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.

Lazarus Saturday: Christ’s Defiance of Death and Offer of Life

Jesus Christ identifies himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s a confident and bold claim, but it is one that Jesus has worked toward carefully with many bold decisions and words leading up to it. Among the most astounding of these is Christ’s decision to wait for his beloved friend Lazarus to die before responding to the pleas of Mary and Martha that Jesus come to save their brother from death. We face a dramatic series of twists and turns leading up to the moment when Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb despite the worrying of some witness of that Lazarus would stink. We learn, memorably, that Jesus wept (John 11:35) in response to the weeping of Mary and those with her as she confronted Christ and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32).

Why does Jesus Christ use his beloved friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to demonstrate his power over death? It is difficult to reach any other conclusion from the story than that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Jesus Christ “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (4). Ultimately, this question goes back to the question of why God creates the world. Scripture teaches that we are still children who await, and who also have collectively resisted, our full formation (as well as the final formation of our entire cosmos). Our experience of death is a merciful and also terrible result of this resistance by us to our own creation. God enters the story of struggle that we have initiated by our rebellion as the human Jesus Christ. By entering the story of death fully, Jesus reveals death’s own impermanence and final defeat entirely from within our current and incomplete story of death. We encounter life itself in Jesus Christ. These topics, however, take us too far from the story of Lazarus.

Lest we be tempted to think this a crass, calculated and unfeeling act on Christ’s part, we are told repeatedly that these three were loved by Jesus. The two sisters first send word to Christ that “he whom you love is ill” (3). Then John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (5). Finally, when Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (33) and then wept himself, the crowd of witnesses cries out, “See how he loved him!” (36). Despite all of these reassurances, we may still be tempted to wonder at Christ’s calculated waiting at the start of the narrative.

What is at work, however, is not a lack of feeling but a demonstration of perspective and power. Jesus Christ is not impressed or moved by death, but Christ’s awesome power does not at all prevent him from being deeply moved by love and by compassion for the suffering of others. This lordly disregard for death itself does not prevent Jesus from suffering with his friends or with each of us. We tend to associate a calculated display of power with a cold indifference because we have hearts that are not capable of combining lordly power and deep compassion. Jesus Christ, however, was fully in possession of both. He is—as the hymns of this seasons remind us over and over—”the only lover of humankind” but also the the Lord who intentionally despoils death itself in the most flagrant way in preparation for his own upcoming death and resurrection. Another hymn from this evening taunts death directly as we sing, “Through Lazarus, O death, Christ has already despoiled you.”

Nothing gets easier after the powerful command from Jesus Christ to a long-dead corpse: “Lazarus, come out!” We have one last intimate glimpse into this scene as the dead man obeys and stands helplessly bound up and blinded before the crowd. Lazarus is able to walk out of his grave but unable to remove the cloth that covers his own face. Christ tells them to set Lazarus free, but the story does not pause for any rest or celebration. It moves immediately into meeting of the Sanhedrin who decide that this teacher has gone too far and must die. Lazarus is dramatically rescued from death itself, but Jesus has sealed his own fate at the hands of the worldly powers surrounding him. From this point on in the story, every movement that Jesus makes is watched, and there are only a few days left before the final countermove comes with the help of one in Christ’s own inner circle.

This dramatic tension extended to the friends and followers of Jesus Christ as well. Tradition tells us that the Sanhedrin not only decided that Christ must die but that Lazarus must be killed as well. According to widespread accounts from the earliest days of the church, Lazarus had to flee from his home to save his own life, and Lazarus spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Cyprus.

We might say that all this power and triumph by Jesus does no earthly good in this case. However, the victory is so complete precisely because it comes from within. We ourselves know sin and death from the inside, but Christ joins us there and still reveals to us that only life has any true power. In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart makes the case that the followers of Jesus Christ should learn to have a similar enmity for death and evil:

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

This is why so many of the hymns for Lazarus Saturday and then for Pascha (Easter) itself all mock death and reiterate its utter powerlessness and failure in the face of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to defeat sin and death in the power of Christ and to give them no foothold in our own lives. This does not mean that we do not suffer. Clearly, we are called to suffer with Christ (even “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24). In suffering with Christ, we will find that this suffering softens our hearts so that we learn to be present with others in their suffering. We will learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) for blessed are “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3–12). Learning this kind of compassion, however, gives no ground to sin and death. We are not stoically resigned to suffering but grateful for the life with Christ that we can enjoy even in the midst of death and in the midst of our fellowship with others in their sufferings.

As Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Without fleeing from suffering and death, we can participate in Christ’s “relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death as we live day to day in communion with Jesus Christ.

the entire hierarchy of reality, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God

There is no contradiction between the hierarchical structure of reality and the immediate constitutive presence of God to all things.

…Thus all things, at every level, participate directly in God in the manner appropriate to them. Therefore the hierarchical structure of reality, far from separating the lower orders of being from God, is itself the very ground of his immediate presence in all things. Every being participates directly in God precisely in and by occupying its proper place within the cosmic hierarchy: stones by merely existing; plants by living; animals by sensing, humans by being rational, angels by being intellectual. It is not hierarchical order, but rather an egalitarian leveling, that would violate the immediate participation of all things in God by blurring the differences and ranks of beings which constitute that very participation.

…The view that hierarchical order separates the lower ranks of creatures from God depends on the mistaken conception of God as the “first and highest being,” standing above the angels at the peak of the hierarchy of beings. If that were the case, then indeed only the highest beings would be in immediate communion with God. But since God is not any being but “all things in all things and nothing in any,” he does not stand at the top of the universal hierarchy but transcends and permeates the whole. “The goodness of the Godhead which is beyond all things extends from the highest and most venerable substances to the last, and is still above all, the higher not outstripping its excellence nor the lower going beyond its containment.” The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God, of unity and goodness, according to the different modes and degrees that constitute the different levels of being.

…Dionysius’ doctrine of analogous participation in God is thus closely parallel to Plotinus’ teaching that the nature of all things is their share in contemplation or intellectual activity (which itself is the manifestation of the One), so that the life of plants is a “growth-thought” and that of animals a “sense-thought.” The same principle can be found in Proclus, in the form of his well-known affirmation, “All things are in all things, but properly in each.” He goes on to explain: “In Being there is life and intellect; in Life, being and intellect; in Intellect, being and life; but each of these exists upon one level intellectually, upon another vitally, and on the third existentially.” For him, too, the less universal perfections are specifications of the more universal ones, so that, for example, living things have intellect “vitally,” i.e. in the mode of life, and intellectual things have life “intellectually,” i.e. in the mode of intellect.

From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl.
Great Chain of Being
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

this monstrous rival to market—God

A late capitalist culture …that is truly consumerist, is a culture whose primary cultural task, the great adventure of the culture, is the fabrication of desires and ever more desires for an ever greater diversity of things—desires for things that were not even desirable before they became necessities and then to make room for other desires within that sort of order of social-cultural relations in which acquisition and disposal become the primary business of life. Look, we are surrounded by advertising all of the time. We don’t even think about it. It’s a white noise. That’s what our culture does. It’s teaching us to fabricate desires.

Such a culture is inherently atheist. It has to be. That doesn’t mean that you can’t live a perfectly decent life within building a small business and employing people. That’s not what I mean. But the consumerist culture is one in which prohibitions on desire progressively have to be erased, new desires have to be fabricated constantly for things. Ultimate values that could possibly distract from or act as rivals to the momentary, the finite desires by which the economy is sustained and the culture advances have to be abolished. There is no value more problematic than God because He might actually send you out into the desert rather than into the world of business.

This isn’t an opprobrium cast to people who make their lives making things and employing people, but you can do that without having embraced the culture and the inherent nihilism of consumerist capitalism.

What I see in the new atheists is a kind of predictably vulgar expression of this need to do away with [God]. I also see a contemptible Western supremacism: the late modern notion that those who have not embraced the late modern western mechanistic vision of reality have cultures that are worthless, literally worthless. You get the O’reillian notion that the only light that comes from the east is the sun. Aboriginal culture in Australia, with this very rich language of the Dreaming, that’s meaningless because it’s not mechanisms is just folk mythology, it’s not even folk phycology. So there is that. I just see new atheism as this popular expression of this imperative of a capitalist culture to do away with this monstrous rival to market—God.

Prayer is an essentially subversive activity in a culture like that. Prayer is the one thing that you should not be allowed to do in a truly good consumerist culture. It gets in the way of advertising. It gets in the way of your openness to advertising. You should be opening your pours and your mind and your soul to constant advertising, and prayer is something that should be discouraged.

My transcription from this video of a Q&A with David Bentley Hart, posted on March 3, 2017 by YouTube user ObjectiveBob.

Hart’s point about “this very rich language of the Dreaming” within Aboriginal culture in Australia is very extensively developed within his most recent book Roland in Moonlight. Hart’s point about prayer being subversive reminds of these points made by Eugene H. Peterson from his book The Contemplative Pastor.

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

Transcriptions from the Q&A with David Bentley Hart — Discussing “Roland in Moonlight” from Ta’seel Commons with Hasan Azad and Esmé Partridge

What follows are my own transcriptions from this interview with David Bentley Hart by Hasan Azad and Esmé Partridge (posted on April 8, 2021). It starts and ends with readings by David from his most recent book Roland in Moonlight. Between these readings, the interview moves through the topics given in bold text (with all words transcribed here being from Hart):

How to re-enchant the world

27:07

Oh that we could all be more like Roland. There are some things that we should not aspire to.

…I don’t know if [re-enchantment] is one of those things that individuals have the capacities to do. I really do think that there are ways of seeing reality that are unfortunately a kind of destiny, a kind of a historical destiny for us—the way that we perceive things, the way we think about them, the sort of communion we are capable of having with them. The obvious roots of return, the obvious avenues of reconciliation with that reality are the same as they have ever been: the arts, religion (not in the dreary sense of conforming oneself simply to a certain canon of dogmas but I mean in the ancient sense of religion as a certain virtue, that is a certain habitus of the mind, a certain willingness to be open to the divine, to what it shows itself in nature). For late modern people, the arts are an absolutely necessary avenue of return. At one time, for all human beings, this was simply the organic expression of our nature. Every culture produced poetry before it produced prose, produced highly abstract painted figures before it produced the ability to sketch out the blueprints of a city. The artistic impulse was—like the capacity for dreaming vidily—something that was spontaneous, organic, inescapable and necessary for us. Now it is a capacity that we have to recover almost willfully.

I think there is a serious, a spiritual, a real moral tutelage in the arts because one has to learn to surrender to another’s vision and a vision that conveys to us more than we can tell ourselves. In the late modern world, religions have become rather positivistic systems of propositions and adherences that …[are] a desperate attempt to recover a sense of the sacred but in the terms of a late modern positivist grammar of proposition [and] tenant. …But that is not the virtue, that is not the habit of mind, the habit of soul that “religio” once was, which was rather a capacity to be seized from without by what shows itself in us and beyond us.

So I think that the way back in for modern persons is necessarily an aesthetic discipline: learning to see with the eye of appreciation and surrender before you begin to encumber it with moral or doctrinal expectations. It’s not surprising to me that the one area where atheism never seems to be able to get a foothold is in the musical world. There have certainly been atheist composers, but they are actually a vanishingly small number. To take probably the best living British composer right now, [Sir James] MacMillan, all of his work is absolutely saturated in his faith and in sacred themes. I don’t think he’d be able to write music on any lesser theme than God. And the arts in general, even when they try to take leave of God, return again and again, like they are probing a wound or a place where a tooth has been lost. …A good example is Philiph Roth. …There is something about attempting to create which always makes one, if not open to, at least obsessively concerned with, the creator of all things, with creation as such, with the mystery of the being of things as an act of creative intentionality. …In the world of the arts, …you can have an artist who has no sense of the transcendent as a real possibility in his own life or her life, and yet you can’t have an art from which the transcendent is absent and that doesn’t invite one to turn towards transcendence.

34:28

Materialist savagery

35:34

As for materialist savagery, I mean, look, every age has its own special evils, its own special barbarisms. You don’t have to idealize the past to recognize the special evils of a world that really presumes as its tacit metaphysics, as its presupposed picture of reality, a mechanistic [and] materialist model of reality. …We are in the age of technology …in which nature rather than being the upwelling mystery of being has become rather this dead realm of resources waiting [for] our exploitation. Technology is the ultimate realization of the control over fortuity, over reality that’s anumbrated …as the axial age—the moment of the vertical transcendence beginning to chase away the intermediate levels (the spirits and gods). Putting that genealogy to one side, what you can say is that we’ve arrived at a point at which it became possible …that human nature itself could become a technology.

…You don’t really have to make an argument about whether materialist savagery is a proper way of thinking when we saw genetic or eugenic pictures of humanity emerge as soon as it became possible to think of humankind as a technology that should be mastered and improved and that improvement involved the destruction of supposedly defective models which would mean those racially not elect. Or humanity becomes an economic technology. We saw in the worst excesses of communism in the twentieth century—or at least totalitarianisms that called themselves communisms—basing their remit to reinvent the human, to reinvent human society, on its mastery of the technology of homo economicus.

Materialism of the most purely reductive kind, say what you like, make all the disclaimers you wish, is ultimately an invitation to trespass upon the inner precincts of the mystery of the human in a way that previous generations knew not to do. There was always that inviolable inner sanctuary that was the special home of God or the gods or the daemons and of the spirit, the self, the soul that one could not touch. Humanity was not just a technology to be adjusted, rearranged, reconstructed.

The moment that sense of an inviolable sanctity or an inaccessible divine temenos in the human person or in nature or in the created world or in animals, …all sorts of atrocities from cruelty to animals to destruction of the world at large as a standing reserve of neutral dead resources, right up to the holocaust and the gulags, that’s the consequence of a certain ideological and metaphysical revolution: the movement from the mystery of being to the mechanism of nature in the modern sense (physicalism).

Now, again, you don’t have to idealize the past. …That same sense of the sanctity and the  inviolability of the human person and of the mystery of the gods or of God could be allied to fairly cynical authoritarian structures of power that exploited and abused (and still do, in their own way). As I say, every age, every epoch of the spirit so to speak, has its own special evils. The evils of an unguarded and dogmatically confident materialism… again Hiroshima …Nagasaki.

41:16

Consciousness

41:53

Each philosophical project to come up with a plausible logical causal connection between first person phenomenal intentional mind and third person electrio-chemical and mechanical events has failed, has magnificently collapsed under the burden of its own contradictions and warrantless presuppositions. As sciences that mistake themselves for sciences of consciousness—which are actually just sciences of neurological correlation with cognitional states—have proved (as we could have predicted they must) impotent to give us any insight on this union of the first person and the third person.

More and more you’ve seen philosophy of mind among committed physicalists tend toward two extremes. One is panpsychism. …Understood as a purely materialist system, [it] is based on a kind of fantastic notion of consciousness as a property attendant upon every physical symbol—like simple atoms onward or even at lower levels of reality than atoms, down to Planck scales. …To use the Kantian language, [there is] a pathological side concomitant with the nomological side of nature. Somehow, through cumulative complexity, this becomes greater structures of consciousness or becomes consciousness as we think of it. Whereas I’m sympathetic to certain kinds of panpsychism of the non-materialistic type, the materialist picture simply defers the problem to the Planck scale. You’ve still got this inexplicable union of the nomological and the pathological as well as now an infinitely amplified combination problem of trying to understand how a composite effect or consequence of physical states can lead to a simple state (apprehension or consciousness).

The other extreme is simply to deny that consciousness exists altogether. Total eliminativism says that what we call consciousness is just folk psychology and that one day we will be able to chase away talk of intention and choice and subjectivity and pathos and qualia by understanding first the chemical, biochemical, electrochemical and then understanding the physical laws underlying that so that we could reconstruct the seeming phenomenon of consciousness from basic particles upward.

That’s just stupid. …For fifty years, Daniel Dennett’s been preaching this, and for fifty years he’s failed to make it even logically coherent because he’s always failing [with] the one thing that he’s supposed to be explaining which is the evident fact of first person experience. [But this] is the one thing that he cannot accept because, as sophisticated as he and others like him are in their grasp of the sciences, they’re still fixed in the mechanistic paradigm, the mechanistic metaphysics of the 17th century. And how was that metaphysics fashioned? It was from a metaphysics that excluded mental phenomena like intentionality, teleology, consciousness and just put them in a different realm altogether (that of soul). [They] ultimately tried to drag them back into the mechanistic picture but without any means for doing so because it’s already been expelled from nature. This is not a problem for an ancient Aristotalian or a Platonist for whom the structure of nature is already mind like. It already has an intrinsic teleology. It already has a kind of pathos. In fact, there is quite a lot of panpsychism in the early Aristotle.

…I think the sane conclusion to anyone who has really deeply immersed themselves in the absolute oceans of philosophical and scientific literature on this is that there is no way plausibly, causally, of explaining consciousness in physicalist terms. The eliminativist option is just an insult to our intelligence. So panpsychism is winning the day one way or the other. As long as it’s still framed in physicalist terms, it too is going to fail. Now I also dislike the Cartesian model. I’m a pure idealist. I believe that the ground of all reality is consciousness. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t physical bodies, but whatever there are, whatever unions or dis-unions they are (body, mind, soul), however it works, all of it is reducible to a more original unity, a sort of metaphysical monism of mind. Obviously, I think there is one preeminent mind. …To use the word with dangerous imprecision, everything ultimately is an infinite act of thought.

47:38

Divine feminine

49:23

We are born out of the world. We are sheltered. We are nourished. The traditional images of the divine feminine again fall into the very traditional paradigms of motherhood and spousal love and all that. …One of the reasons that Sophiology has this rich thematic depth to it …is because it [works against] this tendency to exclude …one half of human experience, of human capacity, of human nature, …whether it is the feminine in all of us or whatever. …In so doing, you create this curiously bifurcated understanding between God and his creatures, God and his creation that is itself already premonitory of an ultimate nihilism.

53:17

…There is a history in the West that tends toward this nihilistic estrangement. First you get the God of absolute will and power who is sort of a cartoon of a king on his throne with absolute privilege and potency. Then that becomes the model of the sovereign self because the self becomes a mirror of the God who is most high so that the pure sovereign God of 16th and 17th century theology becomes also a reflection of the absolute sovereign of the emerging nation state. Then the self becomes an absolute sovereign for whom God becomes a rival.

…I don’t know the degree to which talk about Sophia or the divine femine has the power to disrupt that image, but I certainly hope that it could do some serious work.

54:21

Embodiment

1:09:58

I’ve written on this before: Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 talking about the spiritual body as opposed to the animal body or the psychical body—a body of ψυχή (psyche) or πνεῦμα (pneuma). The body is still body for Paul. He believes in spirit as a kind of element. In fact, this is common for late antiquity. They think of it as a kind of an ethereal or super-ethereal sort of element that is also somehow the wind. Or it is the subtle part in the wind. Or it is an ichor, a subtle essence in the optic nerve or optic causeways. There is not the firm distinction; there is not a Cartesian distinction. You’ll often hear that Plato was a kind of Cartesian, but that is wrong. There is not a mechanical body in Plato. The body itself is a reflection of an eternal idea, naturally fitted to the expression of a spiritual presence, and it dies the moment that the spirit is not there. The mechanical idea has not [developed]. It is not the Cartesian automaton or the Cartesian puppet waiting for an immaterial puppet master somehow miraculously to take control in the pineal gland.

Embodiment—for Paul flesh and blood will pass away, …Paul is quite explicit about it as “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven”—but the body remains. You find this both East and West, in the sense of the subtle body or the spiritual body. It is not a rejection of embodiment. In fact, it is understood that communion [and] community for finite spirits is an embodied reality. It is embodiment as such. But it is embodiment within a hierarchy of embodiment. It is embodiment within a spiritual community which is itself the greater body of the Protanthropos, the totus Christus (in Christian thought) or Adam Kadmon’s cosmic expression. And you have this in Islam as well as the origional man or the man from above. …This is nested embodiments within nature, within the world, within the greater body of the one human nature. In Greek, physis is not an abstraction in the way that we use nature now. Like natura, it has that sense of being also birth, of being a line of descent. …Physis can mean literally your origin, your physical origin, your family, your people, your race, the whole human race.

Disembodiment—the notion that we are abstract essences—you don’t even find this in the supposedly gnostic literature. There too there is the very firm identity of a true, a subtle body. [Disembodiment] is very much a modern phenomenon—the notion that the self is so isolated from nature, from reality, so pure in its absolute sovereign selfhood that it is not even really local. It doesn’t exist within the ecology of living selves, within the hierarchy of embodiment. It is a curious picture because it is completely contrary to every moment of actual experience. …It is even true in the psychoanalytic tradition. We have no modern concept of the self that isn’t this strangely abstracted remnant of what a real human being is.

1:14:32

Story of humans all disappearing as we “upload” ourselves

1:20:14

The story that Hasan [was thinking of is that], at one point in the book, Roland thinks of writing a science fiction story in which algorithms of certain computers have become so sophisticated that they not only pass the Turing test, they succeed in convincing everyone that the computer itself is conscious, so that people begin downloading their minds into it. But actually there is a total affective void on the other side. There is no consciousness there, but no one knows this until they’ve all been downloaded.

…Read “The Invention of Reality” [by Adolfo Bioy Casares in La Invención de Morel], and you’ll get the point that I was making. …[It] is about what appears to be a community of real people, but it is nothing but empty projections left behind by a machine that is still running. It is a brilliant little grim phantasy.

1:21:48

Finding all the great traditions of the world to be full of beauties and profundities and God to show himself in a multitude of ways and places

1:30:15

Are there there any universalist theologians within the Islamic tradition

Roland barks at 1:34:04 when he objects to a fine point in David’s summary of N.T. eschatological thought (with David maintaining, despite Roland’s objection, that a Preterist reading is reasonable).

1:36:38

How persons are identities constituted by a whole history of loves and affinities and associations with others

1:38:26

Since none of us is God, except by participation in the divine presence, that essential structure of what it is to be a person, the depth of the undisclosed …reveals itself in a Logos, which manifests itself, and comes to itself in spirit. …None of us is complete in and of ourselves. Unlike God, since we are finite, changing, synthetic (…neither essence nor existence but the two in dynamic union), that fullness of ourselves, who we are coming to ourselves, is always mediated through and by otherness and others, in language, in community. We cannot come into full expression as human beings, you can’t love, you can’t think except by way of an exteriority that is also a response of intentionality and self out there. …Divine personality—to use that word in a dangerously imprecise way—can be complete in itself and can have the fullness of relation and life in itself if it is infinite. We cannot. We’re neither thinkers nor feelers nor creators nor selves except in and through others, and by that relation we come to be.

1:40:27

1:42:45

Militant compassion as something that dogs embody and something that we need in our lives in the United States (ending in a description of a dog, Laurie, that David had as a child who adopted and nurtured everything)…

Annunciation Poems and Reflections

Capturing several favorite items from yesterday (the Annunciation, March 25):

A point of time, immesurable
waves of sound, unparticled
contain eternity, a singing cosmos.
Time is and isn’t,
space an ever-moving repose
shimmering, awaiting our sight.
A slight participation, it seems: “fiat.”
Two syllables, two moments,
undivided presence.

“Annunciation” by Allwyn Fabre

Salvation to all that will is nigh ;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb ; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother ;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived ; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

“Annunciation” John Donne

It is the complete end of a world and the beginning of another…And in one of those long beautiful days of June where there is no more night, no more gloomy darkness, where the day goes hand in hand with the day, it is the final instant of the evening and at the same time the first instant of the dawn. It is the final instant of the promise and at the same time the first instant of the keeping of the promise. It is the final instant of yesterday and at the same time the first instant of tomorrow. It is the final instant of the past and at the same time, in the same present, the first instant of a tremendous future.

Charles Péguy on the Annunciation

In the case of Adam, God neither foretold nor persuaded him concerning the rib from which Eve was to be fashioned, but put him to sleep, and in this way deprived him of the member in question; in the case of the Virgin, however, He first instructed her and awaited her assurance before proceeding to the deed. Regarding the creation of Adam, He conversed with His Only-Begotten Son, saying: ‘Let Us make man.’ But when, as Paul says, He was going to bring this wonderful Counselor, the First-Begotten, into the world, and to form the second Adam, He made the Virgin a participant in his decision. And this great counsel, about which Isaiah speaks, God proclaimed and the Virgin ratified. The Incarnation of the Word was the work not only of the Father, Whose good pleasure it was, and of His Power, Who overshadowed, and of His Spirit, Who descended, but also of the will and faith of the Virgin. For, just as, without those Three, it would have been impossible for this decision to be implemented, so also, if the All-Pure One had not offered her will and faith, this design could not possibly have been brought to fruition.

…For the Virgin was not like the earth, which contributed to the creation of man but did not bring it about, but merely offered itself as matter to the Creator and was only acted upon and did not do anything. But those things which drew the Artificer Himself to earth and which moved His creative hand did she provide from within herself, being the author thereof. …A mind furnished with wings that was not daunted by any height; a longing for God, which had absorbed the entire appetitive faculty of the soul into itself; possession by God, a union with God inconceivable to any created intellect. Having trained both body and soul to receive such beauty, she turned the gaze of God towards herself, and by her own beauty rendered our common nature beautiful and won over the Impassible One; and He Who was despised by men on account of their sin became man because of the Virgin.

…Today all of creation rejoices, and He Who holds Heaven in His hands is not absent from the Feast, either. Rather, the present celebration is in very truth a festival: all things are gathered together in a single act of rejoicing—the Creator, all of His creatures, and the Mother of the Creator herself, who made Him a partaker of our nature and of our liturgical synaxes and feasts. For He, being our Benefactor from the beginning of creation, and making this His own proper activity (never being in need of anything from anyone), to bestow gifts and to do good, and knowing only such things as these, on this day both does those same things and assumes a secondary place and stands in solidarity with the recipients of His benefactions. Bestowing some things on the creation from Himself, and receiving other things from it, He rejoices not so much in giving great gifts, since He is munificent, as in receiving small gifts from those to whom He has done good, since He loves mankind. He obtains honor not only from what He has laid down for His poor servants, but also from what He has received from us paupers.

…If there is ever a time when a man should rejoice, exult, and cry out with gladness, when he should go off and search for what great and brilliant statements he might utter, when he should wish to be vouchsafed sublimity of ideas, beauty of diction, and powerful oratory, I see no other occasion than this day.

St. Nicholas (Cabasilas). Translated from the Greek text in “Homélies Mariales Byzantines (II),” ed. M. Jugie, in Patrologia Orientalis, Vol. XIX, ed. R. Graffin and F. Nau (Paris: Firmin- Didot, 1920), pp. 484-495.

Finally, here is a list of all the events that Christians have connected to March 25 over the years (compiled by Fr. Aidan Kimel here):

  • God created the universe.
  • God created Adam and Eve.
  • Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
  • The Ring of Power was destroyed in the fires of Orodruin.
  • Abraham offered in sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.
  • The Angel of Death passed over the Hebrews in Egypt.
  • The angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Savior.
  • The eternal Word of God took flesh in the womb of Mary.
  • Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha.

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

and occasionally even knows itself as conjuring the world out of a more primordial, more timeless dreaming

“You know, yokan always makes me think of Tanizaki. You’ve read Tanizaki, of course?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t mean the fiction. Have you read In Praise of Shadows?”

“Several times.”

“So you’ll recall where he talks about eating yokan as being like eating shadows, or something like that—how he calls it a quintessentially Japanese candy precisely because it’s so… well, so tenebrous, I suppose one might say. Because of its dark translucency. The way it lies on a dark dish all but invisibly in a dim room, and the way it melts on the tongue like a sweet shadow… or like a shadow of sweetness, it’s so mild. I don’t recall the exact wording, so perhaps I should read it again.”

“I recall it,” I said. “I love that book. I love the way Japanese culture has always been able to aestheticize everything… even violent death.”

“It’s so true,” he said. “And Tanizaki is right too. There’s a special Japanese virtuosity of the umbratilous, the nebulous, the… softly shadowed. It’s a sign of true refinement to be able to love shadowy spaces… liminal intervals… places of transition. There’s a tacit metaphysics there too, in that aesthetic sensitivity to the dim and crepuscular, and to the moments and spaces of fluid indistinction… the junctures where possibility briefly overwhelms actuality, where anything might emerge, where the mystery of being announces itself in the as yet undisclosed next moment. It speaks of the sheer fortuity of all of the world’s beautiful transformations. Dreams overwhelming waking thoughts. Unseen presences overwhelming visible absences. lt’s—how can a poor dog say it without lapsing into ecstatic gibberish?—it’s that lovely floating experience of suspense on the threshold of existence, where it seems anything might come into being. Twilight consciousness. And there’s a lovely metaphysical fragility there too, isn’t there? A sustained precariousness, as though at any moment the world might melt into potentiality again. Which is itself another revelation of the wonderful needlessness of the gift of being.” He heaved an especially deep sigh and his smile became distinctly melancholy. “In the modern world, flooded as it is at all times by shrill, brittle electric incandescences, lit by the leprous white glow of computer screens, we desperately need more shadows… more love of shadow as such. We need those places and moments in which the mind sees nameless things moving in the obscurity, in the dusk, and occasionally even knows itself as conjuring the world out of a more primordial, more timeless dreaming.” He fell silent, his eyes turned downward. It was many moments before I spoke.

“I think you found a way to say it very well. You always do. I know exactly what you mean— even if I couldn’t rephrase it in any way intelligible to myself.”

Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart. Pages 320-322.

there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality

Since procession and reversion are in reality the same relation of dependence, a thing’s being made to be by God is not in any sense prior to its desire for him. Rather, the generation of the being consists in its tending toward God no less than in its coming from him. Thus reversion, as the activity of the being, is the being’s share in its own being made to be. As in Plotinus and Proclus, the product has an actively receptive role in its production, and if it does not exercise this activity it cannot exist. For Dionysius, God cannot make beings without their active cooperation, for without that activity they would not be anything. In every being, including animals, plants, and inanimate things, there is an element of ‘interiority’, of selfhood, an active share in its own being what it is and so in its own being. At the level of rational beings, this interiority takes the form of self-consciousness, of personhood and freedom. But the principle that any being’s reversion is creative of it means that there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality, even in inanimate things.

Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl