At the Edge

A reprint…since we were discussing the end of the world…

guardian_angelOne of the peculiar marks of life in the modern world is the sense one has of standing on the edge. We are always (it seems) either standing on the edge of disaster or on the edge of some great discovery. Of course, a lot of this is simply the way we market the world to ourselves. But it is an inherent part of modernity to constantly look towards the future and forget the past. This is not to say that our culture is eschatological – we are merely oriented towards constant change with competing visions of light and dark with regard to a relentless future. To be properly eschatological (from the Greek for “concerning the last things”) is to believe that there is an actual end-point that is the fulfillment of all things – the fullness towards which God is drawing His creation.

To stand on the edge of the future is often experienced as anxiety. Like all of modernity, we believe in progress, but the myth of constant progress towards a utopian world has been shattered by the many tragedies of the 20th century. Like previous centuries it had its wars and its oppressive regimes. But unlike previous centuries, we learned that modern wars and modern regimes are apocalyptic in the fullness of their nightmares. We are at least as certain of a bad end as we are of a good end – and, I suspect, more people expect things to get a lot worse before they get better – if they get better.

There are other experiences of standing on the edge. I think that when we confront God, we find ourselves on an edge. As it says in Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It is not that the living God holds any animosity towards us, or that He intends us any harm. But the Light and the Truth that radiate from Him require light and truth to be present in the one who beholds Him. If we have no light and truth then His presence reveals within us the darkness and the lies that are present.

Any number of times in my life I have stood at that edge. To some degree, every occasion of private confession is an approach to the edge, to see the face of God. “Behold, child, Christ stands here invisibly before you receiving your confession,” the priest says. I have stood beside many, many others as they approached the edge and I have seen the wonders of the effect of God’s Light and Truth.

I can also recall very large moments – such as the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy. In some respects, I stood at the edge for nearly 20 years (and very consciously for at least seven). In various comments by readers, it is obvious that many stand at the edge of Orthodoxy and sometimes for a long time. Was I afraid? Yes, I was. Was I afraid of God? Yes I was. I was afraid of the Truth, of the Light, of myself, of everything around me. I can see now that my fear was baseless and that my waiting so long on the edge held far more drama than was necessary. But standing on the edge can be like that.

Dostoevsky had a feel for the edge. The tension that builds in the character Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) becomes almost unbearable until the young man at last turns himself in for the murders he has committed. And like all the rest of us who murder (at least in our heart), turning ourselves in, getting past the edge, becomes the path of salvation just as it was for Raskolnikov.

My children, while quite young, became aware that I had difficulty with heights and edges, particularly while driving. A long, high bridge, or a narrow mountain switch-back, raced my pulse and pumped adrenalin throughout my body. I believe it was my son who first came up with the game (though it could have been on of his sisters) …  When we were traveling and would reach such a frightful point, he (and his sisters) would begin to shout, “Over the edge!” Which usually sent me into paroxysms of terror and shouts of various threats. They found it great fun. To enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children. Over the edge!

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7 Responses to “At the Edge”

  1. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Father, your “over the edge” reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ “higher up and farther in” – a phrase found in the final book of the Narnia Chronicles. The final scenes of that book (and some of Charles William’s writings) are the closest thing I know in modern fiction to the Bible’s apocalyptic images of the eschaton.

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes – they are among my favorite images as well. It’s sort of a shame that literature has done so little with a proper eschatological viewpoint. It’s quite rich. Lewis is one of the few that I can think of…

  3. Moretben Says:

    The second time I ever confessed as an Orthodox, I had a most vivid revelation of this. It was before Divine Liturgy on a Friday morning – I forget which feast, sometime in winter. The church was a massive, ex-Anglican, Victorian Gothic barn of a place, with a great iconostasis sprung from the sanctuary steps and reaching half way to the vaulted ceiling. Father greeted me in his usual genial way and asked me to wait while he finished proskomedia. The nave was dark. I was alone, except for the “blessed mutter” beyond the holy doors. I had been reading The Last Battle to my children lately, at bed-time. I was on the dying bonfire side of the Stable Door. Soon He would appear in the doorway and I would kneel before him. Would I look Him in the eyes and receive His Life, or turn away to the left, into the shadowlands?

  4. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    You said, “In various comments by readers, it is obvious that many stand at the edge of Orthodoxy and sometimes for a long time.”

    I think that will be me. I have been steering away from Protestant Evangelicalism for 3 years now. But I took the route of going through Rome and nearly became a Latin Catholic. However, various inner convictions (matters of conscience) prevented me from going in that direction. However, that direction led me to inquire into the Orthodox Church.

    Now, I find myself on the edge of a great precipice, as it were. At least this is what the thought of becoming Orthodox “feels” like. Lately, I find myself contemplating how sad and forlorn I have become. I do not show this face to others really. But inwardly, I know that a great decision looms before me. Honestly, sometimes I would have rather just remain Protestant, or rather that I should say “not Orthodox.” And then again, I cannot be a very good Protestant any longer.

    How can such a conflict of emotions exist within me? Ambivalence is the only way to describe it. Drawn toward Orthodoxy, yet afraid. Desirous to learn more of Orthodoxy, afraid that the more I learn the more I will be compelled to become Orthodox. Filled with anticipation at times that Orthodoxy is that which my heart longs for, yet filled with apprehension at times that Orthodoxy will only complicate my life and lead me further from the simplicity of the Christian faith that I have known as an Evangelical Protestant.

    I still can recall the last Sunday that I attended the Evan. church my husband and I were members of. The pastor emeritus who was a very godly, sober man, was leading the service. We had the Lord’s Supper that day and the Holy Spirit spoke very clearly to me that we would not be returning ever again. We would not because this church had strayed far from its Methodist roots. It was straying more and more from the true Christian faith. The pastor emeritus had confided this to us on many occasions in his home. As we drove away from the church that day, my husband and I discussed how we would not be returning. And we haven’t ever since. And I have not taken the Lord’s Supper since. But even then I knew the supper was more than a symbol of remembrance. What, at the time, I did not know.

    Now, being more informed about the ancient faith and early church, I have discovered what the deepest yearnings of my heart had sought after for so many years. The church is truly sacramental and filled with Holy Mysteries. It offers healing and life. It imparts truth and grace. It beckons to me.

    And yet I stand on the edge of this great precipice, waiting and watching. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner always in need of You. Please continue to be patient with me.

    Darlene

  5. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    Darlene, your experience is familiar to me as a former evangelical (raised in the Methodist Church, though I didn’t stay after I became an adult). It’s not an easy journey, but like you after a certain point, there was no longer any other option. By the time I began to explore Orthodoxy, I already knew everywhere else was a dead end for me. Though it continues to be a difficult journey in some respects, yet I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else now that I am Orthodox. The book by Jordan Bajis, “Common Ground: An Introduction to Orthodoxy for the American Christian” was really helpful to me working through the theological issues. If there is an Orthodox parish where you can attend services and talk to the Priest, that is even better. I will pray for you. The Lord is great in patience and mercy. He will open the way.

  6. Patty Joanna Says:

    Dear Darlene,

    Your expression of your situation was beautifully written. Many, many of us have been in this spot…right on the edge…and for differing lengths of time. None of us that have jumped, however, can tell you exactly what YOU will find, partly because of the richness that is too much to express in words.

    I will say that when I jumped, I found myself finally resting in the hammock of the Church. For the first time in almost 40 years of Christian living, I got a glimmer of “Come unto Me…and I will give you rest.” Ironic, because the practice of Orthodoxy looked like a lot more *work*. But for the first time, I can rest.

    I will say a prayer for you tonight.

    And speaking of hammocks…80 degrees, shade, a hammock–I’m going out for a NAP!

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Darlene,

    Darlene,

    I know that precipice very well including the strange ambivalence – even wishing that the precipice had never arisen – but it’s like wishing that I didn’t know I was sick because the healing seems so difficult. It is a familiar place though I would tell myself (in hindsight) that it’s ok – it’s just God. But it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God and to place ourselves in His hands. He is a good God Who loves mankind and I have slowly learned to trust that more and more.

    The more fearful thing in my life now, having jumped off that precipice is to think that there are no more (when in reality they arise daily). It is learning to live life “on the edge” and “over it” that is indeed the walk of faith. And I can offer you my prayers and my words from here – but I cannot and dare not judge any. When you’re ready – if you jump – He will catch you (and God will undoubtedly complicate our lives – but only because such complications are part of what salvation looks like).

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