The high cost of living “simply”

There’s a provocative column and thoughtful responses shaping up at In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues, about living simply.

We have been here and done this before:

  • Weekend hippies
  • Limousine liberals
  • Bobos in Paradise

Ah, the human capacity for self-delusion! I do not exempt myself by any means.

In the Orthodox “Trisagion Prayers” we ask:

All-holy Trinity have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy Name’s sake.

I think of this not just as repetition, of which Orthodox piety has abundant supply, but of subtle distinctions among sin, iniquity and infirmity.

Our delusional lapses like consumerist simplicity strike me more as sinful (Greek amartia, “missing the mark”) or infirm than as iniquitous. Still, for those we implore cleansing and healing, respectively.

Nature and Humanity in Orthodox Christianity

Father Stephen this time mediates a YouTube video (okay, it’s two still photos, some text, and some appropriate background music) frame for one of the Twentieth Century’s great Saints’ poetic reflections on the nexus between (1) humankind’s various sins, transgressions and iniquities and (2) natural calamity:

I don’t think Saint Nikolai is saying “God is doing this stuff to punish us” or even “God is doing this stuff to get our attention so we’ll straighten out” (i.e., to chasten us). He says in conclusion, after all, that the Lord will come and set things right.

Nor is he drawing a cause and effect line between sin X and natural calamity Y, a la Pat Robertson.

I think, having now spent some 12+ years Orthodox, that he’s talking about a mystical connection between us and nature, consistent with Biblical anthropology that sees us as part of nature and yet apart from it as well, bearing the image of God and appointed as steward and priest over creation.

Others might fault this from Orthodox Wiki, but I personally couldn’t describe in prose the tradition I’m describing better that this, from Orthodoxwiki:

The Relationship between Man and Material Creation

Man as a microcosm

The idea of man as a microcosm is most commonly associated with St. Maximos the Confessor. In his Mystagogia he speaks of an indissoluble relationship and unity between man and world: “[St. Paul] put forward another suggestion, along the lines of the same imagery, that the whole world of visible and invisible things can be thought of as a man; and man, made up of body and soul, as a world” (Mystagogia, Chapter 7). Lars Thunberg, in his “Man and the Cosmos” describes St. Maximos’ understanding of man as a microcosm by virtue of his constitution and for the purpose of mediation. Being both material and spiritual, all things in the world are reflected in man, who then has the vocation to bring together mortal and immortal creatures, rational and non-rational beings. However, St. Maximos does not view this vocation of man in separation from God. Rather, he states that it is Christ who achieved this unity. Again Thunberg, analyzing the Ambigua, says that man needs to leave the sphere of creation behind and be united with God beyond his own nature. Thus, man’s mission in relation to creation can only be fulfilled in and through Christ: “Man created in the image of God is thus, according to Maximus, a key to understanding creation not only in order that he may understand it as it is, but also that by actively understanding it in his process of divinization he may elevate it to the supreme level of its full soteriological comprehension (Ambigua 10).” (Thunberg, “Man and the Cosmos, p.76)

St. Gregory of Nyssa also uses the image of man as microcosm, though his use of the expression is rather less uniform than for St. Maximus. In his conception, the parallelism seems to be limited to a common praise of God: “as the cosmos continuously lifts up a hymn of praise to God, so it is the duty of man to engage in continual psalmody and hymnody.” Metr. Paulos Gregorios postulates that St. Gregory’s reservation regarding a more in-depth parallelism stemmed from a concern that man’s high standing within creation not be attributed to his similarity to the universe (Gregorios, “Cosmic Man”). However, St. Gregory also views man as a mediator between creation and God whose mediation is made possible by the incarnation: “in Christ, Man, and through Man the whole creation, directly and without intermediaries participates in the creative energies of God Himself” (Gregorios, “Cosmic Man, p.103).

Fr. Stanley Harakas summarizes the Orthodox position thus far: “[t]he creation exists for the use of humanity; but humanity exists as a microcosm to sanctify creation and to draw it into the fullness of the life of the kingdom of God, to bring it into communion with its maker.” (The Integrity of Creation: Ethical Issues, in “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation,” p.73)

While both St. Maximus and St. Gregory note that the mediation of man is directly related to Christ’s incarnation, the details of that mediation are filled in by modern day theologians.

Man as Priest of Creation

The Genesis passage which started this article is open to other interpretations. An interpretation which gives man a certain responsibility towards the environment, presents the commission which was given to man as a stewardship. K.M. George in his essay “Towards a Eucharistic Ecology” points out that good stewardship, in the sense of the Greek ‘oikonomos:’—manager or administrator of a house,—requires trustworthiness, dependability, and wisdom. He goes on to add: “[w]e offer the creation as a thank-offering to God in liturgy” (George, Towards a Eucharistic Theology, in “Justice, Peace and the Integrily of Creation”, p.46) This statement contains within it the seed for the idea of that several contemporary theologians, among them Vigen Guroian, Metr. Paulos Gregorios, and Metr. John_(Zizioulas)_of_Pergamon, consider as the most important in defining man’s relationship to creation: man as ‘priest of creation.’

Metr. Paulos Gregorios of the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East, who was one of the most ardent advocates of Christian ecology wrote, “Nature, man, and God are not three disjunct realities on the stage with a space-interval between their respective boundaries. […] Christ has become part of creation, and in his created body he lifted up the creation to God, and humankind must participate in this eternal priesthood of Christ” (Gregorios, “The Human Presence”) Metr. John Zizioulas adds: “The priest is the one who takes in his hands the world to refer it to God and who, in return brings God’s blessing to what he refers to God. Through this act creation is brought into communion with God himself. […] This role of the human being as the priest of creation, is absolutely necessary for creation itself, because without this reference of creation to God the whole created universe will die.” He goes on to argue that ethics, as commonly understood, cannot provide a solution for the environmental problem; this is the place of the Church. Metr. John argues that the solution to the environmental problem cannot be based on a set of impersonal principles. What is needed, rather is a particular way of life based on relationships with one another, with the material world, and with God. Specifically, the Metropolitan mentions fasting, respect for the material world and acknowledgement (within the Liturgy) that creation belongs to God, as specific means by which the Church can effect change (Zizioulas, Man the Priest of Creation: A Response to the Ecological Problem, in “Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World”).

The exercise of this priesthood encompasses both our lives within the church temple (the Liturgy) and outside of it (the liturgy before/after the liturgy).

This is the sort of thing, in the end, that may be better said poetically, as Saint Nikolai say it, than in dry propositions like my introduction or like Orthodoxwiki.

Do you know, my child, why the earth overturns restlessly
and why it spews forth into the sky?
Because men have overturned the voice of conscience
Calling evil good, and good evil
and have spewed forth hatred toward those who still speak truth.


Bryan Graf, a photographer, meditates differently on the relationship of humankind and nature, presumably on the occasion of Earth Day (that’s today, isn’t it?).

Ahem! I prefer St. Nikolai’s version.