I have written several times recently about the understanding of personhood – particularly as found in the writings of St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony. They push the envelope of our understanding to the edge and then beyond. For many their work is difficult to understand – both because of vocabularly and because what they are saying in their writngs is simply hard to grasp. And yet, what they have to say is easily the most central part of their teaching – it is at the very heart of the “word” St. Silouan believed he had received from God for those of us of this generation. Thus I offer another post on the subject. After some reflection, I’ve thought about another way to approach their teaching.
We exist as persons solely by love. It is something that separates us as “individuals” from “persons.” An individual need love no one or no thing. An individual exists like a rock (forgive me Paul Simon). It is not the proper mode of existence for a human being created in God’s image – but it is a mode of existence that sin has birthed in us. Love is a struggle.
To exist as a person, however, is to exist by love. Thus, there must be others to love. For this reason it is said that we cannot exist as a person by ourselves alone. It is also the reason that ultimately we must love our enemies and all who exist – for to not love someone is to deny our own true existence. When sin entered the world, among its first results was murder, and necessarily so. Cain did not kill his brother – he couldn’t even see Abel as his brother. Before God he renounced any responsibility for his brother.
Since love is a gift from God and not something we create ourselves (at least the love by which we truly exist as persons) it is without limit. Every act of love extends the very fabric of our being.
I can recall in the early years of my marriage having conversations with my wife as our family grew. Having the first two children was a relatively “easy” decision. However there were and are many subtle cultural pressures to stop at two. Nevertheless we had four (thank God!). One of the absurd thoughts that crossed my mind during that time was, “Will I be able to love more children if we have them?” The thought is rooted in a concept of love as a limited commodity and the heart as unable to grow. Quite the opposite is true. The more we love the greater our capacity for yet more love. It is possible to love, even on the personal level, the entire universe (and not as a mere abstraction).
When you read the life of St. Silouan you realize that his love for all is also a love for each. He exists in something approaching the fullness of personhood.
My enemy is not only someone whom I am commanded to forgive and to love – he is also the means of my existence. The commandment to love your enemies is a word in the darkness crying, “Let there be light.”