“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.
“It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Jean-Claude Larchet is a contemporary French patristics scholar and theologian who has written on diverse subjects such as the Theology of Illness, life after death, and mental disorders. (I’m currently reading his The New Media Epidemic.) Several years ago our parish did a study of his book, Theology of the Body, and last week when I was thinking on that topic I was glad to find it still on my shelf.
In the chapter on “The Body in Spiritual Life,” Larchet discusses the physical aspects of our worship, beginning with the tradition of standing in church, “… a posture that symbolizes the resurrection, that key point of the Christian faith and hope.”
“In addition, mention may also be made of the ‘passive’ liturgical participation of the body in the setting that is so characteristic of the Orthodox Church, where the splendor of the celebration, so often misunderstood by those who have no experience of its meaning, has an important spiritual role to play – the beauty of the architecture and the ‘decoration’ of the churches whose walls are covered with frescoes and icons; the solemn character of the services; the richness of the celebrants’ vestments; the magnificence of the chants; the incense; the lights of the lamps and candles; and so on. All these things – which never cease to awaken a sense of wonder in the faithful – have a fourfold meaning.”
Two of those “folds” are 1) “symbolizing the kingdom of heaven, and 2) “giving the faithful, in a symbolic way, a taste of the riches and glory of the kingdom of heaven, and also of the new conditions of existence there, when the body is transfigured along with all the senses….”
The next and last paragraph I will share here struck me as alluding to realities so holistic and fundamental that they must constitute the very business of our life. The story we can read in the specific details tells who we are and what we are made for, and includes many mystical, or hidden, elements, no less real for their hiddenness. It is the true story of humanity:
“The very interior of an Orthodox church introduces the body into a space that is different from the ordinary; it is a space transfigured and sacred, whose profound symbolism is superbly analyzed by St. Maximus the Confessor in his Mystagogia. He stresses in particular that the church’s spatial structure symbolizes the human being: the altar representing the spirit, the sanctuary the soul, and the nave the body. Conversely, the human being symbolizes the church: his spirit is, as it were, an altar; his soul, a sanctuary; and his body, a nave. And this is not simply by their nature but by their own specific functions in spiritual life: the body represents in particular the practical or ethical dimensions; the soul stands for the contemplative dimension; and the spirit its pinnacle, theologia, in which the believer receives from the Holy Spirit supernatural knowledge of the divine mysteries.”
Friends of mine were chatting over tea this week about how, if your neighbors are actively cooking up crystal meth in their garage, it creates a strong chemical smell that will accost you when you’re strolling by. In my neighborhood we have been aware of more than one such small industry in the last 30 years, but I didn’t know about the strong “flavor” that might have been wafting down the street back then.
Our conversation reminded me to tell about a book I read last month, on the subject of drug use in Nazi Germany. Normal Ohler’s book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, published five years ago, is not the first that has ever been written on the subject, but it’s the only one I’m likely to read. The story about how I came to delve into that depressing topic is a meandering one; I’ll return to it another time.
As I read in a brief interview with the author: A Fresh Light on the Nazis’ Wartime Drug Addiction, the original German title of the book is Der totale Rausch, or “Total Rush,” a play on the phrase “total war” that the Nazis used. The first substance discussed in the book is Pervitin, a drug that contains methamphetamine, which by the late 1930’s people all over Germany were using like coffee, to boost their energy. “Pervitin became a symptom of the developing performance society. Boxed chocolates spiked with methamphetamine were even put on the market. A good 14 milligrams of methamphetamine was included in each individual portion — almost five times the amount in a Pervitin pill.”
Soon it was being distributed to German soldiers in large quantities to help them stay awake for days at a time. Official records on how many millions of pills were manufactured and delivered to the troops during the war years, and references in correspondence and official directives, all testify to how pervasive the use of this addictive upper was. One military report after the invasion of Poland in 1939: “Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors.”
Music is sometimes really a great consolation to me (not forgetting Pervitin, which provides a wonderful service — particularly during air raids at night). -Heinrich Böll
At first it was considered a medicine, but after the Reich health officer Leonardo Conti warned that the use of Pervitin was actually “terrible abuse being practiced in the widest circles of the population,” in 1941 it was outlawed, and from then until the end of the war only military doctors had access to it. Conti kept speaking out, but he was fighting a losing battle. The military found the stimulant essential, in spite of it not being in line with the Nazi propaganda about the superior Aryan race being morally superior and physically fit, certainly not drug users.
Either you give up smoking or you give up me. -Adolf Hitler to Eva Braun
Hitler himself, however, needed something to boost his own performance, and he became increasingly dependent on the pills and injections provided by his personal doctor, Theodor Morell. Ohler concludes that Eukodal (oxycodone, OxyContin) was Morell’s narcotic of choice for his patient, and maybe it was the most destructive one in the long term; but from the doctor’s detailed notes Ohler calculated that Hitler, listed as “Patient A,” was given “methamphetamines, steroids and other substances 800 times in 1349 days, and took 1100 pills.” The eventual challenge of finding a fresh injection site was also noted.
You must be healthy, you must stay away from that which poisons your bodies. We need a sober people! In future the German will be judged entirely by the works of his mind and the strength of his health. -Adolf Hitler
In the interview linked above, Ohler recounts: “Hitler loved Eukodal. Especially in the fall of 1944, when the military situation was quite bad, he used this strong drug that made him euphoric even when reality wasn’t looking euphoric at all. The generals kept telling him: ‘We need to change our tactics. We need to end this. We are going to lose the war.’ And he didn’t want to hear it. He had Dr. Morell give him the drugs that made him feel invulnerable and on top of the situation.'”
When Germany did indeed begin to lose the war, and supplies of drugs dwindled, then Hitler may have suspected what was happening to him, and that he was going through withdrawal. Descriptions of his last days are painfully graphic:
“At six o’clock in the morning, after the military briefing, during which he had fumbled ceaselessly with his empty pillbox, Patient A lay completely exhausted and apathetic on a small sofa, filled only with the single thought that the best meal of the day was on its way: a mug of hot chocolate and cakes, three plates full of them. Sugar was the final drug: one more minute release of dopamine, one more small reward for the soul. Those bright blue eyes, once so hypnotic, were now dull. Crumbs stuck to his purple lips: a sweet-eating human ruin wrapped in slack skin. His body felt numb, as if he were no longer present in it. His temperature was always high. Every so often he’d go into the oxygen tent.”
You have all agreed that you want to turn me into a sick man. -Adolf Hitler
Before I read this book, I had no idea about the use of stimulant drugs in the wars of the 20th century. Evidently the British and American forces also made use of amphetamines, primarily the somewhat less harmful Benzedrine. In the Korean War soldiers concocted an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin and called it the speedball.
The only military drug-use-abuse I’d heard of was in Syria, where I.S.I.S. was giving drugs including the amphetamine Captagon to soldiers, who reported that it “gives you great courage and power.” It helped explain how they could make human boys into killing machines.
A long time ago I came across some discussion of military history that I think must have originated with S.L.A. Marshall and his book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command. He concluded from studying multiple wars that fewer than 25% of soldiers ever fire at the enemy, and he thought that part of the reason was, they did not want to kill their fellow humans: “He will not…take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility, and at the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector.” Many people discredit his particular research data, but his conclusions have been confirmed by other studies going back to the 18th century.
I don’t know if he compared the firing ratio of different cultures and nations, or considered their possible intake of mind-altering substances; but considering that humans are made in the image of God, I do believe that deep down we are averse to killing. The concoctions of drugs that contribute to the alienation of men from their true natures, at the same time injuring their beautiful bodies, are a regrettable accomplishment of modern technology.
The real war will never get in the books. -Walt Whitman