Radical diversity and C.S. Lewis

In his wonderful introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis says something that we often forget in our discussions about diversity: read old books, because old these writers are much more diverse in thinking than any of our contemporary opponents. I’m copying a quote here. If you read nothing this blog, read at least this. It is more important than anything I could ever say:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united–united with each other and against earlier and later ages–by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century–the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’–lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt, or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against if, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them”

Whenever I read this passage, I feel as someone remind me to be humble, especially if I think I am right about something. This happens often–as I think to many of us–especially because humanity tends to think in binary terms: a life before death, and a life after, good and bad people, or us and them.

In fact, we no longer know how to think except in binary terms. If you are a capitalist, you must be against socialism. If you are not a capitalist, then you must be a socialist. If you’re not a democrat, you must be a republican, and if you’re not a republican, then you must be a democrat.

How can you keep yourself from falling into categories in this life? Of course, you can read the ancients and challenge your views (and, implicitly, your age’s view) with their own, but then you return here, in this reality, and anytime you open your mouth people will place you into a category or another. Regardless of how you may be and what you may think, people will always use it and place it into the categories that they understand: the categories that form their reality. Since you utter something, you are already part of their world, and so they must make sense of your account and place it in whatever category is appropriate, in their mind, for your thought.

One possible way to react to categorization is to respond by making all sorts of distinctions: “this is not what I said,” and “it is rather this than this.” But anytime such attempts are done, others still will reshape you into something that you’re not, burying you into the dark forest of the sophist (see Plato’s Sophist as reference). This is just because we, people, cannot handle that which we do not understand and we transform what we don’t understand into something that is perceivable to us.

One such example recently happened to me. I showed a summary of a documentary in class, Lady in No. 6 (see it below–it’s worth it). Alice Herz Sommer, Holocaust survivor, says, “Every day in life is beautiful… Even the bad is beautiful… It has to be.” I showed this movie so that students could see an example of what I think Kierkegaard means by a knight of faith. But what Mrs. Sommer says is incomprehensible: saying that every day in life is beautiful even after you spent numberless days in a concentration camp does not make sense. And so one of my students explained it in a most sensible way (and I often get similar comments when I show the movie in class): “It was her coping mechanism; she needed to think this way.”

“Every day in life is beautiful” makes no sense, so we “explain” it; we reduce the ineffability of life to our own limited capacity of understanding. It is our way to explain that which we don’t understand by a psychological claim that is irrefutable: “it’s a coping mechanism.”

Of course, I am not claiming that this takes away your responsibility and that it’s only the others who do this and that you are absolved of your contribution to the world. After all, you already participate in it–“in sins my mother conceived me,” as Psalm 50 says–and so your own body manifests its problems. But I think this also requires of you to continue to testify to what you take truth to be, as absurd as it may sound, regardless of how this “witnessing” to truth is used and interpreted. C.S. Lewis’s call is one to radical diversity: read the ancients. Read also the medievalists, and even the moderns. And especially read C.S. Lewis.

The video with Lady in Number 6:

For those who read Romanian, some verses from Lucian Blaga:

Eu nu strivesc corola de minuni a lumii

şi nu ucid

cu mintea tainele, ce le-ntâlnesc

în calea mea

în flori, în ochi, pe buze ori morminte.

A cup of tea or an oasis

I met a stranger today. I knew one thing about him: he will die. The sudden realization that I was encountering a potentially dead body filled me with warmth toward him.

I had never met him before. Two persons in a serendipitous moment of life, unaware of the abyss we face every moment. But this common quality, that we stand together on the edge of the abyss, made me feel like we were one. Isn’t it strange how death “equalizes” all things?

“Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you don’t have any more strength, rest a little and have a cup of tea” (Elder Sophrony of Essex)

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Without his knowledge, the stranger I met yesterday offered me a cup of tea. Perhaps he has offered an oasis, a place of rest, where one can connect with oneself. Or it was the Abyss that he was facing that offered me this oasis.

It is probably a most difficult thing in life, to offer yourself as an oasis to the thirsty travelers on this earth, especially because, most often, you do not choose them, but they fall upon “your space” in their wanderings, just like the stranger from yesterday. A bit chaotic, very preoccupied with something that seemed to overwhelm his entire attention, he was there, a human phenomenon unaware of the abyss he was facing. I had no cup of tea ready for him, but he did fill my cup without being aware of it.

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“When people tell us things, they do not expect us to correct them, to tell them they are right or wrong. They just need someone to be there for them.”

A wise man told me this recently. In other words, offer them a cup of tea (offer them yourself) before you judge whether they deserve that cup or not.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall: 30 years

I participated today in the celebration of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event was organized by the Alumni Office of the Eureka College. Here’s my talk.

WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The Berlin wall. Contact email: New York : photography@magnumphotos.com

Thank you, Mrs Shellie Schwanke, and thank you, Dr. Jamel Wright, for giving me the occasion to be with you on such an important event. As all of you, I look forward to hearing John Morris’s remarks, so I will be brief.

It is an honor to participate in the celebration of 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I speak to you as someone who spent his childhood behind the Wall, in one of the countries that belonged to the Warsaw Treaty. I am a former “enemy.” As such, I will begin with recollecting these early days of November 30 years ago, in my hometown, Fagaras, Romania. As always when there were important news coming from the West or news that demonstrated some unrest among people in the East, we were glued to two radio stations, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At times, the phone we had in the house were covered with pillows, so that “they,” as we called them, would not be able to listen to what we were doing in the house. We lived in a paranoid state, in which we were not afraid of those people who were beyond the Berlin wall, but rather of “them,” the unnamed multitude who could decide on a whim your entire existence. Those who lived during communism, in East Germany, Romania, the Soviet Union, or elsewhere, know that we always talked about them—an impersonal them, but a powerful one, for all the aspects of our lives seemed to be dependent on it. They listened to everything you said; they were giving potatoes at the grocery store; they could put you in prison; they could turn you to the secret police; they were the secret police. They were the “bad guys.” But somehow theywere also us.

In fact, this separation between them and us, between friends and enemies is, perhaps, one of the main problems with communism. For a society that claims to unite all people, to unite all proletarians, it is surprising that it begins with a wall. But a communist society needs walls because it is based on a notion that divides people on moral grounds. If you think in a different way than the establishment, you are an “enemy of the people,” and as such you need to be deported, imprisoned, or simply murdered. These objectified enemies could change: wealthy peasants, intellectuals, priests, but they all shared one characteristic: by freedom of thought. In any case, as Anne Applebaum says in her Gulag: A History, “people were arrested not for what they had done, but for who they were.”[1] They were objects that did not fit the new order.

The Berlin Wall was not only a physical entity, but it also was a metaphysical one. The enemies that the communist regime wanted to keep out were ideas expressed in freedom. But the communists also wanted to keep their internal enemies in, to persecute them, to change their souls and, if all of this were not possible, to take them out of existence. The regime established a wall that did not separate nations, but people who had different ways of perceiving the world. Instead of protecting its own people, the regime built a wall so that they could not escape persecution. I do not know of people attempting to run away from the West to an Eastern communist society. And so the celebration of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall is important because it also celebrates the fall of a regime that persecuted its own people. 

But all of this can be interpreted wrongly, with the same approach the communist regime had when dealing with human beings. “Let us eliminate the communists,” some may say, “build a wall between them and us, so that we would never be corrupted by their way of thinking.” This would mean that we replace an evil wall with what we may consider a new and improved moral wall. If we are, however, to truly follow these words, ‘tear down that wall,’ then we may remember, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Price Laureate and a victim of deportations to the Gulag in Siberia, that the line between good and evil does not separate people. I quote:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”[2]

Indeed, many memories of people who have gone through communist persecution emphasized precisely this: that the fight against evil does not presuppose fighting other human beings, annihilating their ideas, or building walls between them and us, but rather fighting precisely against the temptation of the heart to see in one’s adversary an enemy. 

Now, 30 years after the tearing down of this wall, let us remember the words of pastor Ferenc Visky, who was imprisoned in Communist Romania for his beliefs: “The source of cruelty is always fear,” he says. “Whoever tortures you has a great fear inside of him. He is more afraid than the one being tortured. And you have to understand his state, because if you do not understand, then you have lost, and the torturer has lost also. This is the problem of suffering, that you will see that the man who tortures you is more afflicted than you who are being tortured.” Let us also remember the words of Fr. George Calciu, who spent 24 years in a Romanian communist prison because he believed in God and openly spoke against the communist regime: “Slavery to ideas is as serious a form of slavery as any other.”  Let us not allow our own slavery to ideas to build walls against others within our hearts and let us tear down the walls that still harm us by accepting all within our souls.


[1]Anne Applebaum. Gulag: A History. New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. xxxvi.

[2]Archipelago Gulag. Vol II, New Work: Harper Perennial, 2007, p. 615.

For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord

There’s one moment during the Liturgy, in one of the great litanies, that the priest (or the deacon) says, “For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord.”

Good luck with that, I am tempted to say, especially nowadays, when people are so divided. But the question remains: how do people say “Amen” when the priest encourages the congregation to pray for a president that, most of the time, half of the congregation despises? The question remains actual regardless of the president who is in charge and, after all, regardless of the country, since Orthodox people all over the world say the same prayer during Liturgy on Sunday.

We have, then, a congregation that, although divided, is entreated to pray for one human being. But we can add another aspect to the problem: what if the priest himself voted for “the other guy”? And what if the priest truly dislikes the president at a given time? A while ago (and with a different president), a priest told me, “Tavi, every Liturgy I remember how much of a sinner I am. I cannot stand the president, and it becomes so evident for me that it is hard to pray for him… Me, the one who is supposed to tell others to do those things…”

Still, every Liturgy, that priest continued to say, “For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord.” And I trust he said honestly.

The litany is followed by this line: “For this parish and city, for every city and country, and for the faithful who live in them, let us pray to the Lord.”

On its face, this prayer seems more neutral, but if you really think about it, it is not less “outrageous.” At least the previous one, for the president, asked me to pray for someone coming from the same nation with me. What follows it, though, asks me to pray for all cities and countries–even those of enemies.

I sometimes wonder if we could really say “Amen” in church if we really paid attention to what is said, instead of “doing what the others do.” Above, you have two possible examples when the “Amen” may be difficult; consider also the amen that follows the Lord’s prayer, when we ask God to forgive us the same way we forgive others (“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). If I really “meant” it, I don’t know how I would gather the courage to actually say it: if God were to forgive me the way I forgive, then… well, I won’t have much of a chance for redemption.

Still, we continue to say our amen after prayers for presidents we dislike, we continue to ask God to forgive us with the measure we forgive. I gather we don’t do it because we have calculated that it is better to forgive or that it is better to pray for the president. Most likely, we do it because, if we stopped, we would no longer be ourselves; we would have to give up God. Instead of this, we acknowledge our shortcomings and hope against hope in the mercy of the divine.

LordI believehelp my unbelief.”

A little fellow in a wide world

Photo by idreamlikecrazy. https://www.flickr.com/photos/purple-lover/13583362554

“You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

This is how Tolkien’s The Hobbit ends. In thanksgiving. The story of The Lord of the Rings, though, opens in ownership. “It is my own. I found it. It came to me.”

One may wonder, what would happen to the One Ring if, instead of being received as something one owns, it would be accepted as a gift over which one has no ownership?

One possible example: you “volunteer” for some activity. People come to you afterwards and thank you “for donating your time,” as if you HAVE time. But if you have time, if it is your own, you are no longer a little fellow in a wide world, but someone who own things and who, out of your mightiness, can donate them. “It is my own. I found it. It came to me.” It–time, I mean.

I once heard a story of someone who, by the time he was a teenager, knew that he would not live long because of a fatal disease. Nevertheless, he got married and, before he died in his 30s, had two children. His life knew of his condition from the beginning. He lived on “borrowed” time. But aren’t we all on borrowed time, not knowing how long or short this time will be? And if this time is borrowed and it is not ours, are we not only stewards that keep the place of the real King, the one who has gifted us this time?

Life often seems to be encompassed between these two attitudes: on the one hand, I can see myself as an owner of things that has the heart to give (or not) from these things to others; on the other hand, I can see myself as a steward, a borrower of things, who cannot give to others from my own, because there is nothing I own. Rather, in thanksgiving, I can “multiply” these borrowed gifts in using them for others–volunteering time, for example. Every attitude I have seems to take on a different color depending on where it is placed on the spectrum between the entitlement of ownership and the thanksgiving of stewardship.

Writing as a slave or as a free man

Writing, Write, Fountain Pen, Ink, Scribe, Handwriting

Perhaps one of the timeless questions I get from my students is, “What do you expect from this paper/assignment/etc.?” The question is justified by a mentality that is partly formed by an educational system in which the new gods are “outcomes” and “assessments.” Be that as it may, it also witnesses to the attitude of a slave, who writes and thinks the way his master tells him.

After all, when you are a student, it is very difficult to write otherwise. You are not fully yourself, you are still in the process of finding who you will be at the end of this education, and so you expect to write as you are told. I actually remember that even if I thought I was a free man, I was not so during my schooling years, and my writing changed the moment I felt I had full responsibility for deciding to say  something. At that moment, regardless of the quality of the writing, I started to do so like a free man, not like a slave. 

I often tell my students that they should write as professionals. That they should not think of my expectation, but rather they should think of what is to be said regarding a certain topic and to serve their audience by clarifying their ideas on the topic. In fact, there is something interesting about this difference, being free and being a slave in writing: when you write as a free man, you become a servant to others (unless you are the slave of your own ego); when you write as a slave, you don’t serve anyone, not even oneself, because you deny yourself before the power of the master.

Writing like a free man is not saying whatever comes to your mind, but manifesting yourself freely as a member of a body of people: recognizing that writing makes sense only as long as it serves the good of another.

A good scene from La vita è bella about the art of serving:

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I can choose to become the slave of another: false sense of freedom. Out of freedom, I can act as that which I am called to be: a servant of any other.

Failure and success: two sides of the same coin

There are two great dangers for human beings, especially when they go from childhood to adulthood: the inability to deal with one’s failures and successes and the temptation to define oneself. The two of them are connected. It is easy to think you are on top of the world when you accomplish something, but it is as easy, if not even easier, to consider that you are worthless if you fail doing what you planned. In fact, we define ourselves especially during these moments, when we either love or hate where we are in life.

Perhaps one of the problems of our world today is that, in our despair to define ourselves, to find our places in this world from where we can affirm our individuality, we have forgotten to teach children how to deal with their failures and successes. Instead of doing so, we seem to enjoy living in a world that is deprived of freedom, deprived of the freedom of being fine with who I am because I want to either run away from the “I” that I don’t want to be (so the “I” defined by failure) or to run towards the “I” that I want to be (so the “I” defined by success).

Do not accept “the advice of those who say, ‘Human you are, think human thoughts,’ and ‘Mortals you are, think mortal ones,'” Aristotle says. Instead, you should, as far as possible, “assimilate to the immortals and do everything with the aim of living in accordance with what is highest of the things in us; for even if it is small in bulk, the degree to which it surpasses everything in power and dignity is far greater. And each of us would seem actually to be this, given that each is his authoritative and better element; it would be a strange thing, then, if one chose, not one’s own life, but that of something else.”

There’s a lot of freedom in this thought, because it tells me that I can become that which I am potentially by nature: divine. Two options for Aristotle, then: I can be human, and be governed by my successes and failures and so by the judgment I receive from my fellow humans, or I can be divine, and so free, beyond any temptations of self-defining. I don’t need to do anything to become so: I “only” need to know myself.


Parenting, Socrates, and the self

Toward the end of Socrates’ speech during his trial, he addresses his accusers saying,

this much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody…”

This is a model of parenting that is very foreign to our day and age. Socrates asks his accusers to treat his children the way he has treated them. He ended up in prison mainly because of the way in which he treated his accusers, making them feel embarrassed in public, often before their own students. Socrates says something even more outrageous to our modern sensibilities: tell your students that they are nobody, especially when they think they are somebody.

Imagine a parent telling his or her children that they are nobody. In today’s world, this is easily interpreted as psychological abuse; we would say that the parent does not allow his or her children to be themselves. In fact, Socrates’ attitude seems to be completely opposed to the desire to manifest one’s own individuality.

There’s a beautiful song in what I thought a beautiful movie, The Greatest Showman, that speaks of manifesting one’s individuality. The following video is quite moving, for it shows someone who feels as if she came out of the oppression you experience when you don’t feel welcome for who you are.

The shout, “THIS IS ME,” and Socrates’ “my children are nobody” seem to be so foreign. But this is so only at a superficial level. Socrates wants his children to be reminded that they are nobody whenever they believe they are somebody. For human beings, this usually happens when we fall in love with what the world has made us to be and we consider this product of our era as our true self. In fact, Socrates’ philosophy is a call for each one of us to find ourselves: our true selves. For this, one needs to be reminded first that whatever he considers himself to be is a nobody created by the world around him: the ideas he has ingurgitated, the fears that formed him, the praises that he received. Socrates only says that we need to remember that all of those things are not us, but are the nobodies that they created. Give them up, and the true self will shine, he seems to say. It is most likely that we would not need to shout to the world that “this is me” when we truly find it.

Constellations

Five years ago, Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison was published in English.

Immigrant on Earth

A while ago, Reflection Publishing published a small but precious book,AspaziaOtel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison. The book is about one of Mrs. Petrescu’s experiences in communist prisons in Romania, but it is also about more than this: suffering and forgiveness, personhood, and genuine life in communion with all people. In fact, if we listen attentively, I think we discover that, while seemingly describing suffering in prisons, Mrs. Otel Petrescu talksabout love.

My wife, Elena, translated the text from Romanian. I copy here a short passage from the introduction I wrote for the book.

Aspazia Oțel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison is a testimony for how one finds one’s true freedom, how one remains a person. I refer here to only one aspect of her book for it brings with itself a beautiful concept: the fact that people are connected over centuries as in a constellation…

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Moments of travel with Dostoevsky and Elder Cleopa

I left home to go home.

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There are so many cemeteries on the way from Fagaras to the airport. In the speed of the car, I think I see one with soldiers fallen during WWI. So many young people who could not be mourned by their unborn children… Still, they are my “parents.” I can mourn them. Or I can rejoice in them. I carry them with me, whether I want it or not. And I am most aware of it when I see the cross from my own tomb before my eyes. “The highest wisdom of human beings?” asked Elder Cleopa. He answered, “Death! Death! Death!”

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“Only in the light of Dostoevsky’s fundamental artistic task […] can one begin to understand the profound organic cohesion, consistency and wholeness of Dostoevsky’s poetics.” Bakhtin is correct: there is consistency and wholeness in Dostoevsky’s work. Perhaps because of his dialogism as well, but for sure for one other reason: death is the one that gives consistency to his world. Everything in Dostoevsky’s writings can be understood as long as we begin with the end, the inevitable end of all of his characters; the inevitable end of all human beings. Dostoevsky’s world is cohesive inasmuch as it is governed by death. Paradoxically, some may say, but most naturally, I would say, it is this death that gives light, brilliance, to all human beings.

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I got on the plane. There’s a lady next to me. She has two toddlers. “She will cry,” she says, pointing to her daughter. She’s probably one year old, and she’s so full of life. She has no inhibitions and makes sure that everyone around her is aware of her presence. Two seats in front of me, a young adult is playing on his phone. His earbuds in his ears, he’s completely closed to everyone around him. How many prayers does he carry with him? Do his parents’ thoughts embrace him on his journey?

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A few years ago, I went to Fr. Roman Braga’s funeral. The day before the entombment, the church at the Dormition Monastery was full: clergy and people, all brought together by their love for Fr. Roman. His corps was laying in the middle of the church, facing the altar, and we were all singing: “Christ is Risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

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The little girl fell asleep, and so my seat neighbor enjoys some peace and quiet. We all do.

We can be so separated, and still so united. Flying together to various “homes,” flying together to personal deaths. Still, each one of us is embraced by so many angels. Just like this girl, whose mother keeps her in her arms, without complaining for one moment, although she could not move for an hour. She only smiles, looking at her girl. Blessed are those whose arms are other people’s seatbelts. And blessed are those who have their seatbelts on for the moment of landing.