Why I’m Glad I’m Living Now, at This Place, at This Time, in This World

Four flags of a United States in distress.

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First Things, in a column by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, muses,

The clock is ticking, and many in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are counting the days, the hours, and even the minutes before Archbishop Rembert Weakland has to submit his resignation at twelve noon on his seventy-fifth birthday. I am told that the champagne bottles will be popped at 12:01 p.m. upon receiving the fax from Rome that the resignation is accepted. Truth to tell, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the Archbishop. He’s liberally daffy but more amusingly candid than most of that persuasion. Of course he has a very high opinion of himself, but he’s never tried to hide it. I particularly liked his public statement that he would have made a great Bishop of Salzburg in the time of Mozart but ended up as Bishop of Milwaukee in the time of rock and roll. There’s something perversely refreshing about a bishop who doesn’t mind saying that he’s too good for the people he’s called to serve.

If I had been meant to live in Salzburg at Mozart’s time, God would have done that. If I had been meant to live in the Middle Ages, in the desire that underpinned my second novel, God would have done that. And if I if I had been made to live in the age of many Church Fathers, God would have done that too. As it is, God’s providence has placed me here and now… and God may make of me a Church Father anyway, without a time machine. To nostalgic Romans, it may be a sadness that the door to the Middle Ages is closed, but to Orthodox living at the corner of east and now, the door to being patristic remains ever open, and I may die (or be subtilized by the returning Christ) a Church Father anyway. As things are, God has given me a whole lot of being in the right place in the right time, and put me in the days of… myself! I got onto the web by accident (or rather by providence that I did not see as significant) and I have multiple major websites and a big bookshelf on Amazon.

As I write, incidentally, the majority of U.S. flags I’ve seen are black and white with a strip of color, the old “Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake flag is seen not infrequently, and when I popped in to LinkedIn turned up a friend reflecting on a news item that grandmas are buying shotguns. I did not expect that, but I am not in the least surprised.

And one other thing: I can’t meaningfully prep apart from measures I have taken that have been unfruitful. I am on maintenance medications, and if I stop taking them, I’ll die within days. And as I write I seem to have COVID.

And in all this, I am grateful. St. John Chrysostom’s final words were, “Glory be to God for all things!” and I echo them. I have food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and really quite a lot of things that I do not need and I am not entitled to. I only need to be faithful today with what I have today. God will bring tomorrow, and not knowing what tomorrow may bring i s much less important if you know Who will bring tomorrow.

And my death is, basically, non-negotiable. God, in his great mercy, does not let us know ahead of time when we die, because we would put off repentance and be incorrigible sinners in the hour of death. A few saints know ahead when they will die. They are so secure spiritually that they will not be less faithful for knowing. For the rest of us, it is mercy that we do not know. I could, possibly, die within days. I could for that matter die sooner: when I got my first COVID injection, a blood clot formed in my leg and dislodged to make trouble in my lungs, and the doctor said I was lucky I got to the hospital when I did, because it could have killed me. I think COVID injections are the greatest breakthrough in human health since DDT, but I digress. I could die an old man, like my grandfather who lived to be 95. I could live to see the returning Christ. And which of these, or other possibilities, hold, is not my concern. Each day has enough trouble of its own—and I have found solving a life’s problems on a day’s resources to be an entirely preventable ticket to despair.

Some people think that this life is only a preparatory life and is therefore unimportant St. Nikolai, in Prayers by the Lake, talked (I forget exactly where) about how birth and death are only an inch apart, and the ticker tape goes on forever.

This makes what we choose in this life incredibly important. We can only “save for retirement” between birth and death. We can only repent between birth and death. After death, improving the lot we have eternally chosen in this life will be impossible. I wish to live in repentance for the rest of my life, but I have not gotten to monasticism yet, but if death cuts short my attempts, that matters less than you might think. God treats an active intent as if the person had done what is intended; I do not see I can rightly stop seeking monastic repentance, but if I am faithful and fail, I am in the same position as martyrs said to be “baptized in their own blood” because they were martyred before they could even reach baptism.

And, to borrow from a childhood favorite, A Wind in the Door (my esteem is much less for it now), the heroine “felt as though fingers were gentle fingers pushing her down,” I sought to stay when I visited Mount Athos and was told that the conditions for being made a saint are in America, and implicitly reminded that monastic “white martyrdom” is an artificial surrogate to the “red martyrdom” of the Church in a hostile world.

I would like to quote a unicorn in C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, though I’m not sure it applies to our world:

He said that the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve were brought out of their own strange world only at times Narnia was upset, but she mustn’t think that things were always like that. In between their visits there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful king followed peaceful king till you could hardly remember their names or count their numbers, and there was really hardly anything to put in the History Books.

As to the question of why God did not create Narnia and bring me to it, I reply that every excellence is incomparably excelled in what “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” I can’t get to a real Narnia, but I’m trying to get to a real “better than Narnia,” a “better than Narnia that begins on earth, as I discuss in A Pilgrimage from Narnia:

A Pilgrimage from Narnia

Wardrobe of fur coats and fir trees:
Sword and armor, castle and throne,
Talking beast and Cair Paravel:
From there began a journey,
From thence began a trek,
Further up and further in!

The mystic kiss of the Holy Mysteries,
A many-hued spectrum of saints,
Where the holiness of the One God unfurls,

Holy icons and holy relics:
Tales of magic reach for such things and miss,
Sincerely erecting an altar, “To an unknown god,”
Enchantment but the shadow whilst these are realities:
Whilst to us is bidden enjoy Reality Himself.
Further up and further in!

A journey of the heart, barely begun,
Anointed with chrism, like as prophet, priest, king,
A slow road of pain and loss,
Giving up straw to receive gold:
Further up and further in!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,
Silence without, building silence within:
The prayer of the mind in the heart,
Prayer without mind’s images and eye before holy icons,
A simple Way, a life’s work of simplicity,
Further up and further in!

A camel may pass through the eye of a needle,
Only by shedding every possession and kneeling humbly,
Book-learning and technological power as well as possessions,
Prestige and things that are yours— Even all that goes without saying:
To grow in this world one becomes more and more;
To grow in the Way one becomes less and less:
Further up and further in!

God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man,
That men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God:
The chief end of mankind,
Is to glorify God and become him forever.
The mysticism in the ordinary,
Not some faroff exotic place,
But here and now,
Living where God has placed us,
Lifting where we are up into Heaven:
Paradise is wherever holy men are found.
Escape is not possible:
Yet escape is not needed,
But our active engagement with the here and now,
And in this here and now we move,
Further up and further in!

We are summoned to war against dragons,
Sins, passions, demons:
Unseen warfare beyond that of fantasy:
For the combat of knights and armor is but a shadow:
Even this world is a shadow,
Compared to the eternal spoils of the victor in warfare unseen,
Compared to the eternal spoils of the man whose heart is purified,
Compared to the eternal spoils of the one who rejects activism:
Fighting real dragons in right order,
Slaying the dragons in his own heart,
And not chasing (real or imagined) snakelets in the world around:
Starting to remove the log from his own eye,
And not starting by removing the speck from his brother’s eye:

Further up and further in!

Spake a man who suffered sorely:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time,
Are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us,
and:
Know ye not that we shall judge angels?
For the way of humility and tribulation we are beckoned to walk,
Is the path of greatest glory.
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds,
But we have the best of all possible Gods,
And live in a world ruled by the him,
And the most painful of his commands,
Are the very means to greatest glory,
Exercise to the utmost is a preparation,
To strengthen us for an Olympic gold medal,
An instant of earthly apprenticeship,
To a life of Heaven that already begins on earth:
He saved others, himself he cannot save,
Remains no longer a taunt filled with blasphemy:
But a definition of the Kingdom of God,
Turned to gold,
And God sees his sons as more precious than gold:
Beauty is forged in the eye of the Beholder:
Further up and further in!

When I became a man, I put away childish things:
Married or monastic, I must grow out of self-serving life:
For if I have self-serving life in me,
What room is there for the divine life?
If I hold straw with a death grip,
How will God give me living gold?
Further up and further in!

Verily, verily, I say to thee,
When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself,
And walkedst whither thou wouldest:
But when thou shalt be old,
Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee,
And carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

This is victory:
Further up and further in!

And for our world, I would quote C.S. Lewis in saying that “humanity has always been on a precipice.” Such study as I have had of Byzantine history leads me not to wonder that Constantinople fell, but that over a millennium after Constantine, after many times the Empire should have resolved, it took modern cannons to break through Constantinople’s walls and subdue the great city. “Humanity has always been on a precipice”–and it seems to be increasingly more of a precipice.

It is believed by some Orthodox that Hinduism has room for the demonic and OrthoChristian.com describes Orthodox mission in India as “Perpetual Embers,” but do not speak ill to a Hindu of Krishna and the milk-maids. However, it is not provocative to call Kali demonic: a goddess of death who wears a necklace of skulls and bestows madness as her special blessing. Or at least I don’t see why it need offend a Hindu.

I have what I would call an “unintendedly kept loan” in that I was loaned a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”) by an Indian woman, and then lost all contact and don’t see how to return it. Nor was the loan small; the Bhagavad-Gita was accompanied by commentary, as is Hindu tradition to unpack their greatest classic, in a beautiful two-volume boxed set. And the front matter talked about our being in the “Kali-yuga,” or age of Kali. I don’t know or understand what exactly a Hindu would mean by the Kali-yuga, but I can take a guess. And I have had some contact with the movement called “Traditionalists,” which find certain underlying themes in many world religions that are threatened in the modern way of life and are sympathetic to Hindus who would see a Kali-yuga:

There is a singularity which has developed over past centuries, was present in decisive breaks made in the scientific revolution that paved the way to hard science as we know it, and has been unfolding and accelerating, and now crassly has vomited TV’s and cellphones on Africa, the poorest continent. One obvious question is, “Do you mean the Book of Revelation?” and my answer is an emphatic “Yes… and No…” There are certain things which I believe we have been told will pass as Revelation is fulfilled. These include great tribulation, the coming of the Antichrist, and the return of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the glorious resurrection. But trying to pin down Biblical prophecy down in detail is essentially an attempt to get a crystal clear view into deep waters that are impregnably and unfathomably murky. Don’t, at least not before the prophecies have been fulfilled.

However, while I have extreme suspicion for detailed point-for-point pinpointing the events in Revelation, I think it is a much more possible and profitable measure to study the singularity we are in as a singularity, a point I explore with some video in Revelation and Our Singularity.

A student of World War II may be able to pinpoint a linchpin in German manufacturing. There was a single point of failure in a ball bearing factory. If that factory had been taken out, it would all but destroyed Nazi Germany’s capability to produce cars, trucks, tanks, and airplanes. Now let me ask: where is the linchpin in our technological society? Trick question! There are so many that no one knows how many there are. One of the most Luddite statements I’ve read is from a computer programmer: “If builders built buildings the way computer programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”

At Honey Rock, there was a delightful place called “the Web” that used World War II cargo netting to make a great amusement for kids. It, after several decades, fell beyond safe use, and the camp’s people tried hard to find replacements. There were none to be found, came the conclusion from their research. Furthermore, it is now a respectable number of decades since technological museum curators have computer media that they believe to likely be intact but which they have no idea how to interpret. Cryptanalysis can break all sorts of very well-engineered codes. However, storage media produced with neither the desire nor attempt towards secrecy cannot straightforwardly read media that was intended to be straightforward to read.

To put things in miniature, like almost any at least half-serious website I have switched from sending unencrypted HTTP to confidential HTTPS. This was a right decision, I believe. However, to do that I need to get a stream of certificates, and if someone by any means shut down my ability to obtain certificates, my website would practically be dead in the water. Search engines would now be linking to security error pages; even bookmarks wouldn’t work. I might be able to get the word out that my website was served via HTTP, if I wasn’t blocked from social media by that time, but my use of the recommended practice of serving webpages confidentially via HTTPS introduces one more single point of failure. (That’s why I’m revamping and roughly doubling my “Complete Works” collections in paperback. Amazon believes it has a total right to delete anything from a Kindle any time.) We are going from fragile to more and more and more fragile, to an effect like that in The Damned Backswing.

In a homily a few weeks back, my priest said,

Let us go to the Egyptian desert, and overhear a conversation taking place between a group of monks led by Abba Iscariot. This took place in the third century and the conversation went like this.

Abba Iscariot was asked, “What have we done in our life?”

The Abba replied, “We have done half of what our fathers did.”

When asked, “What will the ones who come after us do?”

The Abba replied, “They are doing the half of what we are doing now.”

And to the question, “What will the Christians of the last days do?”

He replied, “They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith, they will be glorified more than our fathers who raised the dead.

We live in an exciting time.

My spiritual director said, “We think we are not on Plan A any more, not on Plan B, not on Plan C, and so on down the alphabet, but God is always on Plan A.

If you wonder how that could possibly be, I invite you to read God the Spiritual Father.

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.