Archive for June 2nd, 2008

The Unexplored Landscape

June 2, 2008

Like the Kingdom of God itself, the landscape of the human heart (considered spiritually) remains largely unchartered territory and beyond the easy access of most people. Our culture uses the language of “heart” quite easily, but means by it something emotional, something psychological and not at all in the sense it is used in either Scripture or the Fathers. Such confusion between words can easily lead to someone thinking they know what they do not know. The heart is not easily reached nor described and does not come readily available to one and all. Only the gift of grace opens its reality to us.

I have written fairly extensively on the “two-storey universe” referring to imagery that runs throughout much popular Christian thought. It is a use of imagery that seeks to describe the “flatness” and “banality” of the modern world in which we live. We are the inheritors of a rich spiritual vocabulary. But that same vocabulary, transferred into the landscape of the two-storey universe is cheapened and rendered largely inert – describing human experiences that are little different than those generated by a good movie.

In using the metaphor of a “one-storey universe” I have sought to collapse our language and our spiritual experience so that we no longer “outsource” the Kingdom of God and realize that the realities described by the Scriptures and the great giants of the Christian spiritual life are not speaking of a reality removed from us, but of a reality from which we have largely removed ourselves.

The experience of a St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Seraphim of Sarov, or contemporaries such as St. Silouan or the Elder Sophrony, did not happen on a separate plane of human experience. They belong to the landscape of the human heart, indwelled by God. Saints do not belong to a separate species, but point to the true nature of the species to which we belong. They bear witness of what it means to be “fully human.”

It is thus that the Elder Sophrony or his disciples such as Archimandrite Zacharias speak of the difference of the merely psychological versus the truly spiritual and the need for us move beyond one and to enter the other. These are not light matters, nor even matters that are easily accomplished.

The life of asceticism in which fasting and prayer, radical self-disclosure and honesty, with the attending humility (and occasional humiliation) are all part of the “violent” life of those who seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt. 11:12). The “spiritual” language that has accompanied various modern charismatic and pentecostal movements have generally served to confuse people and make them believe that they have arrived at something that is well beyond their ken. To a degree, the conversation about such things is one between the wisdom of classical, Orthodox experience, honed over two thousand years, and a recent phenomenon, barely 100 years old, which has come into existence within one of the most self-absorbed cultures ever known on earth.

It is a conversation that agrees on the validity of human knowledge of God – that God became man that we might truly know God in a manner that is real, existential, and fully part of our experience – and not simply to give us doctrinal formulas for the entertainment of professional theologians. As such, modern movements share many similar concerns with Orthodoxy when it comes to the modern world. But it is a serious mistake to take these modern movements and equate them with some Biblical prophecy that negates the faithful life of Christians throughout the centuries.

My own experience, some thirty-some-odd years ago within the Charismatic movement, taught me that we were frequently in serious delusion. My hunger and even pain within that experience pushed me ever deeper towards the Tradition of the Church, until my feet could stand firmly on the solid ground of the Orthodox faith – itself the hallowed ground where saints have trod and where their life and experience have been honored, defended, and merged with the dogma of the faith.

None of us ever go wrong by pushing for greater knowledge of God, for a slaking of the thirst which gnaws at us. For “this is eternal life: that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We do well when we concede that there is an unexplored landscape – the heart of man – and that in such a place we are neophytes.

Before such a landscape it is better to confess what I do not know, than to proclaim what I do know.