Paradise Besieged

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place. My possessions consist of a knapsack with dry crusts of bread on my back and in my bosom the Holy Bible. This is all!

It’s a simple thing, this first paragraph of The Way of a Pilgrim, but it led a Jewish friend of mine to convert to Orthodox Christianity, forsake the world for ten years of his life as a fanatical novice monk in a monastery of the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, and eventually to write of these experiences and more in his book, Paradise Besieged (also at Amazon), his name being Richard John Friedlander.

Alternately funny, sobering, and sublime, his witty musings on monasticism in particular, and on Orthodoxy in general, should be required reading particularly for those starry-eyed converts to Orthodoxy busily memorizing the canons of The Rudder while growing their beards and hair long(er) and affecting an accent. His not too shocking revelation is that monks are human, just like the rest of us, and that monastic life is a different one than ours in the world, but not necessarily a holier one. It is a lifestyle which is less distracting from the cultivation of holiness, arguably, but life on Mount Athos is not the living embodiment of the ninefold ranks of the angelic forces glorifying God continually in an Edenic manicured park in which beatifically smiling monks stroll gravel paths in the evening discussing the Areopagitica. There are wolves on the prowl nightly on the Holy Mountain, feasting on the unwary. Real wolves, with real prey. Likewise, as in the rest of the world, sin exists there, failure and complacency, selfishness and pride. There is no escaping those on this wide earth, however far you may travel. Even so, the monks there experience the divinization of theosis as we do in the world, with saints there as surely as elsewhere, all by the grace of God. Richard brings to mind that we could all do better. At least that’s what leaps to my mind!

Throughout the book are short passages when, turning from the anecdotal, Richard lets slip with the sublime:

When Francis of Assisi said, “It is more important to love than be loved,” I believe he meant this: If you can love unconditionally, then, it won’t matter to you if you are loved in return: In loving, you are loved. You did not love expecting a reward; you experienced love in the giving of love. If your love carries expectations, however, you won’t know you are loved even if you are. The will to survive becomes the need to love. Pretty much the same can be said about understanding: you will experience understanding of yourself only as you attempt to understand others. And if your focus is on understanding others, then it will not matter if they understand you. Will you succeed? The monk prays only to have the desire to have the desire to pray. The inability to love others of their own kind may be one of the reasons so many find their bliss in the love of Christ.

I recommend Richard’s book wholeheartedly. While it may sound at first as though it’s simply a critique of various failings here, there, and everywhere to do with the center of Orthodox monasticism, it succeeds on a deeper level, particularly on reflection. It doesn’t hurt to know him personally as an intelligent, witty, very well-read and entirely urbane gentleman. Keeping that in mind, it’s a memoir examining, in part, the personal shortcomings of a life half a lifetime past, but with lessons for all of us today, particularly as commentary on where we Orthodox too easily permit those shortcomings to take hold and become the routine, or even the goal, thinking all the while that somebody, somewhere else, is holding the line. While those ideal conversations on an evening stroll discussing the Areopagitica may not be a reality now, there’s no reason not to aim for them to be so in some way in our lives. Likewise, our true surrender to transformation by God will usually turn our ideas of what we think He wants from us on their heads, as we’re confronted with His will for our lives not in an abstract and idealized sense, but in a personal and realized way. This is the Incarnation at work in each of us, in the process of theosis, through as simple and as fearsome a thing as Holy Communion. Such lives can have nothing to do with complacency of any kind in any respect. Richard brings this clearly to mind with this book, if I were to have to pin down “the moral of the story.”

So, get a copy, give it a read, let it sink in, and let me know your thoughts, as well. I know several others are currently reading and enjoying it or recently have. The more, the merrier!

Per decem annos

I’ve been tagged.

1977: In the middle of sixth grade, we moved from Ohio, where I’d been in school since first grade with a bunch of great friends, to California, where I knew no one. The weather was an improvement, but the public schooling was not, the Ohio schools being vastly superior at the time. I, a sixth grader, ended up as a tutor to a fifth grade class. The school officials wouldn’t let me transfer to the honors school, because, they said, my having always been in honors classes I instead needed socialization with “normal” students. Welcome to California, the land of fruits and nuts….

1987: This was the second year of my studies at UC Berkeley, in the Near Eastern Studies department, with a Classical Hebrew emphasis (Biblical through Mishnaic), a program run by Jacob Milgrom at the time. I was also a reader (a paper-grader) for Isaac Kikawada, from whom I learned the foundation and many background stories of Ancient Near Eastern scholarship. I was in my second year of both Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and my first year of Akkadian. This may have been the happiest year of my life.

1997: I was two years into doing IT support for the UC Berkeley Library system (which has twenty-odd branch libraries all over the campus). They’re still using the help desk system that I put together for them at that time.