The secret sauce to the Orthodox way of life is that it is frequently so boring and often very tedious. The Sunday Liturgies are the same year after year. The Sunday Gospels are the same, season after season. We confess the same sins over and over again. There are only so many ways you can dress up lentils and beans fast after fast. Morning prayers. Mealtime prayers. Evening prayers. How many “begats” can Scripture have? It’s all so very, very tedious and uninteresting. This is a good thing. It is a very good thing.
The ancient Greeks distinguished human beings from the rest of the cosmos as having the capacity for articulation, having the capacity of language. But not merely the capacity for communication, because, broadly speaking, even some non-human animal species have some limited means of communication.
But human beings are able to communicate their own inner states and experiences such that other humans beings can both understand and can similarly articulate the same experiences. But finally, human beings do something else: they give names to the cosmos and that which moves and breathes, and even to give names to things that do not, strictly speaking, exist.
This is why, in our present society, so much power is given to naming. And when the civic agreement on which a society is bound together becomes tattered and frayed, the power of naming becomes distorted. While it purports to represent reality, in actual fact, it doesn’t matter whether the name has any basis in reality or fact. Where there is rumor and innuendo in a society in which shame is the cultural coin, all that matters is whether a name may take hold merely by repetition and tribal cohesion around such naming. If my tribe says that a member of our enemy tribe is evil, that coin is both valuable and powerful. If I wish to make exchange within the parameters of my tribe, I am bound to agree with, indeed, to believe in the naming. Even if I merely question the name, I risk the loss of my cultural purchasing ability, and perhaps exile.
Our culture focuses on self-discovery. From our youngest years we are inculcated in the pursuit of “finding out who we are.” In a psychological sense, we do, indeed, need a strong and healthy sense of Self, of a sense of being that is separate from and unique as compared to others. Failure to develop a healthy sense of self can lead to all sorts of personality disorders, including narcissism and codependency.
Modern citizens of Western democracies, children of the Enlightenment, profess to be devotees of the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, empirical and repeated processes to test hypotheses, followed by more observation, and leading, so it is affirmed, to a logical conclusion. And yet, conversely, these same devotees of the scientific method insist on one empirically falsifiable notion: that with enough knowledge, technological know-how, and the scientific method, human nature is perfectable. Coupled with this belief in the perfectibility of human nature, is its obverse twin: all of human history and society are progressing to ever-more enlightenment and perfectibility. Thankfully, the ancient Greeks, and with them, all of Christian tradition, did and do not hold to such empirically false dogmas.
The evidence that human nature is both imperfect and wholly imperfectible is all around us. Murders. Theft. Adultery. Greed. Let’s simply run through the list of seven deadly vices, or log on to social media. Better yet: read a Twitter feed.
One day, I will die. My life here will come to an end. I say that not to be morbid, but to state the obvious. Whatever I am doing in that final moment, wherever I am, when I die, I will leave my life in media res. The relationships I have cultivated will still be in motion. The consequences of the words and deeds I have said and done will still trail out behind me. All the work of my life, all the love I have given, will finally end incomplete. If I have any material goods to leave to my estate, they will dwindle away, parceled out here and there. My legacy, whatever it may be, will pass out of my hands. All that I have, all that I am, will end with much still left to do.
It has been understood for millennia that what makes humans unique above all creatures is our power of speech, that is to say, our ability to communicate. We certainly have the capacity for the most rudimentary forms of communication: “food,” “water,” “hungry,” “danger.” But we also have a unique capacity to speak of immaterial realities: “love,” “spirit,” “god,” “heaven.” In the preceding and most recent centuries, some have taken great pains to explain how alike we are to certain animal species. But one glorious and irrefutable example suffices to emphasize our uniqueness: we can communicate about things we cannot see, and about those things that are not strictly necessary for material survival. Monastics who never procreate can speak of the sublimities of divine love. Yeoman farmers who will never study Kant or Descartes may nonetheless speak of existential angst; which speech does nothing to plant or harvest the crops.
Indeed, it is particularly the most obvious inutility of certain aspects of human speech that make us most unique and make us most human. But perhaps such inutility is only obvious from a certain perspective. For the power of articulation is precisely the ability to grasp the abstract realities from concrete particulars. The observations of dozens of planting seasons yields the deduction of planetary motion. That is to say, the uniquely human power of speech is the necessary comprehension of the realities underlying the perceived world.