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.

The Oracle of Hystaspes

For a project I’m working on, I needed to look up the Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont classic Les Mages Hellénisés: Zoroastre Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque (2 vols. Paris: Société d’Édition “Les Belles Letters”, 1938), specifically for the fragments of the lost Oracle of Hystaspes, which are typically referenced according to their arrangement in this very work. Those interested in apocalyptic writings should find interest in these selections, as they are often referred to, but generally inacessible.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Oracle of Hystaspes is a lost pseudepigraphal book, with only one direct quote surviving, but with (perhaps extensive) allusions to it found in several ancient writers, primarily Lactantius. While some would argue the Oracle comes from an authentic Persian and Zoroastrian background, others hold that it was not an authentic work of Persian origin, but one of numerous similar syncretistic Hellenistic texts, which seems most likely, or perhaps even a Jewish-adapted pseudepigraph. The book as a whole is unfortunately lost, so speculation on the details of the character of the original is fruitless. Suffice it to say, the work of Bidez and Cumont has been accepted as indicating all the most likely remnants of the Oracle of Hystaspes, and theirs is the standard numeration of the fragments, all of which are found below in English translation, my own and others’. The numeration of fragments begins with number 6 because numbers 1 through 5 were dedicated to ancient testimonies of the author alone, with no reference to the work itself. The English translations below follow precisely the ellipses given in the Greek and Latin texts. I would’ve translated everything from scratch, but I was feeling lazy. Enjoy!

Continue reading “The Oracle of Hystaspes”

An Alphabet

A is the Alphabet, A at its head ;
     A is an Antelope, agile to run.
B is the Baker Boy bringing his bread,
     Or black Bear and brown Bear, both begging for bun.

C is a Cornflower come with the corn ;
     C is a Cat with a comical look.
D is a dinner which Dahlias adorn ;
     D is a Duchess who dines with a Duke.

E is an elegant eloquent Earl ;
     E is an Egg whence an Eaglet emerges.
F is a Falcon, with feathers to furl ;
     F is a fountain of full foaming surges.

G is the Gander, the Gosling, the Goose ;
     G is a Garnet in girdle of gold.
H is a Heartsense, harmonious of hews ;
     H is a huge Hammer, heavy to hold.

I is an Idler who idles on ice ;
     I am I–who will say I am not I?
J is a Jacinth, a jewel of price ;
     J is a Jay, full of joy in July.

K is a King, or a Kaiser still higher ;
     K is a kitten, or quaint Kangaroo.
L is a Lute or a lovely-toned Lyre ;
     L is a Lily all laden with dew.

M is a Meadow where Meadowsweet blows ;
     M is a mountain made dim by a mist.
N is a nut–in a nutshell it grows–
     Or a Next full of Nightingales singing–oh list !

O is an Opal, with only one spark ;
     O is an Olive, with oil on its skin.
P is a Pony, a pet in a park ;
     P is the Point of a Pen or a Pin.

Q is a Quail, quick-chirping at morn ;
     Q is a Quince quite ripe and near dropping.
R is a Rose, rosy red on a thorn ;
     R is a red-breasted Robin come hopping.

S is a Snow-storm that sweeps o’er the Sea ;
     S is the Song that the swift Swallows sing.
T is the Tea-table set out for Tea ;
     T is a Tiger with terrible spring.

U, the Umbrella, went up in a shower ;
     Or Unit is useful with ten to unite.
V is a Violet veined in the flower ;
     V is a Viper of venemous bite.

W stands for the water-bred Whale–
     Stands for the wonderful Waxwork so gay.
X, or XX, or XXX, is ale,
     Or Policeman X, excercised day after day.

Y is a yellow Yacht, yellow its boat ;
     Y is the Yacca, the Yam, or the Yew.
Z is a Zebra, zigzaggèd his coat,
     Or Zebu, or Zoöphyte, seen at the Zoo.

Christina Georgina Rossetti
circa 1875

The Short History of the Antichrist: part 2

The continuation and conclusion. I may do more work on this, but this will suffice for now.

The Beginning of the Short History of the Antichrist, continued
Soon after the publication of “The Open Way,” which made its author the most popular man that had ever lived on earth, an international constitutional congress of the Union of European States was to be held in Berlin. This Union, founded after a series of international and civil wars which had been brought about by the liberation from the Mongolian yoke, and had resulted in considerable alteration in the map of Europe, was now faced with the potential for conflict, not between nations, but between various political and social parties. The heads of general European politics, who belonged to the powerful brotherhood of Freemasons, felt the inadequacy of the general executive power. The European unity achieved at such a great cost was at that moment threatening to fall to pieces. There was no unanimity in the Union Council or “Comité permanent universel,” as not all the seats were in the hands of true Masons dedicated to this end. The independent members of the Council were entering into separate agreements, and things seemed to be drifting toward another war. The “initiated” then decided to establish a personal executive power endowed with extraordinary authority. The principal candidate was a secret member of the Order—the Coming Man. He was the only man with a great world-wide fame. Being by profession a learned artillery officer, and by his source of income a wealthy capitalist, he was on friendly terms among all financial and military circles. In another, less enlightened time, there might have been put against him the fact of his extremely obscure origin. His mother, a lady of indulgent conduct, was very well known in both hemispheres, but too many people had grounds to consider themselves his progenitor. These circumstances, however, could not carry any weight in an age which was so advanced as for even him to consider it actually the last one. The Coming Man was almost unanimously elected as President of the United States of Europe for life. And when he appeared on the platform in all the brilliance of his young superhuman beauty and power, and with inspired eloquence expounded his universal program, the assembly was carried away by the spell of his personality, and in an outburst of enthusiasm decided, even without voting, to give him the highest honour, by electing him Roman Emperor.

Continue reading “The Short History of the Antichrist: part 2”

The Short History of the Antichrist: part 1

As I promised in my last post, here is a new translation of the full chapter of Vladimir Solovyov’s chapter “The Beginning of the Short History of the Antichrist”, from his book-length work Three Dialogues on War, Progress, the End of Universal History, and the Beginning of the Short History of the Antichrist. I’ve included the last section of the chapter on the End of Universal History, as it describes the origin of the final chapter in the manuscript of an Orthodox monk.

The following is essentially my tweaking of an English translation from 1915 of the book, done by Alexander Bakshy. The changes are more extensive than a word here and there, but they’re not so extensive as to call it fully a new translation. As usual, I seem to start off more cautiously, and have ended up making more changes further along. The second part will follow later in the day.

One thing you’ll notice is that most people are probably familiar with an edited version of this tale, one which excludes quite a bit of it, actually. Solovyov was surprisingly perceptive. In this history, Solovyov, who didn’t live to see the dawn of the twentieth century, rightly pegged it as a century of war and social disturbance. His description of the imperial designs of Japan are shockingly close to the reality of Japan’s plans in World War II. This first section, setting the stage for the history of the Anti-Christ proper, is also quite obviously built upon a biblical foundation, and is as much a part of The Short History of the Antichrist as the latter part of the chapter. It’s a fascinating tale, and I hope it will be even more well-appreciated and more well-known, as it is difficult to come across the full text in English.

The entire book is depicted as a dialog between several characters, and the text is laid out like that of a play, with each character’s lines and actions separate. It’s not a common format anymore for even novels with extensive dialogue, but he wrote it, of course, in 1899-1900, it being one of his last works. Enjoy!

Continue reading “The Short History of the Antichrist: part 1”

Solovyov’s Short History of the Antichrist

Below is the Russian original of Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov’s Short History of the Antichrist, from this handy site which has all his writings online, with original (?) footnotes, which I’ve included here. If you are familiar with the English version, and you’re able to read the Russian, you’ll notice that there is a slight (ha!) difference between the two. The book from which this story originally comes, Три разговора о войне, прогрессе, и конце всемирной истории со включением краткой повести об антихристе (Three Dialogues on War, Progress, the End of Universal History, and the Beginning of the Short History of the Antichrist), published in English as War, Progress, and the End of History, (notice the implicit rejection in the translation title of the Christian eschatology of Solovyov–mustn’t frighten the natives!) was written in dialogue form. How very Patristic of him!

My Russian is poor, but I may assay a translation of this in the future, or just wimp out and scan one of the old English translations. In the meantime, my readers who are fluent in Russian may enjoy seeing this tale here, and I will also have it easily accessible. The English version I have begins at the second paragraph (Был в это время…), leaving out the beginning dialog and first very long paragraph, and it ends at the end of the last large paragraph of the original with Они ожили и воцарились с Христом на тысячу лет, in English, And they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. That last line doesn’t really give the story away, I think. Anyhow, enjoy it!

[Due to an increased amount of Russian spam comments, I’ve removed the text of Solovyov’s chapter from this entry, and placed it in a zipped Word document.