Living a Personal Life

southwest-trip-345In the common use of the English language, it would seem strange or impossible to say that someone was living an “impersonal” life. And, even in our classical Christian vocabulary, we would say that God (Who is Person) has created us in His own image and that we are inherently “personal.” And yet, the Church also recognizes that it is our personhood that is most effected by the fall. 

In theological terms, to exist as a person is to exist in freedom, to exist in self-giving love, and to recognize that it is God who guarantees our existence as persons. Instead, what we often experience is bondage instead of freedom – even the freedom we do know is itself exploited as a bondage; we love but often in the most selfish of ways; we see ourselves as the origin of our daily existence, jealously guarding our rights as individuals. In such fallen terms we live in competition, seeing others as living at our expense or at the expense of our well-being. 

Of course, the opposite is true. The existence of others – a gift from God, like our own existence – never decreases us, but gives to us an increase whenever it is greated with love and the expansion of our self in loving, self-giving relationship.

To live a personal life is thus a synonym for living the Christian life. Christ is not an addition to our life – He is our life. 

It is for such reasons that words like “religion” are insufficient to properly describe the Christian life. Anything that describes our life as having a true existence apart from its relationship to God or describes our relationship with God as an aspect of our life, has diminished God and ourselves – dividing our lives and our world into “God” and “not-God” categories.

There is no true existence apart from God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”). This applies not only to human beings but to the whole of creation. Though it is not common to refer to non-human existence as “personal,” it is still closer to the true character of all existence than the word “impersonal.” 

My favorite illustration of this phenomenon is the relationship we have with our pets. It is easy to describe the “anthropomorphism” we practice with regard to animals – treating them as though they were human beings – but it is more accurate to say that we frequently treat our pets as “personal” rather than human. The account of creation in Genesis describes God as bringing the animals before Adam to “see what he would name them.” It is an interesting image – one in which man rather than God is the giver of names. That relationship with creation (particularly with our pets) continues as we name animals and observe within them aspects of personhood. This is not a product of a misdirected dotage – but rather a reflection of our God given drive to live as persons and to extend that personhood to creation itself.

We do not immediately see this same question of personhood when we think of “inanimate” creation – and yet the Scriptures frequently do: trees clap their hands; rocks sing; all creation is called on to give praise to God. Thus a proper Christian understanding of the world around us carries a sense of the personal to everything – even if those “things” cannot be spoken of in the strict terms of “personhood.” 

Thus our true existence is found in proper relation to God and to everything God has made. This relation is seen time and again in the lives of many of the saints. Animals behave in a different manner (St. Seraphim and the bear or St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio), trees and flowers behave in different manners, even rocks obey their command (the stories of some saints and their power over earthquakes). “What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Christ’s disciples ask one another.

Such an understanding of the personal character of God’ creation does not grant us permission to begin a theology of personhood or an ethic of personhood that has no relation to God the Holy Trinity. Apart from God, personhood has no meaning. It is not an ethic nor a theology but is descriptive only of true life as lived in union with God. This is the danger that exists when Orthodox theologians seek to bear witness to an ecological ethic that can be appropriated by non-believers. To the non-believer we have only been commanded to offer Christ. Creation and its relationship to personhood requires its grounding in the personal God – otherwise people become the servants of temporality – indeed of a temporality that will itself cease to exists except as it exists in God. This earth is headed for a collision with the Sun (if not with something lesser, earlier). To make of it definer of our actions is to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Already and increasingly, the political world will offer us the opportunity to make of creation a god. Like all false gods it will be cruel and the killer of mankind. There is nothing new in this.

As Christians, we offer the world the only truth that is both new and older than all temporal existence: personal life in relationship with God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All life comes from Him and all life belongs to Him. It is only in Him that we will find ourselves as persons and that we will be able to share in His movement of creation towards the final end of union with Him.

12 Responses to “Living a Personal Life”

  1. omorphia Says:

    Hi. A great text – it was cool water for my heart. Especially the second section – with the four following shorter ones – was…I dont really know, but it was good for me to read it.

    I hope you dont mind that I reprinted this on my blog – I added a link to your blog, so people know you are the author ):

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Omorphia,

    What is the url for your blogsite?

  3. omorphia Says:

    http://www.omorphia.wordpress.com

    (I write in swedish though, so you will probably not be able to read it🙂 )

  4. Allen Long Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you, for this meditation. The illustration of personhood being extended to our pets was a new thought for me.

    Allen

  5. Darla Says:

    Father, in case Omorphia doesn’t come back and see your question, here’s the link: http://omorphia.wordpress.com/

  6. Jane Says:

    I sometimes wonder why an Orthodox ecology movment, or the March for Life, have a wrong “feel” about them – you answer this problem for me when you say … “To the non-believer we have only been commanded to offer Christ. Creation and its relation to personhood demands its grounding in the personal God.”

    Thank you, Father.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Omorphia,

    Thanks for the link. Swedish, like Danish and other Northern European Germanic languages are intriguingly enough like English that when I look at them I feel as though I should understand them. I read German (which helps a little). But it’s all fascinating to me. There is a Romanian site that is a translation of my site, thus I can go and see what I said in Romanian – which like the Northern languages also seems almost clear to me (I read Latin) and yet slips away at the last moment. I suppose I’m grateful as an English speaker that so many people read and write English. Despite what language skills I have, as an American I feel linguistically stupid. On average the majority of Americans only know English with the exception of whatever language they may have studied in college and now can no longer remember.

    My children, inheriting a much larger global village than I knew in my youth, are much more linguistically proficient. I envy their skills. I would like to add your site to my blogroll. I am placing it in the “general” category. I list categories of Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican, and Roman Catholic, and would gladly place it under the proper heading – but my poor language skills leave me without enough information to draw a conclusion. What would be proper?

  8. omorphia Says:

    Yes, the relationship between languages is very fascinating. I enjoy finding out the connection between an english word and, or example, a swedish word – maybe they are the same word but mean different things, or seem like different words, meaning the same thing, turning out to be etymylogically related. Etc🙂

    In fact, arond one thousand years ago, the vikings of Scandinavia could speak with the people of the British isles fluently – their languages had not evolved enough to be anythig more than dialects of the same tongue. An example of this was when St Olav – also considered a saint by the orthodox of Scandinavia – the “eternal king of Norway” came to visit England.

    At the present moment, I would have to say I´m Lutheran, of the Swedish version naturally. So I would go under the “protestant – Anglican” – group. (even if Lutherans, especially the swedish ones, would rather consider themselves reformed catholics – the protestants were actually the people connected with Calvin etc. And the swedes have always been a bit more…”high church” than other lutherans) Though I do long to “swim the Bosphorus”, as someone put it.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    I know about Swedish Lutherans. When I was an Anglican, in seminary, I served in a mission Church that had originally been founded by funds donated by Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” a famous singer in the past century. Originally named St. Anskar, it had Swedish and Norwegian members. Since at the time there were no Swedish bishops in the US, they went under the Anglicans. Most of that aspect had disappeared by the time I was there in the 70’s. But it was a “Swedish” education. May God help you to swim! I’ll recategorize your blog.

  10. Ryan Says:

    Father Stephen,

    You have written a lot on the subject of personhood. In my own life I have found it striking a chord and would like to read more. I remember you at one point you mentioned a contemporary Saint that felt like this was his message to modern man. I could not find his name again. Are there any books of his you would suggest studying and meditating on further?

    Thank you,

    Ryan

  11. Dharma Says:

    If hell exists, then Christ must be in hell.

    The souls that suffer the most and are abondoned the most exist in Hell (as per my Christian fundamentalist friends). Christ must definetly exist in hell..where else would he find souls more in need of him ?

    “Men travel many paths O Arjuna, they all lead to me” — Bhagavad Gita

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Those in hell have not been abandoned, but have done the abandoning. God in His love pursues us even to such an extent.

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