Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos C. Markides

A Search for Orthodox Spirituality

In his Prolegomena he describes how he came from Cyprus to the US, and lost his Orthodox faith as he became a professor of sociology. Over the years he rediscovered the spiritual realm and studied the usual things, including Zen and Carlos Castenada.

If you don’t remember Castenada, he wrote a series of books in the 60’s describing his purported conversations with a shamanistic Indian named don Juan, later shown not to have occurred. I admit that I read them too when I was younger and less wise.

This book reminds me very forcibly of Castenada’s work. There is some introductory and interpolating material, but the rest of it consists of purported (and somewhat unrealistic) conversations with the spiritual master. In this case that is Father Maximos, an elder sent back to Cyprus from the Mt. Athos monastic community to work as a missionary. He seems to actually exist, though.

Markides plays the role of a questioning and slightly skeptical seeker, and Father Maximos instructs him in the elements of Orthodox spirituality.

Central features to this spirituality are the necessity for self discipline, the necessity for divine grace, the necessity for spiritual guidance by saintly elders in the church, and the goal of Theosis—man being brought into God. Miracles are expected (and Markides is only nominally skeptical), the Eucharist is a holy power capable of bringing souls out of hell, direct experience of the Uncreated Light is possible, and the real battle is a spiritual battle against the forces of evil which first manifest as wicked or distracting thoughts.

How do you deal with wicked thoughts? To first order, ignore them and give them no home—they are from outside.

Markides comes to appreciate the importance of the monastic life and its incredible value to the rest of society; and develops his own Threefold Way description of how it works:

  • Catharsis, or the purification of the soul from egotistical passions
  • Fotisis, or the enlightenment of the soul, is a gift of the Holy Spirit after the soul has undergone its purification
  • Theosis, union with God, as the final destination and ultimate home of the human soul
The last two stages are impossible to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions.

The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is a good tool for the non-monk to use to develop a life of continual prayer, but it isn’t exactly clear that non-monks are candidates for experiencing the Uncreated Light. I gather that this is supposed to be the job of the monks, who then help guide the rest of us. Or something like that. Markides asked very different questions from those I would have.

Markides’ asides are sometimes rather irritating. He assumes an attitude of superiority to the monk’s belief in hell (showing himself more ethical than Christianity’s founder) and he persists in framing questions in terms of social equality and freedom—which is not relevant to the master/apprentice or elder advisor/novice relationships. Rebuked by Maximos, he still doesn’t seem to get the concept. Maximos is also dismissive of Markides’ wife’s “eco-peace village” project as irrelevant to the real issues.

The monk’s regimen is quite strict: getting up at 3:30 to be ready for 4 hours of services at 4am, and so on. Watching them prostrate themselves before the icons over and over during the services would take a little getting used to as well. Monks bow and kiss the other’s hand when they meet, on the grounds that the person they meet is Jesus (“if you did it to the least of these”).

There are a few oddities in the book, such as the claim that Western Christianity was tightly connected with government (true) while Eastern Christianity was independent. That doesn’t seem close to true, as current events related in the book testify; unless he is restricting himself to the Eastern monks, in which case it might be (I’m not expert enough to say).

The picture of Orthodox spirituality he draws is similar to that offered in The Prayer of the Heart, so I’m assuming it is accurate insofar as Markides understands it.

For some reason the trade paper edition I borrowed from the library was printed in a thin and pale font, which makes it hard to read.

If you are interested in the subject, give it a read.

Finally heard the lyrics

This morning on the radio Elton John's "Someone saved my life tonight" played, and I was finally able to make out the words:

And someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear You almost had your hooks in me Didn't you dear You nearly had me roped and tied, Altar-bound, hypnotized, Sweet freedom whispered in my ear You're a butterfly, And butterflies are free to fly, Fly away, high away bye bye

The image that came to mind was of a man at the car dealer. The door of a new car is open, and he looks in to see the upholstered seats, and the steering wheel, and the ignition and the radio and the pedals and

the seat belt.

He turns and runs screaming "You'll never tie me in one of those! Never!"

I suspect Elton John doesn't understand freedom.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Again. No headache.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption by Stephen J Shoemaker

Somebody mentioned the Assumption of Mary, and I wondered what the Orthodox thought and looked it up. They called it the Dormition and the Wikipedia reference mentioned this book, which the University library had on hand. The book is based on Shoemaker's doctoral thesis and is pretty heavy going, with a highly academic style, barbs at other scholars, footnotes galore and parallel versions of the stories in the appendices.

Catholics decided in 1950 that Mary went to heaven either directly without dying or after a resurrection (it wasn't entirely explicit which). The natural reaction of a Protestant is “where'd that come from?” Shoemaker contributed this volume to a body of scholarship surrounding the oldest stories of Mary's death—-which come from about the 5'th century.

He emphasizes that there are no records of anything dealing with her death before this.

His approach to the various stories of her assumption/resurrection/whatever is basically literary. He categorizes the stories based on literary affinity (Bethlehem narratives involve a second house for Mary outside Jerusalem at Bethlehem, Palm narratives have her being given a magic palm branch, etc) Some are clearly later, and have been sanitized of some of the heterodox features of the earlier works.

His analysis claims that the various categories of stories arose independently and do not derive from each other. The earliest, in his view, is the Palm group of stories, several of which are prefaced with a prologue explaining how the absence of a record of Mary's death had prompted the writers to go in search of the true story. He takes this (and I agree) to mean that there was no agreed-on story of Mary's death during the previous centuries—and I take that to mean that none existed; that any record of Mary's fate was lost and never recovered.

The various categories of story don't agree with each other, of course, and even within a category there are disagreements on the nature of Paradise that translate in modern theological categories into either an immortal Mary (never died, taken directly to heaven) or resurrected Mary taken to heaven. As he points out, these modern categories are not the most relevant ones to apply to the 5'th century texts.

And about those texts—the early ones (before sanitizing) are gnostic through and through, with secret knowledge and obscurities galore. They are not Gospel—not even close—and are very heavy going. Pius fiction, yes. Gnostic mysteries, yes. (He doesn't like to use the word “gnostic,” but the themes of hidden knowledge needed for salvation are quite strong and that's the gnosis of gnostic.) The attitude towards mystery is completely different from the canonical writings (except the Revelation of John, which is excusable as prophecy). Chesterton had his Father Brown say: "Real mystics don't hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you've seen it it's still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it's a platitude."

Shoemaker agrees that there must have been some prior (now completely lost) source from which all these collections came, but does not speculate on what it might have been. So I will.

The disagreements about details within a category like Palm suggests that the source wasn't specific—perhaps laconic in description. The fact that different categories stride off in such different directions suggests that the authors felt free to embellish (gnostic writers seem to have had an extremely elastic notion of “historical fact” to begin with), or perhaps even constrained to elaborate. The various authors filled in from within their own local interests. And this original, not preserved by anybody, may not have been written down at all. It was widespread, whatever it was.

I'd guess the original was a song—necessarily unspecific about all the details. Mary was already something of a big deal, and if someone were to write a popular song it would undoubtedly inspire writers to come up with longer stories to fill in all the details.

In any event, these stories are valueless for documenting anything about Mary. They tell a little of what gnostics thought about her, but that's of little use.

If you're curious about the topic, read the book, or another in the field.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Years ago I served on a grand jury panel for 3 months in Illinois. For those not familiar with the institution, it decides whether or not there is evidence to try someone for a felony. It doesn't decide guilt or innocence, since it only hears the prosecution side. In theory (and sometimes in practice) it can indict for crimes it discovered whether the prosecutor's office knows of them or not.

It was great fun. Once a week it was like being a police officer (yes, they supplied doughnuts!) without the beat or the paperwork. You found out all sorts of things about the town--and acquired a pretty cynical attitude towards newspaper reporting as you mentally compared the reported story with what the eyewitnesses answered you. We heard about an old ex-con blatantly shoplifting to try to get back in jail on a cold night, and a home being burglarized while the burglar alarm people were at work. We even heard testimony on a murder case (a gambling quarrel--and I shouldn't call it murder because the fellow was eventually found innocent). We had to inspect the jail too, which wasn't all that much fun, but only the last day really ground my gears.

A junior staff woman from the prosecutor's office described for us in gory detail for over an hour all the aspects of an animal mistreatment case. It was unpleasant, and I felt sorry for the horses, but after about 40 minutes I was starting to wonder when she was going to get around to detailing the felony for us. Luckily she ended before my courtesy ran out.

There was no felony, and it had nothing to do with us at all. It was a misdemeanor, and she'd apparently brought it to us in the hopes of winning support for making animal mistreatment a felony.

We didn't indict her, tempting though it was. I'm not sure "presumptuous stupidity" is actually on the books in Illinois.

Michael Vick doesn't sound like a very gentle sort of person, and he treats dogs abominably. But the college players I read about in the local police blotter commit very much worse crimes than he did--and get off lighter. Do we think dogs are more valuable than people?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fossil Ink?

There's a story on BBC today implying that a preserved fossil squid was found with an intact ink sack. I have a little trouble with that. That there was ink-impregnated rock I could believe. They could grind up a little to retrieve ink. But for a sack to remain full of mucus as the whole area mineralized seems far fetched: The sack should have mineralized too. So either there's something amazing afoot, or the reporters didn't get it right. I'd bet the latter.

Health care track record

The Wall Street Journal has an article giving us a little more insight into how our government's health care works. I generally discount doom-sayers. After seeing this Congress and Chicago-style administration at work, I can't do that any more. The rot was deep already.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Real History Behind the Templars by Sharan Newman

This was a "see it on the shelf at the library and pick it up" choice. I didn't know a lot about the Templars, except that they were fighting monks based in Jerusalem adhering to a modified rule, and that they'd been crushed by a French king looking for money. Oh, and there'd been some reference to them in The Maltese Cross.

Apparently fake history has been big business lately. Newman, lecturing about the daVinci Code's anti-history, was asked some questions about the Templars and realized she didn't have solid answers--hence this, which tells the history and refutes some of the more fat-headed conspiracy theories (such as the notion that they had hidden vaults with secret treasures).

Her format for the book is short, heavily footnoted(*) chapters written in a breezy style that doesn't sacrifice accuracy.

Short summary: The Templars were founded under the prodding, if not the aegis, of Bernard to fight to protect Christians against the Saracens. They were fighting men whose monastic rule allowed meat and more sleep and a lot more property (in form of horses and equipment) than secular monks, but they were still required to be obedient and chaste (no wives--I'd been mislead on that point) and otherwise poor. For some reason most of her reports of Templar battles involve them getting creamed, but I gather that wasn't usually the case. As they gained respect they found additional service as envoys. There were the Templars in the MidEast who did the fighting, and those back home who did the recruiting and fundraising and some training.

As the various Crusades failed under internal bickering and Muslim resurgence, eventually Jerusalem was lost, then more and more strongholds until nothing was left but islands.

Phillip the Fair of France arranged for their suppression on trumped-up charges. Since confession to absolution and penance was a fairly well-travelled path in case of charges of heresy and such, some Templars confessed to what are pretty plainly bogus offences. The Hospitalars got most of their property outside "France," and the Templars faded from the scene.

In the early 19'th century stories started getting about involving Templars as custodians of secret treasure or secret knowledge (Masonic), and the stories have been something of a growth industry since then.

I found this interesting, opening up some vistas on a period I'm not that familiar with, and easily read on the bus.

Read it.

(*) Footnotes often refer to primary sources so you can check her facts: something more speculative histories are reluctant to allow.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter

The Inklings were a group of writers at Oxford who met to read their writings and discuss whatever came to mind. That sounds ordinary enough, but they included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams (not actually an Oxford man). Carpenter tells their stories and the story of the informal group as it coalesced and disintegrated.

It cleared up several misconceptions for me, and gave me more history of several of the men than I'd had before (and I still think the anthroposophism of Barfield is hard to square with Christianity—and yes, I read one of his books (halfway)). They had their eccentricities, some of which are echoed in their works. I hadn't realized how much of Lewis' experiences went into That Hideous Strength.

If you have an interest in the men behind the books, read it.


Today was his birthday.

The little details bring him to mind.

A passage from Cappricio Italien brings back afternoons in Los Angeles with him listening to the radio. Sitting down with the family ledger reminds me of his sitting down to the adding machine and a ledger, with a pile of tissues of mission receipts; doing what seemed too picky and alien to me then.

The news reminds me of his prescient warning 30 years ago that the US was going to have to think carefully about Islam and democracy.

And I paid little attention to his offhand remark that he (Southern Baptist) preferred somewhat more formal and “high church” services. I didn't think deeply about such things, until the disintegration of the church I was a member of brought the question of the purpose of the local church firmly to mind. I think he was right.

I wish he were still with us, but I thank God for the time he was here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


The shady proprietor of a strip mall which nominally sold lumberjack and log splitting hardware hosted a wild animal show during which his lady was injured by a wildcat. The headline read "Maul Mall Moll Maul."


We had a little discussion last night about medieval cooking. The received wisdom is that they loaded on the spices to cover the taste of spoiled meat, but I argued that the rich (who could afford the spices) could also afford fresh meat. On reflection, even they couldn't get venison to the table that quickly, so it is probably true that if the steaks are high you need spices.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Kettle Moraine

The day we arrived was rainy, and we used misleading information about the forecast to sleep in the car instead of setting up tents in the wet. We discovered that the seats do not recline far enough for good sleep unless you are prepared to squash the person in back, that mosquitoes are active 24/7 and not just from 8 to 10 at night, and that people who claim to be the wrong flavor are merely insensitive to the multitudes of bites they receive.

The dawn chorus was long and active every morning; with crows dominating for a while and cranes punctuating from time to time. And there were some pocket squirrels, tan and not much larger than a chipmunk, with a chirp like a bird (the tail bobs forward with each one), a machine-gun chirping call, something that sounds like and angry sneeze, and a howl/whine used when retreating full speed from some other squirrel with a bigger angry sneeze.

The kames and eskers and kettles and moraines are fascinating, and I confusticated the Ice Age Center docent with questions. Chief among which is: how did the rocks get up so high? She mentioned and then backed off the notion of churning at the front, but I think that may have merit--if the relaxation time is longer than the time for being shoved some distance then one might have slow motion turbulence.

And, of course, the continental ice sheet would not have been uniform--there'd be flow from regions of higher precipitation, which might present as lobes or as streams (slow moving, but streams nonetheless). When these intersected you might get some interesting turbulent flows. I don't have a good enough model of ice dynamics to do a back-of-the-envelope on what happens if a glacier moves over a deep trench (like a lake), but it would seem at least possible to get some gouging eddies going.

I wonder how high the kames were orginally--there's been some erosion since.

I wonder what the local Indians thought of the kames, and whether they influenced the mound builders (says here that some groups buried their dead in kames: late Archaic. From the phrase "believe the Red Ocher burials came after the Glacial Kame (Indians)" I gather that the dating isn't precise, but they're pretty sure both groups came before the Woodland Indians who were the mound builders.) This may need a little research.

Youngest Son and I went up "Dundee Mountain" in the twilight and came down in the dark with no flashlights; and persuaded the rest to travel it in the daylight later. It is really a large kame with a secondary and a tail which is almost an esker, and a kettle close by--so in a mile's walk you get to see most of the attractions of the area.

A busy digger wasp carried fly after fly into holes in the silty part of the campsite, and cicadas came out (one latched onto Youngest Son's tent to burst his shell--at night when we couldn't watch, of course).

We learned the hard way about trying to fillet still-slightly frozen bass, and that splitting slightly damp wood into small pieces doesn't guarantee a quick fire start. Youngest Son whittled shavings for starting the fire. He learned that damp pine needles, though they burn very nicely after the fire gets started, aren't the easiest things for initial ignition.

The town of Kewaskum (named after an Indian chief who used to live there) has an excellently designed city park. The crest holds a golf course and bandstand and other things, but over the hill the green runs down to the stream. The park is on both sides of the stream, there's a small dam, and whoever laid out the place has children: the trees were left in clusters, with green space between; ideal for 5-year old hide and seek or "adventures in the woods."

About half the sportsman's clubs abutted cemeteries--I suppose so they wouldn't bother the neighbors.

We brought lots of books, in case of inclement weather, but a good time was had by all--though you'd not get Youngest Daughter to agree.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Hidden in plain sight or concealed?

The tragic van crash recently elicited a testimonial about the driver

The families issued a statement last week calling Schuler "a devoted mother to her children, Bryan and Erin."

"She was a constant, doting presence in her nieces' lives, and our extended family admired her competence, ease with children and sense of humor," it said. "Never has there been a more responsible and trusted friend or caregiver."

The article gives the autopsy results: double the legal blood alcohol limit with more undigested, plus marijuana. "Responsible" is not the first word that comes to mind for someone who drives in that condition.

Unless she was particularly suicidal that day, this wouldn't be the first time. Did she hide it so well that nobody knew she was a drunk, or did nobody want to mention it? Hiding protected her from criticism (at least while she lived), but it also protected her from grace and help.

Law and Grace

Yesterday morning I hit Psalms 119 in the cycle again--the psalm that is a test of its own theme.(*) As I read it I remembered Eldest Daughter telling me that the youth group leader had challenged them to try to memorize it.

OK, I'll grant that would be quite a challenge--and the kids in youth group are young enough to probably do it fairly easily. They can do a lot of things they don't realize they can, and should be encouraged to discover that, and practice some of the disciplines of the faith.

Still, now that I thought of it, it was an odd choice. Almost all of the Psalm is about the Law (**), while the church is about Grace. True, you have to know about the law before grace makes sense, but even middle school/junior high kids are quite old enough to have already done some serious scrambling of their lives, and the high schoolers even more so. Law law law sounds like an invitation to despair; especially for those of us who cannot hide our failings. (If we can hide our failings we can sometimes even kid ourselves that we love the law.)

Pair it with Galatians.

(*) I hope I may be forgiven for finding Psalm 119 much like those long sections of Numbers or I Chronicles spelling out who lived where. MEGO

(**) Verse 176 suggests grace: "I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands."

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Does Abu Dhabi hire American TSA?

The Maan news agency reports that a foot-long crocodile was found aboard an Airbus flying to Cairo. Flight attendants captured it, and all passengers plead innocent, but I gather that security screening is a trifle lax.

Ants that love juice

Apparently there are ants extremely attracted to electricity. Since swarming inside junction boxes can cause shorts and fires, this makes them a hazard. But I'd think ways to deal with them would be rather obvious. If "Their compulsion to follow electricity is stronger than their need for food or drink," then I think I know how to bait them...