the books of their wisdom were multiplied as the leaves of the forest

Clearly a counterproductive multiplication of books:

Hearing these things, despite the true knowledge which Nólemë had and spread abroad, there were many who hearkened with half their hearts to Melko, and restlessness grew amongst them, and Melko poured oil on their smouldering desires. From him they learnt many things it were not good for any but the great Valar to know, for being half-comprehended such deep and hidden things slay happiness; and besides many of the sayings of Melko were cunning lies or were but partly true, and the Noldoli ceased to sing, and their viols fell silent upon the hill of Kôr, for their hearts grew somewhat older as their lore grew deeper and their desires more swollen, and the books of their wisdom were multiplied as the leaves of the forest.

J.R.R. Tolkien (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One: Part One)

moral responsibility arises neither from contractual relationships nor from the cooperative exchange between independent individuals

For gentleness requires, as Reimlers observes, that we learn to see that “the other person is ‘given’ to us in the sense that, prior to rules and principles of social morality, the presence of the other in our lives constitutes our responsibility. Moral responsibility arises neither from contractual relationships nor from the cooperative exchange between independent individuals. Instead it arises from the nature of the moral self that discovers itself within a network of social relationships. …The benefits bestowed by love and friendship are consequential rather than conditional, which explains why human life that is constituted by these relationships is appropriately experienced as a gift. A society that accepts responsibility for dependent others such as the mentally disabled will do so because there are sufficient people who accept something like this account as true.”

Long story short: we don’t get to make our lives up. We get to receive our lives as gifts. The story that says we should have no story except the story we chose when we had no story is a lie. To be human is to learn that we don’t make up our lives because we’re creatures. Christians are people who recognize that we have a Father whom we can thank for our existence. Christian discipleship is about learning to receive our lives as gifts without regret. And that has the deepest political implications. Much of modern political theory and practice is about creating a society where we do not have to acknowledge that our lives are gifts we receive from one another.

From Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier.

Notes on the Life of Saint Anthony

After just having listened to The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks edited by Benedicta Ward, I recently listened to the Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. [This is the text translated by H. Ellershaw: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.] Saint Augustine was famously drawn to the Christian faith as he read this text (as he recounts in his Confessions). I’ve read the Life of Saint Anthony in full only once before (several years back), and it was far more meaningful this time. I hope to read it again and to write more in reflection upon it with time. Here are some initial notes from this last reading:

  1. Saint Anthony’s life was one of many new beginnings (with several admonitions to begin each day as if just setting out upon the acquisition of virtue). The stages and main events of his life provided examples of multiple types for a wide variety of those who would follow him in later years. For example, these various stages included living together versus in solitude as well as ministering in the desert versus within the city. Another important structure that takes shape is the life of the inner and the outer mountain.
  2. A critical and clarifying distinction is made between passion and desire (with desire being essential to the acquisition of virtue).
  3. Saint Anthony’s most visible public ministry (within a city) was in the direct support of those publicly facing death for the sake of Christ. Later in life, he also visited Alexandria for an extended time to publicly denounce the Arians (and during this visit many in the city were healed and came to the Christian faith).
  4. One brief passage made it clear that the shared life of the monks within the desert provided a beautiful example of the ideal civic life or human community: “So their cells were in the mountains, like filled with holy bands of men who sang psalms, loved reading, fasted, prayed, rejoiced in the hope of things to come, laboured in almsgiving, and preserved love and harmony one with another. And truly it was possible, as it were, to behold a land set by itself, filled with piety and justice. For then there was neither the evil-doer, nor the injured, nor the reproaches of the tax-gatherer: but instead a multitude of ascetics; and the one purpose of them all was to aim at virtue. So that any one beholding the cells again, and seeing such good order among the monks, would lift up his voice and say, ‘How goodly are your dwellings, O Jacob, and your tents, O Israel; as shady glens and as a garden by a river; as tents which the Lord has pitched, and like cedars near waters’ (Numbers 24:5-6).”
  5. One passage claims that there are many types of demons in complex rankings and that these rankings can be studied profitably (although Saint Anthony did not himself feel called to become an expert in such matters).
  6. A major theme is the powerlessness of demons and their fear of being mocked and humiliated for their false displays of power.
  7. One passage made it clear that demons have serious limitations within both space and time. Demons can therefore predict the future only in the same ways as humans who forecast based on what they have already seen. Nonetheless, the demons used these predictions of the future in oracles as a means of deceiving the pagans.
  8. The clear differences between good and evil spirits are given by Saint Anthony in a long list that highlights how good spirits do not push themselves upon people, create distractions or sustain fear (as all evil spirits will try to do).
  9. “And again others such as these met him in the outer mountain and thought to mock him because he had not learned letters. And Antony said to them, ‘What do you say? Which is first, mind or letters? And which is the cause of which — mind of letters or letters of mind.’ And when they answered mind is first and the inventor of letters, Antony said, ‘Whoever, therefore, has a sound mind has not need of letters.’ This answer amazed both the bystanders and the philosophers, and they departed marvelling that they had seen so much understanding in an ignorant man. For his manners were not rough as though he had been reared in the mountain and there grown old, but graceful and polite, and his speech was seasoned with the divine salt, so that no one was envious, but rather all rejoiced over him who visited him.” [This is one of several remarkable exchanges with Greeks, philosophers and learned pagan wise men.]

a king who knows his ken

We no longer respect the idea that some things are “beyond our ken.” We don’t treat knowledge as a serious responsibility, to be given and received slowly and with clear purpose. We no longer think of education as a cultivation of our desires or our capacity for wonder. Instead, education is the amassing of information or the mastery of skills that have no immediate connection to our personal responsibilities or our actual life experiences.

To be healthy, knowledge should always be directly connected to our actual relationships, abilities, and responsibilities. Knowledge in isolation (or for its own sake), leads to apathy, arrogance, and abuses of power. “Stand alone” knowledge is corrosive to the soul. Knowledge is power, and we must have real responsibilities and learn true respect before we wield this power.

It is no coincidence that these English words all share the same Anglo Saxon roots: can, kin, king, ken, and know. If we do not make sure that these words all stay closely related within our own lives, we just end up with young adults who think that they “ken” everything but who “can” do almost nothing of true value for their “kin.” In this condition, we don’t truly “know” anything or enjoy the blessed protection of any wise “kings.” But these days, who wants a king who knows his ken? Yet we are each called to be such a king, following the one who makes us his kin and who taught us to pray “not my will but yours be done.”

I was twice as bold

I took my Power in my Hand—
And went against the World—
‘Twas not so much as David—had—
But I—was twice as bold—

I aimed my Pebble—but Myself
Was all the one that fell—
Was it Goliath—was too large—
Or was myself—too small?

Poem by Emily Dickinson.

as powerless as God

It seems to me, and I am deeply convinced of this, that the Church should never speak from a position of power. It should not be one power among others operating in one state or another; it should be, if you will, just as powerless as God, Who does not use force; Who only beckons us, opening up the beauty and truth of things without imposing them; Who is like our conscience, telling us the truth while leaving us free either to listen to truth and beauty or to reject them. It seems to me that the Church should be precisely like that; if the Church should gain the position of a powerful organization, one with the ability to coerce or direct events, then there will always be the risk that it will want to wield power; but as soon as the Church begins to wield power, it will lose its deepest essence: the love of God and an understanding of those whom it is called to save, not to destroy and remake.

From Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Vladyka Anthony) in an interview with M.B. Meilakh in London (which was printed in Literator, an organ of the Leningrad Writers’ Organization, on September 21, 1990).