Cross and Cosmos: Gates of Prayer

A bit of an unhinged post today. It free-flowed and then just ended. You’ll see…

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I was reading Annie Dillard, and when I got to this line I had to stop, drop and pray:

 “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

And then I had to write…

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4th century Greek Father of the Church extraordinaire, St. Gregory of Nyssa, offers a striking description of the experience of contemplating the beginning-less, endless infinity of God. Gregory always gives me a stiff springboard for leaping into my own contemplative ventures. Here’s one that takes Annie’s challenge to depths:

Imagine a sheer, steep crag of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity. On top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. From here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; it does not allow our minds to approach. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.

Gregory invites us here to join him in undergoing some serious mystic “cognitive dissonance” by engaging the imagination in a wilderness journey to the edge of the God-mystery. Limitless, horizon-less. But he’s not simply advocating a mental game for expanding the mind’s speculative reach into extreme metaphysical thinking. Rather, for this thoroughly Christian theologian, this exercise of cliff-jumping is an invitation to enter prayer, a summons to enter into an intimate colloquy with the infinitely communing (tri)personal God. To enter Their dance without origin or terminus.

For St. Gregory, the preparatory exercise of dizzying the imagination, bewildering our hardened expectations, is eminently useful in service to heart-stretching prayer. Mother Teresa gets this:

Prayer makes your heart bigger, until it is capable of containing the gift of God himself.

And this precisely because accompanying praying-Israel out of Egypt’s chains through the splitting-sea, out into the wild deserts and mountains of Sinai where the Most High roams, helps free the soul from the death-grip of its thousand delimiting graven idols. There, freed from the mythic gods of Egypt (liberated for an exodus into mystery) God can at last be God — God with us, in us, for us and beyond us. You see, the God of Israel, the God of Golgotha, is an unchained, free, wild, untamed and limitless Other-Other-Other, whose glory is circumscribed only by the beauty of His own self-originating nature, e.g. by His goodness, justice, truth, faithfulness, ad infinitum. He cannot be otherwise than these. Deo gratias.

In sum, God’s infinity is bound only by the stricture of His absolute love.

God’s all-transcending eternity is hemmed in by love, and not just by a sheer cold act of self-subsisting Be-ing. Actus Purus. 

No! So much more!

In Him burn marvelous paradoxes, roiling deep in the heart of His flesh-taking Incarnation: Jesus.

The living God, the Terror of Isaac (Gen. 31:42), when He finally chooses to fully reveal Himself to creation by wrapping Himself in creation, appears not as an opaque, distant and edge-less abstraction. Such a god would then only be accessible (and interesting) to the analytic scrutiny of those elite academic adepts gifted with a singularly expansive and speculative prowess.

Blah! How dull.

Rather, the living and loving God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin, shines His glory as Creator-made-creature, Infinity-made-itty. God’s unimaginable immensity is revealed for all flesh (especially for “little children” cf Matt. 11:25) to behold in a most shockingly concrete, raw, real and homely manner: an infant who hungers for food, a dying man who thirsts for drink. And the greatest expansiveness of this self-wasting Lover of mankind is this: He who needs nothing “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired” (St. Maximus the Confessor). The Cross reveals the unsearchable tangles of love, the binding of God. Pope Benedict, help me:

God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

…just gaze for a few silent moments on this utter folly! At this outrageously, absurdly over-sized creation! At that absurdly excessive execution! Realize, we “killed the Author of life” (Acts 3:15).

“Who has believed what we have heard?” (Is. 53:1).

Ecce, “Behold!” Behold what? In a Word, the unconstrained essence of our God is finally seen, face-to-face, wholly exposed, pierced and naked. “He who sees me sees the Father” (John 12:45). Brutally transfixed to a Tree by all-constraining nails, rendering Omnipotence powerless. Madness! How can this be?

Very simply, His Majesty is, à la St. Catherine of Siena, pazzo d’amore, ebro d’amore, “crazed with love, drunk with love.”

It seems to me only Tchaikovsky can save us here at the precipice of mystery, bearing us up on the hymns of the Cherubim:

The Cross and Cosmos, Liber scripturae, liber naturae, the two most sacred texts providing substance for our prayer lives as Christians. Contemplate today their intertwining dance, whilst risking free-falling into prayer.

But remember with Whom you dance:

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The Cross is steady while the world whirls ’round”

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev. 1:17-18).

…et ecce, sacramentum divinam immensitatem:

11 comments on “Cross and Cosmos: Gates of Prayer

  1. Nos says:

    So many different thoughts… being a hunt and peck typist, it would take me a week to right down same… suffice to say ,I have said in other comments ,that upon arriving at the first family reunion in 25 years unless you approach one another to begin a dialogue how are you to know them or reaquaint with them…such is the relationship with the THREE… I frequently find myself in this predicament… starting my prayer with , for me ,the all to common phrase + + + remember me LORD. + + +

  2. Jennifer says:

    Love that Dillard quote! Just wanted to say that I happen to be teaching the decimal system right now. Concurrent to this, and hitherto unrelated in my mind, the Scripture passage the kids are working on memorizing is Psalm 8:4-5: ” When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and stars that you set in place—
    What is man that you are mindful of him,
    and a son of man that you care for him?”
    As you know, I am a huge math and science lover…I’ve been trying to impress upon the kids just how amazing the decimal system is… How each additional digit increases the value tenfold… It’s hard for kids and adults even to imagine what repeatedly multiplying by ten actually looks like. So, I put in the Tchaikovsky piece for them then told them to watch the scale at the bottom of the video and hit play. The wonder in that room was palpable! Then when it went down as small as fentometers I thought some of them were going to lose their minds with awe. (As I nearly did mine!) Then I said to consider those words of the Psalmist considering the heavens, how much more if he had known about all this!!! Well everyone was super impressed and we asking me to show it again even though class was dismissed. So thanks for unknowingly tying this all together for me! Definitely marvellous foray into prayer!

    • AMDG says:

      Jennifer, if you have never come across it before, check out Mary Daly’s Science curriculum based on the powers of ten, Universe in my Hand, at Ye Hedge School. (Blessed schooling!)

      • Jennifer says:

        Awesome! Thanks for sharing this… I am not familiar with this. Have a great day, AMDG!

      • Jennifer says:

        AMDG! Okay, now I’ve had a chance to look at this… wow! Love it… are you familiar with this curriculum, i.e. have you used it or read the books yourself? If so, and if you have the time, I’d love to ask you some questions. Let me know and I can give you my email address. thanks again!

      • AMDG says:

        Jennifer, yes we should connect off-comments. What is a safe way to share emails?

      • Jennifer says:

        If you go to my blog, there is a contact form in the upper right corner (not sure where it is on mobile). Write to me there and that will send me your address privately and I can write back with mine:

    • Now THAT is teaching — how blessed they are to have you. You are an architect of wonder, which is the title of a talk I give to Catholic school teachers. The way you write, parent, think, pray, teach, etc. BTW, I heard a lecture yesterday by a molecular biologist who also has terminal degrees in theology and philosophy. It was entitled: “Why would God choose to create through evolution?” Dr Baglow brought him in for the lecture. It was AMAZING. Wish we had recorded it. Fr Nicanor Austriaco, OP

      • Jennifer says:

        Yes, I am very familiar with Fr. Nicanor. Love his work! I daydream about being a grad student in his lab… not to be but a girl could dream. Awesome that you got to hear him in person.

  3. AMDG says:

    Posts like this one make me long for a way to express proper gratitude for the fruits of your prayerful-thoughtful writing. So often your words increase the love in my silence before God and others. May you (and we all too!) be led off the cliff and into the Fire until our hearts contain God. How this would delight Him!

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