Take Your Shoes Off Your Feet, For the Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy Ground: a meditation for Lent

CJSHayward.com/lent

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Take your shoes off of your feet:
For the place where you stand is holy ground

And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in flaming fire out of the bush, and he sees that the bush burns with fire,—but the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses, and he said, What is it? And he said, Draw not high hither: loose thy sandals from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraam, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and Moses turned away his face, for he was afraid to gaze at God…

And Moses said to God, Behold, I shall go forth to the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of our fathers has sent me to you; and they will ask me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING, and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING has sent me unto you.

(Exodus 3:2-5, 13-14, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)

(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ: And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

I Corinthians 10:4-6, KJV

The Fathers bid us, in approaching holiness, to take away the dead thoughts of the passions. In their day, and in Righteous Abraham’s day, and for that matter often in ours, shoes are made of leather, the dead skin of animals, and the Fathers bid us cast away the dead thoughts of the passions as we approach God.

I would like to look at this further, but first pause to look at two distractions and say, “That is understandable, but it is fundamentally inadequate.”

The first distraction:
Tinkering to straighten out our worldview

On reading “bringing into captivity every thought”, a natural reading today is “bring into captivity our worldview and every part of it,” and steadily working on our worldview to make it Christian.

But the idea of thinking worldviewishly, and classifying religions (with philosophies and political ideologies) as worldviews is of recent vintage in the history of religions; it would have been as alien to Calvin and Luther as to St. Athanasios or St. John Chrysostom. A worldview appears to stand on its own, but entirely neglected is the thought that a worldview may come into existence as almost a by-product of the Way one walks.

I spoke with one person and quoted G.K. Chesterton saying, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a doubt.” I pronounced the final ‘t’ rather silently, and he asked me if I had said, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a Tao,” meaning a Way that one walks. The conversation included his mention of a book written by a Christian missionary to Japan, Zen Way, Jesus Way, and while my intended point was something else, that Buddhism is skeptical and perhaps in stronger form than most Western skepticism, the point he anticipated is also true: Buddhism is not about what you believe but the Way that you walk. And on this point we may saliently point out that the oldest name for Christianity, the name used in the New Testament itself, is not “the Creed,” but “the Way.”

My godfather knew rather astutely what kinds of temptations I would face, and when I asked him a question about building an Orthodox worldview, he pointedly insisted that I had not been invited to work out an Orthodox worldview, but to walk the Orthodox Way. There may be an Orthodox worldview, but it emerges out of walking the Orthodox Way, and the suggestion that it takes seven to ten years to become Orthodox, this does not mean that it takes seven to ten years of worldview tinkering to develop the right worldview, but it takes seven to ten years for a whole person’s transformation to occur. And even then, a number of Orthodox saints, described as being baptized in their own blood because they were martyred before they could manage to get baptized at all, are canonized saints who had pagan worldviews while they lived on earth, and canonized saints who did not spend their brief time confessing Christ on straightening out their worldviews.

There is something seductive about seeing things in terms of worldview; it is a hammer that soon makes everything appear to be a nail, so that “taking every thought captive” seems to mean “installing a piece of your worldview” and not, for instance, taking a lustful thought captive, and breaking it apart. But leave that for later. For now, I would note that the idea of thinking worldviewishly is of recent vintage, and mention that in Islam the term for ‘heresy’ is ‘innovation.’ Not that I am endorsing Islam; but What the West Doesn’t Get About Jihadists and Islam is largely about the Muslim Way and only to a lesser degree about delving into the Islamic worldview.

The second distraction:
The refinement of desire

A picturesque pair of antique opera glasses

Show me what a person desires, and I will show you his heart.

To the right is a pair of antique opera glasses; I mention it partly to show my temptations. They are a valued gift from a valued friend, but in a way they are also like the Dr. Who sonic screwdriver a team lead got for Christmas: they seem like a touch of another world here: the realms of the Urvanovestilli, or The Steel Orb. And what seems to be a piece of an unreal world brings real pleasure, but on a deeper, spiritual level, is something of a non sequitur: I should only value the opera glasses, not as a token of worlds I have as an author imagined, but as a valued gift from a valued friend.

Reading the saints’ lives has something to do with this. It may be said that the saints’ lives, “biography as theology”, are an important spiritual staple food for neophytes and an important spiritual staple sought out by the more advanced. My own desires have been sought out and something I wanted fulfilled: first of all by my favorite children’s book, Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, which left me desiring kything, Teachers, and giftedness, and much later writing Within the Steel Orb: I went to mail Madeleine l’Engle a copy but found out that she had just passed away. After a different spiritual struggle I made The Minstrel’s Song with its cultures, and I pined for that world. Then later I read medieval sources for the Arthurian legends, and I pined for knighthood and the Holy Grail and wrote The Sign of the Grail. And the same, I believe, holds for Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, romance novels of being swept off one’s feet, and quite a lot of TV, literature, and movies.

We are made to desire, and there is nothing wrong with that. But our desires often point in the wrong directions, and the saints’ lives in particular help reorient and refine our desires so that we heed the Apostle’s precept, Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. We are to desire things that are real—and good.

This, however, is limited in scope; it is one point among others, and I have not read worldviewish-style attempts to tinker with one’s desires in the Fathers. The verse I cited is beautiful enough, but I have not read any of the Fathers make it a leitmotif. I don’t want to downplay the saints’ lives, but there is more benefit to reading them than just the shaping and reshaping of our desires. But there is something of our thoughts that the Fathers make central. But let us pause for one moment before moving on.

When the ink was still drying on the medieval versions of the Arthurian legends, they told of a Never-Never Land that was long ago and far away. Such things as commerce and peasant’s worknever intrude on the scene; the pseudohistory in the “Brut” which first captivated the hearts and minds of Europe outside of Celtic circles, already placed King Arthur at six centuries in its past, in a past that never existed. There is a common thread in these desires for the unreal; we are better off desiring what is real (see Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a passion for further discussion), and at least one saint has found happiness and said, “Whatever happens to you, desire it.” Again, we are to desire what is real and desire what is good.

Not a distraction:
Taking the shoes of passionate thoughts off our feet

It has been said, “Nothing but a metaphysic ever replaces a metaphysic.” Nothing Western, at least. But a true metaphysic can be replaced by an ersatz metaphysic; unlike ‘weak agnosticism’, which says in essence “I do not yet know whether God, or gods, or angels exist,” ‘strong agnosticism’ says “We can never know if God, or gods, or angels exist,” and that rules out any deity capable of decisive revelation, ruling out the Christian God quickly. And that provides an ersatz metaphysic in continuity with the ersatz metaphysics implied by continental epistemology.

However, it is possible to have a metaphysic replaced by something else: Zen replaces a metaphysic with silence, and Orthodox Christianity, which has a metaphysic, also has silence, and beyond Buddhism having been influenced by Christianity and Zen resembling Orthodox hesychasm, the silence of Orthodox hesychasm is on par with the silence that replaces a metaphysic.

“You have more power than you think,” an alcoholic or addict is told. Once temptation is in full swing, it’s a difficult and often losing fight for the upper hand. But there is a brief, easy-to-look moment, when the temptation comes, very small.

If your house is burning down, it may take fire hoses to stop; when the fire is in a room, pouring out a bucket and running for another may stop it; easiest of all is to smush out a smouldering spark as it hits the curtains. If you blot out the spark, with it you blot out all the remaining process of damage. In a monastic setting, men were warned that if a mental image of a man’s face appears, temptation to anger is close at hand, and if a woman’s face appears, temptation to lust is close at hand, and they say “In Christ there is no male nor female“: neither temptation need have dominion over us.

In its beginning, the temptation is not yet a temptation. A passionate image, what the Fathers saw in the dead leather shoes Moses was commanded to remove, is not the very first part of temptation. The very first part of temptation is a simple image not mixed with passion: perhaps not a face, but an image of gold, which will soon be mixed with a temptation to covet. Then if we dally with the thought, it becomes mixed with passion, and the longer you go the harder the fight becomes. Confession is always available and it is a second baptism and a clean slate, but the Orthodox filled with hesychastic silence does not have or develop thick, strong arms from dousing buckets of water onto burning furniture, but attentiveness and quick reflexes from putting out sparks. Now this needs to be put alongside the monk who was asked, “What do you do?” and said, “We fall and get up; fall and get up; fall and get up.” But hesychasm is mindful, mindful of one’s thoughts, observing and mentally separating thoughts and mental images from the passions mixed in them.

Lent, the central season of the Church year:
A Lenten Psalm

Great Lent is hard, but it is the central season in the Church calendar. During Great Lent, the choir chants what may be the most politically incorrect part of Scripture:

For David, a Psalm of Jeremias

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat;
And wept when we remembered Sion.
We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it.
For there they that had taken us captive asked of us the words of a song;
And they that had carried us away asked a hymn, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to my throat, if I do not remember thee;
If I do not prefer Jerusalem as the chief of my joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to its foundations.
Wretched daughter of babylon!
Blessed shall he be who shall reward thee as thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall sieze and dash thine infants against the rock.

(Psalm 136/137, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)

“Blessed shall what?!?!? This is sung in church in Lent?”

Yes: the entire Psalm speaks to our spiritual condition. We were made for Jerusalem, the city of peace, which is ultimately Heaven, but we have allowed ourselves, every one, to be taken captive to the foreign land of sin and passion. How can we sing the Lord’s song when we are exiled to the land of passion? As to the last words, the Fathers say that the rock is Christ: infant Babylonians grow into adult Babylonians, and tiny and seemingly insignificant passions, tiny sparks, grow into full-grown passions, a fire burning up our house. And it is against Christ that we must extinguish sparks. The vilest of sins is a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love, but still, the earlier we dash passions against Christ, the better. If we have allowed to a spark to set a chair on fire, douse it with Christ. And in all things remember the holy city, the city of peace which is ultimately Heaven. And strive for it.

An unwelcome, unsought blessing:
“Ask better!”

Lent seems to be the sort of thing one would not want. We are to cut back on pleasures, and give more to others. And it is supposed to be a struggle; if we’re cruising through Lent and having no worries, something is wrong, and we need to work with our priest to make it a better struggle. But monks say, “Have a good struggle.”

But this much is a blessing in disguise, and is part of why devout, seasoned Orthodox often look forward to the challenge. The rules forbidding things in the Orthodox life all tell a pet, “Don’t drink out of the toilet,” which really means, “Ask better.” Lent is about letting go of things we believe will satisfy us and accepting the things which really will satisfy us.

In my repentance implied in “The refinement of desire” above, every thing I let go of was so I could grasp something better. Perhaps my growth is more stunted than most; perhaps it is less. No matter; God has summoned me to ask better and open my hand wide to receive blessings. And I mention this not to make a big deal of my own struggle, but because these are one form of the struggles we all face, because (I hope) they could serve as Everyman’s struggles, and I could concretely name something we all must face to ask better.

Ask better. And have a good struggle.

The Best Things in Life Are Free

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

A Pilgrimage from Narnia

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, ascesis

Introduction to the Jesus Prayer

CJSHayward.com/jesus-prayer

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, Mystical Theology: A Broad Spectrum of Orthodox Prose

The Jesus Prayer is the gateway to silence, and silence is the language of Heaven. Silence is not the mere absence of sound, any more than beauty is the mere absence of ugliness. The chant of the Orthodox Church is crafted from silence: it articulates the eloquent silence of Heaven. One facet of holiness is a life and a heart that is silent within, that surrenders layer after layer of internal noise, and is simply present to eternity in the here and now that God has given. And silent people carry Paradise with and around them. Indeed Paradise is where God’s people are present.

The metronome giving the beat of silence in many saints is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer takes different forms, short and long. Among these are:

  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
  • Lord, have mercy.

A metronome is a tool used to teach music. It ticks like a clock, but it can tick quickly or slowly for a song, and it helps people learn how long notes should last and lays a foundation for playing correctly, and then moving on from playing correctly to playing well.

When a musician plays for real, the metronome is hidden. The audience may not hear it, but it has reached its full depth when the musician follows its rhythm internally. Orthodox hesychasm, or silent spiritual stillness, is meant so that the Jesus Prayer always be with us. “Prayer of the heart” is when the Jesus Prayer is sunk deeply enough in our hearts that moves of its own.

There are concrete ways we can pursue this. We can work to say this prayer with each breath: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, as we breathe in, have mercy on me, a sinner, as we breathe out. We can say this prayer aloud, or silently in our mouths, or silently in our hearts. There is something powerful about saying the prayer aloud over and over again, and the other forms are meant to grow out of this foundation. Some people find it helpful to have a prayer rope, saying the prayer as they breathe and holding one bead or knot and then another to keep count. If you buy a prayer rope, the size does not particularly matter. I was given a 200 knot prayer rope but usually wear a simple black 50 knot prayer rope. Other people don’t wear the rope on their wrist, but keep it in a pocket and pull it out to pray.

There are many places you can get prayer ropes, including:

There is an ancient command, “Let nothing be done without the bishop.” The Jesus Prayer is part of the Orthodox Way and is rightly practiced as dovetailing with the sacramental life and community in the Orthodox Church. There is a saying, “As always, ask your priest,” and it applies to anything here.

The metronome is made to fade away: it is not for the real performance. But in this regard the Jesus Prayer is more than a metronome: it soaks ever deeper, but it remains. It opens a door to inner spiritual silence, the tradition of hesychasm in the Church, and it offers healing from the spiritual noise we are addicted to. Many of our technologies are practical, but most of them are also used to deliver spiritual noise, a daily fix of poison that keeps us from inner silence. The television, much of leisure spent on the Internet, all draws us precisely because it is laced with the narcotic of spiritual noise.

Another layer of inner silence is a kind of watchfulness that watches over one’s inner state, desires, mental images, and thoughts. This is not “thinking about thinking” in the fashion that is popular today, but opening one’s nose to the stench of spiritual disease all of us have, whether we recognize and fight it or not. When we meet a diseased thought, of lust or pride, or using others in greed, it helps us if we can see what in the thought is diseased. It is hard enough not to worry, but sometimes if we can observe our worried thoughts and see what is spiritual disease, we might learn the wisdom of “Don’t tell me not to worry, nothing I worry about ever happens!” We might see as with all passionate thoughts that if we break the thought into its parts and see the spiritual disease, suddenly it looks rather groundless. Once we are in our right mind, or rather our right heart, some of our terrifying worries seem rather silly.

The Sermon on the Mount is among the shortest of the divine owner’s manual for human life. It says a lot of difficult things, but it doesn’t say how, and hesychasm, the tradition of the Jesus Prayer and inner stillness guarded by watchfulness is how. It tells how not to worry; it tells how not to store up treasures in Heaven; it tells how to come to a point that we recognize anger and lust as tiny seeds so that we may stamp out smouldering rags and perhaps burn ourselves a little, instead of needing heroic efforts to stop a house fire. It tells how to seek a Kingdom of Heaven that is built in our lives out of the stones of the virtues and spiritual discipline. The Sermon on the Mount hits us flat on our chest and says, “Here is holiness. We don’t live it.” It is perhaps the best command in history to, “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Hesychasm, with its watchfulness and the Jesus Prayer a rhythm as we breathe, equips us in concrete terms to scale those peaks. Hesychasm is how to till the spiritual ground so that it will bear the fruit that blazes in the The Sermon on the Mount.

You don’t strictly need a prayer rope; many have found them helpful, but they are an aid. Without a prayer rope you may still be able to reach the point where the prayer is always an aroma you smell when you breathe. And they cost money; perhaps God’s plan for your transfiguration has you spending your money on other things. The rhythm of prayer is a treasure no one is too poor to buy.

If you are Orthodox, why not discuss with your priest how you might step into this rich tradition? If you are not Orthodox, ask if the Orthodox Church can share with you of its treasures. Some priests might have you receive other treasures first; some might directly offer you guidance in coming to experience freedom from addiction to noise, a freedom that is like the layers of music that come after one first learns how to use a metronome, the rhythm of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” increasingly giving the breath of God that we breathe its true and proper stature.

The Kingdom of Heaven appears as the silence of the Jesus Prayer unfurls.

Akathist Hymn to St. Philaret the Merciful

The Arena

How to Survive Hard Times

Silence: Organic food for the soul

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art


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C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens with a chapter called “The Picture in the Bedroom,” which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Not long into the chapter, we read:

They were in Lucy’s room, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking at a picture on the opposite wall. It was the only picture in the house that they liked. Aunt Alberta didn’t like it at all (that was why it was put away in a little back room upstairs), but she couldn’t get rid of it because it had been a wedding present from someone she did not want to offend.

It was a picture of a ship—a ship sailing straight towards you. Her prow was gilded and shaped like the head of a dragon with a wide-open mouth. She had only one mast and one large, square sail which was a rich purple. The sides of the ship—what you could see of them where the gilded wings of the dragon ended—were green. She had just run up to the top of one glorious blue wave, and the nearer slope of that wave came down towards you, with streaks and bubbles on it. She was obviously running fast before a gay wind, listing over a little on her port side. (By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead is port, and the right is starboard.) All of the sunlight fell on her from that side, and the water on that side was full of greens and purples. On the other, it was darker blue from the shadow of the ship.

“The question is,” said Edmund, “whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.”

“Even looking is better than nothing,” said Lucy. “And she is such a very Narnian ship.”

“Still playing your old game?” said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking of Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.

“You’re not wanted here,” said Edmund curtly.

“I’m trying to think of a limerick,” said Eustace. “Something like this:

Some kids who played games about Narnia
Got gradually balmier and balmier—”
“Well, Narnia and balmier don’t rhyme, to begin with,” said Lucy.

“It’s an assonance,” said Eustace.

“Don’t ask him what an assy-thingummy is,” said Edmund. “He’s only longing to be asked. Say nothing and perhaps he’ll go away.”

Most boys, on meeting a reception like this, would have either cleared out or flared up. Eustace did neither. He just hung about grinning, and presently began talking again.

“Do you like that picture?” he asked.

“For Heaven’s sake don’t let him get started about Art and all that,” said Edmund hurriedly, but Lucy, who was very truthful, had already said, “Yes, I do. I like it very much.”

“It’s a rotten picture,” said Eustace.

“You won’t see it if you step outside,” said Edmund.

“Why do you like it?” said Eustace to Lucy.

“Well, for one thing,” said Lucy, “I like it because the ship looks as if it were really moving. And the water looks as if it were really wet. And the waves look as if they were really going up and down.”

Of course Eustace knew lots of answers to this, but he didn’t say anything. The reason was that at that very moment he looked at the waves and saw that they did look very much indeed as if they were going up and down. He had only once been in a ship (and then only so far as the Isle of Wight) and had been horribly seasick. The look of the waves in the picture made him feel sick again. He turned rather green and tried another look. And then all three children were staring with open mouths.

What they were seeing may be hard to believe when you read it in print, but it was almost as hard to believe when you saw it happening. The things in the picture were moving. It didn’t look at all like a cinema either; the colours were too real and clean and out-of-doors for that. Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray. And then up went the wave behind her, and her stern and her deck became visible for the first time, and then disappeared as the next wave came to meet her and her bows went up again. At the same moment an exercise book which had been lying beside Edmund on the bed flapped, rose and sailed through the air to the wall behind him, and Lucy felt all her hair whipping round her face as it does on a windy day. And this was a windy day; but the wind was blowing out of the picture towards them. And suddenly with the wind came the noises—the swishing of waves and the slap of water against the ship’s sides and the creaking and the overall high steady roar of air and water. But it was the smell, the wild, briny smell, which really convinced Lucy that she was not dreaming.

“Stop it,” came Eustace’s voice, squeaky with fright and bad temper. “It’s some silly trick you two are playing. Stop it. I’ll tell Alberta—Ow!”

The other two were much more accustomed to adventures but, just exactly as Eustace Clarence said, “Ow,” they both said, “Ow” too. The reason was that a great cold, salt splash had broken right out of the frame and they were breathless from the smack of it, besides being wet through.

“I’ll smash the rotten thing,” cried Eustace; and then several things happened at the same time. Eustace rushed towards the picture. Edmund, who knew something about magic, sprang after him, warning him to look out and not be a fool. Lucy grabbed at him from the other side and was dragged forward. And by this time either they had grown much smaller or the picture had grown bigger. Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but real sea, and wind and waves rushing up to the frame as they might to a rock. There was a second of struggling and shouting, and just as they thought they had got their balance a great blue roller surged up round them, swept them off their feet, and drew them down into the sea. Eustace’s despairing cry suddenly ended as the water got into his mouth.

I don’t know that C.S. Lewis was thinking about icons or Orthodoxy when he wrote this, and I am reluctant to assume that C.S. Lewis was doing what would be convenient for the claims I want to make at icons. Perhaps there are other caveats that should also be made: but the caveats are not the whole truth.

I am not aware of a better image of what an icon is and what an icon does than this passage in Lewis. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom is excellent and there are probably more out there, but I haven’t come across as much of an evocative image as the opening to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I don’t mean that the first time you see an icon, you will be swept off your feet. There was a long time where I found them to be clumsy art that was awkward to look at. I needed to warm to them, and appreciate something that works very differently from Western art. I know that other people have had these immediate piercing experiences with icons, but appreciating icons has been a process of coming alive for me. But much the same could be said of my learning French or Greek, where I had to struggle at first and then slowly began to appreciate what is there. This isn’t something Orthodoxy has a complete monopoly on; some of the time Roman Catholic piety can have something much in the same vein. But even if it’s hard to say that there’s something in icons that is nowhere else, there is something in icons that I had to learn to appreciate.

Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous
Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous

A cradle Orthodox believer at my parish explained that when she looks at an icon of the Transfiguration, she is there. The Orthodox understanding of presence and memory is not Western and not just concerned with neurons firing in the brain; it means that icons are portals that bring the spiritual presence of the saint or archetypal event that they portray. An icon can be alive, some more than others, and some people can sense this spiritually.

Icons are called windows of Heaven. Fundamental to icon and to symbol is that when the Orthodox Church proclaims that we are the image of God, it doesn’t mean that we are a sort of detached miniature copy of God. It doesn’t mean that we are a detached anything. It is a claim that to be human is to be in relation to God. It is a claim that we manifest God’s presence and that the breath we breathe is the breath of God. What this means for icons is that when the cradle Orthodox woman I just mentioned says that she is there at the Transfiguration, then that icon is like the picture of the Narnian ship. If we ask her, “Where are you?” then saying “Staring at painted wood” is like saying that someone is “talking to an electronic device” when that person is using a cell phone to talk with a friend. In fact the error is deeper.

Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous
Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous

An icon of a saint is not intended to inform the viewer what a saint looked like. Its purpose is to connect the viewer with Christ, or Mary the Theotokos, or one of the saints or a moment we commemorate, like the Annunciation when Gabriel told humble Mary that she would bear God, or the Transfiguration, when for a moment Heaven shone through and Christ shone as Christians will shine and as saints sometimes shine even in this life. I don’t know all of the details of how the art is put together—although it is art—but the perspective lines vanish not in the depths of the picture but behind the viewer because the viewer is part of the picture. The viewer is invited to cross himself, bow before, and kiss the icon in veneration: the rule is not “Look, but don’t touch.” any more than the rule in our father’s house is “Look, but don’t touch.” The gold background is there because it is the metal of light; these windows of Heaven are not simply for people to look into them and see the saint radiant with Heaven’s light, but Heaven looks in and sees us. When I approach icons I have less the sense that I am looking at these saints, and Heaven, than that they are looking at me. The icon’s purpose is not, as C.S. Lewis’s picture, to connect people with Narnia, but to draw people into Heaven, which in the Orthodox understanding must begin in this life. It is less theatrical, but in the end the icon offers something that the Narnian picture does not.

It is with this theological mindset that Bishop KALLISTOS Ware is fond, in his lectures, of holding up a photograph of something obviously secular—such as a traffic intersection—and saying, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”

Door (KPOYETE), C.J.S. Hayward
Door (KPOYETE), C.J.S. Hayward
(Not a holy icon, but an icon)

That, I believe, provides as good a departure as any for an Orthodox view of art. I would never say that icons are inferior art, and I would be extremely hesitant to say that art is equal to icons. But they’re connected. Perhaps artwork is lesser icons. Perhaps it is indistinct icons. But art is connected to iconography, and ever if that link is severed so that art becomes non-iconic, it dies.

Another illustration may shed light on the relation between iconography and other art. The Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ to Orthodox. It is not simply a sacrament, but the sacrament of sacraments, and the sacrament which all other sacraments are related. And there are ways the Orthodox Church requires that this Holy Communion be respected: it is to be prepared for with prayer and fasting, and under normal circumstances it is only received by people who are of one mind as the early Church. It encompasses, inseparably, mystic communion with God and communion with the full brothers and sisters of the Orthodox Church.

How does an ordinary meal around a table with family compare? In one sense, it doesn’t. But to say that and stop is to miss something fundamental. Eating a meal around a table with friends and family is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.

A shared meal is a rite that is part of the human heritage. It persists across times, cultures, and religions. This is recognized more clearly in some cultures than others, but i.e. Orthodox Jewish culture says that to break bread is only something you do when you are willing to become real friends. The term “breaking of bread” in the New Testament carries a double meaning; it can mean either the Eucharist or a common meal. A common meal may not have Orthodox making the same astounding claims we make about the Eucharist, but it is a real communion. This may be why a theologian made repeatedly singled out the common meal in the Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Education Day publication to answer questions of what we should do today when technology is changing our lives, sometimes for the better but quite often not. I myself have not made that effort much, and I can say that there is a difference between merely eating and filling my animal needs, and engaging in the precious ritual, the real communion, of a common meal around a table.

If we compare a common meal with the Eucharist, it seems very small. But if we look at a common meal and the community and communion around that meal (common, community, and communion all being words that are related to each other and stem from the same root), next to merely eating to serve our animal needs, then all of the sudden we see things that can be missed if we only look at what separates the Eucharist from lesser communions. A common meal is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.

In the same sense, art is not the equal of sacred iconography. My best art, even my best religious art, does not merit the treatment of holy icons. But neither is art, or at least good art, a separate sort of thing from iconography, and if that divorce is ever effected (it has been, but I’ll wait on that for how), then it generates from being art as a meal that merely fills animal, bodily needs without being communion degenerates from what a common meal should be. And in that sense I would assert that art is lesser iconography. And the word “lesser” should be given less weight than “iconography.” I may not create holy icons, but I work to create icons in all of my art, from writing to painting to other creations.

In my American culture—this may be different in other areas of the world, even if American culture has a strong influence—there are two great obstacles to connecting with art. These obstacles to understanding need to be denounced. These two obstacles can be concisely described as:

  • The typical secular approach to art.
  • The typical Christian approach to art.

If I’m going to denounce those two, it’s not clear how much wiggle room I am left over to affirm—and my goal is not merely to affirm but embrace an understanding of art. Let me begin to explain myself.

Let’s start with a red flag that provides just a glimpse of the mainstream Christian view of art. In college, when I thought it was cool to be a cynic and use my mind to uncover a host of hidden evils, I defined “Christian Contemporary Music” in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary to be “A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.”

May God be praised, that was not the whole truth in Christian art then, and it is even further from being the whole truth today—I heartily applaud the “Wow!” music videos, and there is a rich stream of exceptions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the #1 selling Christian series today is the Left Behind series, which with apologies to Dorothy Parker, does not have asingle book that is to be set aside lightly. (They are all to be hurled with great force!)

If I want to explain what I would object to instead of simply making incendiary remarks about Christian arts, let me give a concrete example. I would like to discuss something that I discussed with a filmmaker at a Mennonite convention a couple of years I converted to Orthodoxy. I did not set out to criticize, and I kept my mouth shut about certain things.

What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.

The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.

The filmmaker liked the idea, or at least that’s what he thought. He saw a different and better ending than what I envisioned. It would be the tale of the henchman’s journey of forgiveness, building to a dramatic scene where he is capable of killing the hero and beautifully lets go of revenge. And as much as I believe in forgiveness and letting go of revenge, this “happy ending” (roughly speaking) bespoke an incommensurable gulf between us.

The difference amounts to a difference of love. Not that art has to cram in as much love, or message about love or forgiveness, as it can. If that happens, it is fundamentally a failure on the part of the artist, and more specifically it is a failure of a creator to have proper love for his creation. My story would not show much love in action, and it is specifically meant to leave audiences not only disturbed but shell shocked and (perhaps) sickened at how violence is typically shown by Hollywood. The heartblood of cinematic craft in this film would be an effort to take a character who in a normal action-adventure movie is faceless, and which the movie takes pains to prevent us from seeing or loving as human when he is torn up by the hero’s cool weapon, and give him a human face so that the audience feels the pain not only of his wounded body but the grievous spiritual wound that creates its deepest tragedy. That is to say that the heartblood of cinematic craft would be to look lovingly at a man, unloving as he may be, and give him a face instead of letting him be a faceless henchman whose only purpose is to provide conflict so we can enjoy him being slaughtered. And more to the point, it would not violate his freedom or his character by giving him a healing he would despise, and announce that after his knee has been blasted away he comes to the point of forgiving the man who killed his friends and crippled him for life.

Which is to say that I saw the film as art, and he saw it as a container he could cram more message into. That is why I was disturbed when he wanted to tack a happy ending on. There is a much bigger problem here than ending a story the wrong way.

I don’t mean to say that art shouldn’t say anything, or that it is a sin to have a moral. This film idea is not only a story that has a moral somewhere; its entire force is driven by the desire to give a face, a human face, to faceless villains whose suffering and destruction is something we rejoice in other words. In other words, it has a big moral, it doesn’t mince words, and it makes absolutely no apologies for being driven by its moral.

Then what’s the difference? It amounts to love. In the version of the story I created, the people, including the henchmen, are people. What the filmmaker saw was a question of whether there’s a better way to use tools to drive home message. And he made the henchman be loving enough to forgive by failing to love him enough.

When I was talking with one professor at Wheaton about how I was extremely disappointed with a Franklin Peretti novel despite seeing how well the plot fit together, I said that I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. He rather bluntly interrupted me and simply said that Peretti didn’t love his characters. And he is right. In This Present Darkness, Franklin Peretti makes a carefully calculated use of tools at his disposal (such as characters) to provide maximum effect in driving home his point. He does that better than art does. But he does not love his characters into being; he does not breathe into them and let them move. It’s not a failure of technique; it’s a failure of something much deeper. In this sense, the difference between good and bad art, between A Wind in the Door and Left Behind, is that in A Wind in the Door there are characters who not only have been loved into being but have a spark of life that has been not only created into them but loved into them, and in Left Behind there are tools which are used to drive home “message” but are not in the same senseloved.

There is an obvious objection which I would like to pause to consider: “Well, I understand that elevated, smart people like you can appreciate high art, and that’s probably better. But can’t we be practical and look at popular art that will reach ordinary people?” My response to that is, “Are you sure? Are you really sure of what you’re assuming?”

Perhaps I am putting my point too strongly, but let me ask the last time you saw someone who wasn’t Christian and not religious listening to Amy Grant-style music, or watching the Left Behind movie? If it is relevant, is it reaching non-Christians? (And isn’t that what “relevant” stuff is supposed to do?) The impression I’ve gotten, the strong impression, is that the only people who find that art relevant to their lives are Evangelicals who are trying to be relevant. But isn’t the world being anti-Christian? My answer to that is that people who watch The Chronicles of Narnia and people who watch Star Wars movies are largely watching them for the same reason: they are good art. The heavy Christian force behind The Chronicles of Narnia, which Disney to its credit did not edit out, has not driven away enough people to stop the film from being a major success. The Chronicles of Narnia is relevant, and it is relevant not because people calculated how to cram in the most message, but because not only C.S. Lewis but the people making the film loved their creation. Now, there are other factors; both The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars have commercial tie-in’s. And there is more commercial muscle behind those two than the Left Behindmovie. But to only observe these things is to miss the point. The stories I hear about the girl who played Lucy walking onto the set and being so excited she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking, are not stories of an opportunistic actress who found a way to get the paycheck she wanted. They are stories of people who loved what they were working on. That is what makes art powerful, not budget.

There’s something I’d like to say about love and work. There are some jobs—maybe all—that you really can’t do unless you really love them. How? Speaking as a programmer, there’s a lot of stress and aggravation in this job. Even if you have no difficulties with your boss, or co-workers, the computer has a sort of perverse parody of intelligence that means that you do your best to do something clearly, and the computer does the strangest things.

It might crash; it might eat your work; it might crash and eat your work; it might show something weird that plays a perverted game of hide and seek and always dodge your efforts to find out what exactly is going wrong so you can fix it. Novices’ blood is boiling before they manage to figure out basic errors that won’t even let you run your program at all. So programmers will be fond of definitions of “Programming, n. A hobby similar to banging your head against a wall, but with fewer opportunities for reward.”

Let me ask: What is programming like if you do not love it? There are many people who love programming. They don’t get there unless they go through the stress and aggravation. There’s enough stress and aggravation that you can’t be a good programmer, and maybe you can’t be a programmer at all, unless you love it.

I’ve made remarks about programming; there are similar remarks to be made about carpentry, or being a mother (even if being a mother is a bigger kind of thing than programming or carpentry). This is something that is true of art—with its stress and aggravation—precisely because art is work, and work can have stress and aggravation that become unbearable if there is no love. Or, in many cases, you can work, but your work suffers. Love may need to get dirty and do a lot of grimy work—you can’t love something into being simply by feeling something, even if love can sometimes transfigure the grimy work—but there absolutely must be love behind the workgloves. It doesn’t take psychic powers to tell if something was made with love.

I would agree with Franky Schaeffer’s remark in Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, when he pauses to address the question “How can I as a Christian support the arts?” the first thing he says is to avoid Christian art. I would temper that remark now, as some Christian art has gotten a lot better. But he encouraged people to patronize good art, and to the question, “How can I afford to buy original paintings?” he suggests that a painting costs much less than a TV. But Schaeffer should be set aside another work which influenced his father, and which suggests that if Christian art is problematic, that doesn’t mean that secular art is doing everything well.

Edward the Confessor Penny
Penny, Edward the Confessor (1042-1066)
An example of coinage that shows icon-like medieval figures, instead of photograph-style modern portraits. Other ancient and medieval examples abound.

When I was preparing for a job interview with an auction house that deals with coins and stamps, I looked through the 2003(?) Spink’s Catalogue of British Coins. (Mainly I studied the pictures of coins to see what I could learn.) When I did that, a disturbing story unfolded.

The Spink’s catalogue takes coins from Celtic and Roman times through medieval times right up through the present day. While there are exceptions in other parts of the world, the ancient and early medieval coins all had simple figures that were not portraits, in much the way that a drawing in a comic strip like Foxtrot differs from Mark Trail or some other comic strip where the author is trying to emulate a photograph. Then, rather suddenly, something changes, and people start cramming in as much detail as they could. The detail reaches a peak in the so-called “gold penny”, in which there is not a square millimeter of blank space, and then things settle down as people realize that it’s not a sin to have blank space as well as a detailed portrait. (On both contemporary British and U.S. coinage, the face of the coin has a bas-relief portrait of a person, and then there is a blank space, and a partial ring of text around the edge, with a couple more details such as the year of coinage. The portrait may be detailed, but the coinmakers are perfectly willing to leave blank space in without cramming in more detail than fits their design. In the other world coinage I’ve seen, there can be some differences in the portrait (it may be of an animal), but there is a similar use of portrait, text, and blank space.

This is what happened when people’s understanding of symbol disintegrated. The effort to cram in detail which became an effort to be photorealistic is precisely an effort to cram some reality into coins when they lost their reality as symbols. There are things about coins then that even numismatists (people who study coins) do not often understand today. In the Bible, the backdrop to the question in Luke 20 that Jesus answered, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness is it, and whose inscription? … Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God,” is on the surface a question about taxes but is not a modern gripe about “Must I pay my hard-earned money to the Infernal Revenue Service?”, It is not the question some Anabaptists ask today about whether it is OK for Christians’ taxes to support things they believe are unconscionable, and lead one pastor to suggest that people earn less money so they will pay less taxes that will end up supporting violence. It’s not a question about anything most Christians would recognize in money today.

It so happens that in traditional fashion quarters in the U.S. today have a picture of George Washington, which is to say not only a picture but an authority figure. There is no real cultural reason today why this tradition has to be maintained. If the government mint started turning out coins with a geometric design, a blank surface, or some motto or trivia snippet, there would be no real backlash and people would buy and sell with the new quarters as well as the traditional ones. The fact that the quarter, like all commonly circulated coins before the dollar coin, has the image of not simply a-man-instead-of-a-woman but specifically the man who once held supreme political authority within the U.S., is a quaint tradition that has lost its meaning and is now little more than a habit. But it has been otherwise.

The Roman denarius was an idol in the eyes of many Jewish rabbis. It was stamped with the imprint of the Roman emperor, which is to say that it was stamped with the imprint of a pagan god and was therefore an idol. And good Jews shouldn’t have had a denarius with them when they asked Jesus that trapped question. For them to have a denarius with them was worse on some accounts than if Jesus asked them, “Show me a slab of bacon,” and they had one with them. The Jewish question of conscience is “Must one pay tax with an idol?” and the question had nothing to do with any economic harship involved in paying that tax (even though most Jews then were quite poor).

Jesus appealed to another principle. The coin had Caesar’s image and inscription: this was the one thing he asked them to tell him besides producing the coin. In the ancient world people took as axiomatic that the authority who produced coinage had the authority to tax that coinage, and Jesus used that as a lever: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the thing that are God’s.”

This last bit of leverage was used to make a much deeper point. The implication is that if a coin has Caesar’s image and we owe it to Caesar, what has God’s image—you and I—are God’s and are owed to God. This image means something deep. If it turns out that we owe a tax to Caesar, how much more do we owe our very selves to God?

Augustine uses the image of “God’s coins” to describe us. He develops it further. In the ancient world, when coins were often made of precious and soft metals instead of the much harder coins today, coins could be “defaced” by much use: they would be rubbed down so far that the image on the coin would be worn away. Then defaced coins, which had lost their image, could be restruck. Augustine not only claims that we are owed to God; he claims that the image in us can be defaced by sin, and then restruck with a new image by grace. This isn’t his whole theology for sin and grace, but it says something significant about what coins meant not just to him but to his audience.

During the Iconoclastic Controversy, not only in the East but before the overcrowded “gold penny”, one monk, who believed in showing reverence to icons, was brought before the emperor, who was trying to suppress reverence to icons. The emperor asked the monk, “Don’t you know that you can walk on an icon of Christ without showing disrespect to him?” and the monk asked if he could walk on “your face”, meaning “your face as present in this coin,” without showing the emperor disrespect. He threw down a coin, and started to walk on it. The emperor’s guards caught him in the act, and he was brutally assaulted.

These varying snapshots of coins before a certain period in the West are shapshots of coins that are icons. They aren’t holy icons, but they are understood as icons before people’s understanding of icons disintegrated.

When I explained this to one friend, he said that he had said almost exactly the same thing when observing the development or anti-development of Western art. The story I was told of Western art, at least until a couple of centuries ago, was a story of progress from cruder and more chaotic art. Medieval art was sloppy, and when perspective came along, it was improved and made clearer. But this has a very different light if you understood the older art’s reality as symbol. In A Glimpse of Eastern Orthodoxy, I wrote:

Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”

Photorealistic perspective is not new life but an extravagance once symbol has decayed. That may be one problem, or one thing that I think is a problem. But in the centuries after perspective, something else began to shift.

The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
Before photorealistic perspective.

There is rich detail and artistry in this icon of the Prophet Elias. To those making their first contacts with Orthodox iconography, it may seem hard to appreciate—the perspective and proportions are surprising—but the things that make it something you need to learn are precisely the gateway to what an icon like this can do that mere photographs can never do.

The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
Medieval art is beginning to become photorealistic.

In Giotto’s painting of the dream of Joachim, one can see something probably that looks like an old icon to someone used to photorealistic art and probably looks photorealistic to someone used to icons. Not all medieval art is like this, but this specific piece of medieval art is at once a contact point, a bridge, and a hinge.

Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Renaissance photorealism.

Leonardo da Vinci’s art is beginning to look very different from medieval art. In some ways Leonardo da Vinci’s art is almost more like a photograph than a camera would take—Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is all the more powerful for the fact that he doesn’t wear his grids on the outside, and in this picture Leonardo da Vinci makes powerful use of what is called “atmospheric perspective”, giving the faroff place and above the Madonna of the Rocks’ shoulder the blue haze that one gets by looking through a lot of air. Hence Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is not just a precise method of making things that are further away look smaller.

When Renaissance artists experimented with more photorealistic perspective, maybe they can be criticized, but they were experimenting to communicate better. Perspective was a tool to communicate better. Light and shadow were used to communicate better. It’s a closer call with impressionism, but there is a strong argument that their departure from tradition and even photorealism was to better communicate how the outsides of things looked in different lighting conditions and at different times of day. But then something dreadful happened: not only artists but the community of people studying art learned a lesson from history. They learned that the greatest art, from the Renaissance onwards, experimented with tradition and could decisively break from tradition. They did not learn that this was always to improve communicate with the rest of us. And so what art tried to do was break from tradition, whether or not this meant communicating better to “the rest of us”.

The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
Art that has disintegrated from photorealism.

In at least some of Pablo Picasso’s art, the photorealistic has vanished. Not that all Pablo Picasso art looks this way: some looks like a regular or perhaps flattened image. But this, along with Picasso’s other cubist art, tries to transcend perspective, and the effect is such that one is told as a curiosity the story of a museumgoer recognizing someone from the (cubist) picture Picasso painted of him. Of all the pictures I’ve both studied and seem live, this kind of Pablo Picasso art is the one where I have the most respect for the responses of people considered not to be sophisticated enough to appreciate Pablo Picasso’s achievement.

Some brave souls go to modern art museums, and look at paintings that look nothing like anything they can connect with, and walk away humbled, thinking that they’re stupid, or not good enough to appreciate the “elevated” art that better people are able to connect with. There’s something to be said for learning to appreciate art, but with most of these people the problem is not that they’re not “elevated” enough. The problem is that the art is not trying to communicate with the world as a whole. Innovation is no longer to better communicate; innovation at times sneers at communication in a fashion people can recognize.

The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
“High” art that communicates to ordinary people.

In an age before television, Jacques Louis David’s depiction of the oaths of the Horatii was extraordinarily powerful political communication, even political propaganda. Jacques Louis David combines two things that are separate today: elevated things from classical antiquity, and a message that is meant to communicate to ordinary people. A painting like one of Jacques Louis David’s was the political equivalent of a number of television news commentaries in terms of moving people to action.

The Franky Schaeffer title I gave earlier was Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts; the title I did not give is Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which has disturbing lettering and a picture of a man screaming on its cover art. If there is a deep problem with the typical Christian approach to arts (and it is not a universal rule), there is a deep problem with the typical secular Western approach to arts (even if that isnot a universal rule either). A painting like “The Oaths of the Horatii” is no more intended to be a private remark among a few elite souls than Calvin and Hobbes; Calvin and Hobbes may attract the kind of people who like other good art, but this is never because, as Calvin tells Hobbes about his snowman art which he wants lowbrows to have to subsidize, “I’m trying to criticize the lowbrows who can’t appreciate this.”

The concept of an artist is also deeply problematic. When I was taking an art history class at Wheaton, the professor asked people a question about their idea of an artist, and my reaction was, “I don’t have any preconceptions.” Then he started talking, and I realized that I did have preconceptions about the matter.

If we look at the word “genius” across the centuries, it has changed. Originally your “genius” was your guardian angel, more or less; it wasn’t connected with great art. Then it became a muse that inspired art and literature from the outside. Then “genius” referred to artistic and literary giftedness, and as the last step in the process of internalization, “genius” came to refer to the author or artist himself.

The concepts of the artist and the genius are not the same, but they have crossed paths, and their interaction is significant. Partly from other sources, some artists take flak today because they lead morally straight lives. Why is this? Well, given the kind of superior creature an artist is supposed to be, it’s unworthy of an artist to act as if they were bound by the moral codes that the common herd can’t get rid of. The figure of the artist is put up on a pedestal that reaches higher than human stature; like other figures, the artist is expected to have an enlightened vision about how to reform society, and be a vanguard who is above certain rules.

That understanding of artists has to come down in the Christian community. Artists have a valuable contribution; when St. Paul is discussing the Spirit’s power in the Church, he writes (I Cor 12:7-30, RSV):

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

I would suggest that the secular idea of an artisan is closer to an Orthodox understanding of an artist than the secular idea of artist itself. Even if an artisan is not thought of in terms of being a member of a body, the idea of an artisan is one that people can accept being one member of an organism in which all are needed.

An artisan can show loving craftsmanship, can show a personal touch, can have a creative spark, and should be seen as pursuing honorable work; however, the idea of an artisan carries less bad freight than the idea of an artist. They’re also not too far apart: in the Middle Ages, the sculptors who worked on cathedrals were closer to what we would consider artisans who produced sculptures than being seen as today’s artists. Art is or should be connected to iconography; it should also be connected to the artisan’s craft, and people are more likely to give an artisan a place as a contributing member who is part of a community than artists.

If we look at technical documentation, then there are a number of believable compliments you could give if you bumped into the author. It would be believable to say that the documentation was a helpful reference met your need; that it was clear, concise, and well-written; or that it let you find exactly what you needed and get back to work. But it would sound odd to say that the technical writer had very distinctive insights, and even odder to say that you liked the author’s personal self-expression about what the technology could do. Technical writing is not glorified self-expression, and if we venerate art that is glorified self-expression, then maybe we have something to learn from how we treat technical writing.

If this essay seems like a collection of distinctive (or less politely, idiosyncratic) personal insights I had, or my own personal self-expression in Orthodoxy, theology, and faith, then that is a red flag. It falls short of the mark of what art, or Orthodox writing, should be. (And it is intended as art: maybe it’s minor art, but it’s meant as art.) It’s not just that most or all of the insights owe a debt to people who have gone before me, and I may have collated but contributed nothing to the best insights, serving much more to paraphrase than think things up from scratch. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom, and, for much longer, Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art have both given me a grounding. But even aside from that, art has existed for long before me and will exist for long after me, and I am not the sole creator of an Orthodox or Christian approach to the arts any more than a technical writer has trailblazed a particular technique of creating such-and-such type of business report. Good art is freedom and does bear its human creator’s fingerprints. Even iconography, with its traditional canons, gives substantial areas of freedom to the iconographer and never specify each detail. Part of being an iconographer is using that freedom well. However, if this essay is simply self-expression, that is a defect, not a merit. As an artist and writer, I am trying to offer more than glorified self-expression.

This Sunday after liturgy, people listened to a lecture taped from Bp. KALLISTOS Ware. He talked about the great encounter at the burning bush, when God revealed himself to Moses by giving his name. At the beginning of the encounter, Moses was told, “Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Bp. KALLISTOS went on to talk about how in those days, as of the days of the Fathers, people’s shoes were something dead, something made from leather. The Fathers talked about this passage as meaning by implication that we should take off our dead familiarity to be able to encounter God freshly.

I was surprised, because I had reinvented that removal of familiarity, and I had no idea it was a teaching of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps my approach to trying to see past the deadness of familiarity—which you can see in Game Review: Meatspace—was not exactly the same as what Bp. KALLISTOS was saying to begin a discussion about receiving Holy Communion properly. Yet I found out that something I could think of as my own private invention was in fact a rediscovery. I had reinvented one of the treasures of Orthodoxy. Part of Orthodoxy is surrender, and that acknowledgment that anything and everything we hold, no matter how dear, must be offered to God’s Lordship for him to do with as we please. Orthodoxy is inescapably a slow road of pain and loss. But there is another truth, that things we think are a private heresy (I am thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s discussion) are in fact a reinvention, perhaps a crude reinvention, of an Orthodox treasure and perhaps an Orthodox treasure which meets its best footing, deepest meaning, and fullest expression when that jewel is set in its Orthodox bezel.

There are times when I’ve wanted to be an iconographer (in the usual sense). I don’t know if that grace will ever be granted me, but there was one point when I had access to an icon painting class. When I came to it and realized what was going on, I shied away. Perhaps I wanted to learn to write icons (Orthodox speak of writing icons rather than painting them), but there was something I wasn’t comfortable with.

Parishes have, or at least should have, a meal together after worship, even if people think of it as “coffee hour” instead of thinking of it as the communion of a common meal. The purpose is less to distribute coffee, which coffee drinkers have enough of in their homes, than to provide an opportunity (perhaps with a social lubricant) for people to meet and talk. That meeting and talking is beautiful. Furthermore, a parish may have various events when people paint, seasonally decorate, or maintain the premises, and in my experience there can be, and perhaps should be, an air of lighthearted social gathering about it all.

But this iconography class had lots of chatter, where people gathered and learned the skill of icon painting that began and ended with a prayer but in between had the atmosphere of a casual secular gathering that didn’t involve any particularly spiritual endeavor or skill. Now setting my personal opinions aside, the classical canons require that icons be written in prayer, concentration, and quiet. There are reasons for this, and I reacted as I did, not so much because I had heard people were breaking such-and-such ancient rule, but more because I was affronted by something that broke the rule’s spirit even more than its letter, and I sensed that there was something askew. The reason is that icons are written in silence is that you cannot make a healthy, full, and spiritual icon simply by the motions of your body. An icon is first and foremost created through the iconographer’s spirit to write what priests and canons have defined, and although the iconographer is the copyist or implementor and not original author, we believe that the icon is written by the soul of the iconographer—if you understand it as a particular (secular) painting technique, you don’t understand it. That class, like that iconographer, have produced some of the dreariest and most opaque icons, or “windows of Heaven”, that I have seen. I didn’t join that class because however much I wanted to be an iconographer, I didn’t want to become an iconographer like that, and in the Orthodox tradition you become an iconographer by becoming a specific iconographer’s disciple and becoming steeped in that iconographer’s spiritual characteristics.

Years ago, I stopped watching television, or at least started making a conscious effort to avoid it. I like and furthermore love music, but I don’t put something on in the background. And, even though I love the world wide web, I observe careful limits, and not just because (as many warn) it is easy to get into porn. The web can be used to provide “noise” to keep us from coming face to face with the silence. The web (substitute “television”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”music”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”newspapers”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”movies”/for that matter, “Church Fathers” for how this temptation appears to you) can be used to anesthetize the boredom that comes when we face silence, and keep us from ever coming to the place on the other side of boredom. When I have made decisions about television, I wasn’t thinking, on conscious terms, about being more moral and spiritual by so doing. I believe that television is a pack of cigarettes for the heart and mind, and I have found that I can be creative in more interesting ways, and live better, when I am cautious about the amount of noise in my life, even if you don’t have to be the strictest “quiet person” in the world to reap benefits. Quiet is one spiritual discipline of the Orthodox Church (if perhaps a lesser spiritual discipline), and the spiritual atmosphere I pursued is a reinvention, perhaps lesser and incomplete, of something the Orthodox Church wants her iconographers to profitably live. There is a deep enough connection between icons and other art that it’s relevant to her artists.

When I write what I would never call (or wish to call) my best work, I have the freedom to be arbitrary. If I’m writing something of no value, I can impose my will however I want. I can decide what I want to include and what I want to exclude, what I am going to go into detail about what I don’t want to elaborate on, and what analogies I want to draw. It can be as much dictated by “Me! Me! Me!” as I want. When I am creating something I value, however, that version of freedom hardly applies. I am not free, if I am going to create fiction that will resonate and ring true, to steamroll over my characters’ wishes. If I do I diminish my creation. What I am doing is loving and serving my creations. I can’t say that I never act on selfish reasons, but if I am doing anything of a good job my focus is on loving my creation into being and taking care of what it needs, which is simultaneously a process of wrestling with it, and listening to it with the goal of getting myself out of the way so I can shape it as it needs to be shaped.

There is a relationship that places the artist as head and lord of his creation, but if we reach for some of the most readily available ideas of headship and lordship, that claim makes an awful lot of confusion. Until I began preparing to write this essay, it didn’t even occur to me to look at the human creator-creation connection in terms of headship or lordship. I saw a place where I let go of arbitrary authority and any insistence on my freedoms to love my creation, to listen to and then serve it, and care for all the little details involved in creating it (and, in my case, publishing it on the web). All of this describes the very heart of how Christians are to understand headship, and my attitude is hardly unique: Christian artists who do not think consciously about headship at all create out of the core of the headship relation. They give their works not just any kind of love, but the particular and specific love which a head has for a body. If art ends by bearing the artist’s fingerprints, this should not be because the artist has decided, “My art must tell of my glory,” but because loved art, art that has been served and developed and educed and drawn into manifest being, cannot but be the image, and bear the imprint, of its creator. That is how art responds to its head and lord.

To return to spiritual discipline: Spiritual discipline is the safeguard and the shadow of love. This applies first and foremost to the Orthodox Way as a whole, but also specifically to art. Quiet is a lesser discipline, and may not make the front page. Fasting from certain foods can have value, but it is only good if saying no to yourself in food prepares you to love other people even when it means saying no to yourself. There are harsh warnings about people who fast and look down on others who are less careful about fasting or don’t fast at all and judging them as “less spiritual”. Perhaps fasting can have great value, but it is better not to fast than to fast and look down.

Prayer is the flagship, the core, and the crowning jewel of spiritual discipline. The deepest love for our neighbor made in God’s image is to pray and act out of that prayer. Prayer may be enriched when it is connected with other spiritual disciplines, but the goal of spiritual discipline and the central discipline in creating art is prayer.

There is a passage in George MacDonald where a little girl stands before an old man and looks around an exquisite mansion in wonder. After a while the old man asks her, “Are you done saying your prayers?” The surprised child responds, “I wasn’t saying my prayers.” The old man said, “Yes you were. You just didn’t realize it.”

If I say that prayer drives art, I don’t just mean that I say little prayers as I create art (although that should be true). I mean that when I am doing my best work, part of why it is my best work is that the process itself is an act of prayer. However many arbitrary freedoms I would not dare to exercise and deface my own creation, I am at my freest and most alive when I am listening to God and a creation about how to love it into being. It is not the same contemplation as the Divine Liturgy, but it is connected, part of the same organism. The freedom I taste when I create, the freedom of service and the freedom of love, is freedom at so deep a level that a merely arbitrary freedom to manipulate or make dictatorial insistences on a creation pales in comparison to the freedom to listen and do a thousand services to art that is waiting for me to create it.

“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn 4:20, RSV). If an artist does not love God and the neighbors whom he can see and who manifest the glory of the invisible God, he is in a terrible position to healthily love a creation which—at the moment, exists in God’s mind and partially in its human creator, but nowhere else. This is another way of saying that character matters. I have mentioned some off-the-beaten-track glimpses of spiritual discipline; this leaves out more obvious and important aspects of love like honesty and chastity. The character of an artist who can love his works into being should be an overflow of a Christian life of love. Not to say that you must be an artist to love! Goodness is many-sided. This is true of what Paul wrote (quoted above) about the eye, hand, and foot all belonging to the body. Paul also wrote the scintillating words (I Cor 15:35-49, RSV):

But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

These are words of resurrection, but the promise of the glorious and incorruptible resurrection body hinge on words where “star differs from star in glory”. An artist’s love is the glory of one star. It is no more the only star than the eye is the only part of the body. It is part of a scintillating spectrum—but not the whole spectrum itself!

I would like to also pause to respond to an objection which careful scholars would raise, and which some devout Orthodox would sense even if they might not put it in words. I have fairly uncritically used a typically Western conception of art. I have lumped together visual arts, literature, music, film, etc. and seem to assume that showing something in one case applied to every case. I would acknowledge that a more careful treatment would pay attention to their differences, and that some stick out more than others.

I am not sure that a better treatment would criticize this assumption. However, let’s look at one distinctive of Orthodoxy. One thinks of why Western Christians talk about how the superficial legend goes that the leaders of (what would become) Russia went religion-shopping, and they saw that the Orthodox worship looked impressive, and instead of deciding based on a good reason, they went with the worship they liked best. Eastern Christians tend to agree about the details of what people believe happened, but we do not believe the aesthetic judgments were something superficial that wasn’t a good reason. We believe that something of Heaven shone through, and if that affected the decision, people weren’t making a superficial decision but something connected with Truth and the Light of Heaven and of God. We believe that worship, and houses of worship, are to be beautiful and reflect not only the love but the Light and beauty of Heaven, and a beautiful house of worship is no more superfluous to light than good manners are superfluous to love. The “beauty connection” has not meant that we have to choose between good homilies, music, liturgy, and icons. A proper Orthodox listing of what constituted real, iconic art may differ from a Western listing, and there’s more than being sticks in the mud behind the fact that Orthodox Churches, by and large, do not project lyrics with PowerPoint. Part of what I have said about icons is crystallized in a goal of “transparency”, that the goal of a window of Heaven is to be transparent to Heaven’s light and love. Not just icons can be, or fail to be, transparent. Liturgical music can be transparent or fail to be transparent. Homilies can be transparent or fail to be transparent.

I’ve heard just enough bad homilies, that is opaque homilies that left me thinking about the homilist instead of God—to appreciate how iconically translucent most of the homilies I’ve heard are, and to realize that this is a privelege and not a right that will automatically be satisfied. The opaque Orthodox homilies don’t (usually) get details wrong; they get the details right but don’t go any further. But this is not the whole truth about homilies. A homily that is written like an icon—not necessarily written out but drawn into being first and foremost by the spirit, out of love, prayer, and spiritual discipline, can be not only transparent but luminous and let Heaven’s light shine through.

Some wag said, “A sermon is something I wouldn’t go across the street to hear, but something I’d go across the country to deliver.” I do not mean by saying this to compete with, or replace, the view of homilies as guidance which God has provided for our good, but a successful homily does more than inform. It edifies, and the best homilies are luminously transparent. They don’t leave the faithful thinking about the preacher—even about how good he is—but about the glory of God. When icons, liturgy, and homilies rise to transparency, they draw us beyond themselves to worship God.

My denser and more inaccessible musings might be worth reading, but they should never be read as a homily; the photographs in my slideshow of Cambridge might capture real beauty but should never be mounted on an icon stand for people to venerate; my best cooking experiments may be much more than edible but simply do not belong in the Eucharist—but my cooking can belong at coffee hour. The Divine Liturgy at its best builds up to Holy Communion and then flows into a common meal (in my culture, coffee hour) that may not be Holy Communion but is communion, and just as my more edible cooking may not be fit for the Eucharist but belongs in a common meal, I am delighted to tell people I have a literature and art website at C.J.S. Hayward which has both short and long fiction, musings and essays, poetry, visual art, and (perhaps I mention) computer software that’s more artistic than practical. I have put a lot of love into my website, and it gives me great pleasure to share it. If its contents should not usurp the place of holy icons or the Divine Liturgy, I believe they do belong in the fellowship hall and sacred life beyond the sanctuary. Worshipping life is head and lord to the everyday life of the worshipping faithful, but that does not mean a denigration of the faithful living as lesser priests. The sacramental priesthood exists precisely as the crystallization and ornament of our priestly life in the world. As I write, I am returning from the Eucharist and the ordination of more than one clergy. Orthodox clergy insist that unless people say “Amen!” to the consecration of the bread and wine which become the holy body and the holy blood of Christ, and unless they say, “Axios!” (“He is worthy!”) to the ordination, then the consecration or the ordination doesn’t happen. Unlike in Catholicism, a priest cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy by himself in principle, because the Divine Liturgy is in principle the work of God accomplished through the cooperation of priest and faithful, and to say that a priest does this himself is as odd as saying that the priest has a hug or a conversation by himself. The priest is head and even lord of the parish, but under a richer, Christian understanding of headship and lordship, which means that as the artist in his care he must listen to the faithful God has entrusted to his inadequate care, listening to God about who God and not the priest wants them to become, and both serve them and love them into richer being. (And, just as it is wrong for an artist to domineer his creation, it is even more toxic for a priest to domineer, ahem, work to improve the faithful in his parish. The sharpest warning I’ve heard a bishop give to newly ordained clergy is about a priest who decided he was the best thing to happen to the parish in his care, and immediately set about improving all the faithful according to his enlightened vision. It was a much more bluntly delivered warning than I’ve said about doing that to art.) The priest is ordained as the crystallization and crown of the faithful’s priestly call. The liturgy which priest (and faithful) is not to be cut off when the ceremony ends; it is to flow out and imprint its glory on the faithful’s life and work. Not only the liturgical but the iconic is to flow out and set the pace for life.

Art is to be the broader expression of the iconic.

Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
One of the greatest icons in the Orthodox treasury

Contemplation

Doxology

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

The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos

The Hydra

CJSH.name/hydra

A Surprise About “Joy”

Before beginning a critique that begins with C.S. Lewis, I should stop to pause and state that the choice of C.S. Lewis is deliberate and intended to be provocative. C.S. Lewis is considered by many Christians to be their chief spokesman in the modern age; though it would unfairly impute to him an unworthy calculating approach, he made deliberate choices to try to stay within what he called “mere Christianity,” meaning classic, little ‘o’ (o)rthodoxy, the Christianity of orthodox Christians, who might be described in Oden’s turn of phrase as “people who can say the Creed without crossing their fingers.” Most of people somewhere within the confines of Lewis’s mere Christianity, can look at most of what Lewis says and find that there are mostly things they can accept. Different groups of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants who remain in continuity with historic roots and recognizable Christianity may believe things Lewis doesn’t say, but a snatch of Lewis from almost anywhere attracts most real Christians. And needless to say, this is not the only thing Lewis had going for him. He was a brilliant author yet able to communicate clearly and simply; he was an able expositor; and he had a formation in much of what is best in Western literature, a formation that enriched first of all his fiction and fantasy but also affected his nonfiction. And he was, himself, a person who could say the Creed without crossing his fingers, and a good deal more than that. If one is going to look for an able spokesman for any spiritually alive form of 20th century Christianity, C.S. Lewis is at least one of the front runners, and depending on the circles you move in, it might be said that choosing anyone else is a choice that requires justification.

And that is why I would like to begin my investigations with him.

C.S. Lewis, in one pivotal passage in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, wrote:

…The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. ‘Ιουλιανποθω [Oh, I desire too much]—and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock; it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead—

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from both Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures of the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

I know that desire. I know it intimately, and it has been called one of the central defining characteristics. And, as is said in Ostrov, “I know [the demon] personally.” It is a form of covetousness, one that dwarfs the mere covetousness inspired by car ads, which portray luxury cars as mysterious, sensual, and intimate, and are in their own way “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief”, and which are in their own lesser way “a kind we want.” So far as I know, the Philokalia, which are (more than any other collection I’ve read, including the Bible) the science of interior struggle and spiritual warfare) says nothing of this secular enrapturement in its description of human beatitude. It does, perhaps, discuss something like this in the demon of noonday; today monks are perenially warned of the passion of escaping the here and now in which God has placed us, and the strict monastic is ordinarily to stay in one’s cell and fight the demon of noonday. One classic story tells of a monk who said he defeated the demon of noonday by visiting an elder, and another monk sharply corrected him: far from defeating the demon of noonday, his trip was giving in to the demon of noonday. This longing, called Sehnsucht by the Romantics (and remember that C.S. Lewis’s first work after returning to Christianity was The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Defense of Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism, is eloquently given voice in a work connecting conservative Christianity with Jungian psychology in Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, which was published in Mars Hill Review, republished along with First Things and other heavyweights in the conservative Christian Leadership University, and been gobbled up by complementarians (I am one) with works such as John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. But there is an issue, not with complementarianism as such (though complementarians may jump at a literate voice saying something out of [lock]step with feminism), but with what is not present in Less-Wild Lovers. And I would challenge the reader to look at the compelling, haunting picture inLess-Wild Lovers, and ask what is not there for something that complains to be Christian: where, in the entire piece, is the human plight described in terms of the sin and evils condemned by Christian tradition? For the moment let’s set aside the question of whether sin is understood, as in Pilgrim’s Progress, through the paradigm example of a judicial crime, or whether it is understood as in Orthodoxy through the paradigm example of a disease. John Bunyan and an Orthodox Christian can alike say that judged by the paradigm of the Ten Commandments, we don’t stack up, and the Ten Commandments provide a yardstick of something seriously important in human living. Where in the entire article is the yardstick of human failing associated with such things as are in the Ten Commandments? And once a problem is admitted, where does God stand with regard to the center of things? Admittedly one is invited to a larger spiritual world, but when does the advocated “way of the heart” revolve around Christ? Admittedly the differences here between Protestant and Orthodox are significant, but even with these differences where does the thesis that we are marred by sin and saved by Christ ever shape the outlook in the article? Less-Wild Lovers compellingly concentrates something that diluted C.S. Lewis’s Christianity, something that helps make the The Chronicles of Narnia compelling, and a clue to something that is rotten in the state of Denmark. The longing C.S. Lewis appeals to is a form of covetousness, one I am too familiar with, and seriously not-cool.

The question of whether Lewis’s ardent longing is covetousness is not purely academic. If you ask, “If it is sin, and it makes his life happier, does it really matter?” then my answer will be, “It didn’t make Lewis’s life happy, or at least it didn’t make my life happy. The moment of haunting is sweet, whether or not one appreciates it at the time. But it darkens the overall picture. The times in my life when I have been most governed by ‘Joy,’ as Lewis calls it, have been the times when I was more unhappy, and times when I made others unhappy.” But I am getting ahead of myself. The question of whether something is sin is in fact closely related to whether it will make us more unhappy.

In A Pet Owner’s Rules, I said, God is like a pet owner who only has two rules:

  1. I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you.
  2. Don’t drink out of the toilet.

And, I argued, all sin is drinking out of the toilet. For example, getting drunk may feel enticingly nice the first time or two. But being drunk all the time, as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, is suffering you wouldn’t want on your worst enemy. And covetousness as a whole is drinking out of the toilet. Pornography, with its lustful shade of covetousness, begins by being very enticing, but lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first pornography disenchants everything that is not porn, and then it progressively disenchants itself. And it also fits to add that ordinary covetousness is pleasant at first. Watching a really enticing commercial may help you understand the words, “Having is not as pleasing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” But the cost of covetousness is a loss of contentment. One begins by not being satisfied by what one has, and ends by not being satisfied by what one can get. Buying things may get momentary satisfaction, but the ultimate delivery, if you can buy what you covet, is nicer things and with them less contentment than one had before. And in these lines, it matters a great deal whether the intense longing of “Joy” or Sehnsucht is in fact covetousness. If it makes the human person settled in happiness, this is news to the Orthodox spiritual person. Everything that is like it is deemed unhelpful in the ascetical literature; avarice is poison, and obeying the demon of noonday is poison. I don’t see that my own extensive experience with Joy has made me happy, and even its advocate in Lewis openly says that it can be seen as an intense joy or an intense wounded unhappiness. Admittedly we are to yearn for Christ God, perhaps in a sublimation of the impulse to yearn for created things, and some authors use ‘eros‘ or ‘yearning’ in relation to God: but neither Lewis nor Curtis finds this desire to be particularly a desire for God. The cost of yearning something that, unlike cars and chewing gum, I cannot have no matter how much money I have, is like the more vulgar yearning stimulated by commercials. It seems palatial from the inside, like a doorway to a larger space, and it costs me something, namely contentment with what God has given me now. Some times I have recognized that my actions when I have been in the service of such yearning have been toxic. I now remember not a single time in my life when I have been happy that such yearnings have been prominent. If, as Lewis says, these yearnings are such that in their service one would choose them over happiness, perhaps this is not a mark of how wonderfully good they are. Perhaps it is a mark of how foul they are.

The hydra, or one end of a fallen tree branch

I have written a fair amount of what is more or less nonmagical fantasy (short stories: The Spectacles, Stephanos, Within the Steel Orb; novellas: Within the Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, The Sign of the Grail), enough so that one fellow author, in a conversation where someone said the first three books by an author establish his brand, suggested that my brand might itself be nonmagical fantasy. And it is something I would not like to be my brand now, but it is a clue to something significant.

I had stepped away from most fantasy with its portrayal of magic; in response to friends who said, “Why can’t we have fantasy with different physical laws?” I said (besides a bit about physics) that they were asking not for fantasy with different physical laws, but different moral laws, and I asked why they didn’t want fantasy in which other unlawful things besides magic were all kosher. The “different physical laws” seemed to always mean laws that would allow life as we know it (which is astronomically improbable: for physical constants alone, getting things right enough to allow us to live would require precision in excess of a marksman who could hit a proton from the opposite side of the universe), but in addition allow occult activity without what Christianity has regarded as occult sin. And why, I asked, if one could allow such things under the heading of different physical laws, why not envision universes in which sexual sins were innocent and harmless? And amidst all this, I sought to recreate fantasy, but without magic… which is to say that I sought to excise portrayal of magic from a fabric woven from the same root. I removed the picture but kept the frame on the wall. What fantasy offers is an alternative to the here and now, an alternative that crystallizes in the portrayal of magic. And I had removed magic from fantasy but retained the ambient orientation that powers magical fantasy.

What I am interested in here is a nexus that is something like a many-headed hydra: it appears in different places and different ways, but it is connected to the same reality (or, perhaps, unreality) underneath. People have said, “You pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other,” and while this nexus is perhaps more like a branch that keeps forking, with many places one can pick it up, it is still aspects of the same thing.

Magic as an unnatural vice

My most recent haunting of “Joy” came with a desire for spring greenery and nature, by assumption in a neo-Pagan light. There are a couple of issues here; for one issue, our worship of nature is a worship of an idealized nature that cuts away plants that grow naturally because they are “weeds” (the definition of a “weed” is a plant I don’t want, and the kinds of plants that intrude on our gardens as weeds tend to be those best suited to the local ecology), and puts plants that are ill-suited to grow in the area, perhaps needing extensive fresh water in an environment where fresh water is scarce. But the other, deeper issue has to be that when we reach for natural religion our eyes search for neo-paganism, perhaps Druidry. It was always with a faintly guilty conscience that in looking for wallpaper for my computer, I grasped for wallpapers of Stonehenge. Now I do not object to nature wallpaper as such; I have a waterfall wallpaper on my computer now and a clean conscience with it. But the Stonehenge wallpaper has to do with imagining nature in a pagan light. Perhaps this is a pagan light that neo-pagans and Druids would recognize; perhaps they would call it an outsider’s conception. But in either case, as with the recent haunting of Joy, my reaching for nature was a grasping that had Romantic, pagan, or occult resonance.

But the Fathers regard occult sin as an unnatural vice. (There are other unnatural vices besides queer sexuality.) Our more ordinary adoration of nature seems to express itself in wanting to make it something it is not, culling plants that grow naturally as weeds and then trying hard to make “better” plants grow outside of their normal operating range. My haunting mentioned before was for spring greenery; I didn’t respect that where I live, at this time of year, it is right and proper for everything green (besides evergreens) to be buried beneath a thick mantle of snow. (At least I didn’t go to shovel the yard to make it like my idealization.)

But there is a deeper sense in which nature-worship, or nature-magic, is unnatural. It is a bit like getting into a test-taking strategy where the only live question is how to best go about cheating on a test, and discussion of taking test is not about any legitimate method of test-taking, but only of how to cheat.

If there is anything that is natural for us to have, it is the here and now, and the plain sense of the here and now. This “here and now” may be out of doors, or it may be inside a house, or it may in an even more artificial environment like Antarctica or an airplane cockpit. But regardless of which of these possibilities we are actually in, “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know,” and escape from the here and now is unnatural cheating on a test. It’s not learning the main lesson brought by the here and now. And if nature is looked to as providing the substance of an escape, then nature is being looked to for something unnatural. Stepping out of a house into something green may momentarily provide escape; but the nature of “out of doors” is no more permanently exotic than “indoors.” If the out of doors appears to us to have a shimmer of something magical, a shimmer of exotic escape from the here and now, then we are using nature to dodge the chief lesson that nature is intended to teach us. We are being unnatural in our use of nature herself.

I have mentioned Lewis’s “Joy” and my “nonmagical fantasy” as heads of this many-headed hydra. It is also the poison that animates unnatural occult use of nature; for other heads, look at “metaphysics” in the occult sense, which is not (like the “metaphysics” of philosophy proper) a discipline of delving into the roots of existence as we know it, but using mental gymnastics, acrobatics, contortions to dodge the plain sense of existence as we know it. Gnosticism is seductively appealing, but there is a catch. The Gnostic appeal hinges on a spiritual climate of despair in the here and now; its good news is a salvation from the here and now. To someone who is genuinely happy, who appreciates the here and now, gnosticism will fall on deaf ears; it is like offering completely free chemotherapy to someone who has no trace of cancer. Video games, iPhones, special effects in movies, and an almost limitless array of technical options obviate the need to pursue the spiritual discipline of Gnosticism or occult practice to escape the hear and now, also provide a way out of the dull here and now—and make the here and now duller in the process! The list is open-ended and seemingly limitless; one of the characteristics of pride to the degree of prelest (which has been called “spiritual illusion” and “spiritual lust”) is a progressive disengagement from the here and now, absorbed in funhouse mirrors.

Awakening

There were many years when I read The Chronicles of Narnia, and wished to be in another world, wished to be in Narnia and contradictorily wished to have in this world something from another world. The desire is a self-defeating: in my case, not coveting something like a watch or a car that I could perhaps buy if I could spare the money, nor for something like the Mona Lisa that physically exists even if it’s not for sale, but a desire for something that, almost by definition, “If I can have it, by that very fact it is not what I want.” It’s a bit like wanting to drink wine from an unopened bottle: as soon as the bottle is open and the wine available to drink, it ceases to be what I want.

More recently, after years of struggling against this kind of coveting, which was in turn after decades of struggling to satisfy this kind of coveting, I remember thinking of Narnia as something I didn’t want—I wanted things that were real. And I started to less want things I don’t have, and more want things I do have. One saint said that we should desire whatever conditions we have, instead of desiring other conditions.

And it may turn out in the end that happiness was, like a pair of glasses, on our nose the whole time. If we let go of paganism as a way to connect with nature, we may find that Orthodoxy has held this connection with nature all the time, in details like the flowers adorning icon stands and the saying that if you have two small coins you should use one to buy prosphora and the other to buy flowers for the icons, to the status of the Orthodox Church as the vanguard of the whole visible Creation returning to her Lord, to monastics who cultivate a connection with God and end up having a connection to the natural world as well, to everything discussed in Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth. It turns out that the idea of paganism and Romanticism as the way to connect with nature was a decoy, but the good news is that the decoy is not needed. We have better.

Creation is both angle worm and angel host. It is not just rocks and trees, or even rocks, trees, and men, for the race of mankind has always been part of nature, but spiritual and visible: ministering spirits sent to serve the elect, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangel, and angel. And in all of this man is microcosm and mediator, the recapitulation and ornament of spiritual and visible creation alike. “In Christ there is no… male nor female,” sounds today like a drop of feminism woven into the Bible today and correcting its fabric, but the ancients knew something greater. Deification leads to the transcendence of the difference between male and female, between paradise and the inhabited world, between Heaven and earth, between the spiritual and visible creation, and finally between uncreated and created nature. All these differences are transcended in the Dance. And we dance the Great Dance with Nature, not when we submit to her lead, but when we properly lead her.

An ancient hymn says, “Adam, trying to be god, failed to be god; Christ became man, that he might make Adam god.” C.S. Lewis well enough said that though the journey to Heaven may cost us our right hand and our right eye, if we persevere through Heaven, we may find that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. If we let behind Romanticism and its by-definition-impossible quest for its harmony with nature, and all the occult hydra’s heads offering escape from the here and now, we may find that when we have really and truly repented, repentance being the most terrifying moment in Christian experience, once we have opened our hands and let all their necessary-seeming contents fall away as far as God wants, what we have left in our hands is all the good we did not choose, together with all the good we did choose. Letting go of that perennially seductive wish for a moment of deep harmony with nature, deepens our harmony with nature: for indeed, in terms of true harmony with nature that is continuous with virtue, being at peace with one’s surroundings, even in a skyscraper or even a space station, is more than a vacation where one is overwhelmed by hills and trees. And when we have repented of the escape that seems like our only real salvation given our circumstances, we are given real salvation in our circumstances: not wine from an unopened bottle, but appreciated wine from a bottle opened the usual way.

We have nothing to lose but our bondage to sin.

On Humor: Jokes, the Bible, and the Philokalia

CJSHayward.com/humor


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Two parallel translations

Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians 5:4, KJV)

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4, NIV)

Let me put a question, for which I have quoted this verse in two different translations, the King James Version and the New International Version. This verse refers to humor. Does it refer only to off-color humor, or humor as a whole?

I will be building up to an answer taken from the first-class humorist Mark Twain: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.

A look at the Greek turns up a Greek term eutrapelia which only occurs here; it is not mentioned in Kittel’s (unabridged) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, but there is an entry for Strong’s Greek Lexicon:

Eutrapelia
wit, liveliness
eutrapelia
witticism, i.e. (in a vulgar sense) ribaldry
Derivation: from a compound of G2095 and a derivative of the base of G5157 (meaning well-turned, i.e. ready at repartee, jocose);
KJV Usage: jesting. G2095 G5157
Thayer:
1) pleasantry, humour, facetiousness
2) in a bad sense
2a) scurrility, ribaldry, low jesting

The ambiguity is there in the Greek, which can mean witty repartee, humor as a whole, or vulgar humor specifically. The immediate context suggests coarse speech, but I would be wary of simply concluding that the verse only deals with lewd humor alone. ThePhilokalia gives encyclopaedic lists of vices, and some of them list jokes; in context coarse jokes are condemned but the condemnation is not limited to lewd humor. One thing we might miss if we simply try to resolve an ambiguity and ask, “Does the verse refer to off-color humor alone, or humor as a whole?” is that the quintessential joke, the bread and butter of rec.humor.funny, the joke that has its own Wikipedia entry, is the obscene one: the joke that is good enough for polite company is just hanging along for the ride.

(In which case the ambiguity of “joking” vs. “coarse joking” could be resolved that the verse applies principally and primarily to coarse joking, but extends naturally to joking in general.)

But let us leave that for the time being. And let us give the benefit of the doubt to the interpretation of one word in one verse: even if I am raising a concern about humor as such, including good, clean humor, one word in one verse is not the best place to argue from. Besides the Philokalia can include jokes and laughter when an author tries to catalogue every vice, I am concerned about Mark Twain’s “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.” I am concerned because my best sense is that he was right.

One time when my spiritual senses were being honed (during the discipline of a fast), I noticed something as a dialogue went on. I told the father of a kid I bantered with, “[Name] hurt my feelings.” The kid said, “How did I do that?” And I replied, “Fess up, [Name]. Then we’ll both know.” And that time I noticed something; something in my end of the dialogue felt like a spiritual scream. My eyes were being opened to something laced in my humor; no complaint about either of the guys I was talking with but there was something I sensed in my many favorite jokes that tasted sweet but left you not realizing you were sick afterwards. To give one example:

Someone decided to become an icefisher. So he got a bunch of equipment, went on the ice, and drilled down a couple of inches when a deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”

The surprised icefisher took up his gear, moved over fifty feet, and began to drill down. He got down just half an inch when a deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”

He moved over a hundred feet more, looked around, and the deep, booming voice said yet again, “Nor are there any fish there!”

The icefisher looked around and asked, “Who are you, God?”

The deep, booming voice said, “No! I’m the arena manager!”

The secret source of this joke’s humor is pain. It smuggles in more pain than you would imagine at first: someone is idiot enough to try to go ice fishing in a hockey arena. And the humor comes when that pain is pulled into the open. Nor, really, is the pain just for the people in the joke. The joke is a pleasure laced with pain. Perhaps there is a pleasure-pain syndrome where pleasure is laced with pain, but here we do not notice we have been sickened.

I once thought this joke would have been a good basis for a homily, to paint a picture where people ask of someone who dares to speak decisively in morals, “Who do you think you are? God?” and we reply that we’re just arena employees. But to a friend I was talking to, and to me, there was something that seemed wrong about using this joke in a homily even when it might serve as an excellent springboard.

Not all jokes are created equal: the crass vulgarity is more wrong than the clean joke and the sidesplitting joke you repeat is more wrong than the spontaneous banter, but there is a line of continuity between all of these, between the cleanest and the most foul.

So is there good news?

I would place two mental images in opposition to each other, in response to the question, “Is there any good news?” One is a place I worked where there was constant lewd joking; overall I got the impression that the obscene banter was a desparate bid to say something interesting, from people who could have had any number of interesting discussions. The chief effect I remember experiencing was not exactly being offended, but drained and drained. If an off-color jab is a desparate bid to say something interesting, it is not exciting, but dreary: if the most interesting thing you have to say are the same five dirty jokes, how great is that dullness!

The other image I would place opposite it is a priest standing, eyes closed, silent, intently concentrated in prayer. He is joyful, but the overall striking image is less joy than silence that speaks volumes. And this priest does not tell jokes, at least not often. But humor is not something missing from this priest. Maybe he does have a sense of humor and a few favorite jokes; I don’t know. But what he has is better than funny, and what he gives others is better than a joke, however funny. He has and shares joy, and the rapt silence which is among his greatest treasures is also something he shares to the best of his ability.

Mark Twain said, “There is no humor in Heaven.” If it seems natural to ask, “I like jokes. What consolation will I have if I give them up?” the answer is simply, “Heaven.”

When I was moving towards Orthodoxy, an Orthodox friend warned me that he had found Orthodoxy to be “a long road of pain and loss”. This he said, not to deter me from Orthodoxy, but so I could “know what you are getting into.” And his words have proven true, but there is something he didn’t tell me. The very real road of pain and loss has cost things I’d never imagine I’d be giving up, but the pain and loss have been the pain and loss of dislodging pieces of Hell and making room for a fuller grasp of Heaven. Orthodoxy has cost me my interest in fantasy, which is the same as saying that it cost me desires for things that were not real and I could not ever have, and given me in place desires for things that were real and a fuller desire for the One who is supremely Real. Orthodoxy has cost me my almost religious “faith” in science, which is ultimately to say that it has cost me answering some of the wrong questions. Orthodoxy has cost me trying to sate myself on pleasures, and cleared a distraction from things that offer genuine satisfaction. If Orthodoxy costs me an interest in humor, it may be so that I can live here on earth the Heaven that has never known humor’s sorrow. If Orthodoxy bids me say farewell to my search for earthly honors (I really have enough), it is so that I may search for Heavenly honors: the only honors that really matter. In all these things God is at work to give me the maximum in life.

The details and particular journey will be different for different people; this post and The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome pull from the Philokalia, but pull mint, dill, and cumin where the Philokalia offer justice, mercy, and faith. The Philokalia offer detailed discussions about how we are lured into different demonic traps, but the discussion of jokes is trivial by comparison with the discussion of unchastity. If it is even trivial. It does not occupy center stage, ever, but there is something worth unfolding, and it is particularly worth unfolding here and now.

We live in a time of pleasure seeking where pleasure delivery systems like Viagra sell. We also live in a time of lesser pleasures: pleasure delivery systems like televisions and smartphones sell. And we do not say with St. Paul, “When I became a man, I put childish pleasure-seeking behind me.” And in this context, it can stretch us to say, “Jokes are nice, but I’m trying to avoid them and move on to bigger things.” One could more sharply cite the Desert Fathers, “The Last Judgment awaits, and you laugh?”, but we can say, “Sorry; it’s powered by hidden pain; I’m looking for my happiness from other sources.” And we can make a small step to move on to bigger things.

Could you cut back on jokes, just a little?

Humor Delivers Pain

Maximum Christ, Maximum Ambition, Maximum Repentance

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

How Shall We Live This Instant?

CJSHayward.com/how-shall-we-live

Quest: So your use of ‘orthodoxy’ is not, strictly speaking, ‘mere Christianity’ as defined by C.S. Lewis, or any of its close kin.

Targe: It is not.

Quest: Then what is it? You have already said that it was not Thomas Owen’s “postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christian.”

Targe: The failure is interesting.

Quest: How so?

Targe: Well, one definition proposed as coinciding with postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christians is, “someone who can say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.” And the politically correct “their” is significant; I’ll get to that in a moment. But what I would point out that Baptists in their version of the Creed add a footnote to “Catholic” stating that it means “universal,” which of course it does, but the Protestant who says that is crossing fingers, or what is much the same thing, using the same words to mean different things: hence ‘Church’ means a purely invisible Church, the entire conception of which is as foreign to the Bible as it has been to ages of Orthodoxy. For another example of crossing fingers by saying the same thing but meaning something different, a Mormon can say most or possibly all of the Creed, but they mean something different by it: hence their saying, “As the Father is, so shall we be; as we are, so the Father was.” Part of the Catholic-Orthodox understanding of the Creed, for instance, is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are absolute in perfection from before there was time. And it’s crossing fingers to say you believe in God, the Father Almighty, and mean that a limited being became what we now call God the Father Almighty. And the connection is questionable at least between Mormon and Orthodox understandings of ‘deification’; the same word has two different and what might as well be unrelated meanings.

Quest: So you would throw it out?

Targe: The Spirit Spirits where He wills. Some have said, “We can say where the Church is, but not where it isn’t,” and others have said, “Not even that.” In that sense there really is an invisible Church, and those who are most insistent on necessity of being a faithful members of the Orthodox Church must needs acknowledge that there are Hindus and ancient pagans who will be saved, and there are members of the Orthodox Church who will be damned. His Eminence KALLISTOS, perhaps of concern to some Orthodox as dancing too close to the edge, none the less has an “all-purpose anecdote” (as he calls it) that anybody not caught in the trap of “True” Orthodoxy must recognize, tells a story about a woman who was severe in her fasting and observance of spiritual practices:

Once there was an old woman and she died. And somewhat to her surprise, she woke to find herself in a lake of fire. Looking out she saw her guardian angel walking on the shore. And she called out, “There has been some mistake. I am a very respectable old lady and I should not be here in this lake of fire.”

“Oh,” said the guardian angel, “do you ever remember a time when you helped someone else?”

And the old woman thought for some time and she said, “Yes. Once I was gardening and a beggar came by and I gave her an onion.”

“Excellent,” said the angel, “I happen to have that very onion with me now.” And he reached into his robes and he produced it. And he said to her, “Let us see what the onion will do. You take the other end and I will pull.” Perhaps it was not an onion but a shallot.

Gradually then, the angel, with the help of the onion, began to pull the old woman out of the lake of fire. But she was not the only person there. When the others saw what was happening they crowded round her and hung on in the hope of being pulled out as well. This did not please the old woman at all. She began to kick and to cry out, “Let go! Let go! It’s not you who’s being pulled out it’s me! It’s not your onion, it’s mine!”

And when she said, “It’s mine!” the onion split in two and she fell back into the lake of fire and there, so I’m told, she still is.

And His Eminence KALLISTOS obtained the story from Dostoevsky, who recorded it from someone else.

Quest: But what does that have to do with “postmodern”?

Targe: Well, if we accept the usual definition of postmodern—which Oden is not exactly trying to subvert, but claim “We were here first” competition—it is misleading at best to say, “If you were born in these centuries, you are a modern; if you are born in these decades, you are a postmodern.” There are engineers, large number of engineers who are moderns and who are aware of postmodernism as something that is out there, but aware with the kind of awareness one holds of fashions in faroff countries. And they may understand it well or, more often, not so well. Quite possibly they do not know a postmodern (in the usual sense).

Quest: How does Oden’s usage of “postmodern” differ from the more run of the mill version?

Targe: We have more a coincidence of names. What is usually called post-modernism is really a further unfolding of the damned backswing in the inner logic of modernism. René DesCartes fills the classic sociological definition of a pariah among postmodern authors in that attacks on him do not need justification (just read refereed academic journals and books where an attack on DesCartes is rarely accompanied by a footnote), but he began a program of tearing things up that was a precursor to deconstructionism. And it is from his patronage and country that Derrida came, and I’ve tried a few things to understand Derrida in any constructive way. I fairly quickly tried reading Derrida in the original. (It didn’t help.) And Oden’s claim, rightly enough, is that this should really be called “hyper-modernism.” There are other things it could be called, like “modernism 2.0” or “modernism on steroids” or “the inner (il)logic of modernism further unfolding”, but Oden’s suggestion is appropriate enough. And what he means by “post-modernism”, when it does not mean “hyper-modernism,” is people who have tried the modernist project and rejected it, like an engineer with a T-shirt that says, “Been there, wrecked that.” And in that sense postmodernism regards modernism and hypermodism as a vacation from reality and, perhaps with some archaeological interest or perhaps not, sees something like ancient or medieval life as still open to us. It may be noted, perhaps with excitement, that the Orthodox Church does not view the Church Fathers as a closed canon; perhaps a Catholic might not be inclined to say that there are medieval theologians still writing, but there is much room for Orthodox to say that patristic writing has not stopped and will not stop until the Lord returns.

Quest: So there are people writing now you would identify as Church Fathers?

Targe: Probably.

Quest: You do not introduce someone as a living saint; some have ascended to the third heaven and still been damned. There is a story of a saint who at the end of life set one foot in Paradise, and the demons praised him, saying, “Glory to you; you have defeated us!” and the saint said, “Not yet, I haven’t!” and pulled the other foot into Paradise. There are saints whose relics are incorrupt but it is the general wisdom of the Orthodox Church to allow some time for the dust to settle on a saint’s tomb. And I believe there are future saints that are alive, and some that will be recognized as Church Fathers who delivered living patristic theology, but we should not seek them out. We have recognized saints and Church Fathers from ages before; let us sit at their feet and learn from their life.

Thomas Oden’s version of postmodernism is tangled though.

Targe: How do you mean?

It is an attempt to be part of the Orthodox Church without being part of the Orthodox Church. Now this endeavor has happened before; one could argue that the Reformation was an attempt at (paleo-)Orthodoxy. And more recent efforts like Radical Orthodoxy start by having Protestant authors greatly appreciate pre-Protestant theologians, and not just the Blessed St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and yet somehow Radical Orthodoxy ends up producing articles that speak of “the incestuous, homosexual union of the Father and the Son” and be as deliberately lewd as academic theology which has no pretensions to any Orthodox label. It’s a wasteland.

Quest: Do you believe all of Oden’s “postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christians” are judged by that standard?

Targe: God help us, no. People who try such things may be very virtuous indeed. But—no, I need to put that off again—but consider well the three-fold comparison of natural sciences, academic theology, and Orthodox theology in “Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.” Something remarkably similar may be said of Oden’s hypermodern, Oden’s postmodern, and Orthodoxy’s patristic. That is, you can make a threefold comparison between hypermodern, postmodern, and patristic as you can with science, academic theology, and patristic theology. Let us look some at Wittgenstein’s forms of life: Wittgenstein as a philosopher was dead wrong about many things and the phrase “after Wittgenstein” is itself a warning label, but in patristic Orthodoxy across the centuries and millenia, there is a cycle of day and night and though candles may give a little light, you act during the day and wind down at night. For the hypermodern and the postmodern by contrast, things are very different from the Orthodox patristic norm, when the sun goes down you usually turn on lights, and though scrupulous Jews may leave by sunset to avoid work on the Sabbath, it is not the rule for offices or factories to close just because of a sunset. For those living before modern times, there existed such a thing as an “epistolary relationship,” in some arrangement of pen pals, but to the hypermodern and postmodern, it is more prevalent among the youth than among adults to have relationships increasingly mediated by shifting sands of computer technologies, by social networks and ten thousand other things. Overall it may be true that liberals use technology better than conservatives: “My Barack Obama” in Obama’s first campaigns used some of the best technology has to offer, and while Django is freely offered to conservatives too, the power base for conservatism is not suburban or urban middle class, and a great many Republican votes come from the kind of people torn up in Deer Hunting with Jesus. To that basic observation, I may respond that the way new technologies are adapted and used works more like a liberal process than a conservative conservation. In some sense conservatives who use technology skillfully might be considered “virtual liberals”: yes, their votes may be to the right, and yes, their views and voices may be to the right, but they are skilled at negotiating a liberal style of waters. If conservatives use technology a little more clumsily, this is because the inner workings continue in some sense to preserve their character. One translates between Italian and Spanish more easily than one translates between Italian and Russian: and here the relation between technology and liberalism is like that between Italian and Spanish, and the relation between technology and conservatism is like that between Italian and Russian. The mere incompetence of some conservatives with technology is a sign of a strength somewhere else. But compared to any previous century, a conservative or postmodern (Oden-style) looks remarkably more like a liberal or hypermodern (Oden-style), or the vast number of mostly liberal people who run TV and popular blogs. The Paleo movement, which has perhaps appropriately been called a lifestyle (although Paleo Hacks discusses lifestyle far less than diet or exercise), is remarkable because it is exceptional. It looks at one aspect of life, diet—or maybe two, diet and exercise, plus a few other details—and says that what we have done with food since the industrial revolution is morbid. And it looks at how best to recover the strengths of the basic human hunter-gatherer style of diet (and of life) with what we have in front of us. But diet and exercise are two out of a hundred aspects of human life and living, two out of very many layers, and if conservatives like Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis complained about newfangled light available whenever you flick a switch, or cars that annihilated God-given space, or talked about refusing to eat tinned food, this was a blip even for conservatives. Neither C.S. Lewis nor Dorothy Sayers complained about the ease of putting pen to paper, easing the physical side of writing to be economically cheap and physically effortless compared to medieval standards C.S. Lewis would have known well, where writing was comparred to ploughing a furrow and unambiguously classified as a form of (strenuous) manual labor.

Today, rural adults volunteer to keep cinemas alive and providing movies to children and youth. In days past cautious Christians avoided movies; now it is a conservative move to keep cinemas alive as a piece of history not to be lost. Technology progresses along its own inner rules, and it unfolds and its damned backswing unfurls.

It is a common preference in the U.S. to choose retrieving information over owning it. The development of computers has followed this preference, and most of what you do that is most interesting is to retrieve new, fresh information. We live in digital dark ages where the cascade of technologies, one largely displacing another, will leave future archaeologists and historians thirsty for an understanding of what we have, and we have reached the point, and long passed it, that curators of computational museums have physical storage media that they believe to be mostly or completely intact, and to contain real information, but they are at a loss for how to read it. The Air Force started a program to purchase one of every type of storage device, printer, etc. so that they would be able to prevent this from happening. But there was a kink along the way; some of the printers they purchased, left to sit for months, had rubber parts turn to gum. The Air Force saw and specifically took countermeasures to curate and keep the means of reading any form of computer storage, and while a museum may have come out of it, the original goal is all but impossible. Perhaps they could have gotten farther by actively maintaining all of their inventory, but there comes a point when you cannot obtain what you need to maintain old equipment, no matter how skilled you are at making repairs or how much you can pay.

Those who understand such thing said that when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, he toppled the first domino in a chain that will make netbooks, notebooks, and desktops go the way of the landline or horse: a rarity, at least. And when Microsoft revealed Windows 8, they basically said, “We agree. We’ll go further than you, Apple. You let Macs continue to run on MacOS, without any effort to convert them to iOS devices. We’ll make a version of Windows optimized for mobile users, and we’ll release that as the desktop version as well as the mobile version.” Whether that move was right or not, time will tell. But Microsoft and Apple have declared an agreement that the tablet is the wave of the future and the desktop, even the Mac, is the wave of the past.

There is a science fiction short story, from when computers first entered the public consciousness, of a monastery of some religion which was involved in writing down all of the names of God to bring about the end of the world. They purchased a computer to help them do this task much faster. The ending of the story had the salesman getting on an airplane, noting, “They should be reaching the end of their calculation now,” and looking out the window and seeing a star vanish. There is already a star that has vanished: Apple has not rolled out Retina display to 17″ MacBook Pros; instead, Apple has retired the top of the line, its 17″ MacBook Pros. If you don’t have a 17″ MacBook and you want one, time for creative internet shopping!

And the damned backswing unfurls economically. The 1950’s drew unprecedented levels of wealth and an ersatz civic virtue of keeping up with the Joneses; compare the appliances and possessions of a 1990’s house with a 1950’s house and some have said that we were no longer keeping up with the Joneses: we were keeping up with the Trumps. So the longer and longer we go, the richer we get? Um, not exactly; we are being cut by the damned backswing. We indeed possess luxuries and possessions never before available in the history or prehistory of the race of men. But these luxuries, which we may not be able to keep hold of, do not our dreams of riches all come true. To quote an investment billboard, “My wild dream of retirement? Actually retiring!” The Damned Backswing that gave us newfangled forms of luxury is now cutting and delivering poverty well below a 1950’s “keeping up with the Joneses” standard of living.

Quest: Guess things were better in the fifties?

Targe: I’d like to visit a point with G.K. Chesterton, whether or not Chesterton sees eye to eye with Orthodoxy on this point. In discussing Francis of Assisi’s aspirations as a soldier, Chesterton says that loving other people and fighting them is perfectly consistent. And in Orthodoxy, unlike Catholic theology, there is no real concept of a just war. Orthodox are allowed to be soldiers, and there are saints who were soldiers. But a soldier who has tried to kill cannot become a priest, and regardless of what might have been the cause of war, Orthodox soldiers are expected to do years of penitence after their combat. Orthodoxy may have soldiers as much as Catholicism, but the concept of a just war is foreign to it.

But I still wish to visit one of Chesterton’s points, besides his saying that Francis of Assisi was perfectly right to go to fight in war against a neighboring city-state. He commented that if two such city-states were to fight continually against each other for a century, it might come within some remote distance of the body count of one of our modern scientific wars. And here I would like to make a comment about firearms and the Iran-Iraq war.

Modern Western firearms did not create the Iran-Iraq war; but we have come to possess modern assault rifles at the end of a process of change and military obsolescence, where generals and military leaders have adapted and adopted new tactics for centuries. The development of weapons may be easier for an outsider to see than shifts in tactics and strategy but alongside one gamechanger of a weapon after another has been a shift in tactics to try and achieve victory with a minimum of losses from among one’s own troops, and really also an attempt to kill as few as the enemy as you reasonably can while achieving your objective. One World War II sailor talked about how his ship sunk an enemy ship, and then, with tears, explained that the smell of a certain oil burning wafted into their craft, and he and the other sailors were absolutely disgusted, not because what they were smelling was vile (but it was vile), but because they realized that meant that men from the other ship, their enemies, were dying with that obscene stench in their nostrils. And the soldier, crying, said, “You can’t hate him. He’s another sailor, just like yourself!”

It is possible for a soldier to love his enemies, and in Arab culture, before Western armaments were dropped in, men fought all the time, just like St. Francis, but there was something about their fighting that was almost like sparring or horseplay. Killing men outright was not the rule, and it was not desired. And then, without much precedent, 20th century weapons were dumped on, by Western standards, 12th or 13th century military strategy, and there were none of the West’s slow learning over the centuries how to handle increasingly more destructive weapons while trying to accomplish goals with less casualties on both sides.

Quest: It should seem then that you should welcome the fifties.

Targe: The fifties came after World War II. One of the definitions of a modern war is a war that ends at the exhaustion of one side’s resource: a war of attrition, such as when part of the U.S. made a second Declaration of Independence, another part decided it non-negotiable that the United States be a single country, and neither side pulled back when blood flowed like a river, deep and wide. As to World War II, on essentially every side it was several notches removed from what I have tried to call orthodoxy, even though making what it means clear is hard. Even the traditional Arab raiding and lightweight fighting was a longstanding departure from what I call orthodoxy, but it was in the same ballpark. It did not go too far from the Garden of Eden. But warfare in its modern sense—the inventor of what we now know as a modern machine gun had almost pacifist intentions; he thought that when that invention was brought into war, people would be so horrified and disgusted that they would stop using guns, or at least machine guns, into war, and apparently horrified at the nation that would use such a vile weapon and horrified at using guns on people. But though an early machine gun may have been called “the Devil’s paintbrush,” automatic assault rifles are standard in infantry combat for anyone who is serious about war. There has been a long history of weapons that were expected to be too horrible to use: several Popes tried unsuccessfully to ban crossbows in their day’s version of the Geneva Conventions, and the machine gun just mentioned, and the battleship, and most recently nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. For now at least we have stopped using them. But whether or not warfare as such is “orthodox”, modest and small wars by modern standards depart from orthodoxy much further than Francis of Assisi going to fight another city-state with dreams of soldierly glory.

Now to return to the 1950’s. In the course of the greatest industrial war so far, America developed very well optimized industrial production to fuel the war. People may well have been Spartan enough in what they were doing and how they were living (ration books and all that), but when the war ended, the gears of factories started out turning other things besides munitions, and advertising became more manipulative and seductive, and people began to keep up with the Joneses. This may be better than the river of blood in world war, but there is something about spend, spend, spend to keep the factories spewing out goods that is further from orthodoxy than the sacrifice of a war effort which gave as much of one’s sap and soul with no personal benefit in the progress, than consuming the output of factories spewing consumer goods on the level of materials for war. Dorothy Sayers’s The Other Six Deadly Sins comes to mind, readily to mind. Sayers outlined a door to orthodoxy open to post-war Europe, but Europe did not choose that route.

Quest: And now we have shifted gears further: calling the 1950’s sexist has given way to attacking whether religion may act against queer interests, it would seem.

Targe: There is an instance of a pattern of people saying, “You are making a mountain out of a molehill. You should give in here.” To make an extremely offensive comparison, this is a bit like the molester’s message, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s OK.” Both parts of the message are internalized by the person addressed. It’s the same warped character that said, “Voting for Bush because you oppose gay marriage is a bit like buying a ticket to England because you like the salted nuts the airline stewardesses serve on the flight.”

I have never seen someone who says “You are making a mountain out of a molehill. You should give in,” treat the ‘molehill’ as a molehill that is readily conceded to focus on more important points. I have never heard of someone who calls an opponent’s position a molehill ever give in on that point. And here actions speak louder that words: the rhetorical move of “your position is a molehill; you should give it up and do things our way” is always, always accompanied by actions treating the “molehill” as a non-negotiablemountain.

One of those molehills concerns the ordination of women. Gender or Giftedness? one promoted title asks. And it is begging the question; it assumes giftedness has nothing to do with gender when gender provides much of the concrete shape by which God has gifted all of mankind.

There is someone who said that all of the Luddites were right; all describe something of mankind dying. Plato took a Luddite approach to writing, saying in a famous passage in Phaedrus, let me look it up…

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.

And anyone who thinks this is a mere hiccough would be well advised to remember that Orthodoxy preserves alive the character of an oral tradition. Perhaps this is not the most important truth about Orthodoxy. Mount Athos preserves a great many age-old forms of life, but it would be a serious misunderstanding to make that one’s primary reason to visit the Holy Mountain.

Quest: Is there any hope? Any way to turn back the clock? It seems we have departed from the natural operating conditions of Homo sapiens quite a bit.

Targe: In more ways than we can name. We have lost a primal stillness; even Lao Tzu in the fifth century B.C. knew a primal stillness had then been lost among his people; he was concerned people had become noisy, complicated where peace is simple. He is said to have been a keeper of some royal library, but he did not turn to books for our salvation.

Quest: Then where is hope to be found?

Targe: Here and now. There was one hieromonk who reflected back on his time in a Soviet, Marxist concentration camp, and simply said, “God was so present there.” There, in the midst of everything the Devil might do, was God. He had been tortured to the point of breaking all of his fingers, and he simply remembered that God was there.

Quest: He must have been quite a monk.

And yet I wonder… um, maybe it’s better not to mention…

Targe: Yes?

Quest: Um…

Targe: Yes?

Quest: Orthodoxy and Paleo both say things about diet, and they don’t say the same thing. Can we benefit from both?

Targe: That is an excellent question to discuss with your priest.

Quest: And beyond that?

Targe: That is still an excellent question to discuss with your priest.

Strictly speaking, Orthodox fasting and Paleo diet are compatible. Nothing in Orthodox fasting rules dictates that one eats bread every day, or rice or noodles. During a fasting period, you may eat seafood and an abundance of vegetables, and for that matter possibly more variety than keeping the fast without Paleo. Have you ever gone through a fast and exhausted the possibilities of just vegetables available in grocery stores?

But let’s look at fasting in the extreme. The reconciliation I gave above, saying there is an area where the two dietary rules intersect, is a bit of a decoy. If you read the lives of the saints, they walk on water, or enter fire without being burnt. Saints give to God above what nature provides, and often, though not always, saints who work great wonders live on a diet that would seem to produce all manner of weakness. But these are spiritual athletes. Now the ascesis of fasting or something like it is normative, but in considering Orthodoxy and the Paleo diet, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. One’s priest, and perhaps also one’s doctor, is really the kind of person one should seek help from. In general, the rule in Orthodoxy is, Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Attempts to turn back the clock keep moving us further from the source. Don’t look back. Look up!

There is something false in things as we have been looking at them, in saying that Luddites since the time of Plato have mourned losses that came with technological gains, in talking about food and drink: the Kingdom of Heaven is not a matter of food and drink. Now the choices we make may matter, but the true way of looking at things is not from the material up to the spiritual, but from the spiritual down to the material. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well. This was true in the first century, when the Sermon on the Mount was given, but the truth is as old as humanity.

And it is also the answer to the question, “how we shall live in this instant?

The Damned Backswing

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

“Physics”

“Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution

Your Own, Personal Hell

CJSHayward.com/hell

One Depeche Mode album gave a song which has been partially censored in some online lyrics collections, Your Own Personal Jesus:

Reach out and touch faith
Your own Personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares
Your own Personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who’s there

Feeling’s unknown and you’re all alone
Flesh and bone by the telephone
Lift up the receiver
I’ll make you believer

Take second best
Put me to the test
Things on your chest
You need to confess
I will deliver
You know I’m a forgiver
Reach out and touch faith

Your own Personal Jesus
Feeling’s unknown and you’re all alone
Flesh and bone by the telephone
Lift up the receiver
I’ll make you believer
I will deliver
You know I’m a forgiver
Reach out and touch faith
Your own Personal Jesus
Reach out and touch faith

One should perhaps not be too quick to classify and identify undergirding characteristics to things one does not understand well, but after a couple of listens to it, the song is an Evangelical-style parody of Evangelical televangelism and what is connected to it. Evangelicals will speak of ‘receiving Christ as personal Lord and Savior,’ and while the terms ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’ are New Testament bedrock, the term ‘personal’ is not applied in the New Testament to (in Protestant terms) one’s relationship with Jesus. ‘Personal’ in the Evangelical context means that one makes one’s own a submission and acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior. The Depeche Mode plays an an ambiguity in the term ‘personal’ and speaks of your own ‘Personal’ Jesus as an apparent private possession. This song is part of Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’ album, and there is a spiritual dimension to parts of the album, but outside that song I do not find identifiable attempts to engage Christianity.

And in that sense having a Personal Jesus is nonsense; the satire, if I am understanding it correctly, satirizes the ‘personal’ that Evangelicals have added to Jesus Christ as ‘Lord and Savior’, and perhaps one dimension of the satire stems from the fact that however Depeche Mode may have looked on Evangelicals, they knew full well that Jesus is not meant to be one’s private, ‘personal’ possession, even to Evangelicals who use the term.

And I would underscore that you cannot have ‘Your own Personal Jesus’…

…but you can have ‘Your own Personal Hell.’


We may speak of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and that may be true: he chastised the disciple who defended him with a sword, and he did not even try to defend himself with words when he was on trial. However, we would do well to remember that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, spoke of Hell four to five times as often as he spoke of Heaven, and that the Fathers have said that we owe more to Hell than to Heaven because more people have come to the truth through fear of the torments of Hell than through hope of the mercies of Heaven.

I would like to place two images of Hell alongside each other; both are the treasure of the Orthodox Church, even though they are very different from each other. One image speaks of Hell as having ‘dark fire’: in other words, fire that delivers torment but does not deliver light such as the fire the Fathers knew as the only source of artificial light when the sun had set. The other image says that the fire of Hell and the light of Heaven are the same thing, the light of Heaven being the light as experienced by those who embrace it, and Hell being the light of Heaven as experienced by those who reject it. As I wrote in From Russia With Love:

The Greek word hubris refers to pride that inescapably blinds, the pride that goes before a fall. And subjectivism is tied to pride. Subjectivism is trying, in any of many ways, to make yourself happy by being in your own reality instead of learning happiness in the God-given reality that you’re in. Being in subjectivism is a start on being in Hell. Hell may not be what you think. Hell is light as it is experienced by people who would rather be in darkness. Hell is abundant health as experienced by people who would choose disease. Hell is freedom as experienced by those who will not stop clinging to spiritual chains. Hell is ten thousand other things: more pointedly, Hell is other people, as experienced by an existentialist. This Hell is Heaven as experienced through subjectivist narcissism, experiencing God’s glory and wishing for glory on your own power. The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. God is love; he cannot but ultimately give Heaven to his creatures, but we can, if we wish, choose to experience Heaven as Hell.

Regarding the question of people who have never heard of Jesus, my New Testament professor at Wheaton said that we are not called to save souls [and provide guilt for those who reject the Gospel], but called to draw people further into a relationship with Christ. Now the Orthodox may not see things in terms of a modern-style relationship with Christ, but regarding people who have never heard of Christ, Romans 1 gives something of an answer by saying that God is not without witness even in people who have never heard the Gospel. But a more important answer is given in this: God does not arbitrarily damn people to Hell. Hell is infinitely self-chosen. Alike among people who have heard of Christ and people who haven’t, the choice of life and death remains open, and people will be judged by what they do with what they have where they are. I as someone at a point where Orthodoxy is chaotic and ancient canons are applied with unusual leniency, will stand judged by what I did with what I had where I was. The choice between Heaven and Hell is not dictated by whether Orthodoxy was in a solid state where I was; the choice between Heaven and Hell is for me dictated by whether I choose to embrace Heaven, or fall back on Hell.

And I might add that this choice is particularly salient because I have thought of myself as an Orthodox faithful who would automatically go to Heaven. There was a time when, partly due to a doctor making questionable choices, I was approaching death rather than (God forbid!) one of my medications making my hands permanently shaky. And, amidst throwing up or dry heaves dozens of times per day, and becoming increasingly dehydrated, yet finding drinking water to be a repulsive chore, the spirit world grew close and I found temptation unlike anything I have seen before. I experienced temptation, which one I will not name, and while I never went through to commit any of the the temptation in action, it is very clear to me that in my heart I chose Hell in that experience. Now that is not the end of the story; and there was another time God allowed me to experience similar temptation and soundly reject it, choosing Heaven. But none the less it is clear to me that I once faced the ultimate decision, and in that decision I chose Hell. God has since been merciful to me, but I recognize that I may never this side of the final Judgment say, ‘I am a pious Orthodox; I am going to Heaven.’ The story is told of one saint who at the end of his life drew one foot into Heaven, and the demons said, ‘Glory to you, you have defeated us,’ and he said, ‘Not yet I haven’t,’ and drew the other foot into Heaven. God has allowed what I consider a very powerful corrective to saying ‘I am so Orthodox I will automatically be saved.’

(There was another time, later on, where I experienced similar temptations and rejected them, and I was weak and ill just long enough for me to recognize that I have a choice in the matter, that I can choose between Heaven and Hell and reject Hell.)

The opportunity to create your own, personal Hell is almost as old as the hills. It has been available from the ages. But technologies—not all of them new—offer the opportunity to go off into your own little world, and that is a step towards creating your own, personal Hell.

What are these portable Hells? Let me mention a few of them. One roommate discussed how pedestrians at a crosswalk in winter have their little zone of warmth and are not aware of their surroundings enough to notice cars that they’d notice in warmer wrather that did not warrant a coat. I carry a Swiss Army Knife, and that is a portable self-sufficiency, or at least the illusion of portable self-sufficiency: I have a pen, a magnifying glass, a scissors and pliers, half a dozen proper blades, and over a dozen screwdrivers and Torx wrenches, excluding a small jeweller’s screwdriver nestled in the corkscrew. And it happened at work that my boss said, ‘I’m having trouble with my glasses; does anybody have a blade?’ And I said, ‘I have several blades, but would a jeweler’s screwdriver help?’ And indeed, once he had used the jeweler’s screwdriver he said he had no need for a blade.

I mention this as somewhat banal; if we look properly at what are my needs as a human being, precisely none of them hinge on carrying a Swiss Army Knife. Now there is a strong ‘guy appeal factor’ to a Swiss Army Knife, and I do like, for instance, knowing exactly where a can opener is and not having to search. But when I look at myself, I realize that most of what I get from my Swiss Army Knife is not its admittedly convenient utility wherever and whenever I happen to be carrying it, but something like what I have pejoratively called ‘sacramental shopping alike when others do it and when I do it; wWhat I call ‘sacramental shopping’ is an ersatz sacrament of something vaguely akin to alchemy, trying to achieve a better internal state through having something physical. I have an attachment to my pocketknife; a woman might perhaps buy clothing when there is no need for additional clothing stemming from modesty, protection, or foresight.

That is a dilute image of Hell. There is a stronger image afforded by consumer electronics: in my childhood, Walkmans and perhaps walkie-talkies made the here and now optional. (As did cars, preceded by still other older technologies: some people have called the establishment of national steam engine railways the nineteenth century equivalent of the Internet, and indeed the nineteenth century sense of invention is actively imitated in steampunk circles today.) My grandfather on my mother’s side was an accomplished ham radio operator, and while I do not want to diminish his skill and accomplishment, I recognize precursors to the computers offering something like a command-line social network that I helped administer as a high schooler, and the MUDs, variably called ‘Multi-User Dungeons’ and ‘Multi-User Dimensions’ (I remember my boss as a system administrator, saying in reference to DikuMUDs, ‘”DikuLoser”… I like the term,’ and then having him explain to me that that was off the record) that are the precursors to World of Warcraft.

I don’t want to fixate on one specific technology, and I see no final singularity to today’s technologies, unless economic collapse stomps down the process of new technologies. But what I will say is that we have progressively stronger personal, portable Hells. I have not played World of Warcraft, and I have not seen it played since my little brothers played a basically two-dimensional version. But I would recognize in it a stronger distillation of what drew me into MUDs. I drank port, so to speak; teens now are drinking regular rum; 151 proof appears to be on the way.

I quote the beginning of Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addiction:

What hard liquor, cigarettes, heroin, and crack have in common is that they’re all more concentrated forms of less addictive predecessors. Most if not all the things we describe as addictive are. And the scary thing is, the process that created them is accelerating.

We wouldn’t want to stop it. It’s the same process that cures diseases: technological progress. Technological progress means making things do more of what we want. When the thing we want is something we want to want, we consider technological progress good. If some new technique makes solar cells x% more efficient, that seems strictly better. When progress concentrates something we don’t want to want—when it transforms opium into heroin—it seems bad. But it’s the same process at work.

No one doubts this process is accelerating, which means increasing numbers of things we like will be transformed into things we like too much.

As far as I know there’s no word for something we like too much. The closest is the colloquial sense of ‘addictive.’ That usage has become increasingly common during my lifetime. And it’s clear why: there are an increasing number of things we need it for. At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth. Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook. [emphasis added]

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40….

Now I have named one plausible cause for the acceleration of addictiveness to fail: global economic collapse. The Damned Backswing may make a future much less engaging than today’s addictive offerings. Which does not refute Graham’s point; this is less like a rebuttal of his insight than saying that some deus ex machina forces may elephant stomp on the process of acceleration of addiction. He is welcome to read this work, but I hope he takes no rebuttal to his basic insight.

My concern is that all of these addictive things make it easier to have your own personal Hell. It used to take years of (perverted) effort to be so completely wrapped up in yourself that your hubris blinds you to anything interesting that is around you. Now—even if it is not true in exactly the same sense—consumer electronics such as a smartphone or tablet let you enter an analogous state of Nerdvana in minutes. I don’t want to downplay the skill and strategy in World of Warcraft, but its marketing proposition is an alternative to the here and now. And ‘an alternative to the here and now,’ which have always been around and we have much more of, is another name for Hell: your own, Personal Hell. There is something in porn that disenchants the entire universe; magic’s marketing proposition is (besides power) an alternative to presence in the here and now; pride is blinding to the outside world and the deformities inside; nursing a grudge blinds the eye to opportunities for happiness; some or all the vices seem, with long practice, to take one’s attention away from the here and now. But even if one ignores the hard porn that is the #1 sin young men bring to confession today, and the soft porn characteristics of music videos which Alexander Solzhenitsyn called ‘the liquid manure of Western culture,’ and various other contexts where standard dress is at least somewhat provocative, there is something in the most sexless of how viral phenomena on the Internet work. It’s a sort of technological analogue to chemical highs. Not that this makes any technological pleasure forbidden. It is possible to drink alcohol in healthy moderation; there are apparently societies where people smoked without it governing their lives, and portrayal of tobacco in Robinson Crusoe show no lesson learned from experience that tobacco is addictive and blasts your lungs out if you smoke too much. Caffeine, now available in caffeine pills, guarana-powered energy drinks, and the like, greatly exceeds the strength of coffee and tea when first introduced, and in England people tried to ban caffeine as being the same sort of thing as today’s street drugs. And energy drinks can understate their caffeine content by documenting caffeine from some sources (i.e. coffee beans) but not others (i.e. guarana). And even the most sexless of internet offerings, if it is popular enough to go viral, is stimulating in a powerful way. Maybe it isn’t necessarily sexual, and maybe it’s not the same sort of thing as a chemical high, but technological highs have been getting stronger, and as Graham says, faster and faster.


Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television is four decades old, and much of it could be plagiarized with little ffort today as fresh observations. Written by a former advertising executive, the author came to realize that what he was doing in advertising and in television was spiritually polluting the landscape. When I first read it, some of the numbers he gave, for when ‘technical events’ (to be explained momentarily) occurred in public television, then in commercial television, then in advertisements, had been exceeded substantially, and now they have been exceeded more. But this does not disprove his point; if anything, it proves a point that has a lot in common with ‘The Acceleration of Addictiveness’. He discusses ‘technical events’ as a way of creating addictive ‘artificial unusuality.’

If I may pause for a moment to define these terms, both of which connect to the acceleration of addictiveness:

Technical events
A moment in television (or, presumably, other media) when there is a screen cut, or music is added, or something else. Today the list would include computer animation.

Artificial unusuality
The use of technical effects and any other effects to create television (or other media) where television is made more engaging by adding artificially unusual effects. If I may draw an analogy, it is a bit like taking dull text and trying to make it seem exciting by going through and artificially adding bold and italics, and changing the grammar to short sentences, frequently punctuated by exclamation points and other more forceful punctuation. The text is not in and of itself more interesting, but it is given an artificial stress that renders artificial unusuality to the text.

And there are some other related points; I believe Mander observes that real conversation has troughs and peaks, an ebb and flow, where on television the conversation is as stimulating as possible. Mander observes—and this is one point on which his text is dated—that television has low, unengaging quality of video and audio, and it ‘needs’ artificial unusuality to compensate for its weakness: an experiment showing a video camera of waves lapping against a shore had very low viewership and even lower sustained viewership. And in that sense Mander does not describe high definition television. However, producers for high definition television seem to not be about to give up on artificial unusuality: what makes the television of four decades more engaging also makes the high-definition television of today more engaging. And on the point of artificial unusuality, television seems to be meant to be as engaging as possible; ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ says, in apparent reference to screen cuts and the like, that TV commercials acknowledge that the fifteen second TV commercial exceeds the viewer’s attention span by fourteen seconds. (And again, ‘even so, it can’t compete with Facebook.’)

Graham goes on to say, ‘Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced.’ In Bridge to Terabithia, the rural hero makes friends with a girl from a liberal, wealthy family who purchase a rural home to go on furlough. One of the ways the girl’s family is made to stand out is that they do not own a television: I may suggest that someone ‘trying to live well’ in Graham’s words is probably either very liberal or very conservative: at any rate, further enough from the political mainstream that ‘non-negotiable’ technologies, and in Wittgenstein’s term, ‘forms of life,’ are genuinely and truly negotiable. Organic food is becoming mainstream, but it used to be true that only the very liberal or the very conservative would go out of their way and perhaps pay Whole Foods prices (or join a local co-op) to obtain organic food.

The book Everyday Saints describes, true to its title, saints from close to us, but one of its sadder chapters describes an apparent hermit, an Augustine, who was in fact not a monastic but a crook posing as a displaced hermit. At one point the host family says that they were corrupting him: he would eat as much ice cream as was available to him, and he used a tape recorder to play quite a lot of Beatles rock and roll. (But what came out later was that he was corrupt to begin with.) In some ways this is an instance of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same:’ someone absorbed in media will presumably have a stronger distillation than a tape recorder playing the Beatles, but change a few technological details and the sad story could be told today. I don’t want to fixate on individual technologies as they will change: but the tape recorder, the television, and the tablet all provide an accelerating addictiveness.

And with these technologies, there is in fact a piper to pay. One friend talked about how he had to go to work, his wife was sick and having to take care of a baby, and they had an older child who they were able to have watch television. And at first this seemed like the perfect solution: the television provided an ‘electronic babysitter,’ and my friend was very clear that it helped out at a dark hour. But then they noticed, for instance, that when their older daughter wasn’t watching television, she was staring at the wall. And the electronic babysitter, they realized, was costing them things they weren’t willing to pay. At the time I visited them, there was no television in sight, and their daughter was more prone to engage usual childhood activities. They had joined the ranks of those who had made an intentional decision about television. That they said ‘no’ is not my exact point; one book, about which I was initially skeptical, said that there is a place to watching television, and then suggested that families watch one or two carefully chosen shows and then have the parents debrief the children afterwards and ask provoking questions. I don’t entirely agree with the latter, but it struck me as better than just limiting the time watching television.

And this is a matter where we are invited to our own, Personal Hell. I will not further belabor television; with computers I personally have made an attempt to limit my checking email to once per hour if I am not in a situation, such as a job, that dictates my checking it more frequently. I also limit Facebook time, often to the amount of engagement necessary to post a link. And still there is a piper to pay; perhaps not the toll of spending hours on Facebook per day, but I notice in myself a struggle not to do the equivalent of my friend’s daughter staring at the wall. Perhaps that may be a part of detoxification: but I find myself at times doing nothing when there are a world of interesting things, and in that sense I have embraced my own personal Hell. Perhaps I am rejecting it: but for the time being, there is still something warped.

I remember one friend talking about how a friend of hers, and an acquaintance of mine, was living ‘Internet life’, a life absorbed in the Internet, and her friend seemed to her to be subject to a temptation that was not live for her. And I remember watching with some fascination as she interacted with a (different) teenaged girl, as a matter of giving her full, loving attention to whatever person she was with. And that is, if anything, a live alternative to the acceleration of addictiveness. (Although she did close out her Facebook account, out of a decision of, ‘This is not helpful.’) Neil Postman, in Technopoly, spoke of, as per his book’s title, ‘the surrender of culture to technology,’ but when he gave recommendations, he didn’t talk about abstaining from technology so much as getting married and staying married.

There is a place for asking, ‘Do I need this technology, or is this a manufactured ‘need’?’ and treating all technologies as negotiable. I wrote in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature:

One can almost imagine a dialogue between God and Adam:

Adam: I’m not content.

God: What do you want me to do?

Adam: I want you to make me contented.

God: Ok, how do you want me to do that?

Adam: First of all, I don’t want to have to engage in ardent, strenuous labor like most people. I don’t want to do that kind of work at all.

God: Ok.

Adam: And that’s not all. I want to have enough bread to feel full.

God: Ok.

Adam: Scratch that. I want as much meat as I want.

God: Ok, as much meat as you want.

Adam: And sweet stuff like ice cream.

God: Ok, I’ll give you Splenda ice cream so it won’t show up on your waistline.

Adam: And I don’t like to be subject to the weather and the elements you made. I want a home which will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

God: Sure. And I’ll give you hot and cold running water, too!

Adam: Speaking of that, I don’t like how my body smells—could we do something to hide that?

God: I’ll let you bathe. Each day. In as much water as you want. And I’ll give you deodorant to boot!

Adam: Oh, and by the way, I want to make my own surroundings—not just a home. I want electronics to put me in another world.

[Now we’re getting nowhere in a hurry!]

The sense that we have something wrong is not new; as I have quoted elsewhere,

‘Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later [grain], and later still bread, really was in them.

‘We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.’

—C.S. Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves, 22 June 1930

Confucius and Lao Tzu, around 500 BC, sensed that a primal simplicity had been lost and there was something wrong and tangled in their day. Their solutions and approaches differed, but their diagnosis not so much, and even their goals not so much. This could be chalked up to a perennial tendency to say that the old days were better, as indeed Homer also found, but to someone sensitive to Paleo concerns and aware that humans have been around for a million or two years and all but the last eyeblink as hunter-gatherers, it may make a lot of sense to say that in the time of Confucius and Lao Tze the greatest sages sensed that we were in some pathological way uprooted from our roots.

‘We are synthetic men, uprooted.’ Now it may be in fashion in certain circles to be a localist and buy local where possible; but we are further along the synthetic route than when Lewis wrote. Lewis was legitimately concerned about diet; we have greater concerns to face, and to adapt a saint, ‘Would that Lewis’s concerns were our own.’ We have enough ways to make our own, personal world, in our own, Personal Hell.

But this need not be the last word.


Hell has always been close at hand but it need never be the last word. Repentance has been called the most terrifying experience there is; but once we enter it we can step into a larger world. Repentance is one of Heaven’s best-kept secrets. Repentance is letting go of Hell and opening hands that God can fill with Heaven. And it is open to all of us.

The saints’ lives occur in all manner of conditions: troubled times, easy times, quiet times, tumultuous times. One tends not to notice this directly because the saints’ lives are not primarily to document what times the saints lived in: they are meant to tell of God’s power as manifest in his saints. And this God is King and Lord, God the Spiritual Father: for `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring.’ However much we may bolt and bar the gates inside our own Personal Hell, God is very nearby and answers all that repent. And however much we hold onto Hell as the only home within our grasp, Heaven is our true Home and the heart’s deepest longing. We can dig and dig into our own personal Hell; all the while God beckons us to step out into Heaven.

Recently I visited Wheaton College and saw what was above the fold in The Record, the campus’s student newspaper. There were two black mimelike shirts, and in them two people, one of them holding a sign saying something like, ‘Would you love me if I was gay?’ and the other saying, ‘Jesus would and I would too.’ Now of course Jesus does love gays, as he loves everyone under the sun; so did Paul, who wrote, ‘Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.And such were some of you:‘ St. Paul knew and loved people who faced that specific struggle and loved them as much as those who faced other struggles. But the Wheaton Record article was not about a Christ whose death is strong enough to wipe out every sin, and who died for the whole world, but a group called ‘Refuge’ to provide an affirming environment to people who know that struggle or are questioning, and who either do not know or do not want to believe that the true Coming Out is stepping out of Hell Our Way, of our cherished Personal Hell, and opening the door whose doorknob is repentance. When I studied at Wheaton, there was a place that was precious to me, Gold Star Chapel, a tiny gem with a sort of altar covered by little slips of paper, where people would place their prayer requests, and others would come and write the dates they prayed for the concerns. And people brought concerns and spiritual struggles, including homosexual sins, and these were answered by loving prayers by fellow sinners struggling to repent of their own sins. I do not ever recall seeing a single harsh word written on those notes: only a few words of kindness and the dates of loving prayers offered by sinners struggling with their own struggles and knocking on the doors of Heaven with their own repentance. (How I miss that anonymous, silent meetingplace of penitent sinners.)

The specific concept of ‘coming out’ as we know it is not a matter of being straightforward about the struggles we face: at one church I attended, the chief pastor said quite emphatically in a homily, ‘If you don’t know me, hi, my name is Lyle, and I’m an alcoholic.’ He might have been sober for almost as long as I’d been alive; he still shares a struggle with other recovering alcoholics who don’t do as well. And in a deeper sense he Came Out with those words: I do not say ‘came out’ in the usual sense, which would be to have ‘alcoholic pride’ in destroying himself and others by drinking, but Came Out in the sense of stepping out of Hell: of rejecting bondage to alcohol and stepping into the broader place that is reached by sobriety, as it is reached by humility, as it is reached by penitence from sexual sin (which is more often committed today by using porn than queer sex). The concept of ‘coming out’ is that you will come into a broader, more honest and freer-in-yourself place if you drop the charade of being made for chastity or true, heterosexual marriage, and build your own Personal Hell of an identity built on embracing your sexual deviance as right and proper. ‘Come Out’ is not something invented by the lesbian / bisexual / gay / transgendered / queer / questioning undergoing active recruitment coalition: long before any of that coalition said ‘come out of pretending you’re built to be straight and try to be honest by embracing your different sexuality,’ God said, summons, beckons, invites, ‘Come Out of all of your own personal Hell! Come Out of using alcohol for your primary mood management, and denying that this is a problem. Come Out of your narcissism where you cannot see and enjoy the good that is outside of you. Come Out of lying, and thinking that you have more options when telling the truth is optional; Come Out into the power of a character that people can and will trust. Come Out of thinking there are infinitely many alternatives to God’s design of chaste celibacy or faithful marriage—and of losing sight of the Ethics of Elfland and the universal voice of the Bible and Catholic and Protestant Tradition as well as Orthodoxy. And open your hearts to the unwanted and unsought truth of every survey that tries to find which maverick deviants have the best sex lives, only to discover that traditional marriage has bar none the best sex life with it. Come Out of whatever sin it is that comprises your own personal Hell; repent of it, confess it to a priest, and enter a larger world.’ It’s not just that today’s concept of coming out is a step into a smaller world; it’s that all of us have been building our own private, Personal Hells, and are afraid to let go of them, afraid to relax the grip on what seems some shining part of ourselves, and perhaps not even guessing the larger Heaven to which we are summoned in the words, ‘Come Out!

As Lazarus was summoned from the grave, ‘Come Out from the grave! Come Out from every form of death, decay, destruction. Come Out of your cramped tomb in which to personally rot forever! Come Out into abundant life and have it to the full! Come Out!

The gateway to Heaven forever lies open.

The Damned Backswing

God the Spiritual Father

Maximum Christ, Maximum Ambition, Maximum Repentance

Why This Waste?

What the Present Debate Won’t Tell You about Headship

CJSH.name/headship


Read it on Kindle for $3!

Today I’m going to talk about head and body (headship). And I say “headship” with hesitation, because in today’s world asserting “headship” means, “defending traditional gender roles against feminism.” And that maybe important, but I want to talk about something larger, something that will be missed if “headship” means nothing more than “one position in the feminist controversy.”

One speaker didn’t like people entering Church and saying, “It’s so good to enter the Lord’s presence.” He said, “Where were you all week? How did you escape the Lord’s presence?” And whatever Church is, it is absolutely not entering the one place where God is present. At least, it’s not stepping out of some imaginary place where God simply can’t be found.

But if we are always in the Lord’s presence, that doesn’t mean that Church isn’t special. It is special, and it is the head of living in God’s presence for all of our lives. Our time in Church is an example of headship. Worshipping God in Church is the head of a life of worship, and it is the head of a body.

There is something special about our time in Church. But the way we live our lives, our “body” of time spent, manifests that glory in a different way. Christ didn’t say that people will know we are his disciples by our “official” worship, however much God’s blessing may rest on it. Christ said instead that all people will know we are his disciples by this, that we love one another. That isn’t primarily in Church. That’s in our day to day lives. If our time in Church crystallizes a life of worship, our love for one another is to manifest it. And that is the place of the body.

The relationship between head and body is the relationship between corporate worship and our lives as a whole. The body manifests the glory of the head. In my head I can decide to walk to a friend’s house. But the head needs the body and the body needs the head, and I can only go to a friend’s house if my head’s decision to visit a friend’s house is lived out in my body. “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”

The Father is the head of the Son. “No man can see God and live.” God the Father is utterly beyond us; he transcends anything we could know; he is pure glory. If we were to have direct contact with him, we would be destroyed. And yet the Son is equal to the Father; the Son is just as far beyond this Creation, but there is a difference. The Son is the bridge between God and man, and God and his Creation. God the Father created the world through the Son, and the Son is just as glorious as the Father, but the Son can touch us without destroying us. The Father displays himself through the Son. The Father’s love came to earth through the Son. The Father’s wish that we may be made divine is possible precisely because the Son became man. And finally we can know the Father through the Son. If you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father.

We read in the New Testament that Christ is the head of man, that Christ is the head of all authority, that Christ is the head of the Church, and that Christ is the head of the whole Creation. If we think, with people today, that to have any authority over us, any head, is degrading, then we have to resent a lot more than a husband’s headship to his wife. But that’s not the only option. When Christ is the head of the cosmos, there is more than authority going on, even if we have a negative view of authority. Our Orthodox understanding that the Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God, that the divine became human that the human might become divine, expresses what the headship of Christ means. Christ is the head, and that means that the Church is drawn up in his divinity. If we are the body of Christ the head, that doesn’t mean we’re just under his authority. It means that we are a part of him and share in his divinity. The teaching that we share in his divinity is very tightly connected to the teaching of “recapitulation”, or “re-heading,” where Christ being the head of the Church, and our sharing in Christ’s divinity, are two sides of the same coin. Christ is the head, and we, the body, make Christ manifest to the world. Some people may not know Christ except what they see in us. We cannot have Christ as our head without being a manifestation of his glory, and if Christ is the head of the Creation and Christ is the head of the Church, that means that when we worship, inside this building and in our daily lives, we are leading the whole visible Creation in turning to God in glory, and living the life of Heaven here on earth.

Christ is the head of the whole Creation, not just the Church. Christ isn’t just concerned with his people, but the whole created world. By him and through him all things were created. Icons, which reflect the full implications Christ’s headship over his Creation, exist precisely because Christ is the head of the whole Creation. We use a censer, a building, icons, water, flowers, and other aspects of our matter-embracing religion as representatives of the whole material Creation over which Christ is head. Christ doesn’t tell us to be spiritual as spirits who are unfortunately trapped in matter; far from it, we are the crowning jewel of the material Creation, and Christ’s headship glorifies the whole Creation and makes it foundational to how we are saved. The universe is a symbol that manifests the glory of its head, Christ.

One example of headship that is immediate to me, although I don’t know how immediate it is to the rest of you, is artistic creation. I create, write, and program, and in a very real sense I am at my fullest when I create. When I create, at first there is a hazy idea that I don’t understand very well. Then I listen to it, and begin struggling with it, trying to understand my creation, and even if I am wrestling with it, I am wrestling less to dominate it than to get myself out of its way so I can help bring it into being. If in one sense I wrestle with it, in another sense I am wrestling with myself to let my creation be what it should be. If I were to simply dominate my creation, I would crush it, breaking its spirit. My best creations are those which I serve, where I use my headship to give my creations freedom and cooperate with them so that they are greater than if I did not give my creations room to breathe. My best work comes, not when I decide, “I am going to create,” but when I cooperate with a creation, love it, serve it, and help it to become real, the creation becomes a share of my spirit.

A great many writers could say that, and I don’t think this is something that is only found in writing, but how something far more general plays out. All of us are called to exercise headship over our work. In a family, the father is the head of the household and the mother is the heart of the household. The mother’s headship over work in the home provides ten thousand touches that make a house a home. A mother’s headship over the home is as much human headship over one’s work as my headship over my creations and writing. What I do when I create is love my creation, serve it, develop it, work with God and with my creation to help it be real. If I’m not mistaken, when a woman makes a house into a real home, she loves it, serves it, develops it, and works with God and what she has to make it real. When a woman makes a house into a warm and inviting home, that’s headship.

What is the relationship between women and the home? In societies where people have best been able to honor what the Bible says about men’s and women’s roles, there is a strong association between women and the home. The home, in those societies, was the main focus of business, charity work, and education, besides the much narrower role played by a home today. To say that women were mainly in the home is to say that they held an important place in one of society’s important institutions, an institution that was the chief home of business, education, hospitality, and what would today be insurance, and held many responsibilities that are denied to housewives today. The isolation felt by many housewives today was much less an issue because women worked together with other women; like men, they worked in adult company. I believe there should be an association between women and the home, and I believe the home should be respected and influential. And, for that matter, I believe that both men and women are sold short with the options they have today. But instead of going too deep into that sort of question, important as it may be, I would like to look at what headship means.

The sanctuary is the head of the nave. Part of what that means is that there is something richer than either if there were just an sanctuary or just a nave. But we’ll miss something fundamental if we only say that the sanctuary is more glorious to the nave. They are connected and part of the same body. They are part of the same organism, and the sanctuary manifests the glory of the sanctuary. There is also a head-body relation between the saint and the icon. Or between the reality a symbol represents, and a symbol. Or between Heaven and earth. Bringing Heaven down to earth is a right ordering of this world. Heaven isn’t just something that happens after death after we serve God by suffering in this world. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” but God wants to work Heaven in our lives, beginning here and now. If we are bringing Heaven down to earth, we are realizing God’s design that Heaven be the head of earth, in the fullness of what headship means.

What about husbands and wives? There’s something that we’ll miss today if we just expect wives to submit to their husbands, even if we recognized that that’s tied to an even more difficult assignment for husbands, loving their wives on the model of Christ giving up his own life for the Church. And we need to be countercultural, but there’s something we’ll miss if we just react to the currents in society that make this unattractive. Quite a few heresies got their start in reactions against older heresies; it is spiritually dangerous to simply react against errors, and if feminism might have problems, simply reacting to feminism is likely to have problems. Wives should submit to their husbands, and husbands should love their wives with a costly love, but there’s more.

It bothers me when conservatives say, “I want to turn the clock back… all the way back… to 1954!” If we’re just reacting against some feminists when they say women should be strong and independent, and have no further reference point, we’re likely to defend a femininity that says that women are weak and passive. What’s wrong with that? For starters, it’s not Biblical.

If you want to know God’s version of femininity, read the conclusion of Proverbs. The opening of this conclusion is often translated, “Who can find a good wife?” That’s too weak. It is better translated as, “Who can find a wife of valor,” with “valor” being a word that could be used of a mighty soldier. She is strong—physically strong. The text explicitly mentions her powerful arms. She is active in commerce and charity. There are important differences between this and the feminist picture, but if we are defending an un-Biblical ideal for womanhood, some delicate thing that can’t do anything and is always in a swoon, then our reaction against feminism isn’t going to put us in a much better spot.

And men should be men, but that doesn’t mean that men should be rugged individuals who say, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul!” That is as wrong as saying that Biblical femininity is weak and passive. Perhaps men should be rugged, but to be a man is to be under authority. Trying to be the captain of your soul is spiritually toxic, and perhaps blasphemous. There is one person who can say, “I am the captain of my soul,” and it isn’t Christ. Not even Christ can say that, but only God the Father. Christ’s glory was to be the Son of God, so that the Father was the captain of his soul, and he did the Father’s work. Even Christ was under the headship of the Father, and if you read what John says about the Father and the Son, the fact that Christ was under headship, under authority, is part of his dignity and his own authority. To be a man is, if things are going well, to be a contributing member of a community, and in submission to its authority. Individualism is a severe distortion of masculinity; it may not be feminine, but it is hardly characteristic of healthy masculinity. There are a lot of false and destructive pictures of what a man should be, as well as what a woman should be.

If simply reacting against feminism is a way to miss what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, it is also a way to miss something more, to miss a broader glory. This something more is foundational to the structure of reality; it is a resonance not only with God’s Creation, but within the nature of God and how the Father’s glory is shown through the Son. This something more is in continuity with God’s headship to Christ, Christ’s headship to the Church, Christ’s headship to the cosmos, Heaven’s headship to earth, the sanctuary’s headship to the nave, the spiritual world’s headship to the physical world, the soul’s headship to the body, contemplation’s headship to action, and other manifestations of a headship relation. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we proclaim:

…Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration… This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.

What does this have to do with heads and bodies? The word “icon” itself means a body, and its role is to manifest the glory of the saints, as the saints are to manifest the glory of God.

We don’t have a choice about whether we will live in a universe with headship, but we do have a choice whether to work with the grain or against it, work with it to our profit or fight it to our detriment. Let’s make headship part of how we rejoice in God and his Creation.

Inclusive language greek manuscript discovered

Knights and Ladies

On Mentorship

The patriarchy we object to

Halloween: A Solemn Farewell

CJSH.name/halloween


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I remember, from when I was a little boy, that I asked my parents some question about Halloween, and I was told that I would be welcome to dress up, but not as something occult or macabre, like a witch or a zombie. My Mom helped me put together several homemade costumes, and my parents accompanied me for years of trick-or-treating. I was, in essence, invited to celebrate Halloween as a secular holiday (in time, it became my second favorite holiday), but not to celebrate ghoulishness.

Some readers may see this as needless legalism about something harmless. A few Christians who have concerns about Halloween might wonder if I was being invited to participate in something un-Christian. But back in the eighties, where it was considered superstition to believe that witches really existed, my parents took seriously something that more people take seriously today: not everything about Halloween is trivial or absolutely harmless.

In retrospect, I am quite grateful for this decision, and I respect it, much as I appreciate their decision to limit my time watching television, while encouraging me to play outside, read books, and tinker with mechanical things. (I do not own a television now, and I am glad not to have one.)

Not, in particular, that I feel any guilt about dressing up as my favorite TV character (MacGyver), or creating homemade costumes, one of which won an award. But there seemed to be, if not absolute innocence, at least a grey area. There are many things I disagreed (and disagree) with my parents about, but I really saw no need to reconsider what my parents taught me here. Even if I was trying to smoke Halloween without inhaling anything macabre, there seemed to be a reasonable case for this attempt to “smoke, but not inhale.” I believed that I was succeeding in taking Halloween à la carte and dressing up without participating in anything either my parents or I would have objected to.

But something has changed. Even though it has again become fashionable for adults (as well as children) to dress up as Halloween, I am finding that I have concerns about what exactly it is that is fashionable. It seemed to be the sort of thing you could least give the benefit of the doubt, but that seems a harder benefit to give now. There are other things going on in this occult awakening; I would like to look at herbs. Perhaps people have thought of herbs simply as a seasoning for cooks to use. This is no longer true. It is no longer enough to say that people also see herbs as a natural alternative to chemically manufactured medicines, even if that is no doubt true. Herbs are part of a picture that is changing with a magical awakening. Seeing ads for herbs for witches’ use and growing witches’ gardens is the tip of an iceberg. Herbs are microcosm of a picture that is changing.

Before I go on, let me be very clear about something, as I am going to be talking a fair bit about herbs.

There is an old Orthodox saying that talks about spending Church money: “If you have two small coins, you use one to buy bread for the offering, and you use the other to buy flowers for the altar.” The point isn’t really about herbs, but it is entirely appropriate that herbs come to mind even when making a point that isn’t really about herbs. A great many of the holiest things in Orthodoxy come from herbs: flowers to adorn the icons regularly, adorning the whole Church along with other herbs for the greatest festivities; herbal aromatic resins making incense; olive oil, mingled possibly with herbs, for every sacred anointing, wood as the most fitting material for icons, and bread and wine for the greatest and holiest rite there is. There is one rite labelled as the rite for the blessing of herbs, but herbs are blessed on a number of other occasions as well. Nature, including herbs, keeps coming up in the liturgy.

But you really cannot understand what this means until you come to the tale of herbs, if you remember that trees are herbs. I am thinking about two trees in particular.

One of these two trees was set in the center of a garden of unequalled splendor, and our first mother looked at its fruit with greedy spiritual lust, saw what the fruit could do, and then ate from it. She experienced a thrill of almost indescribable ecstasy, which quickly vanished into horror, despair, and misery. She had been created immortal, believed the words, “You shall be like gods,” found that what was created godlike about her was slipping through her fingers, and felt the seed of death already working in her heart.

That is how our first mother fell. Her husband did no better, and Orthodox writers blame now one, now the other, but I am interested in something besides assigning blame.

That is not the last tree to bear fruit, nor is it the end of the story. The wound that came by the first tree had its answer and healing from the second tree. First there was a new Eve, who triumphed where the first had failed. Then the new Adam, fully God, fully man, whose life was a journey to not a living tree in paradise but a dead tree in a desolate place: for the Cross has been considered a tree from ancient times. But this last tree is ultimately transfigured to be the Tree of Life. We were forbidden to eat from the first tree. But the Tree of Life has its own fruit, and we are commanded to eat from its fruit.

Every herb that is part of the Church’s blessings is an outpouring of that last herb, the Cross. We can and should feed on herbs. But it matters a great deal which herb we are feeding on. And Halloween has the taste of the fruit of the first tree.

I am concerned about the history of Halloween, up to a point. It is said that various pagan customs in a fight against Christianity, are at the root of almost every Halloween custom we have today—Christianity was shaped by martyrs who chose to be killed rather than offer just a pinch of incense in pagan sacrifice, and some have said that people would intimidate Christians by threatening offensive acts of vandalism unless they gave them food to use in pagan sacrifice, and that when we say “Trick or treat,” we are carrying on a custom that began with a rather vile form of extortion.

This explanation may or may not be true, and my first thought—perhaps not the most Orthodox thought—was, “The origin of something is not its present meaning.” A standard illustration is that shaking hands is a custom from the far past that was originally to prevent another person from drawing a weapon—a bit like reaching for a can of pepper spray. As such, it is a poor candidate for a friendly greeting. But it really seems hard to believe that learning something like this is a reason to try to avoid shaking hands. And the fact that a particular practice has an origins Christians today might find vile is not decisive by itself. Even what those origins were is hard to tell, as the historical data are incomplete and highly ambiguous.

But there is another concern. Let’s set aside murky questions about where Halloween comes from. There is the question of what Halloween is now, which is far less murky on several counts. Whatever the good, bad, known, or unknown roots of Halloween may be, in its present form it is associated with magic or ghoulishness—you’re not barred from dressing up as something that is neither associated with the occult or ghoulishness, but you’re stretching things a little. That much was true in my childhood. What was not true in my childhood is that Halloween is quickly becoming a second national holiday. When I was growing up, you could buy or rent costumes, but now there seem to be large, heavily-funded Halloween stores. There were yard decorations—not just pumpkins—during my childhood, and I remember putting up a package of imitation spider web. Today there are, as before Christmas, large and elaborate yard displays that are much more impressive than a snowman. But gone are the days when my parents seemed quaint for saying that magic is real and to be avoided, or just for taking magic seriously. Even a skeptic would need to be trying to be obtuse to deny that a lot of people are trying to be magicians of some sort.

I am grateful to my parents for giving Halloween the benefit of the doubt. There was really something special to me. But I am coming to a point of saying that appearances do not always deceive, and that a festival celebrating the spooky, a festival to dress up as zombies and witches and decorate with the macabre, and so on may in fact be a spiritual force, an appetizer, if you will, for the herb that gave our race the seed of death.

If one is trying to make an Orthodox response to Halloween, there is one obvious response of keeping out of the holiday and praying. Another Orthodox response to Halloween has been to have a parish party for all the children, inviting them to dress up as their patron saints. This decision may sound like a shallow change, but it shows wisdom and theological beauty. Trying to be like your patron saint is not just a day’s make-believe, but a lifelong imitation and challenge. Your patron saint is to look out for you, praying before God. This adaptation is well-chosen, and is in the spirit of the original intent: “Halloween” abbreviates “Hallowe’en”, “All Hallows Eve”, the evening of all hallowed people, holy people, an evening that was in fact the beginning of All Saints’ Day. And perhaps there are others.

But perhaps the best response Orthodoxy is not obvious if you are trying to think of something to do.

The spiritual world, in Orthodoxy, is never really far; we can be insensitive to it but never escape it. Orthodoxy provides not a single holiday each year but unfolding seasons and cycles of spiritual discipline and life as they encounter all kinds of spiritual realities. (Many people look for the spirit world to be closer at Halloween.) Death is important in Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a mystery of life in death, and to fail to be mindful of death is a profound spiritual failure. Even if Halloween eclipses Christmas, the Orthodox concern is not that people are too interested in death, but that people are not engaging death enough, and the ways we are engaging death are not nearly deep enough. Nor is the line in the living and the dead within the Church any terribly great chasm. But although these things are present in the Orthodox Church—woven into its fabric—they all rest in the protecting shade of the Tree of Life, and it is a protection that they all need. The concern is not at all that people are getting interested in spiritual phenomena, but that they are pursuing that interest in the wrong way, tasting from the herb that is poison when they could be eating their fill from the herb that is life and medicine and healing. It is a “treasure hunting” that consists of digging around to find a few copper coins hidden in a dark place… when there are piles of gold out in the open.

If Jack’o’lanterns have the origin I have heard, then they are not a pagan custom, at least not in the sense that Druids used them in worship. The candle is of Christian origin, and more specifically, made to be a frightening mockery of the candles in Christian worship. In Orthodoxy today, beeswax candles still illuminate icons, which have a spiritual radiance shining through. (Heaven shines out through them.) They can take time to connect with, but people can look at them and continue to see something for years. I would have trouble finding new layers in a Jack’o’lantern over years, and not only because they would go bad. It’s not as deep a kind of thing. The difference between the two is like the difference between one of Bach’s fugues, and Bart Simpson butchering an advertising jingle.

I do plan on dressing up for Halloween one last time. Call it, if nothing else, a farewell, in addition to some more mundane reasons. It has been a cherished holiday for years. But only in the shallowest sense am I saying farewell to what I most valued about Halloween.

At Vespers, we chant, “The Lord is King; he has put on majesty.” This “put on” is a translation of a Greek word, enduno (ενδυνο), a word of being equipped. The Epistle to the Ephesians tells us to “put on” full Heavenly armor that includes the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. In Isaiah, it is God who puts on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation for spiritual war. Not to put too fine a point it, but we have a command to put on God’s own armor, and that is not all. At baptism, one of the most memorable parts is the verse chanted from Scripture, “As many as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.”

At an ordination, the ordinand is clothed in liturgical vestments that remain almost unchanged since Byzantine times when they were court regalia. But this is not a costume that people pretend for a day. The person is made into something new, and when the ordinand puts on the garments, he puts on a new blessing and sacred service. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that royal priesthood is only for those who are ordained and “wear vestments”: the bishop is called to put on the regalia of the Byzantine Emperor, but the whole Church is called to put on Christ. This is no mere costume but a transformation of the highest order.

Perhaps we need to give up our Halloween costumes, to make room to put on something far greater: Christ himself. But that is not simply something to do about Halloween: it is the work of a lifetime and it includes the entirety of Christian practice. (Even if it might be a good idea to simply pray over Halloween.)

With thanks to friends and family with whom I have discussed this.

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

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The Labyrinth

A Pet Owner’s Rules

A Shaft of Grace

CJSH.name/grace

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I would like to talk about a religious experience. I use the term ‘religious experience’ with some caution as it is not what is usually called a religious experience. It did not include any dreams, or visions, or insights out of nowhere; intuition was present but did not help. But it was in the fullest sense a religious experience, at least as much as any semblance of vision or ecstasy that I’ve had.

I had been sinking into an increasing despair at politics, economics, and what that may mean for me. I was facing the possibility that I may well not die an old man. Furthermore, my jobhunt was slower than usual. And despite the Lord’s impressive Providence for me at earlier times and situations in my life, often seemingly miraculous, I was worried that I might eventually be thrown into a situation—possibly a concentration camp—where I might, in Bach’s words, “outlive my love for Thee.” Do not say, “It could not happen here;” stranger things have happened.

All quite a lot. This past Sunday (29/12/13), I went to the Cathedral, made a miserable confession, participated in the liturgy, and then drove to my favorite Indian restaurant to have a nice meal before going home to return and fight my darkness. On the sidewalk out of the restaurant, I ran into an old friend.

He mentioned another mutual friend he was going to meet, and I went to say hello to both of them before eating by myself: I didn’t shun their company, but I didn’t want to intrude on their meeting. But they had planned a get-together, and had not invited me only because they did not think of whether I would be in Wheaton. And so I joined them for dinner, in which I thawed in response to a friend’s conversation, and one of them picked up the cost of my meal. This was followed by several hours of sheer joy as we went to one of their apartments, and people played games and I enjoyed the company of old friends and two new.

And that was it. The gathering at the apartment dissolved after a couple of hours, and it doesn’t look like even half of that group of friends will gather together in the near future. (I asked.) But without words, without any special intuition—the only real intuition I had was while I was driving to the restaurant was that I should turn aside to another place—it was as if God had showed, “I am still sovereign. I can do whatever I want.” God can, in a heartbeat, make a job show up. He has not done so yet, in a heartbeat or otherwise. But he can still provide for me, and I am not in despair, but trust.

The rule in childbearing is a few minutes of ecstasy, nine months of carrying, and then two decades of raising children. And in another department, one tastes a meal for half an hour and then digests and acts on it. After that mountaintop experience, to use the Protestant term, I have been voluntarily dislodged from despair, and am off to work: jobhunting instead of a regular job, but off to spiritual work and repenting of my sins. It is the Orthodox understanding that God gives miracles to cover for human weaknesses, and if God gave me a powerful day’s experience with friends and good times, that is not a reward for grandeur so much as a crowbar to loosen real problems. And, God willing, a seed planted for me to grow. I do not seek to return to that experience, because, in the words of Lewis inOut of the Silent Planet, “A pleasure is full-grown only as a memory.” The latter part of that day was delightful, and I pursue it by doing the work I have after then: first writing the first part of Merlin’s Well, then working on publishing it on Amazon, then writing this article, then returning to work on the front end of a web application, all the while searching for my next job.

I have not acted worthily along the way, but I’m looking forward to the next installment.