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.
I am trying to reach monasticism and become a monk. I do not know that I will get there, but I am trying.
I expect that if I do arrive and God in his mercy grants my desires, I will be in a place with accommodations so Luddite that hot running water is not available. Whether I may have heating or cooling is unknown to me, although a common monastic preference is to try to avoid both. I will likely be one of very few English speakers around, and for all I know I may be the only American in my monastery. As a novice I will have people deliberately set out to strike my feelings, and above the confession that precedes Holy Communion in Holy Russia, I will be expected to tell my abbot all my thoughts every day.
And please understand that I am saying this neither in the hopes of receiving your admiration nor your pity. Quite simply, these are the terms of the highest privilege the Orthodox Church has to offer.
I yearn for all of this and pray that I may be strong enough, although that is not my point here.
A note on continuity
My point is about continuity of service from the website you are visiting now. I am trying to make arrangements so that my website, and electronic and paper books, will remain available without disruption. However, I do not see why an abbot would necessarily reconnect me to the Internet, or whatever exists then, before my website is long gone. Abbots may come to surprise monks again and again; it would be disappointing if they didn’t. But whether I remain a blogger after becoming a monk is well outside my knowledge now, and furthermore not my concern, not if I have the faintest desire of becoming a monk.
Apart from my own spiritual path, there is the question of the materials on this site being available in a historical setting when at least one of my friends talk about the Digital Dark Ages, and techs have already said you should print out the photos you want to be able to keep, and we are decades past the point where technologically sophisticated museum curators have warned that they have information on computers in their museum, and they believe the information to be intact, but the knowhow and technology to actually access that information is already lost and gone forever. The second most Luddite warning about technology I’ve heard comes from computer programmer folklore: “If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.” (The first most Luddite statement is from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not store up treasures on earth.”)
Everything I’ve written that’s worth reading is presently available on Amazon, and for that matter a good bit that isn’t. The Bible says something about “Put not your trust in princes,” and I do not regard my arrangement with Amazon as a permanent arrangement. Already in the Nazification of today’s world we have reached a point where you can freely buy and sell Nazi memorabilia on Amazon, but Amazon dropped the Confederate flag faster than a hot potato without a single voice of the left crying out, “Censorship!” I see no reason why, ultimately, Amazon need be squeamish about lumping my work together with the flag of the Confederate States of America as abominations unfit for the present world.
I was not happy with this when it was new, and think that something in it still isn’t quite right. However, I still think there is much in it that’s worth reading.
As a child of perhaps ten, I told friends that I was going to make a martial art, made up a name that sounded Asian to me (“Tong Fior”), and got into an argument about it with a classmate (nowhere near physical blows). The preferred term for this in the academy is the highly abrasive term “Orientalism,” although the better tempered anthropologists would regard it as the normal and natural contact when any one culture starts to meet another, and is really the same Orientalism by which the nationalistic Independence Day movie enjoyed tremendous popularity well outside of U.S. political borders. In the one kind of Orientalism, there are people in the West who want to be some romanticized image of the East; in the other there are people in the East who want to be some romanticized image of the West. I have difficulty finding much of any real difference between these instances of “diffusion” as the term is understood in an anthropology department.
Obligatory quotation from G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton, in a passage that is politically incorrect enough today, wrote,
I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not suddenly of pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is in the very worst spirit of the East. But there is no force so hard to defeat as the force which is easy enough for conquer; the force that always yields and then returns.
But hold that thought for a second, and I speak as a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun for ages. (And not just for that one single Google AdWords ad impression that changed eBay’s AdWords presence forever: “Buy Japanese sushi on eBay! New and Used.“)
Someone said, in response to a Quora question about whether anyone had regretted getting a PhD, and one of few PhD’s to say “yes” said basically that you don’t get a doctorate to get a superhuman high social status and be addressed as “Doctor”; he said “a PhD is just a paper that comes along the way as you are doing something you love.”
The personalities of martial arts
Something very much like that related to what what we now understand as a belt system. A martial artist wouldn’t be awarded a blackbelt (or anything else besides a white belt) on the grounds of a formalized test. When you started, you got a white belt that would be slowly blackened by the practice involved in developing expertise for years and years and years. And I believe that most of the better martial artists today would say that the older approach is still foundational in better practices today; it’s just obscured and harder to discern, and certain entirely justified concessions to societal needs have been made.
I remember being offended when I saw how parts of Aikido in Aiki Ninjutsu work; it brought up memories of very frustrating matters of conversation, where a friend (and I do really mean friend) gave infuriating claims of agreement where he would say “I agree with you that [fill in the blank]”, and the beginning, middle, and end of every such “agreement” was to wrench some belief of my mine out of context, placing himself as someone in a position to understand, interpret and explain my beliefs far better than I could, and use it as a sledgehammer against something else that were just as foundational to those beliefs. During those years, he never claimed agreement except as the presentation of an attack. And that is specifically what I saw in physical form in how to respond to an opponent’s punch. You grabbed your opponent’s arm, and so to speak “corrected” the direction it was moving, and add exaggerated force to what your revision of the punch has become. This was disappointing enough to be offensive after reading the tale of a martial art founded by a legendary, great O Sensei who stood unarmed and kept dodging a master swordsman until the attacking swordsman collapsed from fatigue.
I’d be a little cautious about glibly identifying this as “Aikido,” which etymology means something close to “Way with harmony and energy,” as Aiki Ninjutsu represents a new fusion that draws on several older sources and has modern elements. The fusion may not particularly Western elements, but it has a Creed (with an apparently deliberate uppercase ‘C’ as in “Craptastic”), with the Creed beginning with “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals,” and when I started to give a thinking Christian’s objections to believing in oneself (see Chesterton’s take below), I saw in verbal form the foundational lesson of “Become the center.” What I never heard was so much as lip service to “harmony between opponents” that is a leitmotif in so many genuine martial arts. The technique associated with “Become the center” forces all else to resolve around oneself, and the teacher seemed a bit “become the center” in that he spoke with decisive authority and I was not allowed to even contribute anything to the conversation beyond accepting decisive authority.
G.K. Chesterton incidentally has something to say about “become the center” or rather just believing in yourself. The sting with which he opens chapter 2 of his book Heretics make the stinging remarks of Sumo wrestling quoted above almost sound like praise:
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the name of the lunatic asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
Enough of Chesterton; like The Onion, he has something to offend every palate. (He was beyond being dismissive of the thought of his joining the Orthodox Church.
Some people might be surprised by remarks above; my memberships in 3-4 martial arts lasted for a few months, and while I have had some successes (Kuk Sool Won and the local Shokotan paired me with blackbelts or blackbelt candidates by the end, and one fellow Karate student was getting very infuriated when I responded to him about a quarter second earlier than expected; I moved to meet him as he was moving, not after, without the faintest interval between the two), I found that spirituality was very dry until I repented of it as sin (a mistake I should have made once, if even that). And just to be clear, everyone I’ve heard of in any martial art at all says that you improve after a couple of months, but real mastery takes years and years and years. (I think my case was simply not how things work normally.)
God practices Ju-Jutsu, and we should too, as an act of submission
Perhaps the single greatest illustration of Jiu-Jutsu in the Bible is where a Saul burning with wrath and destruction, trying in overweening pride to annihilate the Church, was stopped cold by the uncreated Light of Heaven, the Light who strikes terror in those not indwelt by It, and provides what may be the only place in the Bible where the Lord quotes a pagan Greek source: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The action of an Orthodox Christian is not, on the balance, to invade another’s mind and straighten it out. It is not, on the balance, either our place to really defend ourselves. It is to, in the words of a Protestant hymn, “Keep your eyes on Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face / And the things of this world will grow strangely dim / In the light of his glory and grace,” and remember that you too are a sinner and try to be merciful and forgiving as others join you as you continue kicking against the goads.
Furthermore, the more you are in trouble, the more stress you are in, the more conflict or worse, the more more essential that you grow beyond any abilities you know in deiform love to forgive, to have mercy, to pray, to turn the other cheek. The Sermon on the Mount is not an ornament for the beings of some mythical world more perfect than Star Trash. It is a battleplan for those of us who live in a world of conflict and violence.
Bultmann is a foundational character in the academy, enough so to have provoked C.S. Lewis to write The Elephant and the Fern-Seed. Bultmann came up with a new way of moving beyond mythological trappings found in the Bible and theology. Or at least that is how his progressive circles understood their stance; I’m not completely sure how an Orthodox might best respond, whether “You have a valid enough point, but why does it loom so suffocatingly large to you?” or, “Um, you ARE aware that your fresh and new discovery is a recycled version of a topic that an Orthodox Christian worked out with power, well over a millennium earlier than you, and by a canonized saint at that, and the saint did a profoundly better job than you?”, or extending an invitation for the distinguished scholar to simply become a catechumen!
However, I would like to take up Bultmann’s point, or rather that of the canonized saint of over a thousand years before (Pseudo-Dionysius), or rather God’s point. A standard illustration is, as we repeatedly read in Exodus, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This claim should not be taken literally; I’ve yet to read even someone very wrong read the text as meaning that God stiffened Pharaoh’s cardiac muscle (heart) the same way an arm or leg or back muscle stiffens with a cramp. But it goes deeper. The claim that God changed Pharoah at all is too crude. Pharaoh hardened his own heart with Satan’s help. God (and the image of Jiujutsu must eventually be dropped as well) exercised Jiujutsu and let Pharaoh reach destruction by the only way that Hell can ever be reached: by his own steam.
I now remember once feeling particularly squeamish about a mailing list conversation where one Orthodox sympathizer clarified, in perfect sincerity, that where Genesis 1 repeats, “And God said,” that was such a human way of speaking that it meant that God spoke, in her words, “with lips and a tongue” as one would expect of mortal man. And I made no effort to assume command of the situation and straighten out her mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, even if her assertion was analytically wrong enough to fill me with squeamishness, unless she is troubling others (in which case someone well above my pay grade should be laying down the law), it is not my place to use my book-learning to take away the little that is held by someone who is not even a member of the Orthodox Church. But that is just for practice. The beam in my eye has to with believing I need to have my way, that I should be in power or in control, or anything else. She might have thought it helpful to give Pharaoh an intake appointment at a cardiologist’s. I do much worse.
Perhaps one way of putting that is this: we are inclined to believe that God violated the free will of Satan and Judas, because they killed the Son of Man and He came back to life triumphant. But a slightly closer image is that he was on higher ground, he let their free will be as sordid as they chose, and in a way beyond Jiujutsu the God who is beyond motion met them fully and attentively, with a heart full of love, and the evil that cannot grasp love tried to give its strongest and most venomous strike, they struck where the everywhere-present God is not and the full force of their blow slammed into a brick wall and their sting was inflicted only on themselves.
But be careful:
One subtle note to those who find alluring the image of Satan slamming his horns full force into an adamant wall next to which diamond is as as a crumbling dust: if you find the image attractive, beware of adopting Satan’s ever-seductive, ever-destructive pride.
One joke good or bad that I heard many, many times as a child ran:
There were two morons working in a hot pit enduring the heat while their boss sat in a cool air-conditioned building outside of the pit on the ground above, not doing much of anything.
One day the morons got to talking and said, “How come we do all the work and our boss gets to sit in an air conditioned building? So the first moron got up from the pit and asked, “How come we work in a hot messy pit all day, and you’re in this office getting nearly all the money?”
The boss said, “Because I’m smarter than you.”
The moron asked, “Why?”
The boss walked over to a thick tree and held his hand in front of the trunk. “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”
The moron swung his best, and the boss deftly pulled his hand away, leaving the moron to slam the full force of his punch into the rugged trunk of the tree.
After he had stopped crying, the first moron climbed back into the pit.
The second moron said, “What did you find out?”
The first moron said, “I’m smarter than you.”
The second moron said, “Why?”
The first moron put his hand in front of his face and said, “Hit my hand as hard as you can!”
There are two, and no more than two, essential options to us. One is to join hands in the Church and dance with the Lord not only of men but of angels and eagles, cultures and corporate worlds, a vast universe held in the heart of a God so small as to be without parts, and join in the unfolding mystery of the Lord of the Dance in whom alone the Divine Providence unfurls. The other option is to help Satan rearrange your face. There is no inconsistent option which lets you remain impenitent in pride and yet remain impossibly free from Satan’s clutches. And more could be said than that: as Fr. Thomas Hopko famously crystallized, Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.
This is also the point expressed in what may be the most piercingly beautiful of St. Nicolas’ Prayers by the Lake in which, as I would offer images Hope is praised, the Hope Who is eternal, the Hope which glimmers in young children who race out of bed on Christmas morning in all the pageantry of the Great Dance and can’t wait to open the first present but hasn’t the faintest idea of what the first present may be. But there also hopes, with an ‘s’ as in “Shit“, hopes that have certainly plagued me enough hopes really that God will obey the plan that you have worked out to him, and set expections that God is to jump to your plan, and in the event of any problems, he should contact you immediately for further orders or instructions. It is, on reflection, an act of mercy that God sometimes says, “No” to people who give the most meticulously drafted orders, and perhaps work with people who order him around for decades to teach them, just a little, how to live a life that is dancing the Great Dance.
Gandhi and satyagraha
Having tried to underscore the absolute necessity of humility, I would like to move on to the next order of business and compare myself to Gandhi.
Gandhi was a Hindu, in one of three world religions that took its genesis in India. It is my considered judgment that Gandhi’s achievements could have been made solely within resources directly provided by his native Hinduism. However, that sounds like an outsider’s guess to anyone who understands this figure in history; however rich Hinduism may be, Gandhi through whatever reason chose to draw on outside sources.
The most shame I have ever felt about being a Christian was when a pastor in church explained that Gandhi wanted with his whole heart to become a Christian, and when he sought out a Christian evangelist, the racist evangelist rejected him for the color of his skin alone. That experience soured Gandhi enough that he was never again open to being a Christian, but please look at this closely.
I would draw out four decisive influences on Gandhi:
Gandhi’s native Hinduism about which I will now only say that it is deep as an ocean.
The “purer than the pure” Jainism from which he took profound inspiration without also membership (we proverbially say that someone “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, while to this day Jain monastics sweep the ground in front of them with peacock feathers to avoid accidentally stepping on a bug, as Jainism is also a world religion that came from India.
Christianity:this was the religion of the British colonists, and Gandhi spoke and acted warmly towards his sharpest critics. Gandhi also said things that would astonish people for a speaker who wasn’t Christian: “Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” He elsewhere states that his three heroes are Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates, all of whom saw their lives as nothing next to the salvation of their souls. And finally:
I do not know how to explain Gandhi’s towering stature in actively trying to adopt the strengths of Christianity and activism. True, he was soured by personally rejected by a Christian evangelist who was beyond moronic, but what I would ordinarily expect is for Gandhi to grind an axe against the English and Christians for the rest of his life, with an anger transparently visible to everyone else besides him, all the way icily insisting, “I am not angry!” As it was, he kept reaching out in love to English and other people who met him with total hatred, and by what is called “satyagraha” purchased the freedom of the one nation in history that achieved its from colonial domination by nonviolence rather than war, and remains the one nation in the world that I am aware of where rah-rah nationalism express itself by the study of nonviolence rather than by celebrating victory through warriors’ killing of others. And this is in a religion where the crowning jewel, the Sermon on the Mount, is a tale of epic heroism where God appears in human semblance and encourages and exhorts a prince who is so devoid of laziness that perhaps he doesn’t even sleep, to rise up in full power and annihilate all those marked for destruction. And Gandhi does nothing to downplay the text; he instead contributed yet one more commentary to the vast collection (and the Hindu preference, at least today, seems to be never give this crowning jewel without opening it up by commentary). And now we are in a position to drill down slightly.
Gandhi said very emphatically, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” And I would take this as entirely without sloppiness or guile. However, I would like to delve into a word he used. For the purpose of this section, I will treat Gandhi’s use of “nonviolence” and “satyagraha” as two sides of the same coin, or even closer. The term “satyagraha” is not taken from Hindi (which is, along with English, India’s modern national language), but from the classical Sanskrit, classical in India as Latin and Greek are European classical languages. My best understanding both as a historian and also as an author is that Gandhi went on a word hunt, searching to find the perfect word to crystallize the consuming quest, as Madeleine l’Engle found a word “kythe”, a Scottish word if I remember correctly, that originally meant something like “to truly come to be”, and became the central term in her classic A Wind in the Door. Madeleine l’Engle did not use the word as anyone before her did, and Gandhi seized on a word that had previously not been a term about violence or its absence, a term that meant something like “steadfastly holding on to the Truth no matter what.”
And there is no either-or between Gandhi’s embarking on a quest that ended with a deep term from classical Sanskrit, and his full and direct assertion that truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. The key to this is found in Christ’s words: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” A study of Gandhi’s use of the term “satyagraha” is a study of bringing forth out of a treasure things new and old which are one on the same.
I freely enough compare myself to Gandhi as an author. I do not feel the need to compare myself to Gandhi on forgiveness or anything else truly important besides that we are both made in the image of God, and both sinners.
What is pain? What is yielding?
Here I will not discuss what the image of God is at length, nor dissect that the highest command is to love God with one’s whole being and the second which is like it is to love your neighbor as yourself. However, I will say that the God who defines health is the model for healthily function and life, and Jujutsu is not just how God acts, it’s how we act if we’re doing right. It means that even in the most intense conflict or combat one is looking up for light. The U.S. in World War II referred to the Japanese Jiujutsu as “chop-socky”, and for all their following the universal wartime rules of due diligence in demonizing the enemy, the most patriotic U.S. foot soldiers learned very, very quickly that their Western boxing completely fell to pieces when it ran into “chop-socky.”
It is said by at least some martial artists and athletes that “Pain is weakness exiting the body.” It should equally be said by Orthodox Christians not only that repentance is sin exiting the soul, but that repentance is misery exiting the soul, if there is any difference at all: repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. And the struggle with anger that is called forgiveness, when we reach victory, is also misery exiting the soul.
Jiu-jutsu is a word meaning “yielding”, and comparisons with Jiu-jutsu should not be pushed too far, as may be admitted. It is one image among others and one not present in Scripture. But there is a distinction in Asian martial arts (and perhaps Capoiera, for instance), between “-jutsu” and “-do” that is well understood. “Jutsu” means a technique or skill, like woodworking, and “do” means a philosophical or spiritual path. The Western tradition (apart from when Asian martial arts came to be a substantial influence) is entirely “-jutsu”. This is true with a couple of bumps, as Jiu-jutsu is of an ancient provenance, the art of Samurai who had not even their weapons, while Judo may be seen as a modern attempt to simplify and cleanse Jiu-Jutsu into a simpler art that would be effective self-defense while eliminating locks and other destructive features. And all of the martial arts have their own personalities and characteristics, some better than others, but none yet let the stillness of Orthodox hesychasm or silence eclipse the meditation that is structural to internal martial arts.
So when am I going to start opening dojos? The answer I am hoping for is, “Never.” The one possible exception I see is that if the Church is really, really scraping the bottom of the barrel and makes me a bishop in some vague sense, or even worse a real bishop charged with fully competent administration, love, and care of a diocese, instead of the nominal formality, the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” concession of being honored on paper as the more-than-a-bishop of some long-lost city without a second living representative. If I bear the heavy cross and heavy crown of thorns of a real bishop, then I would have the right to start opening dojos, except that wouldn’t be the right way of thinking of it at all: most people would call it “the responsibility to continue opening parishes.”
I winced when I heard Exodus International was closing its doors… until I found out why, and it was a concern that I held since I first heard of it, no matter how much I respected its mission. Exodus International was trying alone to shoulder a responsibility that belonged to the entire ecosystem of the Church. And one question I had already been asking before I saw the Gay Nineties taking over was why on earth that class of sin was its own world, a separate detached from the rainbow fragments forgiven by Christ at Sinners Anonymous, or as it is more often called, the Church. The reason for the coming of the Son of God was to destroy the Devil’s work, and then to keep on pushing for bonus points well past when people can go Heaven: but for starters, let us to say to take each broken fragment of a fractured rainbow, whether pride or envy or the occult or drunkenness or any shard of lust whether gay or straight, and take these broken fragments and restore them to the to the pure, whole, white, bright, radiant, scintillating Light beyond beauty of the uncreated Son.
The martial arts classic A Book of Five Rings, in a brevity comparable to the Sermon on the Mount, covers five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and the void. The chapter about the void is by far the most terse: all else is summarized and transcended.
I have come to nearly the end of writing what I wanted to write, and I have covered almost everything on topic to cover except one thing: the original, central point that motivated the construction of the work. It would not be strange to call the topic “satyagraha:” I do not complain that others may do so, but I would rather look at hagiography.
The canonized saints trample on the rules of nature again, and again, and again. Saints walk on water; one monk, the only one on a monastic coast worthy to retrieve an icon miraculously floating on water, when he absolutely had to do so, crawled on top of the surface of the water on all fours like a dog, because in his great humility he considered himself utterly unworthy to stand up normally and walk on top of the water like Christ did. Saints pass through fire unharmed, although not every time. Many saints have been burned to death as martyrs, but it seems to happen that when the fire went out the martyrs looked as if they were merely sleeping, with a smile on their faces, and without a thread of their clothes or a hair on their heads singed or the faintest scent of smoke. In the lives, it seems that the only way that persecutors can get certain saints to die and stay dead is to behead them (hello, ISIS?), and even then, the saints occasionally pick up their heads, walk over to their preferred resting place, and there set down their severed heads and only then give their consent to really die.
Furthermore the God who works in the heart of hearts to giants among the saints is also works in the hearts of the faithful. Monastic giants trample on scorpions with bare feet; many more faithful trample on pride. Majestic saints open the eyes of the blind; and men reject lust and find their sight truly opened. St. Paul the Apostle raised the dead more than once, and innumerable more among the faithful, across many centuries, have fed the hungry; and furthermore, in a point that many, many officially canonized saints have driven home across the centuries, feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. The term “saint” referred originally to every member of the Church without exception, and one and the same God works in every stripe of saint to ultimately transcend the chasm between what is created, and what is uncreated. The wall between God and we who are merely created is there so that we may rise above it.
And in all this, the inner struggle of the Philokalia is vibrant in its nature. Its watchfulness or inner “nipsis” acts in moral and ascetical character like an author searching from just the perfect word, ever attentive, never hurrying, never impatient, always expecting. It is like the great Noah, who followed God’s command to build a huge boat in the middle of the desert, and was then the sole survivor from a deluge. It is like a diligent martial artist, who lives by the words, “The more you bleed in the dojo, the less you will bleed in the street.” It claims no exemption from suffering, nor entitlement to wishes fulfilled: if the Measure by whom all saints are measured was the great King who only wore a crown once, and then only a crown of twisted thorns, then we are advised to properly take up our crosses in this earthly vale while we can still repent, because once our life has gone, the opportunity to repent will vanish forevermore. But sometimes there is an an inner struggle of building a boat in the desert, and trusting the Lord of the Dance to know that he knows what is the right order and that if your next step is to leap before you look and only find out why after you have leapt. For those of us who are children at least, God shows us the reason why just after we have leapt because he knows that out of our weakness we will not exercise faith if he presents us with the reason beforehand, and identically knows that out of our weakness we will not maintain faith if too great a delay comes between the obedience and reward: in all things he meets our weakness that we might meet his strength. And all of this has every connection to how we can be entangled in our world’s conflicts, get hurt again and again, and meet a joy that is beyond any of the conflicts and hurts.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Destroying Asian Philosophy talks about “ego-reading”; reading to push through a text, or as the problem appears among hiking, rushing to get to a point as forcefully and as quickly as possible. He points out that paradoxically those who rush to just get something done tend to not arrive at the intended destination at all. People who make progress in one activity or the other are, although I do not recall if they are stated in these terms, are people who have something in mind other than forcing their way to an external goal. Had the book been written later, it might have used the term “auto-telic”, which describes an activity that is its own goal. Where martial arts like Aikido are called “goalless” by practitioners, it would be more literal, at some loss of striking contrast, to use a presently preferred term of auto-telic and say that an Aikidoko is not worrying about if he as a student will reach black belt, or on a much lower scale how interminably long it will take to master what should be a simple technique, or whether there will be enough progress in managing anger or weight, or anything else. A proper practitioner of Aikido’s attention is fixed on Aikido itself, rather than paralysis by analysis over whether Aikido can be successfully used as a bridge to something external. You practice Aikido in order to practice Aikido.
The Philokalia offers something that seems much less but ends by being much more. The basic framing of work is different, and quite at odds with today’s conception of interesting work. The usual physical craft of self-supporting monks in the ancient world was basket weaving, cynically understood by some in academia today as a legal fiction to let high-value football players keep the alumni without needing to perform proper academic work. The most common craft of self-supporting monasteries today is crafting incense, which at least supplies something elevated to Orthodox parishes. But this way of thinking misses the point for both the ancient and the modern arrangement, which I personally only understood when watching my brother’s Mythbusters show and hear Adam gush at how “meditative” the repeated monotonous physical action of weaving a braided kangaroo leather bullwhip was. The chief merit of basket weaving and incense making alike is that they are repetitive motions that occupy the hands, and it is not clear to me that it is particularly helpful to think of incense as a high-status thing. The ancient and modern monasticism alike the preferred obedience is something that engages the hands while the heart pursues purity. That is the center of gravity. And in modern monasteries, there may be some non-meditative work that needs to be done, but the general pattern is to have most monks heavily engaged in meditative labors for the benefit of the monks themselves in a setting where people do not distinguish sacred from secular or work from prayer. The work is there to help prayer reach perfection. And really, cleaning toilets is more often mentioned as the standard example of honorable obediences than making incense.
But the same center of gravity applies outside of the monastery; it can just be frustratingly more difficult. One monk commented to a cleaning lady that she had a more fortunate position, and I as a programmer and knowledge worker had a less fortunate position, because it is entirely possible to be engaged in prayer while scrubbing tables, but significantly harder to be absorbed in prayer while your mind is chasing bugs in a computer program. And no, this was not a matter of the monk being gracious to someone with lower status and knowing that I would not be hurt or offended by the suggestion. It was unvarnished candor.
What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!”
One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror.Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.
But God has ordained things, and monastic and non-monastic alike need struggle, which often takes the form of conflicts, of things that we don’t think belong in our lives but God knows they do. And joy does not consist in being exempt from struggle. It consists of growing in struggle. It consists of having a good struggle. And if you earnestly engage your struggle you may experience the power in the final crescendo of Fr. Thomas’s crystallization:
Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.
In all these things and more, the Sermon on the Mount as it unfolds including the Philokalia, like as the Mishnah and Talmud, acts as a stone from Heaven of inexhaustible wealth:
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.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
These things slip through our fingers. They are simple, simpler than breathing, and we in our weakened state need some great systematic theology with slippery concepts we can pin down to grasp. So God meets in our weakness and gives the Philokalia to meticulously assess every detail of internal struggle and the eight demons that became the seven deadly sins in the West. “Do not store up treasures on earth” is a simple commandment; it does not only tell us we do not need Rolls-Royces to experience true blessedness, nor do we need our health (saints have lived to great spiritual heights amidst great illness, and not just because they were extraordinarily good), nor do we need our thoughts, or plans for our future in days or minutes, or an identity such as we try to have in the West, or “My Opinions”. We are to chase instead of the treasures that we can eat from today and forever, and come to that place where every drop of blood we bleed in the dojo eclipses a galaxy of diamond in its worth on the streets of Heaven.
Cooldown: The Alchemist
The Alchemist, like many favorite picks on Oprah, is the sort of thing that makes me nostalgic for when my brother still had a beautiful tropical bird as a pet, and moreover makes me positively yearn for the days the house still had a birdcage that still needed lining. None the less, there is a vignette that I would like to draw out.
The teacher-figure in the course is the towering alchemical figure of Melchizedek, who is immortal, can turn lead into gold, can already turn himself into wind, and presumably has numerous and extraordinary other cosmic powers not explored in the text, and teaches the student-figure after making a sweeping dismissal of all the other traditions in all the world’s other religions, and even a Western scholar whose heart was in the wrong place along with alchemy being dismissed for rhetorical weight.
The student figure never becomes immortal, never gains abilities to change metals personally, has no idea how to turn himself into wind (at least to start off with; the quest where he learns to make this self-transformation is core to the book’s plot), and ends up after a long heroic journey to and back finds out that there had been an enormous quantity of gold lying buried under his back yard right where he started.
But a major point is this: both Master and student are equally alchemists, or at very least at the end. The student does not have all the master’s cosmic powers, and even after he has turned himself to wind it is debatable whether he has any cosmic powers, but the question of whether they have identical arsenals of cosmic powers matters no more than whether their eyes are of the same color. Both are equally alchemists; the student follows his teacher in delving deeper into a pride that destroys all capacity for any joy, and an occult mindset that destroys the sanity of all those who practice it in the real world. They are both alchemists, master and pupil, and both participate fully in the tradition, on their own paths. That the teacher’s path includes having the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and the student does not, and the teacher can transmute lead to gold and the student cannot, is neither here nor there. Teacher and student both follow their personal paths within alchemy. Perhaps it would have been fundamentally humbler for the student to keep on asking that the teacher give him a sole drop of the Elixir of Life and induct him into turning lead to gold.
With all of the above efforts to rip The Alchemist to shreds, and others I’ve held my tongue on, I still wish to make one point clear: The book’s way of looking at difference is less than you think. The further you reach the Kingdom of Heaven, the less it matters that you have precious little money or gold. In fact wealth properly understood is a liability and a handicap more than really being much of any asset that puts you in a better position. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher and apologist who helped me along the way to Orthodoxy, found one great spiritual advantage to money: it doesn’t make you happy. If you are perennially struggling financially, and you see Break My Window around you on the street when your beater breaks down frequently, it’s awfully, awfully hard to avoid thinking that so many things would be better if you had a good bit of money. If, on the other hand, you have a top-notch chauffeur for a Rolls-Royce, and you’re still miserable, a great deal of the sting has been taken away from the temptation that just having more money is all you need. You can still be greedy and covet things, but it becomes a far weaker temptation to think that your spiritual emptiness actually comes from the fact that you are not in a position to have Michelangelo’s David in your garden and the Mona Lisa in your living room.
The martial artist I respect most was asked in class how many times he had had to use his martial arts skills. And he slowly, gently, humbly said, that he had really been fortunate and hadn’t needed to use his his martial art, even though there were a couple of awfully close calls [during years and years of study].
And I submit that his answer, as stated, is wrong, or at least his wording was deceptive and misleading.
He was at the time a third-degree blackbelt. I don’t know what he is now. For non-martial artists, as far as sparring goes, a first-degree blackbelt is a third-degree blackbelt’s chewtoy. He is past the point where people are said to be able to kill a tiger with their bare hands. I am all but certain that in every one of those close calls, he could have killed the other person immediately. His teacher, at a martial arts show, stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and then the teacher was simultanously attacked by five blackbelts with swords, and an instant later the teacher stood holding two beautiful, ornamental-looking fans, looking quaint, and picturesque, and exotic, and all around him were five blackbelts, on the ground, crying.
The martial artist I most respect said, humbly, gently, modestly, that even in the close calls, he had said, “You’re the tough guy,” and backed down, or run away, or almost anything possible (whatever it took), coming out the loser in every social confrontation, and he went on to say, “Most people who think they want to fight don’t really want to fight.” And I submit that the proof of his profound mastery of his art was this: he has passed through minefield after minefield after minefield such as I almost certainly could not, without stepping on a mine even once. The point is not that he happened to be carrying a first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The point is not that he was carrying a very, very good first aid kit in case he did step on a mine. The proof of his mastery is that, as of my last knowledge, he had never needed to open his first aid kit, not even once. And indeed martial artists often defuse a potential fight before most outsiders would recognize there was anything going out of the ordinary going on.
Incidentally, though there was no question of my ever wanting to give a physical attack when I was in his class, I was quite the jackass and quite the belligerent student, and he only ever answered me with humility and gentleness. In the end, his gentleness conquered me.
What about what I have somewhat whimsically called “Tong Fior”? In my own opinion, my credentials make for an pretty impressive parody of martial arts, unless you want to go through the ha, ha, only serious route. I’ve lifted weights (and lifted weight machines, and broken weight machines by applying too much force), climbed with devotion, in riflery went from no rank to Sharpshooter, Bar VIII in one week, punched at bags, dipped a finger in a few martial arts, made my own approximation of ninjutsu stealth (and unintendedly got a stunned “Whaaaaa?” when these skills came out in campers’ response to games in nature with me as their camp counselor, asking, “Did you go to some special Daniel Boone school [to be able to move so silently and be sensitive to sounds that were apparently around 0 dB]?”), and am gifted to the degree that professionals say “You’re smarter than most geniuses” or “The average Harvard Ph.D. has never met someone as talented as you” (the gifts are not magic powers but for some purposes they might as well be), and other things which should be preferably viewed as ornamental at best. One question outsiders ask of martial artists is how well they’d do in a real fight; the question comes perhaps with hope at a training that would make the asker all but invincible, the basic response to that question is “HTTP Error 404: Missing Page”: if you’re not already the one and only Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s “sword-saint”, no martial art can change that at all. I would show respect for Kuk Sool Won by saying that one second degree black belt said, “I would give myself one chance in two. But the more chances you give yourself, the less you have.” I’ve had experienced the martial arts practicality, as one martial artist’s parody ad said, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” There is one point where I expect victory would come, and that is if the Spirit of the Lord comes on me. Orthodox priests should not employ physical violence, and in the profound story of Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, people are flabbergasted when the weakened and aged monk Fr. Arseny steps where a fight has broken out and strikes a forceful blow. Possibly if the Spirit of the Lord falls on me, I might blast through a 9th kyu, or possibly for that matter a 9th dan. In all other cases it is not my concern.
The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount, and the struggles I now wrestle with are not flesh and blood, though they have brought me through mortal danger more than once. Kuk Sool Won in every school but one says, “We need more practice!” The Kuk Sa Bo Nim (Grandmaster)’s headquarters school says, “You need more practice!” I’ll go with “We need more practice!”, please, or better “I need more practice!”, or if I can bring it even closer to my true needs, “Lord, give me more time to repent.”
I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
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.
“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.
2: Remember that nothing can injure the man who does not harm himself. St. Job the Much-Suffering may have suffered terribly, but there was only one thing that could do him final harm: his own sin, and he would have been lost if he yielded to his wife’s temptation, “Curse God and die.” St. Job suffered terribly, and unlike us, the readers of his story, he is never told that he has served as God’s champion. However, everything the Devil did added jewels to St. Job’s royal and Heavenly crown.
3: Know that Satan is on a leash.People of the Lie, in many ways a perceptive book, argues that evil is terribly out of control, and that is understandable for a psychiatrist who faces full force a kind of evil in a profession where the very belief in a Devil is rare enough to be exotic. But God help us if that were the case; none could be saved if we were tempted as much as the devils want. The Philokalia talks about how, if we know what burdens a beast of burden can bear, God knows and cares all the more what we can bear.Everything that happens is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that has allowed for our strengthening; the concept of a temptation, rightly understood, encompasses both things that make sin look attractive, and trials and tribulations, or something where both contribute to a single nasty whole. In medieval theology that I haven’t been able to trace, Satan is called God’s jester, because his foolishness with us is something that God takes up in glory, and a glory that can work in us.
To pick one example of what might be called thick-headedness for people who do not understand that “the prophet sees through a glass, darkly, while the archivist sees through a microscope, sharply,” we have in retrospect that Christ gave decisively clear predictions of his death and resurrection. However, St. Mary Magdalene came to Christ’s tomb for one and only one reason: to offer a last, singularly miserable service to a man dear to her, by embalming his body with aromatics. She was shocked at the empty tomb, and the only thing in her mind was disappointment that someone had seemingly stolen Christ’s body and was depriving her even of that last painful service she came to offer Christ. What had actually happened was utterly beyond her reckoning, but the Truth came to her: the grave was empty, defeated, with Christ resurrected beyond all earthly triumph. Much the same is true on the road to Emmaus, when Christ was quickening his disciples all along the way, and when their eyes were finally ready to be open to him, he vanished. Between the Resurrection and Ascension Christ was weaning his faithful to new ways of relating to him, ever beyond their initial reach. And even before then, he was trying to wean people off expectations of a political savior and an earthly king. He came to offer something fundamentally deeper than his disciples (or we) could look for.
I remember one couple who unhappily introduced their three-year-old boy as “an accident”, and complained about how hard it was to live their lives the way they wanted with him in the picture. I wanted to ask them, “Why must you look on the means of your deification as a curse?” Having children, whether we intend what God intends, is an opportunity for self-transcendence, where people who have transcended selfishness enough to love another are now given opportunity to transcend a selfishness of two. We may see a lot of other things that violate rights we think we have, and wonder where God is in all of this, but God is present all along; some have said that he is more visibly present in hard times than times of ease. Even if hard times shock us.
5. Love and respect others. “Blessed is the man who loves all men equally,” said St. Maximus Confessor. We are missing something if we say that some have given themselves to good deeds and some have given themselves to evil: all of us can make an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell because we are made in the image of God, and the most disfigured of us cannot completely exterminate the original beauty. All of us are constituted by the presence of God in the image. There is no shallow obligation to think the best of everyone, let alone whitewash sins. However, even when all sin is taken into account, we are members of the royal race. What sins a person may be rightly judged for are God’s concern, and God has not asked our help judging anyone. What divine image, and room for divine transformation, may exist in the vilest other are ours to respect and pray for.
Children who have been taught to respect adults may be more pleasant for adults to deal with, but the point of teaching children to respect adults really is not for the sake of adults, but for the sake of children to be able to benefit from adults. Ecclesiastical title and robes also don’t really exist for the wearer’s sake. Calling a priest ‘Father’ and the connected respect helps laity towards a position where they can benefit from clergy and their role.
6. Don’t wait on living until you have it all together. You probably never will. Abdicate from being in control of things. If there is a term for being in complete control of your life, it is probably “Hell” or “Gehenna”. The Sermon on the Mount speaks at length about being as the birds of the air or the grass of the field, and we, of the royal race, are of inestimably more value than plants and animals, venerable as they may be. There is only one Life: you’re in Him, or you’re not, and being in self-contained control over your life even if you can achieve it is not just dubiously achievable: it is dubiously desirable because you want to be independent of the one Life. The alternative is to dance the Great Dance, or as the Sermon on the Mount addresses our much more basic interests:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller!
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Christ speaks and assures us of our most basic material needs. There are other and more interesting needs, the need to grow in the divine Life and be freed from domination by our passions. But Christ here highlights things on a more basic level: not only does God wish to lead us in the Great Dance, but he also knows we need food and drink and offers practical care on his terms. The one petition out of the seven petitions in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread”, is exaggeratedly modest, or seems such: “Hallowed be thy name” is an earth-shaking desire, as is “Forgive us our trespasses.” Asking for just enough providence for today is in fact more significant than asking, “Set providence for my whole life before me now.” The smallness of the request is like the Virgin’s womb: it is more spacious than the Heavens because it contained One that the Heavens of Heavens cannot contain.
7. Guard your heart. The Fathers talked about the importance of working, and monastics have worked to support their own needs, or even made baskets that were burned at the end of the year so that they would not be idle. In ancient times, the preferred handicraft for monastics was basketweaving; in modern times, apart from writing icons, one preferred handicraft for monastics is making incense. In both cases, it may be missing the point to say that it is menial work, and monastics humbled themselves to do menial work. Though I have tried my hand at neither craft, the simple repetitive motions involved appear to be deeply meditative, a project of choice to employ the hands while the heart is at prayer. Now monastics can and have chosen the worst that was available to them in their humility, but the constant basketweaving of the Fathers may have been a best known option to occupy the hands while drawing the heart further into prayer.
In any case, and not just for monastics, one tenth of what we do is external action, and nine tenths of the work is guarding a heart at prayer. Today’s respected forms of work like computer programming may present a bigger challenge to do prayerfully than tasks like janitorial work that are looked down on, but people in either line of work should make 9/10ths their effort to be at peace and at prayer, and 1/10th the external deliverable.
Furthermore, we should beware of all temptation, which starts as a spark and end, if not stopped, as a raging fire. Love keeps no record of wrongs, and remembrance of wrong is a self-torment; we make what was painful when we went through it to be present to us all again. In this case it may be helpful to silently pray the Jesus Prayer and attend to that rather than leave things to their course and re-attend painful memories.
8. Expect a road of pain and loss. Fr. Thomas said, “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.” Christ’s own comment cuts deeper into why: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” There can and should be other things beyond temptation and loss; God is good, and it’s meaningless or awfully close to meaningless to say that because God is good any evil that could possibly happen to us is harmless. However, if we “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath” and “Do the most difficult and painful things first,” and recognize that we have no rights, the very letters will begin to shimmer and change. If we recognize that we do not have rights, instead of seeing rights of ours that are violated we may begin to see graces extended to us that we have no right to expect. If we have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to our last breath, we may recognize graces contrary to these expectations. The pain and the loss are real, and we may be shocked at times by what painful things God allows us. But the journey is purifying, and the God who prunes us does so that we may bear more fruit, and with it a fuller joy.
9. Observe Orthodox mystagogy, at least on one lesser point. There is such a thing as a book, or a teaching, that is above one’s present pay grade. Maybe it will be in reach later; it is not in reach now. There are classic books that open with exhortations to literary secrecy; far from an author today hoping to reach as broad an audience as possible, they say “Read this but keep it in secret from the many who would not profit from it.”
This is not the same point exactly, but there is a much lesser mystagogy than writing a book and asking that it be given a closed circulation. It is, as explained to me, if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if you tell it, you hold your tongue instead of trying to argue the other person into accepting the truth. I’m not saying that we’re all really emotion and arguments do not persuade; arguments can persuade. This piece is in part argument, and it is legitimately meant to persuade by reasoning about the truth. But if you are dealing with a gay rights advocate or someone who is thoroughly convinced that Islam is a religion of peace, or whatever company may join them in the future, you do not try to argue them into a truth you know they will reject. When Judgment Day comes, it will better for the other person because they did not reject the truth. And it will also be better for you because you did not set them up for that sin. This is far from the full extent of Orthodox mystagogy; some people have advocated asking a priest or spiritual father to pick out books from them for a time, or said that they weren’t ready to read a book first but came back after they had grown spiritually and then found immense profit in the book. There is another thread of mystagogy in that monastics do not parade their mystical experiences for all the world or even all the faithful to see. Mystagogy is foundational to Orthodoxy even if it is pitifully observed now, but it still applies now in that you don’t try to use logical arguments to make people accept truths their hearts reject.
There is an alternative to compelling by arguing the truth: compelling by living the Truth. If we embrace a Truth who is ever so much more than right opinion, other people will pick up on it, the same as if we fully respect the image of God in another person, right or wrong. If we grow enough spiritually, people will sense something. Possibly this may create a teachable moment; possibly it won’t, but it will reach people’s hearts as a logical jackhammer cannot. St. Paul advises believing wives to win over unbelieving husbands without a word; but this is not an exception to an argumentative norm so much as an example that is almost supreme in character. The basic phenomenon reaches from one heart to another.
10. Read nourishing books in keeping with the Orthodox Church’s character as an oral tradition. There is a wealth of good books at the hands of the Orthodox Church; the collection of the Fathers over the centuries is like an encyclopedia in its length, and the Bible is indispensible. None the less, the Orthodox Church is at heart an oral tradition, and for most Orthodox Christians, being patristic is not achieved by quasi-academic reading of copious books, but by being in church where the priest mediates Tradition. There is oral tradition implied by the written tradition of the Philokalia, which is less properly a book than a library with different texts at different levels. It’s not meant to be read cover to cover, although that may also be permitted; it’s intended for a spiritual guide to pull selections for someone under guidance. And treat this text, too, as written property of oral tradition; use it (or not) as your priest or spiritual father guides you.
11. Banish two thoughts, and retain two thoughts. Abandon the thoughts, “I am a saint,” and “I will be damned.” Instead, think both “I am a great sinner,” and “God is merciful.” Repentance needs no despair; the worst of earthly sins are like a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.
12. In conjunction with your spiritual father, know your limits and don’t try to be perfect. If someone is harassing you, and both not responding and repeated requests to stop harassment are being answered with harassment, it’s time to involve social media or email authorities, or possibly the police, or just block someone on Facebook much earlier. It may be the case that some superspiritual saint could serenely shine through the worst of the harassment, but that is not the case for you and me. We aren’t there, at least not yet, and your priest or spiritual father may have very practical words about how mountains are moved here on earth.
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.
Thessaloniki (DP). A monk from one of the communities explained a recent uproar:
During a recent voyage that crossed the U.S., the Ecumenist Patriarch was approached by a beggar, and asked one of the priests with him to “Give him some change.”
The importance of this request simply cannot be overstated. It might perhaps have been appropriate to say, “Give him 37 cents,” or “Give him nothing,” or even “Give him twenty (or a hundred) dollars,” costly as that may be. However, to say to give someone some money, without specifying the amount, is in no way consistent with best practices in accounting. And what is Orthodoxy, if not a training ground for the life of an accountant?
Our reporter said, “Yes, but aren’t there two principles of accounting? Isn’t there room for both strict precision that knows what you have down to the last cent, but also a much smaller area where it isn’t worth the bother to keep tabs. Doesn’t basic accounting have some degree of flexibility for both basic principles, even if the absolute precision bit is the deeper of the two?”
The monk coughed, and shifted his position slightly. “I planned fifteen minutes for this interview. I see that those fifteen minutes have already elapsed.”
Especially when we are preparing for the Feast of the Nativity, when the Word became flesh, we would do well to meditate on why the Word became flesh:
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God. The divine became human so that the human might become divine. 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:
The Word became flesh that flesh might become Word.
The chief end of mankind
The Westminster Catechism famously opens:
Question: What is the chief end of mankind?
Answer: The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
It is often (and rightly) pointed out that these are the same thing: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever are the exact same thing. The chief end of mankind is to contemplate God. And one thread of this is woven into St. John’s prologue: “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The disciples saw the uncreated Light of the Holy Transfiguration, and contemplated it.
But St. John the Theologian does not truncate contemplation. This follows, “But to as many as received him, he gave the authority to become the sons of God.” And contemplation and theosis/deification/divinization, becoming sons of God, are not two competing answers to the question, “What is the chief end of mankind?” Far from it: they are expressions of the same truth. Contemplating the uncreated Light, and being transformed to be one of the sons of God, are two connected aspects of the same goal. They come together, and we might well quote for contemplation of God words also spoken of the Eucharist: “Behold what you believe. Become what you behold.” For contemplation and theosis are of the same essence. They are of the same essence almost as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of the same essence.
Now it may need to be pointed out that God, and God alone, can be divine by nature. If theosis is open to us, there is no question of our becoming also divine by nature. That is impossible. God’s great work is to make us become by grace what he is by nature, and the infinite gulf between Uncreated and created can never be erased. But it can be transcended by a God who transcends not only Creation but transcends transcendence itself. And when his grace is at work, our spiritual sins and wounds remain, and we remain created, but that is no longer the point. It is no longer the issue. God transcends the chasm that we may by grace share in the divine nature and become by grace what he is by nature.
The great Incarnation was not something that was complete at the Nativity of Christ (or the Annunciation). Christ became incarnate in his own person that he might be incarnate in our persons as well. Word became flesh that flesh become Word. And Incarnation reaches its proper stature when it unfolds into our divinized life, when the Feast of the Nativity unfurls and Christ is born in us. The Annunciation of the Theotokos and the Nativity of Christ are still going on today!
It is a profound error to think of eternal life as something that begins after death. Eternal life is now; the door is open. The same uncreated Light by which Christ was transfigured, so saints have been transfigured, and this is why icons give halos to saints. Paradise is wherever the saints are; and not only canonized saints but in some measure the faithful who are called saints in Scripture.
In theosis, in divinization, in deification, we do not usurp God’s place; rather, Christ’s headship over us receives its proper place. That means not only that he is our Lord and Master, though he most certainly is, nor “merely” that we owe our very existence to him. Rather, to say that Christ is our head is the same thing as saying that we are Christ’s body. As is the Head, so is the body. As is the Christ, so is the Christian. Christ’s own blood flows in our veins. The royal, divine lifeblood courses through our veins. Everything in our lives is to be brought under Christ’s headship, and by the same token our lives are to be made divine.
There is no hair’s breadth of separation between being a follower of Jesus and being another Christ. If you follow Jesus, you are a vessel of his Incarnation, and the Incarnation of Christ is no faroff historical remembrance: it is what you work on today.
The messy circumstances of our lives
“All this is very well,” perhaps you may say, “but my life is not so perfect. We do not live in a perfect world.”
But these are not words from, or merely for, golden ages. When Christ came, no wonder people were looking for a military Messiah who would free the holy land from Roman domination. That was a natural enough thing to want! (And even today, people want someone to save our economy and political situation.) Christ came, as God does, catching people by surprise. People who were living under Third World economic conditions wanted a political savior. Christ came offering something else: saving people from their sins.
Perhaps not much has changed. Not everybody likes our world’s political and economic situation. We seek a savior: a political savior, an economic savior. And Christ comes to us to save us from our sins.
This salvation is a salvation which we overlook and the salvation that we need. Some people pass on the quotation, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us,” and the saying is worth repeating. We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us.
These messy circumstances, these bad economic conditions, not to mention politics, are what we think need to be cleared away for God to be at work with us. God has a word for us that is alike difficult and liberating: he wants to work with us in these circumstances. Even if economics and politics turn worse, he may want to deal with us, and deify us, precisely in the conditions lie furthest from his power.
Christ God the Savior doesn’t just deify us who were made in the image of God. He wants to place everything in our lives under his headship: every sin, every suffering, every tear, death itself. He wants to commandeer every evil, as he has Shanghaied the works of the Devil down from the ages. He is a hard man who gathers where he has never harvested, and he harvests not only righteousness and good works, but sin, evil, and death no less if we will but allow him. All of this is under his headship, and all of this he transforms to be deified. And he does not share our illusions about when he can really get to work.
We imagine well enough that only if something changes, only if we get a job, only if someone else changes can our lives move forward. God works to our good before that happens. Our engagement with God happens first, if there is any change to follow, and when we do discover the Kingdom of God which we keep on overlooking in our search for deliverance, everything changes. We may get what we want. We may not get what we want. But we do not need what we want. Even if we get what we want, we are placed far beyond it. We discover treasure hidden in a field and everything changes. And it is sometimes in the hardest trials that God shows the greatest grace and joy. It is like in the poem “Footprints.” When we see only one set of footprints, it was then that Christ carried us: and when we see only one set of footprints, it was then that he was most active in our deification.
Deification is the chief end of man; we were made to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and this is the chief end, not for some other people in some golden age, but here and now, in our political and economic condition. The benevolent, severe, and merciful God who provided for us in decades before is the same benevolent, severe, and merciful God who not only wills to provide for us now, but to work our deification. And he wills this, not sometime when we obtain what we want sometime in the future, but here and now. The same God who commandeers our sin and works such a wonder in us that it is no longer the issue that we injured ourselves, works with our suffering world in such a way that it is no longer the issue if we live in a time of global economic collapse. The same God who has deified men in every age wills our glory today.
The Feast of the Nativity
The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) has been called “Pascha in winter,” and in a very real sense it is. But there is a difference. Pascha was open triumph; Christ the Firstborn of the Dead forever triumphed over death, and the day is coming when Christ will return borne on rank on rank of angel and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him. But the Nativity was not open triumph; an angel chorus appeared, and only a few knees bowed. It was if anything an invasion in the dead of winter.
But the Feast of the Annunciation, the Feast of the Nativity, and the Feast of Theophany are the same thing, really: they are feasts of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is forever frustrated in its purpose unless it unfurls in us. We are to be brought under Christ’s headship. We are to be deified. We are made for theosis. We are to contemplate God. We are to be vessels of the Incarnation of Christ, and this is for here and for now, not for when we reach some other circumstances.
Preparation for the Feast of the Nativity includes important external observances intended to concretely foster a realization: Each and every one of us has a problem with sin. You need, and I need, to come to a point of wondering if God can work with such a sinner. But when we come to God and confess our sins, he answers not only with mercy, but grace: repenting from sin is greater work than raising the dead. We awaken when we come to realize we are standing in a sewer, and when we least expect God to work with us, then in particular our deification is alive. Repenting is greater work than raising the dead, for we ourselves rise from the death of sin into the eternal life that has already begun on earth. And when we wonder, not why God has not placed us in some nicer circumstances, but why God has not placed us in much rougher circumstances, that God is at work and Heaven opens.
I learned some pretty big things during the Y2k scare, and some of them have every relevance to how to survive an economic depression.
When year 2000 was approaching, I was part of the doomsday camp. I believed, wrongly, that technology would fail and everything around me would start to fall apart. But did a lot of digging and I think I learned something about what makes people survive really rough situations–and how to survive an economic depression. The economy is in deep trouble, and what I found out then has every relevance now that we are worried about how to survive an economic depression.
When Y2k was approaching, I found a lot of materials on physicalpreparation for such an event, but very little on psychological preparation. The most that I can remember reading about that was that when I said on a newsgroup that a Y2k doomsday would be psychologically as well as physically difficult, someone said that I was right and suggested that Y2k preparations include stocking up on board games and condoms.
That answer seemed, to put it politely, not up to snuff. As far as mental preparation goes, that was the equivalent of saying, “If bad things happen on January 1 2000, be prepared for great physical danger. Alwaysremember to look both ways before you cross the street!”
After failing to find something more informative on newsgroups, I went to the library, to look for more information on psychological survival in difficult situations. I did a lot of digging, reading whatever seemed like it might shed light, but finding very little of an answer anywhere that I looked. Even a book on psychology and the military said almost nothing about how either soldiers or civilians stood up psychologically to disaster, or what enables a survivor to overcome an incredibly difficult situation.
It was only after a lot of digging that I realized the answer was almost staring me in the face. What makes a survivor is not exactly psychological. It is spiritual. There was something spiritual about, for instance, people who had survived incredibly hostile situations as hostages and prisoners. It is not exactly that they had some special talent, or drew on some special mind trick or had developed what we would imagine as spiritual powers. It was something almost pedestrian.
It had something to do with religious devotion. Faith has something to do with how to survive an economic depression.
I imagine I may raise some eyebrows by suggesting faith has something to do with how to survive a disaster. But faith was how many people survived the Great Depression. Perhaps a great many survivors survived despite their useless faith, or maybe it was a crutch, but if it seems obvious to you that faith could have nothing to do with how people survived the Great Depression, then I would ask you to entertain a possibility you might not have considered. Maybe they know something we have forgotten.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Much of the Bible comes from disastrous times. In the Bible’s book ofHabakkuk, there is a prophet who sees great evil about him. He cries out to the Lord, and the Lord gives an answer that leaves the prophet stunned: the Lord will punish the wickedness of Israel by having an army of terrorists conquer their land. This was a disaster that might be worse than economic collapse. The prophet asks the Lord a question: how can a righteous God look on such wickedness? And the Lord responds without really answering the prophet’s question: the Lord responds without giving the prophet what he wants. But tucked away in the Lord’s response are some very significant words: “…the righteous shall live by faith.”
Those words were taken up in the New Testament and became a rallying-cry against rigid legalism. But they are more than a response to people who turn religion into a bunch of rules; they speak also in situations where legalism is simply not the issue. The prophet cried out to the Lord about rampant violence. The issue was not really legalism at all. And this is when the words were first spoken: “The righteous shall live by faith.” These words were given in terrifying times.
“The righteous shall live by faith” is a non-answer, and a quite deliberate non-answer. The prophet asked how such a pure God could allow such wickedness to exist, and God does not give the answer he is looking for. The Lord doesn’t really answer the prophet’s question at all. It’s almost like:
Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”
The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”
The Lord doesn’t tell the prophet what he wants. He gives him something much better; these brief words say, “I AM WHO I AM, and I will do what I will do, and you may not look past the protecting veil that enshrouds me. But in the disastrous times you face, know this: the righteous shall live by faith.”
God doesn’t just refuse to tell the prophet what he wants. He gives Habakkuk something fundamentally richer and deeper. He tells the prophet what he needs. What God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith,” is a luminous thread appearing throughout Scripture, woven into the fabric of Proverbs and woven through and through in the Sermon on the Mount. This luminous, radiant thread declares that God is sovereign, in hard times as well as good, and that his divine providence is with his faithful no less. Even if we are in a depression, God can watch out for us.(Perhape especially if we are in a depression. The surprising report from many survivors is that God’s help is much more obvious in hard times than when things are easy.) Just witness this luminous thread in the Sermon on the Mount:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is there not more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add one hour to his span of life? (You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot and a half taller!) And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither work nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as gloriously as one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For people without faith seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own things to worry about. Each day has enough worries of its own.
The righteous shall live by faith, and the Sermon on the Mount has a great deal to say about exactly how the righteous shall live by faith. The radiant thread unfolds, unfurls, beams, “Money is unworthy of your trust: put your trust in God. Live in the security of faith. Have the true security of faith in God who provides, not the ersatz providence of what you can arrange for yourself. Do not spend your life building a sandcastle for your home and trying to keep it from collapsing. I offer you a way to build a solid house, built on the rock.”
And this is not just a statement about how we should not worry about the future when we have it easy. The Sermon on the Mount closes with words that are entirely relevant to surviving the storms of life when we wonder how to survive an economic depression:
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and its collapse was great.
These are not words about nothing more than how to relax and enjoy life when it is easy. These are words about how to prepare for hard times, and how to survive in a disaster. In other words, they are words about how to survive an economic depression.
In hard times as well as good, the righteous shall live by faith. Indeed, the words “the righteous shall live by faith” originally come from times with an industrial-strength disaster on the horizon!
The Apostle Paul: Portrait of a survivor!
Who can survive stress like an industrial-strength disaster? The Bible paints a picture of one person who survived a lot of really rough times, and not only survived, but genuinely thrived.
When I was in college, part of the general “foundations of wellness” class was taking the Holmes Stress Point Scale, which assigns points for stressful events to add up to a rough estimate of how stressful your life is. You get a certain number of points for each stressful experience you’ve been through, and they add up to your total score for how stressful the past year of your life is. The events include:
Death of a close friend…
Outstanding personal achievement…
Minor violation of the law…
The higher a score from stressful events, the more stressful your life is. The scale’s explanation is: If your score is 300 or more, you are at a very high stress level and probably run a major risk of illness in the next year. If your score is 200 to 299, your stress and illness risk are moderate, and if your score is between 150 to 200, your stress and risk are mild.
My teacher mentioned that one student had computed such a score for a year in the life of the Apostle Paul, who went through a number of events that should score major points for stress:
Attacked by a frenzied mob…
Shipwrecked in the mother of all storms…
Clandestine escape from a city when people were trying to kill him…
Physically assaulted by soldiers…
Survived an assassination attempt…
The student calculated a staggering 675 points for one year in the life of St. Paul!
But the odd thing is that if you read the Book of Acts, St. Paul does not really come across as someone we should pity. We read that some of his colleagues were harassed, beaten, and afterwards were rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of their Lord. When I read the accounts of these events, I walk away with a sense, not that these suffering heroes are poor and pitiable, but that they are giants and they utterly dwarf me. There is something greater in the Apostle, far greater, than a whopping 675 points worth of externally stressful events.
It is the same thing, really, as with people who survived a long time being hostages for terrorists. They had dug deep and built their house on the rock, and when stormwinds battered their house, it survived and stood firm. It is the same thing for the bedrock of how people survived the Great Depression. And if we may be battered by hard economic times, we would like our houses to stand firm as well.
Suffering and sonship
It may be that what we fear that in a potential disaster is that we will lose what is good for us. We may fear getting sidetracked when none of our dreams seem to come true. We may fear that God cannot really provide our good if our recession becomes a depression or even an economic collapse–that the Sermon on the Mount is presumably about how to live in easy times but wouldn’t be quite so helpful when we’re in a depression. But there is something we are missing. Some of the things that we fear may have a surprisingly positive place in a well-lived life. There is something we are missing in all this.
Suffering has a place in the divine discipleship—the divine sonship—that the Sermon on the Mount is all about. “The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God,” as C.S. Lewis echoed the ancient wisdom, a wisdom that plays out in discipleship. Discipleship, service to God in difficulties, providence, and ascetical or spiritual practices all come together: God provides for us and disciples us in hard times as well as good. Sometimes he provides more plainly when we have nothing than when we have everything. In the Philokalia, we hear the words of St. Makarios as he explains the place of suffering in discipleship:
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ, so that he too may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from the unseen spirits. God in His providence allows souls to be tested by various afflictions of this kind, so that it may be revealed which of them truly loves Him. All the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs from the beginning of time traversed none other than this narrow road of trial and affliction, and it was by doing this that they fulfilled God’s will. ‘My son,’ says Scripture, ‘if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for trial, set your heart straight, and patiently endure’ (Ecclus. 2 : 1-2). And elsewhere it is said: ‘Accept everything that comes as good, knowing that nothing occurs without God willing it.’ Thus the soul that wishes to do God’s will must strive above all to acquire patient endurance and hope. For one of the tricks of the devil is to make us listless at times of affliction, so that we give up our hope in the Lord. God never allows a soul that hopes in Him to be so oppressed by trials that it is put to utter confusion. As St Paul writes: ‘God is to be trusted not to let us be tried beyond our strength, but with the trial He will provide a way out, so that we are able to bear it (I Cor. 10 : 13). The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to. Men know what burden may be placed on a mule, what on a donkey, and what on a camel, and load each beast accordingly; and the potter knows how long he must leave pots in the fire, so that they are not cracked by staying in it too long or rendered useless by being taken out of it before they are properly fired. If human understanding extends this far, must not God be much more aware, infinitely more aware, of the degree of trial it is right to impose on each soul, so that it becomes tried and true, fit for the kingdom of heaven?
Hemp, unless it is well beaten, cannot be worked into fine yarn, while the more it is beaten and carded the finer and more serviceable it becomes. And a freshly moulded pot that has not been fired is of no use to man. And a child not yet proficient in worldly skills cannot build, plant, sow seed or perform any other worldly task. In a similar manner it often happens through the Lord’s goodness that souls, on account of their childlike innocence, participate in divine grace and are filled with the sweetness and repose of the Spirit; but because they have not yet been tested, and have not been tried by the various afflictions of the evil spirits, they are still immature and not yet fit for the kingdom of heaven. As the apostle says: ‘If you have not been disciplined you are bastards and not sons’ (Heb. 12 : 8). Thus trials and afflictions are laid upon a man in the way that is best for him, so as to make his soul stronger and more mature; and if the soul endures them to the end with hope in the Lord it cannot fail to attain the promised reward of the Spirit and deliverance from the evil passions.
The story is told of a woman who was told the Lord would be with her, and afterwards found herself an incredibly painful situation. When she cried out to the Lord and asked how this could be, the Lord answered: “I never said it would be easy. I said I’d be with you.” God’s way, it seems, is not to make things easy for us, but to strengthen us for greatness in what are often hard situations, and sometimes disasters. He gives us mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.
And we can climb mountains even if we are in an economic depression. Perhaps especially if we are in an economic recession. God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering. Not even if we’re really good Christians—especially not if we’re really good Christians! If you read the saints’ lives (see the links on the natural cycle clock), you will see that even with all the wondrous providence God provides for the saints, the saints in fact suffer much more than the rest of us; they know sufferings worse than most of us have ever been through.
There are saints whose prayers healed others—but who were for themselves never healed of their own major illnesses. If this sounds ironic, remember that Christ also was told, “Physician, heal thyself.” Christ is pre-eminent as one who saved others but could not save himself, and “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” is one way of defining God’s kingdom. Part of how people survived the Great Depression was that they carried the spirit of God’s kingdom and worked to save others, and not just themselves. Communities of people survived the Great Depression because, even if no one could save “Me! Me! Me!”, perhaps each one could help save others.
God’s providence does not spare us from our suffering, but he works with us in our suffering, often to do things with us that could never happen if we had things our way. It may be precisely on the mountain, in the act of climbing, that God gives us the strength to climb!
Sometimes God works with us despite our best efforts to fix things so we can have things our way. Wise people rightly tells us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and “You can’t always get what you want.” And perhaps if we did get what we wanted, we wouldn’t get what God wanted for us. Some of us may try to fix our problems and pray to God to take them away—when his plan is to use our problems to build us up. St. Makarios above quotes Hebrews, and in fact Hebrews is one of the clearest books of the Bible that God works with us in suffering—in fact, that Christ himself was perfected by suffering (source):
But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.
…But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.
Our view of suffering is often that if we are suffering, then we cannot be where we should be. It often seems we can only be where we should be when we are out of a difficult situation). It seems that we are sidetracked, and will only stop being sidetracked when we have things our way. But that is absolutely false. God worked with Christ in suffering. God worked with the saints in suffering. God worked with us in suffering. And that means that we can be in suffering and in pain, with our godly plans failing, and we are still just where God wants us: we may not see it, but sometimes our earthly failure is a heavenly victory. If God allows us to be in an economic collapse, he may be doing things with us, good things, that we might never happen if we had the comfort we seem to need. The last words above, about suffering and failure, lead directly into the famous “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.
What may be happening in our sufferings is that God is building us into greater people than if we succeed in getting what we want. Including if we are in an economic depression. This is a basic lesson of people growing up: many young people have big dreams for themselves, but grow by middle age into living for others, growing into something that could never happen if all their youthful dreams came true. And suffering has a place in this—and a greater and deeper value. The Son of God was made perfect through suffering. Innocent suffering is sharing in the suffering of Christ: Christ’s suffering is made perfect in his people. St. Paul, the survivor who went through terrible suffering, wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col 1.24 RSV)
Suffering is not getting off-track, nor does it force us out of God’s plans, so that we only get into God’s providence as soon as things are the way we would like. What some of us fear in suffering is that if we are in difficult circumstances, then that must mean we are spiritual failures as well as failing on earth. If we are faithful and still fail in our plans, this does not mean that either God’s plans or providence have failed. Often he is working at us when we are suffering and we are so far afield from anything that makes sense to us.
Everything we meet is either a blessing from God, or a trial that God allows for our strengthening. You may say that there is something evil in your trials, and you would be entirely right: there is something evil, and perhaps demonic, in our trials and afflictions. Perhaps you may say that there seems to be something almost demonic about an economic collapse, and you would still be right. But, as C.S. Lewis observes, all of us do the will of God. We may do the will of God as Satan and Judas did, asinstruments, or we may do the will of God as Peter and John did, as sons. But all of us do the will of God, and ultimately Satan and may be no more than a hammer in God’s hand. And even if God allows rough trials, he allows them for our strengthening. St. Makarios is very clear: “The devil harasses the soul not as much as he wants but as much as God allows him to.” Evil is on a leash. Let us be faithful. Every move the Devil plays is one move closer to his loss and God’s victory, and ours if we are faithful.
I am not saying that the future holds much suffering. You or I may have a lot of suffering, or actually not that much. I am, however, saying that however much suffering God allows, he can still work with us. He can still work with us in an economic depression. (And that is even without going into how a great many people have been in situations they dreaded, and found life to still be beautiful.) As St. Paul, a survivor, closed Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Building a house on the rock—it’s not all about you!
Ascesis refers to disciplined spiritual practice. It’s a part of building a house on the rock. In the Orthodox tradition, these include sacraments, church attendance and daily liturgical prayers, reading and listening to Scripture, working to keep the Jesus prayer in your heart (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), growing into the liturgical seasons and internal and external fasting, hospitality, service, thanksgiving, repentance, giving to others who ask your help, cutting back on selfish pleasures, including icons in your prayer, solitude, community, and other practices. All of these can offer different help in growing to spiritual maturity.
But there comes a crucial caveat. None of these, if they are working correctly, are all about us. However essential they are to building a house on the rock, they are infinitely more than tools for how to survive an economic depression. They are tools to living in communion with God and being transformed by his grace. These disciplines, used rightly, can clear away obstacles to our growing in discipleship under God, but if they are used wrongly, they can be extremely harmful.
[Piglet picked some violets, decided to give them to Eeyore, and went to visit him.]
“Oh, Eeyore,” began Piglet a little nervously, because Eeyore was busy.
“To-morrow,” said Eeyore. “Or the next day.” Piglet came a little closer to see what it was. Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.
“Oh, Eeyore,” he began again, “I just—”
“Is that little Piglet?” said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.
“Yes, Eeyore, and I—”
“Do you know what this is?”
“No,” said Piglet.
“It’s an A.”
“Oh,” said Piglet.
“Not O—A,” said Eeyore severely. “Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?”
“Yes,” said Piglet. “No,” said Piglet very quickly, and he came closer still.
“Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is—until somebody treads on it,” Eeyore added sternly.
Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.
“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”
“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”
“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”
“Oh,” said Piglet again. “I mean, does it?” he explained quickly.
“I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated—mark this, little Piglet—to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,” he added, “just something that anybody can come and breathe on.”
Piglet stepped back nervously, and looked round for help.
“Here’s Rabbit,” he said gladly. “Hallo, Rabbit.”
Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, “Ah, Eeyore,” in the voice of one who would be saying “Good-bye” in about two more minutes.
“There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?”
“What’s this that I’m looking at?” said Eeyore, still looking at it.
“Three sticks,” said Rabbit promptly.
“You see?” said Eeyore to Piglet. He turned to Rabbit. “I will now answer your question,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you,” said Rabbit.
“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becones Educated. He instigorates—I think that is the word he mentioned, but I may be referring to something else—he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way, I also, if I have the word right, am—am doing what he does. That, doe instance is?”
“An A,” said Rabbit, “but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.”
Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.
“What did Rabbit say it was?” he asked.
“An A,” said Piglet.
“Did you tell him?”
“No, Eeyore, I didn’t. I expect he just knew.”
“He knew? You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?”
“Yes, Eeyore. He’s very clever, Rabbit is.”
“Clever!” said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. “Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. “A thing Rabbit knows! Ha!”
We need to avoid being Eeyores with our spiritual discipline, or our spirituality, or our faith, or our religion. Letters serve a greater purpose, and so do ascetical practices: we should not, like Eeyore, stare at an A and tell ourselves that it is our Education and Learning, or Prayers and Church Attendance as the case may be.
The point of ascetical practices is to be steps of the Great Dance: living the life that God shares, and becoming one of the sons of God. It’s not merely a set of survival skills that work in an economic recession or depression, or even an economic collapse, even if “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is quite practical advice. The point is to seek first the kingdom of a God who knows our survival needs: as God told Habakkuk before a disaster, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The luminous thread beams brightly because it is more than just a white thread. It shines, and it shines with the light of Heaven, a light of divine love that illumines Creation.
What Eeyore doesn’t get about the luminous thread is that it is the light of Heaven shining on earth.
Better than an endowment
Some years before I became Orthodox, I was at a class where someone was commenting on Proverbs, and its texts that say, in essence, “Put your trust in God, not money.” (“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death,” Prov 11:4 RSV.) One point he made that particularly surprised me was, “Endowments aren’t so great.”
He asked a question: if we want to be independently wealthy, who do we want the “independently” to mean we are independent from? The answer he gave: “Independent from God.” If we want to be independently wealthy, we may want something more than mere luxuries. The basic fantasy of life as we imagine ourselves being independently wealthy, is a life that is in control and unlike the actual messiness of our real lives with so many things that are simply beyond our control. And his suggestion, based on real life as well as Proverbs, is that it is actually not good for us to have an endowment that we can trust.
One kind of person counselors work with is the person who cannot be happy without being in control of everyone around them. The basic problem is that a person who needs to be in control is a tragically shrunken person, and part of what a counselor will try to give a person is an opportunity to step into a larger world. If you believe, “I can’t be happy unless I’m in control of everyone I’m involved with,” that will set you up for a lot of unhappiness.
This is not just because it is really hard to control everyone else. A few people who want to control others really do manage to control others around them, but they are really as unhappy as others who want the same thing but don’t manage the control over others they always want to establish. As Chesterton observed, there may be some desires which are not achievable, but there are some desires which are not desirable.
If you want the world to be small enough that there is nothing outside your control, you want to live in a small and terribly shrunken world. If you let go of that kind of control, you may find that you have let yourself into a much bigger world than if you were the biggest thing around, and in the process you become bigger yourself. Instead of being a tin god ruling a world as cramped as a cubicle, you become servant in God’s vast mansions. And being one of many of these servants is a much better position to be in than dominating as a tin god.
And there is more to this larger world, the larger world of serving in God’s great mansions. The words, “The righteous shall live by faith” were given, in full force, when a brutal invasion was coming. Those words may not originally have been about how to survive an economic depression. They were originally more about how to survive something worse: your country being taken over by terrorists!
The words, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and the Sermon on the Mount, apply to some pretty rough situations, including an economic recession, economic depression, or economic collapse. Christ’s words about not worrying do not apply just to privileged people who have nothing seriously worth worrying about; many of the people who first heard theSermon on the Mount were on the bottom of the totem pole and would see less material comfort than the kind of person most Americans would imagine as a homeless person.
The model prayer Christ would give is not a prayer for something nicer for people stuck on a nasty diet of burgers and KFC; the one physical request is for bread—by American standards, quite a dull thing to eat day in and day out, and possibly poorer nutritional fare than fast food—and it is in thiscontext that Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, beckons us to store up treasure in Heaven, and invites us to a spiritual feast that unfurls in hard times as well as when everything meets our expectations. He invites us to the spiritual feast, the larger world, that is at the heart of spirituality and religion and is unlocked by faith. The Sermon on the Mount neither assumes nor needs a high standard of living to have real treasure.
The invitation to dance the Great Dance is open to us now as ever. All of us are invited to the Great Feast. Even if we’ve snubbed words like, “Money doesn’t make you happy,” and, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” not only do those truths remain open to us, but the Divine Providence is no less open. If our external circumstances remove all the luxuries that serve us, we may discover that not only is it better to give than receive, but it is also better to serve and be served. We might take a tip from how people survived the Great Depression. If we are unemployed, we might serve others and find something that technologies and luxuries can’t give, and if our 401(k) plan becomes a 404(k) and vanishes, we might lean on God’s providence and discover that God’s providence gives us more than money could.
There’s a sign that was seen around my hometown that says, “Money may not do everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch!” And I wonder if that is precisely what we gain if we do not know what will meet our needs in the future: our material needs can “keep the kids in touch” for God. Especially in an economy in shambles. And if that happens, we have something no money could buy: keeping in touch with God in a way that is ultimately a Heavenly transformation.
There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the husks that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
Today, one of the ways parents might give money to children is letting them “borrow against their inheritance:” they wouldn’t have to pay the money back, but they lose that much of their inheritance when their parents die. And this is considered a fairly normal arrangement.
This isn’t what is going on here. The younger son’s request telegraphs something loud and clear: “I wish you were dead!”
We see a first glimpse of God’s love—a love to the point of madness. Out of all responses the father could have to this affront, he gave every last penny he was asked for. The love to the point of madness may be easier to see later on, but it is already present in the gift by which he answers the ludicrously inappropriate request.
The son goes off to live life the way he wants to. And living life the way he wants to hits rock bottom. The big party he imagined he’d make for himself turns into famine and dire straits that leave him coveting the unappepetizing husks that he is feeding to unclean, vile swine. He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots, not his father.
He thought things would be better if he were calling the shots. Just like some of us here. We don’t want to have to wait under the authority of a Father who calls the shots. We want money and control, with things lined up here and now. What is it we are telling God if we ask him to give us money and control on our terms? Something a bit like, “I wish you were dead.”
The younger son has discovered that life with his father out of the picture is not so glorious and wonderful. And he realizes the extent of his fall. So he resolves to go back and beg, not even for forgiveness, but possibly his father might even contain his wounded resentment enough to let him work for pay and be able to buy bread. (Who knows? Maybe a long shot, but what real alternative did he have?)
What was the father doing in all of this?
When husbands have gone off to war, there have been wives who have stood by the path of the doorway, looking for some hope that their husbands may return, looking and waiting, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… never giving up! And the father in our story was doing exactly that.
The father was looking, waiting, and saw his son far off, and completely cast off his upper-class dignity to run and embrace him. Love to the point of madness! He didn’t even wait for an apology before embracing him and kissing him!
And when the son made a full confession, hoping maybe to toil for his father’s scraps, the father pulls out all the stops: the best robe, a ring for his finger, and the best food possible for a royal feast. This is love to the point of madness!
But the story continues on to a more sobering note (source):
Now his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father, `Look, I have served you for all of these years, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf!’
And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
We have an Eeyore here.
This story has been called the parable of the two prodigals, meaning that not only did the one son tragically fall, but the other, elder son also tragically falls from the glory his father would have wished for him. At the beginning, the younger son wished that his father was dead. At the end, did the older son wish his father was dead?
The older son is a tragic spiritual Eeyore.
His statement could have come from a very different angle. For all of the years the older son was in his father’s service, he toiled, and he may not have had rich party food—only solid, nourishing, ordinary food day by day. For all these many years, he worked hard in the context of the father training him, and drawing him into mature manhood. In the meantime, his brother has been ripping up his own soul, losing even what he thought he had at the mercy of merciless people with no one else who cared for his well-being. The brother who all but told his father, “I wish you were dead,” was in every sense save the literal, himself dead.
If it is painful to lose one’s parents, it is another level of pain to lose one’s child, and the father had seen one of his sons—not to mention the older son’s only brother—die a living death. Now he was back, and in every sense including the literal, alive. Was killing the fatted calf even enough of a celebration?
The older son didn’t get it. How well did his service to his father work? Not very well; it went badly enough that instead of sharing in his father’s joy at a lost son who “was dead, and is alive again,” acts bitterly affronted and indicts his father searingly. Which is to say, the son’s hard work didn’twork, any more than Eeyore’s laborious staring at his three sticks achieved the true heart of “Learning” and “Education.”
The point, though, is not really the tragedy of the older son. The point is that God welcomes people who turn to him, and welcomes them with open arms. It is only one step to turn to God, even if you think you are ten thousand steps away. But when are we ready?
It is easy enough to wait for life to really begin. When? Maybe when the present illness is gone, or when we get that promotion, or maybe just when we get a job in the first place, or when someone we deal with will become not quite so difficult a person, or when we have something paid off, or when Washington gets its act together. When something big or small changes, then maybe we will be in God’s blessing. St. Herman of Alaska met some people who were waiting for their lives to really begin (source):
Father Herman gave them all one general question: “Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?” Various answers were offered… Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. “Is it not true,” Father Herman said to them concerning this, “that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?” They all answered, “Yes, that is so!” He then continued, “Would you not say, ‘Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men?’ Should we not then love God above everything, desire Him more than anything, and search him out?”
All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “If we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they did not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” continued the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”
The time for God is not at some indefinite point in the future when things will fit our hopes better. The time to work with God, in a sense the only time we should be concerned with, is now. Not later, now.
More precious than gold
When I was a child, I remembered a story about a fearsome dragon who told a knight that if the knight would tickle the dragon’s throat with a sword, he would have a great treasure. The knight rode up on his horse and approached the dragon, already afraid, and asked if the treasure was as good as a good horse and a good suit of armor. It was more, the dragon said. The knight asked if the treasure was as good as a silver suit of armor, and shield and sword to match. It was, the dragon assured him. The knight then asked if the treasure was better than gold. The dragon answered that it was more precious than rooms full of gold. So the terrified knight trembled and tickled the dragon’s throat with his sword, and asked what the treasure was. And the dragon turned and ripped the knight’s sword out of his hand, breathing out a tremendous deluge of fire and smoke and roared, “Your life!” And the terrified knight, having lost his sword, fled as best he could, and grasped a treasure far more precious than rooms and rooms full of gold.
Hard times may still let us know what is truly important, and what is truly treasure.
Even if we are in an economic depression, we have a treasure worth more than rooms and rooms full of gold: our lives.
For the righteous who walk by faith, hard times may even turn out to be good times.
St. John Chrysostom once wrote to people who think they are somebody if they conspicuously ride on a horse and have an armed servant clear the way before them, and told them that they were missing something and have all the wrong priorities. These words seem like they have nothing to do with how to survive in an economic depression—but on a very deep level, they have everything to do with how to survive in an economic depression where we may lose any number of things that seem so essential. St. John Chrysostom wrote (source):
And I know that I am disgusting my hearers. But what can I do? I have set my mind on this and will not stop saying these things, whether or not anything comes of it. For what is the point of having someone clear the way before you in the marketplace? Are you walking among wild beasts so that you need to drive away those who meet you? Do not be afraid of the people who approach you and walk near you; none of them bite. But why do you consider it an insult to walk alongside other people? What craziness is this, what ludicrous folly, when you don’t mind having a horse follow close behind you, but if it is a person, you think you are disgraced unless the person is driven a hundred miles away. And why do you have servants to carry horse ____, using the free as slaves, or rather yourself living more dishonorably than any slave? For truly, anyone who bears so much pride is more repulsive than any slave.
Therefore people who have enslaved themselves to this vile habit will never come within sight of true liberty. No, if you must drive away and clear away anything, do not let it be those who come near you, but your own pride. Do not do this by your servant, but by yourself, not by this material weapon, but by the spiritual one. Since now your servant drives away those who walk alongside you, but you yourself are driven from your rightful place by your own self-will, more disgracefully than any servant can drive your neighbor. But if, descending from your horse, you will drive away pride by humility, you will sit higher and place yourself in greater honor, without needing any servant to do this for you. I mean that when you have become modest and walk on the ground, you will be seated on the horse-drawn carriage of humility which carries you up to the very heavens, the carriage with winged steeds: but if falling from the horse-drawn carriage of heaven, you pass into that of arrogance, you will be in no better state than crippled beggars who are carried along the ground—no, much more wretched and pathetic than they are: since they are carried because of their bodies’ weakness, but you because of the disease of your own arrogance.
Some of us also need the carriage of humility, even if we are not even in a position to make everybody get out of our way. And some of us might benefit from the loving interdependence that was how people survived the Great Depression.
In tough times—and in tougher times—we may lose things we have set our hearts on, but it may be that however much we resist, God will give us something better. What if I lose my car, for instance? How could I get something better? But it is entirely possible that I could get something better than my present car. I might get something better than my own Rolls Royce, even better than my own private jet. I might get more inter-dependence, where I do not get around by what I do by my car. I may still be able to go places, but now by the love of my friends and family.
In that case, if I get some groceries, or a ride to church, I am not getting it as something run by me, me, me; I am riding on community and love. And the love of another who cares about me is a much bigger thing than economic self-sufficiency. It’s the same thing as food tasting better if it is prepared with love for hospitality—then it isn’t just food. You are, in a very real sense, eating a friend’s love, and that is a richer and deeper kind of sustenance—and a richer, deeper, and fuller goodness!
Who knows? I might ride even higher than this if my car is taken from me. Perhaps I might respond to the humiliation of losing my car by starting to let Christ chauffer me to Heaven in the flying Rolls-Royce of humility. Maybe I might even start being grateful, and be carried by the car of gratitude, and look for ways that I might launch into the heavens on the immense celestial starship of service to others.
And it is the starship of service to others—of saving others even though I cannot save myself—that shines with celestial glory. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”—the Sermon on the Mount again. Perhaps I might stop thinking about my own survival and instead think about how I can save others even though I cannot save myself. Some people did not just survive the Great Depression; they learned that life is beautiful. They stopped being tin gods trying to rule over a shrunken world and became servants of God and each other in the vast mansions of a glorious God. In the Great Depression, they did not have gold, but they grasped a treasure vaster than rooms and rooms full of gold. For some, the Great Depression was a wakeup call to what is truly important in life.
And that is true wealth.
Why are some of us not living this way already? Repentance is terrifying. In the tale of the prodigal son, the son who had devoured his father’s property was in far from his father’s house, and had real work to get back. He had to travel in a much rougher sense than taking a plane, train, or bus, and faced much nastier dangers than “Dinner in New York, breakfast in London, luggage in Sydney.”
Our word “travel” comes from the French travailler, referring to work, and not exactly easy work: with slightly different spelling, the same word appears in English as “travail,” meaning a mother’s struggle in childbirth. Travel was hard, gruelling, and dangerous labor, and not for the faint of heart. And the prodigal son undertook travel with far less of the strength—not to mention absolutely none of the wealth—by which he had gotten there. The feat would have been comparable to running a marathon, or at least a marathon where your path might well go through the turf of thugs lying in wait and quite willing to kill anyone who would travail into their ambush.
And yet this is exactly what the prodigal son did. His brother may have done the ascetical work of prayers and fasting; but the younger son undertook something much tougher: repentance which is, in a spiritual sense, what the younger son did to return home.
Repentance has been called unconditional surrender. It has been called other things as well, and it terrifies: it is a decision to return home and beg for mercy when you have no grounds to expect to be treated like anything but the vilest of the scum of the earth. Perhaps the Father’s love to the point of madness may respond otherwise when we have repented. Perhaps we when we surrender conditionally and expect to be razed to the ground, we find ourselves walking away triumphant victors whose refusal to surrender was holding on to defeat for dear life, terrified to let go of our defeat because we think it helps us. Perhaps we have nothing, really, to lose but our misery. But that isn’t our concern when we need to repent.
But if we can repent—for all of us have much to repent of—and step into the Sermon on the Mount and begin to live by faith, then the Father’s love will answer, and give us something better than whatever we grasp for in our forgetfulness that a provident God already knows our needs just as well in an economic depression as any other time. In an economic depression as much as any other time, the Father’s love can meet these needs much better than we will if we control our inheritance ourselves.
In hard times in the past the Lord’s arm and providence have shown more plainly than they sometimes do here. Do you want to know how to survive an economic depression? The answer is very simple. It’s not a matter of what you arrange. It’s a matter of what God provides. When there is no natural hope of God’s saints being taken care of, it may be a supernatural provideence that we don’t see as often when we have easy times.
In hard times as well as easy, the luminous thread woven throughout Scripture, appearing in one place in the words, “the just shall live by faith,” and another place in a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”—this luminous thread is at the heart of faith, spirituality, and religion—and this luminous thread is more. It is a participation in the life of a God of love to the point of madness.
The luminous thread is spun by a God of love to the point of madness.
It may be in hard times that we fear that in hard times we will lose what is good for us.
But it may be that hard times, whether a recession, depression, or economic collapse, serve as a divinely given clue-by-four when we discover that the Father’s love to the point of madness knows, and will give, what is much better for us. And on that point, I would like to quote a praise song about what is truly more precious than gold: the words go:
Lord, you are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.
In one variant, these words answer:
And the Father said:
“Child, you are more precious than silver.
Child, you are more costly than gold.
Child, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares to you.”
These are the words of divine love to the point of madness, of a God who loves saints and sinners alike, of a God who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who do not need to repent. And this is a God who loves us in hard times as well as good, a God of providence who seeks our highest good whenever we turn to him.