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I have never considered “Hermit’s Thatch” to be a “blog” in the same sense that people nowadays write blogs with the expectation of getting feedback. That is not the expectation of a solitary. After all, historically no one wrote diaries and journals with the expectation of getting public feedback and comments on each entry the way blogs are presented today.

So I turn off comments, for though I appreciate anyone who writes to say something about an entry here and there, I don’t want to post their comments on entries and dilute the purpose of the journal as — after all — my reflections. I would think anyone who reads “thatch” will understand that reflections of this sort don’t beg for examination.

These entries are thatch, so much straw, really. They are intended to be no more than reflections in the literal sense that a pond reflects moonlight. The reflections point to the moon, and are of no use after we have discovered the source of the light.

MT to WP

“Hermit’s Thatch” first appeared in late 2002 using MovableType 2.63. I never upgraded, and only tinkered modestly with the design. I know a few things but I am not a technical person.

MovableType served well for some five years nearly, but had recently shown signs of faltering. It was an old, free, cgi-based program with three modest templates (index, archive, and stylesheet), and I wasn’t sure if I could ever get another copy. Recently the postings would not build. I had to rebuild the index to get the recent posting to show, and that was a little scary. It worked, but what next? What if a file corrupted? I am not a programmer. There was no place to get another copy of the program, and upgrading to the new version was seeming more and more problematic with all of the alternatives out there. I did not want to spend money on the at-cost MovableType.

So here is “Hermit’s Thatch” in the WordPress incarnation. I lost some minor things, like italics on book titles, and perhaps other minor details I have not pursued. Graphics ended up in the same folder rather than a new one, which is alright. I appreciate the fine administrative capabilities of the program. And I appreciate the theme, which is compatible with the simplicity that the web site and this journal (blog) want to project.

Frugality

One must smile when Seneca, the ancient Roman and Stoic essayist, describes frugality. He does not want his chef to prepare too fancy a meal, he tells us, nor does he insist that his servants wear lavish clothing. No, says Seneca, he wants frugality.

The different between frugality and simplicity is the difference between quantity and quality. Our foods may be simple by culinary standards but they may represent ecological extravagance, waste, and destructiveness. Our clothing may not look ostentatious, but what havoc to land, air, water, resources, and other sentient beings does it represent? With a little reflection and information, perhaps even Seneca would understand the economic context of our lives.

A plastic trinket from a box-like retail warehouse may seem an exercise in frugality versus buying something else, but it is not. To produce that trinket, a global socio-economic exploitation and the same incalculable environmental damage is inevitable. Frugality is where quantity and short-term cost is the only criteria.

Simplicity accepts the limited intention of frugality but makes it holistic and qualitative. Where frugality is based on mass appeal and thoughtlessness, simplicity is based on individual values and conscious or mindful attention. As with any exercise in values, simplicity means knowing the true nature of a thing before we appropriate it. We want to know how it came into being, its history, who was involved in its crafting, and in what manner it came to us. This genealogy gives the object an opportunity to unfold itself into our consciousness, and we can accommodate ourselves to it as an enhancement to our lives.

Such a reflectiveness is not a fetish or a ritual, as is often the case with frugality. Rather, simplicity invites a mental check that puts a thing into perspective, just as we ourselves try to put ourselves into perspective regarding society, the world, and the universe.

Simplicity is the unfolding of the objects all around us, and our right thinking and being with them. With frugality we think we are beating the system and saving a few pennies as a reward, but at the foolish expense of the rest of the world, human and natural. With simplicity we drop the mask of acquisitiveness and make a relationship to the world of objects around us. Simplicity is a participation in values and an exchange of being.

Mark the Ascetic

St. Mark the Ascetic wrote 265 aphorisms under the title: On Those Who Think That They are Made Righteous by Works, or, No Righteousness By Works. Today this essay is part of the Orthodox Christian Philokalia. Mark is not anticipating a Reformation debate, but addressing a fundamental paradox of everyday life assumptions.

There are those who, despising the less zealous because of the rigor of their own ascetic practice, think they are made superior by physical works. But how much more foolish if we rely on theoretical knowledge and disparage the innocent.

With this passage, Mark criticizes both ends of behavior: practice and theory. Both are the dwelling places and refuges of the solitary, so we would be wise to heed Mark’s admonishing.

Our tendency as solitaries is to escape into ascetic practices to justify our separation from others — either in physical isolation or psychological distance. Our pleasure is in not being with others because we are not “like” them. Our practice then becomes a posteriori or after-the-fact proof of this difference. Or so is our temptation. We can argue that at least the practice is better than not practicing. Well, that’s a start.

Mark sees the fallacy of intellect and knowledge (worldly or scholarly) as a worse folly in that it can justify us without practice. The mind can conspire with conscience to assign to ourselves not only a righteousness but a superiority. The escape to theory is a worse menace to the solitary because the mind can operate without suffering the repercussions that our bodies suffer from asceticism.

And yet the mind is the core of the self, the core even of the body. To avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of false practice and false mindset, we must recognize the overarching operation of the ego. For Mark, the ego must be subordinate to Christ. Mark uses the vocabulary of his age in saying that the ego or self must be a slave in expecting nothing, servicing all, and receiving freedom as a gift. Today we may look askance at this imagery, but there is a core of wisdom here because the psychological processes are universal.

“Expecting nothing” but that-which-is means extinguishing desire, so that the flames of the world are successively quenched. “Serving all” is serving both practice and knowledge, both the body and the mind, for in that we become clear and humane and personable. That is how we service all, how the solitary is genuinely solitary yet servicing all. Emptied of self, connected to no one thing, not even desire, the solitary is free to pursue life without assuming an air of superiority, an assumed righteousness.

Finally, too, continuing Mark’s notion of the slave — we receive our freedom as a “gift.” As all traditions emphasize, life is a gift, and we often find ourselves reluctant to express or offer gratitude because life seems to be such a given, a necessity. Like Sartre, we may be tempted to say that we are “condemned” to live, after all. But the moment we say this we are theorizing, we are mentally contriving. That theorizing is what Mark considers such a great folly. This theorizing is the opposite of freedom, of the liberation from desire, for theorizing contrives a purpose that is only supported by theory itself and not by the fruits of practice.

And so we are back to the importance of practice in strengthening the mind and will. What a paradox that Mark considers the ability to abstract and theorize to be so bad for the solitary, but he wants us to check the excess of contrivance and desire before sanctioning what we have concluded and think to act upon. Mark reminds the solitary to monitor motives, to pursue ascetic practice and to think based on the virtuous fruits of practice. To do so is the core of being solitary and the solitary does so not to impose the ego on our beleaguered selves or upon others.

About Meng-hu

A hermitary is a dwelling for a hermit. Hermitary is an obsolete medieval English word, which, however, referred to enclosed anchorites more than to hermits. But that is by the way. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the word to mean all things “hermit.”

This “hermitary” is the dream hut of the pseudonymous Meng-hu, the dreamtiger, whose Western name is derived from a short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The title of the story, entitled in English, is simply dreamtigers.

In that story, the narrator recalls that as a child he was impressed by the tigers in the zoo, then dreamed of them. As an old man, he tries to dream them again, but they are no longer the same shape or color or clarity. Instead, they are "dreamtigers."

So Meng-hu tries to dream, not of tigers, perhaps, but of what his face was like before his parents were born. But he does not worry about whether the dreamtigers are clear and distinct. It is enough that the sun shines, the trees in the forest sway with the breeze that is cool against his face, and that the birds still sing outside his ramshackle hut.

Regards,
Meng-hu

dreamtiger