Some Thoughts on Levinas and Orthodoxy

Immigrant on Earth

In the essay on “Judaism and Christianity” from In the Time of the Nations, Levinas recalls a story mentioned by Hannah Arendt. When she was a child, she said one day to the rabbi, “’You know, I have lost my faith.’” And he responded: “Who’s asking you for it?’” Levinas says, “The response was typical. What matters is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’ Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of the ritual. Moreover, are believing and doing different things? What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions? What do we believe with? With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)! What the rabbi meant was: ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion” (Levinas 148).

I am positive that you see here the beauty of Levinas’ thoughts. But I think you can also see the…

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The Temptation of moralism


I have often harmed people in my desire to do good. Here is a perhaps familiar  scenario: a friend goes through various problems and confesses them to me. I feel as if I am one with my friend (didn’t Aristotle say that a friend is an alter ego?), but also untouched directly by his problems, so in a sense objective. I perceive that I have the capacity to see the source of his misfortunes. Wishing his well-being, so in the name of the good, I perform a cleansing, just like a doctor would extract the cancer: I expose the disease and tell him what to do to get rid of it. And this gives me joy, because I feel as if I contribute to my friend’s, and by consequence the world’s, well-being. But I soon discover that my friend lies dead next to me, under the heavy blow of my “healing” words, which were perceived by him as just as many hammers.

Is it possible to harm when one’s words come out of love?

Perhaps when love is not perfect. And love is not perfect when it is mine or when I consider that I am the source of it. Can I be the one who heals my brother?

Once, I heard someone say this, “Lord, deliver us from those who want to fix us!”

Terrible thing, really, to want to fix the world or one’s peers–the manifestation of the devil in history.


Places of regeneration

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The Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan, one of my places of regeneration


There are certain places in this world which have healing power. Some of them are spatial; others are temporal. Alyosha Karamazov was remembering his mother’s face, praying: that is also a place of healing, even if it is about a face–or rather about a relationship. Remembering it, being in its presence, does not allow you to think bad things. The embrace of my grandma. I cannot judge people while I remember her embrace. A monastery: peace penetrating your bones.

In my experience, all of these places have one feature in common: you are loved.

Preserve the places of regeneration of this world. Which may also mean, “become a place of regeneration for others.” And this may mean: “embrace whoever is in your presence.”


Music and Constellations


Photo by Tim Lester.


There is something about being in a group of people that attempt to make music together. I experience this every week, for two hours. I recently joined Peoria International Choir. Men and women of different ages and from various corners of the world just get together and sing. Some come straight from work, others from whatever problems their lives bring to them. But for those two hours they all focus on something: music.

There are moments when I do not sing, and so I have time to watch their faces. It is just incredible, really, to see a person disappear and be fully present at the same time. Sure, it is still John or Mary, carrying their own problems, but it is also the alto, the soprano, the tenor… And on top of it all, a human being singing with others. At times I think that those two hours of music represent an escape from life, from its busy-ness; in fact, the whole experience is a going toward life, or a recovering of it. Somehow it feels as if we are expressing our humanity by losing ourselves into that which comes out of our being together. People together for and in music (I would say “intru muzica,” in Romanian).

We look different: some with European background, some Asian, others North American, still others South American. We speak different languages at home. But there, for two hours, we speak the same language, music, even if it also has words–English, German, or some other language. It is a beautiful constellation, I would say, and, being so, it reminds me always of how far away I am from participating into its beauty. For none of them can shine to their highest level if I do not offer my witness to music. None of them can fully experience beauty if I do not bring my little light with me.

I once heard that an orchestra is only as good as its weakest member. I think this is wrong. This choir, at least, is much better than its weakest member: me. But there is one more aspect: its goodness and its potentiality for goodness face me with my responsibility. Not a moral responsibility; it is rather a call: “see how beautiful I can be; don’t you love my beauty; don’t you want to witness for it?”

I have not practiced much for the choir, and this can be seen in my “performance.” I always find other “responsibilities” that take priority. But this is because I do not focus on its beauty. Every Tuesday night, when its beauty shines upon me, I wonder about how I could have chosen to do other things instead of practicing. And, while I promise myself it won’t happen again, I then fall again into obliviousness and the busy-ness of life, and a new Tuesday comes without having done much for the choir. It is truly humbling to see all these wonderful people singing around you, welcoming you, bringing forward the song even if you don’t do much for it. And then Masako, our conductor, God bless her heart, suffering from the absence of the music she knows you are capable of providing. Am I not there for them as well?

Peoria International Choir is indeed a beautiful thing, regardless of its weakest member. Go watch them if you have the occasion. As for me, here I am again, thinking about music instead of practicing. To practice!

A humble man and a stumbling block


A window to one’s soul – at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant.

I once knew a man who went through some radical change. He used to be oblivious, concerned with himself, but then he became peaceful and, with that, you could sense a powerful presence when you were next to him. It felt as if his gaze was so strongly focused on his inner self that he could see through you–paradoxical, I know, but one needs to see one’s shortcomings to be able to fill the emptiness of another.

But still, I also remember that somehow his new being, although it fascinated and attracted me, was a stumbling block. When he was oblivious, I could see his defects, which justified my positive self-image. Now, his presence revealed my own defects and the darkness of my own corner. This bothered me. It was perhaps a sort of envy, but probably much more the inability to deal with my ugliness.

You know, at times I think that the ugliness of one’s soul is the most pernicious thing of human life. The soul is hidden to most, and one can harbor there negative thoughts, envy, or desires that are not visible from the outside. To the others, one may seem a saint, for none of one’s public gestures would say otherwise. However, those hidden things, well covered by the appearance of blessedness, eat slowly at one’s capacity for goodness. But then a man like my friend appears and, by his goodness, reveals to oneself those things that one has even forgotten. And one realizes that he, one’s friend, knows.

It is quite easy to hate a good man, even if he does not do anything. His goodness bothers, for goodness is a light that reveals the dark spots of one’s being.

In Brothers Karamazov, there is one scene that depicts this. A mysterious visitor comes to Fr. Zosima when he was in his youth. The visitor confesses that he had murdered someone. Zosima encourages him to confess, and the visitor leaves having this intention in mind. But that night he returns to Zosima a second time, and the two of them sit in silence. A while later, after he confesses, the visitor has another confession to make. He tells Zosima, “Do you remember that occasion when I came to see you the second time, at midnight? I even asked you specially not to forget it. Do you know why I came back? I came back to kill you!”

He continues: “I walked out that time into the darkness and wandered through the streets, struggling with my inner self. And suddenly I felt such hatred for you that my heart could hardly bear it. ‘He’s the only one,’ I thought, ‘who has me in his clutches and can judge me […]’ And it wasn’t that I was afraid that you’d report me (the idea never occurred to me), but I thought: ‘ow am I going to look him in the eye if I don’t denounce myself?’ And even if you were on the other side of the world, but alive, I would still not be able to abide the thought that you were alive, that you knew everything and were judging me. And I began to hate you, as though you were responsible for everything. […] I simply hated you, and wanted to avenge myself upon you with all my strength. But the Lord overcame the devil in my heart. I tell you, though, you had never been closer to death.'”

There is much danger for the good people of this world. I do not know whether they know who we are, but, faced with them, we know who we are. And it hurts. May they always be protected.


Giving voice to those who had none


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Today, Mrs. Magda Brown, Holocaust survivor, spoke at Methodist College.  I will not say many things about Mrs. Brown’s life. You can see her here, in one of her previous visits at Methodist College, or read about her on her website. But I will share with you some thoughts about my encounter with her because I think it will say something about who Mrs. Brown is.

I met her for the first time almost four years ago. She was a guest speaker for one of my classes taught at Methodist College, Suffering and Forgiveness. We discuss in that class two traumatic historical events: the Holocaust and the communist persecution. Mrs. Brown was my guest and my senior. Both were reasons for me to take care of her. However, just a few moments after we met, I realized that I was the one who received care. I felt as if I had known her forever and that, somehow, she was my grandma. Sure enough, anytime we communicated after this event, she was ending her emails with, and I quote, “lots of grandma hugs.”

I think this says much about Mrs. Brown. She is a human being out of whom life was supposed to be taken out. She is a human being who was separated from her dear ones, who were sent to death in gas chambers. She is a human being who was treated by others as if she had no human dignity. However, when you meet Mrs. Brown you encounter life. It is a life of a human who lives in connection with others and who defines herself in offering her presence and care to others. It is in this way that she expresses the highest dignity of a human being, which can never be taken away by any violence that may temporarily attempt to destroy us. The darkest of dungeons becomes light and beauty when one takes care of another. Mrs. Brown is in this way a birthgiver of beauty in that she is the expression of what it is to be a human being: taking care of another.

We were in a health sciences college this evening, where people study to become caretakers, to offer their skills and their presence to cure others. I mention this because Mrs. Brown herself worked as a medical assistant. But by her life and her talks Mrs. Brown cures more than the body. She takes care of our historical wounds, because this past is part of us regardless of whether we have been there or not. And she does this by giving voice to those who had no voice.

I believe that the energy Mrs. Brown has comes from this: from her dedication to goodness. Today, in our midst, through her stories, she gave voice and life to those who had none.

Hoarders of ideas


IMG_6253.JPGI once read or heard, and I don’t remember who said it (for some reason, I think it was a podcast of Fr. Thomas Hopko; if anyone has heard it, please let me know the source), that we can consider that our minds are similar to a room. The pieces of furniture in these rooms are ideas—not the Platonic ones, but ideas that we form by our interaction with the environment. During a human life, even if we speak of wealthy young men, as the Stranger calls them in the Sophist, these ideas shape the room. Because of their various source, they often do not match, just as when we buy furniture at different moments in time and from different stores without considering what we have previously bought and what we have inherited or received as a gift. Since a mentioned The Sophist, the purpose of a sophist seems to be to create more stuff that humans can buy, so that their souls are filled even further. The effect is disastrous for a human being: it is the ignorance of the worse kind, when someone has no knowledge but believes one knows. One becomes one’s own god. Filling one’s room with more and more furniture, one can no longer see outside it and is no longer able to come out of the door, for there is no door: it has been covered with pieces of furniture. There are no windows, for they have been covered as well by the multitude of the pieces of furniture that populate the room.

This image is that of a hoarder, but one who is not aware of one’s own hoarderness. It is also the manifestation of a disease and of ugliness, and so we may say that one needs purification. But a sophist, at least according to Plato’s dialogue The Sophist, does not consider curing the people he interacts with. It would be in his disadvantage to do so. He is not a hoarder, but he is producing that which the hoarder buys. The main difference between him an a consumer is that a sophist realizes what the soul is: a place for ideas. In order to get ahead in this world, he creates them. He brings them to life, and he makes others live in them. If he is a good merchant, he needs to understand how his customers work, and their hoarderness makes his business thrive. Confusion and lack of clarity provide his element and, as consequence, he is hard to be grasped, because he has learned to be anything. As we see in Plato’s The Sophist, even if the impression is that consumers deal with him, they deal only with his appearance, and so they get entangled within a world that is not.

But then there is the one who engages in refutation. In The Sophist, this guy seems to be a sophist as well, for he engages in the art of refutation, the elenchus, the “greatest and most authoritative of purifications” (230d). It is the Socratic art of questioning, which he examines opinions with ease, brings them together in the same place, puts them side by side one another, “and in so putting them he shows that the opinions are simultaneously contrary to themselves about the same things in regard to the same things in the same respects” (230b). Or that we are hoarders. The art of purification has beauty as result. As the Stranger puts it, “one must hold in turn that whoever’s unrefuted, even if he is in fact the great king, if he is unpurified in the greatest things, has become uneducated and ugly in those things in which it was fitting for whoever will be in his being happy to be purest and most beautiful” (230d-e).

Is the refuter a sophist? He appears as one who engages in debates for the sake of debating. How often do we hear that Socrates is just a guy who likes to hear himself talking and who engages in fruitless discussion? I, for one, hear this too often. It shows how easy it is to perceive the work of refutation as the work of sophistry. After all, the Stranger claims in the dialogue that the philosopher and the sophist are both difficult to see vividly, so there is a connection, but in two different ways. “The philosopher,” he says, “devoted to the idea of that which is always through calculations, it’s on account of the brilliance of the place that he’s in no way easy to be seen, for the eyes of the soul of the many are incapable of keeping up a steady gaze on the divine” (254a; I’m using Seth Bernadette’s translation). The sophist is “a fugitive into the darkling of ‘that which is not,’ to which he attaches himself by a knack, and on account of the darkness of the region, he’s hard to get an understanding of” (254a). So perhaps the purpose of each could not be more opposed. Refutation fills not with ideas; instead, it cleanses the soul of them. It shows that all of these pieces of furniture do not match, that our rooms are ugly, regardless of the beauty of any piece of furniture that we may have there by mistake. On the contrary, sophistry creates more and more stuff and encourages a consumer society.

So perhaps there are two activities for a philosopher: refutation and dialectics. What connects them is that a philosopher is in both of them the agent of bringing to light that which is already present. In the case of refutation, it is the disease that is revealed so that it can be eliminated. A philosopher would not replace the previous stuff with anything else. In Socrates’ words from the Meno, he numbs others because he is numb himself. But even if his numbness is not to be understood as complete emptiness, a philosopher knows that what he has is not his. He rather has the privilege to discover it. And, through refutation, he places others in the possibility to discover it themselves, or to engage in dialectic. For in dialectic, a philosopher no longer interacts with others, but seems to be rather by himself, in a work of contemplation in the region of the divine, where one brings nothing with oneself because everything is already present, although in a hidden manner. Dialectic reveals the beauty of eternal ideas.

A philosopher and a sophist then both work with the souls of others, at least when dialectic is not involved. In their interactions with them, something happens: something comes to be. The lack of interest for truth in a sophist and also the presence of some awareness about how to catch others make the sophist produce that which is not so that it can be sold. The love for truth in a philosopher sends him into a work of revealing: first, revealing disease in those who have consumed not-being, second revealing beauty, even if it cannot be seen if one has not submitted oneself to refutation. It is, after all, a manifestation of material culture for a philosopher seems to become the incarnation of the region of the forms: if they are to be visible, they are visible in him. He has a grasp of the divine and he possibly manifests it. A sophist, having no grasp of the divine, presents himself as such, but does so to the level of perception of others. Perhaps it is this way: if we study them, we realize that philosophers and sophists are hard to be grasped. A philosopher reveals things, and, by consequence, he is not seen because of the brilliance of the region that is revealed. The sophist produces things, and by consequence is not seen because of the darkness of the region that he produces.


It’s the first Sunday of lent, and I spend it in traveling from a conference on Greek philosophy. A bit ironic, I would say. It is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in which people bring icons, to celebrate the faith. Icons that somehow make the Kingdom present. And I talked about the sophist, who instead of making the Kingdom present, that is, allowing it to come to life in him, creates images and presents them as the real Kingdom. The Sophist as a clarification between iconodules and iconoclasts… The iconoclasts rejecting the iconodules because, ironically, they do not accept the possibility of speech. And it really is ironic, for doing so they speak from the realm of non-being.

Isn’t life in dialectic tuning yourself to the music of the ideas? Or perhaps singing like a bird, and so allowing the Song to come to be in your particular voice?