Sunday, 1/15/23

Assembly by False Hearts

In our digitalized, printed world, we have access to almost everything. The vast discourse of the saints, the details of the canons, the deeds and records of empires, are all available to almost everyone. Someone wants to make a point and assembles a long list of quotes drawn from the saints. Every word written is true, and yet the presentation is not true.  It is impossible to argue with such things – you are resisting the saints! And it is equally impossible to help someone whose heart is in delusion to understand that such a collection can be false – primarily because it was assembled by a false heart.

The Scriptures are abused in the same manner. It is terribly frustrating to be confronted with a vast collection of verses gathered in the service of a false teaching. The same thing was confronted by the fathers early on. Fr. Georges Florovsky gives this summary of an account by St. Irenaeus:

Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems … were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed …. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — …. Words, expressions, and images — … —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the … hypothesis, is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).

Fr. Stephen Freeman, Goodness and a Word in Due Season. (Ellipses replace Greek text that wouldn’t render on WordPress)

St. Irenaeus’s analogy always grabs me, and it’s as applicable to today’s heretics as to gnostics two millennia ago.

Midhir’s Invitation to the Far Laned

Irish, author, unknown, ninth century

Fair woman, will you go with me to the high land
where sweet music is? There your hair is like the primrose
And people stroll with snow-white skin.

In the high land, there is neither yours nor mine.
The women’s teeth are white; the men’s eyes are black and clear.

Every cheek is the pink of foxglove.

The meadows of Ireland are fair to see –
But they are like a desert when you have seen the high land;

Irish ale is fine to drink – but in the high land
the wine they serve will turn your head into a cloud.

In the place, I speak of, the young do not die before their time;
They serve the old ones, who are wise
and shield the young in turn.

Sweet dreams flow always through the fair land
and the minds of the people are clear

as skin with no blemish,
as a child’s face in the virgin morning.

When we walk together there, you will see
these men and ladies,

you will see them on all sides, tall, and fair and kind.
But they will not see us.

For Adam’s transgression is a dark cloak around us,
and it means we cannot be seen, or counted among them.

(Martin Shaw & Tony Hoagland, Cinderbiter)

The missus almost immediately picked up that C.S. Lewis, consciously or unconsciously, echoed this old Irish poem in The Great Divorce.

A compulsion as common as the air we breath

Orthodoxy theology defines only what is necessary and always leaves unspoken that which cannot be explained. This approach was part of the Christian faith from the beginning. But the Western phronema often suppresses, dismisses, minimizes, or ignores this stance. The Western mind is compelled to define and explain everything, since without a rational explanation a concept or fact cannot be considered true, or, conversely, all truth can be proven rationally.

Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind

Me, too

[N]one of the things that I care about most have ever proven susceptible to systematic exposition.

Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread With the Dead

The Spiritual Life Doesn’t Work

I have wondered how the “success” of the spiritual life would be measured? I could imagine that the number of persons baptized might be compared to the number of the baptized who fall short of salvation—but there is no way to discover such a thing. In lieu of that, we often set up our own way of measuring—some expectation of “success” that we use to judge the spiritual life. “I tried Christianity,” the now self-described agnostic relates, “and found that it did not live up to its claims.” I’ve seen things like that.

To my mind, the entire question is a little like complaining about your hammer because it doesn’t work well as a screw-driver. The problem is that the spiritual life doesn’t “work,” and it was never supposed to. It is not something that “works”; it is something that “lives.” And this is an extremely important distinction.

We today look to our faith to solve problems. Whether we suffer from psychological wounds, or simple poverty and failure, we look to God for help. The spiritual life, and the “techniques” we imagine to be associated with it, are the means by which we “help ourselves”—and then God will do the rest.

Well, this narrative is simply not part of the Christian faith …

The lives of the saints are filled with information of an opposite sort. For example:

  • [St.] Mary of Egypt is directed into the desert by the voice of the Mother of God. She lives miraculously on very little food. But she tells of 17 years—17 years!—of virtual torture as she battled the temptations that had governed her previously sinful life. Our daily trials would seem as nothing in comparison.
  • St. Silouan the Athonite told about a period of 15 years in which he had no sense of the presence of God, but was instead tortured by demons.
  • St. Seraphim of Sarov spent years in prayer and fasting, was beaten, robbed and left like a cripple.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Slow Road to Heaven


Tradition is a bulwark against the power of commerce and the dissolving acid of money, and by removing these, all revolutions in the modern period have ended up accelerating the commercial and technological shift towards the Machine.

Paul Kingsnorth

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here (cathartic venting) and here (the only social medium I frequent, because people there are quirky, pleasant and real). Both should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly or Reeder, should you want to make a habit of it.

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