The Consolation of Theology

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Author’s Note

This work is an intentional variation on Boethius’s little gem of a classic: The Consolation of Philosophy (modern translation, old translation, another (old) translation online, wiki). It is like Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?, but more deliberately divergent. This book is meant both to stand on its own and to take a road less travelled for the reader already acquainted with Boethius. For that matter, it is also intended in the tradition of another, lesser author following How Shall We Then Live?, following it with How Now Shall We Live?, and another author following Leviathan with Behemoth, and indeed how The Consolation of Philosophy has already been followed with The Consolations of Philosophy.

If you like to curl up with a good book, this is included in the collection The Best of Jonathan’s Corner (Kindle, paperback), and I strongly encourage you to read the whole collection, perhaps starting with this piece.

Song I.

The Author’s Complaint.

The Gospel was new,
When one saint stopped his ears,
And said, ‘Good God!
That thou hast allowed me,
To live at such a time.

Jihadists act not in aught of vacuum:
Atheislam welcometh captors;
Founded by the greatest Christian heresiarch,
Who tore Incarnation and icons away from all things Christian,
The dragon next to whom,
Arius, father of heretics,
Is but a fangless worm.
Their ‘surrender’ is practically furthest as could be,
From, ‘God and the Son of God,
Became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men,
Might become Gods and the Sons of God,

By contrast, eviscerating the reality of man.
The wonder of holy marriage,
Tortured and torn from limb to limb,
In progressive installments old and new,
Technology a secular occult is made,
Well I wrote a volume,
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And in once-hallowed halls of learning,
Is taught a ‘theology,’
Such as one would seek of Monty Python.
And of my own life; what of it?
A monk still I try to be;
Many things have I tried in life,
And betimes met spectacular success,
And betimes found doors slammed in my face.
Even in work in technology,
Though the time be an economic boom for the work,
Still the boom shut me out or knocked me out,
And not only in the Church’s teaching,
In tale as ancient as Cain and Abel,
Of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
And why I must now accomplish so little,
To pale next to glorious days,
When a-fighting cancer,
I switched discipline to theology,
And first at Cambridge then at Fordham,
Wished to form priests,
But a wish that never came true?

I.

And ere I moped a man appeared, quite short of stature but looking great enough to touch a star. In ancient gold he was clad, yet the golden vestments of a Partiarch were infinitely eclipsed by his Golden Mouth, by a tongue of liquid, living gold. Emblazoned on his bosom were the Greek letters Χ, and Α. I crossed myself thrice, wary of devils, and he crossed himself thrice, and he looked at me with eyes aflame and said, ‘Child, hast thou not written, and then outside the bounds of Holy Orthodoxy, a koan?’:

A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

He spoke again. ‘Child, repent of thine own multitude of grievous sins, not the sins of others. Knowest thou not the words, spoken by the great St. Isaac and taken up without the faintest interval by the great St. Seraphim, “Make peace with thyself and ten thousand around thee shall be saved?” Or that if everyone were to repent, Heaven would come to earth?

‘Thou seemest on paper to live thy conviction that every human life is a life worth living, but lacking the true strength that is behind that position. Hast thou not read my Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself? How the three children, my son, in a pagan court, with every lechery around them, were graced not to defile themselves in what they ate, but won the moral victory of not bowing to an idol beyond monstrous stature? And the angel bedewed them in external victory after they let all else go in internal and eternal triumph?

‘It is possible at all times and every place to find salvation. Now thou knowest that marriage or monasticism is needful; and out of that knowledge you went out to monasteries, to the grand monastery of Holy Cross Hermitage, to Mount Athos itself, and thou couldst not stay. What of it? Before God thou art already a monk. Keep on seeking monasticism, without end, and whether thou crossest the threshold of death a layman or a monk, if thou hast sought monasticism for the rest of thy days, and seekest such repentance as thou canst, who knows if thou mightest appear a monk in lifelong repentance when thou answerest before the Dread Judgement-Throne of Christ?

‘Perhaps it is that God has given thee such good things as were lawful for God to give but unlawful and immature for thou to seek for thyself. Thou hast acquired a scholar’s knowledge of academic theology, and a heresiologist’s formation, but thou writest for the common man. Canst not thou imagine that this may excel such narrow writing, read by so few, in the confines of scholarship? And that as thou hast been graced to walk the long narrow road of affliction, thou art free now to sit in thy parents’ splendid house, given a roof when thou art homeless before the law whilst thou seekest monasticism, and writest for as long as thou art able? That wert wrong and immature to seek, sitting under your parents’ roof and writing as much as it were wrong and immature to seek years’ training in academic theology and heresy and give not a day’s tribute to the professorial ascesis of pride and vainglory (thou hadst enough of thine own). Though this be not an issue of morality apart from ascesis, thou knewest the settled judgement that real publication is traditional publication and vanity press is what self-publication is. Yet without knowing, without choosing, without even guessing, thou wert again & time again in the right place, at the right time, amongst the manifold shifts of technology, and now, though thou profitest not in great measure from thy books, yet have ye written many more creative works than thou couldst bogging with editors. Thou knowest far better to say, “Wisdom is justified by her children,” of thyself in stead of saying such of God, but none the less thou hadst impact. Yet God hath granted thee the three, unsought and unwanted though thou mayest have found them.’

I stood in silence, all abashed.

Song II.

His Despondency.

The Saint spoke thus:
‘What then? How is this man,
A second rich young ruler become?
He who bore not a watch on principle,
Even before he’d scarce more than
Heard of Holy Orthodoxy,
Weareth a watch built to stand out,
Even among later Apple Watches.
He who declined a mobile phone,
Has carried out an iPhone,
And is displeased to accept,
A less fancy phone,
From a state program to provide,
Cell phones to those at poverty.
Up! Out! This will not do,
Not that he hath lost an item of luxury,
But that when it happened, he were sad.
For the rich young ruler lied,
When said he that he had kept,
All commandments from his youth,
For unless he were an idolater,
The loss of possessions itself,
Could not suffice to make him sad.
This man hast lost a cellphone,
And for that alone he grieveth.
Knoweth he not that money maketh not one glad?
Would that he would recall,
The heights from which he hath fallen,
Even from outside the Orthodox Church.’

II.

Then the great Saint said, ‘But the time calls for something deeper than lamentation. Art thou not the man who sayedst that we cannot achieve the Holy Grail, nor even find it: for the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail? Not that the Orthodox Church tradeth in such idle romances as Arthurian legend; as late as the nineteenth century, Saint IGNATIUS (Brianchaninov) gaveth warnings against reading novels, which His Eminence KALLISTOS curiously gave embarrassed explanations. Today the warning should be greatly extended to technological entertainment. But I would call thy words to mind none the less, and bid thee to become the Holy Grail. And indeed, when thou thou receivest the Holy Mysteries, thou receivest Christ as thy Lord and Saviour, thou art transformed by the supreme medicine, as thou tastest of the Fount of Immortality?

‘Thou wert surprised to learn, and that outside the Orthodox Church, that when the Apostle bade you to put on the whole armour of Christ, the armour of Christ wert not merely armour owned by Christ, or armour given by Christ: it were such armour as God himself wears to war: the prophet Isaiah tells us that the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are God’s own armour which he weareth to war.

‘Thou art asleep, my son and my child; awaken thou thyself! There is silver under the tarnishment that maketh all seem corrupt: take thou what God hath bestowed, rouse and waken thyself, and find the treasure with which thy God hath surrounded thee.’

Song III.

A Clearer Eye.

‘We suffer more in imagination than reality,’
Said Seneca the Younger,
Quoted in rediscovery of Stoicism,
That full and ancient philosophy,
Can speak, act, and help today,
Among athletes and business men,
And not only scholars reading dusty tomes.
And if thus much is in a school of mere philosophy,
An individualist pursuit deepenening division,
What of the greatest philosophy in monasticism,
What of the philosophy,
Whose Teacher and God are One and the Same?
I stood amazed at God,
Trying to count my blessings,
Ere quickly I lost count.

III.

Then said I, ‘I see much truth in thy words, but my fortunes have not been those of success. I went to Cambridge, with strategy of passing all my classes, and shining brightly on my thesis as I could; the Faculty of Divinity decided two thirds of the way through the year that my promptly declared dissertation topic was unfit for Philosophy of Religion, and made me choose another dissertation topic completely. I received no credit nor recognition for the half of my hardest work. That pales in comparison with Fordham, where I were pushed into informal office as ersatz counselour for my professors’ insecurities, and the man in whom I had set my hopes met one gesture of friendship after another with one retaliation after another. Then I returned to the clumsy fit of programming, taken over by Agile models which require something I cannot do: becoming an interchangeable part of a hive mind. I have essayed work in User eXperience, but no work has yet crystallised, and the economy is adverse. What can I rightly expect from here?’

Ere he answered me, ‘Whence askest thou the future? It is wondrous. And why speakest thou of thy fortune? Of a troth, no man hath ever had fortune. It were an impossibility.’

I sat a-right, a-listening.

He continued, ‘Whilst at Fordham, in incompetent medical care, thou wert stressed to the point of nausea, for weeks on end. Thy worry wert not, “Will I be graced by the noble honourific of Doctor?” though that were far too dear to thee, but, “Will there be a place for me?” And thus far, this hath been in example “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” For though what thou fearest hath happened, what be its sting?

‘Thou seekedst a better fit than as a computer programmer, and triedst, and God hath provided other than the success you imagined. What of it? Thou hast remained in the house of thy parents, a shameful thing for a man to seek, but right honourable for God to bestow if thou hast sought sufficiency and independence. Thou knowest that we are reckoned come Judgement on our performance of due diligence and not results achieved: that due diligence often carrieth happy results may be true, but it is nothing to the point. Thou art not only provided for even in this decline; thou hast luxuries that thou needest not.

‘There is no such thing as fortune: only an often-mysterious Providence. God has a care each and all over men, and for that matter over stones, and naught that happeneth in the world escapeth God’s cunning net. As thou hast quoted the Philokalia:

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvellous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

‘And again:

He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?

Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, whilst the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.

‘Thou hast earned scores in math contests, yea even scores of math contests, ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Now thou hast suffered various things and hast not the limelight which thou hadst, or believeth thou hadst, which be much the same thing. Again, what of it? God hath provided for thee, and if thou hast been fruitless in a secular arena, thou seekest virtue, and hast borne some fruit. Moreover thou graspest, in part, virtue that thou knewest not to seek when thou barest the ascesis of a mathematician or a member of the Ultranet. Thou seekest without end that thou mayest become humble, and knowest not that to earnestly seek humility is nobler than being the chiefest among mathematicians in history?

‘The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, hath written,

Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.

All these things were from Me.

‘The doctors have decided that thy consumption of one vital medication is taken to excess, and they are determined to bring it down to an approved level, for thy safety, and for thy safety accept the consequence of thy having a string of hospitalizations and declining health, and have so far taken every pain to protect thee, and will do so even if their care slay thee.

‘What of it? Thy purity of conscience is in no manner contingent on what others decide in their dealings with thee. It may be that the change in thy medicaments be less dangerous than it beseemeth thee. It may be unlawful to the utmost degree for thou to seek thine own demise: yet it is full lawful, and possible, for our God and the Author and Finisher of our faith to give thee a life complete and full even if it were cut short to the morrow.

‘Never mind that thou seest not what the Lord may provide; thou hast been often enough surprised by the boons God hath granted thee. Thou hast written Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and thou knowest that repentance itself eclipseth the pleasure of sin. Know also that grievous men, and the devil himself, are all ever used by God according to his design, by the God who worketh all for all.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

‘Know and remember also that happiness comes from within. Stop chasing after external circumstances. External circumstances are but a training ground for God to build strength within. Wittest thou not that thou art a man, and as man art constituted by the image of God? If therefore thou art constituted in the divine image, why lookest thou half to things soulless and dead for thy happiness?’

Song IV.

Virtue Unconquerable.

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
And with my eyes yet shall I see God,
But what a painful road it has been,
What a gesture of friendship has met a knife in my back.
Is there grandeur in me for my fortitude?
I only think so in moments of pride,
With my grandeur only in repentance.
And the circumstances around me,
When I work, have met with a knife in the back.

IV.

The Golden-Mouthed said, ‘Child, I know thy pains without your telling, aye, and more besides: Church politics ain’t no place for a Saint! Thou knowest how I pursued justice, and regarded not the face of man, drove out slothful servants, and spoke in boldness to the Empress. I paid with my life for the enemies I made in my service. You have a full kitchen’s worth of knives in your back: I have an armory! I know well thy pains from within.

‘But let us take a step back, far back.

‘Happiness is of particular concern to you and to many, and if words in the eighteenth century spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” now there are many people who make the pursuit of happiness all but a full-time occupation.

‘In ages past a question of such import would be entrusted to enquiry and dialogue philosophic. So one might argue, in brief, that true happiness is a supreme thing, and God is a supreme thing, and since there can not be two separate supreme essences, happiness and God are the same, a point which could be argued at much greater length and eloquence. And likewise how the happy man is happy not because he is propped up from without, by external circumstance, but has chosen virtue and goodness inside. And many other things.

‘But, and this says much of today and its berzerkly grown science, in which the crowning jewel of superstring theory hath abdicated from science’s bedrock of experiment, happiness is such a thing as one would naturally approach through psychology, because psychology is, to people of a certain bent, the only conceivable tool to best study to understand men.

‘One can always critique some detail, such as the import of what psychology calls “flow” as optimal experience. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, outlined three versions of the good life: the Pleasant Life, which is the life of pleasure and the shallowest of the three; the Engaged Life, or the life of flow, called optimal experience, and the Meaningful Life, meaning in some wise the life of virtue.

‘He says of the Pleasant Life that it is like vanilla ice cream: the first bite tastes delicious, but by the time you reach the fifth or sixth bite, you can’t taste it any more. And here is something close to the Orthodox advice that a surplus of pleasures and luxuries, worldly honours and so on, do not make you happy. I tell you that one can be lacking in the most basic necessities and be happy: but let this slide.

‘Of the Meaningful Life, it is the deepest of the three, but it is but a first fumbling in the dark of what the Orthodox Church has curated in the light of day. Things like kindness and mercy have built in to the baseline, curated since Christ or rather the Garden of Eden, so Orthodox need not add some extra practice to their faith to obtain kindness or gratitude. Really, the number of things the Orthodox Church has learned about the Meaningful Life far eclipse the Philokalia: the fount is inexhaustible.

‘But my chief concern is with the Engaged Life, the life of flow. For flow is not “the psychology of optimal experience,” or if it is, the theology of optimal experience hath a different base. Flow is legitimate and it is a wonder: but it is not additionally fit to be a normative baseline for mankind as a whole.

Flow, as it occurs, is something exotic and obscure. It has been studied in virtuosos who are expert performers in many different domains. Once someone of surpassing talent has something like a decade of performance, it is possible when a man of this superb talent and training is so engrossed in a performance of whatever domain, that sits pretty much at the highest level of performance where essentially the virtuoso’s entire attention is absorbed in the performance, and time flies because no attention is left to observe the passage of time or almost any other thing of which most of us are aware when we are awake.

‘It seemeth difficult to me to market flow for mass consumption: doing such is nigh unto calling God an elitist, and making the foundation of a happy life all but impossible for the masses. You can be a subjectivist if you like and say that genuis is five thousand hours’ practice, but it is trained virtuoso talent and not seniority that even gets you through flow’s door. For that matter, it is also well nigh impossible for the few to experience until they have placed years into virtuoso performance in their craft. Where many more are capable of being monastics. Monastics, those of you who are not monastics may rightly surmise, have experiences which monastics call it a disaster to share with you. That may be legitimate, but novices would do well not to expect a stream of uninterrupted exotic experiences, not when they start and perhaps not when they have long since taken monastic vows. A novice who seeth matters in terms of “drudgework” would do well to expect nothing but what the West calls “drudgework” for a long, long time. (And if all goeth well and thou incorporatest other obediences to the diminution of drudgery, thou wilt at first lament the change!) A monastic, if all goes well, will do simple manual labour, but freed from relating to such labour as drudgery: forasmuch as monastics and monastic clergy recall “novices’ obediences”, it is with nostalgia, as a yoke that is unusually easy and a burden unusually light.

‘And there is a similitude between the ancient monastic obedience that was par excellence the bread and butter of monastic manual labour, and the modern obedience. For in ancient times monks wove baskets to earn their keep, and in modern times monks craft incense. And do not say that the modern obedience is nobler, for if anything you sense a temptation, and a humbler obedience is perhaps to be preferred.

‘But in basket making or incense making alike, there is a repetitive manual labour. There are, of course, any number of other manual obediences in a monastery today. However, when monasticism has leeway, its choice seems to be in favour of a repetitive manual labour that gives the hands a regular cycle of motion whilst the heart is left free for the Jesus Prayer, and the mind in the heart practices a monk’s watchfulness or nipsis, an observer role that traineth thee to notice and put out temptations when they are a barely noticeable spark, rather than heedlessly letting the first temptation grow towards acts of sin and waiting until thy room be afire before fightest thou the blaze. This watchfulness is the best optimal experience the Orthodox Church gives us in which to abide, and ’tis no accident that the full and unabridged title of the Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. If either of these simple manual endeavours is unfamiliar or makes the performer back up in thought, this is a growing pain, not the intended long-term effect. And what is proposed is proposed to everybody in monasticism and really God-honoured marriage too, in force now that the Philokalia hath come in full blossom among Orthodox in the world, that optimum experience is for everyone, including sinners seeking the haven of monasticism, and not something exotic for very few.

‘And remember how thou wast admonished by a monk, perhaps in echo of St. James the Brother of God who said, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.” For thou wert in the trapeza, with the monk and with a janitorial lady, and he told the janitorial lady that she was fortunate, for her manual labour left her free to pray with her mind, and thou, a computer programmer at the time, wert unfortunate because thy work demanded thy full mental attention.

‘Forsooth! If thou canst have optimal experience, the Jesus Prayer in thy heart as the metronome of silence, if thy business were to weave baskets or craft incense, why not indeed can one attend to the Jesus Prayer, rising as incense before God, in mopping a floor or cleaning windows? For however great monasticism may be, it hath not aught of monopoly in meditative work and prayer before God. Marriage is the older instrument of salvation. The door is open, if thou canst do some manual labour, to do so in prayer to God. And monks are not alone permitted prayerful manual labour: monasticism is but the rudiments of the Gospel, and if monasticism seeketh out perhaps a boon in prayerful manual labour, this is hardly a barbed wire fence with a sign saying that prayerful manual labour is reserved only for monastics.

‘Let us say that this is true, and the theology of optimum experience is virtually accepted for the sake of argument, or if thou preferest, thou mayest answer it “Yes” and “Amen.” Still, I say it is a quibble, compared to the darker import. Let us set the point aside, and with good reason.’

Then he paused, and ere a moment resumed explaining. ‘If I may pull a rare note from the wreckage postmodern, there is the concept of a semiotic frame, perhaps a myth, that determines a society’s possibles et pensables, that which is understood to be possible in a society, and that which is found to even be thinkable. The knife cuts well against some radicals. And people are in blinders about activism and psychology.

‘Think of thy feminist theology professor, who said both right and full that she believed in Tradition, and in the same breath placed Arius, the father of heretics, alongside St. Athanasius as equally full representatives of that Tradition. When in your theological anthropology class she picked two texts for disability, the obvious agenda, the one and only thing to do for autism (as her agenda fell) was to engage some activist political advocacy for to make conditions in some wise more favourable for that particular victim class. No expression of love was possible save additional political activism. And I would say, and thou wouldst say, that she were too political in her response, and not nearly political enough. (For when all is civil warfare carried on by other means, real concern for the life of the polis but starves.)

‘Yet one of these reading assignments contained what she did not grasp. Of the two, one was what could be straightforwardly be called either or both of political ideology and identity politics, and it was complete with the standard, footnoteless, boilerplate opening assertion that no one else in the whole wide world could possibly have suffering that could be compared to that of one’s own poor, miserable demographic.

‘But the other text was different in many ways. It was entitled “Love Without Boundaries,” and it was a text about love written by the father of a severely autistic son. This latter text did not come close to calling for agitation or plans for a better future: far from it—on these points it is silent. What it did do, however, was take an approach in ascesis, and learn to love without limits. The father did not and could not cure his son, but whether or not the father’s love transformed his son, the love the father expressed transformed the father. His love was cut from the same cloth as the peace with oneself which St. Isaac and St. Seraphim with one voice exhort us to acquire, and the love the father expressed rendered him Godlike, in a humble, everyday, ordinary fashion.

‘And in like wise to how thy professor automatically jumped to political activism as how one might exhibit right care for the severely autistic and other disabled, in this day and age the go-to discipline for understanding humans is psychology, and a psychology fashioning itself after hard science, introducing itself by what might be called the physics envy declaration: psychologists-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

‘It is a side point that psychologists treat subjects as less-than-human: a near-universal feature of psychological experiment is some stripe of guile, because psychological experimental value would be ruined under normal conditions of intelligent and informed cooperation between fellow men. (Though the enterprise may be named “psychology”, the name were oafishly or treacherously applied: for the name be drawn from the Greek for the study that understands the psyche or soul, a psyche or soul is precisely what the discipline will not countenance in man.) Forsooth! Men running experiments think and make decisions; subjects in experiments are governed by laws. Moreover, since physics hath worked long and hard to de-anthropomorphise what it studies, physics envy biddeth psychology to seek well a de-anthropomorphised theory of ανθροπος (anthropos), man.

‘It hath been noted, as psychology reinvent more of religion, that classical clinical psychology can raise a person suffering from some mental illness to be as normal, but nought more. And so positive psychology chaseth after means of enhancement and excellence, to best make use of giftedness. Meanwhilst, whilst this invention is brand new, it is well over a millennium since monasticism was at one stroke a hospital for repentant sinners and an academy for excellence.

‘The point primarily to be held is that psychology is not the ultimate real way, but one among many ways, of understanding how people work, and one that hath stopped its ear to our being created in the image of God. All great Christian doctrines are rendered untranslatable. The article form of what is also thine advisor’s thesis hath as its subtitle “From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,” and it discusseth the formation of psychology as an emergent secular realm which hath displaced older candidates. But in the West before the reign of psychology there were pastoral paradigms for understanding the human person, and thou knowest that one of the first technical terms Orthodoxy asketh its converts to learn is “passion:” and if the passions thine advisor hath discussed are not point-for-point identical to the passions repented of in Eastern Orthodoxy, still they be by far closer than any of the several emergent framings and meanings of “emotion” as pushed for in the discipline of psychology.

‘That there be a common term for psychology, and more dubiously one for what it replaced, is of little import for us. The term “pneumatology” may have existed and named practitioners from an older tradition; but such were under religious auspices. The study and field of communication is, among fields of enquiry studied in the academy, of vintage historically recent: yet it would be right stunning to deny that people communicated, and tried better to communicate, before the change when a university department door now heralded and announced, “Department of Communication.”

‘And what has psychology done since being established as a secular arena? Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land gets on very quickly to utterly dismissing marriage. But no sooner does Michael stop flailing marriage’s lifeless corpse, but he hath made a gaping hole and buildeth up a bond of water brotherhood that is meant to be every bit as heroic, beautiful, and magnificent, that the only remaining way to make water brotherhood truly more wondrous and amazing were to enlarge it until it grew to become true marriage.

‘Psychology, whilst being secular, in its completion offers ersatz religion that, though meant to be value-free, provides a secular mystical theology. That this secular religion, fit for all religions and patients, uses guided imagery allegedly from some generic copy-paste of Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American traditions, and goeth back to Graeco-Roman times; mindfulness from Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path; and yoga from Hinduism is but an illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s observation: the man who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing; he believes anything. But put this aside and take psychology’s claim of secularity at face value. The Philokalia is scarcely but a library of collected works about how to rightly live the inner life. It is not in the main concerned with pleasure or joy: but it has an infinite amount to say about repenting from sins that bear Hell each and every one. Psychology does not trade in temptation, sin, or passion: but it too offers a rudder for one’s inner life, and if it teacheth not the extirpation of things that sully the soul’s purity, it has infinite reach in a battleplan to not be conquered by negative emotion.

‘And if I may speak to thee of TED talks, there is probably a TED talk to be made, “The Trouble with TED,” for they exacerbate this. As thou knowest, one talk gave the staggering announcement that after decades of each generation having higher self-esteem than the last, and the lamented consequence arising that our youth in particular reach record levels of narcissism. Well might she announce that if thou sprayest fuel around and throwest lighted matches on the fuel, sooner or sooner thou wilt have a blaze about thee.

‘She also talked about self-touch, about it being soothing to place thy hand over thy heart. Forsooth! This is placed among the same general heading of making love without a partner. Not a whisper was heard mentioning affection towards another person, or for that matter a pet; the remedy stepped not an inch away from solipsism. Monks as thou knowest are admonished to refrain from embraces: be that as it may, it would be healthier for a monk to embrace another than to embrace himself.’

I said, ‘What is the trouble with TED? For I sense something askance, yet to put a finger on it is hard.’

His All Holiness answered me and said, ‘All world religions have grandeur, and for an analysis secular all world religions represent a way that a society can live together and persevere. Hinduism is not the sort of thing one uses up, whether across years, lifetimes, or centuries even; its spiritual paths are millennia old, and to destroy it would likely take nuclear war or an apocalyptic event. By contrast, remember thou how thou hast said, “No form of feminism that has yet emerged is stable:” easily enough one finds the living force of body image feminism today, whilst it would scarce be live in the academy in fifty years. Thy friend answered thy remark of something called “Christian feminism,” which articulates how traditional Christianity cares for, and seeks, the good of women: for an example, it takes politically incorrect words about husbands and wives and offers the breathtaking change of addressing women as moral agents, and never telling husbands to keep wives in line. That is if anything the exception that proves the rule: for it may bear the external label of “feminism,” but its core be much slower to decay than any feminism at all, for it is not feminism at all. In thy feminist theology class one author said that in feminist theology, “all the central terms are up for grabs.” Meanwhilst, remember thy superior when thou wert an assistant at a bookstore. He hath told thee that books of liberal theology have a shelf life; after five years, perhaps, they are hard to sell. Meanwhilst, his shop published and sold Puritan sermons three centuries old. Thou mayest have a care that they are heterodox: but do not have a care that they will go out of fashion, or if they do go out of fashion, it will not be because the sermons lost their appeal to future Protestants seeking Biblical faith, but something else hath changed features of Protestantism that have survived since the Reformation.

‘Thou needest not refute TED talks; a few years and a given talk will likely be out of fashion. There is something in the structure of TED that is liberal, even if many talks say nothing overtly political: forasmuch, there is more to say than that they are self-contained, controlled, plastic things, where world religions are something organic that may or may not have a central prophet, but never have a central planner. TED is a sort of evolving, synthetic religion, and it cannot fill true spiritual hunger.

‘But let us return to psychology, or rather treat psychology and TED talks, for psychology hath of ages hoped for a Newton who would lead them into the Promised Land full status of being scientists. The study of Rocks and Nothing is the exemplar after which to pattern the study of Man. Forsooth! The problems in psychology are not so much where psychology has failed to understand Man on the ensaumple of empirical science. The real concerns are for where they have succeeded.

‘In a forum discussion thou readst, a conversation crystallised on care for diabetes, and cardinally important advice not to seek a book-smart nurse, but a diabetic nurse. For it is the case with empirical science that it entirely lacketh in empirical character. In psychology, as oft in other disciplines, a sufficiently skilled practitioner can pick up a book about part of the subject he does not yet understand, and understand well enough what there is to understand. Understanding were never nursed on the practice of direct experience, and understanding here is malnourished.

‘However, the Orthodox Church with monasticism as its heart has genuine empiricism as its spine; you know with the knowing by which Adam knew Eve. All else is rumour and idle chatter. If there are qualifications to being a spiritual father, one of the chief of these must be that he speaks and acts out of first-hand encounter and first-hand knowledge, not that he learned by rumour and distortion. Dost wish that thou be healed by a spiritual physician? Seek thou then a man which will care for thee as a diabetic nurse.’

Song V.

O Holy Mother!

O Holy Mother! Art Thou the Myst’ry?
Art Thou the Myst’ry untold?
For I have written much,
And spent much care,
In The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And looked all the whilst,
Down the wrong end,
Of the best telescope far and away that I could find.
I have written of man and creation defiled,
Yet for all my concerns,
Of so-called ‘space-conquering technologies,’
Which it beseemeth me ‘body-conquering technologies,’
Sidestepping the God-given and holy bounds,
Of our embodied state,
Where better to seek healing,
For an occult-free simulation,
Of the unnatural vice of magick arts,
Than in the perfect creaturely response,
‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.’
Then, the gates, nay, the foundations,
The foundations of Hell began a-crumbling,
The New Eve, the Heavenly Mother,
Whom Christ told the Disciple,
‘Behold thy Mother!’
In Her is the microcosm of Creation aright,
And She is the Friend and Comfort,
Of the outcast, and the poor:
My money, my property, I stand to lose:
But no man can take from me,
A Treasure vaster than the Heavens;
Perhaps I would do well,
To say little else of technologies progressively degrading humanity,
And pray an Akathist to the Theotokos,
And put a trust in Her that is proto-Antiochian,
Rather than proto-Alexandrian,
And give Her a trust in the great Story,
Diminished not one whit,
If She happeneth not to be a teacher,
Offering such ideas as philosophers like:
Her place in the Great Story is far greater than that:
And such it is also,
With illuminèd teachers,
Who offer worship to God as their teaching,
And are in travail,
Until Christ be formed in their disciples.

V.

He said, ‘But let us return to the pursuit of happiness, which hath scathingly been called “the silliest idea in the history of mankind.” And that for a junior grade of pursuing happiness, not the clone of a systematic science which worketh out a combination of activities and practices, an America’s Test Kitchen for enjoying life, studying ways of manipulating oneself to produce pleasure and happiness.

‘It were several years ago that thou tookest a Fluxx deck to play with friends, and the group included five adults and one very little boy. So the adults took turns, not just in their moves, but (for a player who had just played a move) in paying attention to the little one, so that he were not looking on a social meeting that excluded him.

‘When it were thy turn to look after the boy, thou liftedst him to thy shoulders and walkedst slowly, gingerly, towards the kitchen, because thou wishedst to enter the kitchen, but thou wert not sure thou couldst walk under the kitchen’s lower ceiling without striking his head.

‘Shortly after, thou realizedst three things: firstly, that the boy in fact had not struck his head on the kitchen ceiling, even though you had advanced well into the kitchen area; secondly, that the boy was dragging his fingers on the ceiling; and thirdly and finally, that he was laughing and laughing, full of joy.

‘That wert a source of pleasure that completely eclipsed the game of Fluxx, though it were then a favourite game. And when thou askedst if it were time for thy next move, it were told thee that the game was won.

‘In the conversation afterwards, thou wert told a couple of things worthy of mention.

‘First, and perhaps of no great import, thou gavest the boy a pleasure that neither of his parents could offer. The boy’s father wert a few inches taller than thee, and were he to attempt what thou attemptedst, he in fact would have struck his son’s head against the ceiling. The boy’s mother could not either have offered the favour to her son; whether because her thin arms were weaker, or something else: God wot.

‘Second of all, as mentioned by an undergraduate psychologist, it gives people joy to give real pleasure to another person, and the case of children is special. She did not comment or offer comparison between knowing thou hast given pleasure to any age in childhood and knowing thou hast given pleasure to an adult, but she did comment, and her comment were this: the boy were guileless: too young to just be polite, too young for convincing guile, perhaps too young for any guile worthy of the name. That meant, whether or not thou thoughtest on such terms, that his ongoing and delighted laughter were only, and could only be, from unvarnished candour. Wherewith thou hadst no question of “Does he enjoy what I am doing with him, or is he just being polite?” Just being polite were off the table.

‘And this is not even only true for the royal race of men. Thou hast not right circumstance to lawfully and responsibly own a pet, but without faintest compromise of principle, thou visitest a pet shelter nearby to thine own home, and at the shelter also, guile is off the agenda, at least for the pets. A cat can purr, or if it hath had enough human attention for the nonce and thou hast perhaps not attended to its swishing tail, a light nip and swipe of claw is alike of unvarnished candour. Whereby thou knowest of a truth what a cat desireth and conveyeth if it purreth and perchance licketh thine hand.

‘Which were subsumed under a general troth, that it is better to serve than to be served, and it is better to give than receive. What is more, the most concentrated teaching about who be truly happy is enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount, and enshrined again as the shorthand version of that great Sermon chanted in the Divine Liturgy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

‘The word translated, “blessed,” μακαριος (makarios, hath what we would count as at least two meanings in English: “blessed,” and “happy.” Among English Bible translations there are some, but a few, translations which render the word as “happy,” including Young’s Literal Translation:

Happy the poor in spirit — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness — because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers — because they shall be called Sons of God.

Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake — Rejoice ye
and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

‘In English this is usually, but not always, found in more free translations; the Amplified Bible naturally shines in cases like these as an deliberately unusual translation style intended to render two or more faces of an ambiguity or a phrase bearing multiple meanings. Other languages can be different; in French, for instance, there are separate words béni and heureux which respectively mean “blessed” and “happy,” but heureux appears to be the term of choice in French translation of the Beatitudes.

‘Here, though, the Gospel hath aught in common with Plato. Plato investigated happiness, and the Greek term used was ευδαιμονια, eudaimonia, almost exactly a literal equivalent to “in good spirits,” but the literal sense was taken much more seriously and much farther. It was a primary term for happiness, but what was seen as true happiness was having one’s spirit in good health. This happiness would not be easily confused by counterfeit pleasures such as one can immediately procure with narcotics; and the point is not that real-world narcotics create addiction and horrible misery. The happiness would be just as counterfeit in the pleasure of a person unhealthy in spirit to take some imaginary narcotic that created intense and endless pleasure, without either addiction or the misery that loom in the grievous backswing of narcotic pleasure.

‘Thou rememberest thy surprise, when reading thine undergraduate psychology text, when thou readedst what wert said of the pleasure principle. For the pleasure principle art an artifact of bad philosophy, which noting perchance that most of our actions bring some pleasure or pleasing result, assumes and defines that every action anyone ever takes is that which is calculated to bring thee the most pleasure. In settings less far back, thou hast listened to people saying that the only motivation anyone takes for any action is that it is calculated to bring them the greatest economic profit, and thou hast borrowed an answer, to say that several people have essayed to convince thee of this as truth, and so far as thou knewest, not one of them stood to gain financial profit from convincing thyself of this purported truth.

‘Thy textbook, like those who try to convince with a charming smile where a reasoned argument is ordinarily polite to offer, said that it were more a virtue than a vice to show kindnesses to others because one enjoyed the feelings it gave, and thou hadst two answers in thy heart: first of all, past the sugar-coating of “more a virtue than a vice” lies an assertion that virtue is impossible in principle, and secondly, that the only theoretical possibility thou couldst care for the poor in order to help thy fellow men is if one received absolutely no pleasure or consolation in any stripe or dimension to care for the poor out of a geniune motive of benefitting others and not whatever probable pleasures their generosity and service might come back their way. That appalling price tag reaches beyond exorbitant. And thou desirest to speak of a “masochism principle” or “pain principle” whereby all decisions and all actions at all times by all men are whatever is calculated to bring them the greatest sufferings, alike useless to assert for any philosopher worthy of the name. It is hardly to be denied that most decisions bring some pain or have some downside on the part of the persons who make them, so a pain principle mirroring a pleasure principle is alike unprovable, and alike unfalsifiable, an untestable guess that hath not any place in science and scarcely more any place in disciplines seeking to be established as science. It was not until later that thou readst a competent philosopher who said that the existence of pleasure and a reward does not in and of itself make any action which brings pleasure to be motivated solely as a means to obtain pleasure. The thought-experiment were posed, that a man who gives to the poor and enjoys doing so were offered a pill which would give him the full pleasure and benefits of his generosity, but do nothing at all for the practical needs of the poor, would be in but rare cases utterly spurned as a right empty and worthless counterfeit.

Song VI.

Crossing the Great Threshold.

The tale were told,
Of a child starkly scant of mind,
Who receivèd a glittering package, a gift,
And kept the glittering package,
Indeed taking it with him well nigh everywhere,
And after long time,
When the disposable wrapping paper,
Were well battered and now dingy,
An adult asked,
‘Aren’t you going to open the package?’
The child exclaimed with joy,
Once the toy emerged from the tatters,
And squealed with joy, saying,
“Oh, there’s another present!”
My Lord and my God!
Perhaps I will never open,
The Sermon on the Mount.

VI.

I said myself then, ‘O John! O glorious Saint John! Canst thou lead me on a path into the The Sermon on the Mount? For I have trod the path of self-direction, and it well nigh destroyed me.’

Then the Saint said to me, ‘Thanks to thee, son, for thy request. I awaited that thou mightest ask, for that thou mightest have the Heavenly reward for asking.

‘That which you ask were a work of years or lifetimes; let me chase a humbler quarry: unfolding the first verse only of that great Sermon, which declareth the poor in spirit to be blessed and happy. I will speak to you of the riches of poverty but not the heights of humility, though they be one and the same. Though I may call on other verses to tell what riches are in poverty, I will make no attempt to unfold these other Beatitudes, though to them that which declared the blessedness of poverty that wert one and the same. And I tell thee, through thine interests, that to be poor in spirit is to be no self-sufficient solipsist; rather, it is utterly dependent on the infinite riches of God, and that it is royal: for kings are forbidden to touch money, and in another sense all Christians and especially all monastics are forbidden to touch aught possession, not solely money, in stead of grasping as did the rich young ruler. But poverty be the unstopping of yon Sermon, an unstopping of virtue in which flowing fount eclipseth flowing fount.

That true poverty extendeth beyond a lack of possessions is taught by calling those blessed who are “poor in spirit,” beyond mere poverty of the body, and it is taught that the monastic vow of poverty includeth the other two: for a monk is bereft of the normal blessing of holy matrimony, and even of his own self-will. That thou knowest as treasure, for thou wishest to trade thine own idiorrythmic self-direction for a coenobetic monastery, and to speak even more plainly, the direction of an abbot.

‘In the Sermon on the Mount, poverty beseemeth to be special, for there are two passages: that which commendeth the storing treasures up in Heaven and rejecting the storing up of treasures on earth, then discussion of the eye as the lamp of the body, then exhortation to take no thought for the morrow, for God knoweth and willeth to care for our needs. And when thou hast wealth, be merciful to others, and thou wilt be repaid at great usury by thy true Debtor, God.

‘In fact there is one passage and topic, the longest though length in verses is a trivial measure. The tri-unity is harder to see in modern translations that translate something out to be accessible; one reads of one’s eye being “healthy” or “sound”. The King James version rightly renders “single”, for an undivided wholeness. Fr. Thomas Hopko hath said, before the surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness, “Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.” This attentiveness and full presence is the operation of an activity that is single, that neither layeth up possessions, nor defendeth them in worry, nor doubteth that the God who provideth will overlook thee in His care. In all these is dispersal and dissipation. Poverty of spirit maketh for singleness of eye, and a singleness destroyed by so many of the technologies you trade in.

‘It has from ancient times been reckoned that if thou givest to the poor, God is thy Debtor, and under what you would call third world living conditions, I told married Christians to leave to their children brothers rather than things. This too is poverty of spirit, even if it belong only in marriage, in a condition monks renounce. Thou hast read of those who suggest that thou asketh not, “Can I afford what I need?” but “Do I need what I can afford?”

‘It is monastic poverty that monastics do not defend themselves, not only by force, but even with words, showing the power that terrified Pontius Pilate. It is monastic poverty not to struggle again over any temporal matter. It is poverty of spirit not to have plans, nor, in the modern sense, an identity. For in ancient times, Christians who were martyred, answered when asked their names, none other than “Christian.” And beyond this further layers yet beckon. Poverty is not an absence of treasures; it is a positive, active, thing that slices sharper than any two-edged sword. And monks who renounce property sometimes have something to say beyond “Good riddance!” The force of the rejection, and the freedom that is gained in letting riches go, is more like the obscene and thundering announcement: “I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!”

‘Thou readedst a church sign saying, “Who is rich? The person who is content.” And I tell thee that thou canst purchase by poverty of spirit many times and layers more than contentment with what thou possessest now. I have not even scratched the surface of experiences of monastics who were poor in spirit to a profound degree, but thou knowest that there are limits to what is lawful for me to utter to thee, and thou knowest that thou art not bidden to chase after experiences, but seek to repent of thy sins for the rest of thy life, which thou knowest to reckon as monastic privilege.’

Song VII.

I Sing a Song to my Apple.

Betimes my salad days were right begun,
I programmed an Apple ][,
In gradeschool adventure games and a 4D maze,
Simple arithmetic- and trigonometric-powered animations.
My father a computer scientist,
Who shared with me his joy,
And in high school a Unix system administrator became.
My family got, and still hath the carcass,
Of one original ‘fat Mac’,
So named because it had an available maximum 512k of RAM.
My calculator in high school,
On which I programmed computer-generated art,
And a simple video game, had as much.
Ere my salad days were dwindled,
I remained a Unix programmer,
And judged Mac OSX my preferred flavor of Unix.
Later I had iPhones,
And for the first time in my life,
Owned a computer where I lacked root privilege.
Along the way I got an Apple Watch,
My desire increased as I read about it,
And vanished when I learned it were,
Bereft of such things as even a web browser.
I gave it to my brother,
Who later gave it back before it broke.
I sing a song to my Apple,
A peerless 17″ MacBook Pro,
Which through minor design flaw,
Burned through video cards oft enough,
And when the Apple Store stopped receiving those cards,
So with it went any hope of keeping my Mac without frequent $500 repairs.
And along the way,
With the sweetness of a Linux virtual machine,
Realized that OSX had grown monstrous as a version of Unix.
When I asked about one cardinally important open source project,
I were told that Apple had removed parts of the operating system,
That the project needed to run,
But information technology work in my Linux virtual machine,
Was the command line equivalent of point and click.
It were a discovery as if I had returned to Paradise.
I sing a song to Apple’s technical support,
For when I asked a question,
About command-line-driven Apache configuration,
It took escalations up to level 3 technical support,
Before a Genius knew that Macs have a command line.
I purchased a computer meant to last many years.
I sing a song to my late iPhone,
Bewailed by men who made the Mac great,
Which slipped a pocket near a food bank,
Booted my laptop into Windows and found,
That Find My iPhone was now rendered useless.
I went to see an Apple Store,
And received a followup call,
Giving a good ten days before I could access my iPhone,
And found out also that Macs were as useless,
As my computer booted into Windows,
To Find My iPhone.
Once I had one from each four,
Offerings for Apple computers:
A laptop one, an iPad one,
An iPhone one, an Apple Watch one;
And ere I were negotiating,
For to buy a replacement iPhone on eBay,
I said that there were many Android devices within my budget,
And whilst in bed realized,
I wanted full well that the negotiation fail.
Apple’s indirect gift to desktops may be Windows,
And Apple’s indirect gift to smartphones may be Android;
For surely no iPhone killer before Android even came close.
Certainly Windows Mobile answered the wrong question.
But even if one may argue, legitimately,
That a Mac and a PC have grown remarkably similar,
And iOS and Android are also more alike than different,
I was not poisoned by technical merits.
I was poisoned by the corporate mindset,
That all but killed my prospects,
Of finding my iPhone before the battery were drained completely,
And when I called my iPhone to perchance find it in my car,
I went to voicemail immediately:
My iPhone’s battery wert already dead.
I had known, but not paid attention earlier,
To Steve Jobs as beyond toxic, as a boss;
Screaming and abusive,
To employees he had every reason to cherish,
And after a technical fumble,
Publicly fired an Apple technician,
At an employee motivational event.
And I believed it.
More disturbed I was,
When I read of Jobs’s spiritual practices,
Such as an Orthodox might interpret,
As opening the mind to listen,
And draw the milk of dragons.
Technology does things for us,
Though I have found that when I shared my iOS devices with children,
Squabble and squabble ensued.
Technology does things for us,
But this Trojan horse does things for devils also,
Who cannot give exquisitely beneficial gifts,
Even wert they to try.
The power of devils is real but limited:
Such teaches the Philokalia,
Which though it be filled with love of the beautiful,
Says more about the operations and activities of devils,
Than aught else that I have read.
And one thing it sayeth,
Through Orthodox Christian Tradition,
Says that devils can tell a man’s spiritual state,
And try to inject venomous thoughts in temptation,
Where men have free will, still,
The devils cannot read minds,
Even if they by ruse give one man certain thoughts,
Sting another that the thoughts are in the first man,
And behold, they speak and art deceived,
That devils can read people’s minds.
Devilish predictions are called guesses,
Which are sometimes wrong,
The devils see a man walking to journey,
And guess that he travels to visit another specific man,
But ’tis guesswork; devils can well enough be wrong.
St. Nilus’s alleged prophecies are dubious at present,
But we may not yet be in the clear.
And if the U.S. has been called “One nation under surveillance,”
Where No Such Agency has received every email,
It is now clear and open knowledge,
To those that will reflect,
That among most most Americans,
‘Every breath and step Americans take,’
Is monitored by Big Brother,
But perhaps it is not just human agencies,
That reap the information collected.
++ungood
(Did anyone besides my most reverend Archbishop mention that it used to be that you had to seek out pornography, and leave your car in front of a store with papered-over windows, and wear your trenchcoat disguise for the mission, whereas now pornography seeks you?
It is something like a water cooler that hath three faucets,
Serving cold water, hot water, and antifreeze,
And the handles perplexing in their similitude.)

VII.

The Saint turned to me and said, ‘I would remind thee of Fr. Thomas’s famous 55 maxims:

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person
    regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for
    themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and
    caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last
    breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness,
    temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s
    mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The Saint continued: ‘Wouldst thou agree that we are in a high noon of secret societies?’

I answered, ‘Of a troth.’

He asked, ‘Wouldst thou agree that those societies are corrosive?’

I answered, ‘As a rule, yes, and I wit that Orthodox are forbidden on pain of excommunication to join the Freemasons.’

He spoke again and asked me, ‘And hast thou an opinion about the assassination of JFK, whether it wert a conspiracy?’

I said, ‘A friend whose judgement I respect in matters political hath told me an opinion that there in fact was a conspiracy, and it were driven by LBJ.’

He said, ‘And hast thou spent five full minutes in worrying about either in the past year?’

I said, ‘Nay.’

He said, ‘Thou hast secular intelligence if thou canst ask if “surveillance from Hell” in an obviously figurative sense might also be “surveillance from Hell” far more literally speaking, but such intelligence as this does not help one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The devils each and every one are on a leash, and as thy priest hath said many times, every thing that happeneth to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that God hath allowed for our strengthening. Wherefore whether the devils have more information than in ages past, thou wert still best to live:

Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.

Song VIII.

A Hymn to Arrogance.

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
‘There be no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not ere were created,
The royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of peace,
And pray, a-stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the bodiless hosts,
Said but his name, “Michael,”
Which is, being interpreted,
“Who is like God?”
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
They remain to sharpen the faithful,
God useth them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

Therefore be not dismayed,
If one book of Holy Scripture state,
That the Devil incited King David to a census,
And another sayeth that God did so,
For God permitted it to happen by the Devil,
As he that heweth lifteth an axe,
And God gave to David a second opportunity,
In the holy words of Joab.
Think thou not that God and the Devil are equal,
Learnest thou enough of doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And hath neither equal nor opposite,
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared him not well.
The dragon wert as a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that wert the greatest harm,
That he saweth how to do.
The Orthodox Church knoweth well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read thou well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the devils aren’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God alloweth temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
“It is just the demons.
Pay it no mind,” came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
Wherefore be thou not arrogant towards men,
But be ever more arrogant towards devils and the Devil himself:
“Blow, and spit on him.”‘

VIII.

I told St. John, ‘I have just read the panikhida service, and it appeareth cut from the same cloth as the divine services in general.’

He said, ‘Doth that surprise thee?’

I said, ‘Perhaps it should not. But the Philokalia describes a contrast between life and death: for instance, in the image of an inn, where lodgers come for a night, bearing whatever they possess; some sleep on beds, some sleep on the floor, but come daybreak, all of them pick up their belongings and walk on hence.’

He said, ‘How readest thou that parable?’

I said, ‘In this life, some live in riches, and some in poverty, but all alike leave this life carrying only their deeds with them. The last English homily I heard, the priest quoted someone who said, “I have never seen a trailer attached to a hearse.” Which were, “You can’t take it with you,” save that terrifying tale of a monk who died with over a hundred gold pieces. (‘Twas said he was not avaricious, but merely stingy.) When he died, the community discussed what to do with his nigh incalculable sum of wealth: some suggested a building or other capital project, others some kindness to the poor. And when all was discussed, they buried all the gold with him, a costly, potent reminder to monastics that they should not want to be buried with even one gold piece. But the monk could not take the gold with him ere it were buried with him.’

The Saint told me, ‘Thou hast read part of Prayers by the Lake, in which St. Nikolai says that birth and death are an inch apart, but the ticker tape goes on forever.

‘Rememberest thou also that in the Philokalia we read that those who wish one suffering to die were like one holding a deeply confused hope hope that a doctor would break up the bed of a sick man? For our passions we take with us beyond death, which passions the body mediateth to some degree.’

I said, ‘May I comment something? Which soundeth as a boast?’

He said, ‘Speak on.’

I said, ‘I am mindful that I am mortal, and that I am the chief of sinners. But the day of my death be more real to me than my salvation, and that I be the chief of sinners eclipseth that God be merciful. I have needed the reminder of the core promise in For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thus there be twain of deep pairs, and I have of the twain grasped each one the lesser alone.’

He said, ‘Hast thou not been astonished at God’s perfect Providence of years betimes?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘What thou sayest resoundeth not as boasting in my ears, but many people have wished for the remembrance of death and not reached it, no, not in monasticism even.’

I asked, ‘Will I reach monasticism?’

He smiled at me, and said, ‘Whither askest thou the future? It is wondrous.’

He said, ‘Remembrance of death doeth not to drain life. It is a reminder that life is not a dress rehearsal: or rather that it is a dress rehearsal, and our performance in this rehearsal determineth what we will meet the Resurrection having rehearsed.

‘With death cometh a realization of, “I shall not pass this wise again.”

‘Such death as we have giveth life a significance eternal in its import. For thou knowest that all ye in the Church Militant stand as it were in an arena before God and His Christ, before all the saints and angels and even devils, as God’s champions summoned to vindicate God as St. Job the Much-Suffering and others vindicate God. And whereinever thou triumphest, Christ triumpheth in thee.

‘Knowest thou not that the saints who have run the race and be adorned with an imperishable and incorruptible crown stand about all ye, the Church Triumphant cheering on the Church Militant until every last one hath crossed the finish line in triumph?

‘Knowest thou not that every saint and angel, the Mother of God and Christ enthroned on high, all cheer ye who still run the course, each and every one?

‘The times preceding the Second Coming of Christ are not only apocalyptic; they are the very thing which giveth the term “apocalyptic” its meaning in thy day. And they be trials and tribulations which perhaps will happen in ages later on, and perhaps may already be begun. But in the end Christ will triumph, and all alike who are faithful. And if thou art alive for the Second Coming of Christ, or if not, God hath provided and will provide a way for thee. Be thou faithful, and remember, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”‘

I said, ‘I should like to know where God will lead me. I can guess promises of good, but I am happier at least leaving a vessel open for God to fill.’

The Saint’s face began to glow, and he said, ‘In my day, I said something you may have met in the Reformers: that the age of miracles was no more, or in crasser tongue, “God wrote the book and retired.” So I called “opening the eyes of the blind” to be cleansing eyes from lust, which wert a fair claim in any case, and in particular if there miracles are no more. Thou, it seemeth, art in another age of miracles, or perhaps the age of miracles has never stopped from before the Nativity of Christ, but hath merely hid from time to time. Thou knowest thyself not to be the Orthodox Church’s fourth Theologian, but thou hast known some beginnings of theology already, and hath seen more miracles in thine earthly pilgrimage than have I. I perchance engaged in rhetorical discourse about God, and never on earth saw the Uncreated Light. Thou hast seen icons like and thou hast also seen a photograph of inside an altar, where paten and chalice glowed purest white, and unlike mine own self, thou hast been anointed with more than one miraculous oil, dear Christos…’

Then he bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before me, and his face glowed brightly, brightly, ten thousand times brighter than the sun and yet hurt not my mortal eyes, and he asked of me, ‘Friend, wherewith askest thou the future? It is wondrous.’

Then there was a scintillating flash of light, beyond intense, and the Saint was gone.

I wept until I realized I was the happiest I had been in my life.

Song 1: The Author’s Complaint

The Gospel was new,
When one saint covered his ears,
And said, “Good God!
That you have allowed me,
To live at such a time!

Jihadists do not act in a vacuum:
Atheislam welcomes conquerors,
Founded by the greatest Christian arch-heretic,
Who uprooted Incarnation and icons from all that was Christian,
The dragon next to whom,
Arius, the father of heretics,
Is only a worm, with no fangs.
Their “surrender” is about as far as you can get,
From, “God and the Son of God,
Became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men,
Might become Gods and the Sons of God,

Instead denying the genuine reality of man.
The wonder of holy marriage,
Is tortured and torn from limb to limb,
On the installment plan.
Technology is made a secular occult,
I was right enough to write a volume,
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And in formerly sacred halls of learning,
People teach a “theology,”
Such as one would expect of Monty Python.
And what about all the things of my life?
I still seek monasticism.
I have tried many things in life,
Sometimes meeting spectacular success,
And sometimes found doors slammed in my face.
Even in work in technology,
Though the time be an economic boom for my field,
I was still shut out or knocked out from the boom.
It wasn’t just in the Church’s teaching,
In a story as old as Cain and Abel,
Of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab.
Why am I spinning my wheels?
When I was fighting cancer,
I switched my academic discipline to theology.
At Cambridge and then Fordham,
I wished to form priests,
A wish that never came true.

And while I was moping about, a man appeared. He was quite short, but something in him was great enough to touch a star. He was wearing ancient garments with a golden shimmer, but the golden garments of a Patriarch were completely outclassed by his Golden Mouth, with a liquid, living golden tongue. The Greek letters Chi and Alpha were sewn upon his chest: the initials to “Christ is risen!” in Greek. I crossed myself three times, cautious about demons, and he crossed himself three times. He looked at me with blazing eyes, and said, “Child, didn’t you write, and for that matter outside of Holy Orthodoxy, a koan?”:

A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”

He spoke again. “Child, repent of your own many and serious sins, not other people’s sins. Do you not know the words, first spoken by the great St. Isaac the Syrian and fully endorsed by the great St. Seraphim of Sarov, ‘Make peace with yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved?’ Or that if everyone were to repent, Heaven would come to earth?

“It looks like you have, on paper, a conviction that every human life is a life worth living, but you lack the true strength that is behind it. Have you not read my Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself? How the three youths, my son, in a decadent pagan court, did not defile themselves by eating defiled foods, but won the moral victory of not bowing to an enormous statue? And the angel gave them coolness and refreshed them with dew in external victory after they let everything else go in internal and eternal triumph?

“You can find salvation at all times and in every place. Now you know that marriage or monasticism is necessary; and out of that knowledge you went out to monasteries. You went to the grand Holy Cross Hermitage and Mount Athos itself, and you were not allowed to stay. So what? You are already a monk in God’s eyes. Keep on seeking monasticism, without ever stopping, and whether you pass away as a layman or a monk, if you have sought monasticism for the rest of your days, and seek such repentance as you can, who knows if you might appear a monk in lifelong repentance when you answer before the Dread Judgment-Seat of Christ?

“Perhaps God has given you good things that were entirely legitimate for God to give to you, but immature for you to seek for yourself. You have a scholar’s knowledge of academic theology, and an excellent foundation for fighting some heresies, but you write for the public. Can’t you imagine that this may be more than such narrow writing, with so few readers, in scholarship’s confinement? As you have been given grace to walk the long, narrow road of suffering, you are free now to sit in your parents’ splendid house, given a roof over your head when you are legally homeless, and write as much as you can?
That would be quite wrong and immature to seek, sitting under your parents’ roof and writing, as much as it would be wrong and immature to seek years’ training in academic theology and heresy without giving back one single day to the professor’s ascesis of seeking proud distinction. And there’s more. Even though this is not an issue of morality apart from ascesis, you knew the settled judgment that real publication is traditional publication and self-publication is vanity press. But without knowing, choosing, or even guessing, you were at the right place, in the right time, among the many shiftings of technology, again and again. Now, even though you don’t get any money worth mentioning from your books, you have written many creative works than you could if you were “discovered” and your creative process bogged down with the standard editorial process. You know better than to say “Wisdom is justified by her children,” about yourself instead of God, but none the less you have made an impact. But God has granted all three of these to you, even though they may have come to you unsought and unwanted.

I stood in bashful silence.

Song 2: His Despondency

The saint said,
“How’s that?
How has this man,
Become a second Rich Young Ruler?
The man who didn’t wear a watch on principle,
Even before he’d scarcely even
Heard of Holy Orthodoxy,
Wears a watch built to stand out,
Even among later Apple Watches.
He who declined a mobile phone,
Has carried out an iPhone,
A less fancy phone,
From a state program to provide,
Cell phones to those at poverty.
Up! Out! This will not do,
Not that he hath lost an item of luxury,
But when it happened, he were sad.
For the Rich Young Ruler lied,
When he said that he had kept,
All commandments from his youth,
For unless he were an idolater,
The loss of possessions itself,
Could not suffice to make him sad.
This man hath lost a cellphone.
And for that alone he grieveth.
Doesn’t he know that money doesn’t make you happy?
I wish he would remember,
The heights he has fallen from,
Even from outside the Orthodox Church.

Then the great Saint said, “But we need something bigger than mourning now. Aren’t you the man who said that we cannot achieve the Holy Grail, and not even find it: the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail? Now the Orthodox Church doesn’t trade in “idle romances” like Arthurian lengends. As late as the nineteenth century, Saint IGNATIUS (Briandhanov) gave warnings about reading just novels, which His Eminence KALLISTOS oddly gave embarrassed explanations. Today the warning should extend to quite a lot of technological entertainment. But I would still call your words to mind, and ask you to become the Holy Grail. For that matter, when you receive the Holy Mistories, you receive Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you are transformed by the supreme medicine, when you taste from the Fount of Immortality?

“You were surprised to learn, and even this outside the Orthodox Church, that when the Apostle told you to put on the whole armor of God, the armor of God was not merely armor owned by God, or armor given by God. It was in fact the armor that God himself wears to war. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the breastplace of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are God’s own armor which he wears to war.

“You are sleeping, my son and my child. Wake up! There is silver under the tarnish that makes it look like the whole thing is corroded. Take what God has bestowed, wake up, and see all the treasure God has surrounded with.”

Song 3: A Clearer Eye

Seneca the Younger said,
“We suffer more in imagination than reality,”
Quoted in today’s rediscovery of Stoicism,
Discovering that ancient philosophy,
Can speak, act and help today,
Among athletes and in the business world,
And not only antiquarians reading dusty old books.
And if this holds for a mere school of philosophy,
Now cast in the academy’s mould of distinguishing oneself,
What of the greatest philosophy, monasticism,
Whose Teacher and God are One and the Same?
I stood amazed at God,
Trying to count my blessings,
But I quickly lost count.

Then I said, “I see a lot of truth in what you say, but my fortunes haven’t been very successful. I went to Cambridge, with a strategy of passing all my classes and going for broke on my thesis. The Faculty of Divinity decided, two thirds of the way through the schoolyear, that the thesis topic I declared at the beginning of the year did not belong in Philosophy of Religion, and made me choose another dissertation topic completely. I didn’t get any credit or recognition for half my hardest work! That pales in comparison with Fordham, where I had to cope with my professor’s insecurities, and a professor I really tried to reach out to met one gesture of friendship after another with retaliation. So when that door was shut, I returned to the clumsy fit of programming, a world since taken over by Agile models which make sense but require something I cannot do: becoming an interchangeable part in a hivemind. I’ve tried to break in to User eXperience, but nothing has come together yet, and the economy isn’t helping. What can I rightly expect from where I am now?”

He said, “Why do you ask the future? It is wonderful. And why do you speak of your fortune? Truly, no man has ever had fortune. It is an impossibility.”

I sat, listening.

He continued, “When at Fordham, under incompetent medical care, you were stressed to the point of nausea for weeks on end. You did not worry about ‘Will I be graced by the noble honorific of Doctor?’ even though you wanted that too much, but, ‘Will there be a place for me?‘ So far, this has been an example of, ‘We suffer more in imagination than in reality.’ For although the unemployment you feared has caught up with you, what is its sting?

“You sought a better fit than as a web developer, and tried, and God has provided something else besides the success you imagined. So what? You have stayed with your parents, a shameful thing for a man to seek, but honorable for God to bestow if you have sought sufficiency and independence. You know that on Judgment Day we are held to the standard of due diligence and not results produced: that due diligence often gets results is simply beside the point. You are not only provided for now; you have luxuries you do not need.

“There is no such things as fortune; only an often-mysterious Providence. God cares for each and for all mankind, and for that matter over sparrows and stones, and nothing in the world escapes God’s cunning net.

“As you have quoted the Philokalia:

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvellous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

“And again:

He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?

Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.

“You have earned scores in math contests; for that matter you have ranked in scores of math contests, ranking 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Now you have suffered various things and have been deprived of your earlier limelight. So what? God has provided for you, and if you have been fruitless in some secular matters, you still seek virtue and have borne some fruit. What is more, you grasp in part virtue that you did not know to seek when you bore the ascesis of a mathematician or a member of the Ultranet. You unendingly seek humility now. Don’t you know that even the seeking of humility is nobler than being the greatest mathematician in history?

“The new Saint Seraphim, of Viritsa, wrote,

Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for his reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul.

All these things were from Me.

“The doctors have decided that your consumption of one vital medication is excessive, and they want to bring it down to an FDA-approved level, for your safety, and for your safety they accept the consequences of your having a string of hospitalizations and declining health, and have so far taken every pain to protect you, and will do so even if their care KILLS you.

“So what? Your purity of conscience does not automatically depend in any way, shape, or form, on others’ decisions. It may be that the change in your medications is less dangerous than it appears. It is completely out of the question for you to seek your own demise: but is entirely legitimate, and entirely possible, for our God and the Author and Finisher of our faith to give you a full and complete life even if you are killed tomorrow.

“Never mind that you do not see what the Lord may provide; you have often enough been surprised with the blessings God has given you. You have written Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret, and you know that repentance itself eclipses the pleasure ofsin. You should also know that people who act unhelpfully, and the Devil himself, are always and everywhere used by God according to his design, by the God who works all for all.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

“Know and remember as well that happiness comes from our kingdom within. Stop chasing after external circumstances. External circumstances are but a training ground for God to build internal strengths. Don’t you know that you are a man, and as man are constituted by the image of God? Then if you are constituted as being in the divine image, why spend half your time looking to soulless and dead things to make you happy?”

Song 4: Virtue Unconquerable.

I know that my Redeemer lives,
And I shall see God with my eyes,
But what a painful road it has been,
What a gesture of friendship has met a knife in my back.
Is there gradeur in me for my fortitude?
I only think so in moments of pride,
With my grandeur only in repentance.
And the circumstances around me,
When I work, have met with a knife in the back.

The Golden-Mouthed said, “Child, I know your pains without needing you to tell me, and I have suffered more: Church politics ain’t no place for a Saint! You know how I impartially pursued justice, drove out morally incompetent leaders, and spoke boldly to the Empress. I paid with my life for the enemies I made in my service. You have a full kitchen’s worth of knives in your back: I have a department store’s worth. I know your pains from inside.

“But let us take a step back, far back.

“You and many others are particularly concerned with happiness, and if eighteenth-century documents spoke of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ now your country has taken this to the next level. Or worse.

“In another day and age such an important question would be inquired about in philosophical dialogue. So one might argue, in brief, that since true happiness is a supreme thing, and God is a supreme thing, and there can’t be two separate supreme essences, happiness and God are the same, a point which could be argued at much greater length and eloquence. And likewise how the happy man is not happy because he is propped up from without, by external circumstances, but has chosen virtue and goodness inside. And many other things.

“However, and this says a lot about today and our berzerkly grown science, in which physics’ crown jewel of superstring has abdicated from science’s bedrock of experiment, happiness is such a thing as one would naturally approach through the attempted science of psychology, because psychology is, to people of a certain bent, the only conceivable tool to best study and understand humans as such.

“One can always nitpick some detail, such as the significance of what psychology calls “flow” as optimal experience. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, outlined three versions of the good life: the Pleasant Life, which is the life of pleasure and the shallowest of the three; the Engaged Life, or the life of “flow,” called optimal experience, and the Meaningful Life, meaning in some sense the life of virtue.

“He says of the Pleasant Life that it is like vanilla ice cream: the first bite tastes delicious, but by the time you reach the fifth or sixth bite, you no longer taste it. Here is something close to the Orthododx insisting that a surplus of pleasures and luxuries, worldly honors and so on, do not make you happy. I tell you that one can be lacking in the most basic necessities and be happy: but let this slide.

“Of the Meaningful Life, it is the deepest of the three, but it is a only a first fumbling in the dark of what the Orthodox has curated in the light of day time out of mind. Things like kindness and mercy have been built into the baseline, curated since Christ or more properly hte Garden of Eden, so Orthodox have no need to add some extra practice to their faith to obtain kindness or gratitude. Honestly, the number of things the Orthodox knows about the happy Meaningful Life outstrips the Philokalia: the fountain is inexhaustible.

“But my chief concern is with the Engaged Life, the life of flow. For flow is not the “psychology of optimal experience,” or if it is, the theology of optimal experience comes from somewhere else. Flow is legitimate, and it is a wonder: but it is not, in addition to being legitimate and wonder, a good idea to prescribe to the general public.

Flow, as it occurs, is something exotic and obscure. It has been studied in virtuosos who are expert performers in many different domains. Once a practitioner of surpassing talent has something like a decade of performance, it is possible when a performer of this superb talent and training is so engrossed in a performance of whatever chosen domain, that sits pretty much at the highest level of performance that absorbs the virtuoso’s attention so completely that time flies because no attention is left to passage of time or almost any other thing of which most of us are aware when we are awake.

“It looks difficult to me to market flow for mass consumption: doing this is tantamount to calling God an elitist, and making the foundation of a happy life all but impossible for the masses. You can be a subjectivist if you like and say that genius is ten thousand hours of practice, but it is trained virtuoso talent and not seniority alone that even gets you through flow’s door. For that matter, it is also almost impossible for the lucky few to experience until they have placed years into virtuoso performance in their craft. (Many more are capable of being monastics). Monastics, those of you who are not monastics may well enough guess, have experiences which monastics consider it disastrous to share with laity. This much may be legitimate, but novices would do well not to expect a stream of uninterrupted exotic experiences, not when they start and probably not when they have long since taken monastic vows. A novice who sees things in terms of “drudgework” would do well to expect nothing but what the West calls “drudgework” for a long, long time. (And if all goes well and you get along far enough that the drudgework is diluted by more responsible obediences, you will at first lament the change!)

“There is still a striking similarity between the ancient monastic obedience that was par excellence the bread and butter of monastic manual labor, and the more modern obediences. In ancient times, monks supported themselves by weaving baskets, and in modern times they craft incense. Do not say that the modern obedience is nobler: if anything it is a temptation, and maybe it’s better to have the humbler obedience.

“But basketweaving and making incense are both repetitive manual labor. There are, of course, any number of other manual obediences in a monastery today. However, when monasticism has its leeway, its choice seems to be in favor of a repetitive manual labor that gives the hands a regular cycle of the motion while the heart is free for the Jesus Prayer, and the mind in the heart practices a monk’s watchfulness or nipsis, an observer role that conditions you to notice and put out temptations when they are but a barely noticeable spark, rather than heedlessly letting the first spark of temptation grow until one is strongly tempted to external sin, and waiting for your whole room to be on fire before you start to put it out. This watchfulness is the best baseline for optimal experience that the Orthodox Church gives us in which to abide, and ’tis no accident that the full and unabridged title of the Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. If either of these simple manual project is unfamiliar or makes the performer back up in thought, this is a growing pain, not the intended long-term effect. And now that the jewel of the monastic Philokalia has been discovered by mainstream Orthodoxy and read by many with utmost attention, watchfulness is practiced by many people living in the world today.

“And remember how a monk advised you, perhaps in conscious echo of St. James the Brother of God who said, ‘Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.’ For you were in the dining hall with the monk and a cleaning lady, and he told the cleaning lady that she was fortunate, because her manual labor left her free to pray with her, and you, a computer programmer, at the time, were unfortunate to have work that demanded your full mental attention.

“If you can have optimal experience, with the Jesus Prayers in your heart as the metronome of silence, if your business is to weave baskets or craft incense, why couldn’t you also attend to the Jesus Prayer, rising as incense before God, by mopping a floor or cleaning windows? For however great monasticism may be, it has no monopoly in meditative work or prayer before God, and marriage is the original instrument of salvation. The door is open, if you can do some manual labor, to do so in prayer to God. Furthermore, monks are not alone permitted prayerful manual labor: monasticism is but the rudiments of the Gospel, and if monasticism perhaps seeks out a boon in prayerful manual labor, there is no sign of the door saying ‘Monastics alone.’

“Let’s say this is true, and the theology of optimum experience is virtually accepted for the sake of argument alone, or if you want, you may answer ‘Yes and amen.’ Still, the entire point is a quibble compared to the more profound matter to discuss. Let us, with good reason, set this point aside.”

Then he paused, and after a moment resumed his explanation. “If I may pull a rare note from postmodern wreckage, there is the concept of a semiotic frame, perhaps a frame that is additionally a myth, which determine’s a society’s possibles et pensables, that which is understood to be possible in a society, and that which is found, or not, to be even thinkable The analytic knife cuts well here, where we as a society wear pretty impressive blinders about both activism and society.

“Think of your feminist theology professor, who said with full force that she believed in Tradition, and in the same breath placed Arius, the father of heretics, alongside St. Athanasius as equally full representatives of that Tradition. When, in your theological anthropology class, she picked two texts for disability, the obvious agenda to her, the one and only love possible towards (in this) the disabled, was to engage some activist political advocacy for to make external conditions better in some way for that particular victim class. No expression of love was possible save more political activism. I would say, and I’m pretty sure you would say, that she was too political in her response, and not nearly political enough. (For when all is civil warfare carried on by other means, real concern for the deeper life of the city or nation all but starves.)

“One of the two reading assignments had something she couldn’t grasp. The other assignment was political ideology and/or identity politics. It was complete with the standard, footnoteless, boilerplate opening assertion that no one else in the whole wide world could possibly have suffering that could possibly compared to the suffering of one’s poor, downtrodden, miserable demographic.

“But the first text was fundamentally different. It was entitled ‘Love Without Boundaries,’ and it was a text about love written by the father of a severely autistic son. This latter text did not come close to calling for agitation or plans for a better future. Far from it! It was silent on these points. What the text did do, however, was to reflect an approach in ascesis, and learning to love without limits. The father did not and could not cure his son, but whether or not the father’s love transformed his son, the love the father expressed transformed the father. His love was cut from the same cloth as the peace with oneself which St. Isaac and St. Seraphim with one voice exhort Orthodox to acquire. The love the father expressed rendered him Godlike, in a humble, everyday, ordinary fashion.

“Much as your professor automatically jumped to a conclusion from ‘disabled people’ to ‘activist agitation’, today we jump from a conclusion from ‘need to understand the human heart’ to ‘psychology’. Yes, the psychology taught in schools, the psychology fashioning itself after hard science, the psychology that introduces itself by the physics envy declaration: psychologists-are-scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

“It is a side point that psychologists treat subjects as less than human. A near-universal feature of psychological experiment is some stripe of guile, because psychological experimental value would be ruined under normal conditions of intelligent and informed cooperation between adult human beings. (Though the enterprise may be named “psychology,” the name itself is either clumsy or treacherous: “psyche” means “soul,” and the existence of a real, non-materialist soul is precisely what psychology will not even consider.) Psychologists running experiments act as thinking human beings: they think and make decisions. The people they study are governed by laws. Furthermore, since physics originally did quite a lot of work to de-anthropomorphize Nature, psychology tries to follow suit by offering a de-anthropomorphized picture of anthropos, humans.

“It has been noticed, as psychology reinvents more of religions, that classical psychology can take a person who is mentally ill to reach a normal state, but nothing better. Positive psychology tries to move beyond what preachers have called ‘a theology of sin management,’ and push to enhance excellence and well-being, and develop gifts. Meanwhile, for over a millenium, monasticism has been at one stroke a hospital for penitent sinners and an academy for ever-reaching excellence.

“The main point is that understanding how people work neither begins nor ends with psychology, a discipline that has blinded itself to our being made in the image of God. All the great Christian doctrines are untranslatable on psychology’s secular terms. The article version of your advisor’s thesis is subtitled, ‘From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions,’ and it discusses the formation of psychology as an emergent secular realms which displaced older candidates. However, in the West before psychology began to come together, there were religious and pastoral paradigms for understanding the human person, and you know that one of the first technical terms Orthodoxy asks its converts to learn is ‘passion.’ If the passions your advisor discussed are not point-for-point identical to the passions repented of in Orthodoxy, they are still far closer than any of the multiple emergent framings and meanings of ’emotion’ as pushed for in the formation of psychology as a discipline.

“That there may be a common term for psychology today, and more dubiously a term for what that common term replaced, doesn’t really matter that much. The term ‘pneumatology’ may have existed and named practitioners from an older tradition; but these were under religious auspices. The study and field of communication is relatively new among major academic disciplines, but it would be quite strange to deny that people communicated, and tried to communicate, before the day that universities now tended to have a door heralding, ‘Department of Communication.’

“And what has psychology done since being established as a secular arena? Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land gets on very quickly to utterly dismissing marriage. But no sooner does Michael stop flailing marriage’s lifeless corpse, but he senses that he has made a great gaping hole, and builds up a bond of water brotherhood that is meant to be every bit as heroic, beautiful, and magnificent, so that the only way really remaining to make water brotherhood truly more wonderful and amazing is to enlarge it until it becomes true marriage.

“While psychology is secular, its complete form offers an ersatz religion that, though it is meant to be value-free, provides a secular mystical theology. That this secular religion, fit for all religions and patients, uses guided imagery allegedly from some generic copy-paste of Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American traditions, and may go back to Greco-Roman times; mindfulness from Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path; and yoga from Hinduism, is but an illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s observation: the person who does not believe in God does not believe in nothing; the person who does not believe in God believes anything. But let us put this aside and take psychology’s claim of secularity at face value. The Philokalia is scarcely anything but a library of collected works about how to rightly live the inner life. It is not in the main concerned narrowly with pleasure or joy: but it has an infinite amount to say about sins that are all, in the end, ways to taste Hell. Psychology does not trade in temptation, sin, or passion: but it too offers a rudder for your inner life, and if it does not talk about cleansing the soul from moral stains, it has quite an impressive battleplan to not be conquered by negative emotion. Alcoholics Anonymous has reclaimed or reinvented quite a lot.

“And if I can put in a word about TED talks, there is probably a TED talk to be made, ‘The Trouble with TED,’ for they exacerbate this. You know well enough that one talk gave the staggering announcement that after decades of each generation having higher self-esteem than the last, and then the lamented finding that by consequence we, and our youth, have reached record levels of narcissism. She might well enough have announced that if you spray fuel around and throw lighted matches into the fuel, sooner or sooner you will be surrounded by fire.

“She talked about it being soothing to place your hand over your heart. Honestly! This is just another way of, how can I put this delicately, ‘making love without a partner.’ Not a word was whispered about affectionate touch to another person, or for that matter a pet; the remedy did not step an inch away from solipsism. You know that monks are admonished to refrain from embraces; however, it is better for a monk to embrace another than to embrace himself.”

I said, “What is the trouble with TED? For I sense something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

His All Holiness answered me and said, “All world religions have grandeur, and for a secular analysis all world religions represent a way that a society can live together and persevere. Hinduism is not the sort of thing one uses up, whether across years, lifetimes, or even centuries. Its paths are millenia old, and to destroy it would likely take something like a nuclear war or an apocalyptic event. By contrast, remember how you said, ‘No form of feminism that has yet emerged is stable:’ it’s very easy to meet the force of body image feminism today, while it would scarcely be live in the academy in fifty years. Your friend answered this remark with a nominal exception in what is called ‘Christian feminism,’ which articulates how traditional Christianity cares for, and seeks, the good of women: for an example, it takes politically incorrect words about husbands and wives and offers the breathtaking change of addressing women as moral agents, and never telling husbands to keep their wives in line. That is, if anything, the exception that proves the rule! It might externally be called feminism, but its core is much slower to decay than any feminism at all, because it is not feminism at all. In your feminist theology class one autho said that in feminist theology, “all the central terms are up for grabs.” Meanwile, remember your boss at the bookstore. He commented that books of liberal theology have a shelf life; after a few years a title becomes hard to sell. However, his shop published three hundred year old Puritan sermons and sold them on an ongoing basis. You might concerned about whether they are heterodox, but don’t worry about them going out of fashion, or if they do go out of fashion, it will not be because the Puritan sermons lost their appeal to future Protestants seeking Biblical faith, but something else wound up changing features of Protestant Christianity that have survived intact since the Reformation.

“You do not need to refute TED talks; a few years and a given talk will probably have fallen out of fashion. There is something in the structure of TED that is liberal, even if many talks say nothing political. There more to say than that they are self-contained, controlled, plastic things, where world religions are something organic that may or may not have a central prophet, but never have a central social engineer. TED is a sort of evolving, synthetic religion, and spiritual tofu cannot truly fill true spiritual hunger.

“Let’s get back to psychology, or better, take a look at psychology and TED talks, for psychology has for ages hoped for a Newton who the Promised Land’s full status of being scientists. The study of Rocks and Nothing is the exemplar after which to pattern the study of Man. Really! The problems in psychology are not so much where psychology has failed to understand humanity on the example of empirical science. The real concerns are for where they have succeeded.

“In a forum discussion you read, one conversation crystallized on proper care for diabetes. The central lesson from the discussion is that if you have diabetes, you don’t want a book-smart nurse. You want a diabetic nurse. In psychology, along with other disciplines, a sufficiently skilled practitioner can pick up a book about part of the subject he does not yet understand, and understand well enough what there is to understood. Understanding was never nursed on the foundation of direct experience, and here understanding is malnourished.

“However, the Orthodox Church with monasticism as its heart has a deeper, more true empiricism as its spine; you know things with the same kind of ‘knowing’ by which Adam knew Eve. All else is rumor and idle talk. If there are qualifications to being a spiritual father, one of the most important qualifications must be that he speaks and acts out of first-hand encounter and first-hand knowledge, and not that he learned by rumor and distortion. Do you want to be healed by a spiritual physician? Then look for a man who will care for you as a diabetic nurse.”

Song 5: O Holy Mother!

O Holy Mother! Are You the Mystery?
Are you the untold Mystery?
For I have written much,
And taken great care,
In The Luddite’s Guide to Technology,
And looked all the while,
Down the wrong end,
Of the best telescope far and away that I could find.
I have written of mankind and creation defiled,
Yet for all of my concerns,
Of so-called “space-conquering technologies,”
Which seemed to me to be “body-conquering technologies,”
Sidestepping God-given and holy bounds,
Of our incarnate state.
Where better to seek healing,
From an occult-free simulation,
Of the unnnatural vice of magic arts,
(For there are several unnatural vices:
“Unnatural vice” is an umbrella term),
Than in the perfect creaturely response,
“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.”
Then, the gates, and even the foundations,
The foundations of Hell began crumbling.
The New Eve, the Heavenly Mother,
Of Whom Christ told the Disciple,
“Beholy thy Mother!”
In Her is the microcosm of Creation done right,
And She is the Friend and Comfort,
Of the poor and the outcast.
I can lose my money and my property,
But no one can take from me,
A Treasure vaster than the Heavens;
Perhaps I would do well,
To say little else of technologies progressively degrading humanity,
And pray an Akathist to the Theotokos,
And put a trust in Her that is proto-Antiochian,
Rather than proto-Alexandrian,
And give Her a trust in the great Story,
Not diminished at all,
If She happens not to be a teacher,
Offering such ideas as philosophers like:
Her place in the Great Story is far greater than that:
And such it is also,
With illumined teachers,
Who offer worship to God as their teaching,
And are in the pains of labor,
Until Christ be formed in their disciples.

He said, “But let us return to the pursuit of happiness, which has scathingly been called ‘the silliest idea in the history of mankind.’ And that is for a junior grade of pursuing happiness compared to today’s dose, not the clone of a systematic science which works out a combination of activities and practices, an America’s Test Kitchen for enjoying life, studying ways of manipulating oneself to maximize pleasure and happiness.

“It was several years ago that you took a Fluxx deck to play with friends, and the group included five adults and one very little boy. So the adults took turns, not just in their moves, but the player who had just played a move would pay attention to the little kiddie, so that he wouldn’t be left out socially.

“When it was your turn to care for the boy, you put him on your shoulders and walked slowly, delicately, towards the kitchen, because you wanted to go in, but you weren’t sure whether you’d end up hitting his head on the lower ceiling.

“Not long after, you realized three things. First, the boy had not bonked his head. Second, the boy was dragging his fingers on the ceiling. Third and finally, he was laughing and laughing.

“That was a source of pleasure to you far beyond the game of Fluxx, even though it was then your favorite game. And when you asked if it were time for your next move, they told me game was over.

“In the conversation afterwards, you were told a couple of things worth mentioning.

“First, and perhaps not particularly important, you happened to have given the child a pleasure that neither of his parents could offer. The boy’s father was a few inches taller than you, and if he were to try what you tried, he in fact would have hit his son’s head on the ceiling. The boy’s mother could not do this either, whether due to lack of physical strength or some other reason.

“Secondly, as a psychology major mentioned to you, it gives people joy to give real pleasure to another person, and young children are a special case. She didn’t talk about whether there is a difference between knowing you’ve given pleasure to a young child and knowing you’ve given pleasure to an adult, but she did point out that the child, who was really quite very small, was too young to act like he was having fun because he was just being polite. He was too young for convincing guile and perhaps even the most transparent of guile. That meant, whether or not you were thinking about it, that his delighted laughter could only be from unvarnished candor. So you did not have any question about, “Does he enjoy what I am doing with him, or is he just being polite?” Just being polite was off the table.

“And this is not even only true for the royal race of mankind. You still aren’t in a position to adopt a furry pet, but without compromise of any principle you visit a pet shelter near your home, and at the shelter as well, guile is off the agenda, at least for the pets. A cat can purr, or if it’s had enough and you’ve not paid attention to its swishing tell, a light nip and a swipe of the claw equally represents unvarnished candor. So you really know what is conveyed if a cat purrs and starts licking your hand.

“This is part of a larger truth, that it is better to serve than to be served, and it is better to give than to receive. What is more, the most concentrated teaching about who is truly happy is enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount, and enshrined to the next level by being chanted in the Divine Liturgy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

“The word translated, ‘blessed,’ has what would be counted as at least two meanings in English: ‘blessed,’ and ‘happy.’ Among English Bible translations, there are a few that translate the word as ‘happy.’ including Young’s Literal Translation:

Happy the poor in spirit — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy the mourning — because they shall be comforted.

Happy the meek — because they shall inherit the land.

Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness — because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind — because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers — because they shall be called Sons of God.

Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake — because theirs is the reign of the heavens.

Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake — Rejoice ye and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

“In English this is usually, but not always, found in more free translations; the Amplified Bible naturally shines in cases like these as a deliberately unusual style of translation intended to present two or more faces of an ambiguity or a phrase that bears multiple meanings. Other languages can be different; in French, for instance, there are separate words béni and heureux which respectively mean ‘blessed’ and ‘happy,’ but heureux appears to be the term of choice in French translation of the Beatitudes.

“Here, though, is a point of contact with Plato. Plato investigated happiness, and the Greek term was almost exactly a literal equivalent to ‘in good spirits,’ but the literal sense was taken much more seriously and taken much further. It was a primary term for happiness, but what was seen as true happiness was having one’s soul in good health. This happiness would not be easily confused by counterfeit pleasures such as one can immediately procure with narcotics, and the point is not just that real-world narcotics create addiction and horrible misery. The happiness would be just as counterfeit in the pleasure of a person unhealthy in soul to take some imaginary narcotic that created intense and endless pleasure, without either the addiction or the misery that loom in the nasty backswing of real-world narcotics.

“Remember how surprised you were, when you were reading your undergraduate psychology text and saw what it said of the pleasure principle. For the pleasure principle is an artifact of bad philosophy, which perhaps notes that most of our actions bring some kind of pleasure or pleasing result, assumes and defines that every action anyone ever takes is that which is calculated to bring you the most pleasures. In more recent settings, you have listened to people saying that the only motivation anyone ever takes for any action is that it is calculated to bring them the greatest economic profit, and you repeated another’s answer, to say that several people have tried to convince you this was true, and so far as you knew, not even one of them stood to gain financial profit from convincing you this was true.

“Your textbook, like someone who tries to persuade by offering a charming smile in lieu of reasoned argument, consoled the reader that it was more a virtue than a vice to show kindnesses to others because you enjoyed the feelings it gave, and you had two answers in your thoughts. First, past the sugar-coating of ‘more a virtue than a vice’ lies an assertion that virtue is in principle impossible; and secondly, that the only theoretical possibility that you could care for the poor in order to help fellow humans was if you received absolutely no pleasure, consolation, or reward, in any stripe or dimension, to care for the poor out of a genuine motive of benefitting others and not whatever pleasures or rewards might follow. And that’s setting the price tag far too high. So you wanted to speak of a ‘pain principle’ or ‘masochism principle’ where all decisions and actions at all times by all people are whatever is calculated to bring them the greatest sufferings, alike useless to assert for any philosopher worthy of the name. It is hardly to be denied that most decisions bring some pain or have some downside on the part of the persons who make them, so a pain principle mirroring a pleasure principle is alike unprovable, and alike unfalsifiable, an untestable guess that has no place whatever in science and scarcely more a place in disciplines seeking to be established as science. It was not until later that you read a worthy and competent philosopher who wrote that the existence of pleasure and a reward does not in and of make any action which brings pleasure to be motivated solely as a means to obtain pleasure. The thought experiment was posed, that someone who gives to the poor and enjoys doing so were offered a pill that would give the full pleasure and benefits of being generous, but do nothing whatsoever for poor people’s practical needs, would in but rare cases be spurned as an empty and worthless counterfeit.

Song 6: Crossing the Great Threshold

The tale was told,
Of a child of little mind,
Who received a glittering package, a gift,
And kept the glittering pack,
Taking it with him almost everywhere.
And after a long time,
When the disposable wrapping paper,
Was quite battered and dingy,
An adult asked,
“Aren’t you going to open the package?”
The child exclaimed with joy,
Once the toy emerged from the tatters,
And squealed with you, saying,
“Oh, there’s another present!”
My Lord and my God!
Perhaps I will never open,
The Sermon on the Mount.

Then I said, “O John! O Glorious Saint John! Can you lead me on a path into The Sermon on the Mount? For I have long walked the path of self-direction, and it almost destroyed me.”

Then the Saint said to me, “Thank you, my son, for your request! I was waiting for you to ask, so that you might have the Heavenly reward for asking.

“What you are asking for is a work of years of lifetimes; let’s chase something smaller: unfolding, partly, only the first verse, which declares the poor in spirit to be blessed and happy. I will speak to you of the poverty’s riches but not humility’s heights, even though they are one and the same and true poverty contains everything that you seek in humility. Though I may call on other verses to tell what riches are in poverty, I will make no attempt to unfold these other Beatitudes, though to them which declared the blessedness of poverty that was the same thing. I also tell you, through your interests, that to be poor in spirit is to be no self-sufficient solipsist; rather, it is utterly dependent on the infinite riches of God, and that it is royal: for kings are forbidden to touch money, and in another sense all Christians and especially all monastics are forbidden to touch any wealth or possession, and grasp at things like the rich young ruler did. But poverty is the unstopping of the The Sermon on the Mount, an unstopping of virtue in which flowing fountain surpasses flowing fountain.

“Calling blessed those who are ‘poor in spirit’ extends beyond a merely bodily poverty. It is taught that true poverty extends beyond a lack of possessions, much like it is taught that the monastic vow of poverty includes the other two: for a monk abstains from the normal and God-blessed estate of holy marriage, and relinquishes claim to even his own self-will. You know that as treasure, for you want to exchange self-direction for a monastic community under the direction of an abbot.

“In the The Sermon on the Mount, poverty seems to hold a special place, for there are two passages which build most clearly poverty, and build most clearly on poverty. One commends storing treasures in Heaven and rejects storing treasures on earth; then an apparent digression about the eye as the lamp of the body, then exhortation not to worry about even tomorrow, for God knows and will care for our needs. And when you have wealth, be merciful to others, and you will be repaid many times over by your true Debtor, God.

“In fact there are not two passages and one digression, but one passage and no digression. The miniature tri-unity is harder to see in modern translations that translate something out to be more readily understood; one reads of one’s eye being ‘healthy’ or ‘sound.’ Fr. Thomas Hopko has said, before the surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness, “Be awake and attentive, fullly present where you are.” This attentiveness and full presence is the operation of an activity that is single, that neither layeth up possessions, nor defendeth them in worry, nor doubteth that God who provides will overlook you in His care. All of this dissipates an eye that is single. Poverty of spirit makes for singleness of eye, and a singleness destroyed by so many of the technologies you trade in.

“It has been considered from ancient times that if you give to the poor, God is your Debtor, and under what you would consider third world living conditions, I told married Christians to leave brothers and sisters to their children instead of things. This too is poverty of spirit, even if it belongs only in marriage, in a setting monks renounce. You have read those who do not ask, ‘Can I afford what I need?’ but ‘Do I need what I can afford?’

“It is monastic poverty that monastics do not defend themselves, not only by force, but even with words, showing the power that terrified Pontius Pilate. It is monastic poverty of spirit not to have plans nor, in the modern sense, an identity. For in ancient times Christians who were martyred, answered when asked their names, nothing other than ‘Christian.’ Beyond this, further layers yet beckon. Poverty is not an absence of treasures; it is a positive, active thing that slices sharper than any two-edged sword. And monks who renounce property have much more to say than a mere, ‘Good riddance!’ The force of the rejection they give, and the freedom that is gained in letting riches go, is more like the obscene and thundering announcement: ‘I lost 235 pounds in one weekend!’

“You read a church sign that said, ‘Who is rich? The person who is content.’ And I tell you that you can purchase by poverty of spirit many times and layers more than contentment with what thou possessent now. I have not even scratched the surface of experiences of monastics who were profoundly poor in spirit, but you know there are limits to what I can rightly tell you, and you know that you are not invited to chase after experiences, but seek to repent of your sins for the rest of your life, which you recognize as monastic privilege.”

Song 7: I Sing a Song to my Apple.

Before I had even reached youth proper,
I programmed an Apple II,
In gradeschool adventure games and a 4D maze,
Simple arithmetic- and trigonometric-powered animations.
My father a computer scientist,
Who shared his joy with me,
In high school I became a Unix system administrator.
My family purchased, and still has the remains,
Of one original “fat Mac”,
So named because it had the maximum available RAM: 512k.
My calculator in high school,
On which I programmed computer-generated art,
And a simple video game, had as much.
Before my youth had dwindled,
I remained a Unix programmer,
And judged Mac OSX my preferred flavor of Unix.
Later I had iPhones,
And for the first time in my life,
Owned a computer where I lacked root privilege.
Along the way I got an Apple Watch,
My desire increased as I read about it,
And vanished when I learned it were,
Bereft of such things as even a web browser.
I gave it to my brother,
Who later gave it back to me,
Then it fell apart.
I sing a song to my Apple,
A peerless 17″ MacBook Pro,
Which through an ever-so-minor design flaw,
Burned through video cards often,
And when the Apple Store stopped stocking those cards,
So with it went any hope of keeping my Mac without frequent $500 repairs.
And along the way,
With the sweetness of a Linux virtual machine,
Realized that OSX had grown monstrous as a version of Unix.
When I asked about one cardinally important open source project,
I was told that Apple had removed parts of the OS,
That the project needed to run,
But information technology work in my Linux virtual machine,
Was the command line equivalent of point and click.
It were a discovery as if I had returned to Paradise.
I sing a song to Apple’s technical support,
For when I asked a question,
About command-line-driven Apache configuration,
It took escalations up to level 3 Technical support,
Before a Genius knew that Macs have a command line.
I purchased a computer meant to last years.
I sing a song to my late iPhone,
Bewailed by men who made the Mac great,
Which slipped out a pocket near a food bank,
Booted my laptop into Windows and found,
That Windows Find my iPhone was now rendered all but useless.
I went to see an Apple Store,
And received a followup call,
Giving a good ten days before I could access my iPhone,
And found out also that Macs were as useless,
As my Linux box booted into Windows,
To Find My iPhone.
Once I had one from each four,
Offerings for Apple computers:
A laptop one, an iPad one,
An iPhone one, an Apple Watch one;
And ere I were negotiating,
For to buy a replacement iPhone on eBay,
I said that there were many Android devices within my budget,
And while in bed that night realized,
I wanted full well that the negotiation fail.
Apple’s indirect gift to desktops may be Windows and part of Linux,
And Apple’s indirect gift to smartphones may be Android;
For surely no iPhone killer before Android,
Even came close.
Certainly Windows Mobile answered the wrong question.
But even if one may argue, legitimately,
That a Mac and a PC have grown remarkably similar,
And iOS and Android are also more alike than different to use,
I was not poisoned by technnical merits.
I was poisoned by Apple’s corporate mindset,
That all but killed my prospects,
Of finding my iPhone before the battery were drained completely.
And when I called my iPhone to perhaps find it in my car,
I went to voicemail immediately:
My iPhone’s battery was already dead.
I had known, but not paid attention earlier,
To Steve Jobs as beyond toxic, as a boss;
Screaming and abusive,
To employees he had every reason to cherish,
And after seeing a technical fumble,
Publicly fired an Apple technician,
At an employee motivational event,
And I believed it.
I was more disturbed,
When I read of Jobs’s spiritual practices,
Such as an Orthodox mind might interpret,
As opening the mind to listen,
And draw the milk of dragons.
Technology does things for us,
Though I have found that when I’ve shared children my iPhone or iPad,
There have been squabbles and squabbles.
But this Trojan horse does things for devils also,
Who cannot give exquisitely beneficial gifts,
Even if they were to try.
The power of demons is real but limited:
Such teaches the Philokalia,
Which though it be filled with love of the beautiful,
Says more about the activities and operations of demons,
Than anything else I have read.
And one thing it says,
Through Orthodox Christian Tradition,
Says that demons can tell a man’s spiritual state,
And try to inject venomous thoughts in temptation,
Where men have free will, still,
The demons cannot read minds,
Even if by ruse they give one monk certain thoughts,
Sting another that the thoughts are in the first man,
They talk and are deceived,
That demons can read people’s minds.
Demonic predictions are called guesses,
Which are sometimes wrong,
The demons see a man beginning to walk a journey,
And guess that he travels to visit another specific man,
But ’tis guesswork; demons can well enough be wrong.
St. Nilus’s alleged prophecies are dubious at present,
But we may not yet be in the clear.
And if the U.S. has been called “One nation under surveillance,”
Where No Such Agency has received every email,
It is now clear and open knowledge,
To those who will reflect,
That among most Americans,
“Every breath and step Americans take,”
Is monitored by Big Brother,
But perhaps it is not just human agencies,
That reap the information collected.
++ungood
(Did anyone besides my most reverend Archbishop mention that porn may always have been available, but it used to be that you had to seek out porn, and leave your car in front of a store with papered-over windows, and wear your trenchcoat disguise, while now porn seeks out you?
It is something like a water cooler that has three faucets
Serving cold water, hot water, and antifreeze,
And the handles are confusingly similar.)

The Saint turned to me and said, “I would remind you of Fr. Thomas’s famous 55 maxims:

55 Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person
    regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for
    themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and
    caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last
    breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness,
    temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s
    mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The Saint continued, “Would you agree that we are at a high noon of secret societies?”

I answered, “Absolutely.”

He asked, “Would you agree that such societies are corrosive?”

I answered, “As a rule, yes, and I know that Orthodox are forbidden on pain of excommunication to join the Freemasons.”

He asked, “And do you have an opinion about the JFK assassination, whether it was a conspiracy?”

I said, “I accept the opinion of a friend whose judgment I respect as regards politics gave me an opinion that there in fact was a conspiracy, and it was driven by LBJ.”

He said, “And have you spent five full minutes in worrying about either in the past year?”

I said, “No, not really.”

He said, “You have secular intelligence if you can ask if ‘surveillance from Hell’ in an obviously figurative sense might also be ‘surveillance from Hell’ in a far more literal sense, but such intelligence as this does not help one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Every demon and the Devil himself is on a leash, and as your priest has said many times, everything that happens to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that God has allowed for our strengthening. So whether or not the demons have more information than in ages past, you would still be best advised to live:

Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.

Song 8: A Hymn to Arrogance

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
“There is no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not before the creation,
Of the royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of Peace,
And pray, stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the angelic warriors,
Said only his name, ‘Michael,’
Which is, translated,
‘Who is like God?’
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
The remain to sharpen the faithful;
God uses them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

So don’t be dismayed,
If one book of the Bible says,
That Satan tempted David into taking a census,
And another says God did so,
For God allowed it to happen by the Devil,
As he who chops lifts an axe,
And God gave David a second chance,
In the holy words of Joab.
Do not think that God and the Devil are equal,
Learn enough doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And can have no equal or even opposite.
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared not so well.
The dragon was like a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that was the greatest harm,
That he could see how to do.
The Orthodox Church knows well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the demons ain’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God allows temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
‘It is just the demons.
Don’t pay any attention to it,’ came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
So don’t be arrogant towards other people,
But be ever more arrogant towards demons and the Devil himself:
‘Blow, and spit on him.'”

I told St. John, “I have just read the panikhida service, and it seems to be cut from the same cloth as Church services in general.”

He said, “Does that surprise you?”

I said, “Perhaps it should not. But the Philokalia describes a contrast between life and death: for instance, in the image of an inn, where travelers come for a night, carrying whatever they have; some sleep on beds, some sleep on the floor, but when day comes, all of them pick up their belongings and resume their journey.”

He says, “How do you understand that parable?”

I said, “In this life, some live in riches, and some in poverty, but all of these leave life carrying only (Grace and) their deeds with them. The last English homily I heard, the priest quoted someone who said, ‘I have never seen a trailer attached to a hearse.’ That is, ‘You can’t take it with you,’ save that terrifying tale of a monk who died with over a hundred gold pieces. (It was said he wasn’t greedy, just remarkably stingy.) When he died, the community talked about what to do with this incredible sum of wealth: some suggested a new building or another capital project, others some great kindness to the poor. And when all was said and done, they buried the gold with him, an industrial strength reminder to monks that you don’t want to be buried with even one gold piece. But even then, the monk couldn’t take the gold with him.”

The Saint told me, “You have read part of Prayers by the Lake, in which St. Nikolai says that birth and death are an inch apart, but the ticker tape goes on forever.

“Also remember that in the Philokalia we read that those who wish one suffering to die are like someone holding a deeply confused hope that a doctor would break up the bed of a sick man? For we take our passions with us beyond death, passions which the body mediates to some degree.”

I said, “May I comment on something? Which will sound like a boast?”

He said, “Speak on.”

I said, “I know that I am mortal, and that I am the chief of sinners. But the day of my death is more real to me than my salvation, and in me the knowledge that I am the chief of sinners surpasses my knowledge that God is merciful. I have needed the reminder of the core promise in For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. So there are two deep pairs, and I have of the two properly recognized only the lesser element.”

He said, “Have you not been astonished at God’s perfect Providence in years past?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “What you have said doesn’t sound like boasting to me. Many people have wished for the remembrance of death and not reached it, not even in monasticism.”

I asked, “Will I reach monasticism?”

He smiled at me, and said, “Why do you ask the future? It is wonderful.”

He said, “Remembrance of death does not drain life. It is a reminder that life is not a dress rehearsal: or rather that is a dress rehearsal, and our performance in this rehearsal determines what we will meet the Resurrection having rehearsed.

“With death comes a realization of, ‘I shall not pass this way again.’

“Such death as we have gives an eternal significance to life in its importance. For you know that all you in the Church Militant stand in something like an arena before God and His Christ, before all the saints and angels and even devils and the Devil himself, as God’s champions summoned to justify God as St. Job the Much-Suffering and others justify God. And whatever triumph you have is Christ’s triumph in you.

“Don’t you know that the saints who have run the race and are adorned with an imperishable and incorruptible crown stand all about you, the Church Triumphant cheering on the Church Militant until every last member has crossed the finish line in triumph?

“Don’t you know that every saint and angel, the Mother of God and Christ enthroned on high, all cheer each and every one of you who are still running the race?

“The times preceding the Second Coming of Christ are not only apocalyptic; they are the very thing which gives the term ‘apocalyptic’ its meaning in your day. And there are trials and tribulations which perhaps will happen in ages later on, and perhaps may already have begun. But in the end Christ will triumph, and all alike who are faithful. And if you are alive for the Second Coming of Christ, or if not, God has provided and will provide a way for thee. Remain faithful, and remember, ‘The righteous will live by his faith.'”

I said, “I should where God will lead me. I can guess promises of good, but I am happier at least leaving a vessel open for God to fill.”

The Saint’s face began to glow, and he said, “In my day, I made a claim you may have met in the Reformers, that the age of miracles had passed: in blunt terms, ‘God wrote the book and retired.’ So I called ‘opening the eyes of the blind’ to be cleansing eyes from lust, which was a fair claim in any case, and particular if there are no more miracles. You, it seems, are in another age of miracles, or perhaps the age of miracles has never stopped from before the Nativity of Christ, but has merely hid from time to time. You know that you are not the Orthodox Church’s fourth Theologian, but you have already known some beginnings of theology beyond the printed page, and have seen miracles in your earthly pilgrimage such as I have not. I perhaps engaged in rhetorical discourse about God, and never on earth saw the Uncreated Light. You have seen icons like me and you have also seen a photograph from inside an altar, where paten and chalice glowed purest white. Unlike me, you have been anointed with more than one miraculous oil, dear Christos…”

Then he bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before me, and his face glowed brightly, brightly, ten thousand times brighter than the sun and yet did not hurt my mortal eyes, and he asked me, “Friend, why do you ask the future? It is wonderful.”

Then there was a scintillating flash of light that was beyond intense, and the Saint was gone.

I wept until I realized that I was the happiest I had been in my life.

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Introduction: A study of secularization

Thomas Dixon in Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions, offers a model of societal secularization intended to be a more robust than just seeing “theology vs. anti-theology,” “theology vs. theology in disguise,” or “theology vs. anti-theology in disguise.” He argues for a process that begins with full-blooded theism, such as offered by almost any strain of classic Christianity, and then moves to “thin theism,” such as Paley (today think Higher Powers), then “anti-theology” that is directly hostile to theism, then “atheology” which is alienated from theological roots but is merely un-theological, “in much the same way as a recipe in a cookery book is un-theological.”

Dixon, like a good scholar, provides a good case study explored at greater length in his dissertation, and I am very interested in the case study he chose. He looks at the formation of a secular category of psychology, and the steps that have been taken to depart from older religious understandings situating the concept of passions, to a secular concept of emotions. The development of the secular category of emotions serves as a microcosm of a study of a society’s apostasy (a term Dixon does not use in his article) from understanding aspects of life as features of religion, to covering similar territory in terms of what is explained, but understanding things on secular terms, disconnected from religion. (Much prior to the transition Dixon documents, it’s difficult to see what the West would make of psychobabble about “Feelings aren’t right. They aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.“)

If I may summarize Dixon’s account of the apostasy, while moving the endpoints out a bit, in the Philokalia, passions are loosely sin viewed as a state, with inner experience (and sometimes outer) related to how we live and struggle with our passions. Orthodox Christians have quite an earful to give (and sometimes the maturity not to give it) if someone from the West asks, “What are your passions?” In an Orthodox understanding, taken literally, that question has nothing to do with activities we enjoy and get excited about (unless they are wrong for us to engage in). It is more the matter of a habit of sin that has defaced their spiritual condition and that they are, or should be, repenting of. That is one of the more “Western-like” points we can take from the Philokalia; another foundational concept is that many of the thoughts we think are our own, and make our own (such as authentic handling of non-straight sexuality as is broadly understood today), are the unending attempted venomous injections of demons and we need to watchfully keep guard and destroy what seems to be our own thoughts. This is not present, nor would be particularly expected, in Dixon’s account. However, the “before” in Dixon’s “before and after” clearly situates what would today be considered feelings as markers and features of spiritual struggle, spiritual triumph, and spiritual defeat. The oldest so-to-speak “non-influence” figure Dixon attends to lived his life well after the Orthodox eight demons, that attack us from without, were revised to become our own internal seven deadly sins.

The first alternative Dixon studies is a concept of emotion that is paper-thin. The specific text he studies, which is remarkably accurately named, is Charles Darwin’s The Expressions of Emotion in Man and the Animals. The title does not directly herald a study of emotion, but the expressions of emotion, with an a priori that diminishes or removes consideration of human emotional life being distinctive (contrast Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation; she believes very much that animals have a psyche, but takes a sledgehammer to all-too-easy anthromorphization of animal psyches). Furthermore, an emotion is something you feel. Emotion is not really about something, and emotional habits are not envisioned. Darwin’s study was a study of physiologically what was going on with human and animal bodies approached as what was really going on in emotion.

Later on, when atheology has progressed, this begins to change. After a certain point people could conceive that emotions are about something; another threshold crossed, and you could speak of emotional habits; another threshold crossed, and you could regard a person’s emotional landscape as healthy or unhealthy. All of this fits Dixon’s category of atheology if one is using his framework. There remain important differences from either the Philokalia or the earliest models Dixon studies: it is today believed that you should let emotions wash through you until they have run their course, an opinion not endorsed by any framing of passions that I know. However, I would recall G.K. Chesterton on why it was not provocative for him to call the Protestant Reformation the shipwreck of Christianity: the proof is that, like Robinson Crusoe, Protestants keep on retrieving things from the Catholic ship.

Perhaps the fullest atheological rediscovery of the concept of a passion I am aware of is the disease model of alcoholism lived out in Alcoholics Anonymous. The passions are, in the Philokalia, spiritual wounds or diseases of some sort, and the dominant metaphor for a father confessor is that of a physician or healer. While the important term “repent” is not included in the wording of the twelve steps, the twelve steps paint in powerful and stark relief what repentance looks like when it puts on work gloves. The community is in many ways like a church or perhaps is a church. Steps may be taken to qualify strict doctrine, but the teaching and resources are a sort of practical theology to help people defeat the bottle. (One thinks of Pannenberg’s essay How to Think About Secularism suggests that secularism did not arise from people grinding an axe against all religion; it arose from people wanting to live in peace at a time when it was mainstream to wish that people on the other side of the divide would be burned at the stake.) There is a bit of haziness about “God as I understand him,” but this is decidedly not the result of hazy thinking. The biggest difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Orthodox Church may be that Alcoholics Anonymous helps with one primary disease or passion, and the Church, which could be called Sinners Anonymous, doesn’t say, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It believes, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m the worst sinner in history.”

Where is the Orthodox Church in all of Dixon’s study?

At a glance, there may not be much visible. The Orthodox Church is not mentioned as such, the text seems to focus on English-speaking figures from the 17th century onwards, and the only figure claimed by the Orthodox Church is the Blessed Augustine, who is first mentioned in a perfunctory list of influences upon authors who retained significant grounding in older tradition. (The next stop seems to jump centuries forward to reach Thomas Aquinas.) The text does not seem to have even a serious pretension to treat Orthodoxy as far as the case study goes. Furthermore, while passions were and are considered important in Orthodoxy, the theological affections that counterbalance theological passions in the “before” part of “before and after” are obscure or nonexistant in Orthodox faith.

However, there is something that would feel familiar to Orthodox. To the Orthodox student in a Roman university, there may be the repeated effect of a Catholic student conspiratorially explain that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing that was daft and wrong, but now Rome is getting its act together, has progressed, and has something genuinely better to offer. To Orthodox, this whole topos heralds something specific; it heralds the dismantling of one more continuity that Rome used to have with Holy Orthodoxy. And while Dixon does not discuss “Catholic” or “Protestant” as such and does not even have pretensions of treating Orthodoxy, he offers a first-class account of Western figures dismantling one more continuity with Holy Orthodoxy. To many Orthodox, the tune sounds all too familiar.

Quasi-Mystical-Theology

In Orthodoxy, all theology is “mystical theology”, meaning what is practically lived in the practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Systematic theology is off-limits, as a kind of formal book exercise that is not animated by the blood of mystical theology.

Clinical psychology offers what Dixon terms quasi-theology, and I would more specifically term quasi-mystical theology. Not all psychologists are clinical practitioners; there are a good number of academic research psychologists who explore things beyond the bounds of what a counselor would ordinarily bring up. For instance, academic psychology has developed theories of memory, including what different kinds of memory there are, how they work, and how they fit together. These are not only more detailed than common-sense understandings, but different: learning a skill is considered a type of memory, and while it makes sense on reflection, the common, everyday use of “memory” does not draw such a connection.

This is a legitimate finding of research psychology, but it falls outside of common counseling practice unless the client has some kind of condition where this information is useful. Clinical practitioners attempt to inculcate aspects of psychology that will help clients with their inner state, how to handle difficulties, and (it is hoped) live a happier life. All of this is atheology that is doing something comparable to theology, and more specifically mystical theology; the speculative end is left for academics, or at least not given to clients who don’t need the added information. In Dixon’s framing, some atheology is additionally quasi-theological, meaning that it offers e.g. overarching narratives of life and the cosmos; he mentions science-as-worldview as one point. Clinical psychology offers a different, humbler, and vastly more powerful quasi-theological project. It offers an attempt at a secular common ground that will let people live their lives with the kind of resources that have been traditionally sought under religious auspices. As far as the Philokalia as the Orthodox masterwork for the science of spiritual struggle goes, at times the content of clinical psychology runs parallel to the Philokalia and at times it veers in a different and unrelated direction from the Philokalia, but it is almost a constant that clinical psychology is intended to do Philokalia work that will help overcome bad thoughts, preventable misery, regrettable actions, being emotionally poisoned by people who are emotionally poisonous, etc. There is of course an additional difference in that the works in the Philokalia are concerned with building people up for eternal glory, but clinical psychology is meant to build people up for a positive life, and that much is common ground.

What is a religion? Can religion be secular?

Q> With so many religions [in India], how do you stay united ?

A: A common hatred of stupid Americans.

An FAQ list written by an exasperated Indian

The term “religion” etymologically comes from Latin, “religare”, which means to bind. It is the same root as in “ligament” in the human body, which do a job of connecting bones to each other. And while the FAQ list contains some astonishingly silly questions, there is some degree of insight reflected in a realization of many religions in India leading to a question of, “How do you stay united?

I bristled when I read scholars saying that courtly love and chivalry was the real religion of knights and nobles late in the Middle Ages, but some years later, the claim makes a lot more sense to me. The medieval versions of Arthurian legend I read before and during The Sign of the Grail repeatedly talked about how people didn’t love (in courtly fashion) anything like the days of King Arthur, which is a signal warning that courtly love was present in a sense that was unthinkable in the claimed days of King Arthur’s court. The first widespread version of Arthurian legends outside of Celtic legend were in the twelfth century; the dates reported, with mention of St. Augustine of Canterbury, put Arthur as being in the sixth century. The number of intervening centuries is roughly the same as the number of years between our time and the tail end of the medieval world.

Furthermore, I have not read Harry Potter but I would offer some contrasts. First of all, Harry Potter is produced, offered, and among the more mentally stable members of the fan base, received as a work of fiction. The version of King Arthur that first swept through mainland Europe was a work of pseudohistory produced mostly out of thin air, but was presented and received as literal history. Secondary, Harry Potter mania is not expected to be a fixture for all of a long lifetime: the cultural place we have is like nothing else in its heyday, but it is a candidate for a limelight that shone on many other things before it and is expected to shine on many things after it. The Arthurian legends were more of a Harry Potter without competition. Today one can walk in the bookstore and see fantasy novels representing many worlds; Arthurian legends tended to absorb anything beside them that was out there (like the story of Tristan and Yseult, included in Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). It might be pointed out that the present Pope as of this writing is named after a medieval Western saint, Francis of Assisi, who was named under the inspiration of France and more specifically French troubadours. I am not sure where the troubadors’ lyrics began and ended, but Arthurian legends entered the vulgar (i.e. common, instead of Latin) tongue in France and troubadours were part and parcel to what spread. Notwithstanding that the Arthurian legends take place in England, they are to this day as well-known, or better-known, in France, than the story of the (French) Roland and his paladins. The Roman Catholic Church forbade reading “idle romances,” meaning, essentially, all Arthurian literature, but it seems that, in the circles of courtly love, the active endeavors of chivalry were much more on the front burner with Christianity assumed to be on the back burner, and chivalry was more of one’s real religion to knights and nobles than Christianity.

One Orthodox student, perhaps not making himself particularly well-liked in a theology program by complaining about Karl Rahner’s reliance on Western analytic philosophy (one particularly memorable cart-before-the-horse heading was “The presence of Christ in an evolutionary worldview”), and was answered by saying that it was to reach the unbeliever. He responded and said that he did not see why the common ground between all world religions was Western analytic philosophy. The professor said that it was to reach the unbeliever in us. The student said that Western analytic philosophy did not speak to the unbeliever in him. (The conversation moved on from there, but without uncovering any particular reason why Western analytic philosophy should fit the job description Rahner was conscripting it to do.)

In psychology today, the common ground that is legitimately given the job of a secular and artificial religion in a sense of what common ground binds us together is material derived by Buddhism and Hinduism (whether or not their incarnations would be recognized by the religious communities). Jainism is omitted perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with Indian religion. (The term “yoga,” for instance, means a spiritual path, in which sense it would be natural for a Christian to claim to be practicing the Christian yoga, but yoga in the usual sense is lifted from Hinduism. As to whether Orthodox may practice yoga, as always, ask your priest; I do not see why Christians need yoga, but many priests are much more lenient than I would be.) What is presented in psychology today is a secular religion, not specifically requiring one to reverence certain deities or providing as complete a moral code as world religions, and for that matter expected to be markedly different than the secular religions offered ten years in the past and ten years in the future, and no less meant to do a religion’s job because it is concocted.

Why are we seeking mindfulness from the East?
Perhaps because we because we have dismantled it in the West.

A cartoon about where morality is. /><br />
Buddhism has four noble truths, and an eightfold noble path in which a Western philosopher or historian of philosophy would recognize a path of virtue-based morality. One of them, “Right Mindfulness,” has been given a heyday in the sun, although mindfulness is best understood holistically in a society where self-identified Buddhists find license to treat morality as optional (Buddhist societies and religious texts seem to find a great deal of moral debt owed to other humans, as one can likely find by reading whatever the Wikipedia page for Buddhism mentions). Virtue-based moralities are common in many world religions and world philosophical traditions; if Christianity offers a virtue-based morality, this has never been a Christian monopoly. Besides Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, for instance in the East, and Aristotle and the Stoics in the West, approach morality by virtues. There are important differences in <em>how</em> they approach morality by virtues, but the concept of virtues as such is common. (A virtue is a disposition, or an internal state influencing action, that “points towards” some category of good action and/or “points away” from some category of bad action.)</p>
<p>As compared to Western philosophy without much Eastern influence, there is not a packaged standalone virtue of mindfulness. Another Indian virtue that is shared between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, <em>ahimsa</a> or not-harming, says in essence “I cannot harm you without harming myself,” and while it may be easier to see from pantheism, even secular grounds can recognize that divorce is not the only misfortune that hurts all involved. Various stripes of abuse are destructive for the victim, but they are also destructive to the abuser. To steal or lie to another is also a self-violation. This virtue may not be spelled out in older Western texts, but a philosopher who knows Western virtue philosophy should be able to immediately recognize mindfulness, ahimse, etc. as newly met members of the family of virtues, and possibly cardinal virtues to boot. (Cardinal virtues are virtues that are both important in themselves, and something that other virtues hinge on.)</p>
<p>Mindfulness is something that’s part of the terrain of virtue, in the West as well as the East; it’s just that with how something like a “political map” is drawn, it’s not framed as its own separate territory. (This kind of thing is familiar enough to students of philosophy and religion.) However, there are repeated points of contact between mindfulness and <a href=Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “55 Maxims for the Christian Life”:

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  3. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  4. Sit in silence 20 or 30 minutes a day.
  5. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  6. Live a day, or even part of a day, at a time.
  7. Be grateful.
  8. Be cheerful.
  9. Listen when people talk to you.
  10. Be awake and attentive, fully present wherever you are.
  11. Flee imagination, analysis, fantasy, figuring things out.

34 is not the only item that exhorts us to be mindful.

But we are rediscovering mindfulness after having dismantled it at home. One friend talked about how his grandmother complained about Walkmans, that if you are running through natural surroundings and listening to music, you are not paying due attention to your surroundings. There has been a stream of technologies, from humble, tape-eating Walkmans to the iPod’s apotheosis in an iPhone and Apple Watch pairing, whose marketing proposition is to provide an ever-easier, ever-more-seductive, ever-more-compelling alternative to mindfulness. Now an iPhone can be awfully useful (I have a still-working iPhone 7), but using technology ascetically and rightly is harder than not using it at all, and Humane Tech only reaches so far.

One CEO talked about how she wanted to share one single hack, and the hack she wanted to share was that her mother gave you her full attention no matter who you were or what you were doing. And evidently this was something the CEO considered important both to do and to invite others to do. However, her mother’s behavior, however virtuous, and virtuously mindful, was nothing distinctive in her generation, nor was it presented as such. Even with no concept of mindfulness as such, people in her mother’s generation were taught in life, faith, and manners to give mindful attention to everyone you dealt with.

G.K. Chesterton exposes the sadness of laboring in the prison of one idea, and something similar might be said by laboring in the prison of one virtue, especially if that is not a cardinal virtue that opens to a vista of other virtues. Mindfulness, for instance, is much more worthy of attention when viewed as part of an Eightfold Noble Path of interlocking virtues. A TED talk about what makes people beat the odds, presented as original research to a virtue the presenter calls “grit,” which (however much research is done) is quickly recognizable as the standard virtue of perseverance.

There may be hope for a TED talk about an interlocking family of virtues. Tim Ferris’s talk about Stoicism does not discuss virtue as such, but does introduce the oblong concept that life lessons learned in ancient times can be relevant and useful today, and discusses Stoicism as the substance of a play George Washington used to strengthen his troops, and discovered as a kind of ultimate power tool by some of the top coaches in the NFL.

The first book of the Philokalia, moved to an appendix by formerly Protestant editors, was misattributed to one saint and the stated reason for its banishment was that it was spiritually insightful but not written by a Christian; it was Stoic and not Christian in certain respects. That may be true, but the Philokalia is universally human and its authors have usually been quick to borrow from, and respect, Stoic virtue philosophy.

One influential book from the West is Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. C.S. Lewis gives its reception a cardinal place in The Discarded Image, and contests a tendency to have to choose between Boethius’s Christianity and his philosophy. Both should be taken seriously, and the book, among other excellences, shows a Christian who has profited from the best pagan philosophy had to offer, including important Stoic elements.

We’ve seen a TED talk that doesn’t name virtues but shows enthusiasm for ancient philosophy in which virtues were important. Perhaps someday we may have a TED talk about an ancient or modern family of virtues.

“Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is fundammentally not an “affirmation.”

I would like to look at the phrase, “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” to dismiss two ideas that might already be obviously ridiculous.

The first is that it’s sadistic, Alcoholics Anonymous rubbing member’s noses into the dirt because of some cruel glee. The practice of introducing yourself as an alcocholic is part and parcel of a big picture intended to free alcoholics from a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, perhaps reminding members that someone who has been fifteen years sober can return to bondage to alcohol. Furthermore, the main intended beneficiary of saying “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is simply the alcoholic who says it.

The second is that it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps there are some confused people who believe that it would be nice to be drunk all the time and drink more and more. However, for someone who knows the incredibly destructive suffering alcoholism inflicts on oneself and those one loves, it is an absurdity to think of “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” as a way to talk something into being, for someone who’s been stone cold sober lifelong to wish to be in cruel slavery to alcohol. “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” being an “affirmation” of wishful thinking belongs in a Monty Python sketch. The introduction as an alcoholic falls under the heading of facing already present reality.

“Here is a trustworthy saying which deserves acceptance: Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Such said St. Paul, and such is enshrined in two brief prayers before communion. Confessing oneself the chief of sinners is not a positive affirmation: but it is a handmaiden to being one Christ died for, and another saying which has rumbled down the ages, “The vilest of human sins is but a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.” The confession as the chief of sinners is not an endpoint. It is a signpost lighting up the way to, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” However vile the sins one owns up to, they are outclassed in every possible way by the Lord who is addressed in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (“Mercy” is said to translate chesed, a Hebrew word usually translated as “lovingkindness.”)

How do modern psychological affirmations look to a theist? A bit like trying to nourish yourself by eating cotton candy, but I’d really like to give more of an argument than an unflattering comparison. The introduction to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describe a shift in wisdom literature (written and other materials about how to live life well; the concept heavily overlaps both theology and psychology). The shift is from a character ethic, which says that you get ahead by moral character or moral virtue, to a personality ethic which does not call for submitting to inner transformation, and whose hallmarks include exhortations to “Believe in yourself.” (Since Covey wrote his introduction, the jobhunting world is not the only arena to undergo a second fall into a personal brand ethic, but affirmations have not gotten to that point, or at least not that I’m aware of.)

Spirituality and organized religion

One Orthodox priest mentioned, for people who want to be spiritual but express distrust of organized religion, “If you don’t like organized religion, you’ll love Orthodoxy. We’re about as disorganized as you can get.” But he also had a deeper point to make.

That deeper point is that “objection to organized religion” is usually at its core “objection to someone else holding authority over me.” And that is deadly, because someone else having authority over you is the gateway to much of spiritual growth.

Spirituality that is offered as neutral, and has been castrated enough not to visibly trample any mainstream demographic’s religious and spiritual sensitivities, may have some effect, but true growth takes place outside of such spiritual confines.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World almost opens on “spirituality.” He discusses its vacuity, and how it exacerbates an already secular enough life. The reader is directed to him for what one might have that is better than taking a secular life and adding spirituality.

For lack of knowledge my people perish

I would like to take a moment to talk about mental illness.

The teaching of the Orthodox Church on what we understand as mental illness (see some “hard pill to swallow” prayers), as articulated by an Orthodox MD/PhD, is that the terrain we frame as mental illness has already been analyzed and addressed. Mental illnesses, or what are called such, are tangles of passion. But the psychiatrist was clear that he could and did prescribe medications to lessen patients’ suffering.

One bugbear that needs to be addressed is the idea that if you are suffering from mental illness, you need more faith, and/or you just need to snap out of it. Now all of us really need more faith, and if you suffer from a mental illness, you obviously should pray. However, trying to pray hard enough to make it go away may not work any better than trying to snap out of it.

Now, with caveats, I would recommend Orthodox Christians with mental illness to see a psychiatrist and/or a counselor. Their methods can be very effective, and for all my writing about ersatz religion, they can significantly reduce suffering.

The caveat I would give is not theologically motivated. It is that there are excellent psychiatrists and counselors, but psychology is a minefield, with counselors who will tell you to use pornography and masturbate. If I were looking for a provider, I would do research and/or ask someone you trust to do research for you (if, for instance, you are depressed enough that it’s difficult to get out of bed). And if your provider seems to be acting inappropriately or displaying incompetence, it may be the entirely right decision to switch providers.

However, there is one piece more that the secular category of psychology does not understand. Mental illness can improve dramatically when you delve into new layers of repentance. While it doesn’t work to just try harder to have more faith, as you walk the Orthodox journey of repentance you will see things to repent of, and some of that repentance can slowly help untangle the knot of passions that the Fathers of the Philokalia knew, and St. Isaac the Syrian, a saint who has benefitted many mentally ill people.

The reason this section is titled “For lack of knowledge my people perish” is that we usually don’t see what we need to repent of to work at that level. We don’t know the steps. The solution I would expect is to work hard to repent, and make your confession include that one sin that you are wishing to forget when you confess. But walk on the journey of repentance: Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Monasticism is rightly called repentance, but the treasure of repentance is for everyone.

For those for whom this is a live option, the care of a spiritual director receives a central endorsement in Orthodox Psychotherapy, a classic which says that if patristic spiritual direction were to be introduced today, it would not likely be classified as religion so much as a therapeutic science. A good, experienced spiritual director who is familiar with mental illness as understood in Orthodoxy can be a much better alternative to fumbling around until you find out what sin you need to repent of and reject to turn your back on a particular point of mental illness. “For lack of knowledge my people perish” can be greatly alleviated by a spiritual director who understands classic Orthodox teaching on mental illness.

One more thing: a wise Orthodox protopresbyter said, “Avoid amateur psychologists. They usually have more problems than the rest of us!”

Et cetera

There are other things I do not wish to treat in detail. After it has been observed that clinical psychology often takes a person who is miserable and raise that person to feeling OK, but not rise above feeling OK, there has been a “positive psychology” meant for everyone, to help people rise above OK and make use of great talents. I would comment briefly that monasticism is both a supreme medicine for those of us who need some extra structure, and a school for positive excellence, and the latter is more central than the former.

In terms of “Christian psychology,” Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No is consistently violent to Biblical texts in the process of presenting secular boundaries as Christian. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is ludicrous hyperbole, and not properly understood until it is recognized as ludicrous hyperbole, in which the Good Samaritan goes through a road infested by brigands, gambles with his life when he gives in to what would ordinarily be the bait to brigands’ oldest and deadliest trick in the book, and so on. It was made to make the listener who asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” profoundly uncomfortable. Cloud and Townsend, however, present the Good Samaritan as giving a moderate and measured response, and asks us to imagine the rescued victim asking the Samaritan to give even more, and the Good Samaritan wisely saying, “No.

If you have to be that violent to the Bible to make it agree with you, you’re almost certainly wrong.

And there are other things. I’m not going to try to detail life without thinking in terms of boundaries, beyond saying that Christianity, and almost certainly not only Christianity, has a concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself” that unfolds into right relations with other people, but without psychology’s concept of boundaries.

Let me mention one more point.

Honest?

Perhaps most striking of all was a session under the heading of honesty, and showed a TED talk where a psychiatrist shared (in retrospect and in context, this seems like a deliberate name-drop) that he was named after his father, a Baptist minister. Then he came out as an illegitimate child, and I would like to repeat why my own parents do not like the term “bastard.”

While they wanted to teach polite language, my parents did not object to the term “bastard” because it is forceful enough to be a rude word. They objected to the term “bastard” because the term refers to someone who did not and could not have any say or any agency in a wrong decision. If there is a term forceful enough to be a rude word in this context, and the relevant act was consensual, the abrasive word should refer to the parents and not the child. And now that we’ve mostly retired the use of words like “adulterer” and “fornicator”, we have an abrasive term for the victim who had no choice in a matter and not those who made the victimhood and the victim. If the worst TMI delivery in the TED talk was that the psychiatrist was an illegitimate child, one could have answered, “Well, Christ was also born from a scandalous pregnancy.” But in fact this is not all the TMI psychiatrist was “sharing.”

Back to the TED talk. Coming out as a bastard was a softening up of the audience for behavior in which the psychiatrist genuinely did have agency. He then came out as a philanderer; he did not use any negative terms, but talked about honesty and authenticity when he opened up to his wife, now his 2nd ex-wife whom he presents as not really harmed, and shared to her, of himself, that he was both married and dating. It was, to adapt a striking phrase from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a confession with total absence of contrition or repentance.

No light bulbs went on above staff members’ heads when patients complained that this was the most autistic version of honesty they had yet seen endorsed by a mental health professional, and explained that you don’t open a coat and say “Here’s all there is to see, whether or not seeing it will help you,” or that you don’t bleed all over a casual acquaintance who asks “How are you?” in passing; as sometimes has to be explained to the autistic patient, it is rarely a shirking of due honesty to withhold a full-strength informational answer in responding to a merely social question.

And perhaps no light bulbs should have gone on over staff heads because the session on honesty had nothing to do with honesty. Staff members were in fact not ignorant of the major concept of “negative politeness” and that right speech usually both conceals and reveals. Ostensible “honesty” was just how an unrelated payload was delivered.

To spell it out, the payload is that whatever sexual practices you find yourself most drawn to pursue, and others pursue, is your real, authentic self, and honesty takes that as a non-negotiable foundation. The lecture was devoid of any clear or even vague reference to any stripe of queers (or whatever they are called this week), and if the speaker’s philarendering tried out dating a guy, he did not disclose this point. But as much as coming out as an illegitimate child paved the way for coming out as a philanderer, accepting his coming out as a philanderer on the terms he presented was masterfully crafted to pave the way to saying the only real payload to that TED talk: “The sexual practices you are most drawn to engage in are your real, authentic self, and authenticity starts with accepting these practices as its foundation,” and if one labors under the delusion that a successful straight marriage is what happens when one man, and one woman, lay the reins on the horse’s neck, one is in a position that has little to no ground to dissent from a position of, “If you allow straight marriage to be authentic, you have to give queers the same right too.”

The entire session ostensibly offered to teach honesty was itself treacherously dishonest.

(Queer advocacy has long since been baked into the societal common ground that psychology deems inoffensive to all religions.)

Conclusion: Beyond solipsism

The goal and lesson of psychology is quite often solipsistic. There are exceptions: positive psychology may cover three versions of the good life, the last and deepest version being the meaningful life, a non-solipsistic life of service to others. (Though this is seldom covered in psychology, service to others gives a real happiness). However, a session on boundaries covers how to establish and maintain our own boundaries, but probably does not cover respecting other boundaries, including when someone draws a boundary when you think it would be so much better not to establish the boundaries. The further you go, the tightest the constriction of solipsistic self-care. The endgame approached by most pillars of counseling psychology is a client with self-contained happiness.

In Orthodoxy, we do one better: “Only God and I exist.”

“Only God and I exist.” What does that mean? In a nutshell, the only standing that ultimately matters is your standing before God. Now the Orthodox Church has various forms of mediated grace, and that mediation may be included. However, the only one you need seek to please is God; if you are pleasing God, it doesn’t matter what people may do, or even the demons. Arrogance has a place; we are summoned to be rightly and properly arrogant of the demons in pleasing God. And trample them.

One major difference between ancient Judaism and its neighbors was that, as God’s people knew, there was only one God, and our problem before him was sin; if one has sinned, the one and only necessary remedy was atonement. The polytheistic neighbors believed in something much less rational, not to mention far less humane, was that one could do things that offended one or more gods, and the solution to this situation was to appease the offended deity, but unfortunately what appeased one deity could offend another. The unfortunate picture was much like the fool’s errand of being on friendly terms with everyone in a bickering junior high.

St. Moses is in fact one who confessed what Orthodox believe as “Only God and I exist.”

Once one has crossed that ground, and found that there is only one God to serve and offer our repentance, we move beyond the junior high of our life circumstances… and find that the one God is in fact the Lord of the Dance and the Orchestrator of all Creation. And this time everything besides onself again becomes real, but not ultimately real. There are billions of people in the world whom we should love, and we should show virtue and politeness to all we meet, but in the end only God has the last word.

Psychology offers a narrower and narrower constriction if you take it a guide to living with others. “Only God and I exist,” by contrast, opens wider and wider and wider, in a solipsism that is vaster than the Heavens that it, also, embraces. It is a solipsism in which you are summoned to dance the Great Dance with your neighbors and all Creation!

If you need psychology and psychiatry, by all means, use them. But remember that only God and you exist!

Much Love,
C.J.S. Hayward

Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Anathematized by the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins (RORB)

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

[Editor’s note: Our first reporter, assigned to investigate directly with the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins, ran away screaming. A more seasoned reporter was able to locate a Church scholar with a strong heresiological and religious studies background, who was willing to speak on the record; the official was available for comment but has requested conditions of anonymity.]

Reporter: So how do I get to the bottom of all this? What on earth is “the Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls?”

Scholar: Fr. Cherubim, like many after him and even those who anathematized him, retained significant Protestant attributes long after being received into the Orthodox Church. The concept of an Article by which the Church stands or falls stems from the Reformation, when Martin Luther rightly or wrongly pressed the entirety of theology as it was then known into a very small nutshell and cut off things that wouldn’t go in. He had a famed three Sola’s: “Sola gratia. Sola fide. Sola Scriptura,” that we are saved only by divine grace, saved only through faith, and accept Scripture alone as authoritative. The “Article by which the Church stands or falls” is that we are saved only by grace. It was, to Luther, the only doctrine that mattered: if you know whether the Church believes in salvation by grace alone, that is really the only question worth asking.

In Fr. Cherubim, called “Dead Cherubim Jones” by those who anathematized him, there are large bits of intact Protestantism that have survived and gotten a brushstroke or two of Orthodox décor. With or without anyone anathematizing anyone, the zealots, written CATOSDDDRORB, owe Fr. Cherubim a tremendous debt. There is no longer an Article by which the Church stands or falls, but now an Article by which the Orthodox Church stands or falls. Where the former was concerned with momentous questions of grace and salvation, this is concerned by how many miles across the universe is.

Reporter: Dead Cherubim Jones?!? How many mile—whaaa? Is there an indictment of ecumenism in all this?

Scholar: Hmm, yes, those types will give you quite an earful about ecumenism, but there is genuinely more going on. Let me take on a couple of housekeeping details before addressing the meat of the matter.

First, CATOSDDDRORB correctly notes that when people spoke of “Blessed Cherubim Jones,” they were making a twisted use of language. For many, many centuries, someone recently deceased in the Lord is referred to as, “Of blessed memory.” When Fr. Cherubim’s posthumous work came out, he is quite straightforwardly called “of blessed memory,” just like many people are referred to as being “of blessed memory” in the years following their demise.

It is an available alternative, and you find this in figures as ancient as St. Irenaeos, that instead of saying, “So-and-so of blessed memory,” things are packed in a bit to refer to that person of “blessed So-and-so.” So shortly after the death of an Alexander Schmemann or Vladimir Lossky, one can be entirely right to refer to “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Vladimir Lossky,” and this is not just for famous people. A recently reposed member of your parish may just as rightly be called “blessed So-and-so,” and other things as well.

Fr. Cherubim’s camp abused this custom to effectively give Fr. Cherubim a seemingly official honorific that sounds like a type of saint. The term sounded more and more official as “blessed” was hardened into a never-dropped “Blessed,” and since this did not satisfy, “Blessed” became “Bl.”

Then when Fr. Cherubim had the temerity to challenge Protestant assumptions in posthumous unearthed texts, the “Canonical True Autonomous Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins” split off from another jurisdiction whose name I don’t remember, and as their first act, anathematized Fr. Cherubim. Their second act was to collectively realized that “Bl.” really only meant “dead,” and that it would be calling a spade to refer to their former pioneer as “Dead Cherubim Jones.” With emphasis on “Dead.”

Reporter: Wow. You’re bending my brain.

Scholar: There’s more; if you need to, take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes. I’ll be here.

Reporter: Ok; thanks. Is there more?

Scholar: Ok. Have you heard Alan Perlis’s quote, “The best book on programming is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s just because it’s the best book on anything for the layman?”

Reporter: Now I have.

Scholar: Precise measurement as we know it didn’t exist. We have a platinum one meter bar under lock and key; we have measuring implements made to the most minute precision we can. Whereas, in the ancient world, under conditions of poverty that you can hardly imagine, having all kinds of measuring tools would be costly on tight purses. So, among other units of measure, they used parts of their own bodies for measurement. If a man straightens out his forearm, the distance from the outside of the elbow to the tip of the finger would be one cubit: a solution that was free, sensible, and practical. It, by the way, remains a brilliant idea today: circumstance permitting, if you want to measure a distance of a certain general neighborhood, if you don’t have a measuring implement handy, you can measure it in cubits, multiply it by some other tool and divide by the length of your body’s cubit. Voilà: approximate measurement in a pinch when you don’t have any artificial measuring-tool.

This may not be a direct observation of the Bible, but literature in the medieval West had creatures who at times appeared to be the size of insects and at others reached adult human stature, and there was a remarkable lack of interest in nailing down an exact size for such wondrous being. The astute viewer may watch some cartoons that take radical changes in size to be perfectly unremarkable, and entirely natural.

Now there are certain translation issues between the Hebrew and the Greek for the Old Testament, possibly stemming from relations between the arm and the leg. The “hand”, in modern Greek, interestingly extends to the elbow, and “daktulos” without further clarification can apply to either fingers and toes. Scientifically speaking, an arm and a leg are the same basic kind of thing; their proportions are different and their uses are different but they are each one of our four limbs.

And what gets really interesting is when you take Protestant fundamentalist efforts to determine the size of the Universe from the Bible.

Reporter: What’s that?

Scholar: According to the Hebrew and the Greek Old Testaments, the CATOSDDDRORB devotees yield a size of 4000 miles for the Hebrew, and 7500 for the Greek, and they decided to do things the Orthodox way and settle with the universe conclusively being 7500 miles in size.

Reporter: Um, uh, ok… does that do any real harm?

Scholar: Maybe, but that’s not really the point. The CATOSDDDRORB eagerness to straighten out scientists’ “backwards understanding of science” has irritated a number of members of the academy.

Reporter: That’s not too bad.

Scholar: There’s worse.

Reporter: Present CATOSDDDRORB members were scandalized when some further manuscripts were put to publication.

First, Fr. Cherubim said everything we said above and more. He said that a “foot” may be a unit of measure, maybe, but a foot of what? Of an insect? A dinosaur? Ezekiel seems to specify an explicitly human cubit. The Old Testament in either Hebrew or Greek seems to trade in “feet” (I will not comment on some ambiguities), but not “foot of man” as such.

Second, this draws on mathematical subtlety, but a distance on earth, straightened out as much as a sphere permits, corresponds to a certain angle of an arc. Distances between places can be a linear measure of how much surface is crossed, or (if they are straight) they can be an angle.

What this means is that distances, if we are dealing cosmologically, are cosmological distances. There are the difference represented by an angle between two rays from the earth’s center. In normal science, scientists are quick to use so-called “scientific notation” where the total size of the universe is a mouthful of 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles wide but you write it as 5.0e+23.

But here’s the interesting thing. Fr. Cherubim was not dogmatic, or at least not dogmatic about the size of the universe.

Reporter: Huh?

Scholar: Of course he was dogmatic about some things; he is dogmatic that this universe in entirety belongs to God, and scarcely less adamant that God could have created the universe at any size he wanted. However, his scholarship on the universe’s size never really nails down dogmatically that the universe is either 4000 or 7500 miles wide, or a number with lots of zeroes. If you are at all careful, you will recognize that he mentions something more devastating to CATOSDDDRORB: the size of the universe does not seem to be a particularly live question, or one that attracted particularly much debate. The Fathers didn’t really make a fuss about it. But he also fails to vindicate the standard model. Not only does he not make known use of scientific notation, but he does not seem to name the numbers that motivated people to create scientific notation in the first place, or for that matter numbers at all. One gets the impression that he envisioned a “middle-sized” universe, incredibly large to the CATOSDDDRORB crowd, ludicrously small to standard science. The gist of his writing is not to help people get the right numeric calculation. It is, here, to draw to people’s attention to how much they don’t know, and gently draw their attention to greater things.

Reporter: What was the reaction to that?

Scholar: In a heartbeat, “Blessed Cherubim Jones” became “Dead Cherubim Jones,” and the new Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins anathematized him. The chief complaint was that he failed to buttress their efforts to take a beloved Protestant ambiance in Biblical exegesis, substitute the Greek for Hebrew Old Testament, and make their calculation of a 7500 mile wide Universe into the Article by which the Church stands or falls.

Reporter: This has been very interesting. Do you have any further reading to recommend?

Scholar: Sure! Here’s my spare copy of Alice in Wonderland!

“‘Blessed’? When Did That Happen?”: A Crash Course in Twisted Logic

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

On Facebook, one Orthodox priest (ROCOR, if I recall) commented in reference “Blessed Seraphim Rose,” “‘Blessed?’ When did that happen?”

I’d like to unravel that a bit. Let me say it’s very simple when that happened. It happened when Fr. Seraphim breathed out his last breath. It’s that simple.

We have an expression today that someone who has passed away in the Lord is said to be “of blessed memory.” That expression has been with us forever. Ecumenical councils like Chalcedon have even used a shortening of the original phrase, “blessed.” So today we might speak of “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Alexander Lossky” as quickly and readily as “blessed Seraphim (Rose).” Or really these other two might be more appropriate, because we usually try to avoid using a monk’s last name.

'Blessed' Seraphim Rose

But the meaning of “blessed” has been hijacked!

There are at least two difference between “Blessed” for Fr. Seraphim compared to any other camp I’ve met:

  1. First, the ‘B’ is capitalized like an expected honorific; Fr. Seraphim seems to never be “blessed.”
  2. Unique in what I have seen, “Blessed” has been abbreviated to “Bl.”

Both of these nitpicks point out to something. More specifically, the word “Blessed” when used of Fr. Seraphim does not work like most adjectives. It is not fluid. It functions as the kind of honorific that would be rude to omit. And all this is strange if the point is to announce to the whole world that Fr. Seraphim has passed away.

In some academic circles this would be called, “misusing a speech act.” For practically everyone else I’ve sampled, the term “blessed” is a gentle ackowledgement of someone’s passing and nothing more.

In the fundamentalist usage, the use of “Blessed” is not, however much used, a shrill insistence to keep on telling the whole world that their leader, Fr. Seraphim, is dead.

Fr. Seraphim’s following is not not even honest, not even to themselves: people warp an obscure term to be able to treat Fr. Seraphim as, to quote one flame, “If he is not a saint, who is?”

And to put things differently, the practice of calling someone of blessed memory, “blessed,” is being used as a sort of ecclesiastical loophole to venerate someone who has not been canonized.

In my earliest treatment of the topic, What Makes Me Uneasy About Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and His Followers:

Let me try to both introduce something new, and tie threads together here. Subjectivism can at its heart be described as breaking communion with reality. This is like breaking communion with the Orthodox Church, but in a way it is more deeply warped. It is breaking communion not only with God, but with the very cars, rocks and trees. I know this passion and it is the passion that has let me live in first world luxury and wish I lived in a castle. It tries to escape the gift God has given. And that passion in another form can say, “If God offers me Heaven, and Heaven requires me to open up and stop grasping Fr. Seraphim right or wrong, I will escape to a Hell that makes no such demand for me to open up to God or His reality.” And it is a red flag of this passion that breaks communion with reality, that the people most devoted to Fr. Seraphim hold on to pieces of fundamentalism with a tightly closed fist. And these Protestant insistences are a red flag, like a plume of smoke: if one sees a plume of smoke coming from a house, a neighbor’s uncomfortable concern is not that a plume of smoke is intolerable, but that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and something destructive may be going on in that house. And when I see subjectivism sweep things under the rug to insist on Fr. Seraphim’s canonization, and fail to open a fist closed on Protestant approaches to Holy Orthodoxy, I am concerned not only that Fr. Seraphim’s colleague may have broken communion with the Orthodox Church to avoid Church discipline, but that Fr. Seraphim’s devotees keep on breaking communion with reality when there is no question of discipline. The plume of smoke is not intolerable in itself, but it may betray fire.

There’s some pretty twisted logic there, and it’s warped in the same way.

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What Makes Me Uneasy About Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and His Followers

The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

I would like to take a Protestant church’s electronic sign for a starting point. The sign, with a portrait of Martin Luther to the right, inviting people to an October 31st “Reformation Day potluck.” When I stopped driving to pick up a few things from ALDI’s, I tweeted:

I passed a church sign advertising a “Reformation Day” potluck.

I guess Orthodox might also confuse Halloween with the Reformation…

Those words, if one steps beyond a tweet, may be taken as a witty jibe not obviously connected with reality. Some people might an ask an obvious question: “What train of thought was behind that jab?” And I’d like to look at that, and answer that real or imagined interlocutor who might wonder.

 The Abolition of Man and The Magician’s Twin

When I first read The Abolition of Man as a student at Calvin College, I was quite enthralled, and in my political science class, I asked, “Do you agree with C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man ab—” and my teacher, a well-respected professor and a consummate communicator, cut me off before I could begin to say which specific point I was inquiring about, and basically said, “Yes and amen to the whole thing!” as as brilliant analysis of what is going on in both modernist and postmodernist projects alike.

C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (available online in a really ugly webpage) is a small and easily enough overlooked book. It is, like Mere Christianity, a book in which a few essays are brought together in succession. In front matter, Lewis says that the (short) nonfiction title of The Abolition of Man and the (long) novel of That Hideous Strength represent two attempts to make the same basic point in two different literary formats. It isn’t as flashy as The Chronicles of Narnia, and perhaps the first two essays are not captivating at the same level of the third. However, let me say without further argument here that the book is profoundly significant.

Let me bring in another partner in the dialogue: The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis, Science, Scientism, and Society. The title may need some explanation to someone who does not know Lewis, but I cannot ever read a book with so big a thesis so brilliantly summarized in so few words. There are allusions to two of his works: The Abolition of Man, which as discussed below calls the early scientist and the contemporary “high noon of magic” to be twins, motivated by science, but science blossomed and magic failed because science worked and magic didn’t. (In other words, a metaphorical Darwinian “survival of the fittest” cause science to ultimately succeed and magic to ultimately fail). In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis has managed to pull off the rather shocking feat of presenting and critiquing the ultimately banal figures of the Renaissance magus and the Nietzchian Übermensch (and its multitude of other incarnations) in a way that is genuinely appropriate in a children’s book. The title of “The Magician’s Twin,” in three words including the word “The”, quotes by implication two major critiques Lewis provided, and one could almost say that the rest, as some mathematicians would say, “is left as an exercise for the reader.”

The book has flaws, some of them noteworthy, in particular letting Discovery Institute opinions about what Lewis would say trump what in fact he clearly did say. I detected, if I recall correctly, collisions with bits of Mere Christianity. And the most driving motivation is to compellingly argue Intelligent Design.  However, I’m not interested in engaging origins questions now (you can read my muddled ebook on the topic here).

What does interest me is what The Magician’s Twin pulls from The Abolition of Man’s side of the family. On that point I quote Lewis’s last essay at length:

Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao [the basic wisdom of mankind, for which Lewis mentions other equally acceptable names such as “first principles” or “first platitudes”] are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come.

I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles ‘shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to ‘use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.’ The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician. In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have-been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration — that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing. Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities.

I’m drawing a blank for anything I’ve seen in a life’s acquaintance with the sciences to see how I have ever met this postulate as true.

In my lifetime I have seen a shift in the most prestigious of sciences, physics (only a mathematician would be insulted to be compared with a physicist), shift from an empirical science to a fashionable superstring theory in which physics abdicates from the ancient scientific discipline of refining hypotheses, theories, and laws in light of experiments meant to test them in a feedback loop. With it, the discipline of physics abdicates from all fully justified claim to be science. And this is specifically physics we are talking about: hence the boilerplate Physics Envy Declaration, where practitioners of one’s own academic discipline are declared to be scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-“hard-sciences”-like-physics.

I do not say that a solution could not come from science; I do say that I understand what are called the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines after people started grinding a certain very heavy political axe, I’ve had some pretty impressive achievements, and C.S. Lewis simply did not understand the science of his time too far above the level of an educated non-scientist: probably the biggest two clues that give away The Dark Tower as the work of another hand are that the author ineptly portrays portraiture gone mad in a world where portraiture would never have come to exist, and that the manuscript is hard science fiction at a level far beyond even Lewis’s science fiction. Lewis may have written the first science fiction title in which aliens are honorable, noble beings instead of vicious monsters, but The Dark Tower was written by someone who knew the hard sciences and hard science fiction much more than Lewis and humanities and literature much less. (The runner-up clue is anachronous placement of Ransom that I cannot reconcile with the chronological development of that character at any point in the Space Trilogy.)

However, that is just a distraction.

A third shoe to drop

There are three shoes to drop; one prominent archetype of modern science’s first centuries has been hidden.

Besides the figure of the Renaisssance Magus and the Founding Scientist is the intertwined figure of the Reformer.

Now I would like to mention three reasons why Lewis might have most likely thought of it and not discussed it.

First of all, people who write an academic or scholarly book usually try to hold on to a tightly focused thesis. A scholar does not ordinarily have the faintest wish to write a 1000-volume encyclopedia about everything. This may represent a shift in academic humanism since the Renaissance and Early Modern times, but Lewis has written a small, focused, and readable book. I don’t see how to charitably criticize Lewis on the grounds that he didn’t write up a brainstorm of every possible tangent; he has written a short book that was probably aiming to tax the reader’s attention as little as he could. Authors like Lewis might agree with a maxim that software developers quote: “The design is complete, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

Second of all, it would cut against the grain of the Tao as discussed (the reader who so prefers is welcomed to use alternate phrasing like “first platitudes”). His appendix of quotations illustrating the Tao is relatively long and quotes Ancient Egyptian, Old Norse, Babylonian, Ancient Jewish, Hindu, Ancient Chinese, Roman, English, Ancient Christian, Native American, Greek, Australian Aborigines, and Anglo-Saxon, and this is integrated with the entire thrust of the book. If I were to attempt such a work as Lewis did, it would not be a particularly obvious time to try to make a sharp critique specifically about one tradition.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, C.S. Lewis is a founder of ecumenism as we know it today, and with pacifism / just war as one exception that comes to mind, he tried both to preach and to remain within “mere Christianity”, and it is not especially of interest to me that he was Protestant (and seemed to lean more Romeward to the end of his life). C.S. Lewis was one of the architects of ecumenism as we know it (ecumenism being anathematized heresy to the Orthodox Church as of 1987), but his own personal practice was stricter than stating one’s opinions as opinions and just not sledgehammering anyone who disagrees. There is a gaping hole for the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary in the Chronicles of Narnia; Aslan appears from the Emperor Beyond the Sea, but without any hint of relation to any mother that I can discern. This gaping hole may be well enough covered so that Christian readers don’t notice, but once it’s pointed out it’s a bit painful to think about.

For the first and second reasons, there would be reason enough not to criticize Reformers in that specific book. However, this is the reason I believe C.S. Lewis did not address the third triplet of the Renaissance Magus, the Founder of Science, and the Reformer. Lewis’s words here apply in full force to the Reformer: “It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour.

You have to really dig into some of the history to realize how intertwined the Reformation was with the occult. Lewis says, for one among many examples, “In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined.” Some have said that what is now called Lutheranism should be called Melancthonism, because as has happened many times in history, a charismatic teacher with striking influence opens a door, and then an important follower works certain things out and systematizes the collection. In Melancthon the characters of Reformer, Scientist, and Astrologer are combined. Now I would like to address one distraction: some people, including Lewis (The Discarded Image), draw a sharp distinction between astrology in the middle ages and the emptied-out version we have today. He says that our lumping astrology in with the occult would have surprised practitioners of either: Renaissance magic tasserted human power while astrology asserted human impotence. The Magician’s Twin interestingly suggests that astrology as discussed by C.S. Lewis is not a remnant of magic but as a precursor to present-day deterministic science. And there is an important distinction for those who know about astrology in relation to Melancthon. Medieval astrology was a comprehensive theory, including cosmology and psychology, where “judicial astrology”, meaning to use astrology for fortune-telling, was relatively minor. But astrology for fortune-telling was far more important to Melanchthon. And if there was quite a lot of fortune-telling on Melanchthon’s resume, there was much more clamor for what was then called natural philosophy and became what we now know as >e,?science.

Another troubling weed in the water has to do with Reformation history, not specifically because it is an issue with the Reformation, but because of a trap historians fall into. Alisdair McGrath’s Reformation Theology: An Introduction treats how many features common in Protestantism today came to arise, but this kind of thing is a failure in historical scholarship. There were many features present in Reformation phenomena that one rarely encounters in Protestant histories of the Reformation. Luther is studied, but I have not read in any Protestant source his satisfied quotation about going to a bar, drinking beer, and leering at the barmaids. I have not seen anything like the climax of Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, which covers Martin Luther’s rejection of his vow of celibacy being followed by large-scale assault on others’ celibacy (“liberating” innumerable nuns from their monastic communities), Luther’s extended womanizing, and his marriage to a nun as a way to cut back on his womanizing. For that matter, I grew up in the Anabaptist tradition, from which the conservatism of the Amish also came, and heard of historic root in terms of the compilation of martyrdoms in Martyr’s Mirror, without knowing a whisper of the degree to which Anabaptism was the anarchist wing of the Reformation.

Questions like “Where did Luther’s Sola Scriptura come from?”, or “Where did the Calvinist tradition’s acronym TULIP for ‘Total Depravity’, ‘Unconditional Election’, ‘Limited Atonement’, ‘Irresistable Grace’, and the ‘Perseverance of the Saints?’ come from?” are legitimate historical questions. However, questions like these only ask about matters that have rightly or wrongly survived the winnowing of history, and they tend to favor a twin that survived and flourished over a twin that withered and died. This means that the chaos associated with the founders of Anabaptism do not linger with how truly chaotic the community was at first, and in general Protestant accounts of the Reformation fail to report the degree to which the Reformation project was connected to a Renaissance that was profoundly occultic.

A big picture view from before I knew certain things

In AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking among Skeptics, one of the first real works I wrote as an Orthodox Christian, I try to better orient the reader to the basic terrain:

We miss how the occult turn taken by some of Western culture in the Renaissance and early modern period established lines of development that remain foundational to science today. Many chasms exist between the mediaeval perspective and our own, and there is good reason to place the decisive break between the mediaeval way of life and the Renaissance/early modern occult development, not placing mediaeval times and magic together with an exceptionalism for our science. I suggest that our main differences with the occult project are disagreements as to means, not ends—and that distinguishes the post-mediaeval West from the mediaevals. If so, there is a kinship between the occult project and our own time: we provide a variant answer to the same question as the Renaissance magus, whilst patristic and mediaeval Christians were exploring another question altogether. The occult vision has fragmented, with its dominion over the natural world becoming scientific technology, its vision for a better world becoming political ideology, and its spiritual practices becoming a private fantasy.

One way to look at historical data in a way that shows the kind of sensitivity I’m interested in, is explored by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation (1992); she doesn’t dwell on the occult as such, but she perceptively argues that science is far more continuous with religion than its self-understanding would suggest. Her approach pays a certain kind of attention to things which science leads us to ignore. She looks at ways science is doing far more than falsifying hypotheses, and in so doing observes some things which are important. I hope to develop a similar argument in a different direction, arguing that science is far more continuous with the occult than its self-understanding would suggest. This thesis is intended neither to be a correction nor a refinement of her position, but development of a parallel line of enquiry.

It is as if a great island, called Magic, began to drift away from the cultural mainland. It had plans for what the mainland should be converted into, but had no wish to be associated with the mainland. As time passed, the island fragmented into smaller islands, and on all of these new islands the features hardened and became more sharply defined. One of the islands is named Ideology. The one we are interested in is Science, which is not interchangeable with the original Magic, but is even less independent: in some ways Science differs from Magic by being more like Magic than Magic itself. Science is further from the mainland than Magic was, even if its influence on the mainland is if anything greater than what Magic once held. I am interested in a scientific endeavour, and in particular a basic relationship behind scientific enquiry, which are to a substantial degree continuous with a magical endeavour and a basic relationship behind magic. These are foundationally important, and even if it is not yet clear what they may mean, I will try to substantiate these as the thesis develops. I propose the idea of Magic breaking off from a societal mainland, and sharpening and hardening into Science, as more helpful than the idea of science and magic as opposites.

There is in fact historical precedent for such a phenomenon. I suggest that a parallel with Eucharistic doctrine might illuminate the interrelationship between Orthodoxy, Renaissance and early modern magic, and science (including artificial intelligence). When Aquinas made the Christian-Aristotelian synthesis, he changed the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist had previously been understood on Orthodox terms that used a Platonic conception of bread and wine participating in the body and blood of Christ, so that bread remained bread whilst becoming the body of Christ. One substance had two natures. Aristotelian philosophy had little room for one substance which had two natures, so one thing cannot simultaneously be bread and the body of Christ. When Aquinas subsumed real presence doctrine under an Aristotelian framework, he managed a delicate balancing act, in which bread ceased to be bread when it became the body of Christ, and it was a miracle that the accidents of bread held together after the substance had changed. I suggest that when Zwingli expunged real presence doctrine completely, he was not abolishing the Aristotelian impulse, but carrying it to its proper end. In like fashion, the scientific movement is not a repudiation of the magical impulse, but a development of it according to its own inner logic. It expunges the supernatural as Zwingli expunged the real presence, because that is where one gravitates once the journey has begun. What Aquinas and the Renaissance magus had was composed of things that did not fit together. As I will explore below under the heading ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic,’ the Renaissance magus ceased relating to society as to one’s mother and began treating it as raw material; this foundational change to a depersonalised relationship would later secularise the occult and transform it into science. The parallel between medieval Christianity/magic/science and Orthodoxy/Aquinas/Zwingli seems to be fertile: real presence doctrine can be placed under an Aristotelian framework, and a sense of the supernatural can be held by someone who is stepping out of a personal kind of relationship, but in both cases it doesn’t sit well, and after two or so centuries people finished the job by subtracting the supernatural.

What does the towering figure of the Reformer owe to the towering figure of the Renaissance Magus?

However little the connection may be underscored today, mere historical closeness would place a heavy burden of proof on the scholar who would deny that the Reformation owes an incalculable debt to the Renaissance that it succeeded. Protestant figures like Francis Schaeffer may be sharply critical of the Renaissance, but I’ve never seen them explain what the Reformation directly inherited.

The concept Sola Scriptura (that the Bible alone is God’s supreme revelation and no tradition outside the Bible is authoritative) is poured out from the heart of the Reformation cry, “Ad fontes!” (that we should go to classical sources alone and straighten out things from there). The term “Renaissance” / “Renascence” means, by mediation of two different languages, “Rebirth”, and more specifically a rebirth going back to original classic sources and building on them directly rather than by mediation of centuries. Luther owes a debt here even if he pushed past the Latin Bible to the Greek New Testament, and again past the revelation in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament (the patristic Old Testament of choice) to the original Hebrew, dropping quite a few books of the Old Testament in the process. (He contemplated deeper cuts than that, and called the New Testament epistle of James a “letter of straw,” fit to be burned.)

The collection of texts Luther settled on is markedly different to the Renaissance interest in most or all of the real gems of classical antiquity. However, the approach is largely inherited. And the resemblance goes further.

I wrote above of the Renaissance Magus, one heir of which is the creation of political ideology as such, who stands against the mainland but, in something approaching Messianic fantasy, has designs to tear apart and rebuild the despicable raw material of society into something truly worthwhile and excellent by the power of his great mind. On this point, I can barely distinguish the Reformer from the Renaissance Magus beyond the fact that the Reformer’s raw material of abysmal society was more specifically the Church.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion was something I wrote because of several reasons but triggered, at least, by a museum visit which was presented as an Enlightenment exhibit, and which showed a great many ancient, classical artifacts. After some point I realized that the exhibit as a whole was an exhibit on the Enlightenment specifically in the currents that spawned the still-living tradition of museums, and the neo-classicism which is also associated that century. I don’t remember what exact examples I settled on, and the article was one where examples could be swapped in or out. Possible examples include the Renaissance, the Reformation, Enlightenment neo-classicism, various shades of postmodernism, neo-paganism, the unending Protestant cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church, unending works on trying to make political ideologies that will transform one’s society to be more perfect, and (mumble) others; I wrote sharply, “Orthodoxy is pagan. Neo-paganism isn’t,” in The Sign of the Grail, my point being that if you want the grandeur of much of any original paganism (and paganism can have grandeur), you will do well to simply skip past the distraction and the mad free-for-all covered in even pro-paganism books like Drawing Down the Moon, and join the Orthodox Church, submitting to its discipline.

The Renaissance, the founding of modern science, and the Reformation have mushy, porous borders. This isn’t how we conceptualize things today, but then you could have pretty much been involved one, or any two, or all three.

The Renaissance Magus, the Founder of Science, and the Reformer are triplets!

Halloween: The Second U.S. National Holiday: Least Successful Christianization Ever!

There has been some background noise about Christianity incorporating various pagan customs and transforming them, often spoken so that the original and merely pagan aspect of the custom appears much more enticing than anything else. My suspicion is that this has happened many times, although most of the such connections I’ve heard, even from an Orthodox priest, amount to urban legend.

For example, one encyclopedia or reference material that I read when I was in gradeschool talked about how, in the late Roman Empire, people would celebrate on December 21st or 22nd, and remarked briefly that Christians could be identified by the fact that they didn’t bear swords. The Roman celebration was an annual celebration, held on the solstice, and Christians didn’t exactly observe the pagan holiday but timed their own celebration of the Nativity of Christ so as to be celebrated. And along the centuries, with the frequent corruptions that occurred with ancient timekeeping, the Nativity got moved just a few days to the 25th. However, ever recent vaguely scholarly treatment I have read have said that the original date of the Nativity was determined by independent factors. There was a religious belief stating that prophets die on an anniversary of their conception or birth, and the determination that placed the Nativity on December 25th was a spillover calculation to a date deemed more central, the Annunciation as the date when Christ was conceived, set as March 25th.

I do not say that all claims of Christianization of pagan custom are bogus; probably innumerable details of Orthodoxy are some way or other connected with paganism. However, such claims appearing in the usual rumor format, much like rumor science, rarely check out.

However, Halloween is a bit of anomaly.

Of all the attempts to Christianize a pagan custom, Halloween is the most abject failure. In one sense the practice of Christmas, with or without a date derived from a pagan festival, does not seem harmed by it. The Christmas tree may or may not be in continuity with pre-Christian pagan customs; but in either case the affirmative or negative answer does not matter that much. It was also more specifically a custom that came from the heterodox West, and while Orthodox Christians might object to that or at least not see the need, I am not interested in lodging a complaint against the custom. Numerous first-world Christians have complained about a commercialization of Christmas that does in fact does matter and poisons the Christmas celebration: C.S. Lewis, one might mention here, sounds off with quite a bit of success. My own college-day comment in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary went:

Christmasn. A yearly holiday celebrating the coming of the chief Deity of Western civilization: Mammon.

And commercial poisoning of the Christmas spirit was also core to my The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. One might join many others and speak, instead of a Christianization of a pagan custom, of the commercialization of a Christian custom.

However, Halloween, or various archaic spellings and names that are commonly dug up, has kept its original character after a thousand years or so, and the biggest real dent in its character is that you don’t need to dress up as something dead or occult (or both); the practice exists of dressing up for Halloween as something that is not gruesome. Celebrities and characters from treasured TV shows and movies are pretty much mainstream costumes. But it is a minority, and the Christmas-level escalating displays in people’s front yards are, at least in my neck of the woods, all gruesome.

Martin Luther is in fact believed by many to have published his 95 theses (or at least made another significant move) on October 31, 1517, and people have been digging it up perhaps more than ever, this year marking a 500th anniversary. I only heard of “Reformation Day” for the first time as a junior in college, and the wonderful professor mentioned above asked me, “What do you think of celebrating Reformation Day?” and probably expecting something pungent. I answered, “I think celebrating one ghastly event per day is enough!”

Christianization attempts notwithstanding, Halloween seems to be growing and growing by the year!

Alchemy no longer needs to come out of the closet

Today the occult is in ascendancy and alchemy is coming out of the closet, or rather has been out of the closet from some time and still continuing to move away from it. Now there have been occult-heavy times before; besides the three triplets of Renaissance Magus, Founder of Science, and Reformer several centuries back, the Victorian era was at once the era of Romanticism and Logical Positivism, and at once an era with very strictly observe modesty and of a spiritualism that posited a spiritual realm of “Summer-land” where gauzy clothing could quickly be whisked away. Alchemy is now said to be more or less what modern science arose out of, and people are no longer surprised to hear that Newton’s founding of the first real physics that is part of the physics curriculum was given a small fraction of the time he devoted to pursuing alchemy. I haven’t yet gotten all the way through Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances: A History of Idolatry as it reads to me as choking antithesis to an Orthodox theology that is pregnant with icon. However, one of the steps along the way I did read was one talking about the heart, and, characteristic of many things in vogue today, he presents one figure as first introducing a mechanistic understanding of the heart as a pump that drives blood through the system of vessels: that much is retained at far greater detail in modern science, but in that liminal figure, such as alchemists love, the heart was still doing major alchemical jobs even if his successors may have abandoned them.

Today there are some people who have made some sharp apologetic responses. Books endorsed on Oprah may treat alchemy as supreme personal elevation. However, conservative authors acknowlege some points while condemning others as barren. It is perhaps true that alchemy represents a tradition intended to transform the practitioner spiritually. But alchemy is false in that spiritual transformation is approached through master of technique and “sympathetic magic” as Bible scholars use the term. We do not need a technique to transform us spiritually. We may need repentancefaithspiritual discipline that is neither more nor less than a cooperation with God, and communion, and in the Holy Mysteries we have a transformation that leaves gold in the dust. And alchemy is in the end  positively anemic when it stands next to full-blooded religion. And really, what person in any right mind would crawl on broken glass to create gold when Someone will give you the Providence of the true Dance and make the divine Life pulse through your blood?

A while ago, I wrote a poem, How Shall I Tell an Alchemist? which is I think where I’ll choose to end this section:

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.

How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
Deified.

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

Most of us are quite clueless, and we are just as much clueless as people in the so-called “hard science” like physics!

If one begins to study not exactly physics itself, but the people who best contributed to 20th century physics, the first and most popular name will likely be Albert Einstein. However, if one extends the list of names, Nobel Prize laureate Richard P. Feynman will come up pretty quickly. He provided a series of lectures now known as the Feynman lectures, which are widely held as some of the most exemplary communication in the sciences around. He also gave a graduation lecture called “Cargo Cult Science” in which he demonstrates a lack of understanding of history. Its opening sentences read,

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency.  (Another crazy idea of the Middle Ages is these hats we have on today—which is too loose in my case.)  Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it.  This method became organized, of course, into science.  And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age.

Sorry. No. This gets an F. Parts are technically true, but this gets an F. It is not clear to me that it even reaches the dignity of cargo cult history. (On Feynman’s account, cargo cults usually managed to make something look like real airports.) If you don’t understand history, but leap centuries in a single bound, don’t presume to summarize the whole of it in a short paragraph. Feynman’s attempt to summarize as much of the sciences as possible in a single sentence is impressively well-done. This is not.

I wish to make use of Darwin, and what I will call “Paleo-Darwinism”, which I would distinguish from any version of Darwinism and evolution which is live in the academy.

What is called “Darwinism” or “evolution” has changed markedly from anything I can meaningfully connect with the theory Darwin articulated in The Origin of Species.

Some of the terms remain the same, and a few terms like “natural selection” even keep their maiden names. However, Darwin’s theory was genuinely a theory of evolution, meaning that life forms slowly evolve, and we should expect a fossil record that shows numerous steps of gradual transitions. There are multiple live variations of evolution in biology departments in mainstream academics, and I don’t know all the variations. However, my understanding is that part of the common ground between competing variations is that the fossil record is taken at face value and while there is common ancestry of a form, all the evidence we have is that there long periods of extreme stability with surprisingly little change worthy of the name, which are suddenly and miraculously interrupted by the appearance of new forms of life without preserved record of intermediate forms.

For this discussion I will be closer to Darwin’s theory in the original, and I wish to explicitly note that I am not intending, or pretending, to represent any theory or concept that is live in the biological sciences. By “Evolution” I mean Paleo-Evolution, an ongoing acquirement of gradual changes. And I would furthermore want to note the distinction between natural selection, and artificial selection.

Artificial selection, meaning breeding, was presumably a readily available concept to the 19th century mind. It was, or at least should be, a readily available concept thousands of years older than the dawn of modern science. Farmers had controlled mating within a gene pool to increase certain traits and diminish others. To an economy that was at least a little closer to farming, breeding was the sort of concept well enough available that someone might use it as a basis for an analogy or metaphor.

It appears that Darwin did just that. He introduced a concept of natural selection, something that might seem odd at first but was intelligible. “Natural selection” meant that there was something like breeding going on even in the absence of a breeder. Instead of farmers breeding (I think the term ecosystem may be anachronism to place in Darwin’s day and it apparently does not appear in his writing, but the term fits in Paleo-Darwinism as well as in newer forms like a glove), natural selection is a mechanism by which the natural environment will let organisms that survive continue to propagate, and organisms that can’t survive won’t propagate either. There is a marked difference between animals that are prey animals and those that aren’t. Animals that contend with predators tend to have sharp senses to notice predators, the ability to flee predators, and the ability to put up a fight. None of these traits is absolutely essential, but mice that do not evade cats cease to exist. Dodos in Darwin’s day, or field chickens in the 19th century U.S., did not face predators and at least the dodos were quickly hunted to extinction when humans discovered the place.

I wish to keep this distinction between two different methods and selections in saying that artificial selection is not the only selection and the scientific method is not the only selection either.

What else is there? Before a Paleo diet stopped some really nasty symptoms, I read Nourishing Traditions. That book documents, in scientific terms, ways and patterns of eating that are beneficial, even though those dishes appeared well before we had enough scientific understanding to dissect the benefits. Buttered asparagus, for instance, provides a nutritionally beneficial that is greater than the nutritional value of its parts. And there are many things; the author, celebrating fermentation, says that if you have a Ruben, you are eating five fermented foods.

The point I would make about (here) diet is that independently of scientific method, societies that had choices about what to eat tended by something like natural selection to optimize foods within their leeway that were beneficial.

Science has a very valuable way to select theories and laws that is really impressive. However, it is not the only winnowing fork available, and the other winnowing fork, analogous to natural selection, is live and powerful. And, though this is not really a fair comparison, a diet that has been passed down for generations in a society is almost certainly better than the industrial diet that is causing damage to people worldwide who can’t afford their traditional cuisine.

There exist some foods which were scientifically engineered to benefit the eater. During World War II, experiments were run on volunteers to know what kind of foods would bring the best benefits and best chance of survival to liberated, starving concentration camp prisoners. Right now even my local government has gotten a clue that breast milk is vastly better for babies than artificial formula, but people have still engineered a pretty impressive consolation prize in baby formulas meant to be as nourishing as possible (even if they still can’t confer the immune benefits conferred by mother’s milk). However, 99% of engineered foods are primarily intended to make a commercially profitable product. Concern for the actual health of the person eating the food is an afterthought (if even that).

Withered like Merlin—and, in a mirror, withered like me!

I would like to quote That Hideous Strength, which again was an attempt at a novel that in fictional format would explore the same terrain explored in the three essays of the nonfiction The Abolition of Man; it is among the book’s most haunting passages to me.

“…But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were—well, Neutrals, knocking about.”

“Neutrals?”

“I don’t mean, of course, that anything can be a real neutral. A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation to us.”

“You mean eldils—angels?”

“Well, the word angel rather begs the question. Even the Oyéresu aren’t exactly angels in the same sense as our guardian angels are. Technically they are Intelligences. The point is that while it may be true at the end of the world to describe every eldil either as an angel or a devil, and may even be true now, it was much less true in Merlin’s time. There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak. They weren’t ministering spirits sent to help fallen humanity; but neither were they enemies preying upon us. Even in St. Paul one gets glimpses of a population that won’t exactly fit into our two columns of angels and devils. And if you go back further . . . all the gods, elves, dwarves, water-people, fatelongaevi. You and I know too much to think they are illusions.”

“You think there are things like that?”

“I think there were. I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point. Not all rational beings perhaps. Some would be mere wills inherent in matter, hardly conscious. More like animals. Others—but I don’t really know. At any rate, that is the sort of situation in which one got a man like Merlin.”

“It was rather horrible. I mean even in Merlin’s time (he came at the extreme tail end of it) though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us. They sort of withered the man who dealt with them. Not on purpose. They couldn’t help doing it. Merlinus is withered. He’s quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of him. That quietness of his is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It’s the result of having his mind open to something that broadens the environment just a bit too much. Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Cecil,” said Mrs. Dimble. “Do you feel quite comfortable about the Director’s using a man like this? I mean, doesn’t it look a bit like fighting Belbury with its own weapons?”

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something to be dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their powers by tacking on the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”

I find this passage to speak a great truth, but coming the opposite direction! Let me explain.

I might briefly comment that the virtues that are posited to have pretty much died with Merlin are alive and kicking in Orthodoxy; see “Physics.” The Orthodox Christian is in a very real sense not just in communion with fellow Orthodox Christians alive on earth: to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with Christ, in communion with saints and angels, in communion with Creation from stars to starlings to stoplights, and even in a certain sense in communion with heterodox at a deeper level than the heterodox are in communion with themselves. This is present among devout laity, and it is given a sharper point in monasticism. It may be completely off-limits for a married or monastic Orthodox to set out to be like Merlin, but a monastic in particular who seeks first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness may end up with quite a lot of what this passage sells Merlin on.

Now to the main part: I think the imagery in this passage brings certain truths into sharper contrast if it is rewired as a parable or allegory. I do not believe, nor do I ask you to believe, that there have ever been neutral spirits knocking about, going about on their own business. However, the overall structure and content work quite well with technologies: besides apocalyptic prophecies about submarines and radio being fulfilled in the twentieth century, there is something very deep about the suggestion that technology “sort of withers” the person dealing with it. I think I represent a bit of a rarity in that I have an iPhone, I use it, but I don’t use it all that much when I don’t need it. In particular I rarely use it to kill time, or when I know I should be doing something else. That’s an exception! The overall spiritual description of Merlin’s practices fits our reception of technology very well.

I have a number of titles on Amazon, and I would like to detail what I consider the most significant three things I might leave behind:

  1. The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: This is my flagship title, and also the one I am most pleased with reception.
  2. “The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts: More than any other of my books this book is a critique, and part of its 1.4 star review on Amazon is because Fr. Seraphim’s following seems to find the book extremely upsetting, and so the most helpful review states that the book is largely unintelligible, and casts doubt on how sober I was when I was writing it. I’m a bit more irritated that the title has received at least two five-star reviews that I am aware of, and those reviews universally vanish quickly. (I tried to ask Amazon to restore deleted reviews, but Amazon stated that their policy is that undeleting a censored review constitutes an unacceptable violation of the reviewer’s privacy.)
  3. The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: At the time of this writing, I have one review, and it is kind. However, I’m a bit disappointed in the book’s relative lack of reception. I believe it says something significant, partly because it is not framed in terms of “religion and science”, but “technology and faith”. Right and ascetically-based use of technology would seem to be a very helpful topic, and if I may make a point about Merlin, he appears to have crossed the line where if he drove he could get a drunk driving conviction. We, on the other hand, are three sheets to the wind.

“They sort of withered the man who dealt with them:”
Mathematician and Renaissance Man

I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and that is something to be very humble about. There’s more than just jokes that have been floating around about, “How can you tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”—”He looks at your feet when he talks to you!”

In the troubled course of my troubled relationship with my ex-fiancée, I am not interested in disclosing my ex-fiancée’s faults. I am, however, interested in disclosing my own faults in very general terms. The root cause in most cases came from acting out of an overly mathematical mind, very frequently approaching things as basically a math problem to solve and relating to her almost exclusively with my head rather than my heart, and really, in the end, not relating to her as properly human (and, by the same stroke, not relating to myself as properly human either).

I do not say that the relationship would have succeeded if I had avoided this fault and the blunders that came up downwind of it. I am also not interested in providing a complete picture. I mention this for one reason: to say that at a certain level, a very mathematical mind is not really good for us!

This is something that is true at a basic level; it is structural and is built into ourselves as persons. Some vices are in easier reach. The Orthodox understanding is that the nous or spiritual eye is the part of us that should guide us both; the dianoia or logic-related understanding has a legitimate place, but the relation between the nous and the dianoia should ideally be the relationship between the sun and the moon. One Orthodox figure characterized academic types as having a hypertrophied or excessive, out-of-check logic-handling dianoia, and a darkened nous. I plead guilty on both counts, at least in my mathematical formation.

I might also recall a brief point from Everyday Saints, a book that has managed to get a pretty long book hold waitlist at some libraries. A Soviet government agent commented, rather squeamishly, that highly educated prisoners were the first to crack under torture.

Prayerful manual labor is considered normative in Orthodox monasticism, and in a monastery, the novices who are asked to do extensive manual labor are being given a first choice offering. The fact that abbots do less labor than most other monks is not a privilege of authority. Rather, it is a deprivation. The reduced amount of manual labor is a concession to necessities, and many abbots would exchange their responsibilities with those of a novice in a heartbeat.

(I have been told, “Bishops wish they were novices!”)

Along more recent lines, I have been called a Renaissance man, or less often a genius. I felt a warm glow in being called a Renaissance man; I took the term as a minor social compliment recognizing broad-ranging interests and achievements, and not really much more than that, or much more important. Then I pulled up the Wikipedia article for “polymath,” read the section on Renaissance men, and my blood ran cold.

The article does not even pretend to list detail of what was expected of Renaissance men, but as I ran down the list of distinctions, I realized that I had pretty much every single achievement on the list, and education, and a good deal more. And what came to me was, “I’m coming down on the side of Barlaam and not St. Gregory Palamas!” (For non-Orthodox readers, Barlaam and St. Gregory were disputants in a controversy where Barlaam said that Orthodox monks chiefly needed lots of academic learning and what would today be called the liberal arts ideal, and St. Gregory said that monks chiefly need the unceasing prayer usually called “prayer of the heart.”)

There was one executive who said, “I climbed to the top of the corporate ladder only to find that it was leaning against the wrong building,” and that’s pretty much where I found myself.

I have had less of a mathematical mind by the year, and I am hoping through monasticism to let go of things other than thoroughly seeking God, and let go of my Renaissance man chassis. My hope in monasticism is to try and follow the same path St. Gregory Palamas trod, and spend what time I have remaining in repentance (better late than never).

I now have a silence somewhat like the silence of a gutted building.

I seek the silence of hesychasm.

One wise priest said again and again, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.

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“Belabored Inclusive Language” and “Naturally Inclusive Language”

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A long-lost letter to the editor

There was a letter to the editor I wrote long ago and have tried and failed to find. It did not seem to come up in a search on the magazine that printed it; but I do not fault the magazine or its website because I also could not find it in my Gmail archives. My Gmail account is over a decade old, but the core conversation was a couple of years before I opened my Gmail account.

What I essentially said was as follows:

The common terminology of “inclusive language” and “exclusive language” is loaded language and harsh, exclusive language… It would be better to speak of “belabored inclusive language” and “naturally inclusive language.”

Confidence and timidity

When I was on one consulting gig at a prestigious client, political correctness in language was present but not enforced. What I mean by that is this: I heard both the old style and the new style of language. I never heard someone get even a little upset at someone using “he” in an inclusive way, but there was a good chunk of my colleagues who used naturally inclusive language (N.B. including some immigrants), and a good chunk of my colleagues who used belabored inclusive language).

When people spoke in naturally inclusive language, without exception it was bold, confident, assured. And they did not seem to be thinking about being confident; they seemed to be quite undistracted in making whatever point they wanted to make.

When men at very least spoke (I don’t clearly remember a woman speaking in anything but naturally inclusive language, although that was probably included), there was a timidity and a bad kind of self-consciousness. Even a divided attention. A man saying “they” for a single person of unspecified sex always had a question on his face of “Is this un-sexist enough?” Even men who were current with the belabored inclusive language of political correctness as it existed then had a perennial distracted question on their faces of, “Have I done enough?” with significant doubt as to any definite and positive answer.

This kind of divided mind is not especially good for business communication, or non-business communication for that matter.

Feminists don’t even use inclusive language

Feminism is a bazaar not a cathedral, and one can find a mainstream feminist classic saying that “all the central terms [in feminism] are up for grabs” (and, presumably, one could also find numerous disagreements to those words). Even the term “feminism” may appear dated when this work is new; as of classes a decade ago feminism was working on a far-reaching rebranding as “gender studies”, and I tolerate both that this work’s treatment of feminism will likely appear dated in five or ten years, and for that matter might have appeared dated to feminist readers ten years ago. However, as no form of feminism that has emerged that I am aware of has yet been stable, I am not particularly interested in endlessly updating a minor work to keep up with fashions.

My point is this. I have read feminists at length. I have spoken with people and met its live form. I have taken a graduate course in feminist theology. One of my advisors was big enough in egalitarian circles to be a plenary speaker at Christians for “Biblical” Equality. And I have yet to read a feminist author use inclusive language. Ever.

How?

What do I mean by that?

The essential feminist bailiwick, the area of primary feminist concern, is members of the human species and the human race, Homo sapiens, who are female, for the entirety of life, from whenever life is considered to begin, to whenever life is considered to end.

And the universal feminist-used term for a member of this bailiwick is not “human female” or “female human.” It is “woman.”

Do you see something odd?

Without imposing nearly so great a reform program to create a politically correct English, we have a mainstream English term that begins and ends neatly where the bailiwick begins and ends, and a pronoun that works perfectly: “she.” This amounts to a much smaller shift in language than migrating from “man-hours” to “work-hours”, “waiter” or “waitress” to “server” and “waitstaff”, and selling “five-seat licenses,” a term which engenders considerable confusion about what part of the body most makes us human. By contrast, even cattle have historically been given enough dignity to be counted by the head. “Head” may be taken to have an undesired second meaning now, but couldn’t we at least be counted by the spine?

But every single feminist author I’ve read is content to refer to the entire bailiwick as “women.”

“Woman,” age-wise, is not inclusive language. It refers to adults alone, according to the shallow view of communication, and if “man” excludes “woman”, “woman” excludes “female children.”

It happens that feminist authors, at least for a present discussion, will talk about human females who are seniors and cope with issues about aging, or girls in math classes (classes which seem to always being given an ‘F’). And if a feminist author is writing about minors alone, she may refer to the human females in question as “girls.” But I have yet to read a feminist source of any decade use any other term at all for any member of the whole bailiwick. The sense is that when you write “woman,” female minors are spoken for. There is no felt need to specify “women and girls” (or, to perhaps pursue a familiar logic, “girls and women”) when the group of females in question is mixed and includes minors. Nor, as far as principles and general approach, is there any concept that a good solution for adult women might be misguided if applied to minors. There might be storms of protest at some strain of literature that says, “A man should watch his step carefully all the days of his life,” and the required, and almost hysterical, allegation placed that the author in question had not conceived of any advice that considers women, and this hysterical enough allegation may be accompanied by ostensible clarification that the text should only be quoted as “A man [Sic] should watch his [Sic] step carefully all the days of his [Sic] life.” But there is no uproar, there is not a whisper of dissent, when discussions of “women” are taken to obviously fully include girls unless excluded by context such as discussion of distinctively senior needs.

If you look at feminist use of the term “woman”, with blindingly obvious concern for all human females, you have a remarkably good working model for how a good, naturally inclusive language might function.

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Book Review: A New Face on an Old Ecumenism (The Orthodox Dilemma Second Edition : Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity)

I write with some sadness as provided a courtesy review copy, and as having my consent to include a quote. (Normally, when another author asks my permission to include a quote, I don’t judge on basis of concluding agreement or disagreement; I am thankful for the publicity, and in particular thankful for the other author’s good manners, especially in a case like this where the quote in question falls well within limits of fair use.)

I wanted to read the book through, since beside the author’s generosity, I’d want to be very sure before questioning a book that gets consistent five star reviews, but at least in the first quarter or so of the text I have yet to find any intimation that there is any legitimate anathema, or legitimate barrier to intercommunion, between the Orthodox Churches as presented for the sake of the text: Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Believer, various autonomous churches, and so on. And no distinction is made between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church, besides a basic position that only confusion and perhaps past sins or historical accident that stops the Russian Orthodox Church from recognizing the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church as equal jurisdictions that should be in full communion without any of the Orthodox Church’s proper reconciliation of heretics and schismatics.

The author mentions a number of unfortunate experiences; I’ve had some unfortunate experiences, too. I, to, have been educated at a Roman Catholic university, or at least an academic environment that continued to draw inspiration from its Jesuit heritage. And there at least seems to be one difference between East and West; I had one Professor in formal communion with Rome say that she believed in Tradition, but she explicitly placed Arius alongside St. Athanasius as equal and proper representatives of Tradition. While the Roman communion has its own fractured communities of traditionalists, the live threat in Rome is their Left Coast which involves churches of Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates, and at times can be difficult to distinguish from New Age; it is my experience that when Romans wax eloquent about “the spirit of Vatican II” it is provocative to say “The spirit of Vatican II is in the letter” (Avery Cardinal Dulles, class session), and the best thing to do is run for the hills.

With Orthodoxy it is different. Orthodoxy does have a left, and it has confused Orthodox Christians into believing that contraception is fine as long as you follow a few ground rules. However, the real concern in Orthodoxy is the Orthodox Right Coast, which has Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s quite astonishing following (check out the one-star reviews!), which are unlike anything else I’ve received as an author. (When someone speaks of “Blessed Seraphim Rose” I’ve had real trouble telling whether the other person is a member of the canonical Orthodox Church.) To clarify regarding Mr. Alexander’s treatment of the matter, I do not lump all the communities he mentions as being under the Right Coast, but only some of them. I have no reason to believe, and this book gives me no reason to believe, that non-Ephesians and non-Chalcedonians are particularly given to legalism, nor Right Coast passions that despise oikonomia and mercy, nor regard themselves as much too Orthodox to be in communion with the canonical Church. The Orthodox Church’s table is piled high, and there has always been room at the table: for True and Autonomous “Orthodox”, for Old Believers (some of whom are already in), for Oriental Orthodox, for Western Christians and for people not Christian even in pretension: there is room for all those who will be reconciled, individually or in groups, as schismatics or as heretics, if only they will be received as full members of the Orthodox Church only, and on the Church’s terms.

With all that stated, let me begin with what I thought would be my point of departure.


There is a Utopia on earth, I have been there or at least within walking distance of this Utopia, and come to think of it, seeing Utopia wasn’t a memorable experience at all.

If you wish to pull up Google Maps, and search for “Utopia, IL”, you will find Utopia pinpointed in a Chicago suburb (Oakbrook Terrace), and Google helpfully shows an uninspired picture of the Jiffy Lube at Utopia. I haven’t had the time to research the matter, but there are on present-day U.S. soil the graveyards of a number of attempts of a Nordic country (if memory corrects me, Sweden), to colonize North America and resurrect timeless, ancient Nordic values. There were some things that were remarkably consistent across attempts. There was the reconstruction effort, and there was the daunting endeavor of actually going to New World soil and making a live colony. However, the actual timeless values the whole enterprise hinged on were highly inconsistent. Varying somewhat by the decade, the overall impression of scholarship that may not have reached beyond a Wikipedia article is that these timeless, pristine values were something like an ink blot test in a proverbial Freudian counseling session (note that I have no idea if inkblot tests are practiced any more). The point of asking a patient what was seen in quintessentially ambiguous “pictures” was understood as informing the psychologist of nothing about the “pictures” and everything about the patient. I had not heard of these Utopian movements, nor known that the house I grew up in was such a short drive from Utopia (if in fact this Utopia was of Nordic origin), when I wrote “Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a Passion” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”, but it would have fit naturally enough. The key downwind effect of the inkblot attempt that, in an attempt to reconstruct past glory, the effect is to sever ties to the recent past and the further-back past as well.

A second case in point, studied in “Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a Passion” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”, has to do with the plain meaning of Scripture in the Protestant Reformation. Now Protestants never invented the idea that Scripture is foundational to the point of being bedrock. Whether in Luther’s Sola Scripture, or Roman discussions of Scripture and Tradition, or Vladyka KALLISTOS writing that Scripture is not separate from Tradition but the greatest thing in Tradition (I don’t know exactly where non-Ephesians or non-Chalcedonians stand but I would be astonished to find either tradition holding Scripture to be anything less than cardinally important), you can’t escape a sense that the Bible is important, except for the lukewarm and the Left Coasts. However, if it is not decisively interpret by a Tradition (whether non-Left-Coast Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, or for that matter Orthodoxy’s Right Coast), seeing for yourself the plain sense of Scripture is the bedrock to there being myriads of Protestant denominations. Even in the Reformation’s better moments, people who were devoted to Christianity as guided by the plain sense of Scripture found time and time again that they could not stay under the same doctrinal house. As a Protestant then (now chrismated Orthodox and received under the rubric of receiving a reconciled heretic, a route I endorse for others as well), my Political Science professor at Calvin, who was Protestant enough, said that “Every man his own Pope” doesn’t work. The Bible may invaluable and it may have layers more to it than the Reformation would have liked, and if I may delicately say so, the Orthodox Church keeps a great more of even the 66 book Protestant canon than the “plain sense” Reformation exegetes will acknowledge in Scripture. But the plain sense of Scripture, denuded of protecting Tradition, is halfway to being an inkblot.

The proof of this, if anything, is in Reformation ecclesiology and the Invisible Church, a doctrine I found myself totally unable to derive from the Bible when I was Protestant (and remain unable as Orthodox to do the same). The Invisible Church is essentially a doctrine that once the Reformation logic’s practical effects work out and there are innumerable schisms (“denomination” being a neutral-sounding euphemism for something the Reformers themselves knew was entirely abhorrent), God placed some sort of invisible duct tape across true Christians regardless of fracture, and that duct-taped, invisible retcon was in fact what had been hitherto understood by the visible Church, an understanding shared by Romans, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, and for that matter by the first Reformers until the claim of “My little fragment is the true Church” claimed by dozens of voices could no longer really be taken seriously.

That set the scene for ecumenism as we now know it. I know relatively little of the history of ecumenism, and I have read one scholarly work suggesting that Protestant missionaries in other lands than their own interacted with each other and realized they were separated without clearly understanding why, but in any case that was the reality that defined a great deal of the contours of the category we now know of ecumenism. Originally, ecumenism did not address Romans, let alone Eastern or Oriental Orthodox; the metaphor of a virtual supercomputer composed of numerous coordinated individual personal computers is obviously of more recent vintage than ecumenism itself, but it is faithful to the nature of ecumenism. It is an alternative to saying, “Being in schism like this is sin,” and bespeaks an ecclesiology that does not condemn the Reformation collection of schisms, or tries to transcend them while keeping them in place. (Note that this explanation leaves out a good deal.) It also might be pointed out, less delicately, that this doctrine is a Tradition which has priority over Scripture and simply trumps its plain sense on at least one point. Perhaps it is not the most interesting such Tradition: but it is one.

I grew up Protestant, and ecumenism was to me like mother’s milk. It was, for that matter, ecumenism that helped lead me to the Orthodox Church (and yes, the Lord does work in mysterious ways). It was bedrock to me that if you cared about Christian unity, ecumenism was the clay you should be shaping. And I encountered the claim, strange to me as it seemed, that Rome was not one more denomination and her claim was in fact something more to being one more division lumped into the duct tape.

But what was stranger was what I encountered as Roman ecumenism years later, having repented of my ecumenism as my priest and sponsor slowly worked with stubborn me over time. At first I assumed that Roman ecumenism was simply Rome saying, “You’re right; I agree” to Protestant ecumenism. But that was not in fact the case. Roman ecumenism really and truly is an ecumenism and an incorporation deriving from Protestant ecclesiology. But it is adapted, if disturbingly superficially. I haven’t heard the term “Invisible Church” in Roman usage, but the basic idea is there are several more-or-less equivalent communions (“particular Churches”, a phrase which seems to change meaning with each Pope, but basically conveying true Church status while being wounded by failure to participate in Roman communions), so that the “Invisible Church” (or whatever they call or refrain from calling it) is not out of Baptists, Mennonites, or Lutherans, but is out of “historic Churches”, meaning not only Rome but Eastern Orthodox, non-Chalcedonians, non-Ephesians, and any other continuing ancient community I’ve missed. These have more or less de facto the status of individual Protestant denominations under the original Protestant ecclesiology, and I remember the flame I got when a Roman priest made an ecumenical overture that he claimed to be “sensitive to Orthodox concerns” (with zero recognition that ecumenism is a sensitive concern to some Orthodox; he used pretty strong language and implied that he was closer to the heart of Orthodoxy than I was). “An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner” had been my reply. Roman ecumenism may have Protestantism somewhere in its sights, but the basic framing is that historic Churches are insiders who should restore communion without reconciliation, on the terms Protestant ecumenism would have it, while inclusion of Protestants may be desirable but they are outsiders to the family of historic Churches.

(I might comment briefly that I do not think it is right to regard Oriental Orthodox communions as being like Protestant denominations. There are a small number of primary non-Eastern Orthodox communions, and in fact some of them like Novatians are treated with some sympathy in canon law. After the original break over a millennium ago, I am not aware of further fractures within the communities then established or having most adherents belong to a splinter. However, I do not accord this status to the Orthodox Right Coast or various groups that want to call themselves Orthodox without submitting to canonical communion.)

Having looked at the original ecumenism as invented by Protestants, and its alien transplantation into Rome, I would now like to look at this book’s transplantation of ecumenism into Oriental Orthodoxy and proposed to Eastern Orthodox to make our own as well. The book’s basic proposition is essentially that all the communities claiming to be Orthodox should restore intercommunion without, as understood by Rome’s historic Churches, a full and proper reconciliation. (And on the “There’s room at the table” theme, I might remind you that the Evangelical Orthodox Church was received into the Orthodox Church as reconciled to become canonical. And I’d love to see other groups join them as well.) The only ecclesiastical body with “Orthodox” in its name that I am aware of that Mr. Alexander does not seek to include in Orthodox intercommunion is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which was formed after one Presbyterian denomination (Politically Correct, USA?) knowingly ordained a candidate who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and my uncle and other pastors split off so they could still be named Presbyterian while considering the deity of Christ to remain absolutely beyond question.. (I answered an Orthodox Presbyterian DMin graduate from an Orthodox seminary in “An Orthodox Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Orthodoxy”, in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”.) The Orthodox Presbyterian claim is to be able to say the Creed without crossing one’s fingers (or at least not translating anything except for the line about the Church), not any sort of claim to be of Eastern provenance. But Mr. Alexander does want to include others who call themselves Orthodox and put Orthodox in their name but do not seek to submit to Orthodox communion, including the (Anglican-based) African Orthodox Church as much as the Russian Orthodox Church or the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church can and in every sense should show welcome and hospitality to visitors of any confession and no confession at all, and baptize / chrismate and include in full communion those who (like my respected second advisor at Cambridge) are Copts and want to become members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, there is a wide consensus among many Orthodox I respect, not only that good fences make good neighbors, but that ecumenism, of which Mr. Alexander offers a new permutation, is the ecclesiological heresy of our age.

I’m not sure if Mr. Alexander dealt with the Orthodox Right Coast; even his hardships suggest innocence as to how the Right Coast can and often does treat outsiders to it. But I remember years back, when I was trying to get some basic bearings, asked a sharp friend why people who separate themselves from the Orthodox Church in schism develop legalistic passion. He gently suggested I had the order reversed: first comes the passion, then comes the separation. In terms of how passion goes, there are limited options for how the Right Coast can act in anger against the canonical Church and still preserve the self-illusion of being purer. None of the Left Coast axes appear adequate; you can attack the Orthodox Church for not having women priests, but that doesn’t cut it. The same goes for advocating for sexual libertinism. You can wield either Left Coast axe but it won’t give you the illusion of being super-Orthodox.

Pretty much your only live option with the hand Orthodoxy has dealt you is to be super-Orthodox by indicting the Orthodox Church is indicting the Church for overly lax observation of canons. Now ancient canons are all there for a reason, but proper application of canons employs both akgravia (the principle of strict excellence) and oikonomia (the principle of love). Any good bishop, or possibly priest, will govern out of understanding canon law as a whole and trying to strike the right balance between the two principles. As a consequence, any good priest or bishop will show a great deal of laxity in at least some part of the overall picture of applying ancient canons. All the canons are there for a reason, and there are consequences when a canon is too loosely interpreted. And the one option to appear super-Orthodox, at least to yourself, is to blast the Church for overly lax observation of canon X in situation Y. That defines the contour for your sins.

My suspicion, strange as it may sound, is that the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church would bristle much more at instant and artificial intercommunion with the Russian Orthodox Church than the Russian Orthodox Church would.

One parish friend made a comment that he would like to have an anathema service, a particular service in which propositions the Orthodox Church has anathematized are in fact answered with one word: “Anathema!” I do not mean to state that no anathema or broken communion could ever arise from misunderstanding or, more pointedly, sin. For me to make that claim across all Church history would be quite a claim and it would be in excess of my authority as nothing more than a layman. However, the opposite error of assuming that every anathema or breach in communion should simply be stepped over is equally and stunning of an assertion. In the part I read before I really gave up, I did not see a single analysis reaching a responsible conclusion that even one single anathema or breach in communion may safely be brushed aside. The argument, such as it went, was not to go over any of the fences in detail, but make brief assertions out of a presupposition that anathemas and closed communion (at least between what Rome calls “historic Churches”) are insubstantial, not really speaking to us today, and resulting from confusion or sin rather than anything binding.

The author has put his heart in this, a point which is evident on almost every page. His sincerity is not up for grabs, nor his goodwill, and I wince at the pain he will have reading this. None the less, I say that ecumenism is the Left Coast ecclesiological heresy of our age, I have seen two and now three basic permutations, and its chief audience among canonical Orthodox should be those concerned with Orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

With Much Regret,
CJS Hayward
Author, The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts, The Best of Jonathan’s Corner

Dastardly Duo Considered Harmful: “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” and “Wounded By Love”

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.

Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:
It’s an occult book!

I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.

The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.

This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.

If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.

One example of a cleaner source for peaceful thoughts is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, of which #52 is, “Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.” A slightly longer form is available in an Ancient Faith Radio podcast on Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims:

“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”

Wounded by “Wounded by Love:”
Monastic TMI!

There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.

But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:

The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).

Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.

Beware of all fashions

Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.

The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.

One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.

A dark memorial, and a warning sign

I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.

There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.

The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.

And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.

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Un-Man’s Tales: C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra,” Fairy Tales, and Feminism

Cover for Knights and Ladies, Women and Men

A first clue to something big, tucked into a choice of children’s books

I was once part of a group dedicated to reading children’s stories (primarily fantasy) aloud. At one point the group decided to read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. I had a visceral reaction to the book as something warped, but when I tried to explain it to the group by saying that it was like the Un-man in Perelandra, I was met with severe resistance from two men in the group. Despite this, and after lengthy further discussions, I was able to persuade them that the analogy was at least the best I could manage in a tight time slot.

I was puzzled at some mysterious slippage that had intelligent Christians who appreciated good literature magnetized by works that were, well… warped. And that mysterious slippage seemed to keep cropping up at other times and circumstances.

Why the big deal? I will get to the Un-man’s message in a moment, but for now let me say that little girls are sexist way too romantic. And this being sexist way too romantic motivates girls to want fairy tales, to want some knight in shining armor or some prince to sweep them off her feet. And seeing how this sexist deeply romantic desire cannot easily be ground out of them, feminists have written their own fairy tales, but…

To speak from my own experience, I never realized how straight traditional fairy tales were until I met feminist fairy tales. And by ‘straight’ I am not exactly meaning the opposite of queer (though that is close at hand), but the opposite of twisted and warped, like Do You Want to Date My Avatar? (I never knew how witchcraft could be considered unnatural vice until I read the witches’ apologetic in Terry Pratchett’s incredibly warped The Wee Free Men.) There is something warped in these tales that is not covered by saying that Dealing with Dragons has a heroine who delights only in what is forbidden, rejects marriage for the company of dragons, and ridicules every time its pariahs say something just isn’t done. Seeing as how rooting out from the desire for fairy tales from little girls and little kids in general, authors have presented warped anti-fairy tales.

Ella Enchanted makes it plain: for a girl or woman to be under obedience is an unmixed curse. There is no place for “love, honor, and obey.”

The commercials for Tangled leave some doubt about whether the heroine sings a Snow White-style “Some day my prince will come.”

The Un-man’s own tales

Perelandra has a protagonist who visits Venus or Perelandra, where an unfallen Eve is joined first by him and then by the antagonist, called the Un-man because he moves from prelest or spiritual illusion to calling demons or the Devil into himself and then letting his body be used as a demonic puppet.

How does the Un-man try to tempt this story’s Eve?

[The Lady said:] “I will think more of this. I will get the King to make me older about it.”

[The Un-man answered:] “How greatly I desire to meet this King of yours! But in the matter of Stories he may be no older than you himself.”

“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.”…

[The Lady said,] “What are [women on earth] like?”

[The Un-man answered,] “They are of great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected good, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know it for themselves as He does…”

…The Lady seemed to be saying very little. [The Un-man]’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They wre all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quiet differences. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by their fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, hapily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often by tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer…

The expression on [the Lady’s] face, revealed in the sudden light, was one that [Ransom] had not seen there before. Her eyes were not fixed on the narrator; as far as that went, her thoughts might have been a thousand miles away. Her lips were shut and a little pursed. Her eyebrows were slightly raised. He had not yet seen her look so like a woman of our own race; and yet her expression was one he had not very often met on earth—except, as he realized with a shock, on the stage. “Like a tragedy queen” was the disgusting comparison that arose in his mind. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. It was an insult for which he could not forgive himself. And yet… and yet… the tableau revealed by the lightning had photographed itself on his brain. Do what he would, he found it impossible not to think of that new look in her face. A very good tragedy queen, no doubt, very nobly played by an actress who was a good woman in real life…

A moment later [the Un-man] was explaining that men like Ransom in his own world—men of that intensely male and backward-looking type who always shrank away from the new good—had continuously laboured to keep women down to mere childbearing and to ignore the high destiny for which Maleldil had actually created her…

The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lady is complementarian to the point where one wonders if the label ‘complementarian’ is sufficient, and the demon or Devil using the Un-man’s body is doing his treacherous worst to convert her to feminism. Hooper says he is trying to make her fall by transgressing one commandment, and that is true, but the entire substance of the attack to make her fall is by seducing her to feminism.

A strange silence in the criticism

Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide treats this dialogue in detail but without the faintest passing reference to feminism, men and women, sex roles, or anything else in that nexus. It does, however, treat the next and final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and defend Lewis from “anti-feminism” in a character who was a woman trying to do a dissertation on Milton: Lewis, it is revealed, had originally intended her to be doing a dissertation on biochemistry, but found that he was not in a position to make that part of the story compelling, and so set a character whose interests more closely paralleled his own. So the issue of feminism was on his radar, possibly looming large. But, and this is a common thread with other examples, he exhibits a mysterious slippage. His account gets too many things right to be dismissed on the ground that he doesn’t know how to read such literature, but it also leaves too much out, mysteriously, to conclude that he gave anything like such a scholar’s disinterested best in explaining the text. (It is my own opinion that Hooper in fact does know how to read; he just mysteriously sets this ability aside when Lewis counters feminism.) And this slippage keeps happening in other places and context, always mysterious on the hypothesis that the errors are just errors of disinterested, honest scholarship.

Jerry Root, in his own treatment in C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme, treats subjectivism as spiritual poison and problem of evil Lewis attacks in his different works: Root argues it to be the prime unifying theme in Lewis). But with slight irony, Root seems to turn subjectivistic, or at least disturbing, precisely where his book touches gender roles and egalitarianism. In his comments on The Great Divorce‘s greatest saint-figure, a woman, Susan Smith, is slighted: among other remarks, he quotes someone as saying that women in C.S. Lewis’s stories are “he neglects any intellectual virtue in his female characters,” and this is particularly applied to Sarah Smith. When he defends Lewis, after a fashion, Root volunteers, “a book written in the 1940s will lack some accommodations to the culture of the twenty-fist century.” But this section is among the gooiest logic in Root’s entire text, speaking with a quasi-psychoanalytic Freudian or Jungian outlook of “a kind of fertile mother-image and nature-goddess,” that is without other parallel and certainly does not infect the discussion of Lewis’s parents, who well enough loom large at points, but not in any psychoanalytic fashion. Root’s entire treatment at this point has an “I can’t put my finger on it, but—” resemblance to feminists disarming and neutralizing any claim that the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary could in any way, shape, or form contribute to the well-standing of women: one author, pointing out the difficulty of a woman today being both a virgin and a mother, used that as a pretext to entirely dismiss the idea that She could be a model for woman or a token of woman’s good estate, thus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and indeed the tub. The Mother of God is She who answered, Be it unto me according to thy word, an answer that may be echoed whether or not one is a virgin, a mother, or for that matter a woman.

The critique Root repeats, on reflection, may meet an Orthodox response of “Huh?”, or more devastatingly, “Yes, but what’s your point?”, not because Lewis portrays a saint as “no model of intellectual virtue,” but because Orthodox sainthood is not a matter of intellectual virtue. Among its rich collection of many saints there are very few models of intellectual virtue, admittedly mostly men, and usually having received their formation outside the Orthodox Church: St. John Chrysostom was called “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouth” because of his formation and mastery of pagan rhetoric. But intellectual virtue as a whole is not a central force in the saints, and Bertrand Russell’s observation that in the Gospels not one word is put in praise of intelligence might be accepted, not as a weakness of the Gospel, but as a clarification of what is and is not central to Christian faith. And in terms of what is truly important, we would do well to recall the story of St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. If Lewis’s image of sainthood is a woman who is not an academic, this is not an embarrassment to explain away, but a finger on the pulse of what does and does not matter for sainthood.

Root mentions the Un-man briefly, and gives heavy attention to the man who would become the Un-man as he appears in the prior book in the trilogy, but does not reference or suggest a connection between the Un-man and feminism. Root became an egalitarian, and shifts in his book from speaking of “men” to saying “humankind”. And this is far from one scholar’s idiosyncracy; a look at the World Evangelical Alliance’s online bookstore as I was involved with it showed this mysterious slippage not as something you find a little here, a little there, but as endemic and without any effective opposition.

Un-man’s tales for Grown-Ups

During my time as webmaster to the World Evangelical Alliance, the one truly depressing part of my work was getting the bookstore online. Something like eighty to ninety percent of the work was titles like Women as Risk-Takers for God which were Un-man’s tales for adults. I was depressed that the World Evangelical Alliance didn’t seem to have anything else to say on its bookshelves: not only was there a dearth of complementarian “opposing views” works like Man and Woman in Christ, but there was a dearth of anything besides Un-man’s tales. The same mysterious phenomenon was not limited to a ragtag group of friends, or individual scholars; it was dominant at the highest level in one of the most important parachurch organizations around, and not one that, like Christians for Biblical Equality, had a charter of egalitarian or feminist concerns and priorities.

Conclusion

G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” That might hold for Chesterton’s day, and classics like Grimm and MacDonald today, but today’s fairy tales, or rather Un-man’s tales, do not tell children the dragons can be killed. Children already know that deep down inside. They tell children dragons can be befriended and that dragons may make excellent company. For another title of the myriad represented by Dealing with Dragons, look at the tale of cross-cultural friendship one may look for in The Dragon and the George. When first published, Dealing with Dragons might have been provocative. Now Tangled is not. And reading Perelandra leaves one with an uncomfortable sense that C.S. Lewis apparently plagiarized, in the Un-man’s tales, works written decades after his death.

This issue is substantial, and Lewis’s sensitivity to it is almost prophetic: sensibilities may have changed, but only in the direction of our needing to hear the warning more. And it is one Christians seem to be blind to: complementarianism seems less wrong than petty, making a mountain out of a molehill. But the core issue is already a mountain, not a molehill.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Aim for something better than Un-man’s Tales.

Barbara’s tale: the fairy prince

A Dream of Light

The Sign of the Grail

Veni, vidi, vomi: a look at “Do you want to date my avatar?”

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

  1. Many people are concerned today with harmony with nature. And indeed there is quite a lot to living according to nature.
  2. But you will not find something that is missing by looking twice as hard in the wrong place, and it matters where one seeks harmony with nature. In monasticism, the man of virtue is the quintessential natural man. And there is something in monasticism that is behind stories of the monk who can approach boar or bear.
  3. Being out of harmony with nature is not predominantly a lack of time in forests. There is a deeper root.
  4. Exercising is better than living a life without exercise. But there is something missing in a sedentary life with artificially added exercise, after, for centuries, we have worked to avoid the strenuous labor that most people have had to do.
  5. It is as if people had worked for centuries to make the perfect picnic and finally found a way to have perfectly green grass at an even height, a climate controlled environment with sunlight and just the right amount of cloud, and many other things. Then people find that something is missing in the perfect picnic, and say that there might be wisdom in the saying, “No picnic is complete without ants.” So they carefully engineer a colony of ants to add to the picnic.
  6. An exercise program may be sought in terms of harmony with nature: by walking, running, or biking out of doors. Or it may be pursued for physical health for people who do not connect exercise with harmony of nature. But and without concern for “ascesis” (spiritual discipline) or harmony with nature, many people know that complete deliverance from physical effort has some very bad physical effects. Vigorous exercise is part and parcel to the natural condition of man.
  7. Here are two different ways of seeking harmony with nature. The second might never consciously ask if life without physical toil is natural, nor whether our natural condition is how we should live, but still recognizes a problem—a little like a child who knows nothing of the medical theory of how burns are bad, but quickly withdraws his hand from a hot stove.
  8. But there is a third kind of approach to harmony with nature, besides a sense that we are incomplete without a better connection to the natural world, and a knowledge that our bodies are less healthy if we live sedentary lives, lives without reintroducing physical exertion because the perfectly engineered picnic is more satisfying if a colony of ants is engineered in.
  9. This third way is Ascesis, and Ascesis, which is spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise, moral struggle, and mystical toil, is the natural condition of man.
  10. The disciples were joyous because the demons submitted to them in Christ’s name, and Christ’s answer was: “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you in my name. Rejoice instead that your names are written in Heaven.” The reality of the disciples’ names being written in Heaven dwarfed the reality of their power over demons, and in like manner the reality that monks can be so much in harmony with nature that they can safely approach wild bears is dwarfed by the reality that the royal road of Ascesis can bring so much harmony with nature that by God’s grace people work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
  11. The list of spiritual disciplines is open-ended, much like the list of sacraments, but one such list of spiritual disciplines might be prayer, worship, sacrament, service, silence, living simply, fasting, and the spiritual use of hardship. If these do not seem exotic enough for what we expect of spiritual discipline, we might learn that the spiritual disciplines can free us from seeking the exotic in too shallow of a fashion.
  12. The Bible was written in an age before our newest technologies, but it says much to the human use of technology, because it says much to the human use of property. If the Sermon on the Mount says, “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve both God and money,” it is strange at best to assume that these words applied when money could buy food, clothing, and livestock but have no relevance to an age when money can also buy the computers and consumer electronics we are infatuated with. If anything, our interest in technology makes the timeless words, “No man can serve two masters” all the more needed in our day.
  13. Money can buy everything money can buy and nothing money cannot buy. To seek true glory, or community, or control over all risk from money is a fundamental error, like trying to make a marble statue so lifelike that it actually comes to life. What is so often sought in money is something living, while money itself is something dead, a stone that can appear deceptively lifelike but can never hold the breath of life.
  14. In the end, those who look to money to be their servant make it their master. “No man can serve two masters” is much the same truth as one Calvin and Hobbes strip:

    Calvin: I had the scariest dream last night. I dreamed that machines took over and made us do their bidding.

    Hobbes: That must have been scary!

    Calvin: It wa—holy, would you look at the time? My TV show is on!

    But this problem with technology has been a problem with property and wealth for ages, and it is foolish to believe that all the Scriptural skepticism and unbelief about whether wealth is really all that beneficial to us, are simply irrelevant to modern technology.

  15. There was great excitement in the past millenium when, it was believed, the Age of Pisces would draw to a close, and the Age of Aquarius would begin, and this New Age would be an exciting dawn when all we find dreary about the here and now would melt away. Then the Age of Aquarius started, at least officially, but the New Age failed to rescue us from finding the here and now to be dreary. Then there was great excitement as something like 97% of children born after a certain date were born indigo children: children whose auras are indigo rather than a more mundane color. But, unfortunately, this celebrated watershed did not stop the here and now from being miserable. Now there is great hope that in 2012, according to the Mayan “astrological” calendar, another momentous event will take place, perhaps finally delivering us from the here and now. And, presumably, when December 21, 2012 fails to satisfy us, subsequent momentous events will promise to deliver us from a here and now we find unbearable.
  16. If we do not try to sate this urge with New Age, we can try to satisfy it with technology: in what seems like aeons past, the advent of radio and movies seemed to change everything and provide an escape from the here and now, an escape into a totally different world. Then, more recently, surfing the net became the ultimate drug-free trip, only it turns out that the web isn’t able to save us from finding the here and now miserable after all. For that, apparently, we need SecondLife, or maybe some exciting development down the pike… or, perhaps, we are trying to work out a way to succeed by barking up the wrong lamppost.
  17. No technology is permanently exotic.
  18. When a Utopian vision dreams of turning the oceans to lemonade, then we have what has been called “a Utopia of spoiled children.” It is not a Utopian vision of people being supported in the difficult ascetical pursuit of virtue and ultimately God, but an aid to arrested development that forever panders to childish desires.
  19. Technology need not have the faintest conscious connection with Utopianism, but it can pursue one of the same ends. More specifically, it can be a means to stay in arrested development. What most technology offers is, in the end, a practical way to circumventAscesis. Technological “progress” often means that up until now, people have lived with a difficult struggle—a struggle that ultimately amounts to Ascesis—but now we can simply do without the struggle.
  20. Through the wonders of modern technology, we can eat and eat and eat candy all day and not have the candy show up on our waistline: but this does not make us any better, nobler, or wiser than if we could turn the oceans to lemonade. This is an invention from a Utopia of spoiled chilren.
  21. Sweetness is a gift from God, and the sweeter fruit and honey taste, the better the nourishment they give. But there is something amiss in tearing the sweetness away from healthy food, and, not being content with this, to say, “We think that eating is a good thing, and we wish to celebrate everything that is good about it. But, unfortunately, there is biological survival, a holdover from other days: food acts as a nutrient whether you want it or not. But through the wonders of modern science, we can celebrate the goodness of eating while making any effect on the body strictly optional. This is progress!”
  22. Statistically, people who switch to artificial sweeteners gain more weight. Splenda accomplishes two things: it makes things sweeter without adding calories, and it offers people a way to sever the cord between enjoying sweet taste, and calories entering the body. On spiritual grounds, this is a disturbing idea of how to “support” weight loss. It is like trying to stop people from getting hurt in traffic accidents by adding special “safety” features to some roads so people can drive however they please with impunity, even if they develop habits that will get them killed on any other road. What is spiritually unhealthy overflows into poorer health for the body. People gain more weight eating Splenda, and there are more ways than one that Splenda is unfit for human consumption.
  23. The Ascesis of fasting is not intended as an ultimate extreme measure for weight loss. That may follow—or may not—but there is something fundamentally deeper going on:Man does not live by bread alone, and if we let go of certain foods or other pleasures for a time, we are in a better position to grasp what more man lives on than mere food. When we rein in the nourishing food of the body and its delights, we may find ourselves in a better position to take in the nourishing food of the spirit and much deeper spiritual delights.Fasting pursued wrongly can do us no good, and it is the wisdom of the Orthodox Church to undergo such Ascesis under the direction of one’s priest or spiritual father. But the core issue in fasting is one that matters some for the body and much more for the spirit.
  24. Splenda and contraception are both body-conquering technologies that allow us to conquer part of our embodied nature: that the body takes nourishment from food, and that the greatest natural pleasure has deep fertile potential. And indeed, the technologies we call “space-conquering technologies” might more aptly be titled, “body-conquering technologies,” because they are used to conquer our embodied and embedded state as God made it.
  25. Today, “everybody knows” that the Orthodox Church, not exactly like the Catholic Church allowing contraceptive timing, allows contraception under certain guidelines, and the Orthodox Church has never defined a formal position on contraception above the level of one’s spiritual father. This is due, among other factors, to some influential scholarly spin-doctoring, the academic equivalent of the NBC Dateline episode that “proved” that a certain truck had a fire hazard in a 20mph collision by filming a 30mph collision (presented as a 20mph collision) and making sure there was a fiery spectacle by also detonating explosives planted above the truck’s gas tank (see analysis).
  26. St. John Chrysostom wrote,

    Where is there murder before birth? You do not even let a prostitute remain only a prostitute, but you make her a murderer as well… Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, and from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his laws? What is a curse, do you seek it as though it were a blessing?… Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife.

  27. The Blessed Augustine devastatingly condemned Natural Family Banning: if procreation is sliced away from marital relations, Augustine says point blank, then true marriage is forbidden. There is no wife, but only a mistress, and if this is not enough, he holds that those who enjoin contraception fall under the full freight of St. Paul’s blistering words about forbidding marriage:

    Now, the Spirit expressly says that in the last days some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron: for they forbid marriage and demand avoidance of foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

    Augustine absolutely did not believe that one can enjoy the good of marriage and treat the blessing of marriage’s fertility as a burden and a curse. Such an idea is strange, like trying to celebrate the good of medical care while taking measures to prevent it from improving one’s health.

  28. Such condemnations stem from the unanimous position of the Church Fathers on contraception.
  29. Such words seem strange today, and English Bible translations seem to only refer to contraception once: when God struck Onan dead for “pull and pray.” (There are also some condemnations of pharmakeia and pharmakoi—”medicine men” one would approach for a contraceptive—something that is lost in translation, unfortunately giving the impression that occult sin alone was the issue at stake.)
  30. Contraception allows a marriage à la carte: it offers some control over pursuing a couple’s hopes, together, on terms that they choose without relinquishing control altogether. And the root of this is a deeper answer to St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to leave other brothers and sisters to their children as their inheritance rather than mere earthly possessions.(This was under what would today be considered a third world standard of living, not the first world lifestyle of many people who claim today that they “simply cannot afford any more children”—which reflects not only that they cannot afford to have more children and retain their expected (entitled?) standard of living for them and their children, but their priorities once they realize that they may be unable to have both.)
  31. Contraception is chosen because it serves a certain way of life: it is not an accident in any way, shape, or form that Planned Barrenhood advertises, for both contraception, “Take control of your life!” For whether one plans two children, or four, or none, Planned Barrenhood sings the siren song of having your life under your control, or at least as much under control as you can make it, where you choose the terms where you will deal with your children, if and when you want.
  32. Marriage and monasticism both help people grow up by helping them to learn being out of control. Marriage may provide the Ascesis of minding children and monasticism that of obedience to one’s elder, but these different-sounding activities are aimed at building the same kind of spiritual virtue and power.
  33. Counselors offer people, not the help that many of them seek in controlling those they struggle with, but something that is rarely asked: learning to be at peace with letting go of being in control of others, and the unexpected freedom that that brings. Marriage and monasticism, at their best, do not provide a minor adjustment that one manages and is then on top of, but an arena, a spiritual struggle, a training ground in which people live the grace and beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, and are freed from the prison chamber of seeking control and the dank dungeon of living for themselves.
  34. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than them? And why do you worry about the lilies of the field: how they grow. They neither toil nor spin;” they have joy and peace. The height of technological progress in having pleasure without losing control—in artificial sweeteners, contraceptives and anything else—utterly pales in comparison.
  35. Technology is not evil. Many technologies have a right use, but that use is a use to pursue maturity and Ascesis, not an aid to living childishly.
  36. Wine was created by God as good, and it has a right use. But the man who seeks in wine a way to be happy or a way to drive away his problems has already lost.
  37. One classic attitude to wine was not “We forbid drinking wine,” or even “It would be better not to drink wine at all, but a little bit does not do too much damage,” but goes beyond saying, “The pleasure of wine was given by God as good” to saying: “Wine is an important training ground to learn the Ascesis of moderation, and learn a lesson that cannot be escaped: we are not obligated to learn moderation in wine, but if we do not drink wine, we still need moderation in work, play, eating, and everything else, and many of us would do well to grow up in Ascesis in the training arena of enjoying wine and be better prepared for other areas of life where the need for the Ascesis of moderation, of saying ‘when’ and drawing limits, is not only something we should not dodge: it is something we can never escape.”
  38. The ascetical use of technology is like the ascetical use of wine. It is pursued out of maturity, and as a support to maturity. It is not pursued out of childishness, nor as a support to childishness. And it should never be the center of gravity in our lives. (Drinking becomes a problem more or less when it becomes the focus of a person’s life and pursuits.)
  39. The Harvard business study behind Good to Great found that the most effective companies often made pioneering use of technology, but technology was never the center of the picture: however many news stories might be printed about how they used technologies, few of the CEOs mentioned technology at all when they discussed their company’s success, and none of them ascribed all that much importance to even their best technology. Transformed companies—companies selected in a study of all publicly traded U.S. companies whose astonishing stock history began to improve and then outperformed the market by something like a factor of three, sustained for fifteen years straight—didn’t think technology was all that important, not even technologies their people pioneered. They focused on something more significant.
  40. Good to Great leadership saw their companies’ success in terms of people.
  41. There were other finds, including that the most effective CEOs were not celebrity rockstars in the limelight, but humble servant leaders living for something beyond themselves. In a study about what best achieves what greed wants, not even one of the top executives followed a mercenary creed of ruthless greed and self-advancement.
  42. If people, not technology, make businesses tremendously profitable, then perhaps people who want more than profit also need something beyond technology in order to reach the spiritual riches and treasures in Heaven that we were made for.
  43. The right use of technology comes out of Ascesis and is therefore according to nature.
  44. In Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a “man” with human genes who starts with an entirely Martian heritage as his culture and tradition, comes to say, “Happiness is a matter of functioning the way a human being was organized to function… but the words in English are a mere tautology, empty. In Martian they are a complete set of working instructions.” The insight is true, but takes shape in a way that completely cuts against the grain of Stranger in a Strange Land.
  45. One most immediate example is that the science fiction vision is of an ideal of a community of “water brothers” who painstakingly root out natural jealousy and modesty, and establish free love within their circle: such, the story would have it, provides optimal human happiness. As compellingly as it may be written into the story, one may bring up studies which sought to find out which of the sexualities they wished to promote provided the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, and found to their astonishment and chagrin that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from any creative quest for the ultimate thrill, but from something they despised as a completely unacceptable perversion: a husband and wife, chaste before the wedding and faithful after, working to become one for as long as they both shall live, and perhaps even grateful for the fruitfulness o their love. Perhaps such an arrangement offers greater satisfaction than trying to “push the envelope” of adventuresome arrangements precisely because it is “functioning the way a human being was organized to function.”
  46. People only seek the ultimate exotic thrill when they are unhappy. Gnosticism is a spiritual porn whose sizzle entices people who despair: its “good news” of an escape from the miserable here and now is “good news” as misery would want it. Today’s Gnosticism may rarely teach, as did earlier Gnostic honesty, that our world could not be the good creastion of the ultimately good God, but holding that we need to escape our miserable world was as deep in ancient Gnostics’ bones as an alcoholic experiences that our miserable world needs to be medicated by drunkenness. Baudelaire said, in the nineteenth century: “Keep getting drunk! Whether with wine, or with poetry, or with virtue, as you please, keep getting drunk,” in a poem about medicating what might be a miserable existence. Today he might have said, “Keep getting drunk! Whether with New Age, or with the endless virtual realities of SecondWife, or with the ultimate Viagra-powered thrill, as you please, keep getting drunk!”
  47. What SecondLife—or rather SecondWife—offers is the apparent opportunity to have an alternative to a here and now one is not satisfied with. Presumably there are merits to this alternate reality: some uses are no more a means to escape the here and now than a mainstream business’s website, or phoning ahead to make a reservation at a restaurant. But SecondWife draws people with an alternative to the here and now they feel stuck in.
  48. It is one thing to get drunk to blot out the misery of another’s death. It is another altogether to keep getting drunk to blot out the misery of one’s own life.
  49. An old story from African-American lore tells of how a master and one of his slaves would compete by telling dreams they claimed they had. One time, the master said that he had a dream of African-American people’s Heaven, and everything was dingy and broken—and there were lots of dirty African-Americans everywhere. His slave answered that he had dreamed of white people’s Heaven, and everything was silver and gold, beautiful and in perfect order—but there wasn’t a soul in the place!
  50. Much of what technology seems to offer is to let people of all races enter a Heaven where there are luxuries the witty slave could never dream of, but in the end there is nothing much better than a Heaven full of gold and empty of people.
  51. “Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
  52. There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
  53. “Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
  54. Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
  55. We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
  56. Today the older generation seems to grouse about our younger generation. Some years ago, someoone in the AARP magazine quipped about young people, “Those tight pants! Those frilly hairdos! And you should see what the girls are wearing!” Less witty complaints about the younger generation’s immodest style of dress, and their rude disrespect for their elders can just as well be found from the time of Mozart, for instance, or Socrates: and it seems that today’s older generation is as apt to criticize the younger generation as their elders presumably were. But here something really is to be said about the younger generation.
  57. The older generation kvetching about how the younger generation today has it so easy with toys their elders never dreamed of, never seem to connect their sardonic remarks with how they went to school with discipline problems like spitwads and the spoiled younger generation faced easily available street drugs, or how a well-behaved boy with an e-mail address may receive X-rated spam. “The youth these days” have luxuries their parents never even dreamed of—and temptations and dangers their parents never conceived, not in their worst nightmares.
  58. Elders have traditionally complained about the young people being rude, much of which amounts to mental inattention. Part of politeless is being present in body and mind to others, and when the older generation was young, their elders assuredly corrected them from not paying attention in the presence of other people and themselves.
  59. When they were young, the older generation’s ways of being rude included zoning out and daydreaming, making faces when adults turned their back, and in class throwing paper airplanes and passing notes—and growing up meant, in part, learning to turn their back on that arsenal of temptations, much like previous generations. And many of the older generation genuinely turned their backs on those temptations, and would genuinely like to help the younger generation learn to honor those around with more of their physical and mental presence.
  60. Consumer electronics like the smartphone, aimed to offer something to youth, often advertise to the younger generation precisely a far better way to avoid a spiritual lesson that was hard enough for previous generations to learn without nearly the same degree of temptation. Few explains to them that a smartphone is not only very useful, but it is designed and sold as an enticing ultra-portable temptation.
  61. Literature can be used to escape. But the dividing line between great and not-so-great literature is less a matter of theme, talent, or style than the question of whether the story serves to help the reader escape the world, or engage it.
  62. In technology, the question of the virtuous use of technology is less a matter of how fancy the technology is, or how recent, than whether it is used to escape the world or engage it. Two friends who use cell phones to help them meet face-to-face are using technology to support, in some form, the timeless way of relating to other people. Family members who IM to ask prayer for someone who is sick also incorporate technology into the timeless way of relating to other people. This use of technology is quiet and unobtrusive, and supports a focus on something greater than technology: the life God gave us.
  63. Was technology made for man, or man for technology?
  64. Much of the economy holds the premise that a culture should be optimized to produce wealth: man was made for the economy. The discipline of advertising is a discipline of influencing people without respecting them as people: the customer, apparently, exists for the benefit of the business.
  65. Advertising encourages us to take shopping as a sacrament, and the best response we can give is not activism as such, but a refusal of consent.
  66. Shopping is permissible, but not sacramental shopping, because sacramental shopping is an ersatz sacrament and identifying with brands an ersatz spiritual discipline. At best sacramental shopping is a distraction; more likely it is a lure and the bait for a spiritual trap.
  67. We may buy a product which carries a mystique, but not the mystique itself: and buying a cool product without buying into its “cool” is hard, harder than not buying. But if we buy into the cool, we forfeit great spiritual treasure.
  68. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your life and all of your mind and all of your might, love your neighbor as yourself, and use things: do not love things while using people.
  69. Things can do the greatest good when we stop being infatuated with them and put first things first. The most powerful uses of technology, and the best, come from loving those whom you should love and using what you should use. We do not benefit from being infatuated with technology, nor from acting on such infatuation.
  70. The Liturgy prays, “Pierce our souls with longing for Thee.” Our longing for transcendence is a glory, and the deepest thing that draws us in advertisements for luxury goods, does so because of the glory we were made to seek.
  71. But let us attend to living in accordance with nature. Ordinarily when a technology is hailed as “space-conquering,” it is on a deep level body-conquering, defeating part of the limitations of our embodied nature—which is to say, defeating part of our embodied nature that is in a particular place in a particular way.
  72. Technologies to pass great distance quickly, or make it easy to communicate without being near, unravel what from ancient times was an ancient social fabric. They offer something of a line-item veto on the limits of our embodied state: if they do not change our bodies directly, they make our embodied limitations less relevant.
  73. A technology can conquer how the body takes nourishment from food, for instance, and therefore be body-conquering without being space-conquering. But whether celebrated or taken for granted, space-conquering technologies are called space-conquering because they make part of the limitations of our embodied nature less relevant.
  74. There is almost a parody of Ascesis in space-conquering technologies. Ascesis works to transcend the limited body, and space-conquering technologies seem a way to do the same. But they are opposites.
  75. “The demons always fast:” such people are told to instill that fasting has a place and a genuine use, but anyone who focuses too much on fasting, or fasts too rigidly, is well-advised to remember that every single demon outfasts every single saint. But there is something human about fasting: only a being made to eat can benefit from refraining from eating. Fasting is useful because, unlike the angels and demons, a man is not created purely a spirit, but created both spirit and body, and they are linked together. Ascesisknows better, and is more deeply attuned to nature, to attempt to work on the spirit with the body detached and ignored.
  76. Even as Ascesis subdues the comforts and the body, the work is not only to transfigure the spirit, and transform the body.
  77. In a saint the transfiguration means that when the person has died, the body is not what horror movies see in dead bodies: it is glorified into relics.
  78. This is a fundamentally different matter from circumventing the body’s limitations. There may be good, ascetical uses for space-conquering technologies: but the good part of it comes from the Ascesis shining through the technology.
  79. The limitations of our embodied existence—aging, bodily aches and pains, betrayal, having doors closed in our face—have been recognized as spiritual stepping stones, and the mature wonder, not whether they have too many spiritual stepping stones, but whether they might need more. Many impoverished saints were concerned, not with whether their life was too hard, but whether it was too easy. Some saints have been tremendously wealthy, but they used their wealth for other purposes than simply pandering to themselves.
  80. Some might ask today, for instance, whether there might be something symbolic to the burning bush that remained unconsumed which St. Moses the Lawgiver saw. And there are many layers of spiritual meaning to the miracle—an emblem of the Theotokos’s virgin birthgiving—but it is not the proper use of symbolic layers to avoid the literal layer, without which the symbolic layers do not stand. If the question is, “Isn’t there something symbolic about the story of the miracle of the burning bush?”, the answer is, “Yes, but it is a fundamental error to use the symbolic layers to dodge the difficulty of literally believing the miracle.” In like fashion, there are many virtuous uses of technology, but it is a fundamental error to expect those uses to include using technology to avoid the difficult lessons of spiritual Ascesis.
  81. Living according to nature is not a luxury we add once we have taken care of necessities: part of harmony with nature is built into necessities. Our ancestors gathered from the natural world, not to seek harmony with nature, but to meet their basic needs—often with far fewer luxuries than we have—and part of living according to nature has usually meant few, if any, luxuries. Perhaps there is more harmony with nature today in driving around a city to run errands for other people, than a luxurious day out in the countryside.
  82. Some of the promise the Internet seems to offer is the dream a mind-based society: a world of the human spirit where there is no distraction of external appearance because you have no appearance save that of a handle or avatar, for instance, or a world where people need not appear male or female except as they choose. But the important question is not whether technology through the internet can deliver such a dream, but whether the dream is a dream or a nightmare.
  83. To say that the Internet is much more mind-based than face-to-face interactions is partly true. But to say that a mind-based society is more fit for the human spirit than the timeless way of relating, in old-fashioned meatspace, is to correct the Creator on His mistaken notions regarding His creatures’ best interests.
  84. People still use the internet all the time as an adjunct to the timeless way of relating. Harmony with nature is not disrupted by technology’s use as an adjunct nearly so much as when it serves as a replacement. Pushing for a mind-based society, and harmony with nature, may appeal to the same people, especially when they are considered as mystiques. But pushing for a mind-based society is pushing for a greater breach of living according to nature, widening the gulf between modern society and the ancient human of human life. There is a contradiction in pushing for our life to be both more and less according to nature.
  85. There is an indirect concern for Ascesis in companies and bosses that disapprove of clock watching. The concern is not an aversion to technology, or that periodically glancing at one’s watch takes away all that much time from real work. The practical concern is of a spiritual state that hinders work: the employee’s attention and interest are divided, and a bad spiritual state overflows into bad work.
  86. In terms of Ascesis, the scattered state that cannot enjoy the present is the opposite of a spiritual condition called nepsis or, loosely, “watchfulness.”
  87. The problem that manifests itself in needing to keep getting drunk, with New Age and its hopes for, at the moment, 2012 delivering us from a miserable here and now, or needing a more and more exotic drugged-up sexual thrill, or fleeing to SecondWife, is essentially a lack of nepsis.
  88. To be delivered by such misery is not a matter of a more radical escape. In a room filled with eye-stinging smoke, what is needed is not a more heroic way to push away the smoke, but a way of quenching the fire. Once the fire is quenched, the smoke dissipates, and with it the problem of escaping the smoke.
  89. Nepsis is a watchfulness over one’s heart, including the mind.
  90. Nepsis is both like and unlike metacognition. It observes oneself, but it is not thinking about one’s thinking, or taking analysis to the next level: analysis of normal analysis. It is more like coming to one’s senses, getting back on course, and then trying to stay on course. It starts with a mindfulness of how one has not been mindful, which then flows to other areas of life.
  91. The man who steps back and observes that he is seeking ways to escape the here and now, has an edge. The same goes with worrying or other passions by which the soul is disturbed: for many of the things that trouble our soul, seduce us to answer the wrong question. This is almost invariably more pedestrian than brilliant metacognition, and does not look comfortable.
  92. Metanoia, or repentance, is both unconditional surrender and waking up and smelling the coffee. It is among the most terrifying of experiences, but afterwards, one realizes, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”
  93. Once one is past that uncomfortable recognition, one is free to grasp something better.
  94. That “something better” is ultimately Christ, and a there is a big difference between a mind filled with Christ and a mind filled with material things as one is trying to flee malaise.
  95. The attempt to escape a miserable here and now is doomed. We cannot escape into Eden. But we can find the joy of Eden, and the joy of Heaven, precisely in the here and now we are seduced to seek to escape.
  96. Living the divine life in Christ, is a spiritual well out of which many treasures pour forth: harmony with nature, the joy of Eden and all the other things that we are given if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His perfect righteousness.
  97. It was a real achievement when people pushing the envelope of technology and, with national effort and billions of dollars of resources, NASA succeeded in lifting a man to the moon.
  98. But, as a monk pointed out, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use no resources beyond a little bread and water, and succeed in lifting a man up to God.
  99. And we miss the greatest treasures if we think that Ascesis or its fruits are only for monks.
  100. And there is something that lies beyond even ascesis: contemplation of the glory of God.

The Arena

The Best Things in Life Are Free

The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: fasting from technologies

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome