My son Gregory was no more than six years old when he told me that he had to stop thinking about numbers that were infinite because it was making him anxious realizing that they went on and on, having no end. He said he was afraid of losing his mind.
“Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 1:7) I’m not sure that includes contemplation of the infinite series of numbers, but Gregory’s choice certainly reveals a profoundly important dimension of self-awareness and discernment necessary for making the decision to change the focus of one’s attention. This is fundamental to spiritual warfare. I was impressed.
Machines, at least so far, haven’t shown such wisdom. Computers get stuck in infinite feedback loops because they persist in pursuing something impossible to the end. Since such feedback loops are endless, the computer is trapped burning up electricity going nowhere while accomplishing nothing. The faster its processer speed, the more energy it uses going nowhere faster while accomplishing nothing. That’s what addicts and persons captured by the passions do – keep on taking more of the destructive substance or engaging in hurtful thoughts, that are making you miserable so you take even more without realizing you are losing your mind in the process.
But how do we know when to persist and when not to? How is it we human beings can avoid Gregory’s dilemma with infinite numbers when confronted by an infinitely loving God who cannot be contemplated as an object but can be encountered as a person? A God who is both nowhere and now here at the same time?
I had been drawn to Eastern Orthodox Christianity by the writers of the Philokalia with their emphasis on the conditions necessary for deep collected imageless attention to Christ in prayer. Talk about the necessity for persistence! Archimandrite Sophrony says “Each and every kind of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We may be capable of working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few moments of prayer and we are exhausted.”[i]
We named our first born and only son Gregory, from the ancient Greek (γρηγορέω) which means to “keep awake and watch” for Christ and for any thoughts that need to be disengaged the way Gregory disengaged from thinking about infinity. From the beginning I wanted him to be interested in noticing the unnoticeable and persisting in encountering the One beyond this world who visits us and comes closer to us than our own breath without us even realizing it.
I’ve always thought that a good name is better than precious ointment (Ecclesiastes 7:1) and wanted Gregory to be reminded of the most important thing, to “keep awake and watch” for something far greater than a mere numerical concept of infinity, every time he heard his name. I wanted him to keep awake for God who is looking for him forever! I wanted him to be one of those “spiritual firebrands” lit up with the Uncreated Light, that my Seminary professor Fr. Georges Florovsky said the Church needed to renew its life.
When Gregory was eight years old the youth of the church and I made a video entitled “Wisdom of the Ages.” We visited all the members of the church over 85 years old and they filmed me as I asked the elders various questions like “What advice would you give young people about marriage?” “What do you remember about your first kiss?” and “If it weren’t for your bodily aches and pains, how old would you say you are inside?” (All but one of them said they were in their 20’s.)
One man, Harold Trout told us about literally catching fire, but it wasn’t the Uncreated Light. As a young man he was struck by lightning and survived. We caught his story on film and it was included near the end as one of the highlights. We clipped the pieces together and overlayed an old Beatles song for the intro, “When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…” After it was finished, we had a church dinner and the grand finale was watching the film together, nestled cozily in the church basement where we had our banquet hall.
As we approached the part of the film where Harold talked about lighting up like a Christmas tree, a thunderstorm had rolled in outside. Suddenly there was big crack and a ball of lightning came down through the ceiling into the basement and rolled across the linoleum floor like a giant tumbleweed. We were stunned at first. I’d never seen anything like that before. I didn’t know what “ball lightning” was.
No one was hurt, but that pretty much ended the movie and we never did get to the lightning part. But who cares? A real encounter is a thousand times more valuable than stories about one. It was dark and drizzling a little and people headed for their homes. After packing up I was walking across the sidewalk to our parsonage next door to the church when Gregory came up to me and said quietly, “Daddy, the church is on fire. I told Mr. S. and Mr. B, but they didn’t believe me.”
I didn’t have to think twice. “Show me.” He pointed up to the top of the steeple where there was a metal cap that was smoking. The fire department arrived shortly after I called and we discovered that some dry beams in the ceiling had caught fire and were smoldering, but the 100 year old building was safe because they caught it in time. There wasn’t even enough damage to have to make a repair.
Maybe it was the fact that we were all gathered together in the church about to listen to Harold’s close encounter with a lighting bolt when we were visited by the real thing that got me pondering. Or maybe it was because a ball of lightning descended upon us and rolled across our path without hurting anyone. Or maybe it was because the Church was actually on fire. Or maybe it was because Gregory was awake and watchful when the elders weren’t. He had the discernment to know when to persist, when people who knew better told him he was wrong. Mary Magdalene had that problem with the disciples too. But some things are too important to turn away from, whatever the cost.
A good name is indeed better than precious perfume and it is quite true, that according to the wisdom of God, at the right time, “a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6). Christ is Risen! An Uncreated Light has dawned among us. Let us keep awake and watch for we know not when the Master will return, lest he find us sleeping. (Mark 13:36)
[i] Archimandrite Sophrony His Life Is Mine, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood NY, 1977 pp 55-56