You are not your thoughts

I’m reading through Fr. Damascene’s Christ the Eternal Tao, and expect it to occupy me for quite awhile. Not because it’s difficult reading, it’s quite clear and approachable. I can’t recommend it as an introduction to the topic—it may be that, but what I’m finding helpful are the connections it makes between Christian and Zen concepts, ideas I’m already very familiar with (though puzzled by) on their own. For any given pair of concepts (e.g. grace/virtue, mindfulness/watchfulness) I seem to have grasped different aspects of the idea in each tradition, and so focusing on the parallels has deepened my understanding of it in both traditions.

Fr. Damascene approaches philosophical Zen—the tradition as it originally existed around 500 BC, as opposed to later versions which took on the trappings of a religion—as a foreshadowing of Christianity. Put another way, Lao Tzu went as far as a man can go in intuiting the nature of God’s economy without the help of special revelation, i.e. the Way made flesh. He deliberately contrasts this with a syncretistic approach, which would try to extract the best of both worldviews and form a third. In one place online Fr. Damascene strongly suggests that Thomas Merton was guilty of such syncretism. I don’t know if that is true, but I do find Fr. Damascene easier to understand that Merton precisely because he is so dogmatic—his statements are clear and straightforward and above all confident. Perhaps overconfident at times, but I’ll sort through that eventually.

I’ve long been puzzled about how I should relate to my thoughts, in particular what if anything I can (or should) do to control them. Zen speaks to this, but I never understood what it said about it. Turns out the Eastern Orthodox mystics say very similar things, but in a way I find more approachable.

Above all, our inward attention should be directed at thoughts. This is because, in the words of St. Theophan, “Sinful passions and desires rarely attack by themselves. They are most often born of thoughts.” From this we can make a rule: Cut off thoughts, and you will cut off everything.

When thoughts come, we should not attempt to get involved or argue with them. For such struggle only binds us to them. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos affirms, “The experience of the holy Fathers shows various ways of combating intrusive thoughts, but it is best of all not to argue with them. The mind that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after. Having diverted the mind from God, they confuse it, and it will not emerge clean.” Here he is speaking specifically of intrusive thoughts that come during prayer.

Struggle against thoughts is vain and futile. It is enough simply to observe the thoughts as they arise, and then let them go without reacting to them or following them. “When someone is in the beginning of his spiritual life,” says Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, “he should not study a lot, but instead watch himself and observe his thoughts.”

Well, that’s certainly not the usual advice! And it’s reasonable to wonder whether it’s worth following, since it is often (as here) presented in the context of achieving some thought-free state.

But Fr. Damascene goes on to locate the benefits of such practice in other more practical areas.

In watching over our thoughts, we will be able to cut them off before they develop into passions. In the Philokalia, the growth from a thought into a passion is described with scientific precision. First comes the provocation of the thought, then the conjunction of the thought with emotion, then the joining or agreement of the will with the thought. If the soul does not pull back at this point, the thought becomes a habit, and the mind is constantly preoccupied with the object of his passionate urge.

Finally, the person falls into the captivity of the urge, and rushes gladly and violently to satisfy it. For this reason, it is much better to cut off the sinful thought when it first rises up in us, before it turns into a sinful passion. Just as it is much easier to pull up a tree when it is a seedling than when it is full-grown, so it is much easier to cut off thoughts in the beginning.

Now this I understand. In fact, I can related it fairly directly to Dallas Willard’s writings on how one develops Christian character. I took the goal as one of replacing bad thoughts with good—or, better, cultivating a character from which good rather than bad thoughts naturally arise. But perhaps that is only the result of a more fundamental change:

A spiritual son of Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos recalls, “The elder always tried to have good thoughts. He said to us, however, that it is not necessary to make this our final aim, namely, having good thoughts, because our souls should be purified, even of them, and be left naked, clothed only in the divine grace which we received for free in holy baptism.” The first stage is to cultivate good thoughts. The final stage is to be purified even of good thoughts, to just be enlightened by the grace of God.

(I should point out here that being “purified even of good thoughts” does not suggest that we somehow move beyond goodness, the idea is more that thoughts of any kind are still a mediator between us and God’s economy, and the ultimate goal is to be plugged directly into that economy, to be in perfect alignment with the grain of the universe, which would be true goodness.)

Purifying my own thoughts is a project I need to revisit. I think I’ve made significant progress in not being controlled by my thoughts, even to some extent in detatching from them. But I still trust implicitly in my thoughts, that they are accurate and discerning and even wise. But here lies a danger I haven’t given enough weight to:

The aforementioned Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, a beautiful, innocent soul, and a much loved spiritual father of our times, once said, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost. He hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God, and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism.” A very interesting statement for our times. These are things we are told that we are supposed to have: Self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. We all should be critics. He says that the devil takes from people trust in God, and begins to afflict them with these things.

More good words from Elder Paisos on this:

We ought always to be careful, and be in constant hesitation about whether things are really as we think, for when someone is constantly occupied with his thoughts and trusts in them, the devil will manage things in such a way that he will make the man evil, even if by nature he was good.

The ancient fathers did not trust their thoughts at all, but even in the smallest things, when they had to give an answer, they addressed the matter in their prayer, joining it to fasting, in order to some way “force” divine grace to inform them what was the right answer according to God. And when they received the “information” they gave the answer.

Today, I observe that, even with great matters, when someone asks, before he has even had the time to complete his question, we interrupt him and answer him. This shows that not only do we not seek enlightenment from the grace of God, but we do not even judge with the reason that God gave us. On the contrary, whatever our thoughts suggest to us, immediately, without hesitation, we trust it and consent to it, often with disastrous results.

Almost all of us view thoughts as being something simple and natural, and that is why we naively trust them. However, we should neither trust them, nor accept them. Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head, and permit them to land.

I’ve gone on too long here, but I’m approaching the punchline, the observation that punched me in the gut, about the dangers of being judgmental:

Above all, judgmental thoughts block us from God, since in the very act of harboring them, we are trying to take the place of God, who alone is judge. When we feel an exhilaration by seeming to get on top of someone through judgment, then sooner or later this will lead to inward conflict. If the source of the conflict, which is the soul playing God, is not eradicated, then it can lead to depression and to despair, and even to physical sickness.

The person who is truly following Christ will immediately recognize that the indulgence of a single judgment separates him from God. Therefore, when judgmental thoughts intrude upon his mind, begging to be attended to, and promising the exultation of pride, he immediately cuts them off and lets them pass into oblivion. It does not matter how sagacious, how compelling, how profoundly psychological such judgments appear to him. He wants God above all else, and these thoughts deprive him of God, and so he rejects them.

The 19th century Russian elder, St. Ambrose of Optina, gave this practical advice to his spiritual daughter: “Look at everything simply. Living simply means not judging. Do not judge anyone. For example, ‘Here comes Elikonida. She passed by, and that is all.’ This is what thinking simply means. Otherwise, at seeing Elikonida passing by, you could think about her bad side—she is such and such, her character is thus and so—that is not simple.”

It is not only people that we can judge. We can pass judgment on our surrounding circumstances, or even on life itself. In doing so, we are at heart judging God, himself, often without even knowing it. This, too, is a way of playing God, and so it separates us from him, the source of our life.

This is what I needed to hear. I’ve always been very judgmental. I’ve tempered it over the years by becoming slower to judge, holding my judgments lightly, deepening my understanding of how people and situations came to be where they are, emphasizing the positive over the negative, resisting the temptation to use them for rationalizing. But they remain.

I thought that by getting them in line with God’s judgments (!) I would be doing the right thing, even contributing my best effort to extend the kingdom. Now I think that this attitude may be akin to one we’ve encountered in every child at some point, which inspired our family catch phrases “You’re not the parent,” and “Don’t be the parent, get a parent.” There must be a way to embody goodness without usurping God’s role, and I need to be more diligent about finding it.

One convert every twenty years

Thom Rainer, CEO of Lifeway, writes a blog about church leadership issues. His concerns are far afield from mine, but he helps me stay current on how institutional church insiders are thinking these days.

Yesterday he offered a listicle of diagnostics for checking the health of a church. One caught my eye:

Little evangelistic fruit. As a general rule, a healthy church will reach at least one non-Christian for every 20 in worship attendance. A church with a worship attendance of 200, for example, should see at least ten new Christians a year.

I have three observations. First, this sounds daunting only if you view it collectively. Individually, it means each church member makes one convert every twenty years, right in line with Rodney Stark’s estimate of the growth rate of the church for the first four hundred years. Conversion as a twenty year project sounds realistic to me.

Second, Western Christianity as a whole fails this test, and no matter how you define subgroups most of those fail as well.

Third, I’ve failed this test.

Sometimes you just have to read … and read …

Before I write, I try to have something worth saying. And before I decide whether something is worth saying, I try to spend some time reading up on what others have said about it. Sometimes I discover that someone smarter or wiser or better spoken has said it better, and I limit myself to pondering that and perhaps pointing others to it. Sometimes I encounter challenges, and I put the thing away, hoping to revisit it after further thought and investigation. Sometimes I find that I was just plain wrong, and I discard it with pleasure. Occasionally I’m reassured that what I thought I had to say is sound and worth adding to the conversation, and I’ll write it up.

And sometimes I’ll discover that the thing points to something much more profound, an idea that I shouldn’t even raise without a far deeper understanding of it. If I should ever raise it at all. These are the times at which the blog goes quiet, while I read and read and read.

I wanted to write more about God’s economy and the need to align ourselves with the grain of the universe. But at the same time I happened to read a small book by Toinette Lippe called Caught in the Act, a collection of essays about simple living. The book is a sort of sequel to her Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life, which I read next. Lippe’s thinking is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, but as I read I thought, wow, her descriptions of aligning one’s life with the Tao sure resonate with my own thinking about coming into alignment with the grain of the universe. And then I remembered: wasn’t the Tao a prominent theme in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man? So I re-read that, and was reassured that the Tao is in fact God’s economy, and that I’m not the first to notice this.

Much has been written about the Tao, of course. Not so much from a Christian perspective, but some. Thomas Merton spent the final part of his life exploring the connections between the Tao and Christian mysticism, writing several helpful books. And there is a book I’m waiting on called Christ the Eternal Tao, by an Eastern Orthodox monk, which interprets the teachings of the Tao Te Ching in Christian form. (For a taste of this, see this lecture transcript.)

There’s a lot of mysticism to wade through, and I continue to hold that at arm’s length—not because I discount it, but because I am not yet equipped to grasp it at any level. Too much groundwork yet to be done. And since the groundwork is beneficial in itself, I’m happy to putter along at the lower levels, trusting that what I absorb will eventually open my eyes to see accurately what is and isn’t going on further up and further in.

Meanwhile, there is so much to be learned simply by studying the tension between the Taoist philosophers and Confucianism, a social system built on the foundation of the Tao. The philosophers say that by trying to systematize the Tao, by trying to turn it into a set of rules for living in harmony with the Tao, they produced the opposite effect. In T.S. Eliot’s words, the Confucianists tried “to escape / from the darkness outside and within / by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” I’ve know for a long time that this was the problem with systems. But the Taoist philosophers have much to say about why this happens, which makes me an eager audience for their teachings.

Anyway, that’s a taste of what I’ve been exploring during this period of radio silence.

Prayers Plainly Spoken, by Stanley Hauerwas

Prayer has always puzzled me, and I’m finally to the point where I can admit it openly. Perhaps I’ll write more about that some day, but all I care to mention at this point is that it isn’t for lack of study or effort. Over the years I’ve looked into many different approaches to prayer, tried them all at least tentatively, and read many different writers on the subject. They’ve taught me many different things—though not to pray, at least comfortably—and I’m always open to yet another possibility. So I was glad to learn that Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and writer I much admire, had written a book about prayer, and I quickly ordered a copy.

Prayers Plainly Spoken isn’t the book I hoped it would be—which is fine, since no book on prayer I’ve read so far has been the book I hoped it would be, a strong indication that my hopes are misplaced. It turns out to be a set of prayers Hauerwas wrote and then prayed to open his classes on Christian ethics. I’m looking forward to studying them because they deliberately address God in plain, unpious language, and I’m hoping to more easily see the core of prayer without having to adjust for floweriness and pretense.

In his preface Hauerwas makes a penetrating observation about conventional approaches to prayer.

Notice, for example, how in spite of our best intentions our attention wanders when someone “drops” into the pious tones and set formulas we associate with saying a prayer. That we find it hard to listen, I suspect, is because the “holiness” associated with prayer makes the attitude of prayer more important than the words we way. All that matters is someone is praying. As a result, prayer becomes an emotive exercise that only confirms our anthropocentric needs.

Yup. I tend to tune out of spontaneous corporate prayer exactly because I expect it to be anything but the one thing it is meant to be, speaking to God. I’ve been preached to in prayers, heard sermons recapped, listened to recitations of poor health or difficult circumstances being endured by fellow parishioners, endured political opinions, been reminded of upcoming social events—but rarely overheard someone speaking to God in a natural manner, either individually or on behalf of the group. But I like to think it’s possible. Hauerwas offers the prayers in this book as examples of his own efforts to do exactly that, and so I’m looking forward to seeing exactly how he does that.

Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

I really like this book! I have a weakness for jumping on recommendations from readers I trust, and so when I saw that Cindy Rollins had mentioned it favorably at Goodreads, and that one of the writers was Tracy Kidder, whose books I’ve read and enjoyed (and admired) in the past, I found a used copy on AbeBooks and ordered it.

Above I deliberately wrote “like” rather than “liked” because I’m nowhere near done with it yet, even though I finished it this morning. The book is delightfully short, only 180 pages of generously sized and spaced print, and the graceful writing carries the reader along at a steady clip. But it is also a marvelous thing, a concrete example of what it describes—sustained non-fiction writing that is carefully written and judiciously edited. And as such you can learn the lessons it teaches not just by hearing things the writers (one a journalist, the other his long-time editor) have to say, but also by studying the way they choose to present those things. I’ve said before that Neil Postman’s writing frequently astonishes me when it is especially lucid, conveying a profund thought directly and without writerly interference. The content of this book is not of that order, but the writing sure is.

One of my own rules for writing is: if you can’t provide at least one concrete example, your claim is suspect. So here is an excerpt worth looking at closely from the chapter on Style. A section called “The New Vernacular” begins this way:

Writing in the vernacular has produced some of the glories of American prose. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Hemingway, celebrating that distinctive strain in our writing that makes the diction and rhythm of common speech into art. From Huck to Holden Caufield and beyond, the vernacular has been the expression of youthfulness, both literally and in the broader sense of freshness and impatience with convention.

Of course the unconventional can become conventional, and quickly too, and that seems to have happened in the new vernacular. An aggressive informality infects contemporary prose. The internet has helped to spread it; informality is the natural voice of the blogger.

They next quote a breezy bit of writing from a well-known blog (you can easily conjure up your own, so I won’t reproduce it here), and go on to say:

This is fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar. But familiar in both senses. The new vernacular imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons “You’re family.”

The thought that ends that passage justifies the book for me, a clear statement of a problem I was aware of but only intuitively, clear enough not only to enable identification in the wild but also to avoid the problem in one’s own writing. And that’s not all! The writers reach that height in only one page. How did they do it? It’s instructive to look at the passage in extreme detail to find out how—sentence length, word choice, thoughts per paragraph, thought sequence, and so on.

What I’ve quoted is enough to make my point, but I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph of this two page (!) section.

Breeziness has become for many the literary mode of first resort, a ready-to-wear means to seeming fresh and authentic. The style is catchy, and catching, like any other fashion. Writers should be cautious with this or any orther stylized jauntiness—especially young writers, to whom the tone tends to come easily. The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.

This is a good example of the depths Good Prose manages to plumb, and how. They appreciate and demonstrate the power and attraction of this technique, but they also know full well that it has gone very wrong in contemporary writing, and how, and what the hidden motivations behind it are, and that discerning readers will easily detect the wrongness of it and be put off by it. And the lesson is embedded in prose that is just the opposite—clear, genuine, packed with content, carefully constructed for the reader’s benefit.

Good Prose is not really a manual. The subtitle is “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing”, and that approach is what makes the book especially valuable. Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the writers focus on important aspects of writing nonfiction where they actually have something to say, and then say those things at whatever length is appropriate, sometimes as observations, sometimes as analysis of excerpts from other writes, sometimes as illustrative anecdotes taken from their own experiences with writing and editing, sometimes as pronouncements, sometimes as hard-won advice. It’s all good.

One disappointment was the chapter on essay writing, the space most of my writing occupies—not because it isn’t good, but because it is so short! However, the reason is contained in the chapter itself, where they indicate that essays are weird because they are built on a nonfiction frame with some of the normal constraints relaxed, leading to uncategorizable results. I won’t elaborate on this because I’m still trying to put their own observations with my own experience. But the good news is that the rules of other sorts of non-fiction writing are still to be honored—if only in the breech.

One other mild disappointment is the short chapter called “Art and Commerce”, where they say a few things about the realities of writing for money. Kidder and Todd have been at this since the early 70s, so they are long steeped in a New York-centered publisher/agent/writer model of book production, a model that may not be obsolete but seems to have disappeared for technological and economic reasons (some of the stories they tell about their collaboration sound like legends from a distant past). The stretch from 2010-2014 saw the old model upset by a new one in which self-publishing and ebooks play a central role, and they have nothing to say about this (the book was published in 2013). Still, the chapter is harmless if you ignore the hints that you, young writer, need to get an agent and an editor at an established publishing house.

I’ll end with the final words of Cindy’s review, which I agree with:

My own writing seems to be more of the off the cuff blog type but I would love to see what would happen if I began to tediously rewrite.

This book also made me want to read more works that have been tediously rewritten.

Good Prose is one of those tediously rewritten books, and I’ll be re-reading it closely.


I’m just back from a three-week visit to my dad in El Paso. The current pattern is three weeks every three months, and that seems comfortable. His overall health is excellent right now, and so my visits are mostly for company—but that may be the most important reason, in sickness or in health.

I got the idea to try out a standing desk just before I left for El Paso, and ordered the IKEA supplies to be delivered both here and there, so boxes awaited me on my return and I’ve spend the first day back reconfiguring my office. Well, reconfiguring in a purely functional way—the new setup is organizationally a mess. But I have a computer desk to stand at, and a separate computer desk/work area to sit at—the laptop I travel with is the computer there, and I finally have file synchronization working to the point where I can easily move between the two computers, even in the middle of a task. And I have a reading chair as well, an ancient but still serviceable Danish recliner.

Somewhere I read of a large corporation (Microsoft?) which, whenever it built a large multi-building campus, put off installing sidewalks connecting the buildings for a year or more. At that point, they would look to see where folks had worn paths in the grass, then pave those over. Smart! I look at this current arrangement in the same way. Now that all these ways of doing things are available, I will spend a few months using them, then look at my actual usage patterns while I think about an arrangement suitable for the space, which will be walled in this fall.

Also waiting for me on my return were the books I ordered while away—I’m always stumbling across references to interesting reading, and if it’s unavailable or too expensive on the Kindle, I turn to AbeBooks and can usually find what I want for a few dollars.

One of the books in the stack was a brand-new copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It is a bit pricey by my miserly standards, but not overpriced–the photos are an important part of the content, and so it is good to have them in a nicely produced format. So far I’ve only had time to read through it casually, but it inspired a few thoughts I think are worth writing down.

First, I like her approach to the topic, which very much reminded me of Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Wondering about some troubling consequence of modern living? Why not take a look at folks who still live a pre-modern life—while you still can!—in search of differences that might explain the consequence? Weston Price wondered why people’s teeth were suddenly rotting in their heads, suspected it had something to do with changes in diet, and traveled the world in search of people still eating in a pre-modern way.

Similarly, Gokhale wondered at the dramatic increase in reports of back pain during the 20th century, but rather than looking at moderns and trying to guess what might be the culprit, she went in search of pre-moderns and looked for difference in how they sat, stood, and walked. Price’s book is especially charming because of the photos which compare the teeth of moderns and pre-moderns—so, lots of photos of people smiling! And Gokhale’s book is full of photos of pre-moderns sitting, standing, and walking—in places where folks still live that way, and from years gone by when all of us used to do the same (she places the transition in the early 20th century, when it suddenly became fashionable to pose in a new, slumped manner). There is something mysteriously good and satisfying in looking at the photos of people doing it right.

Perhaps what I like best about Gokhale’s approach is that it is very sensible and modest. Even in this time of buzz about “sitting is the new smoking,” she points out that, hey, moderns didn’t invent sitting. In fact, there are common tasks in traditional cultures that require extended sitting—and yet folks in those cultures are able to endure extended sitting comfortably and without pain. And so she suggests that, rather than avoiding and even stigmatizing certain behaviors, we focus instead on how to better do the things we do. Sit better. Stand better. Walk better.

Another bit of wisdom built into her approach is finding ways to experience benefits by making adjustments in everyday activities. For example, she is big on the importance of lengthening the spine so as to decompress it, giving discs the opportunity to rest, realign, rehydrate, etc. She’s not the only one, of course, and there are contraptions you can buy (such as inversion tables) which will do this for you. But Gokhale’s thinking says, Why buy an ugly and expensive piece of furniture which only benefits you during the short period you set aside for using it, when you can find a way to sit which will give you the same benefit for the whole time you’re sitting? And so she suggests a technique for sitting in a chair which extends your spine, something you can do as you sit down to do your work (and re-do in just a few seconds if you notice you’ve drifted out of that posture).

I like this, because it fits with my own main reason for wanting to switch over to a standing desk–if there is an adjustment I can make to my primary daily activity which will increase the rate at which I burn calories, then making the adjustment will be way more profitable than trying to add a new activity to do the same thing. An hour of cardio exercise might also do it, but I need to find additional time for it, I won’t enjoy it for its own sake, and I will likely find excuses to drop it after a stretch. But making an acceptable adjustment to something I already do, and do a lot, is not only more likely to stick, it will provide its benefits continuously and for extended periods.

This isn’t to say that adjustments are easy. In fact, I think they are harder than adding a new activity to experience the same benefit, because with the latter approach you have the additional tool of “toughing it out”—perhaps an hour of cardio or hot yoga is less acceptable, but you can convince yourself to push through since it will be over and done with at some point. But changing the way you sit, or switching over to a standing desk, presents you with the challenges differently—this is how things are going to be from now on if I make this adjustment, so I either need to figure out how to deal with the change or admit that it won’t be happening.

This sort of thinking has also been helpful to me during my recent efforts to lose weight, which I view not as a diet, e.g. something that needs to be toughed out until done, but as an adjustment in how I eat. It’s been eight months now, and I don’t feel like I’m enduring anything, or long for the day when I reach my target weight. I am anticipating the day I reach my target weight, because at that point I will need to add somewhere around 1000 calories to my daily menu, and that will be interesting (and pleasurable!). But I also feel that, if somehow it turned out to be necessary, I could continue eating as I currently do for the rest of my life. I’ve successfully adjusted my way of eating.

Tolstoy for the win!

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading Anna Karenina (again, but for the first time in forty years), and will probably have a few things to say about it when I finish. But I need to give immediate kudos to a passage I just read in Part Eight, Chapter Eight, where Levin reflects on his religious awakening:

From that moment when, at the sight of his beloved brother dying, Levin had looked at the questions of life and death for the first time trhough those new convictions, as he called then, which imperceptibly, during the period from twenty to thirty-four years of age, had come to replace his childhood and adolescent beliefs, he had been horrified, not so much at death as at life without the slightest knowledge of whence it came, wherefore, why, and what it was.

The organism, its decay, the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, development, were the words that had replaced his former faith. These words and the concepts connected with them were very well suited to intellectual purposes, but they gave nothing for life, and Levin suddenly felt himself in the position of a person who has traded his warm fur coat for muslin clothing and, caught in the cold for the first time, is convinced beyond question, not by reasoning but by his whole being, that he is as good as naked and must inevitably die a painful death.

From that moment on, though not accounting for it to himself and continuing to live as before, Levin never ceased to feel that fear at his ignorance.

Moreover, he felt vaguely that what he called his convictions were not only ignorance but were a way of thinking that made the knowledge he needed impossible.

Levin is fortunate enough to recognize that his modern, sophisticated view of the world is not only inadequate but in fact prevents him from seeing the world as it actually is. How to escape such a philosophical dead end? Only by the grace of God, of course. And in Levin’s case that grace took the form of humility, at least enough to recognize that his convictions had failed him.

It’s hard enough to accurately discern God’s economy without the added obstacle of confidence in our convictions! But I know from direct, repeated experience that Tolstoy is exactly right.