Tag Archives: wisdom

Many simple people have received.

Whenever I think of St. Innocent of Alaska, I see him in a dogsled or kayak making the rounds to visit his flock, or at a desk creating an alphabet for the language of the Aleuts. But he started life as Ivan Popov, born in a village in Siberia in 1797. When he was six years old his father died, and at the age of ten he entered seminary, “…where the rector renamed him Veniaminov in honor of the recently deceased Bishop Veniamin of Irkutsk.” At the age of twenty he became a deacon, and married, and began to serve at the Annunciation Church in the same village where he had always lived and studied, Irkutsk.

Not long after he was ordained to the priesthood, a call went out for a priest volunteer to become a missionary to the Aleutian Islands, and Father John was the only one willing. It took him and his pregnant wife and small child fourteen months to make the journey; they arrived on the island of Unalaska in 1824.

Father John continued his missionary and pastoral work in Alaska for many decades, during which time he translated parts of the Bible into indigenous languages, designed and built churches with his own hands, and founded a seminary. After his wife died he was tonsured a monk, given the name Innocent, and appointed bishop. Over the course of his life he traveled tens of thousands of miles, sometimes for months at a time, just to keep up with his vast diocese, in which he catechized and baptized more than 10,000 people.

Michael Oleksa writes in Orthodox Alaska, “John Veniaminov was probably the most remarkable Alaskan of his century, perhaps of all time… In popular histories he has often been singled out as the one truly bright spot in the darkness of the Russian-American colony.” His faith and bravery, and his dedication to his flock, are certainly inspiring, but the breadth of his skills in carpentry, clock making and organ building, and his accomplishments as a naturalist and linguist also capture my imagination.

St. Michael’s Cathedral, Sitka, before 1895

About his linguistic study of the Aleutian-Fox language, Fr. John wrote, “In compiling the grammar of a language like the Aleutian, at first I deemed it to be useless; I knew it was of no use to the Aleuts, for without this grammar they can express themselves correctly to each other; neither was it of any particular value to foreigners. But knowing with what… eagerness many scientists are collecting all sorts of information, and how important every little discovery is to them, I decided to compile a grammar… It cannot be possible that the Aleutian language had any other spoken tongue similar to it, but that the grammar could show some evidence of its origin.”

Sketch by Louis Choris – 19th century

The quote above comes to us from Fr. Andrew Kashevarov, whom Oleksa also quotes about Fr. John’s naturalist studies: “Having thoroughly acquainted himself with the fauna of the islands, especially the fur seal… he offered as a result of his extensive investigations certain valuable suggestions to the fur company for more sensible and scientific modes for harvesting these animals. The suggestions were accepted and applied, and not only saved the seal herd from depletion, but also from complete extermination….”

When as a priest he was transferred to Sitka, he designed and built St. Michael’s Cathedral, which continues as a house of worship today. I wonder if I might one day visit this church… I haven’t read all of Orthodox Alaska, but stories of St. Herman and St. Innocent, and accounts of friends who have visited, are seeds that could sprout into my own tiny adventure.

I started writing what I intended to be a short introduction, on the feast day of the canonization of St. Innocent, to a quote from him that I found in our church bulletin. I began to wonder if the quote (below) was from the guide Fr. John wrote in Aleut and Russian in 1901, Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven. I discovered that the whole article on the Christian life is available to read on the site linked, but the quote doesn’t seem to be from that work.

Whatever its source, I find it lovely that this word about the Holy Scriptures is the one to conclude my post; of all the people who might have cause to glory in his human knowledge, St. Innocent is a shining example. But he clearly understands the incomparable value of Divine Wisdom and exhorts us to humbly pursue it above all:

The Holy Spirit may be received by reading and listening to the Holy Scripture as the true Word of God. Holy Scripture is a great treasury from which we can draw light and life—light to enlighten and inform every man, and life to quicken, comfort and delight everyone. Holy Scripture is one of the greatest of God’s blessings to man, and it is a blessing which can be enjoyed and used by anyone who wishes to do so.

And it needs to be said that Holy Scripture is divine wisdom, and wisdom so wonderful that it can be understood and comprehended by the simplest and most unlearned person; that
is why many simple people, by reading or listening to Holy Scripture, have become pious and have received the Holy Spirit.

But there have also been people, and even educated people, who read Holy Scripture and erred and were lost. This is because the former read it in simplicity of heart and without sophistry and rationalizations and did not seek learning in it, but grace, power and spirit; while the latter on the contrary, regarding themselves as people who were wise and knew everything, sought in it not the power of and spirit of the Word of God, but worldly wisdom, and instead of humbly receiving all that Providence was pleased to reveal to them, they tried to discover and learn what has been hidden; and that is why they fell unto unbelief or schism.

It is easier to pour the whole sea into a tiny cup than for a man to comprehend all the wisdom of God. And so, when you read or listen to Holy Scripture, lay aside all your wisdom and submit yourself to the Word and will of Him Who speaks to you through Holy Scripture; and ask Jesus Christ to instruct you Himself, to enlighten your mind and give you a desire to read Holy Scripture and do what it says.

—St. Innocent of Alaska

Integrated into a large choreography.

Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of martial manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into large choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom.

In Christian tradition, reason was praised as a high and precious thing, principally because it belonged intrinsically to the dignity of beings created in the divine image; and, this being so, it was assumed that reason is also always morality, and that charity is required for any mind to be fully rational. Even if one does not believe any of this, however, a rational life involves at least the ability to grasp what it is one does not know, and to recognize that what one does know may not be the only kind of genuine knowledge there is.

-David Bentley Hart, from Atheist Delusions

A beginning in June and forever.

From St. Nikolai’s Prologue for today:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).

If someone knew the number of stars in the heavens and the names of the fish in the sea and the amount of the grass in the field and the habits of the beasts in the forest, but did not have the fear of God, his knowledge would be as water in a sieve. And his knowledge would make him a greater coward in the face of death than the completely ignorant.

If someone could guess all the thoughts of mankind and foretell the fate of mankind and reveal every mystery that the earth conceals in its depths, but did not have the fear of God, his knowledge would be as milk poured into an unclean container, by which all the milk would be spoiled. And, in the hour of his death, his wisdom would not shine even as much as a piece of charcoal without a flame, but would make the night of his death even darker.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….

….The fear of God is the salt of all piety. If there is no such salt then all of our piety is insipid and lax. The fear of God girds the loins, girdles the stomach, makes the heart sober, restrains the mind, and flogs self-will. Where is repentance without the fear of God? Where is humility? Where is restraint? Where is chastity? Where is patience? Where is service and obedience?

O my brethren, let us embrace this word as the holy truth: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. O Lord Almighty, implant Your fear in our hearts.

–St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Homily for June 1 from The Prologue of Ohrid

The Hungry Soul – How Science Disappoints

Previous posts on this book:

In the Introduction to his book, Leon Kass writes of his purposes: “I hope to provide evidence that the modern corporealists — those who deprecate or deny the soul — and their modern rationalist or humanist opponents –those who deprecate or deny the body — are both mistaken, both about living nature and about man. I seek such evidence in an examination of eating.”

Here the author conveys an understanding of reality that is more in line with orthodox Christianity than that of many who profess Christ, for he sees that we are unified creatures; our bodies are essential to who we are, not just shells that we hope to escape. He even goes further than what I would assent to, stating that his meaning of “soul” is “primarily not a theological but a biological notion!” (Yes, he put that exclamation point there himself.)

You should know at the outset, however, that I use the term [soul] advisedly and without apology, even though I know that it will cause most scientists to snicker and many others knowingly to smile. These skeptics need to learn that it is only because they in fact have a soul that they are able to find such (or any) speech intelligible, amusing, or absurd. Indeed, only the ensouled — the animate, the animal — can even experience hunger, can know appetite, desire, longing.

It is not, then, only the scientists who are giving us only part of the picture, but also the teachers of humanities (I don’t want to call them humanists, as their vision is too stunted), whom Kass and his wife would call colleagues, as they both are themselves university professors in the humanities.

…the humanities have long been in retreat from the pursuit of wisdom. Analytical clarity, logical consistency, demystification, and refutation; source criticism, philology, and the explication of thinkers solely in terms of their historical and cultural contexts; and the devotion to theoretical dogmas – formerly romanticism and historicism, nowadays Marxism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, feminism, and many other “isms” – all these preoccupations keep humanists busy with everything but the pursuit of wisdom about our own humanity.

James Le Fanu

While I was in the middle of thinking about Kass’s book, I heard another writer on scientific topics interviewed on Mars Hill Audio. James Le Fanu is a physician and author whose book The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine won the Los Angeles Prize Book Award in 2001. He was speaking in the interview about his recent book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu is also concerned about the reductionist and unsatisfying science that purports to tell us all there is to know. Before the notion of science appeared in the early 19th century the idea of the metaphysical was part of the common sense of mankind. Galileo and Newton and Kepler had an instinctive recognition that whatever science couldn’t explain, there was “something beyond.” Their study of Natural Philosophy was encompassed in the larger whole of the love of wisdom.

Nowadays, says Le Fanu, science is boring, and “to be a career scientist is to be in a very small hole,” as they are so specialized in their work, and in their education there is nothing like the older biology textbooks that were “full of awe and wonder and astonishment.” Le Fanu said that in the scientific journals he reads and in his talks with scientists, he has not noticed that any individual scientists are fully appreciating the mystery and glory of the human being.

But we assume that at least some of those scientists leave their holes each night and go home to prune the roses, eat a tasty dinner and play with their children, showing what Kass calls “the disquieting disjunction between the vibrant living world we live in and enjoy as human beings and the limited, artificial, lifeless, objectified, representation of that world we learn about from modern biology.”

As Kass is seeing the non-material aspects of our humanity demonstrated through the very material and natural activity of eating, so Le Fanu sees them revealed ever more obviously by the recent discoveries of science. Everything we learn seems to show how amazingly complex and unknowable by scientific study is “the most important part of the human experience…the nonmaterial thoughts and ideas and feelings and relationships..all the sorts of things we do the whole time….”

I loved listening to someone who is knowledgeable about the latest breakthroughs in the world of science talk about the “five cardinal mysteries” of the human experience. I ordered his book and have been relishing it on every level. Here is another man whose own soul is well-rounded and developed enough that he is a good writer, a practicing physician, and a person who can wonder at the Creation.

If we had a few more men like Kass and Le Fanu, true Natural Philosophers who don’t reduce life and reality to systems and ideologies, but who are willing to be open to that Something Beyond, the world would be a better place. Perhaps some of the upcoming homeschoolers who are getting a foundation in the kind of Poetic Knowledge that Charlotte Mason and James S. Taylor teach will have the ability to benefit from their scientific studies and to find them not boring but joyful.