Incomprehensible God, Part II

Russian icon of the Trinity by Andrey Rublev, c.1425. Taken from wikimedia.org

I decided to record another reading of my blogpost, for what it’s worth. I recorded it outside, as you can hear. I will leave the text below if you’d prefer not listening. Here’s the audio:

Shut down mode

One of my sons summed up well the effects of this paradox on the narrow frames of our common human experience. When he was 13 or so years old, we had a three hour conversation one evening — till after midnight! — about God’s eternity. We were exploring the idea that God has no source, no origin, no beginning; that God’s power and knowledge came from no-where. We talked in particular about the “unique” mystery of God the Father, who alone, in the eternal Trinity, is in an absolute sense without origin, i.e. that He is unbegotten, eternally begetting the Son and, with the Son, breathing forth the Spirit. I shared with him St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s argument that only the Son became flesh to “safeguard the invisibility of the Father, to prevent man from treating God with contempt and to set before him a constant goal toward which he makes progress.” Then I shared with him that God is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, ipsum esse subsistens, “self-subsistent Being,” which means God is the un-caused cause of His own beginningless existence. After that remark, my son said,

Okay I have to stop now, Dad; my brain just shut down.

I wrote later a brief reflection on my son’s comment:

Precisely in that moment of “shut down” is when theology turns into liturgy. That moment when you really know you don’t know, when you slam against the limits and taste a knowledge of God that is living and beyond all of your hedged-in categories. Only in the mental “space” of that moment can you really become vulnerable to God as God, to receiving God out-of-the-box, un-caged from comprehensibility. That said, it’s not that you’re now free to simply deny the possibility of knowing God and declare yourself an agnostic who realizes there are better things to do than waste your time thinking about the unthinkable. No! Rather, it’s only at that moment of “shutdown” that you become rightly receptive, properly disposed to meet the infinite God who leaps out of His mystery, out of His infinity, out of His incomprehensibility in order to reveal Himself to me. More, to give Himself to me. Why does God reveal Himself to such seemingly unfit recipients? To open us not to concepts, He does this, but to the knowledge that is a form of loving; a love that leads to the union of knower and known. The union of the itty and infinity — unthinkable! — raises the finite creature to the level of the infinite God. Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Divine love bridges the abyss that separates finite and infinite. The Word born of the Father before all ages is born in our flesh, so that we might in turn be born of God (John 1:13-14). Divine images made capax infiniti Dei, “capable of the infinite God.”

As the 4th century Liturgy of St James says, “Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for the King of kings and Lord of lords advances to be slain and given as food to the faithful. Before him go the choirs of Angels, with every rule and authority, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, veiling their sight and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

As He descends into our depths, God’s mystery is disclosed by His love that cannot remain hidden from man, whom He loves for reasons that — like the folly of the cross itself — transcend all reason.

Pope Benedict XVI also expressed this great mystery memorably,

If the painful history of the human and Christian striving for God proves anything, it surely proves this: that any attempt to reduce God to the scope of our own comprehension leads to the absurd. We can only speak rightly about him if we renounce the attempt to comprehend and let him be the uncomprehended. Any doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, cannot aim at being a perfect comprehension of God. It is a frontier notice, a discouraging gesture pointing over to unchartable territory. It is not a definition that confines a thing to the pigeonholes of human knowledge, nor is it a concept that would put the thing within the grasp of the human mind.

Theology in its essence is an act of adoration, not of comprehension. Amen.

Incomprehensible God, Part I

Taken from transparentwithmyself.files.wordpress.com

Refurbished re-post from 2014. I will stretch it for a few days as it is somewhat long.

+ + +

Behold, God is great, and we know Him not;
the number of His years is unsearchable…
God thunders wondrously with His voice;
He does great things which we cannot comprehend…
The Almighty–we cannot find Him;
He is great in power and justice,
and abundant justice He will not violate.
Therefore men fear Him.”–Job 36:26,37:5,23-24

I remember when I first thought deeply about the infinity of God. Can you believe I remember such a thing? I was in an undergrad metaphysics class and the professor was reflecting on a quote from St. Augustine: “Every infinity is, in a way we cannot express, made finite to God.” As I recall from the lecture, the teacher explained that for Augustine infinite numbers actually exist but are, by the very fact of being infinite, not able to be comprehended by finite minds like ours. However, the same infinite numbers, because they are created by God, are comprehensible to Him in whom “infinity” has a radically different meaning from the “limitless sequence” that characterizes infinite numbers. He said something like this,

God is not a limitless sequence of numbers or spaces or moments, but is the pure, limitless, beginningless act of absolute and total simultaneity, i.e. God is all that He is simultaneously, all at once. But even that is misleading, since “all at once” sounds like a split second in time. If you conceptualize God in terms of time categories the image you’ll get is of a freeze-frame, static God who can’t do anything new because He’s stuck doing everything all at once, in a moment of time that can’t open up into a “next” moment of time because that would imply a change. God is not like that, is not time-bound, but is the creator of time. For Augustine, the best expression for God’s timeless and space-less infinity is the Name He reveals to Moses in the burning Bush: ego sum qui sum, “I am who am,” or qui est, “The who-is.” But how does a creature that only knows time and space speak of God? It’s like the case of a saint who tells us of a vision she [I think he was speaking of St. Catherine of Genoa] has of God in which she sees colors that don’t exist here. After the vision, she fitfully tries to describe those colors to her Confessor. She ends up saying, “Can’t do it!” So we are at a loss as to how we might describe what it means for God to be undetermined by time or by any limit; to be eternal. We can say what infinity doesn’t mean — not finite! — but when we try to say what it DOES mean, the best we can do as philosophers is offer is an inkling, a gesture. The 6th century Syrian author known as Dionysius expressed it powerfully [he cited the text which I eagerly looked up later]:

“Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, opinion, reason or understanding; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is He standing, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is He science nor truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness; nor is He spirit according to our understanding, nor filiation, nor paternity; nor anything else known to us or to any other beings of the things that are or the things that are not; neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.”

Ceaseless Quest

I recall feeling dizzy as I tried to wrap my mind around what it means to say that Jews and Christians affirm that God is in-finis, “edgeless,” without bounds, horizons, limits. Like a vast ocean with no shores. I remember also that he referred to Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s argument that God even has an infinite number of attributes, which means that, in addition to those attributes we would ascribe to God — justice, mercy, faithfulness — there’s more and more, in saecula saeculorm! Limitless diversity in God’s nature. Heaven, as an infinite exploration of the divine nature, will be an endlessly surprising journey of the mind into God.

Several years later in my theological studies I discovered, via theologian Jean Danielou’s work on St. Gregory of Nyssa, that I was not alone in my dizziness. Gregory — who said “the more one steps into the depths, the more one becomes dizzy” — argues that in this life and in the next, our journey toward union with God never rests in a final “got it” moment, but ceaselessly progresses from glory to glory (epektasis). Like a child that runs after a beautiful butterfly trying to capture it, those who enter the Kingdom will find themselves endlessly in pursuit of the ever-elusive God. As St. John of the Cross says:

…the way to the experience and vision of the power of God does not consist in ideas and meditations about God, of which we have made extensive use. But it consists in not being able either to grasp God with ideas or walk by means of discursive, imaginative meditation, as in a land without a way.

This understanding came to shape the way I conceived of theology. If theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding,” then God provides us with a quaerens, a “search” that admits of no end-game. For me, this is what makes theology thrilling, engaging, disorienting, challenging and wonder-full. The gift of faith grants to the intellect willing to surrender its puny categories an unfettered access to the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10) that have been revealed wholly in Christ, and permits the mind to plunge into an unfathomable ocean; or to join in a mountain climbing expedition up the slopes of the soaring Mountain with no peak. As Jesuit theologian Jean Daniélou said:

There is at once for the soul an aspect of stability and possession, which is her participation in God, and an aspect of movement, which is the ever infinite gap between what she possesses of God and what He is…Spiritual life is thus an everlasting transformation of the soul in Christ Jesus in the form of a growing ardor, increasing thirst for God growing as participation in Him increases, which is accompanied by a growing stability, the soul becoming simple, and fixed ever more firmly in God.

I’ve always been mesmerized by the fact that one who surrenders to this endless movement toward God at once discovers a great stability. As my spiritual director once put it to me when I complained of my tumultuous life, “Tom, God is a Rock, but He’s a Rock in a state of perpetual earthquake.” When you sink your anchor in a God whom Nyssa calls “changeless motion,” you soon discover that this is precisely what God is: absolutely trustworthy in an utterly unpredictable way. Volatile peace. Such a “rest” makes life ever inherently interesting.

Icon of the Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John assuming the proper dispositions of true theologians resting on the Christ-Rock! Taken from nd.edu

The Cause of My Forever Joy

Patti (2)

Patricia Ann Neal, my bride ∞

2103 re-post that reflects my Easter joy…you have to be on my blogsite to see it all

In our third year of marriage, I wrote my wife a poem that I would like to share here. It reflects my own joyful meditation on St. Bonaventure’s contention (first introduced to me by Sr. Paula Jean Miller back in 1993), not shared by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the bond of sacramental marriage endures even beyond the grave in some profound form of binding love that, though no longer a sacrament and no longer sexual, reveals marital love to bear within it something eternal. Hence, this contention is an open theologoumenon, i.e. a matter of theological opinion and not defined doctrine.

Bonaventure writes that marriage bears within it a triple imprint of God, i.e. mirror of the Trinitarian communion of Persons; image of the union of human and divine natures in Christ; and sacrament of the unbreakable union of Christ with his Bride, the Church. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Churches view second marriages that follow on sacramentally valid (i.e. not marriages that were canonically invalid which could be annulled) first marriages as concessions to human weakness and as so as penitential acts, e.g. the liturgy for a second marriage ends with the words, “You know the frailty of human nature, O Lord.” For the Orthodox, it matters not whether the first marriage ended by divorce or by the death of a spouse. It’s a very strange notion for most Western Christians for whom death dissolves marriage, and the the diversity of opinions East and West leaves the question open (though I know of very little consideration of this in Western literature). Fr. Tom Hopko says of this Orthodox tradition:

In fact, we even believe, and I preach this many times in my life that when a man’s wife dies or a woman’s husband dies, as real Christians they remain faithful to them forever, and they cultivate a new relationship with them since they are in the presence of the Lord. But Chrysostom says that explicitly. He said if you’re really a strict Christian, you will be faithful even through death. And we have no expression in our marriage service until death do us part. There is no parting. Radical monogamy is the most perfect expression of the love of God for creation, as is also virginity. Those are the two perfect human expressions of the love of God in human form. Sure, there can be penance. Sure, there can be compassionate “economia.” Certainly, there can be condescension to people’s sins and weaknesses, but they should be understood as being sins and weaknesses. They should not be justified in any case … Now of course in the secular, fallen world you’ll have people who will say, “Well, why would I commit myself forever to anybody anyway? Maybe we’ll fall out of love. Maybe this is only good for a time. Maybe we’ll love somebody else. Maybe we’ll love many people. Maybe we’ll want to have sex with everyone.” Well the ancient Christian and Scriptural Christian answer would be that that’s part of the corrupted world, but that’s not the way Christians behave. That’s not the way Christians do it. If you’re a Christian, you just don’t do it this way. Period.

But for me this theologoumenon has shaped my marriage. I’ve said to my wife: if eternity is an option, I’m in. Forever, she is truly the cause of my joy. As I posted here last October: With her face beside mine, hands joined, O Lord, may I forever behold your Face through, with and in hers. By grace may it be so in saecula saeculorum. Amen. Deo gratias.

Deathless Love

My love for you, my wife, is deathless
for death would mean that we must part.
No! Death will not have final judgment,
nor the grave cleave our God-knit heart.

Our covenant love, my wife, burns bright,
be it now all-consumed in Christ-lit flame;
our love, cross-hewn, be stern as death,
be carved with God’s Blood-writ Name.

May the Spirit sing through us, my wife,
that we might be ever one, even as is He;
and when death’s shadow threatens Night
may Dawn bid us, together, by eternal decree:
O Flesh, Two-in-One, behold and see
God! Love! your One-in-Three…

Better Dig Two

To end on a more playful note, I heard for the first time yesterday The Band Perry’s song, Better Dig Two, and now I’ve decided on my epitaph: Here lies a guy whose only crutch… 

Here’s the acoustic youtube version, with lyrics below:

I told you on the day we wed
I was gonna love you ’til I’s dead
Made you wait ’til our wedding night
That’s the first and the last time I’ll wear white

So if the ties that bind ever do come loose
Tie ’em in a knot like a hangman’s noose
Cause I’ll go to heaven or I’ll go to hell
Before I’ll see you with someone else

Put me in the ground
Put me six foot down
And let the stone say,

“Here lies the girl whose only crutch
Was loving one man just a little too much.”
If you go before I do
I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two

Well,
It won’t be whiskey, it won’t be meth
It’ll be your name on my last breath
If divorce or death ever do us part
The coroner will call it a broken heart

So put me in the ground
Put me six foot down
And let the stone say,

“Here lies the girl whose only crutch
Was loving one man just a little too much.”
If you go before I do
I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two

Dig two
Yeah…

I took your name when I took those vows
I meant ’em back then and I mean ’em right now,
Oh, right now

If the ties that bind ever do come loose
If “forever” ever ends for you
If that ring gets a little too tight
You might as well read me my last rites

And let the stone say,

“Here lies the girl whose only crutch
Was loving one man just a little too much.”
If you go before I do
Gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two!

There’ll be a stone right next to mine,
We’ll be together ’til the end of time
Don’t you go before I do,
I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two

Yeah…oh dig two….

I told you on the day we wed
I was gonna love you ’til I’s dead

Sneaking Glory into the Gulag

Siberian work camp. Taken from netdna-cdn.com

Happy Bright Monday of the Easter Octave– the day God laughed!

I felt compelled to share with you a magnificent liturgical hymn, called the “Akathist of Thanksgiving” — akathist is a prayer offered standing, and literally means “not-sitting.” It was written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan (1861-1934), and — as a hymn of joyful hope — spiritually supported countless Christians under the “Soviet yoke” during the decades of violent persecution of believers. As historian Alexander Schmemann said it, this prayer was “considered divine revelation” and incorporated into the Divine Liturgy. One of the most beloved Russian New Martyrs – the Archpriest St. Gregory Petroff (+1942) – loved the Akathist, and it was found after his death in the Gulag among his few belongings. Tryphon was, on account of his eloquence, often called the “Moscow Chrysostom.”

May we all, this Octave of Easter joy, permit Christ to fill us with such unfettered joy.

It’s a long hymn (actually, I edited over half of it out — here’s the whole thing). I encourage you to pray it aloud. I like to pray a stanza over and over for a day.

Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colours, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee at the hushed hour of nightfall
Glory to Thee, covering the earth with peace
Glory to Thee for the last ray of the sun as it sets
Glory to Thee for sleep’s repose that restores us
Glory to Thee for Thy goodness even in the time of darkness
When all the world is hidden from our eyes
Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul
Glory to Thee for the pledge of our reawakening
On that glorious last day, that day which has no evening
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, ceaselessly watching over me
Glory to Thee for the encounters Thou dost arrange for me
Glory to Thee for the love of parents, for the faithfulness of friends
Glory to Thee for the humbleness of the animals which serve me
Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life
Glory to Thee for the heart’s innocent joy
Glory to Thee for the joy of living
Moving and being able to return Thy love
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, the highest peak of men’s dreaming
Glory to Thee for our unquenchable thirst for communion with God
Glory to Thee, making us dissatisfied with earthly things
Glory to Thee, turning on us Thine healing rays
Glory to Thee, subduing the power of the spirits of darkness
And dooming to death every evil
Glory to Thee for the signs of Thy presence
For the joy of hearing Thy voice and living in Thy love
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, showing Thine unsurpassable power in the laws of the universe
Glory to Thee, for all nature is filled with Thy laws
Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy
Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom
Glory to Thee for the inventiveness of the human mind
Glory to Thee for the dignity of man’s labour
Glory to Thee for the tongues of fire that bring inspiration
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, satisfying my desires with good things
Glory to Thee, watching over me day and night
Glory to Thee, curing affliction and emptiness with the healing flow of time
Glory to Thee, no loss is irreparable in Thee, Giver of eternal life to all
Glory to Thee, making immortal all that is lofty and good
Glory to Thee, promising us the longed-for meeting with our loved ones who have died
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love
Glory to Thee, making wonderfully Sweet the keeping of Thy commandments
Glory to Thee, making Thyself known where man shows mercy on his neighbour
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others
Glory to Thee, rewarding us so well for the good we do
Glory to Thee, welcoming the impulse of our heart’s love
Glory to Thee, raising to the heights of heaven every act of love in earth and sky
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee for every happening
Every condition Thy providence has put me in
Glory to Thee for what Thou speakest to me in my heart
Glory to Thee for what Thou revealest to me, asleep or awake
Glory to Thee for scattering our vain imaginations
Glory to Thee for raising us from the slough of our passions through suffering
Glory to Thee for curing our pride of heart by humiliation
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee for the unquenchable fire of Thy Grace
Glory to Thee, building Thy Church, a haven of peace in a tortured world
Glory to Thee for the life-giving water of Baptism in which we find new birth
Glory to Thee, restoring to the penitent purity white as the lily
Glory to Thee for the cup of salvation and the bread of eternal joy
Glory to Thee for exalting us to the highest heaven
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee, giving us light
Glory to Thee, loving us with love so deep, divine and infinite
Glory to Thee, blessing us with light, and with the host of angels and saints
Glory to Thee, Father all-holy, promising us a share in Thy Kingdom
Glory to Thee, Holy Spirit, life-giving Sun of the world to come
Glory to Thee for all things, Holy and most merciful Trinity
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Nocturnal Sunglasses and Adrenaline Engines

I know, I said I’d start tomorrow, but…my daughters have been making music that simply cannot be hidden under a bushel basket! First, my elder daughter (in the hat) remakes an 80’s song with her friend. She says “it’s a rough cut,” but I like frayed edges. Second, my younger daughter plays the foot tapping Adrenaline Engines (by Randall D. Standridge) in her symphonic band, keeping time with her percussive bells. It’s a phone recorded video, so excuse the fuzzy visuals.

Thanks for indulging me:

5/1/15

Moon

My daughter Maria took this photo Good Friday night. The Passover moon.

Happy Bright Monday of Easter Octave, the day God laughed!

I will resume posting on May 1, St. Joseph the Worker’s Feast. As ever, I am grateful and exceedingly humbled that those who read this blog, well, read this blog. Deo gratias et gratias tibi.

In the mean time, let me leave you with one powerful article to read here.

All good and innumerable graces to you during this joyous season. Christus resurrexit! ¡Cristo ha resucitado! Cristo ressuscitou! Alleluia to the Risen One!

Dr. Tom

“The Raising of Adam and Eve,” Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315. Taken from wikimedia.org