choice in the matter — that she is in fact in one of the most utterly powerless and defenseless situations, both physically and psychologically, that a person can be in. Then what should be one of the greatest goods becomes one of the greatest evils. The only other comparable situation I can think of is abortion, especially a partial birth abortion in which a child begins to receive that great and unique embrace called ‘birth’, and then his head is cut open and his brains are sucked out, live and unanaesthetized.

The nature of this freedom means, in particular, the freedom to become bound, the absence of which is an unnatural and constricting shackle. <<La liberté totale est la pire des prisons.>> — total liberty is the very worst of prisons. The poetic, the romantic, the true freedom is the freedom which can choose a good, not merely for a moment, but permanently. This freedom, rather than having to re-evaluate all of the time and have no solid basis to rely on, is truly free, infinitely more free than if every decision and commutment is in danger of being revoked at any time. This freedom is the basis for marriage and parenthood, a freedom that chooses permanently to be available to another person in touch and love.


There is one last specific touch I would like to mention, and that is massage. I do not mean to give an account of how to massage, as there are good books on it. But I will say this: that it is the touch of a healer, that it goes past the surface to work inside the body. It is perhaps the most involved and giving of non-sexual touches, and I regard it as not entirely unfortunate that it is the one non-sexual touch that it is easy to come by books on.


Touch is one of the blessings that lies far beyond Mammon. It’s free.


To begin what may well be the last section of this treatise, I will talk about something that is not so much a specific touch, as a topic relevant to touch. That is the difference between contract and covenant.

The contract is a very modern and very impoverished notion of the covenant. A contract is an external artifice which binds a person’s actions. A covenant is an internal reality which binds persons themselves. A contract is shallow. A covenant is profound.

The contract, especially the social contract, is the impoverished notion of community that corresponds to a view of people as isolated and essential individuals and islands, between which thin strands of bridges are erected as a minimal concession to our inability to function as absolute islands. It is a superficial modification to a basis of individualism.

Christianity is not an individualistic religion, and it has a much more rich, complex, and multifaceted view of personhood — for example, the insistance that we are both as much spirit as any angel, and as much animal as any beast. And it claims both that we have a profound individual side, and a profound corporate side — and that these two truths are not only not exclusive, but complementary. The individual side, which I have not treated here only due to a restriction of attention, is one which (for example) solitude figures in deeply. Many things are a part of both facets. Our uniqueness and difference, for example, is perhaps most visibly related to our individual natures, but Paul’s talk about the body — which needs not thirty-two ears but a great variety of different, equal, and necessary body parts, each in its proper place — shows how our differences can and should contribute to community as well.

The view of touch as a specific action defined by the consent of two individuals, with no intrinsic meaning in and of itself, is to the Christian view of touch as the concept of contract is to the Christian understanding of covenant — an impoverished and woefully inadequate simplification and truncation. Touch is not something accidental, which means whatever we decide that it means; it is part and parcel of who we are, with a meaning ordained by God. It is a part of love and community; it is a physical aspect of the very highest and holiest in the imago dei.

John wrote at the end of his account of the Gospel that he did not record everything which Jesus said and did, and that he supposed that if everything which Jesus said and did were written down, the whole world would not have room for all the books which would be written. Christ’s life is inexhaustible; even the four brief accounts which have come down to us from the apostles are themselves inexhaustible. It is one of the marks of what is great and profound.

I am drawing this work to a close rather arbitrarily — not because there is no more to be said, but because I decided that I would write for the length of the notebook I had chosen, and draw a line of moderation there. Instead of just writing forever, I am stopping to type it up, print it out, share the copies with other people, and what is most important of all, touch them.

I would ask you to do the same. I hope that you have enjoyed this; I hope that I have stimulated you to think; I hope that I have shared with you some good insights. Don’t cut this work short by stopping there. Go out and touch someone.

Epilogue, 21 June 03

Since I first wrote this, about six years have elapsed. I have since let it simmer inside me, and I have a couple of things to mention.

The first has been that what I wrote is incomplete. It’s not quite in a mature state. One caring, touch-y friend observed that there was something forced in my touch.

The second has been a realisation which crystallised after two comments. The first comment when one friend said, “You and Robin hug differently from most people.” I was surprised and asked, “How?” He said, “You hug with the whole of yourself.”

The other comment came when I asked a close friend, Yussif, when a hug was appropriate in Ghanian culture. He said that in England he learned to value hugs, and in Ghana he gives a handshake to close male friends. In retrospect, I realize that when Ghanian men have shaken my hand, it has never been distant, or a perfunctory greeting. Something Yussif said about “palm against palm” made me realise how unappreciative I had been about handshakes.

I tried to apply this treatise by seeking out hugs and kisses. I thought in terms of what kind of touch to seek, and I was basically barking up the wrong tree when I did so. I hesitate to say that I would never ask, “May I give you a hug?” or, “May I give you a kiss?” but that sort of thing occupies a far less central role than I assumed.

What would I put in its place? Go with the flow of the social situation rather than against it. Don’t force it. Be careful about when you muster courage—sometimes trying to muster courage is the wrong thing. And, when it is fitting to give a touch, be able to do so with your whole person. Don’t go overboard and try to give your total presence when you’ve just met someone and are shaking hands…

…but all these restrictions are but the shadow cast by a great light.

Good touch is a way that love shows itself. Embodied love, from one whole person to another, can appear in many different forms of touch, and what makes it deep is less dependent on technique or form than being given from the whole person. It is at least as much spiritual as physical, and is therefore to be sought in whole person love, given by God, which moves through the spirit to embrace the body. Things such as loving God and the other person, trying as much as possible to give your attention now rather than diverting it to other things (past or future), and meeting the other—whole person to whole person—are much deeper to pin down than any kind of minutia, and have a much deeper yield.

Perhaps after I have let this simmer for a few more years, there is something else I will be able to share.

A Dream of Light

The Eighth Sacrament

Espiriticthus: Cultures of a Fantasy World Not Touched by Evil

The Sign of the Grail

The Hayward Nonstandard Test: An Interesting Failure

CJSH.name/test


Read it on Kindle for $3!

In recent years, I published what I then (and now) consider an interesting test. It was meant to look for indirect signs of profound giftedness. I wrote it with the hope that it would circumvent the ceiling of standard model tests, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it showed a floor above some other tests’ ceilings. Let me cite the questions before continuing:

  1. Describe who you are, how you see the world, and what your inner world is like.
  2. Describe your most impressive and distinctive achievements.
  3. Describe your most impressive and distinctive failures.
  4. Describe what you hope/wish/want/intend to accomplish with your life. What do you believe you will accomplish?
  5. What is your educational background? Include out of classroom learning you consider appropriate.
  6. What is (are) your domain(s) of desired excellence? What is your work there? What have you achieved? What failures have you experienced?
  7. Have you ever had management problems or been fired? If so, describe each time.
  8. Describe any unusual or distinctive characteristics of your childhood physiology and physique.
  9. What mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses have been considered for you (that you are comfortable divulging)? Elaborate if desired; if there is information you’d prefer to omit, please say so.
  10. What are your interests?
  11. On a scale of -1.0 to 1.0, rate yourself on the dimensions of the Myers-Briggs test: E(-1) to I(1), S(-1) to N(1), T(-1) to F(1), P(-1) to J(1). Elaborate if desired.There are a few ways to take the Myers-Briggs test, one of the cheapest of which is to check out e.g. Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II from the library; the Kiersey web site has assorted information online.
  12. What is one of your favorite books? Why? Elaborate.
  13. Provide a sample of your best writing.
  14. What is one of your most cherished of your creations? Explain. If feasible, include a copy; if not, describe.
  15. As a child or youth, what was one inconsistency you observed in the adult world that was painful?
  16. Describe, with examples, your sense of humor.
  17. Do you fit in (yes/no/question does not admit a yes or no answer for you)? Explain.
  18. Provide, and answer, one question that you believe will provide me with deep insight into your intelligence.
  19. Write your own short intelligence test.
  20. What else can you say to provide me with evidence of your intelligence?

Richard Feynmann’s Cargo Cult Science address talks about the need to publicize failed experiments as well as successes. I am publishing results, not to claim a new success, but because in its failure it may be interesting. Someone else may find a refinement of the idea that works, or other lessons may be taken from its failure. This seems to be an interesting failure.

I received responses from four men, whom I will call Adam, Brandon, Charles, and David. I opened and read them at the same time to limit bias. Adam seemed gifted, around the top of the range of “optimum intelligence” where you have a definite advantage over others but aren’t so different that it starts to really hurt. Brandon seemed just over the edge; I hesitated in comparing them and finally placed Brandon slightly above Adam. Charles showed signs of real giftedness; earlier in life he had effectively solved a problem that it originally took Euler to solve. Charles struck me as profoundly gifted. Finally, if Charles showed brilliant complexity, David showed a simplicity on the other side of complexity. (“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”) In my notes, I compared his communication to how Richard Feynman closed the O-ring debate: “Feynmann, after people enquiring into the Challenger disaster had spent days arguing whether it was too cold for the O-rings, took an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and pinched it, snapping it.” David struck me as not only profoundly gifted but at a higher plateau than Charles’s dazzling performance. Trying to describe the spread, I said that if the lowest score were a 1 and the highest were an 8, then I would give Adam 1, Brandon 2, Charles 6, and David 8. (I guessed numbers at 150, 155, 165, and 185; I intentionally did not reconcile these two sets of numbers.) Then I opened their prior test scores.

Charles had scores of 140-151, which I regarded as ceiling scores which did not provide useful information beyond being ceiling scores. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest prior scores of 168, 172, and 174 respectively. (I am inclined to lend more credence to the higher scores as it is more plausible to say that someone properly rated around 170 hit his head on the ceiling and scored around 130 than someone properly rated at 130 accidently obtained a score around 170. I acknowledge that this could inflate my estimates.) After an hour or so of trying to convince myself I could interpret their scores so that they would say my test worked, I realised that my test found a significant difference where none was independently verified. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest scores well within measurement error of each other. Furthermore, Adam had consistently high scores: his lowest score was 156, while no one else had two scores above 155. Comparing with previous data, there was no positive correlation to prior test scores, and the person who looked best from previous scores was the person I’d ranked the lowest.

This does not necessarily mean my test is invalid. Four responses, three of which were within measurement error of each other, do not a norming make. Given that responses had appeared at a rate of about one per year, it’s not clear how long it would take to obtain a basis for a solid anchor norming, and if I would still be alive when enough responses had been completed. I opened the responses more on an intuition than anything else, and what I have is not a norming but an understanding of why it might not have been helpful to wait for enough responses for a norming. Furthermore, the fact that previous test data does not distinguish between them does not mean that they are at the same level. All four normees are bright enough to get ceiling scores on standardized tests. That leaves open the possibility of significant differences between them, including the possibility that Charles and David are appreciably brighter than Adam and Brandon. However, I am speaking about what is possible and not about claims that my results support. My results do not say anything positive about my ability to discriminate between responses. If there is anything interesting obtained from my test, it is not between responses but the fact that people responded at all. My website, C.J.S. Hayward , averages between 500 and 1000 unique visitors per day, with an average of two people reading the test per day. Only four people responded in three years, with all of the normees being brilliant. That seems significant, and I’m not sure what all it means. Apart from that, no ability to discriminate usefully between scores has been established in the usual fashion.

Summary of Responses

I would like to briefly describe the responses I received, both to provide an overall picture and to describe what I would single out in my evaluation. Here and elsewhere in the evaluation, I am intentionally using vague and generic descriptions rather than ones that are detailed and specific. This impoverishes the writing and gives a less valuable analysis, but I want to be cautious about confidence, and I expect that some of the people reading this will be quite good at connecting dots.

Adam

Adam’s response was three pages long, seemed candid (as did the others), and included achievements at state level. His responses answered the questions, but did not have the florid, ornate, wheels within wheels quality I associate with someone brilliant who is speaking on a topic he finds interesting. The content of his responses strikes me as reflecting more intelligence than the writing style: it was well-written, but did not reflect the “mental overflow” I was looking for. His list of interests was relatively short (twelve), and included a few items that do not specifically reflect intelligence. Several of his choices suggest noteworthy social maturity; this, combined with my losing track of how he opened his responses, led me to assume that he was more gifted than profoundly gifted.

Brandon

Brandon’s response was also three pages long, and showed the pain of the social disconnect which many profoundly gifted experience. His list of interests was also short, but the activities themselves more distinctively suggest high intelligence. His general approach, in particular to society and authority, shows many of the signature traits David Kiersey (Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1998) describes in profiling the NT “rational” temperament. (Three out of the four normees were NTs, and all of them were strongly intuitive.) He also has an uncanny knack for guessing certain kinds of information—which is an anomaly that I’m not sure what to do with. The examples, however, did not leave me wanting attack the anomaly by pointing him to Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So (New York: Free Press reprint, 1993). He showed a desire to use his mind to transform society that seems to be common among very bright people.

Charles

Charles’s response was twenty-seven pages of wheels within wheels. From the first page I was met with nuance that let me know I hadn’t taken everything in on the first reading, despite it being well-written. He claimed not to have any distinctive achievements. This modest remark was followed by no fewer than eight pages of dense summaries of some of his theories. These theories were subtle. They had a logical and scientific character and a spark of something interesting that stretches outside the bounds of science. He used a nonstandard format that made their logical structure clearer—successfully modifying a familiar format to make an unfamiliar format that works better, which is difficult. In the pages of his response I met an edifice of thought which impressed me and which I knew I didn’t understand. (I say this as someone who has put a lot of effort into understanding other people’s belief systems.) His response to that question reminds me of a passage in my current novel:

The woman looked at me briefly. “What languages do you know?”

If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. “I… Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of ‘common’ conversation. You know how—”

The man said, “Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children’s talk. Go on.”

“And—I created a special purpose language,” I said, “to try to help a child who couldn’t speak. I did my best, but it didn’t work. I still don’t understand why not. And I—” I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.

I looked down and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good with languages.”

Charles listed approximately fifty different interests—which is less significant than it sounds, as he broke his interests down in more detail than the other normees, but the detailed breakdown strikes me as significant independent of its content. He was the one normee who answered the Myers-Briggs question in the mathematical format requested—which does not mean that he is the only normee who could do that task, but may suggest that he was the one person who didn’t take a shortcut by “just using adjectives”. I wrote the test to listen for a certain accent in how people respond, and his sense of humor showed that accent loud and strong.

He wrote a complete test which seemed to have a low ceiling, but was polished enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see something similar on the web, and he showed self-criticism in writing the test, acknowledging that it was culture-biased. The completeness and level of polish for that answer caught me off guard.

I was looking to be surprised in a certain way, and for reasons discussed above Charles gave me the kind of surprises I was looking for.

David

David’s response was twenty pages. He provided an extended writing sample, and (to my surprise) a complete transcript of grades from childhood. His answers were by far the most polished; they give the impression of finding, out of a large space of things that could be said, a microcosmic gem that encapsulates the whole space. Most of his responses were short; the twenty pages stem from the length of his answers to a small number of questions.

Question 11, requesting Myers-Briggs personality type, contained a hidden question. I was interested in Myers-Briggs type, but most interested in whether the normee would question the test or talk about not fitting in the frame the Myers-Briggs test provides. David told his type en route to making a dismissive remark about the test. In other words, he was the one respondent who questioned the test. The most cherished creation he gave was one that showed a certain kind of mental fireworks, reminiscent of the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1999).

David also surprised me, and I heard an accent of brilliance.

Interesting Features

What are the distinctive features of my test? I would like to describe them below.

Emphasis on Tacit Knowing

The way Western culture is shaped means that psychology tries to know its subject-matter with the same kind of knowing as physics has of its subject-matter, in other words I-It rather than I-Thou knowing that is depersonalised and banishes tacit knowing as far as possible. (Banishing anthropomorphism is appropriate when you’re studying rocks. It’s more debatable in trying to understand people.) When I was thinking about how to write up the experiment, before I looked at prior scores, one of the things I intended to compare was writing samples. Brandon offered a clever placeholder in place of a “real” composition. Adam provided some poetry that reminded me of fifth grade English reading; I objectively recognized quality but felt no subjective emotional response. Charles provided poetry that I wasn’t sure I understood but none the less felt like something powerful was washing over me, and I was sorry when it ended. David sent a fiction excerpt that filled me with despair. The tone of the writing was not despairing; I felt the despair of being shown writing so perfect that I despaired of ever attaining that standard.

Why am I talking about my subjective emotional reactions instead of objective assessment? That is why I chose this specific example, instead of examples of thought that would have more to justify them from the framework that understands knowledge in depersonalized and objective terms. I choose it because I paid attention to subjective emotional reactions. I believe that they are tied to tacit and personal ways of knowing: I experienced subjective emotional reactions because I was responding to different pieces of writing that were not of the same quality. Subjective emotional response is one of several things that can be a cue worth listening to.

(I am intentionally keeping the philosophy brief; the philosophical dimension involved in this topic is one that admits very long discussion.)

Listening for an Accent

In most tests, there is a suite of questions meant to map out where a person’s intelligence breaks down, and scoring is how many points total are earned. In this test, the questions do not represent a direct attempt to present difficulty in answering. The intent is rather to obtain a composite picture, and shed indirect light on how bright a person is. The assumption is that different levels of giftedness will leave a definite mark on a person, and that that definite mark is discernible through understanding the person. For one example, above a certain level, a person is so different from the majority of people that there is a social disconnect; children above IQ 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. That kind of social disconnect was clearly discernible in all but one of the responses; Brandon clearly articulated it.

To some extent, that is corroborated by the data. I identified all of the normees as significantly gifted—which I had no reason to anticipate. The first norming of the Mega test had fewer than 10% of normees successfully answer any of the questions. (People who are emotionally insecure often attempt difficult tests to get an answer that may feel special; as the number of emotionally insecure people vastly outweighs the number of people at that level of giftedness, they “should” have been a small minority.) So I was able to recognize giftedness in all of the normees when I was not expecting it. That stated, the evidence does not warrant the conclusion that my test usefully discriminates among the normees.

Problems with the Norming and Test

As this test, or at least this norming, has been a failure, it’s worth paying attention to what went wrong.

Pool of Normees

I have not done any real statistical analysis because there is no basis for analysis, and the statistics would only give a more precise quantification to the statement, “The measurement error exceeds the difference measured.” Even if the four normees represented an optimal 120-140-160-180 spread, four points would be questionable. As is, the only conclusion I can confidently claim from prior test data is that all of the normees are at or above standardized test ceilings. In other words, data from previous tests do not provide a basis to claim that my test discriminates (and what correlation exists is negative).

Two Dimensions Flattened Into One

Giftedness affects personality, but it is inadequate to simply say, “Giftedness is personality.” There is diversity at each stratum of giftedness, and the normee pool did not permit the kind of two-dimensional analysis that would be needed to properly interpret responses (if there is a proper interpretation to be had).

An Invasive Test

This test is invasive. It’s painful and offensive. There is probably a way to attempt a similar operation much more gently and delicately. My guess is that this, more than anything else, is why I only had four responses in three years. If this principle were put to serious use, it would have to be rethought so that it went about its aims with a far defter touch. (Or perhaps just remove certain questions.)

One question which I wonder is whether this offensiveness, which is partly an unedited form of giftedness, was the main reason why only brilliant men responded. The test’s form may have been a powerful selector. So it would have put most people off. But that is not the whole story. Keep in mind that “reading” on a conscious or unconscious level is a two-way street, and the test reveals something significant about me as well as requesting revelation of the normee. A few very bright people, however, might be bothered by the invasiveness, but they recognize and respond to a voice that feels like home. It connects. That, at least, is speculation which seems plausible, but which I don’t see how to support without writing a gentler test.

Not Personal Enough

In one sense, this test was personal, too personal—it probed bluntly into things that are not polite to ask. In another sense, though, it related to the normees as objects to be studied, trying to dissect them as people but still dissecting them. It moves partway from I-It to I-Thou, but I believe it is possible to have a fuller I-Thou knowing, although I don’t know what a fully I-Thou approach would be like. It could be argued that the questions are offensive because the test was not personal enough. In other words, the test reflected an attempt to understand people but not in a personal way. Furthermore, some of the philosophical merits to a personal approach may bear fruit if there were a more genuinely personal approach.

Lack of Checks

The attempt to be objective tries to strip out everything subjective as a means to strip out subjective bias. Ideally one would want to allow subjective strengths while using another form of rigor to mitigate subjective bias, but I am not sure what that other and more difficult rigor would be; I have not solved that problem.

I requested responses to questions and personal information separately, so I wouldn’t know whose material I was working with until after I had ranked the results. There was one normee for whom this attempted anonymization failed—David, whom I know and I hold in awe. I’d like to say that I didn’t let this influence my estimation, but that’s not true. As it is now, Adam’s responses struck me as simple because it seemed what he was saying wasn’t very big, and David’s responses struck me as simplicity on the other side of complexity—something big in an elegant nutshell. Charles’s responses struck me as complex, in other words as simply being big. I’d like to say that I was unbiased, and I didn’t think “David answered, and I’m terribly impressed with him, so I’ll put him highest,” but I simply followed the argument where it led. I’d like to say that, but I can’t. Maybe I should have ranked Charles highest. I’m vulnerable to accusation of bias at least here. And this kind of bias may be present in the attempt to understand another person—recognition is a risk.

Book Knowledge that Didn’t Pan Out

There’s a reason why I asked about people’s worst failures, and it’s not because I like making people squirm.

Howard Gardner’s Extraordinary Minds (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1998) is a multiple intelligence treatment of genius. One of the points that he talked about was failure—experiencing failures and being spurred on by them (120-123). Because of this, I was hoping to see discussion of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing—like Edison’s numerous failures en route to inventing a working light bulb. I believed that genius and those approaching genius not only are not immune to failure, but fail more often and more significantly than the vast majority of human beings.

This is a nice theory, and it may well be true, but the question based on it did not obtain informative answers for this purpose. I was expecting for normees at this level to see different degrees of failing in courageous projects (and in less glorious matters); I would not want to divulge what the normees shared, but if they did experience this pattern of life, I did not discern it in the replies. (This question should probably be removed in derivative work; the offensive questions seem less informative than I had expected.)

Another question was related to Leta Hollingworth’s Children Above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet Origin and Development (New York: Arno Press, 1975), in which Hollingworth claims that the children she studied were significantly above average size and weight for their age. I thought that the brighter respondents would share this distinctive physique. Only Brandon mentioned something along these lines, which means it might be useful as one piece of a large puzzle, but it was not the predictor I’d hoped. (There were other questions motivated by similar concerns.)

A Successful Failure?

This test is a failure, or at very least my attempt to norm this test is a failure. Out of an estimated two thousand people that were aware of the test, only four responded, and the result is a statistically insignificant and negative correlation. I underestimated Adam in particular; if there is a lesson to be drawn from him, it is that it is possible to be brilliant while showing relatively few of the indirect traits this test sought to identify.

I was not looking forward to the prospect of writing delicate responses to a majority of normees who were insecure and of normal intelligence, and would approach difficult tests to have a big number that will make them feel OK about being human. That this did not happen touches on two reasons why I consider this an interesting failure:

  1. Only brilliant normees responded. Therefore, while demonstrated ability to discriminate between answers is nonexistant, the fact of responding to the test is highly significant. There is an implicit hidden question: not, “What traits will distinguish your response?” but “Will you respond at all?”
  2. I correctly identified all the respondents as significantly gifted. The lowest estimate I gave was a three sigma score. In other words, I correctly identified all respondents as being at or above the 99.9th percentile, even though this was contrary to my expectations.

This is also an interesting failure in that it attempts an inquiry that is based on a different principle. If it were not for confidence issues, I would likely publish the responses so that specific questions could be analyzed. It may be possible to make a hybrid test that combines traditional high-ceiling tests with this basic approach. The two approaches could be complementary.

Given that this is a first try, it may be better to label this approach as “Hasn’t succeeded yet” than “Has failed.” It would be surprising if this kind of distinctive approach succeeded on the first try. Furthermore, the way this norming failed suggests there’s something in the approach.

There are several philosophical questions which admit interesting discussion. One of the more interesting questions is what alternatives to dealing with subjective bias exist besides trying to exclude all subjective elements (officially, at least: I suspect that good “objective” judgment has drawn on subjective strengths all along). Most of the philosophical aspects mentioned merit further inquiry.

I believe that Charlie and David are at a higher plateau than Adam and Brandon; data from other tests does not discriminate from them, but I have priveleged external information that would place David above Adam. If they were to contact a third party who could corroborate that Adam and Brandon are at one high plateau and Charlie and David at a higher plateau, that would be reason to take a second look at the results.

I believe that the responses give a much richer picture of the person than a standard test. Someone, instead of asking, “Does this compete with traditional tests?” might ask, “What interesting data does this give that traditional tests don’t?”

So this test is a failure, but an interesting failure, and perhaps even a successful failure.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion

Gifted? Let me harass you!

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Within the Steel Orb

Taberah

CJSH.name/taberah

A picture of Taberah.

In my second novel, I tried to show a hero who is more than meets the eye. Three dimensions to his being are represented here; rather than spelling everything out for you, I invite you to look and see how many layers you can find. Then read the book

Firestorm 2034

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

The Sign of the Grail

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Swiss Army Knife and God

CJSHayward.com/swiss-army-knife

The great Swiss Army Knife and its kin

It has become fashionable to say a bit of nuance when something is compared to a Swiss Army Knife: a Swiss Army Knife is a collection of second-rate tools: the can opener may be better than nothing, but it is a surrogate for a real can opener. At least it seems to be sophisticated nuance, but I write after having opened a can with my Swiss Army Knife when a “real” can opener was right in the drawer in front of me.

A spider’s web is small, flimsy, easy to overlook, and in houses something people sweep away as a nuisance. Yet none of these faults are brought to mind when something is compared to the world wide web, or someone discussing history compares the 19th century establishment of nationwide railways crossing the U.S. to the establishment of the web. For that matter, there is a positive connotation to the spider’s web that we do not evoke: a spider’s web is what provides spiders something to eat, and some of us (including yours truly) are privileged to make a living from the web. The web is an intricate mesh of cross-linking, and the idea of one node connected to the other is the prime metaphor evoked when we speak of the “web.”

I carry four Swiss Army Knives, or at least material Swiss Army Knives, besides my wallet.

The first is a Swisschamp my parents got for me in England when we traveled when I was a teen, and I’ve made a couple of custom modifications to it: I filed away at part of the metal saw/nail file/metal file to make a harder-than-steel blade for cutting at screens, and I also narrowed the end of the tweezers to try and make it work better as a splinter tweezers. I’ve stopped carrying it once or twice, but so far at least I have gotten back to carrying it again. I know its features by heart: large blade, small blade, metal saw, metal file, nail file, nail cleaner, added harder-than-steel blade, wood saw, scissors, magnifying glass, Phillips screwdriver, pliers, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweler’s screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, additional slotted screwdriver, hook, reamer, pen, toothpick, tweezers (sadly replaced with a regular tweezers when I sent it in for repairs—I’m sure they meant it well).

The second Swiss Army Knife I carry is one that I purchased in a moment of “sacramental shopping” against my best judgment: my watch was having problems, but I already had a perfectly useful way to tell time. I had quite vulgarly agreed with the contents of my spam folder to believe that I needed an extra special watch and it would make me special. And so I purchased a Casio Pathfinder watch, water resistant to 100 meters, and besides the normal time, five alarms, stopwatch, and timer one might expect of a digital watch, it has a compass, barometer/altimeter, a surprisingly useless thermometer, tells time in other time zones, is set each night by a signal from an atomic clock and is probably within a second of the “official” absolute time without my ever setting it, and recharges by solar power even when I do nothing to make sure it gets light. It has never been below the highest level of charge. Oh, and its color is a military olive green with black highlight, so it fits in with my green and earth tone wardrobe. I have, as it turns out, used the compass, and I do hope it lasts me a while, but I regard the purchase as an ersatz sacrament, vulgar as a “replica luxury watch” hawked in spam.

The third Swiss Army Knife I carry is an iPhone; I upgraded in the recent past from my iPhone 1 to an iPhone 4 because AT&T’s rate limiting was getting to be a quite practical limitation; sending a thank-you note after a job interview was like breathing through a straw. I have not upgraded to the 4 S; it sounds impressive, but my present iPhone 4 works as nicely today as when I got it, good enough that the fact that something better is out there does not concern me.

(No, not Android; I’ve tried Android and didn’t like it. I’ve wished I knew enough video editing to take one of the initial commercials, which said things like “iDon’t have a real keyboard”, to say all but the last “iDon’t”, and then edit in, “iDon’t have a second-rate user interface,” and then let the commercial give its final, “Droid does!”)

My fourth Swiss Army Knife, which I use rarely, is/was (it is lost now) an Ubuntu USB key: it can store files and it can boot (or install) Ubuntu Linux. While I use thend as someone answered a forum question, “I’ve installed Linux, now where I can get some games,” and answered, “Linux is the game!” other three Swiss Army Knives all the time, this one is there but there are not too many situations to use it. I did install Linux at a friend’s house when he requested it and there was no question of going somewhere else to get media, but the way life moves today I spend little time using it; there may be students storing all their homework on a USB key, but I don’t find myself using it often.

Part of the reasons people compare things to Swiss Army Knives (and call Perl “Unix’s Swiss Army Chainsaw”, Python being a lightsabre that cuts like a hot knife through butter), is that there is a mystique to this one bit of Swiss machinecraft that can do so many things. As a relatively young boy, I believe after addictively watching MacGyver, I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and said I wanted a Swiss Army Knife, and my Mom, who would not have been making the choice out of financial constraint, purchased me a wooden-handled pocketknife with two (literal) blades, and said, “See, I got you a Swiss Army Knife!” I tried to contain my disappointment; it was as if I had asked for a bacon cheeseburger, and imagined a good sit-down restaurant bacon cheeseburger piled high with toppings, and was told in perfect sincerity, “Here’s the hamburger you asked for,” and been given a tiny White Castle burger.

It was perhaps out of this experience that I made a purchase for a boy at church: his parents had told him, perhaps not strangely, that he could own a pocketknife (I believe he owns a couple), but he could not carry anything dangerous. I think sometime back I had given him a vaguely Swiss Army-like folding tool, but more recently I found out there was a Leatherman expressly designed to be able to be taken through airport security, having been cleared approval with the TSA and 315 airports, and they had rather ingeniously made a mechanical folding pliers that was a bit small, but folded out to a pliers, scissors, nail file, carabiner, and (I believe) a screwdriver designed to work with either slotted or Phillips screws, and a tweezers, but all of this without being like a weapon. And he thanked me for it, once initially as one would expect from politeness, and once a week later (and he showed me its features!). The gift had scored home with him, and I believe my actions were conditioned (though I did not think of it at the time) by my disappointment when my parents admittedly entrusted me with a blade, but did not give the abounding mechanical clockwork-like coolness that motivated my request for a Swiss Army Knife.

Is Orthodoxy a Swiss Army Knife? (Is God?)

The liturgical flow of day and year is intricate, with its ebb and flow and nooks and crannies, and the exact combination of songs, musical tones, readings, and so on for a Divine Liturgy are something that may not be exactly repeated for hundreds of years. And a certain sense you can say that God is a Swiss Army Knife, and the saints are his blades—or, really, the whole race of mankind.

But on a deeper level the image does not fit, and here we run into a basic difficulty in theology. There are two basic modes of theology in talking about God, and they are opposite. One mode, the cataphatic, is to say that God is described by the images of his Creation, that he is King and Father, and so on. And there is some element of truth even in comparing HE WHO IS to solid stone: “Blessed be my rock,” the Psalmist bard proclaims. But in a deeper sense these images all ultimately fail, as loudly proclaims apophatic theology. The image of God as stone fails more quickly, but ultimately even the images of a Father and King run dry.

And HE WHO IS, one God in Trinity, is utterly and completely simple, and simple beyond any created simplicity. The beauty of a Swiss Army Knife is that it is amny things folded into its handle; it is a beauty of multiplicity that falls infinitely short of God. God may be seen in many saints, but they are all brought to his oneness. And this oneness reflects down: the virtues may look like a Swiss Army Knife of the soul, and they indeed are in a certain sense, but on a more profound level there is a unity to the virtues (and the vices). The deepest virtue is only one virtue, and indeed Christ names one virtue as the foundation of all Scripture:

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The spiritual life is one of simplicity, praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and the Swiss-like clockwork of the liturgy is paradoxically an entryway into this simplicity.

The most interesting way a Swiss Army Knife illumines God is not in its similarity, but precisely how its fundamental beauty differs from God’s fundamental beauty.

God the Game Changer

A Pet Owner’s Rules

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Unashamed

Not Stressed?

CJSH.name/stress

You want to know how to deal with stress—if I have anything to tell you. Yes, indeed. Let me pass on some advice I found in a book:

So don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than them? And which of you can add another hour to his life by worrying? You might as well try to add another foot to your height! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you who have so little faith? Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows well enough that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will also be given to you. (Matt. 6:25-33, RSV, altered.)

Oh, I’ve annoyed you. I’m sorry. You didn’t want me to just quote Bible verses; you wanted something more, well, impressive. How about if I tell you about something I’ve taken from my travels in Asia?

I spent a summer in Malaysia, and one of the things I learned there is that people interact differently with time. I don’t know how to explain that experience: it was as if for your entire life the only music you heard was the music of a banjo, so that to you the sound of a banjo was the sound of music. Then, after its quick strumming, for the first time you heard a violin, later to be joined by trumpets and flutes: a whole orchestra of music you had not heard. My experience of Malaysian time was like hearing the first notes from a violin.

What’s special about Malaysian time? Before answering that, I’d like to answer what is special about American time, and describe it as something foreign. If you took geometry and used protractors to measure angles, you may remember how small a degree is. Three hundred and sixty degrees make a circle; if you imagine a cross section of a knife, which would look like a wedge, it’s something like a five degree angle. Putting tick marks on the protractor for degrees is awfully precise—more precise than you really need.

None the less, there are smaller angles, a way to measure even more precisely if you’ve got the tools to do it. You can divide a degree into sixty minutely small parts, called minutes—it would take 300 of them to make a wedge as thick as a knife—and then if that isn’t tiny enough for you, you can divide a minute into sixty even smaller pieces, so small that it would take 18,000 of them to make a wedge as thick as a knife. These sort of “second minutes” are called seconds, and if an angle one minute wide is ridiculously tiny, a second is even more ridiculous.

Yet our watches measure minutes and seconds—a digital stopwatch measures hundredths of seconds. In the Bible, an hour is the smallest unit of time. We have taken an hour and divided it into minute parts, called minutes, and then secondly minute parts called seconds. If I were describing my culture’s time sense to an aborigine who understood English, I would say that we have machines that count, and that time is the exact number on a counting machine, and that we are so incredibly attuned to this mechanical counting of tiny time increments that we can ask a machine to cook food for five minutes and count down the last minute in tense agony. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he struggled to grasp an understanding of time that is so exotic.

In Malaysia, as in many non-Western countries, things tend to be slower than in America. However, this is something from a detour from a qualitative difference in the experience of time. We are sharply attuned to time as numbers, minutely measured. To the Malaysian, time fades to the background as you try to be with people relationally: you visit someone and it takes however long it takes. You don’t say “I’ll talk with you for fifteen minutes;” you talk with the person and let the visit itself work out how many numbers a machine would count before you leave. That’s a simplified explanation, and I won’t try to explain the difference between the Malaysian experience of time and what effect a Western visitor experiences. Instead of explaining that, I’d like to talk about what effect it had on me.

That was my first experience living abroad, and it opened a door. It was the first time my culture shifted. It let me realize that I could shift my culture. What? I’m not sure how to explain. I consciously shifted my sense of time in Malaysia, and the conscious shifting didn’t stop when I left. I’ve been interested in different experiences of time since then, and I’ve worked hard to keep a slower, more relational sense of time, where time recedes to the background and presence becomes more important—which has rescued me from the tyrarny of the clock. I’ve picked up things from other cultures—a medieval sense of space, for instance. How’s that?

When I took a class in modern physics, the professor was interested in my assessment that Newtonian physics is basically a mathematical restatement of our common sense understanding of how the world works: everything has its place at a given time; time is straightforward; space is a three-dimensional version of what we study in high school geometry, and so on and so forth. Modern physics is a complete reversal: space itself is convoluted in ways that are hard to understand unless you know advanced math, there is no absolute time and space, there are funny things that happen when you try to measure both where something is and how fast it’s moving, everything (including you and me) is both a particle and a wave, you can have a cat that’s both dead and alive until you look at it… A few years later, I read about medieval culture and made a very slight change to my evaluation that Newtonian physics is a mathematical development of our common sense while modern physics is closer to the result of a contest to see who could find the strangest way of describing our world.

In medieval thought, you don’t have anything like Newton’s one absolute time and space that encompasses everything. There’s an icon of two saints from different centuries talking together, and this troubles the medieval mind not at all. Each place is not one more cell of an immense Newtonian grid, but its own little world with its own internal logic. (Could the medievals do logic? They invented the university, and Aristotle, who defined logic, was to many medievals the philosopher.) This, more than any logical weakness, appears to be why the medievals could look at four places all claiming to have the head of John the Baptist, and be grateful that God had been so generous. This understanding of space may be part of why C.S. Lewis, a medievalist, would write a children’s story that begins to get interesting when a girl walks into a wardrobe and finds that inside is a passage to another world. When I understood this view of space, I revised my estimation that Newton’s physics is a mathematical version of our common sense and modern physics is strange. Newton is not a mathematical version of common sense because my culture’s common sense is a non-mathematical simplification of Newtonian physics. We have the cart before the horse: Newtonian physics shaped what I felt was common sense, and this common sense is something not shared by a great many intelligent people.

I remember one point that I was walking with some friends through a park and felt momentarily disoriented when I saw an American flag. The reason I felt disoriented was that I was looking at a very picturesque pastoral view and talking with my friends, and had become steeped enough in the medieval view of space that I thought of it as its own country. I value that error—even if it was an error—because it showed that the medieval view of space had seeped deep enough into my bones that I could not only talk about it, but see through medieval eyes. Do I think that my culture’s view of time and space is false? I believe they’re a rather small kind of truth—true so far as they go, but not nearly as significant as they seem. The medieval view of space means that when I enter the house of God, I am entering a special place, a sacred space, a place to cast aside all earthly cares. (This way of thinking, by the way, makes a difference in being able to enter another person’s world.)

Some people could probably say nasty things about this, and I have gotten myself in the trouble. But I have made it a discipline to become acquainted with other cultures, past and present, and draw on them. In this discipline, I’ve learned that there are things I can say ‘no’ to, things that don’t have to be. Living under the tyranny of the clock, and a lot of the stress we experience, doesn’t have to be. My time in Malaysia was the key that opened that door.

It would take a very long time to explain, or even remember, the treasures I’ve encountered. Let me mention one. Another practical life skill has to do with technology. Computer hobbyist as I am, I once began a book entitled, The Luddite Guide to Technology. The title was meant less to convey irony than to suggest something: technology costs other things besides its price tag. A cell phone, for instance, means that you are available to people who want to reach you no matter where you are. It also means that you lose your privacy. This is, in fact, the same thing, and it is part of why I don’t own one. Technology has ramifications well beyond what you pray in a store, and I believe there’s a lot to be said for seeing a technology and asking, “What effects will this have?” before asking, “Can I afford it?” The Amish position is a lot more sophisticated than it seems. It’s not, “Technology, bad!” The Amish believe that technologies will impact their community, and they evaluate a technology based on whether it will help or hinder their community. The reason they have buggies but not cars is not that buggies are older than cars, but that buggies give mobility within a community and cars make it all too easy to detach oneself from a community. This is a major difference. I disagree with some specifics of how they take that project, but I respect them profoundly for making that inquiry.

What does this have to do with de-stressing? I read a webpage a while back where the author talked about getting a perspective about 1950’s wages versus 1990’s wages. In both decades, an hour’s work at minimum wage will buy you a burger and fries at a restaurant. Then how has a double income become insufficient for a family? He started listing i.e. what was in a kitchen in the 1950’s versus the many things found in a 1990’s kitchen, and his conclusion was, “We’re not keeping up with the Joneses any more. We’re keeping up with the Trumps.” The spiritual discipline of simplicity provides an alternative to burning the candle at both ends.

When Y2k was approaching, I was profoundly pessimistic. It was my considered judgment that January 1, 2000 would be doomsday. So I was trying hard to prepare. And one of the things that I realized was that if society shut down, there wouldn’t just be the physical challenge of food, drink, and so on. Any physical challenges would be dwarfed by the psychological challenge. So I began doing research.

I asked around on newsgroups; I checked out books on people in wartime and disaster conditions. In the end I received very little in the way of interesting responses; about the most I got by way of response was one person on a survivalist newsgroup saying, “You’re right; be sure to get some board games.” (If I were to be stuck in my house long term, board games would have been profoundly inadequate.) The best I was able to find was material about Christians who had been held hostage. Those who weathered the storm best were those who had a strong devotional life. Spiritual discipline made the difference.

What I have found in my travels, in my reading, in my exploring, amounts at its most basic to spiritual discipline. Sometimes this is quite mundane spiritual discipline. There was a man who told a doctor, “I don’t want you to tell me to stop burning the candle at both ends. I want you to give me more candle.” Part of spiritual discipline is learning what is possible rather than chasing an impossible fantasy—to stop searching for something to give you more candle, and instead learn to put out one of the flames and let the other flame burn for its full length of time.

One of the things I have learned is to guard the inner person. Guard thoughts, beliefs, emotions, desires. C.S. Lewis said that today we only ask one ethical question, or maybe two, out of three major questions the ancients asked. If we use the image of ships at sea, the main question we ask is, “How can the ships avoid bumping into each other?” The other two questions, which were recognised in the ancient world, are “How can the ships be shipshape inside?”, and “Why are they out at sea in the first place?” It’s awfully hard to keep from bumping into other ships if you don’t do whatever it takes to be shipshape inside—even if you can’t do it perfectly (I certainly can’t), it’s better to aim for the sky and miss than aim for manure and hit. Being unstressed has something to do with how I am inside, what care I take of myself, and how I live in the Spirit whose communion makes a world of difference. And this care of this inner person, means sitting and thinking and praying, but it also saying ‘no’ to things that push me too far from calm and quiet: I can’t do this completely, but if I have a choice between working overtime and not having the latest appliances and working overtime, I’ll have a bit of an emptier house. This is also true on a smaller scale: sometimes when I am most desparately locked into “I need to get this done!”, is precisely the point when I most need to take a break. Besides the larger-scale lifestyle choice, there is a vast number of little choices that add up to a lot. Choices like “How long will I work on this task today?”, or “Will I start something productive or procrastinate just a little?” add up to a lot. There’s a saying that procrastination is the thief of time. Putting off work drains your time and mine, doing something that is neither productive work nor refreshing leisure—and steals time from both your work and leisure. Sometimes I’m feeling burned out when I stop work at 5:00, and it’s awfully hard to do anything besides sit in the chair and stare into nothingness. That can be when I most need to play with a pet project, or take a walk, or talk with another person—and I have a choice there whether to act proactively or simply sit, drained. What I need is, on the small scale, a proactive sense of balance that means both choosing to avoid now what is too much for now, and to overcome myself and pour myself into something when my natural bent is to just procrastinate, just a little. He who is faithful in little is also faithful in much. He who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much. This means that if I am going to do a good job on a project, I am not given a choice about whether I will do well on it. I really only have a million little choices about whether I’ll get to work or fiddle with something non-productive, just for a little while.

Another aspect of spiritual discipline that has made a difference is to learn, even if I learn slowly and badly, to stop thinking in practical terms like an atheist. What do I mean by that? (I’ve been a Christian all my life.) Let me explain. One of my friends, who is an administrator, has a paper above his desk that says, “Good morning. This is God. I will handle all of your problems today. Please relax, and enjoy the day.” There’s a big difference between believing that and believing on paper that there is a God, but you have to solve all of your problems on your own, by yourself. One is a situation where you are working with a loving God, and he’s ultimately in charge. The other is one where you’re an orphan, nobody’s in control, and if you don’t get things just right, you’re at the mercy of chance—and if you do happen to get things right, you’re still at the mercy of merciless chance. There’s a world of difference between these two. Believing that you are working with God, he is in charge, and will deal with things in his sovereign manner, means so much less stress.

Now I am learning about another kind of time, liturgical time. This aspect of spiritual discipline surprised me, because I became Orthodox without this being a reason why: I was more humoring the Church than believing its practice was anything good. And I was surprised when it was. In liturgy, time flows, like a stream in a peaceful forest: here it moves quickly, there it flows slowly, there it turns in eddies. That’s how liturgical time flows in Orthodox worship. But liturgical time isn’t confined to Church; there are the cycles of the day, week, and year, and all of these interlock, making exquisite patterns. There is a whole spectrum of interlocking colours. Alexander Schmemann wrote that secular culture has “literally no time”: the tyranny of the clock is a vast emptiness compared to what time should—and can—be. Orthodoxy has this discipline—an hour to begin, a lifetime to master—and it manages to preserve wisdom that has endured for ages and at the same time be about living a life of faith, now. There is the paradox—or at least what seems to be a paradox from outside—of a living anachronism, of something that is in a very real sense ancient, a Patristic culture that is alive today, and at the same time something that is not trying to restore a golden age, because it’s trying to live now.

And to describe Orthodoxy as a culture, in purely secular terms, is to miss something fundamental. The culture is there precisely because it is part of something larger. If you say Orthodoxy is a culture, you have another detail of earth. If you recognize that Orthodoxy brings Heaven down to earth, and draws people to share in the divine life, then you are no longer looking at earth alone. This has profound ramifications for spiritual discipline—for what it means and what it does. It means that spiritual disciplines are not an earthly tool to give you an edge in living an earthly life. They take the life we live and begin to draw it into a Heavenly life that begins here on earth. Someone has said, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Spiritual discipline isn’t the whole picture, but it does much more than mitigate the worst effects of the rat race. As you begin to walk the path, the Orthodox way, you begin to live the joy you were made for. God touches you so you become more like Christ, and live more deeply, richly, and fully the divine life.

Have I left anything out? Yes, volumes. I haven’t talked about prayers, but praying has done a world of good to me. (And God has also given me many of the things I’ve asked for. But that’s another story.) In prayer, God takes the many requests we make of him and weaves them into something immeasurably greater: communion with him, the Lord and Creator of all that exists. I haven’t talked about the simplicity and “Non-Conform Freely” of Living More with Less, a book that says quite a lot that’s relevant here. I haven’t evenmentioned sacraments. Of the things I’ve met, read, thought about, imagined, and created, the treasures all seem to boil down to spiritual discipline, which is quite a lot. Is there anything that spiritual discipline boils down to? Funny you should ask. I’ve found some very practical advice in a book:

So don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than them? And which of you can add another hour to his life by worrying? You might as well try to add another foot to your height! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you who have so little faith? Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows well enough that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will also be given to you. (Matt. 6:25-33, RSV, altered.)

For Further Reading…

The Powered Access Bible
I made the Powered Access Bible to make it easy to find things in the Bible and read them in context. The Sermon on the Mount is an excellent place to start learning about the foundations of spiritual discipline.

The Philokalia (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4).
The Philokalia is a massive compilation by spiritual masters from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. It is all about the life of discipline, and is second only to the Bible in spiritual writings that have influenced the Orthodox Church.

In Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster
I was given this book on my baptism at Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall. It’s a good introduction to spiritual discipline, especially if you find it foreign.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers
This is the prayer book that I use in my prayers. It is part of the liturgical rhythm I am using, and it has prayers of great beauty.

Living More with Less, by Doris Longacre
This is a very simple book that outlines five principles. Where it talks about abstaining from things, this is always in the context of a fuller life. It does a good job of underscoring the joy of spiritual discipline.

Maximus Confessor: Selected Writing, by Saint Maximus Confessor
Saint Maximus Confessor wrote at the end of the Patristic age and was a key figure in helping crystallise the Christian understanding of who Christ was. His writings are slow reading, enigmatic, and full of insight. I’d reccommend starting with his “chapters on love”.

The Orthodox Way, by His Eminence KALLISTOS
The Orthodox Church, also by His Eminence, has become the standard introduction to the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Way is much shorter and says less, but resonates more. Or at least that’s what I’ve found. More than anything else I’ve read, this book answers the question, “What does a life of discipline look like from the inside?”

From Russia, With Love: a spiritual guide to surviving political and economic disaster

How to Survive Hard Times

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Unashamed

Spirit

CJSH.name/spirit

Links: Read anything good lately?

Dexios: An article that tries to catch you by beginning, “They really should have put it into my contract: I, the undersigned, hereby agree to spend one-half to three-quarters of all class time explaining why watching Dawson’s Creek and thinking vague thoughts about God is not a valid substitute for attending mass.” The students weren’t affected by the usual exhortations, until she happened on a visit to monastic worship.

Links: …And?

Dexios: The students were perfectly welcome, but the monks were there worshipping God and the students were welcome to join the monks worshipping God. And that got their attention when a whole legion of ill-starred attempts to get their attention failed. One student said, “With all the other masses, it’s like it was all about me or something. With this mass, I got the feeling it was about God.” And that succeeded where words about “It’s commanded,” or “It’s good for you,” failed.

The students weren’t really asking “Why should I go to mass?” at all; they said that because they couldn’t form the words to ask what they really meant.

Links: And that was…?

Dexios: “Why should I go to that mass?”

Links: Wow. I’m surprised you’re siding with a bunch of rebellious—how old are they?

Dexios: Students at a Catholic high school. And as to rebellious—teenagers are likely to rebel and be rebels without a cause if they have too much trouble finding a good enough cause, but there’s something that has to do with spirit that isn’t rebellious at all. They rejected counterfeit coin.

Links: “Spirit?” As in—

Dexios: Um, as in—[pause]

Links: —as in something you’re thinking about?

Dexios: Yes.

Links: So you’re saying these students were super spiritual?

Dexios: Yes. No. Saying that they’re super spiritual is an answer to the wrong question. Sure, I’d love to bring two (or however many it was) busloads of kids to our parish and show them how Orthodox worship is taken seriously even if you’re not monks, but if you’re thinking of spirit as some special quality that has an incense rising up from the best people’s heads, that’s exactly what it’s not. I would say it’s natural, if people hadn’t heard a million voices saying that appetite is the only thing that’s natural about us. These kids weren’t showing spirit because they were being urged to be spirit enough to want real worship and not a show—if anything, they were spirit enough for that despite people urging them that shows dressed up as worship were good enough for them. And the author of the article didn’t say that every now and then she sees a kid with a halo and that kid wants a real worship service, and is so spiritually snobbish that only a monastic service will satisfy him. (She said the services were “relaxed, by monastic standards,” whatever that means.) What she was saying was that everyday, normal kids kept asking her why they should go to mass until she showed them…

A real mass. Or rather, one where monks were there to worship God and other people were quite welcome to join them in worshipping God.

Links: [pause] In Spirit and in Truth.

Dexios: In Spirit and in Truth. And I realized just now that the article has more going on in it than just spirit. It has a million other substitutes for spirit that people aren’t happy with. Maybe it wasn’t just spirit that resonated with me.

Links: Where else?

Dexios: Maybe your art history education simply talked about different eras and cultures choosing different strengths to develop—

Links: —it did—

Dexios: —but in mine there was a story of progress: at first medieval art was crude, and then changes began in medieval art that resulted in art getting better and better at being like a photograph until eventually artists weren’t an expensive substitute for a photograph. The history of Western art was a history of progress, starting with medieval art that didn’t look like a good photograph up to Enlightenment neo-classicism that could give a good photograph a run for its money. Which is exactly right, except that it’s backwards.

Links: Let me guess. You’re going to say that the medieval art was spiritual, or spirit?

Dexios: Something like that, because the baseline for medieval art was similar to icons. They hadn’t gone to such scientific lengths to get a scientifically correct rendition of the human body for the mirror image of why pastors get their science illustrations wrong. Pastors and theologians get their science wrong because their focus is on theology and just a little science is brought in to make a point—and the fact that the science is usually wrong shows that their hearts are in the right place. But scientific art, unlike medieval art but like “The Oaths of the Horatii” by Jacques Louis David, for which he sketched first skeletons and then muscles and then bodies and only then painted bodies complete with clothes, represents a fall from a spiritual center of gravity.

Links: But the material world is good, and understanding it is good.

Dexios: Um…

Links: Which of those do you want to deny?

Dexios: Do you believe I have to deny that the material world is good? Or, alternately, that understanding the material world is good?

Links: Unless you want to say some very strange things about science.

Dexios: Ugh, I was hoping to avoid saying strange things about science. But first of all, you seem to be treating “understanding the natural world” and “science” as interchangeable, so that it is inconceivable what “understanding the human body” could mean besides “learning scientific facts about the body.”

Links: And how exactly would I learn about the body apart from science?

Dexios: Let’s see, you could look Appreciate art that portrays the human form, or discover how your body behaves by playing Baseball, or have a Chiropractic massage, if there is such a thing, or Dance, or—

Links: —didn’t you say something about “alignment of the stars, alignment of the bones…” yesterday?

Dexios: You interrupted me! I was hoping to work my way up to something profound. But let’s put massage under ‘M‘ and forget about the alignment of the bones. I don’t want to get into alternative medicine, besides saying that it seems a hint that people have some sense that their bodies have to have more to do with spirit than the almost mechanical view of “Western medicine”, which is powerful and yet considered narrow in some circles.

And now for something related to the other horn for your dilemma.

Having enough to eat is good. So is having clothing, and a roof over your head in nasty weather. But the Sermon on the Mount tells us not to seek after these things: yes, we need them, and the Heavenly Father knows this well enough. But we are to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and his perfect righteousness, making our center of gravity there, and making a spiritual center of gravity. Oh, and by the way, the other things will be given to us as well, even though that isn’t the point. The point, if I may use slightly non-Sermon-on-the-Mount language, is to have a spiritual center of gravity.

Links: But aren’t you changing the subject of the Sermon on the Mount? Unless you talk about being poor in spirit, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t use the word “spirit.”

Dexios: Matthew’s Gospel talks about the Kingdom of Heaven and John’s talks about abundant or eternal Life. As concepts they are not identical but you cannot treat them as dealing with separate realities, which would make the crudest fallacy. The Sermon on the Mount barely uses the word “spirit,” but nothing from the ages is a better resource on living as spirit. And the distinction between ‘Spirit’, big ‘S’, and ‘spirit’, little ‘s’, is not what you think.

Links: What do you mean?

Dexios: The distinction doesn’t exist in Greek, or at least is not forced in that if you write “spirit” you have to decide if it has a big or little ‘s’. A lot of people think they need to place a vast chasm between big ‘S’ spirit and little ‘s’ spirit so that it’s almost two different words. But body is not so much the opposite of spirit as where spirit unfurls, and our spirits, little ‘s’, are not so much the opposite of the Holy Spirit as where God’s Spirit unfurls.

But this is a minor point. Nitpicking about a little or big ‘S’ on “Spirit”, I mean. Body is profoundly important. Far from being a mere enemy of spirit, it is a proper counterpart, and that means that when you know the proper meaning of body, you know that it is where spirit unfurls, and the difference between a holy icon and secular art is not that secular art takes a high view of the body in contrast to holy icons, but icons take a high view of the body by letting it get inspired by spirit. Literally and figuratively, body is meant to be where spirit unfurls, and the monk who lives a life of “contemplation” and the “secular” Christian who lives contemplation in the world are both spirit at work. But may I make a more concrete illustration of spirit? In social ethics, perhaps?

Links: What are Orthodox social ethics?

Dexios: “Our social program is the Trinity,” as Orthodox seem to not be able to stop repeating. I’m not sure you have to say “Trinity” instead of, say, plugging in spirit, but what it is becomes clearer by contrast with Catholic social ethics. Catholic social ethics addresses a question that isn’t addressed in the Bible, or at least looks at its question in a very different light.

Links: What did they see? A better way to solve an old problem?

Dexios: Well, that would at least be their interpretation, and when they present things their way, it’s kind of hard to see any other way of seeing it.

Links: What is the basic question?

Dexios: The basic question they address is, “What should be done about the poor,” and the way they interpret that question is, “What societal structures should be erected so that poverty isn’t the same sort of issue?”

Links: But isn’t that how the problem is approached today?

Dexios: Maybe, but its differences from how the Gospel interprets the problem are profound. If you look in the Bible, poverty looms large. Where the Old Testament theocracy had done things by force, the New Testament calls people to responsibility and generosity. “Give to the one who asks of you” and all that. But nowhere in the Gospel is there an agenda for societal reform. There are no quasi-statist outlines for how the government should take from the rich and redistribute to the poor: Christians are told what they should do, not how the government should approach things differently.

It is not, in terms of the Gospel precepts, an improvement to go from people learning to be sons of God and in their sonship exercising almsgiving and generosity as profound and powerful spiritual discipline, to coercion that transfers other people’s resources while denying them the power to choose and all but snatching from their hand most opportunities to be generous. It is apparently perceived that by thinking in the terms of secular ideologies in imitation of various secular and anti-Christian movements, the Catholic Church is growing enough to take an effective approach that will make a real difference. Or perhaps it is not growth but a failure to understand what exactly is going on in Christ’s movement.

Links: But the New Testament is not pure capitalism.

Dexios: Indeed not. I operate within a capitalist system because that is where God has placed me; but that doesn’t mean that I have to make capitalism my God.

Links: I’ve read that in the ancient Church there were some rather communist people who were big into selling lands and liquidating property.

Dexios: Yes, and they are not a support for imposing communism.

Links: They seem pretty communist in what they chose to me.

Dexios: They seem pretty communist in what they chose to me too. The Bible has high praise for people who in their sonship choose to give away everything that makes them wealthy. I’ve heard today about one man who gave away his Ferrari to become a monk. That discipleship is singularly beautiful, and it is not the same thing as imposing a plan that takes away other people’s wealth and the opportunity to even be generous in giving it away. There are few things a capitalist community needs more than the salt and light of people who show that there are bigger things in life than wealth.

But that does not mean that the high virtue of selling one’s property and giving away the proceeds should be forced and have its virtue and power flattened out. The story of Ananias and Sapphira seems to have a clear point. Ananias and Sapphira owned their property and were under no obligation to sell it. When they did sell it, although they pretended to lay all of the money at the apostles’ feet they were under no obligation to donate any of it, let alone all of it. Their sin was in lying to God and saying that they had given everything when they kept something back. For that sin alone God struck them both dead. Even if the story implies something deeper about selling one’s property and laying the proceeds about the apostles’ point, it gets to that point by explicitly saying that there is no obligation to give. Which perhaps suggests that giving at its best is not a matter of what is required but the deiform, Christian, flowing, free virtue of generosity which is infinitely more than duty.

Links: I think I am beginning to see what’s wrong with thinking Acts encourages communism.

Dexios: I should hastily clarify that most of the Catholic social teaching I’ve read does not endorse communism; they take somewhat different positions but the general drift is that even though the encyclicals adopt features of socialism, socialism and communism were off limits to Catholics.

Links: Then why try so hard to show that the New Testament endorses voluntary giving rather than involuntary communism?

Dexios: Because people trying to get you to see things the Catholic social ethics say, in effect, “Why are you fussing so much about us asking for a few coercive measures to give from the rich to the poor? Can’t you see that the New Testament waxes eloquent about the glory of Early Church communism, which goes much further than the modest and sensible measures we happen to ask for?” But it doesn’t—perhaps Christians in their discipleship and giving went further than these social reforms would ask for; they went further in that. But the “communism” in the New Testament was a matter of voluntary discipleship and generosity, not coercion. And therefore the New Testament is a profound warrant to rising above greed and giving up possessions, but that passage at least is not a warrant for the kind of social reform it is used to endorse.

Links: If I can sum up what you’re saying, you’re saying, “Care for the poor in the Gospel is an aspect of spirit and discipleship, and by trying to institute compulsory programs that destroy the opportunity for voluntary generosity, you’re destroying the opportunity for spiritual discipleship.” Correct?

Dexios: That is correct.

Links: Then what do they say to that objection? Or do they not address it?

Dexios: Um… that is hard to unravel. Do you want me to try?

Links: At least try.

Dexios: Are you familiar with behaviorism? Behaviorism’s fallen out of favor, but it is a psychological school that dealt with how people behave after reward and punishment—but with no acknowledgment of emotions, beliefs, or other internal states—

Links: How does that draw people?

Dexios: That’s not clear to me, but it was influential. At any rate, and this is the analogy I’m trying to draw, that in behaviorist teaching, people do not say, “There is no soul,” but they draw the student to look at things so that the possibility of a soul is never even considered. This was said to introduce Michael Polanyi, a philosopher who worked with tacit and personal scientific knowledge. Similarly, the Catholic social ethics sources I’ve read do not raise the objection of sonship and voluntary giving to explicitly rebut it, but rather frame things so that concept is never even thought of or considered.

There are a couple of ways of doing this, but besides not considering it, they quote Biblical and patristic praise for voluntary giving as a straightforward example for why we should support coercive social programs. No explanation is offered; no acknowledgment is given that giving as a matter of New Testament spiritual discipleship could be something other than a support for institutional and partly statist programs that work by coercion. Most readers, I expect, will look at things the way they’re supposed to see, and think that New Testament praise of giving applies to giving through social programs.

One thing that did surprise me was that it wasn’t just conservatives who were offering criticism. There were apparently some people on the left who were all for social programs and planning, but weren’t entirely thrilled that the Pope was entering their domain. It might have come across as an intrusion from another domain, like advice to mathematicians on how to solve the 3x+1 problem.

Links: The 3x+1 problem? What’s that?

Dexios: Take a counting number; if it’s even, divide by two, but if it’s odd, multiply by three and add one. If you get a calculator and keep doing this, you’ll see that any number you try gives 4, then 2, then 1, then cycles back to 4, 2, 1, etc. But even though if you’ll do this many times and the same thing keeps happening, it’s proven obnoxiously hard to prove that the thing that happens every time you try does, in fact, happen no matter what number you start with. A lot of mathematicians have spent a lot of effort without solving it, but actually solving the problem has proven as elusive as designing a society without problems, or at least without major ones. Solving the problem will be an incredibly big deal, maybe the mathematical event of the century, should it ever be solved.

But can you imagine how the mathematical community would respond if the Vatican tried to advise it on the most productive way to try to solve the 3x+1 problem?

Links: Um… but the Papacy is not ordinarily associated with authority in mathematics. Isn’t ethics a little less unusual of a thing for the Vatican to be talking about?

Dexios: It’s not strange that a Pope was talking about ethics; the surprising thing is that the Pope was answering a question that has little in the way of spirit. Almost every little question and every specific answer in these encyclicals is about what is to be coerced. The encyclicals manage to talk about care for the poor without almost ever exhorting Catholics and the rich to be generous. The idea that caring for the poor could be an occasion for virtue has remnants here and there, but the basic substance of the answer was in terms of what coercive mechanisms should take of those who have, not how the rich should voluntarily give or how people should grow in virtue.

Spirit is not something abstract from daily decisions; it is present, among other things, in being generous to beggars and allowing your money and what you do with it to be progressively transformed into spirit. When the question of caring for the poor becomes something where one person’s generosity is ridiculed and the question is framed as what should be coercively taken from people and made as a coerced gift without generosity, then an area that has much room for spirit to be manifest is drained of spirit.

Other criticisms came that papal teaching was Utopian, that it was a thinly disguised Marxism, and I forget what else—there was one encyclical entitled “Mater et Magistra”, “Mother and Teacher”, and one pundit said there was something making the rounds about “Mother, yes; teacher, no.” Usually the critiques came from conservatives, but there were liberals who wished the Vatican would proclaim the Gospel. Maybe I’m being naive, but it doesn’t seem impossible to me that atheists who are big into social planning, and who do not believe in the Gospel, none the less think that the Pope can give something by preaching the Gospel that they with their social plans cannot. I think there’s a lot of respect in that. What I would suggest is running through most, if not necessarily all, is that once upon a time the Pope used his authority to make saints, and now he seems to be exchanging his birthright for something much less, making social blueprints.

Links: But you must acknowledge that society is better off for such efforts, right?

Dexios: There is a certain set of blind spots that accompanies those assumptions; it is blind spots, I suggest, that has people look at pre-Vatican-II Catholics living in terms of spirit, giving to the world as saints, and caring for the poor in their generosity, and treat that as something murky and confused that Catholics have outgrown in the progress since Vatican II.

One of the things that comes with the social prescriptions, alongside a coercive character that stunts generosity, is that whatever the solution is, the answer is an institution, perhaps a state organization or something done by it. And no one questions whether this is the best way to do things; one would think it was the only way conceivable. But in fact it is not the only way.

In the ancient world, a great many things that have today been transformed into big, impersonal institutions—charity, hospitality, medicine, what would today be insurance, manufacture and production, commerce, and so on and so forth—were handled by smaller and more personal institutions. I might comment by the way that it’s lost on most people today is that when women were associated with the home that meant they were associated with the beating heart of charity, hospitality, manufacture, and many other things, so that the image of the depressed housewife with no company and nothing but housework to do is as anachronous to read into the ancient world as telephones or the internet: what feminism is reacting to is not the traditional society’s place for women, but what is left of it after that place, and most of what is connected to it, is torn to shreds.

Even today there are some things we do not relegate to impersonal institutions—romantic love and friendship, for instance. And I don’t know if there is a resurgence of home business due to the internet—perhaps certain modern changes cannot represent the last word.

But when Popes started to decide they needed a social teaching to fill out a deficiency, everything besides being coerced is filtered through impersonal institutions. And though one may see a pause once or twice to make fun of people being generous to beggars the way they did on the ancient world, the vision of progress does not stop to question whether filtering everything through a big institution was a big idea. I haven’t read through all the sources, but I haven’t read anything yet that stopped to explain “Here’s why John 3:16 did not say, ‘For God so loved the world that he formed a sanitized, impersonal organization.'”

Perhaps I am asking society to open a door that was forever closed; the earliest encyclicals tried to resurrect medieval-style guilds, and it is not clear to me why other sources mock this decision to try to resurrect a vibrant institution that worked long and well in one time in favor of speculation about institutions not proven to work in any time. My point is not that many things are done by impersonal organization today but that when the Catholic Church opens its mouth for social teaching, no one seems to consider that anything besides an impersonal organization powered by coercion could be desirable. By contrast, our social program is spirit: God so continues to love the world that he continues to send his saints, his sons, that whosoever believes through their life of spirit and their divine love might have eternal life from his only-begotten Son. (And a million smaller and less eternal changes, too.)

Links: So then another way to get at the point of “Our social program is the Trinity” is to say, “The Orthodox Church’s approach to living socially does not need a Utopian blueprint for society.”

Would I be correct in hearing queer quotes when you use the word “progress”?

Dexios: I usually hear “fashions” when I read a Catholic social ethicist writing about progress. It is progress given the assumptions of a particular perspective, and (usually) given a lack of understanding of what was moving away. Again to return to my example of depracating pre-Vatican-II days when Catholics tried to become saints and, I would say, benefit society by becoming spirit—and the “progress” to an activist approach to society—what we have is not a movement from the less advanced to the more advanced but a fashion shift from something that has fallen out of favor to something that will presumably fall out of favor. And in this case, a step back.

Links: What do you mean?

Dexios: To borrow an image which Catholic author Peter Kreeft borrowed from C.S. Lewis, ancient ethics asked three ethical questions while modern ethics answers one (usually, but maybe two). To visualize these questions with the image of a fleet of ships at sea, the first question is how the ships can avoid bumping into each other, and this question is shared by ancient and modern ethics. The second question is how the ships can keep shipshape and maintain themselves inside, and even though this question cannot really be separated from the first question, only some modern ethics addresses it. The third question, which is the most important one, is why the ships are out at sea in the first place.

If we look at the depracated, Orthodox model of becoming saints and being Heavenly minded enough to be of earthly good, then on a proper understanding that approach is something that says something to answer each of these questions; on that count at least, it is robust. If we look at the activist model, then things are reduced to one question, how the ships can be kept from bumping into each other, perhaps forcibly. It does reasonably well given that narrowing of focus, but it only answers that one question.

Now I would suggest that it is dubiously a moral advance to addressing three major questions to addressing one. Perhaps moral depth cannot always be settled by counting questions addressed, but this moral “advance” has been achieved by almost completely shutting off two out of three substantial questions. Which would appear to be not progress, but impoverishment.

Links: I think I can see how when you see the word “progress” you want to supply an English translation of “fashion”. Or would you rather say “regress”?

Dexios: I don’t want to analyze whether “regress” would be true, but I would rather speak of “fashion.” When fashions shift, people go from emphasizing some things to others. People become sensitized to some things and blinded to others. And, perhaps, sometimes, there will be real regress some times and real progress others. But there is a tendency for a fashion to see its waxing popular as progress, and I wish people could have the ability to say, “Maybe this is progress, maybe this is regress, and maybe this is just a fashion shift that, like most fashion shifts, looks like genuine progress once you adopt its peculiar sharp sensitivities and its pecular blind spots.” And no fashion shift is devoid of spirit, but if you are looking for where spirit is to be found, the house of fashion delivers less than it promises.

Links: It seems to me that Utopian dreams have never been fully realized but they have been realized somewhat, and that makes a big difference. You know that the wealthy nations may owe some of their wealth to oppression but some of it is due to the Utopian dreams of Adam Smith among others, who have discovered Midas’s secret?

Dexios: Don’t you mean Midas’s curse?

Links: Don’t you mean Midas’s blessing?

Dexios: In the story of Midas, Midas gained the “blessing” of turning everything he touched to gold. And it was wonderful, or it seemed wonderful, to kick pebbles and watch gold nuggets fall to earth. But then food turned to inedible gold, and drink likewise, and if I understand the story correctly he embraced his daughter only to have her reduced to nothing but a golden statue. Then he began to be blessed, and spiritual gold was forged when he realized that maybe turning everything to gold wasn’t such a good idea. Unfortunately, we haven’t gained the same transformation to spiritual gold when we are bombarded by advertisements.

Malcolm Muggeridge said that nothing proves “Man does not live by bread alone” like discovering the secret of mass-producing bread, and we have not only enough bread for everybody but enough meat for most beggars to eat meat regularly. People say, “I’m not rich; I’m in debt,” and have no idea that they can purchase a month’s food without suffering real financial injury. Which, to a great many people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, might as well be the ability to buy a BMW without facing any real financial obstacles. It seems for many of us by definition rich means “having more money than us because we couldn’t possibly be rich.”

Links: What’s the downside?

Dexios: One U.S. woman was visiting a woman in Central America, I forget where. They were having coffee when she looked around her hostess’s kitchen and met a dawning realization… “There isn’t any food on your shelves.”

“No… but there will be… and it’s a good thing that I don’t have any food now, because if I had it, why would I need to trust God for? But I will have food later…”

Links: We’re spiritual kindergardeners, aren’t we?

Dexios: If even that. That woman is spirit. She is sonship and sainthood. She is the Sermon on the Mount, and if we patronize her when we patronize “those less fortunate than ourselves,” we might also patronize St. Francis of Assisi for not knowing how to make a difference in the world. Not that I envy her poverty. But I envy her finding the Sermon on the Mount in her poverty, and it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to have what she has.

If capitalism is the most effective Utopian vision, it produces a Utopia for spoiled children. It may well deliver what the Utopian specifics in Catholic social teaching wouldn’t get working, but what capitalism delivers and what much Catholic Utopianism tries to deliver does not make people better, or nobler, or wiser. In the particular classically liberal capitalist socities I know, most people have about as many creature comforts as we know how to make—air conditioning in Habitat for Humanity houses, meat for the homeless, television for everyone who’s not homeless—and medicine and safety push back suffering and death so that you have a good chance of not dying young, and many, many people die segregated off in nursing homes so the rest of society does not have to be visibly reminded that people grow old and die. Utopia is not something that may someday exist if social planners someday get things right; it exists here and now because social planners got what they were trying to do right.

Links: But is suffering good? Does the Bible ever talk about wonderful suffering?

Dexios: Let me quote:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Rom 5.3-4. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Rom 8.18-9. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. I Cor 1.5-7. …that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Phil 3.10. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Col 1.24. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. Heb 2.10. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. I Pet 4.13.

At least for people like us who live in Utopia, you can think that all the things a spoiled child wants are your right and if you are really suffering—maybe you won’t be so crass as to say that any suffering is God’s punishment, but you’ll still think it’s an interruption that keeps you from the normal course of Christian life. But honoring God in suffering is the normal course of Christian life. Besides what I quoted, there’s the book of Job where God lays his honor on the line based on what Job will do when he has miserable suffering. I don’t know how to capture all the complexity of the Biblical views on suffering, but if suffering is praised as a sharing in the sufferings of the Son who was made perfect through suffering, then maybe it’s not doing the world a favor to engineer away suffering, even if that is possible.

It’s not just that the Gospel works best without suffering and now we may have good enough social plans to get the Gospel to where it works best. I fear Catholic social plans if they botch and have weird side effects like social plans sometimes do, but I fear them even more if they achieve what they want. Perhaps this is easy to say from Utopia, but having what Utopia provides, I have real doubts about whether it makes me spirit. In those things that most make me a mature man, I think Utopia is overrated. I may have some maturity through the discipline of going against the flow, but there’s a way where comfort can make faith lukewarm where intense persecution would make it stronger.

Catholic social planning is trying to make good that is only available to a majority available to everyone. I wish they had a somewhat bigger version of good to be sharing.

Links: So you are suspicious of efforts to help the poor.

Dexios: I am suspicious of some efforts and participate in others. I try to feed the hungry, and besides directly showing kindness to beggars I support charities—but these charities provide more than a spoiled child would want. They support people’s spiritual needs, like churches. I don’t believe education needs to be put on quite as high a pedestal as some people give it, but I support education.

I guess I need to clarify. My point wasn’t to say exactly what everybody in the world should have; when someone speaks to me out of pain, I rarely talk about pain as occasion for spiritual growth. But in Catholic social teaching people seemed to be saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if people had this, and this, and this,” and listed a number of things that for the most part do not make people better, or nobler, or wiser. There may be a discussion of duties alongside rights, but much of the encyclicals were about how much it would be better to have such things, and living in a society where most people do have those sort of things, I needed to say, “This is not what you think it is.”

Links: Is there anything specific that you would say that you want for the poor, and that you would try to help them come to it?

Dexios: Absolutely.

I want them to become spirit in as full a sense as possible. I want them to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I want them to live the life of Heaven that is meant to be here and now and not just after our resurrection. I want them to be transfigured, spirit, soul, and body, into the likeness of Christ, and to be little Christs. I want them to become divine, partakers of the divine nature. I want them to own the Kingdom of Heaven and live the Divine Life. And maybe it would be nice if some of them could send missionaries to the first world, to share some of their riches. And I would like the world to profit from their wealth as the poor are chosen to shame the rich. And not just to follow the vogues of the first world.

Links: Question: What do you think about non-Christian texts, like the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita, or Gospel of Thomas?

Dexios: Um…

Links: You’re going to say something nasty about Eastern religions, aren’t you?

Dexios: Asking what I think about non-Christian texts like the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Gospel of Thomas is like asking what I think about different forms of indoor exercise, like weightlifting, aerobics, and sticking your face in the fan.

The Tao Te Ching is spirit, and indeed words can be spirit, not just Christian words. So is the Bhagavad-Gita. From all I have heard, they are deep, deeper than a whale can dive, and they have taught healthy communities what it means to be human for thousands of years.

But a society that embraces Gnosticism sticks its face in the fan. Gnosticism unlike Hinduism and Taoism comes up again and again and each time it’s a downward spiral that does not give spirit to a society that embraces it the way Hinduism and Taoism do.

Links: I’ve read some Gnostic sacred texts and they engaged my spirit like almost nothing else; they drew me in.

Dexios: I’m not surprised. Gnostic scripture is spiritual porn. Sorry to use that image, but…

Links: Are you just calling names, or is there a substantive reason for that unflattering comparison?

Dexios: Marriage is spirit, and it incorporates a number of things into its partnership, including what repeated studies have found is the best environment to enjoy sex. But no marriage that’s lasted much longer the honeymoon has got there simply by sailing on pleasure; marriage is a crown of thorns, like monasticism, and part of the benefit it provides is not just an environment for children to grow up, but an environment for the parents to grow up. The best marriages are not a Utopia for spoiled children but a little Utopia for mature adults.

Marriage is like spirit and spirit is like marriage, including what can be misunderstood as the spiritual erotic, a haunting, exotic factor that belongs there even if it is ultimately beyond the erotic. But that doesn’t mean that exotic haunting all day long is what you should be getting. It doesn’t mean, in other words, that Gnosticism is the best way to be spirit.

Links: Have you read the Gnostic Scriptures?

Dexios: I’ve read a good number of Gnostic sacred texts.

There are a lot of people today who’ve heard that the Gnostic scriptures show the human face of Jesus, and the canonical Gospels make him seem so divine he’s not human. I’ve heard some people say that the best way to rebut that is to actually get people to read the Gnostic sacred texts, because the Gnostic sacred texts give some people what other people try to get from LSD, and their Christ is exotic and spiritual and several other things that do not include being human, not like the Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ death and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane with sweat like drops of blood—something medical that occasionally happens when people are too stressed out to possibly describe and that we do not need to explain away.

Links: So if people actually READ the texts they’ll stop saying “Here at last is the human face of Jesus.”?

Um, from the look on your face, you don’t like that question.

Dexios: Let me draw an analogy. There was one time when some art was displayed at a coffeeshop, and some people thought it was a big deal because it showed nudity. It struck me as… maybe I haven’t always been chaste in looking at nude artwork, but I honestly didn’t see what the big deal others saw. In a sense it wasn’t any more exciting than a cartoonish schematic diagram; it didn’t pose a problem to me because I didn’t understand how the art worked.

Then… I had been looking at the art and not understanding it, and suddenly something clicked and I did understand it, and when it communicated to me… Other artwork can just celebrate the human form, if this was like a schematic diagram it was schematic and focused attention on the sexual. When it clicked, the artwork went from simply being weird to being much more seductive than what we’re told a “celebration of the human form” is supposed to be.

And that is exactly what happened when I read enough Gnostic scripture. I read a little and it seemed weird. I read more and it clicked and I felt its pull. And I have been changed somewhat, and not entirely for the better.

Links: How could it change you?

Dexios: Once you have drunk from a well, you thirst for it.

Links: Do you really think that Gnosticism and The da Vinci Code are such a bad well to thirst for, such a bad spirit? There’s more spirit in The da Vinci Code, though maybe not as you’re using the term, than anything else to hit the shelves for a while. And it’s well-written.

Dexios: I know it’s well-written; after reading a bunch of Christian reports accusing it of being garbage literature, I feel its pull. I read it and to my consternation I want Mary Magdalene to be the Grail, and I seem to want to exchange a eucharistic Cup by which the Lord’s blood pulses in believer’s veins to believing that there is a very dilute royal bloodline alive in a few people I haven’t met, which is an exchange of gold for copper, but still something the book left me wanting. There is indeed a lot of spirit in it; it makes a good lure.

Links: Calling the book’s good points a “lure” is harsh, if the only real thing you’re going to acknowledge it is—what is it that this “lure” points to?

Dexios: Despair.

I was quite struck when I read a book entitled Against the Protestant Gnostics, written by a Protestant, by the way, and it said that Gnosticism besides being an a-historical phenomenon entirely hinged on one mood: despair.

The hope Dan Brown offers in The da Vinci Code is a hope of despair. It’s a hope that there’s some sexy secret to be had behind appearances, behind the here and now, and whatever else he may have wrong about earlier forms of Gnosticism being lovely and humane, he’s dead right about digging for something deeply hidden. You may have heard that some Gnostics taught that the world around us was made by an impotent, inferior, evil God and is evil. Even if not everybody said that in so many words the here and now that God gives us is something despicable. It is something to despair in and try to get around for some good that maybe more spiritual people can find. Is this good news?

Links: Hmm. I’d just assumed that the worst thing about Dan Brown was his anti-Catholicism. But you’re pretty critical of the Catholic Church too.

Dexios: Indeed, because it misses the mark. It comes close in some ways, but it misses the mark. But Dan Brown doesn’t seem hostile to the Catholic Church because of where it misses the mark, because of where it hits it. Whatever its imperfections may be, the Catholic Church has for about two thousand years been teaching people to be human and live lives of spirit, and live them in the here and now. Whatever other fussing I may make of the Catholic Church, it would be strange of me to deny that the Catholic Church offers something better than despair. Maybe I could wish they would do a better job of it, but the Catholic Church offers hope, and not just because a recent Pope had some very uplifting words about living in hope. Hope is a very deep root in the Catholic Church, and it lends shape to all sorts of other things.

Links: So maybe Dan Brown doesn’t offer the purest form of spirit, or maybe people would be better off if they could get to spirit in not such a despairing way. But doesn’t Dan Brown deserve credit for at least getting people to devote attention to matters of spirit?

Dexios: There’s a story where a princess is having a dreamlike meeting with her fairy grandmother many generations removed. Her nurse doesn’t believe the princess’s extraordinary tales about the grandmother, and when the princess wants to know, “Is it naughty of Nurse to not believe in you?” the grandmother only says, “It would be naughty of you.”

Quite probably there are people for whom Dan Brown is a step up, who move from unspiritual despair to spiritual despair. Quite certainly there are people learning from better sources, such as Taoism and Hinduism again, and are brought into spirit. And certainly I am glad that the high school students who ask, “Why go to mass?” can join monastic Catholic worship, not so much because it is monastic as because it is worship worthy of human beings. But I as Orthodox could not join them.

Links: Why not?

Dexios: Because however God deals with other people, it would be naughty of us.

God can move through non-Orthodox resources, and non-Christian ones. But when he places someone in full communion with his Church, the Orthodox Church, things that are permissible under partial communion are no longer permissible: though I am loth to speak of communion as a resource, God will work through other resources in a genuine way to people who only have those other resources, but when we have the opportunity to drink from the pure source we are not to take our substance from downstream. And it would be naughty of us, whether or not it would be naughty of others, to refuse to recognize the Orthodox Church of Christ as the fountain from which we drink.

Links: It would be depriving spirit of flourishing in body, wouldn’t it?

Dexios: I know that I’d say that for Dan Brown and other people who think that being Gnostic is the hidden root of spirituality. Against these I say that spirit is a great banner that when it unfurls gives shade to people-watching, travelling, listening to music, Starbuck’s—

Links: Starbuck’s? Doesn’t that, well—

Dexios: If you mean to purchase your identity at Starbuck’s then it will run short. But if you learn to enjoy things in the spirit, if you know there is more to life than food and drink, then an occasional treat can include Starbuck’s. Stewardship isn’t tight-fisted, and if you don’t need commercial products like some kind of sacrament, you are freed to truly enjoy them.

Links: But what if the way people are naturally led to approach Starbuck’s is as a sacrament?

Dexios: What if? So we live in a wealthy society. So when someone asks, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” people just hit the snooze button. So advertising is an abominable manipulation to make people covet things they don’t need. If you are to live a life of spirit, then that means living a life of spirit in this economy, living simply and generously, and not laying the reins on the horse’s neck. Your responsibility is to let what you buy be body where your life of spirit is manifest, and if Starbuck’s tries to sell you an identity, and that identity is inimical to living a life of spirit, your responsibility is still to life a life of spirit that unfurls itself in how you use wealth.

Links: This makes sense now that you say it, but where did you get that?

Dexios: That is one of the things that may, or may not, be added to us if we seek first the Kingdom of God, and it is not essential for everyone.

Links: Then what is essential?

Dexios: Spirit. Contemplation. Don’t ask where to strike the balance between action and contemplation. Pursue contemplation, and don’t be surprised if after a time the way God tells you to contemplate is to plant a tree.

Links: Where did you get “plant a tree” from?

Dexios: Martin Luther. When he was asked what he would do if he knew the Lord were returning tomorrow, instead of talking about praying long prayers or wailing about his sins, he simply said what he was planning on doing, which was to plant a tree. If it was really OK for him to plan to plant a tree, as he did, then there’s no particular reason that if the Lord were returning the next day he should be suddenly embarrassed about legitimate, spiritual activity and try to be super-spiritual.

Contemplation seems to include a lot of planting a tree. It can mean entering a monastery, but it can also mean working a job, making friendships, shooting hoops, and playing with the neighbor’s children. If we go to church, or try to cultivate a discipline of quiet, that means quite a lot of “secular” things, a “secular” body for spirit to be manifest in. And people who give up on doing big things for God often end up doing tremendous things for God as part of their contemplation.

Links: Huh? How does that work? Or are you just being down on activists?

Dexios: Ever hear about a Wesley boy trying to do serious work for God?

Links: No.

Dexios: One of the Wesley brothers believed that missionaries were the biggest super-Christians, and so got everything arranged to be a big missionary for God.

And then he hit rock bottom. He failed as a missionary, returned a failure, and then fell lower than rock bottom when, on the ship, there was a terrible storm, and he was afraid for his life and puzzled about why there were men on deck singing. When he asked them if they were afraid, they said that no, they were not afraid, because they believed in Jesus. That finished him.

Only after that happened did he become one of the biggest forces in American Christianity.

Links: You make God sound cruel.

Dexios: If you expect God to share an activist mentality then God looks very cruel, but God isn’t a secular activist. This wasn’t even a social justice issue; Wesley said “God, I’ll be a really good hammer and do really impressive work,” and if anything, God said, “I don’t want a hammer. I want a son.” People who try to be activists sometimes make the best sons after they fail as activists, but the reason God didn’t endorse Wesley’s plan about how he was going to make a difference was that God makes a difference through people, and however big and important the work is that needs to be done, God makes sons first and foremost, and never circumvents sonship to “cut to the chase” and get to the important part, because to him sonship is the important part, and he can equip people to do results once they fail as hammers if need be.

There’s a big difference between “I’ll do the best I can” and “I’ll lay myself before God and work as he is at work.” The difference is whether your power is a matter of spirit. There was a visiting African pastor who came to the U.S. and said, “It’s amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit;” that stinging compliment is one God’s sons need not hear. The Sermon on the Mount says more about where our power should come from than what we should achieve; the Gospel is about trusting God, not just about the fate of our souls but getting things done here on earth. It’s challenging and it becomes all the more challenging when you realize how broken of a world we live in.

And perhaps God also does things through people who think they know how mountains are moved here on earth and try to short-circuit God’s call to become a son like his Son. God could still work with them if they more fully spirit. Spirit has its own power in God.

Links: Let me change the subject, or maybe I’m not changing the subject. Where do the seven sacraments fit into this?

Dexios: Baptism, Holy Communion, Holy Matrimony, the Sign of the Cross, reverently Bowing, the Holy Kiss, and the Blessing of Fruit—

Links: —that’s a rather strange list of seven sacraments!

Dexios: It seems perfectly natural to me. If it seems strange to you, then perhaps there’s something you don’t understand about the usual list. Holy Communion, Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination, Marriage, and Unction for Healing are not the Seven Exceptions. They may be the biggest seven—but you don’t understand them until you realize that there’s either one sacrament or a thousand, and that a thousand little things in our piety are the same sort of thing as The Big Seven. Like blessing fruit to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration!

Links: But why bless fruit then? Do you also bless candles to celebrate the Annunciation?

Dexios: I’d have to look up when we bless candles, but it does not seem strange to me to bless fruit. The Transfiguration is not just when the Son of God shone, but it is specifically when his body, the first of the material world to be drawn into spirit, shone. It was a first taste of the Transfiguration when the rest of his kingdom comes in force, and the Holy Transfiguration of Christ ultimately becomes the holy transfiguration of the whole Creation, and its fruits. Today people might pick something else to represent Creation’s productivity, but grapes and fruit come from Creation and are a part of it, and in a sense by blessing fruit on the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration we know what it means, that it’s not just something way back when that’s only about Christ, but about something that is meant to expand through the whole Creation of which Christ is head. Just as Christ is to be the first of many sons and draw mankind into him, so his body is the first case of matter drawn into the divine, of body that is spirit, and his coming was the beginning of a shockwave that keeps reaching out.

Links: So is the Transfiguration a big enough deal that it’s worth adorning with a sacrament, like many other holidays.

Dexios: That makes it sound like something external. The spirit of the Transfiguration is the spirit of sacrament, and of icons. I’ve said earlier that spirit transforms body, or should; now I’ll go further and say that God makes us spirit through body. If you try to understand Holy Communion and ask the wrong questions, you’re in danger of stopping at learning what happens after the priest has consecrated the elements, even though it’s important that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of Christ they represent. That’s only half the story. The rest of the story is when this bread and wine that have become the body and blood of Christ are partaken by the faithful, and the faithful are transformed. Our bodies are not a mere ornament as we partake of the divine nature; we partake of the Church and Creation, and the divine life, precisely when we receive what has been transformed that it may transform us. God makes us spirit through not only our bodies but his material creation: the Word became flesh, and the flesh became Word, and the Word keeps becoming flesh, and the flesh keeps becoming Word, and the shockwave ever reaches outward.

Links: And the Church has a lot of blessings, from a traveller’s blessing to blessing Pascha baskets, doesn’t it? And there are many sacred actions as we say our prayers, aren’t there? I imagine if you counted all the sacramental rites and sacred actions you’d actually wind up with more than the figure of one thousand that you grabbed.

Dexios: But the nature of a sacrament doesn’t really end up there. Ultimately the world is icon and sacrament. A man is the microcosm of the universe, but you have to understand that the “universe” is the spiritual as well as physical world, and that “microcosm” means that the spiritual and physical are all bound up in miniature. In a man who is spirit, they are more tightly bound together: you can look at most people’s faces and if they’re not masking then you can see into their spirit; spirit and body do not war against each other. And if you understand how our bodies are in fact the bodies of our spirits, and our spirits are the spirits of our bodies, then you understand that in “man writ large”, the universe that is the opposite of man the microcosm, then matter is pregnant with spirit.

Perhaps the crowning jewel is the kind of rite over which a priest presides. It is a crowning jewel of the warp and woof of “mundane” life, if life is ever “mundane” properly understood. For one example, you may have heard of the clergy shortage in Alaska: something like a third of the state population is Orthodox but there are precious few priests. And a congregation asked the bishop what to do as they cannot often have a priest to worship. The bishop said only two things. One of them I will not mention. The other was to eat together.

Holy Communion casts a long shadow. Part of this means that a priest can bless fruit and anyone can partake of it, and maybe there’s a blessing even if it’s not a big deal as the Eucharist. But you’re missing something if that’s the only place you look.

A meal with other people is part of the Eucharist unfurling. It’s not directly the Eucharist, but if you understand what the Eucharist is then a common meal stands in its luminous shadow. The bishop’s advice was not simply a substitute for imperfect times; even when there is a priest it is good for the Eucharist to unfurl into a common meal, and however nice it is for the priest to bless the food that’s not all that is going on. Table fellowship is common communion and “common” conceals a wealth of majesty. It’s not a really different thing from the Eucharist.

Links: [pause] It seems like I want to learn it all. What else is there to learn?

Dexios: Not to learn everything. You can learn about the priest, whose role I haven’t covered, but what I’ve said about us needing monks applies even more strongly to one person given over to be spirit in a way that helps others be spirit. There is spiritual discipline, which almost as many different shapes as sacrament—I haven’t talked about fasting: the demons always fast but only someone like us with body and spirit can be transformed and have his body become spirit by fasting. I haven’t talked about—

If you want to become more spirit, why don’t you think of an act of spirit and do that?

Do We Have Rights?

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

Plato: the allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

The Watch