Archive for the ‘knowledge of God’ Category

The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge

June 8, 2009

AgiaSophiaLiturgyI have been involved in Christian liturgical life for most of my adult experience. The first part of that experience was as an Anglican – a liturgical experience that is both Western and reformed. I have been involved in the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity on one level or another for the past 16 years or so – and as an Orthodox priest since 1999. The two experiences are difficult to compare.

There is something “linear” about the reformed liturgies of the West (and by “reformed” I do not mean “Reformed” but “redesigned after 1500 and some after 1960”). The linear character of these liturgies is the simple fact that they tend to do one thing at a time, and in a manner in which actions are simplified and straight-forward. Orthodox liturgies are, in contrast, frequently engaged in several actions at the same time and often bring together varieties of images and events in a single service. 

Principles that have driven reform over the centuries, and particularly in the 20th century, have often been quite rational and even sloganeering. My Anglican training reduced all ritual motion by a priest to things that could be seen and easily interpreted by the congregation. Actions only had meaning as they amplified the accompanying words and only had meaning within the mind of the people observing. No action had significance within itself (thus ritual became “pantomime”).

Despite efforts by some to reform the Byzantine heritage of Orthodoxy, it remains largely immune to the rationalizing and pantomiming principles of Western liturgies. Actions often occur out of sight of the congregation (even behind closed doors). Such actions can only have meaning because something is actually supposed to be happening. There is also a mammoth non-linear aspect to Eastern liturgies. Though liturgical texts are necessarily written in a linear fashion (unless you’ve ever seen the old Hapgood translations) what is described is a service in which many things may be happening at once. It is quite normal for choir, Deacon and Priest to all be doing things in a fairly simultaneous manner (which means that if you are not familiar with the service – a book can be more confusing than helpful).

More than the non-linearity of the service text is the lack of simplification in the liturgical event itself. One of the simplifying principles of the modern West has been the elimination of liturgical aggregates (you only celebrate one thing on a day). Thus it is frequently the case that feasts are moved away from Sundays in order to maintain the focus on the resurrection (notable exceptions are All Saints’ Sunday and the like). According to the Orthodox Typicon (the book which contains the directions and reasoning for liturgical practice) the greatest possible liturgical celebration is the concurrence of Pascha and the feast of the Annunciation on the same day. When this occurs, the Annunciation is not moved to a later or earlier time but is celebrated alongside and within Pascha itself (the rules for this being fairly complicated). This coincidence only occurs under Old Calendar usage since the “New Calendar” mixes the Old Calendar reckoning of Pascha along with the Gregorian reckoning of fixed dates. 

The thought of celebrating both the Annunciation and the Lord’s Pascha simultaneously is utterly foreign to Western liturgical usage. What becomes impossible under a regime of liturgical simplicity is the dialog that occurs when the Annunciation and Pascha are able to speak at the same time. This “polyphonic” character of Eastern liturgies is quite common. Every day of the week has a particular dedication (Monday for the angels, Tuesday for St. John the Forerunner, Wednesday the Betrayal of Christ, Thursday the Apostles and St. Nicholas, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the Theotokos and the Departed, and Sunday the Resurrection). Each day also has its saints (of whom there are very many each day). A day may also be a particular feast. It is not unusual in the course of the services for a particular day (which would include Vespers, Matins, as well as the Divine Liturgy) to have touched on all of these liturgical aspects rather than simplifying everything to a single point.

The result (particularly over a period of years) is a richness of experience in which each thing in the faith is brought into contact with everything in the faith. There is a fullness expressed in this experience that cannot be duplicated in another manner. This manner of liturgizing is reflected in the Orthodox resistance to separation and codification as a means of knowledge. The habits of a millennium in the West have been to break things into separate components and to seek to understand the whole by understanding its parts. The result is often an impoverishment of the faith and the experience of the faithful. 

To know something in its fullness by experiencing it in the context of everything instead of in isolation is a difficult path. It requires greater stretches of time and often results in a knowledge that cannot easily be spoken. If such knowledge could be spoken in simplicity then it probably would be – but it cannot. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is inimical to reductionism.

The knowledge granted to us by God which is unspeakable is just so because it is too large for words. Liturgies which are less are just that – less.

Liturgy is a primary means given to us in the Church for encountering God. Why should such a thing be reasonable and simple and easily understood?

In the Secret Place of the Most High God

June 3, 2009

This article first appeared in 2007. It speaks of one of the most essential elements of our spiritual life – the secret place. I have not written often on the topic – but it bears repeating. Without a proper regard for the ‘secret place of the Most High God’ and the secret place that is our own true heart – then we will know neither God nor our own selves. Fr. Meletios Webber (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil) writes about the ‘ego’ and describes it as a narrative we develop over the years woven from the wants and fears of our lives (the logismoi). Into such madness only a mad religion can take root, itself becoming part of our human disease. The faith of Christ (rather than madness) must take root in the heart, the secret place of the Most High. From there we can begin to find healing and quiet for the incessant chatter of our sin. I highly recommend Fr. Meletios book. You’ll read it and give thanks.

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He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1

refusing confession by RepinThere aren’t many secrets anymore. I live in a city that is known as the “Secret City,” because in the Second World War it was one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb, or elements of it, were developed. I have lived here for 20 years and have come to take the name as a comonplace. But secrets are all too commonplace. During the war this city held nearly 100,000 people, most of whom had no idea what they were working on. Those who lived around the town had no idea at all.

It is obvious to me that secrets can be kept. But it is also obvious to me that, for whatever reason, secrets are being kept less and less. For some, the word “secret,” is synonymous with something nefarious and evil. Things that are secret must be bad or we would let everyone know.

There is another place for secrets. Psychologists would place them in the category of “boundaries.” In theology we would see them as an essential part of what it means to be a Person.

It is important, it seems to me, that Scripture uses the phrase “Secret Place” to describe the most intimate of places we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it only because I was invited and once there (having removed by shoes) I am on holy ground and the “secret” is nothing evil, but the very Good Himself.

What do I do with the Secret? When I stand in the Secret Place of the Most High, I can worship. Anything less would be sacrilege. I can adore the Most High God, even if I can find no words to give voice to my praise.

Every human being has a “secret place” – that within them that is most intimate – that is beyond words – that is made for God. Learning to enter this place is a very difficult thing and only comes with time and practice. Our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane even our secrets and shout them to the world as well. And thus we lose something at the very core of our Personhood. Violated, every man and woman becomes a harlot.

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, has a very different attitude towards the Secret. It is not to protect the evil or to create a conspiracy – it is to honor the most holy within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit an Orthodox Church and find it offensive that the altar is occasionally hidden from their sight behind closed doors and a drawn curtain. It is an offense to their ingrained sense of democracy (a sentiment which has no place in the Presence of God). Where the Church would seek to teach them that there is such a thing as the “Secret Place,” that there are things before which they should be silent and into which not all can enter – we seek in our Promethian madness to democratize everything, defiling every secret place we can find, including the one within ourselves. [n.b. You will find some variation of doors, curtains, silence, in Orthodox Churches, including some whose doors stand open for the whole service, etc.]

The Church would bid us come to a very secret place – to come and discover that place within ourselves. Standing before the icon of Christ in the presence of His priest, we enter the secret place of our heart and speak what should often be spoken to no one else, and confess our sins. There is no legal exchange taking place (God’s forgiveness for your contrition). Here the priest only listens – he is forbidden to judge (though he may offer advice if it seems to help, it is nevertheless considered a great sin for a priest to judge the confession of someone repenting before God). The priest stands beside the penitent “only as a witness” as the prayers of confession make clear. He will speak the words of forgiveness when all is said as God’s representative, and then all that he has heard will be wrapped in silence, hidden in the Secret Place of the Most High, where God will purge and destroy our sins and make us new. The Fathers of the Church called the sacrment of confession, “a second baptism.”

It is also learning to recover our hearts, our secret place. The priest will never speak of it (on pain of being deposed). Indeed, it is normally understood that the penitent should not speak to others of what he or she has said in confession. Unless there is forgiveness of others that needs to be sought, all is done.

There is much in Orthodox worship and life that seeks to teach humanity of the Secret Place of the Most High and of the secret place that lies within our own heart. The lack of such knowledge robs us of our ability to worship God, of our ability to fully understand our own Personhood, of our ability to love others rightly, and of our right mind. Only a crazy world would destroy the secret places. Without them, we become human beings who have no center. Violated by the presence of others where we should be alone, we become mad with the madness of Legion.

Many visit, as I have noted, in an Orthodox Church and are offended at its practice of secret things, of the hiddeness of God. Some draw back at doors and curtains, others draw back at the exclusivity of the altar. I am asked, “Why can only men be priests?” And I respond, “It is not ‘only men’ who can priests, but only a few men.” Some few are set aside to stand in that most Secret Place and offer the Holy Oblation. Democracy and equality stop at its doors because before God no one is justified, no one is worthy, no one may make a claim. We come only as we are bidden. And those who have been bidden to stand in that place at the altar and to hold in their hand the Most Holy Body of our Lord, God and Savior, do so with trembling if they do so rightly. For they stand in the Secret Place of the Most High God.

The most profound moment in all of the Liturgy (if I dare say such a thing) occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near!” And the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of God. That which is Most Holy, which lies in the Most Secret Place, is now brought forward as a gift to the believer who receives in joy, in faith, in repentance, and in a renewed knowledge of the God Who dwells in the Secret Place, and Who now enters into our most secret place.

I live in a city that is nicknamed “the Secret City,” but I long for the true, Secret City, that is known only to God and to those to whom He reveals it. Interestingly, one of my parishioners is a native of Nagasaki, Japan. My joy is that in Christ she and I can meet in Christ’s Secret City and know that in that place, all are safe, for God will not violate nor harm any. Even He, the Most High God, will enter our own secret place only at our invitation. Such is His humility and love. Such is His respect for our Person, a reflection of His own Personhood: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets (as is too often done). There is no virtue in this, but only sin. Bring your secrets to God and stand next to His priest. There you will find love and respect, not judgment. And you will find a balm for your soul. This most public of all places (the internet) hates your secrets and would only use them to destroy you. Learn to be silent and speak to God in your heart. I offer this begging…if you have posted your secrets – remove them! Close the doors, draw the curtain and stand in secret before the Most High God!

A Mystery Solved

May 30, 2009

IMG_0537If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for humility.

-St. Isaac of Syria

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I cannot count the number of times that people have complained of their lack of “progress” in the spiritual life. In our cause and effect model of life, we are used to doing something and seeing some result from our action. Things are not like that in the spiritual life where Christ is the cause of all good things – and He does not behave as an impersonal cause.

Thus, in the words of St. Isaac, “recompense is given… for humility.” And it is well that it is so – for recompense “given for labor,” would establish only the strong and never the weak. We would see the same oppression in the Kingdom that we experience in our fallen world. Instead, God gives us what is “necessary for our salvation,” and it is humility that is required above all for “God resists the proud.” 

I recall Archimandrite Zacharias (of Essex) saying, “Never praise a monk – it’s bad for him.” He had just been introduced with a  typical American flourish. You could hear the pain in his voice when he asked not to be spoken of in such a way again. It was the sound of true humility – the sound of knowing how dangerous is the cult of personality.

How dangerous is the cult of all things proud.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And not a single voice of “I told you so” will be whispered on that day.

Self-Emptying

May 29, 2009

IMG_0408I offer a brief apology to Buddhists – forgive me if I have mischaracterized your religious practices.

We are enjoined by St. Paul to have within us the mind that was in Christ – specifically in His self-emptying love in going to the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). It is the very heart of humility. Of course there are difficulties when we seek to practice such a thing – difficulties for which I have already apologized.

Christians are not Buddhists.

We cannot undertake an effort of self-emptying in a vacuum. We cannot be humble merely in reference to ourself. The Christian goal is the “loss of self” in a certain context, but never in a manner in which there is nothing to be found where a self should be.

The point of St. Paul’s admonition, as well as the point of Christ’s own self-emptying, is not negative, nor may it be achieved through negative efforts. Self-emptying is an act of love – an enlargement of the heart – and extension of our person towards the person of others.

Thus self-emptying is never a matter of looking inwards – but always a matter of extension beyond ourselves.

The Christian vision of love always includes love of the other. There can be no “love” that exists apart from the personal. Even in our understanding of the Trinity – we may say, as does St. John – that “God is love,” but not in any sense of a self-existing non-referential love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The Father loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. The Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Son.

Thus to say, “God loves,” is something of an incomplete sentence. Christian theology would argue that only in the Trinitarian revelation does the statement “God is love” make sense.

By the same token, humility is not a negative act, a “negation” of the self. Rather it is an opening of the self that allows room for the life of the other. God, who is ‘meek and lowly in heart,’ is just so because His life is open to creation and to His human creatures as it is open, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Humility and self-emptying are not the loss of self but the gaining of a true self (where self is understood to be synonymous with “life”). I often marvel at discussions of over-population. Ignoring the Malthusian nightmares of various Cassandras, I find that we are only crowded because there is not enough room for “false selves.” The world is hardly big enough for a single false self. However, love always has room. It is how God can be everywhere present and filling all things and yet have room for us.

Is there any room at the inn?

Isaac of Syria on Humility

May 28, 2009

isaac_of_syriaFrom Met. Hilarion Alfeyev”s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian:

To speak of humility (mukkaka or makkikuta) meant to Isaac to speak of God, for God in his vision is primarily the One who is ‘meek and lowly in heart’. God’s humility was revealed to the world in the Incarnation of the Word. In the Old Testament, God remained invisible to and unattainable by everyone approaching him. But when he clothed himself in humility and hid his glory under human flesh, he became both visible and attainable:

Humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word who became human clothed himself in it, and he spoke to us in our body. Everyone who has been clothed with humility has truly been made like unto Him who came down from his own exaltedness and hid the splendor of his majesty and concealed his glory with humility, lest creation be utterly consumed by the contemplation of him.

Every Christian is called to imitate Christ in humility. In acquiring humility, a person becomes like the Lord and clothes himself in Christ:

Wherefore every man has put on christ when he is clothed with the raiment wherein the Creator was seen through the body that he put on. For the likeness in which he was seen by his own creation and in which he kept company with it, he willed to put on in his inner man, and to be seen therein by his fellow servants.

The Sounds of Silence

May 21, 2009

IMG_0528It is said that “silence is the language of the world to come.” We are also told that those who are in the grave (sheol) cannot offer praise. Hades is the land of the silent. Thus we have the paradox of the joyful silence of the age to come and sorrowful silence that can say nothing.

It seems the mystery lies in the nature of the silence. There is a silence that comes from fullness – a silence because there are no words that are sufficient. There is also a silence that comes from emptiness – when words fall back on themselves and never rise to the level of expression.

In the course of our lives we probably experience something of both forms of silence. I have known joy too great to be spoken and grief like an “emotional black hole” that has no words. I prefer the joy.

St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence” (Eph. XV). Vladimir Lossky comments on this that it is the necessary condition for hearing the Scriptures when they are properly transmitted in the Tradition. It is simply a way of saying that the Scriptures say more than can be heard without the Spirit dwelling in us. 

In a strange way we live in a world that is hungry for silence – not for the empty silence that grinds everything beneath it. We hunger for a silence that is capable of bearing the fullness of the Word – a silence that is filled with the praise and joy of God.

I remember well that torrent of words and thoughts that swirled around my journey to Orthodoxy. Not only were there the myriad questions and halting debates – the words served as a substitute for action – a noisy hesitation. I also remember the silence of submission when words came to an end and hesitation yielded to God. I have to be honest and say that the condition of my heart was such that these occasions were repetitive. The silence of surrender was frequently followed by another torrent of words only to end again in silence. 

I suspect that my life will continue in that model until it finds its final submission. Words flow until they finally meet their rest in the silence in which the Word reposes. It is a silence that is embraced – not for love of the silence but for love of the Word. It is the silence of the word of Jesus.

Why Should Beauty Matter?

May 18, 2009

IMG_0529Reflecting on my last two posts, The Nature of Things and Our Salvation and Beauty and the Salvation of the World, I have a question:

What is the nature of things such that beauty should matter?

It is a commonplace in our culture to think that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” (rendering beauty completely subjective and relative), while at the same time making a cult out of the pursuit of “beauty” (in various guises). It is thus easy for Christians in the contemporary world to be cautious around the topic of beauty. Relativism generally has a corrosive effect on its surrounding culture – while the hedonistic pursuit of “beauty” is corrosion itself.

And yet, beauty holds a very important place in Orthodox theology and practice. I do not propose to offer a theological account of beauty – there are limits to my capabilities. Instead, I want to stand with others and wonder. There is a beauty to the creation, in its fullness, in its depth and in its surface as we see it, that simply staggers the heart. We are frequently distracted and fail to see the truth of what is. But, I believe, those moments when we are present to beauty, we are beholding something of the truth (and not in a relative sense). 

In Greek, the word, kalos, carries a double meaning: it can mean “good,” and it can mean “beautiful.” The same is true of the Hebrew word tov. It is these words that we find in Genesis when God says that creation is “good.” I believe that the double sense of these words are both true. To know the goodness of creation is also to know its beauty (nor can they truly be separated). 

I am deeply aware of the fallenness of the world in which we live. It is of the very character of sin that it seeks to distort and destroy beauty – just as it would seek to redefine goodness. I am struck, however, by the fact that despite the brokenness of the world and the presence of sin within it – beauty and goodness remain. 

Christ on the cross manifests the transcendent goodness of God. Already on the cross, beauty is destroying sin and goodness revealing the emptiness and futility of evil. 

The title of this website is taken from the last words of St. John Chrysostom. He died in exile. Falsely persecuted by his enemies, he was deposed from his bishopric and exiled to the extreme limits of the Byzantine empire. Always plagued by ill health, his sickness made his exile a torture. His letters from exile reveal a lonely and depressed soul who longed for his friends. However, the profession of faith on his deathbed, like the words of Christ on the cross, reveal a vision of the goodness of God. “Glory to God for all things!” carried the last breath from his body.

I recall a patient that I served as a hospice chaplain. She was a Pentecostal from the mountains here in East Tennessee. Most of her last days were marked by a morphine coma. But in her last hour she was awake. I recall standing by her bed and praying quietly. I remember watching her saying something and bent over her to hear her words. She had raised her hands (weakly), and was repeating, “Praise you, Jesus!” Beauty radiated from her face.

Hers is not the only such death I have witnessed. Like the words of Chrysostom, such moments are the Christian witness to the goodness of God – despite every attending circumstance. My belief is that every moment is utterly filled with beauty and goodness were we only present to the moment. 

Beauty matters because it is the truth in the very nature of things. God said, “It is good.” Creation did not cease to be good, nor did beauty disappear with the entrance of sin. Glory to God for all things.

Beauty and the Salvation of the World

May 17, 2009

481px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410Thus the most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, conclusion of which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.

– from Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis

This short quote from St. Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis is among the most startling in his extant works. It is not unlike the oft-attributed Dostoevsky quote, “God will save the world through beauty.” Both thoughts bear witness to a beauty that both transcends our world and at the same time establishes and saves our world. Rightly understood, they are also related to Holy Scripture.

Some years ago, within my thesis at Duke University, I wrote about the iconicity of language, meaning that language, especially Holy Scripture, functions in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I turned that succinct statement around to ask if Scripture does with words what icons do with color. It became the starting point for my thoughts on the iconicity of language.

We know, dogmatically, much about how an icon “works,” how it makes present what it represents. I sought to apply that understanding to the reading of Holy Scripture. As time has gone by (better than 15 years now) I have come to see that Scripture may indeed best be understood in an iconic fashion. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself, but a representation of which He is the prototype. But, St. Theodore the Studite noted, it is a representation of the hypostasis, the person of Christ, rather than a representation of His nature. This is a significant dogmatic statement, because it provides a way for speaking of Christ’s presence in a manner that is not a sacrament, in the sense of the Eucharist. The Holy Fathers taught that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus there is not a normal analogy between an icon and the Eucharist.

Neither is Holy Scripture to be likened to the Eucharist, for it is like the icons. An icon is holy because of the presence of the “person,” not because the wood and paint have undergone any change. Christ is “hypostatically present,” but not “naturally present.” He does not become incarnate as wood and paint.

This notion of “hypostatic representation” opened for me a whole new way of understanding the Scriptures and of speaking of their role in revelation. Icons have many strange features (at least those painted in accordance with the canons). The characters are drawn in a manner that differs from photographic reality. Time is somewhat relative – several events separated by time may be pictured together in the same icon if there is a connection between them and they enlighten one another. Other examples could be given. So, too, the Gospels have a way of presenting the saving actions and teachings of Christ in a manner that is iconic. The Gospels frequently ignore time sequence placing events in differing relationships to the whole, in order to reveal yet more of the Truth of Christ.

St. John’s gospel is perhaps the most striking in this respect. Following the Prologue there is a sequence of water stories, followed by a sequence of bread stories. Little wonder that the Church traditionally used St. John for its post-baptismal catechesis. His pericopes are far more like pictures than narratives. And so it is in John’s gospel that we read the finest commentary and teaching on the Eucharist not around the event of the Last Supper (which John does not actually mention) but around the event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Read in a purely historic manner, Christ’s teaching on the loaves and fishes, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood…”, would not only be scandalous to some, but would literally make no sense. Equally senseless (in the light of the sixth chapter) would be the claim of some historical critical scholars that John knows nothing of the Tradition of the Last Supper. How utterly silly!

Having said all this (and there is so much more that can be said) it is possible to see how the Scriptures resist rational forces that seek to wrest them into one thing or another. One rationalist seeks to harmonize all the Scriptures in a mechanical manner that yields a narrow conception of inerrancy. Another seizes on the iconic character of Scripture and assumes that these oddities represent historical flaws. Like an icon, the Scriptures present the Truth of God to us – and do so in a way that we can indeed begin to see the truth.

There is a propositional character to be found in Scripture – after all, an icon of a human being still looks like a human being, even if it is painted in a style that is other than photographic. But the propositions of Scripture function in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. We are not led to reason God, but to know God. The propositions of Scripture, particularly the most confusing ones, lead the reader to see what cannot be seen in this world until we have the eyes to see.

St. John’s gospel is easily my favorite, if only because I know it better and have spent more time in its pages. There is a transcendent beauty in its words – a beauty never lost regardless of the language into which it is translated. The beauty is more than the sum total of the words or even the beauty of lofty concepts. It is a beauty that is nothing other than the personal (hypostatic) representation of Christ. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.”

There exists the Gospel of St. John; therefore, God exists. God is indeed saving the world through beauty.

Living a Personal Life

May 3, 2009

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.

What Matters – Still True

May 2, 2009

img_1024Perhaps I am in an introspective mood – but I find myself lately going back and reading my earliest posts – they only go back to October of 2006 – though there have been nearly a thousand of them. It is an exercise in consistency and in growth. Would I have said something differently now than I said then? This is among my earliest efforts and remains as true to me now as it did when I wrote it. Indeed, it has been something of a litmus test for writing. To proclaim from the beginning of my effort, “This blog doesn’t matter.” This is not to say it is not worth the effort, but to say that the effort only has worth if it serves a proper end – in this case the knowledge of God. It is a reminder not to take myself too seriously but to take God very seriously. Nothing has changed about that. I offer it here again, unchanged.

God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He isperson. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

And this matters.

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.