The Mysterious Case of a Missing Catechism Chapter on Orthodox Eschatology

Yesterday, an online friend of mine (Aaron Beethoven) shared a passage in English that was purported to be translated from a French catechism published for use by the Orthodox church in 1979. This passage seemed to be saying that the doctrine of eternal torment in hell was a monsterous abuse that Orthodox Christians must reject:

Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. …It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.

I could not find this English translation in many places online, and none of them provided much information. Therefore, I asked around for more information, and this is what I have learned.

Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant (my own translation of the title being Catechism for families: God is Alive) was published in 1979 (with another French edition printed in 1987). It was a work for church use by French catechists, theologians and priests from Russian, Greek and French backgrounds. Olivier Clement was the editor and a contributor alongside Fr. Cyrille Argenti and Fr. Alexandre Turincev. The book received the blessings of Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surozh.

It was published in English as The Living God: a Catechism (2 volumes, translated by Olga Dunlop) by SVS Press (where it is noted that it was originally written in French as a “catechism for the family” but with little other information given online about the source book). Mysteriously, a chapter of the original text was left out of this English edition. I have not yet read this SVS Press edition, so I do not know if this missing chapter is noted or explained in their book in any way. This chapter was titled “L’ESCHATOLOGIE ORTHODOXE” (“Orthodox Eschatology”) and was written by Father Alexandre Turincev who had initially published it in the Orthodox journal Contact (no. 54) in 1966.

An English translation of this missing chapter was published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review (58:1-4) in 2013 as “An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology.” This was translated by Brad Jersak (with the Monks at Holy Transfiguration Hermitage, British Columbia) and Michael Gillis. You can find a full PDF of it here.

As I inquired about this, a few who could read French and had the text in French suggested that the translation I found online was not strong and that the brief passage was taken out of context. I’ve now been able to read the entire chapter in the English translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis (published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review). This entire chapter is beautiful and profound with a clear depth of understanding regarding patristic Christianity as well as a strong sense of just how terribly our understandings of Christian eschatology have gone astray over the course of Christian history in various damaging ways. It seems clear to me that the controversial passage in question entirely fits the full context of the chapter. I could give many other examples from elsewhere in the chapter, but consider this one:

We have arrived at the crucial point: Gehenna, hell, damnation, eternal suffering. …First, one remark: the notion of “eternal” (Greek: aionios) does not belong to the category of obvious and clear concepts. In the vulgar sense of the term, eternity is understood as a measure of time, or rather as a lack of measurement, as an essentially flawed infinity—an absence of end. But in the Bible, “eternal” is synonymous with God or divine life. For this reason, eternity is not commensurate with time. …Eternity is a life of another “nature,” another quality. Eternity is the fullness of divine life. And hell? Does it exist or not? St. Thérèse of Lisieux has written somewhere, “I believe that hell exists, but I do not think anyone is there.” It is easy to understand her. The pure and angelic Thérèse seeks to defend the infinite love of her God against the dogmas of the implacable guardians of the faith …But she, along with them, is mistaken if she thinks hell exists as an objective place, designed or created by the Creator and predestined for the damned.

While this passage illustrates that the wider context of the whole article agrees with the shorter passage circulating online, Fr. Alexandre Turincev does go on to talk about what hell is. He even describes hell as eternal in this passage (as translated by a native French reader who has maintained online that Fr. Alexandre Turincev does not support universalism): “The fact that we will be judged at the Last Judgement by the Love and the Truth of God certainly does not diminishes our responsibility for our life and does not take away anything to the tragic nature of our situation. …Only man, by freely refusing it, or revolting against it, can oppose this (God’s) compassion and ever remain in the suffering of his refusal (of it).” With more context and in the translation by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis, this reads:

The mercy of God is limitless. Before it, the ‘sin of all flesh,’ says St. Isaac the Syrian—all the sin of the world—is ‘but a handful of sand thrown into the Immense Sea.’ Only man, by a free refusal or rebellion, may oppose this mercy and remain always the suffering of his refusal. The Eastern Fathers love to repeat this saying: ‘God created us without us, but he cannot save us without us.’ St. Isaac the Syrian, in his Homily 19, says the following, characteristic of the Orthodox view of ‘the last things’: ‘Let the sacrilegious thought that God ceases to love the sinner never enter the mind of man. But love acts in a double way: it torments sinners and becomes a source of joy to those who have performed their duty.’ ‘In my opinion,’ adds this Father, ‘the torment of Gehenna is repentance.’

Returning to the original passage that I found circulating online, I also closely compared the English translation of it circulating online from an unknown translator with the translation published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis. Both English translations looked consistent and faithful to each other in their meanings (despite being varied in their word choice and syntax). Finally, I took the French text and ran it through Google translate to get a third English version which did not indicate any issues in the two human translations.

This missing chapter is bold and beautiful. It seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev was a patristic universalist (sometimes also called purgatorial universalism or ἀποκατάστασις). His chapter frequently quotes one of the most outspoken voices on this topic from the ancient church, Saint Isaac the Syrian. It also seems clear that Fr. Alexandre Turincev found most of the more familiar Christian teachings on eternal torment to be monstrously repugnant and damaging to the church. Finally, the entirety of these clear teachings from Fr. Alexandre Turincev were fully approved for use in the training of all those new to the faith by the distinguished and responsible figures of Olivier Clement, Metropolitan Meletios (Greek) and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

Fr. Alexandre Turincev with a copy of the catechism to which he contributed.

Why this chapter went missing in our only English edition of this book seems likely to me to be a sad story. Evidently, our Orthodox faith in America is not as deeply informed by this aspect of our Christian tradition from its earliest years. I would be grateful to learn more about this missing chapter and its author. I would also be grateful to hear of any reasons for why this chapter was left out of our English printing of this resource.

If you are interested, as a next step, be sure to read this full chapter by clicking here to get a PDF.

In addition, here is the other English translation of a brief passage from this missing chapter that has circulated a online in a few places (translator unknown):

Let us state outright: the idea of eternal hades and eternal torments for some, and eternal blessedness, indifferent to suffering, for others, can no longer remain in a living and renewed Christian consciousness the way it was once depicted in our catechisms and our official theological textbooks. This outdated understanding, which attempts to rely upon Gospel texts, renders them literally, roughly, and materially, without penetrating into their spiritual meaning, which is concealed in figures and symbols. This understanding is becoming a more and more intolerant violation of the conscience, thought, and faith of the Christian. We cannot tolerate that the sacrifice on Golgotha turned out to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hades. Otherwise, it would be necessary to say that all of Creation was a failure, and Christ’s feat was also a failure. It is high time for all Christians to jointly witness to and disclose their intimate mystical experience in this realm, and in the same way their mystical hope and, perhaps, their indignation and horror regarding the materialistic representations of hades and the dread Judgment set forth in human images. It is high time to put an end to all these monstrous assertions of past centuries, which make of our God that which He is not: an ‘external’ God, Who is merely an allegory of earthly kings and nothing more. Pedagogical intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it bars entry to the Church for many of those who are seeking the God of love.

To compare to the text above, here is the English translation of this same passage as translated and published by Brad Jersak and Michael Gillis:

Let us state frankly: the idea of eternal hell and eternal suffering for some and eternal bliss (indifferent to suffering) for others can no longer remain in the living and renewed Christian conscience as it was formerly presented in our catechisms and our official theology courses. This archaic conception, which claims to be based on the Gospel texts, misunderstands them in a literal, coarse, and material sense, without penetrating the hidden spiritual meaning of the images and symbols. This conception is increasingly showing itself to be an intolerable violation of Christian conscience, thought, and faith. We cannot accept that the sacrifice of Golgotha has revealed itself to be powerless to redeem the world and conquer hell. Otherwise we should say: creation is a failure, and redemption is also a failure. It is high time for all Ghristians to witness in common and reveal their mystical experience—intimate in this area—as well as their spiritual expectations, and perhaps also their revulsion and horror before materialistic, anthropomorphic representations of hell and the last judgment, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is high time to be done with all these monstrosities—doctrinal or not—which are often blasphemous, from ages past, which make of our God of love that which he is not: an “external” God who is merely an “allegory of earthly kings and nothing else.” The pedagogy of intimidation and terror is no longer effective. On the contrary, it blocks entry into the Church to many who are seeking a God of love “who loves mankind” (the “Philanthropos” of the Orthodox Liturgy).

If you read French (which I sadly do not), here is this same brief passage in the original language:

Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).

Finally, for a little more context from the original French text as printed in Catéchisme pour les familles: Dieu est Vivant, this text below comes from from the three images above (shared with me and some others online):

L’ESCHATOLOGIE ORTHODOXE

CHAPITRE IX
Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe
par le P. Alexandre Turincev

Arrivant presque au terme de cette Septième Partie sur le deuxième Avènement du Seigneur, au cours de laquelle nous avons parlé, en particulier, des signes précurseurs de ce deuxième Avènement, de la fin du monde et du Jugement, il nous paraît utile de donner quelques extraits d’un article du P. Alexandre Turincev, paru dans la revue Contacts (nº 54, deuxième trimestre 1966).

Cet article est intitulé : « Une approche de l’eschatologie orthodoxe ». (Eschatologie veut dire ce qui concerne les fins dernières, le sort de l’homme après la mort.)

Le P. Alexandre, qui a une longue et profonde expérience des âmes et de la vie chrétienne, témoigne ici avec chaleur de sa foi et de son espérance devant « l’énigme du monde et de l’homme, celle de la fin dernière de l’évolution cosmique, du sens de l’histoire humaine, du destin de chacun de nous… » Il est convaincu que « le monde ne peut pas être expliqué à partir de lui-même » et que « son sens et son but suprêmes sont cachés dans l’histoire de l’homme et non pas dans l’évolution du cosmos. » Il affirme que «c’est en vain que l’homme cherche, en dehors du Christ, l’explication de ces énigmes».

«L’avènement de la vie du siècle à venir suppose la fin de
celui dans lequel nous vivons, “la fin du monde”. Mais…

[page break]

«(…) Saint Jean Chrysostome, dont le sermon inspire conclut, dans la liturgie orthodoxe, les matines de Pâques, clame : “L’enfer a été frappé de mort lorsqu’il rencontra le Christ”, et il ajoute : “Il a été frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as anéanti, frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as humilie: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as enchaîné: frappé de mort, parce que tu l’as tué.”

«Dans le contexte eschatologique général, comment faut-il considérer ces affirmations follement catégoriques de saint Jean Chrysostome concernant l’enchaînement, l’humiliation, la mort de l’enfer, son anéantissement? Disons franchement : l’idée de l’enfer éternel et de souffrances éternelles pour les uns, de béatitude éternelle (indifferente à la souffrance…) pour les autres, ne peut plus, dans la conscience chrétienne vivante, rénovée, rester telle que la présentaient autrefois nos catéchismes et nos cours officiels de théologie. Cette conception archaïque, qui veut s’appuyer sur les textes évangéliques, les comprend d’une manière littérale, grossière, matérielle, sans pénétrer dans le sens spirituel caché des images et des symboles. Cette conception se présente de plus en plus comme une violation intolérable de la conscience, de la pensée et de la foi du chrétien. On ne peut admettre que le sacrifice du Golgotha se soit révélé impuissant à racheter le monde et à vaincre l’enfer. Sinon il faudrait dire : la Création est un échec, la Rédemption aussi est un échec. Il est grand temps pour tous les chrétiens de témoigner en commun et de révéler leur expérience mystique, intime dans ce domaine, ainsi que leurs espérances spirituelles, et peut-être aussi leur révolte et leur épouvante devant les représentations anthropomorphes matérialistes de l’enfer et du Jugement dernier, comme de la Jérusalem céleste. Il est grand temps d’en finir avec toutes ces monstruosités, doctrinales ou non, souvent blasphématoires, des siècles passés, qui font de notre Dieu-Amour ce qu’il n’est pas : un Dieu “externe” qui n’est qu’une “allégorie des rois terrestres et rien d’autre”. La pédagogie d’intimidation et de terreur n’est plus efficace, au
contraire, elle barre l’entrée dans l’Église à beaucoup de ceux qui cherchent un Dieu d’amour et “qui aime l’homme” (le “Philanthrope” de la liturgie orthodoxe).

[page break]

«Un saint moine du Mont Athos, un staretz qui fut presque notre contemporain, écrit ce qui suit, en s’adresavec toute la multitude de tes freres, et quand il ne resterant qu’un seul des ennemis du Christ et de l’Eglise dans les ténèbres extérieures, ne te mettras-tu pas avec tous les autres à implorer le Seigneur afin que soit sauvé cet unique frère non repenti? Si tu ne le supplies pas jour et nuit, alors ton cæur est de fer – mais on n’a pas besoin de fer au paradis.”

«Et saint Paul, qui était si véritablement uni au Christ qu’il a pu affirmer : “Ce n’est plus moi qui vis, mais c’est le Christ qui vit en moi”, n’a-t-il pas dit qu’il était pret a être “séparé du Christ pour ses frères”?

«Chacun de nous ne doit-il pas de même supplier le Seigneur : Que tous mes frères soient sauvés avec moi? Ou alors que je sois, moi aussi damné avec eux! Notre Seigneur n’attend-il pas de nous une telle priere? Et cette prière ne sera-t-elle pas la solution du probleme de l’enfer et de la damnation ?»

Wells of Sorrow Unfathomed

“For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Light and hope break into the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien from every direction—with the descent of eagles, the arrival of friends, the return of wizards, and the fireside meals of hobbits. However, his stories remain tightly encased within a realm of death and separation. Yes, Aragon leads the armies of elves, dwarves, men (and even a few hobbits) in a desperate bid to distract Sauron himself and to allow Frodo, Sam and Gollum to overthrow him decisively. However, the real point of the older stories—first written years earlier by a pious young language scholar and further developed after his return from the devastation of the First World War—is that Arwen must say farewell forever to her father and then again to her husband who must leave her to receive death alone. Tolkien offers no final escape from death and separation for all of time.

True, we get an even larger story within which our world of death and time fit. As Eru Ilúvatar conceived the Ainur from his thought and taught each of them how to make music before the start of time, their singing weaves Eä into being as an embodied world (the cosmos of stars containing Arda as the planet holding Middle Earth). However, this world is almost immediately corrupted following the discordant song of Melkor who is allowed to enter Eä where he seeks domination over it and most especially over the Children of Ilúvatar (the divided households of Elves and Men) who have Eä as their home.

There are only two small hints given by Tolkien regarding any possible recovery from this containment of Ilúvatar’s children within a world bound by time, death, and eternal separation. First, from outside of time, we are given the account of the third theme in Eru’s music that Melkor found to be sweeter, more beautiful and ultimately unquenchable. What this theme might have contained is hinted at from within the history of Eä by only one obscure tale that went unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime: “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”

This brief story describes a connection between this world of time and death and the timeless realm of Eru Ilúvatar which would allow communion to be restored one day between the Children of Ilúvatar and the Ainur—between the embodied world and that of solid light and song. In this story, Andreth (a wise-woman among humans) shares with Finrod (a wise-man among elves) about a set of ancient and almost entirely lost beliefs among some humans regarding the nature of human embodiment and the indissolubility of body and soul. Tolkien’s myth is so deep that it contains its own metaphysics, so body and soul here are not exactly what we might think of in our own understandings of these words, but to translate fëa as “soul” and hröa as “body” is the best that we can do here. They share of the mysterious bond between these two aspects of the Children of Ilúvatar (men and elves) in terms that suggest the inevitability of incarnation so that God’s image within embodied creation might be restored and all (or much) that is now bound by death might be restored:

What can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.

Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.

“Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (likely completed in 1959 but not printed until 1993 within Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth)

Beyond these two points of ultimate hope beyond the horizon of history, however, Tolkien keeps his stories confined tightly by the horizon of death and separation across all of time. Not only is there no reunion possible within history for elves and men, but humanity ultimately can do no more than accept their own death willingly (with no promise of a reunion between their fëa and hröa that would constitute a communion between the timeless realms of Eru and the storied cosmos of Eä—the union of earth and eternity).

Within this life, we should gaze upon the fountain in the sun but accept that it springs from “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” This confinement to the realm of death is a great part of Tolkien’s faithfulness and gift to his readers. In part, it is related to his insistence that one-to-one allegory be strictly avoided within mythology and fairytale, but it goes beyond this to his insistence upon eucatastropy as the only truth available to us now. If Tolkien is right that we have nowhere to turn in this life but to “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth,” how is this in any sense a hope? We can only recall what the Christian scriptures place at the foundations of our cosmos: a slain lamb (Revelation 13:8). This world is founded upon God’s own death.

Here Tolkien is within an old Christian tradition that considered death itself a gift prepared by God from the foundation of the cosmos as “the limits that were set for [Eä] in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.” This is a limit that even Finrod (an elven loremaster) is astounded to learn from the woman Andreth might ultimately be overcome. For virtually all the inhabitants of Tolkien’s mythical earth, this bondage to estrangement or death is a limit that was assumed to be a permanent aspect of their creation. Tolkien only hints at the incarnation and resurrection within one unpublished story, but the eucatastropy of the cross is clearly within view throughout his work. A death that must be accepted as a gift is central to Tolkien’s work and may be considered a basic aspect of the third theme in Eru’s music—the theme that finally overcomes Melkor’s discord.

As difficult as this cross is to bear, we must insist with Tolkien that the only way to the resurrection is through the grave. Tolkien took this so seriously, that he would not allow any form of human resurrection to enter into his mythology (other than the smallest hint within one unpublished story). This shows us not only the essential nature of death as a gift that we must receive but also the power of a truly human resurrection. When a human life overcomes death, “what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time?” With death overcome, humanity has the capacity to unite all of embodied creation with God’s eternal life.

This is not to say that our world as we know it right now, under the bonds of death, is not also beautiful and communicative of the life, love and glory of God. However, this beauty of the Creator is only fully seen by a heart that has accepted death. Saint Pavel Florensky says:

The goal of the ascetic’s strivings is to perceive all of creation in its original triumphant beauty. The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation. Always to see beauty in everything would be “to be resurrected before the universal resurrection,” to have a foretaste of the last Revelation, that of the Comforter.

From “Letter Nine” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky (translated by Boris Jakim)

Tolkien insists that the catastrophe is good and fills his stories with the in-breaking of this goodness (typically at its most wonderful when it comes from the most humble of sources, as we see within the goodness of Shire life). However, Tolkien insists with his mythology that our lot in this world is, ultimately, to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24-26) and to pray that, in our own flesh, we might be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24, ESV). This is the ascetic’s strivings of which the saints teach which allows us to see the beauty of creation. Like the believing thief who hung beside Christ, may we die willingly with him.

15h c. Ethiopian crucifixion icon

Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household…

For several years, I’ve come back regularly to an effort at summarizing the whole story of the Bible within as few words as possible. Here’s a recent attempt. Is it making sense?

God said, “Let there be light.” A few days later, God said, “Let there be heavenly bodies to guide an ageless dance between the great light of day and the many beautiful lights of night over which I delight to sing.”

Finally, God said to humanity, “Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household so that you who carry my image can learn to show me fully to all that share life with me. Enjoy this home and care for it, my children, but be warned that refusal of this place in my household will lead to your death.”

But humanity said to God, “We are mature already, and we are ready now to be like you.”

God replied, “No, my children. To join with you fully is my purpose, but that step in the dance is not yet reached. Because of your disordered desire, you will need to mature within the realm of death where your own will cannot forever take you away from my life. This restriction of time by the contingency of death will limit your wanderings as you each mature amid the confusion and suffering of your misdirected loves. I will be with you, and you can still mature fully to show your divine image as my human family to all of my creation. Even from the foundation of this realm of death in which you must be entombed, my eternal Son will participate fully in your suffering, and a woman among you will bear fruit. She will be a human who prepares and agrees, even within the realm of death, to carry my perfect image as my eternal Son. Through her acceptance of her own humanity, this woman will fulfill my intent for all humanity as a way for me to join with my creation. With this union of her child’s life and the Life shared by me and my eternal Son as our gift to all creation, everything that we have made will be restored in the life of this woman’s child.”

And humanity slowly reply, “Remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom.”

Shovel Work

Some tools should hold up even with
a lifetime’s tasks. My shovel might.
Its forged blade and all steel handle
worked with the ground and my father
and my brothers to burry my mother.
Planting flowers just now, its turning
of the earth recalled the place of her
rest so that my shovel held that place
with this and my mother to these flowers.

To wield willingly ever works wonders.
In Latinate language: labor dignifies.
Glory blooms with flowers from ground
where we once bent, shoveling soil for
seed and sprout. Why am I winding
words this way? In days when all daily
bread was toiling won, would any have
written such lines after planting only
a few flowers from a friend? But many
gardeners sang, and a few rhymed.
And would not most past planters have
moved earth with stout blade to burry
mother (and even every second child)?

Surely their spades, too, turned up
common ground, revealing a shared life
beneath each light of parent, child, bloom.

Holy Fooldom Versus the Modern Nation State: All of Human History in the Eyes of David Bentley Hart

In the cosmology of David Bentley Hart, the greatest heroes are holy fools while the most bitter enemy is the secular nation state. (Note that this category of hero is steady and true of all earthly history, while the enemy is unstable and forever reconfiguring.) I’ll seek to elucidate each of these claims about Hart quickly which will also leave us in a good place from which to survey all of this current earthly story from start to finish.

I’ve long thought of Hart as a man inspired by the tradition of the wise fool. His most recent video chat appearance further confirmed this fairly obvious hunch. As Hart rambled delightfully on with religion scholar and Eastern Christian theologian David Armstrong at Perennial Digression, Hart spoke of this tradition (in its Taoist form) at several points:

There is a distressing absence of magical divine monkeys in the Western novel. …What I love about [Journey to the West] in general is that it is equally irreverent to all three of the major Chinese traditions at once. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are all treated with remarkably cavalier coarseness. I say that as someone who loves all three of those traditions at their purest. What I like is that Chinese …sense of whimsy in which piety and absolute impiety become indistinguishable from one another at times. …I think of Gorilla [a character in Hart’s The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla] as …an exemplar of crazy wisdom—that tradition in Taoism of the mad monk.

Hart has admired a similar spirit in the mothers and fathers of the desert (within the closing paragraphs of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). Of course Hart (as Eastern Orthodox himself and a lover of several Russian theologians) would also be familiar with the revered tradition of the holy fool within the Eastern churches (and the Slavs in particular where it has a long history in the church as well as politics, literature and cinema) as well as the many other parallels in human cultures—with the likes of Ezekiel baking bread over a fire made of human dung, Diogenes of Sinope, the court jester, the troubadour and the mendicant friars (not, of course, that I equate all of these by listing them as comparable). It is no accident that John Saxbee said in his review of Hart’s Roland in Moonlight that it is a book where “Don Quixote meets The Wind in the Willows” (Church Times on 25 June 2021). Certain versions of this ideal are, of course, famously and indiscriminately popular. I recall seeing the Man of La Mancha during the 1998 season of Canada’s Stratford Festival with a group of young college friends. We walked the streets of Stratford for days afterward—arm in arm—singing “The Impossible Dream” at the maximum output that we could produce from ill-trained diaphragms and vocal cords.

To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
…To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into hell
For that heavenly cause

The whimsy of which Hart speaks in the Taoist tradition of the mad monk shares something of this or so my friends and I liked to hope at least. We called our little band of college fellows the Dúnedain and even practiced communism together for one summer (opening a single bank account between the crew of us into which we all deposited the paychecks from our various summer jobs). There is, of course, also a dark and abusive side to this ideal as can be seen in the figures of Rasputin or Sun Myung Moon and exemplified in various ways in the two very different books titled Crazy for God by Christopher Edwards (in 1979) and Frank Schaeffer (in 2007). That there is serious didactic and theological fruit from this tradition is, however, incontrovertible as can be found in the book Fools for Christ by Jaroslav Pelikan.

To be clear, Hart has never acted remotely like a mad monk or holy fool himself or made any such heady claims or insinuations. While Hart has a humor almost as scathing as that of Martin Luther, Hart is, at the end of the day, a modest and straightforward wit. (If you don’t accept this claim to Hart’s modesty, read Roland and Moonlight and then contact me about having a beer or two together afterward.) While neither he nor I are saying that Hart is himself fool enough to claim or tread the road of a holy fool, it is clear that Hart admires a wide spectrum of audaciously mad monks from the pages of history and literature.

Ji Gong (1133-1209)

If Hart’s greatest hero, then, is the mad monk, what might we say is the great enemy within Hart’s thought and writing? I propose that Hart’s greatest enemy is the secular nation state that gave rise to modernity along with the nation state’s most powerful contemporary manifestation—the multinational corporation.

The basic structures of the nation state are so ubiquitous and revered in our world that none of us can fully get the concept into our mind’s eye. However, there is a wide consensus among historians that one of the most basic developments at the end of Christendom and the rise of modernity is the invention of the nation state. To try to describe the nation state would sound to any modern American like describing the way in which apples always fall downward. It is more helpful to start by listing the entities that were replaced by the modern nation state: a host of guilds (including the student or teacher guilds of universities), village commons, empires, kingdoms, townships, manors, church parishes, monasteries, and the papacy. All of these ancient and layered structures of Christendom (along with many more such layers that could be named) were radically and suddenly displaced by the single and undisputed secular power of the modern nation state, and this replacement was widely celebrated as liberation from centuries of tyranny. These older and layered structures of human societies, moreover, were not just a part of Christendom but were an aspect of all pre-modern human cultures. All humans who lived before 1618 and the start of the Thirty Years’ War, existed in a kind of suspension upon a web of meanings and powers that ran between the chief, the shaman, kinship ties, the matriarchy or sisterhood, the guild, etc. Of course, such a development in the human story did not take place overnight, and the remnants of the old ways are not entirely effaced from the planet. In his stories of Port William, Wendell Berry calls this network of belonging and mutual help “the membership.” However, Berry’s whole life has, of course, been dedicated to documenting how the membership has died.

What took place with this seismic shift within human history is the identification of state authority with strictly secular, scientific and technical solutions that can have nothing to do with private affections (such as faith in God or even with the bonds of deep relationship, comradeship, or kinship). With the one sovereign arbiter of impartial secular power, laws can no longer be written and maintained by multiple types of legitimate authorities who all sought to fit their laws to “the way things are” (i.e. to the realities of how creation—in its webbed splendor—must move together in a dance of lives who face mutual dependence on every side). Instead, the laws of today can only be made by one impersonal power, and all laws are now tools for shaping, improving and controlling humanity and our world.

This sad step on the human journey is also the invention of modern religion as nothing more than a reflection of and a prop to the one true parentage of the nation state. While Enlightenment science promoted a focused methodology that systematically examined physical causes, it was the nation state that propelled this vision of a machine world and enabled us to quickly reduce everything around us to nothing but moving and lifeless parts that should be manipulated toward whatever calculated outcome will best serve our goals. This vision renders God pointless and leaves religion with no place to stand. However, the nation state still provides neutral protection to the various religious communities that can cooperate with the state and offer appealing psychological help to their adherents. Religion went from being a universal human virtue (singing sacred songs and handing off local habits across generations) to being just one out of a set of contending ideologies that must compete for adherents on whatever ground the modern secular sate might allow. In this contemporary context, religions have long looked like nothing more than a petty collection of factions fighting over arcane points of history or doctrine. (Some books about this invention of the “modern religion” are Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri or The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith or Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities by Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyar.)

What is replaced with the rise of the secular nation state, then, is the whole range of particular places (not only geographical but also overlapping social spaces) where all of the arts lived as schools and traditions of skill and craft in service of various human ways of live. (These fine arts have all been relocated into museums and performance halls—often funded primarily by the nation state and corporations.) Lost also are: local kinship structures of people living close to the earth that sustains them, oral cultures and sacred scripts learned by heart through song and chant and understood first as aids to wisdom and vision rather than as tools to deploy in the defense of abstract doctrines or competing truth claims. (More on some of this from me here.)

Clearly, this is only a glance at the significance of the secular nation state in terms of what it replaced. What it has enabled is a massive accumulation of capital and technical resources. While many of these resources are obviously great goods that have helped to sustain human life, they are also the same engine that has enable an unprecedented and systematic destruction of human life in the name of various kinds of progress (both under totalitarian fascist states and communist states) as well as practices such as Down syndrome screening or abortion as a large-scale form of birth control. While clearly upholding communism as a Christian ideal (as practiced within most ancient monastic communities for example), Hart is deeply critical of its statist forms. Of Marx himself, Hart says that his early agrarian romanticism contains much to admire but that, in the end, Marx became the most terrible of arch-capitalists and wanted to turn the entire world into one totalizing factory.

In assessing the fruits of the modern nation state, Hart has pointed to the staggering death rates under Hitler, Stalin and Moa. China’s single child policy is another example of the systematic destruction and control of human life that so easily shows up under the totalizing tendencies of secular nation states. Hart makes it clear that the wanton destructiveness of the secular nation state and it’s inheritors (multi-national corporations) continues in ways that leave us all culpable as well as directly within the path of destruction. Hart’s picture both of all human history and of our own current moment could not be any more bleak (from the same July 9 interview with David Armstrong linked above):

The fact is that we are in a Kali Yuga aren’t we? Putting aside all mythological construals of that, human beings generally are aware, in a two fold sense, that there is an urgency to this moment. One is quite a personal one. We’re all going to die, and our deaths are not that far off. And that will be an encounter with the ultimate horizon of all things. But also, in any given age, you have reasons to regret and see that, as the world changes, it changes toward—as much as you might believe in progress—you also see that it is a constant story of loss. Now we have arrived at a moment in the post-industrial age in which we are literally killing the world and nothing less than that. …We are poisoning the very foundations of organic life. …We are in a Kali Yuga. We are killing the world, and I don’t think there is going to be a miraculous intervention to stop us from doing it. So it may be that we are right now experiencing the judgement for iniquity and entering into the final moments. I don’t think it’s going to take nearly as long as Indian tradition suggests.

Earlier in this interview, Hart makes it clear that he does not think that God will intervene to forestall this impending self-destruction. At the same time, Hart says that God certainly could intervene and that it would be foolish to rule out such a thing categorically. In the end, however, this sense of impending self-destruction makes sense to me as well, as I write about in this short story (in which I also give it a Christian utopian turn).

However, Hart does not advocate anything like resignation. He points out that the teachings of Jesus Christ are relentlessly practical and political in the face of suffering and oppression (such as how to avoid getting dragged to court by powerful creditors and stripped of all your means for survival). Hart says that there is no ideal form of political action in the modern world because all of it serves the ends of the secular nation state. However, he nonetheless insists that we must take a stand with the best options that we have in the short term, and he identifies these as democratic socialism. Hart goes on to say that, in the long term, any options that might appear outside of the nation state should be our ultimate objective, and he suggests that these would look something like the ideas of Christian distributism (including layers of stateless authority with the reinvention of guild-like structures and other layered and organic human collectives or solidarities).

Not only does Hart advocate political action in the face of individual and planetary death, but he recommends that we never give up championing, collecting and reassembling all that is good, true and beautiful from all of the ancient religions of the world. Hart defends the Christian faith explicitly but also insists that everything truly human should be cherished as it is all now cheapened and at risk now in the face of the Christian heresy of modernity and ideological progress that continues to sweep the globe. While saying repeatedly that there is no past golden age and that what has gone before is never recoverable in any case, Hart also says that we should cherish and reassemble (in new ways) everything that is beautiful and true from our all of our human past. In this regard, he sounds a lot like Origen as he says that “out of the spoils that the children of Israel took from the Egyptians came the contents of the Holy of Holies, the ark with its cover, and the Cherubim, and the mercy-seat, and the golden pot wherein was treasured up the manna, the angels’ bread [so that] these things were made from the best of the Egyptian gold” (The Philocalia 13.1-2).

What Hart advocates is a cherishing of everything good from all the world cultures that now face extinction before the ravages of the secular nation state and the mechanistic vision of the world that it fosters. While Origen had all the pagan riches of the Hellenistic world in view, Hart has all the riches of every ancient human culture on the planet in view. Within the dialogs of Roland in Moonlight, Hart confides his “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” (326), and he draws this out even more fully in his July 7 review of Peter Sloterdijk’s After God:

The configurations of the old Christian order are irrecoverable now, and in many ways that is for the best. But the possibilities of another, perhaps radically different Christian social vision remain to be explored and cultivated. Chastened by all that has been learned from the failures of the past, disencumbered of both nostalgia and resentment, eager to gather up all the most useful and beautiful and ennobling fragments of the ruined edifice of the old Christendom so as to integrate them into better patterns, Christians might yet be able to imagine an altogether different social and cultural synthesis. Christian thought can always return to the apocalyptic novum of the event of the Gospel in its first beginning and, drawing renewed vigor from that inexhaustible source, imagine new expressions of the love it is supposed to proclaim to the world, and new ways beyond the impasses of the present.

The ultimate result, if Christians can free themselves from the myth of a lost golden age, may be something wilder and stranger than we can at present conceive, at once more primitive and more sophisticated, more anarchic in some ways and more orderly in others. Whether such a thing is possible or not, however, it is necessary to grasp that where we now find ourselves is not a fixed destiny. It becomes one only if we are unwilling to distinguish the opulent but often decadent grandeur of Christendom from the true Christian glory of which it fell so far short. The predicaments of the present are every bit as formidable as Sloterdijk’s diagnosis suggests, and our need for a global sphere of solidarity that can truly shelter the life of the whole is every bit as urgent as he claims. But it is also true that we are not actually fated to live ‘after God,’ or to seek our shelter only in the aftermath of God’s departure. In fact, of all the futures we might imagine, that might prove to be the most impossible of all.

Clearly, there is a deep Christian motivation to Hart’s passionate defense of all that is admirable and now broken and increasingly lost in the modern world. He has often quipped in recent interviews that if he had to choose again to move into the most beautiful religious tradition that he could fine, he would be a Sikh (although one who retained his devotion to Jesus Christ). Hart is convinced that Christianity has betrayed itself (over centuries of unholy alliances with worldly power) and has finally unleashed an ideological devotion to progress upon the world that masks the destruction that it is fast bringing to the all human cultures and to the entire planet. All aspects of modernity are distortions of truths that modernity has borrowed from the Christian gospel and twisted into powerful lies. At such a juncture, Hart often points to the the apocalyptic thrust of Christ’s gospel and suggests that we should not hold too tightly to churchly institutions. We should instead look to Christ and the breaking in of a kingdom from outside our current story, a kingdom that destroys false powers although they might be strong enough to poison our entire planet or leave us to die upon a cross. This is a kingdom capable of remembering all that has ever been faithful and lovely as well as of giving it a home, even if this home is only the bright and suffering heart of a fool. After all, it is from just such hearts that the very best of earthly kingdoms are always made.

I should conclude, but I promised a recap of all earthly history. Hart follows Origen, Maximus and many patristic Christian writers in saying that time as we experience it now is a reduction from the eternal life of God within which true creation takes place. We have fallen from outside of time as we know it, and all of cosmic history as we can investigate it with our five senses is subjected to this fall. In this context, then, all of human history is bleak from start to finish within Hart’s writings. He describes Mary’s yes to God and Christ’s incarnate human life as the in-breaking of God’s life but also as the perfect seal of God’s continued participation with all life, even to the point of the cross and descent into death. Our fall did not uncreate us but only left us in a contingent state of resistance to God’s creative work, a state that does not ultimately separate us from God who remains the only ground of all that is alive and beautiful within our fallen and suffering cosmos. All of fallen history, then, is both a place of confusion and loss while also still a powerful witness to a goodness from which it has fallen and to which it will return after time (as we know it now) has come to an end. And for Hart, evidently, a few mad monks can see up to and even outside of this end better than most of us.

the universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation

Today is the Feast of All Saints for Orthodox Christians. (Some of my funny Orthodox friends like to joke that last night was Orthodox Halloween.) One of the primary hymns for this feast (the kontakion, sung repeatedly in services this morning) starts out with these lines: “The universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation to You, O Lord and Creator.”

What does it mean for the universe to offer something to God? And what does it mean for the first fruits of creation to be the God-bearing martyrs?

This hymn preserves an understanding of the universe that we see in one of the first Christian martyrs, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a famous series of letters on his journey to Rome to die. Along the way to his final destination, Saint Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Rome saying, “When I shall have arrived there, I shall be a human being [ekei paragenomenos anthrōpos esomai]. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God” (Letter to the Romans 6). This translation is as cited by Fr. John Behr in “From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human” in The Wheel, 2018. In this same article, Fr. John Behr says of this passage that, as Ignatius approaches Rome, he clearly thinks of himself as “not yet born, not yet living, not yet human; only by his martyrdom, in imitation of Christ, will he be born into life as a human being.” Where I lived last in York, PA, I once got to hear Fr. John Behr speak in person about St. Ignatius and his martyrdom. It was powerful to hear him speak of how Christ created the world from the cross, speaking the final words of God in the creation of the world and finishing chapter one of Genesis when He said from the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus Christ was the first human being, the first one to show us the perfect image of God given to Adam but immediately obscured by the human fall. St. Ignatius understood this and was eager to be created by his Savior, Jesus Christ, as a full and mature human being. To be fully shaped by Jesus Christ as a fellow image-bearer of God, St. Ignatius carried his own cross to the point of death in Rome where he was fully united to Christ in his own death.

To understand this hymn about the martyrs as the first fruits of creation, we must turn to another letter to the church in Rome, this one by the Apostle Paul (8.19-22): “For the earnest expectation of creation anxiously awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was made subordinate to pointlessness, not willingly but because of the one who subordinated it, in the hope that creation itself will also be liberated from decay into the freedom of the glory of God’s children. For we know that all creation groans together and labors together in birth pangs, up to this moment.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) Here we have all of creation waiting for the children of God to be revealed in glory. All of creation is described as still in the process of being born into the true life of God that Jesus Christ enters into when He conquers death, the life that each martyr enters into as they join Christ. This is indeed a picture where “the universe offers” up to God “the martyrs as the first fruits of creation.” We are used to thinking of creation as happening in the past. However, in this hymn, as well as in the letters from Paul and Ignatius, creation his happening right now, happening as we join Christ in his creative work on the cross, declaring, “It is finished.”

Of course, this language comes from all over the holy scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-26, Paul writes: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life and each in the proper order: the Anointed as the firstfruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival, then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) All of cosmic history, as we know it, is given over to death and the entire universe suffers with one voice; it “groans together and labors together in birth pangs” until it has given birth to the first human beings: Jesus Christ and his martyrs. These are “the first fruits of creation” as we sang this morning.

“Synaxis of All Saints” (icon from All Saints Orthodox Church in Hartford, CT).

Life Among the Stars

“The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins sustains me like Frodo’s phial from Galadriel (which contains a little light from the Start of Eärendil—a light created by the Silmaril that the mariner carried into the sky aboard his ship). I memorized and recited “The Starlight Night” once a few years back, and I should probably make it into a monthly recitation for the rest of my life. You will find ten years worth of readings about stars in relation to both angels and humans in all of the pages tagged for “stars” across this blog. However, no passage or sage that I have found approaches Hopkins in his totality of vision.

He opens with a triple appeal to look up at the stars, at the skies and finally at “all the fire-folk sitting in the air!” “Look” occurs four times in two lines. This ecstatic intensity does not slow down as seven images pour over us within the next five lines:

  1. “Fire-folk” gives way first to “bright boroughs” or “circle-citadels” as we think of great cities and commonwealths teaming with majestic activity.
  2. In “dim woods” we might see “diamond delves,” and that is to say deep mines flashing with gem-light.
  3. We might also see “elves’-eyes” as creatures from another realm gaze back across our shared world.
  4. On “grey lawns cold,” we see “gold” and “quickgold,” calling to mind the patches of sky with fewer stars, alluding back to the mines filled with gems, and playing with ‘quicksilver’ (another name for the liquid element mercury) so that we might envision pools filled with yellow light amid the expanses of cold grey sky.
  5. “Wind-beat whitebeam” refers to the popular name of a flowering tree with leaves that flash white on their undersides, especially as stirred by the breeze. The poet George Meredith mentions these leaves showing bursts of white in the wind with the line “flashing as in gusts the sudden-lighted whitebeam” from his poem “Love in the valley” (line 207). These trees with leaves that turn magically white in the wind also flower with bright white blossoms.
  6. With another wonderful tree, “airy abeles set on a flare” are white poplars which have leaves like a palm with fingers extended and covered on the underside with dense silvery-white hairs. These sentinels stand signaling, waving silvery hands that we might take notice and take heed.
  7. Finally, “flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare” ends this first stanza by foreshadowing the barnyard imagery that will end the poem. We might think of doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard or of snow-flakes or flower petals stirred up by the feet of frightened farm animals. Whatever the case, this imagery brings the stars down to earth just before the poet appeals to the beholder that they participate in or at least aspire toward the life of the stars.

Finally, the poet slows down to catch their breath and to reflect with us, “Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.” There is a hint of melancholy at the unattainableness of all this mysterious life and beauty that is so lavishly on display before us. At the same time, there is an admonition to recognize the value in this vision and to invest our lives in the attainment of such priceless treasure.

With the second stanza, this admonition become immediately and insistently explicit. Now, the listener—who has been asked to behold so many things—responds with some consternation at the intensity of these demands or perhaps hopelessness at such unattainable glory. “What?” Can I purchase the stars and make all of this mine? What could I offer that could possibly attain all of this? It is like Abraham: while unsure that he can have a son who will father kings, he is told that his children will not only be kings but will live forever in celestial light like the stars of heaven. (See “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions” by David Burnettin in The Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, vol. 5 no. 2. 2015.) These stars might be my inheritance? How?

Within the first line of the second stanza (which contains an entire conversation), we get the reply: “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” What can you do to purchase the life of the stars? You can be present, quiet, generous and faithful—following the core commitments of Christian ascetic life.

With the second round of admonitions to “Look!” (this time, with three repetitions in two lines), we find that a harvest has begun. No longer are we simply asked to behold, but we are asked to receive. We prepare to partake as all the language turns to fruitfulness: “a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!” The white flowers of these fruit trees promise food. “March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows” refers to the heavy clusters of yellow, pollen-laden flowers that cover willows in the Spring. The use of meal again suggests a bountiful harvest—pointing backward to the colors of gold as well as forward to the next two images of “barn” and “shocks.”

We arrive home as we read: “These are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks.” Our feet firmly upon the ground, our eyes no longer look up upon distant, glorious cities, deep mines or enchanted woods. We are looking instead at a plain wooden storehouse filled to bursting with golden grain. “This piece-bright paling” describes a fence or wall of rough-sawn wooden planks with many chinks and knotholes allowing the warm yellow light to pour out into the surrounding night. Within this enclosure and shedding warm light like great sheaves of wheat is “the spouse.” This phrase is filled out for us in the last line, and it suggests a wedding feast. “Spouse” calls upon all the rich language of Christ and his apostles about Jesus as our bridegroom and about God’s people as his bride. Here, of course, we should also see the bridegroom of Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

This pile of images—with stars, storehouses of wheat, a wedding party and God’s household—requires some slowing down. We return to old stories with Jacob who dreamed of his entire family as both stars and sheaves of grain. Christ speaks of fields ready for the harvest. All of this is, most fully, eucharistic. It is an image of Christ’s life offered to us in the very food that sustains us. It is a harvest in which the saints and martyrs join with Christ as those who bring light and life to this dark world through their prayer, patience, alms and vows. It is a home where the royal household of God with Christ, his mother and all his hallows, welcomes all those who are poor in spirit, all those who behold the face of God.

With this analysis, I have not noted the most beautiful aspects of these lines which is their poetry: the rhythms, the full, playful, and layer harmonies in sound, the newly-combined words and the heavy hyphenation. These elements can only be felt and heard as the poem is alive when you learn speak it.

On My Loss of Ann

Arguably, our mothers connect us to each other, to this life and to this world more profoundly than any other thing or person. At any rate, the sense of being uprooted in the wind or unmoored and adrift at sea has been one strong element of my own experience with the loss of my mother two years ago and now also with the loss of my second mother, Ann, who came to me as a mother through my wife, Elizabeth. This world’s bleakness and harsh realities can take on a vivid and all pervasive presence in the void left behind by the absence of a mother.

I’m torn between describing something of the experience of loss and describing Ann. Now that both my wife and I are motherless in this life, I’m freshly convinced that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. Most of the time, during most of our lives, we do not know that we are lost. When mothers are present for their children, mothers are one of the greatest shields that exist against this sense of being lost. However, a truly wise and good mother will not shield her child entirely or forever. It is critical that we learn how vulnerable, helpless and lost we are in this life. I’ve struggled with many profound weaknesses and failures in my own life, but one of them is not (I’m grateful) depression. I’m sure that much of what I think about the value of recognizing how lost I am is particular to me, will be unhelpful to others and is highly problematic even for myself. However, what I sense is that all of my fellow humans, all of our fellow living creatures and this entire cosmos that sustains us all is profoundly lost. We are lost people within a lost universe, and all of our best stories tell us this loudly and clearly. My recent loss of my two mothers has clarified this for me, driven it home.

I said in the last paragraph that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. The second of these two realities—the less obvious one—is that we have a home before and beyond this world. This entire lost world came from somewhere that it belonged to and will only be healed when it is once again united with this other place. I don’t have images or words to describe what I mean by this home or even what I mean by being lost and separated from this home, but I can say that being entirely motherless now in this latter part of my life has left me more fully aware of these two realities, more fully than I was before. This is, I suspect, a bitter gift. It is also a gift that I owe—to a large extent—to both of my departed mothers. They both knew these twin realities.

But these large realities are beyond my powers to describe. Happily, if I turn to Ann herself, her own life will point toward these realities more clearly than any further words of mine. There is no better way to see the whole universe and its Creator than to look closely at what we have surrounding us each day. Emily “Ann” Stocker (née Gilman), left a treasure trove of such examples behind her for those of us still making our ways through this life. Ann, although constantly in motion and full of exuberance, was a woman who paid the closest attention to all that surrounded her. Her burial service in an old cemetery on the mountainous border between Maine and New Hampshire brought together a crowd of people. They came from many hours in several directions and over miles of rural roads to stand on a hillside together beside her grave.

Ann came from several older Chatham and Stow families on the side of her mother Ruth. On the side of her father Gordon, Ann came from less settled folk. Gordon’s mother was French Canadian, and he had been raised by several deeply devout Catholic women after he lost his mother early in life. Gordon’s father called many places home but had settled long enough in Stow, Maine at one point to set up his young adult son with a small farmstead. They got started with hens and honey bees before Gordon was left alone with his plot of land and livestock. This was more than enough for Gordon, however. He married Ruth, the daughter of a local dairy farmer, and they raised a family there with plenty to provide for them between their long hen houses as well as their bees, sheep and expansive gardens.

Of Gordon’s decision to make this life with Ruth, she herself gives this account in a few verses written before their marriage (signing it “by Ruth Sarah”):

Do you remember last Saturday night
After the bees and chicks were put to bed
And we had so very hurriedly put out the light
And the smell of spring; had entered our head.

When we travelled to Fryeburg to the movies
With Hilda and Fred by our sides
And were thinking all evening like all lovers
That we must let our consciences be our guides.

However, you cuddled and squeezed my hand,
And kept my mind in a whirl
‘Till I thought you the nicest man in the land
And I a fortunate girl.

At last the movies were over
And away we started for home
Thinking that we would never
Another Saturday night roam.

We’d sit at home in the parlor
Without any Hilda or Fred
And patiently wait for the hour
When all would be going to bed.

The first thing we knew it was morning
And father called down from above
Why waste all this time on courting
There is no such thing as love

So you jumped into your Plymouth
And started home to your chicks
And made up your mind forever
You would keep yourself in the sticks.

Although never moving back to her childhood home as an adult, Ann told vivid stories throughout her life of the country surrounding Stow and Chatham. Ann remained close to extended family in the area and took her children and grandchildren back to visit the beautiful rivers, mountains and homesteads of her childhood. These places certainly lived in her heart.

She took us up Baldface and to Emerald Pool. When she showed us where her mother was buried, she pointed out Eastman Mountain and the name Eastman on many of the headstones. Ann’s maternal great-grandmother was Sarah (Eastman) McKeen, the mother of Glenora McKeen Hanscom. Eastman Mountain is named after the family of an early settler to the region—Asa Eastman or his father Jonathan. Asa was born in Concord in 1770 of Jonathan and Mary, married in Concord to Polly Kimball in 1795. Asa and Polly were the parents of at least 4 sons and 3 daughters, and Asa was buried in Chatham in 1818. Although the Eastman family of Sarah (Eastman) McKeen is distantly related to that of Asa Eastman (with Asa and Sarah being fourth cousins, twice removed), Sarah’s family came to Chatham much later. Sarah was the daughter of Lorenzo Eastman, born 1808 in Bartlett, New Hampshire. Lorenzo’s son Loren Eastman settled on Butter Hill Road in Chatham in the 1870s, and Lorenzo came and lived with Loren in his old age. Sarah would likely have come to the Chatham area around the same time as her brother Loren.

Ann clearly felt this sense of generational rootedness in the place where she grew up walking down the road from her father’s farm to attend a one-room schoolhouse. Sale of eggs were a staple source of income for the family, and Ann remembered fondly the sound of sanding eggs to clean them as well as the cooing of hundreds of hens at once while they settled down for the night in their large and well-kept hen houses. Among his many labors, Gordon had to regularly defend his honey bees from bears. Ann remembered her father rushing out the door once without any gun and charging straight at a bear that he sent fleeing into the woods. There were endless stories about Gordon in action. Like his daughter after him, Gordon was always in motion and responded to any need around him with an immediacy that often left others struggling to catch up. Gordon was also a singer, and Ann remembers his voice carrying clearly through the thick walls of farm buildings and across their wide pastures as he worked. Ann also had a beautiful singing voice. As a graduate of Fryeburg Academy, she loved the opportunity to sing with their choir, mentioning in particular what a joy it was to participate in Handel’s Messiah. All of those in the church where she served and worshipped for the last several decades of her life spoke of the blessing of singing with her.

As a teenager, Ann loved to catch a ride with friends to climb Baldface and to jump into Emerald Pool on the way back down. She remained a hiker and walker long past the point when physical disability would have stopped most people. As a young girl, she recalled packing lunches to wander alone—following the tops of old stone walls through the forest as far as she could without touching the ground and stopping only to enjoy her solitary picnic.

Attending the University of Maine Orono, Ann studied English and made lifelong friends. She also became an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ in college, having grown up with the quiet Catholicism of her father and the old New England pragmatism of her mother. There is even a story that she witnessed to her fellow English student Stephen King. Ann met and married Richard “Rick” Stocker in a Bible study that Rick was attending while living in the Twitchell Hill commune of Montville, Maine. Joining the Bible study group, Rick and Ann ended up teaching in a school together that was attached to the community. They wanted to get married and needed the blessing of their community. A prophet sought a vision and confirmed their plans to marry with a vision of two pigs eating from the same trough. Bear meat was served at their wedding. Early in their marriage, Rick came to love the verse in Proverbs saying that “whoso finds a wife finds a good thing.” Rick called Ann his Good Thing, and Ann playfully called him Whoso in return.

Ann lost her mother Ruth to cancer shortly after her marriage to Rick. Ultimately, this community took them far from family to Pink Mountain, British Columbia where Rick built the log cabin in which their second child (my dear wife) was born. They eventually joined a few other families who recognized the community as a cult and undertook the difficult journey of leaving and returning home. Ann and Rick worked hard to reestablish lives in Maine, where they had a third child, joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and raised their family. Rick eventually earned a living as a Maine state investigator and Ann as a supervisor and director within the regional HeadStart program.

When I first met Ann, I couldn’t believe what I had found. I was wearing a jaunty tweed cap that I’d picked up at a Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, and I was very much smitten with her daughter Elizabeth. Ann complimented me on my cap as I recall, and only a few minutes was all it took to see that this was a delightful and formidable lady. When my brother and I made a visit to the Stocker home in Monmouth, Maine a few years later, I was left with a vivid impression of life and goodness amid their sprawling vegetable gardens and the laughter around their breakfast table. Laughter was a staple in this home where I was eventually blessed to call Ann Mom. She loved to laugh at herself for years over her realization part way into one of my first meals in her home that she was serving me a fish for dinner that shared my name—Hake.

Mom enriched and sustained my own love of life in every time that I got to spend with her. Since her loss, I’ve stopped my car a few times to listen to the spring peepers whose evening song she loved so much and which she always noticed again on the first evening of its return each spring. Over the years, mom and I would spar over the names of trees and flowers up and down the east coast from the Carolinas to Maine. She was always alert, observing and sharing.

Her wealth of stories and life experiences came from her generosity and joy. In virtually each of the many historic places and museums that I fondly remember visiting with her—from the Biltmore Estate and Colonial Williamsburg to the Norlands Living History Center and Popham Colony—I can remember Mom exclaiming over one after another of the household devices from colonial and earlier American homes as items that she remembered using during her own years growing up in Stow, Maine or living under the Northern Lights in British Columbia.

Mom could also describe people with such love and delight in their every character trait and feature. With all of her colorful and lively love of life and outspoken energy, in the end, however, what I will carry most closely was Ann’s tireless service to others and her delight in the small details of daily life. At her graveside service, many people testified to her extraordinary love for children and her ability to meet them and enjoy them each for who they were. Later in life, Ann’s father remarried, and Ann spent months traveling to Arizona where she loved her new branch of extended family and where she loved to help with the care for her new mother even after her father’s death. Ann cared for all people with a kind of fierceness and cheerful delight, and she tended tirelessly to their every need. This can only have flowed from a selfless love.

Her love for people ran deep, and I’m sure she would have wanted it noted that her love for others was the grace of God at work in her. In this topsy-turvy world, it was always God to whom she clung with a fierce hope and an infectious gratitude. She knew we were all lost but she also knew that everything can point us back toward home.

Photos below are of the poem by Ann’s mother before her marriage and some of the rock walls around the farm where Ann grew up (the ones that she walked as a girl).

Note: These passages from two short stories that I read out of a book on mom’s bedside table reminded me of many things that she loved.

First Letters Between Sita and Roland

Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart divulged that Roland W. Hart is engaged in a substantial volume of online research and collaboration—finding email to be a helpful medium for a dog. He has read all of the reviews written for the book so far, including my own which Roland considered to be a touching account of one reader’s elementary grasp of a basic motif within the work.

Astoundingly, I know this because I received an email from Roland myself a few nights ago just as I was closing up some transcription work from a recent online conversation with David Bentley Hart. There, in the glow of my screen was a name that had me reading with bated breath. Roland deemed me a fitting trustee for the first instance of the online distribution of a rather remarkable correspondence that he thought the public might appreciate. Having, of course, first checked with his fellow correspondent and learned that she approved the idea, Roland has shared with me a couple of recent letters between he and Sita Cutsinger that the readers of Roland in Moonlight might appreciate.

For those not familiar with Sita, she is the friend and companion of professor and author James Cutsinger who Sita lost to cancer just over a year ago. James and David had some overlap of scholarly and personal interests and enjoyed a few events and meals together. Sita first wrote to Roland about a month ago, and this has precipitated a warm exchange of letters since, although they have never had the pleasure of meeting in person.

Their idea is that some of their letters might be shared with editors who have some familiarity with the issues raised so that portions might be provided to the human readers of David and James, in case these humans should find encouragement or companionship in their reflections.

Roland’s email made it clear to me that they hope to find multiple editors for this task, so please be on the lookout for an email of your own and please be prompt in sharing its contents with the rest of us. But now, without further introduction, here are the two letters, that I received to pass along:


March 6, 2021

Dear Roland,

I’ve just completed the reading of David’s memoir from your recent years together. As you know, I lost James a little over a year ago, so this tender and precious book came at a good time for me.

While you and I have never met, I hope that you might share my sense of our mutual companionship as already having some ground in reality. This is my feeling by virtue of David and James having enjoyed being together in person on several occasions. To be direct, correspondence with you would be a consolation to me in my last years without James. Moreover, in offering any friendship and encouragement to you, I hope that I might also represent the legacy of James in some small way as he so appreciated David’s work and as you are such a support and guide to David in his continued work. It would comfort me both to find a friend in you and to think that my friendship might be a support to you in your support to one who was so dear to James.

Before sharing the reflections that came to mind for me while reading Roland in Moonlight, I wished to mention that I have just ordered your first volume of haiku and that I look forward to reading your own work as well before long.

As one further aside before addressing some of the topics that I so look forward to considering with you, it seems prudent to directly address a difference that somewhat publicly distinguished the two men under our care. I speak, of course, of their divergent responses to the work of Frithjof Schuon. As you know, James has written of him that, “as for our personal relationship, I shall simply say that Frithjof Schuon is one of the greatest men I have ever known, and I am profoundly grateful to have had his friendship.”

In stark contrast, David has shared with a nephew of his that he finds Frithjof distasteful. As his nephew has phrased it on David’s behalf: “he finds Schuon pretty icky, as he does a lot of the earlier Perennialists.” Putting his assessment even more bluntly, David’s oldest brother has recently described Frithjof as “a first-class bullshitter” within the same forum.

I understand, of course, the revulsion at the Nazi associations of some other thinkers in this same traditionalist school of perennialism, but those closest to Frithjof found no such associations with his own thought.

In the even more sensitive matter of the allegations brought against Frithjof in 1991 and subsequently dropped as baseless, I will simply note that James described Frithjof as “one of the greatest men I have ever known” within an essay published in 2002. This essay by James was included within the book Every Branch in Me alongside an essay by Frithjof (as well as a host of his fellow traditionalists). Coming ten years after Frithjof’s public ordeal, it is clear where James stood on the matter of Frithjof’s integrity and character despite these scandalous accusations.

James wrote that “the mystery of Christ” was a kind of “key to Schuon’s entire approach to the world’s religions.” Quoting Frithjof several times, James further noted:

“All genuine religions are Christian”; or again, “every truth is necessarily manifested in terms of Christ and on His model,” for “there is no truth nor wisdom that does not come from Christ.” Now of course what he means is that “the other religions are ‘Christian’ inasmuch as they have the universal Christ, who is the Word that inspires all Revelation.” Schuon is not saying, in other words, that in order to be a true Muslim or Hindu, one must identify the man Jesus with God; but then, as we have seen, neither should the discerning Christian acquiesce in so simple an equation. God and man have been united in Jesus Christ, but unless we choose to be heretics, the Christian tradition forbids us to think that the manhood in question was merely that of a historical individual, or that the Divinity was that of the pure Absolute. Rather we ourselves are that man in our essential humanity, and the God who assumed us into Himself was the Divine Logos or Word, in and through whom the inaccessible Essence makes Itself known to all.

I find nothing in these conclusions to conflict in any way with the writings of your David. If anything, they are ideas that David himself has shared in other forums and that lie near and dear to the heart of all David’s scholarly and theological work.

James delighted in these ways in which Frithjof showed how traditional Christian dogma regarding the incarnation was, in fact, a sustainer of the core truths within all the great religious traditions of human history. James also loved David’s work and would, no doubt, have most thoroughly enjoyed Roland in Moonlight. In all earnestness, I feel confident that James continues reading books such as these even in the more immediate presence of God. As James reads, he will feel himself even further vindicated by David’s call for humans to “believe everything at once” and to refuse to “relinquish any dimension of anything that [we] find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” (326). James loved these ideas as well and advocated for them boldly and tirelessly throughout his life.

For my own part, I was struck by David’s insistence that humans must “draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event.” David understands that dogs are not so bound by human history, and that we are more free to take hold directly of the valid symbol. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that James was more ready to share in our enjoyment of the symbol itself without being constrained by historical particularities. James was, dare I suggest it, a better student of us dogs in this regard.

I will await your reply with eager confidence in your kindness.

Most Sincerely Yours,

Sita


March 12, 2021

Dear Sita,

Your letter reached me quickly and was relayed promptly to me by David who has (only very slowly) grown most reliable in this regard. (If you might excuse a quick aside, how do you handle this delicate matter with your people? They are far from consistent in recognizing that letters addressed to me are in fact for me.)

It was with great sadness that I learned of having lost James at so young an age for a man. He was a rare gift to the world and a man whose work I loved to read. While we know that he must, most certainly, be continuing to read, it is a loss to us that he can no longer reply with material of his own—speaking to us openly within this veil of tears where we remain. Finding this photo online of you two together was a joy to me.

You must also have found comfort in the reference to your love for each other from the note announcing his passing. I was moved to learn that James started each day with “a hike in his beloved Hitchcock Woods with his canine companion, Sita—whom he named after the heroine of the Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana.”

I agree with you that the many loves shared between David and James give to you and I a wealth of topics in which we might also delight together. It was tactful of you, certainly, to raise the only substantial difference between them of which I am aware. While I cannot speak for David, of course, I will respond with a few thoughts of my own that come to mind on this matter in response to what you shared. While I do love to tease David for his inability to acknowledge his heart’s journey into Hinduism, I do appreciate that David sees a distinction between what a human can accept and what a dog can accept. Speaking in generalities, dogs are more open to all truths than humans can be.

For example, David has been considering for some time the extent to which all humans must now be moderns—even David himself who is such a harsh critic of modernity. Humans live enmeshed within a shared or collective destiny inside of which they must move and the constraints of which they must honor in their daily choices and routines. David recognizes that each human age has its own peculiar evils that must be faced and called out but that also cannot be ultimately undone except by the vision of another age or another time—one that is more real than this current fickle time in which we live.

These constraints apply to human religion which is always nothing but a roiling stream of contending ideas, images and practices on the one hand and yet also a potential witness to the beauty and love of God on the other. While loudly proclaiming his love for the fullness of this diverse witness across the ages, David also seems to have a kind of abiding suspicion of any attempt to claim that humans can too closely identify or define the nature of the common ground or live out their lives within any kind of pure synthesis. Dogs, of course, do not share all of these same constraints. Our more immediate openness to the reality and beauty in the creation surrounding us leaves us dogs able to enjoy the witnesses of various human cultures without the modesty and reserve that must attend the more damaged and fragile spirits of humanity. Humans must, I think, make more difficult choices than dogs because they are constrained by certain limitations peculiar to them.

In these matters, I suspect that James was really not so different from David. My own hunch is that their primary difference was in the ways in which they each chose to bestow their generosity. James offered his generosity directly to Frithjof Schuon out of appreciation for the precision and insight of his thought, from which James had benefited so deeply. David, for his part, offered his generosity to the plight of modern man who cannot be asked to “return” to some kind of abstract and ideal synthesis of ancient insights and practices as the solution to their current plight. For humans to suggest such a solution, I humbly submit, so easily becomes something dangerously close to an act of hubris or control. Nonetheless, it is not for me to judge regarding whether or not Frithjof offered any such false hopes in his own care of others. Regardless, Jame and David, clearly held to a common ground here within the limitations of their own personal lives. They likely would not have been in such different places regarding Frithjof and the traditionalists had they had more time to consider these matters together. Each might have moved toward each other in their own ways I suspect. However, they no doubt found other matters even more delightful to consider together, and likely never thought to focus upon this possible point of contention amid all of their shared joys.

In a similar way, your initiation of this correspondence with me opens up vistas of joyful reflection that I’m confident we will be able to enjoy. Many thoughts beg to be expressed, but I quiet them now as I consider that this letter has already grown long.

I look forward to your next letter with gratitude bursting already—a greening seed in pungent soil.

Warmly Yours,

Roland

The Last Fruits of Humanity

“Auntie Miriam, will you hold my hand?”

Hearing his quiet question, she took his small hand, squeezing gently in response to the pressure of his fingers against hers. Glancing down at him, she saw the pain that she knew so well tightening the dark skin on his face. He remained attentive, however, to the movements of the censor and the robes in the half light before them. Their priest made his circuit around the interior of the stone church, casting the golden incense bowl toward them as he passed, jouncing the bells on its chains with a lively cadence amid the slow voices of the others chanting prayers around them.

After the vespers service, Miriam walked with her husband, her nephew and her own children back to their home. A breeze stirred the fronds in the date palms that lined the path, filling the evening with a deep rasping sound that lay loudly over the softer rustle of the rice in the fields on either side of the road. She could smell the incense from the church in the hair of the child who she carried.

Her nephew Isaac spoke again. “Can I see my father tonight?”

“No. It is too late. You must get dinner and get to bed. You can see him in the morning. Sarah can walk with you. You know how she loves the river trail. She will be glad to go with you.”

“Do you think father will be alive when we wake up?”

“Yes, Isaac, he ate the rice and quinoa with relish that we brought to him today. He was strong. I’m sure that he will be glad to see you in the morning.”

They covered the short way that remained with no more conversation. As Isaac and the other children eat their noodles and peanut sauce with roasted cauliflower, Isaac asked, “Did you know that when you held my hand in church, my mother stood behind us and held both our hands?”

“No, Isaac, I did not see or feel her, but thank you for telling me. She is with me often when I am working in the garden. We loved to work together there as children.”

“Can we pray to my mother again before I go to bed?”

“Yes, of course. It was kind of Sarah to write that icon of your mother last week. We live in such a blessed time to have all of those who die recognized so quickly as saints. You know, children, that for the thousands of years of human history before us, only a very few who we lost were recognized as saints.”

“Yes,” Sarah replied. “I cannot think how difficult it would have been to live in a world where almost no one knew of God’s love and care.”

As the children finished their meals and washed their utensils, Miriam took each aside to dispense their evening medications, log their temperatures and take their last blood samples for the day. She loaded the samples for the automated analysis and recorded all of her activity on a screen so that the doctor could pull this data and confirm the next day’s dosages for each child. Every human life in their community was carefully monitored and preserved amid the onslaught of physiological and genetic damage that had long ago left most of the earth barren. Their community was the last of several that had held out for many centuries in carefully constructed and maintained biospheres within the most protected and favorable locations on the planet. These final human communities had enjoyed digital communications with each other from their physically isolated locations where they had each supported the final colonies of any biological life upon their devastated planet. Everything outside of these last pockets of plant and animal life was a wasteland of toxic oceans and stormswept deserts, and now their biosphere was the last one with any humans still left alive.

“Saint Esther, mother, pray to God for us. Be with father tonight and keep him with me until the morning. I ask that I might see him again tomorrow before he goes to be with you.” Isaac, four years old, stood praying aloud with Miriam and his cousins before the corner where a host of handmade icons, the faces of saints new and old, were arranged with care in rolling ranks over two small tables and up over the surface of both walls. Each halo flickered in the light of the candle as the wooden surfaces—of so many sizes and shapes—held the quiet presences before the family at the close of this day.

Sarah awoke before her cousin and spoke to him quietly. “Wake up, Isaac. The sun is up, and we should be getting ready for our walk to see your father.”

It was a privilege to spend time walking and caring for Isaac instead of her regular studies and chores, and Sarah was clearly excited and glad to be helping. She gently hurried Isaac as he washed and dressed. Then she got the boy fed and helped with his medicines. Isaac’s father, Ishmael, was close to death, which came to everyone now not long after the age of thirty. His wife, Esther, had died two years earlier, only a couple years after the birth of their one child, Isaac.

Sarah walked just behind Isaac on the trail following their great river. It was beautifully fashioned along the old bed of the Blue Nile (T’ik’uri Ābayi in Amharic) although a little smaller than the natural original. Upstream of their biosphere, there was a massive purification plant that handled the incoming water and a great drainage system that diverted the remainder of the polluted waters around them. The coursing water that they walked beside now was the last clean stretch of river on the planet. Sarah knew that its life-filled waters came at great cost and that they only flowed like this for the short stretch of its journey through the biosphere that preserved them. Sarah loved this river. She was named for Amma Sarah who had lived long ago beside the Nile River. Sarah knew that, during many decades spent in prayer and in teaching the great men who came to learn from her, Amma Sarah never once allowed herself to look over the river’s shimmering surface. She kept this discipline out of love for the river so that the river could become a help to strengthen her focus on its own beautiful Maker. As Miriam stood by the Nile telling this story to Sarah when she was small, Miriam had added that Amma Sarah’s abstinence made even more sense in the light of her young daughter’s wonder at the story.

“Isaac, have you heard how the Nile River far below us used to flood with seasonal rains and how the river up above us flows through many treacherous gorges, some more than 5000 feet deep?”

“Yes, Sarah. I have looked at the pictures of the beautiful fields that it once watered far below us and also of the fearsome gorges through which it rushes high above us. It is incredible to have this gentle river here with us now.”

“I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to feel real rain and to see a river rolling over its banks, carrying away trees, great rocks and even homes in its terrible current. She was a mighty goddess or god—giving and taking lives. Here we have just a beautiful portion of one glistening arm. Even in death, it is still lovely and still gives life to a thousand fishes, frogs, dragonflies and other dancing creatures. Our river is attended even now by her most devoted Naiads and other nymphs who play within and beside her laughing current. What will this deity be like, Isaac, one day, in full life again?”

“I don’t understand everything you say,” Isaac answered. “But she is beautiful. Maybe I will ask my father today about the life of rivers.”

“On my eighth name day, Uncle Ishmael gave me a copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and he read his favorite passages aloud to me in that next year. It is from American, from a great river near the fifth-to-last biosphere. Your father reads so well.”

The children paused here at the same time, both knowing that a tree with massive roots grew out over a bend in the river bank. This made a wonderful place to sit, watching the sun and shade play on the riverbed below the little fishes. Taking off their sandals, they let their feet into the water, making new shadows on the sand and pebbles and bringing the little fish to nibble at their toes. Even a freshwater crab slipped out from under a stone to see what the fish had found. In only a few moments, however, Sarah pulled an extra napkin out from their lunch satchel to dry their feet and finish their journey.

Isaac’s father was asleep when they arrived, but the nurse said that he had eaten a little breakfast. Almost as soon as they sat down to wait, the nurse came to say that Ishmael had awoken and was glad to hear of his visitors.

As Isaac climbed onto the bed beside him, Ishmael asked if his son wanted a story. Sarah held the book, and Ishmael turned the pages while he read. It was a story of Saint Krestos Samra, a princess who became a nun from the people who had lived in this land long ago. This picture book was about the time when Krestos Samra saw Christ and immediately begged him to pardon everyone who had ever lived:

“If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon all those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not even fill your hands.”

Hearing this bold request, Christ had summoned the Archangel Michael to guide Krestos Samra into Sheol so that she might preach there herself. Michael’s power in the brilliant pictures was like fire leaping off of each page. Isaac pointed to a great wing stretched over the top of two pages with many-colored feathers above a coffee-dark and potent arm. Ishmael smiled at his son’s delight.

“Do you like those powerful colors?”

“Yes!”

“This is a book I drew for you last month when I first learned that the doctor would have me keep to my bed.”

Returning to the story, he read: “The number of souls who escaped on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was over one hundred thousand. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.”

Isaac laughed at the beautiful words and drawings in his father’s book and at his father’s strong, joyful voice as he read. It was a story that Isaac and Sarah had heard before, but Ishmael’s book brought them into the story again, like it was their first time.

As he finished reading, Ishmael pushed other books aside so that Sarah could place Isaac’s book on a table near the bed.

“Father, will others come also to carry all of the souls out of Sheol on their mighty wings?”

“That is what we pray, Isaac. And that is the will of Christ in his death, giving himself for the life of the world, to feed and sustain us in this place of death. That is why we pray for each person who has died before us, asking God to have mercy on us all. The world has seen so much death, Isaac. Do you know how many have lived before us now—before all of us now living here in our little scattering of villages under this last biosphere beside our beautiful Nile?”

“No, father. How many?”

“Probably over two hundred billion, Isaac. Do you know how many more that is than the one hundred thousand that Krestos Samra and Michael carried out on their mighty wings?”

“Is it twenty thousand times more, father?”

“Yes! Are you only four years old? That is excellent arithmetic, Isaac! So, yes, if there are twenty thousand like Krestos Samra, then her wish will be fulfilled.”

“What is that book on your table, father, with a dog on the cover?”

Sarah picked it up, smiling at the dog as she opened the book.

“That is the work of a great American sage from just before the first great burning of fossil fuels. It is a series of visions in which the sage dialogues with his dog, Roland.”

Sarah asked, “Can I look at it, Uncle Ishmael?”

“Yes, of course. It is a beautiful book. I’ve finished it recently. You may take it home with you.”

“Thank you, Uncle. I will start it and see if I want to bring it home with me now. I know that books and paper are as precious as wood. Is it true that the gold and gems on the Gospel Book used to be more precious than the paper and wood of its pages and cover?”

“Yes, we were able to keep a great store house of gold, precious metal and other stones, far more than we need. But plant products such as wood and paper have been very precious for many centuries. For most of human history, however, trees and plants were plentiful while precious metals and stones were rare because they were difficult to mine from deep in the earth and to refine with hot furnaces.”

Sarah moved to a couch near the bed where she read as Isaac continued talking with his father.

“Are you in pain, today, Father?”

“Yes, Isaac. It is hard most days now. How is your pain?”

They remained together quietly for a time, rubbing each other’s backs to ease the pain that was a part of every day for all of those now living.

“Will I see you tomorrow, father? Auntie Miriam has told me that the doctor thinks you cannot live for much longer.”

“You have grown old and wise, already, Isaac, and you are right. I don’t know how much longer we can be together. I heard from your aunt that you recently went to stand with those who pray beside the great glass windows, looking out over the vast poisoned desert of our home, to pray with them for our lost planet, for all its dead and even for the devils wandering witless through its trackless wastes. That is brave of you, Isaac. I never stood with them until much older. You, however, may need to be very brave, my child, as you grow to be a man. You know that I will always hold you in prayer before God’s throne even when you have had to kiss me one last time and lay my body in the ground. And you know that our pain and our fear is the pain and fear of all those who came before us, stored up and held now by us. Like Christ, we carry the sins of the whole world. We know something of what our loving Lord knew upon the cross. We must forgive them and know that—even alone and abandoned—we dwell in the love of Christ, our Creator and our brother who has entered into abandonment and death to be with us, and even there, at the end, we find the life of God.”

Ishmael paused to look at Isaac, to caress his hands and to kiss his forehead.

“You know, Isaac, that it is growing more and more difficult for us to reach adulthood and for children to be born. Our doctors expect that we are close to the last generation of children and that some of our children now may be among the last humans to live and to pray upon this earth. I have been so blessed to have you, as my son and to have your mother, Esther, as my wife. I pray now for those who come after me, for you and your companions who may face the very end together. Remember me in your prayers, and remember whoever remains of those who have not yet been taken up from out of Sheol by the power of Christ and the loving prayers of his saints. I will hold you and all those with you in my prayers before God as you labor to maintain this biosphere in the last years of life upon this beautiful but wasted home.”

Ishmael grew quiet again, his fingers softly massaging the hair on Isaac’s head.

“Father, may I ask the nurse here and Auntie Miriam if I may stay here at the hospital with you?”

“Yes, son, I think you are old enough to walk the path yourself to complete your lessons during the day at the school and to return here at night to be with me. You know that I cannot let you miss your lessons and your chores too often, but I will speak to your aunt and the nurse here about you spending the nights here with me.”

Father and son did not speak again until Sarah said that it was time to go. She had decided to take her uncle up on his offer to lend her the book Roland in Moonlight. Together, she and Isaac kissed Ismael goodbye and made their way back down the river path, toward home and school, in time for their afternoon lessons.

Epilogue

God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him.” Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then.

…[God] saw, “Who knows all things” even “before they be,” comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals.

…[When] the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time.

On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Notes with some related reading:

Photo: Tis Abay (or Blue Nile Falls), Ethiopia