Eating a Feeding God

Dorothy Day’s last arrest, age 74. Taken from jimandnancyforest.com

I happened on three quotes in succession today that all seemed to sing a harmonious canticle about the real-world impact of the Risen Jesus. I commented in my journal after reading them: “Jesus, by taking our flesh and blood up in the resurrection, makes clear that loving Him really always means loving our flesh and blood neighbors concretely. Bodily resurrection ruins our valiant attempts to evade our unlovable neighbor while aspiring to embrace our all-lovable God, or failing to feed our hungry neighbor while daring to eat the Bread of Life.”

Enjoy:

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: The defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence, or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them. Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone, and especially of pastors and those in positions of responsibility. The concern for the purity of the faith demands giving the answer of effective witness in the service of one’s neighbor, the poor and the oppressed in particular, in an integral theological fashion. By the witness of their dynamic and constructive power to love, Christians will thus lay the foundations of this “civilization of love” of which the Conference of Puebla spoke, following Paul VI. Moreover there are already many priests, religious, and lay people who are consecrated in a truly evangelical way for the creation of a just society.

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Stanley Hauerwas: Too often I think Christians think about the resurrection in terms of a story told by Soren Kierkegaard about a prince riding through his field. The prince sees a peasant girl gathering the crops. She is beautiful and the prince falls instantly in love with her. However, he is a noble prince and does not want to overwhelm her with his power and riches, so he dresses in peasant clothes and goes to work side by side with her.

Kierkegaard notes that what holds our attention as such a story is told is our curiosity about when the prince will show his true identity. We know the prince and the peasant girl will fall in love – after all, she is beautiful and he is noble so we know they will love one another. But we want to know when and how the prince will reveal to his beloved that she has fallen in love with the prince himself. We let our imaginations run. Perhaps one day they share a lunch during which he tells her of his love. She confesses she also loves him and suddenly he rips back the peasant clothes and reveals the purple. Or perhaps he will wait until the wedding itself. They exchange vows at the end of which he tears away his rough clothes to reveal that through this marriage she has become the queen of the land. If we are really letting our imaginations run, we might think he waits until the wedding night itself.

Kierkegaard uses this story to suggest that we think the resurrection must be like a prince who has been hiding the purple under his rough clothes. The resurrection reveals the purple. However, Kierkegaard notes the only problem with this way of thinking about the resurrection is that Jesus has no purple under his flesh. Jesus is peasant clothes, flesh, all the way down. He is not playing at being a human. He is human all the way down.

The resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ. Only such a Christ, moreover, can save us. For Jesus is the Christ, being for us this particular man making possible a particular way of life that is an alternative to the world’s fear of one like Jesus.

Christians have no fantasy that we may get out of life alive. Instead we have a saviour who was in every way like us, yet also fully God. Jesus is not 50% God and 50% man. He is 100% God and 100% man – he is the incarnation making possible a way to live that constitutes an alternative to all politics that are little less than conspiracies to deny death.

Such a saviour does not promise that by being his follower we will be made safe. Rather, this saviour offers to free us from our self-inflicted fears and anxieties. Jesus does so not by making our lives “more meaningful” – though we may discover our lives have renewed purpose – but by making us members of his body and blood so that we can share in the goods of a community that is an alternative to the world.

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Fr. Aidan Kavanagh: Genesis says that we began in a swamp teeming with life, but that something went vastly wrong one evening at dinner. Apocalypse says that the difficult was finally resolved into something called the Banquet of the Lamb. Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear. Suburbia prefers its meat wrapped in plastic, all signs of violence removed so as to reduce the necessity of entering into the dark and murderous transaction with reality which one creature giving up its life for another entails.

This means that in a Christian assembly’s regular Sunday worship, a restored and recreated World must be so vigorously enfleshed in ‘civic’ form as to give the lie to any antithetical civitas–especially to one raised on the slippery footing of Pelagian optimism and the sovereignty of the individual to whom oppression is thought to come only from without. The assembly is not a political party or a special interest group. But it cannot forget that by grace and favor it is the World made new; that creation, not the state, is a theocracy; and that the freedom with which all people are endowed by the Creator is something which by our own choice is prone to go awry.

Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxia to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer. This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the World stops being cute when told it is morbid. The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh. It is what his Body corporate is here for. In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that he laid down his life for the life of the World–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less.

The Church doing the World as God means it to be done in Christ is the greatest prophecy, the most powerful exorcism, of all. The Church is seen and felt by all to be doing its best most overtly and accessibly in its steady, regular round of what I have called orthodoxia, a life of ‘right worship’ which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is a life whose enactment is festive, ordered, aesthetic, canonical, eschatological, and normal. The liturgy is nothing more nor less than the Body corporate of Christ Jesus, suffused with his Spirit and assembled in time and place, doing its best by doing the World as the World issues constantly from God’s creating and redeeming hand. What the liturgical assembly does is the World. Where the liturgical assembly does this is the public forum of the World’s radical business, the Thingplatz of a restored and redeemed creation. When the liturgical assembly does this is the moment of the World’s rebirth–the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age. Nothing less rides upon the act of the assembly, determines its style, lays bares its service and mission for the life of the World.

 

Unsought grace

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Byzantine style from the Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily. Taken from wikimedia.org

In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also another “Galilee”, a more existential “Galilee”: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission. In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him. To return there means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me. — Pope Francis, Easter Vigil Homily, April 19, 2014

I am not a man who often can say he has received discernibly “extraordinary experiences” of God — the “fireworks” kind I spoke about back in March in my post on St. John of the Cross and the Charismatic Renewal. There have been but a few, but very rare. c/o St. John of the Cross, Deo gratias.

With some hesitation, I thought I might “return to my Galilee” and write today about one of those “extra-ordinary” experiences at the origin of my own “call,” hopefully only to add some living color to my theological reflection on the unspeakable power of the Risen Christ. I recall, as I share this, St. John’s words: “Like the apostles at the Transfiguration, those who receive any great favors from the Lord are to keep in mind they are being readied for trials.”

2/87

I had what I could call my very first conscious, unmistakable and identifiable encounter with the risen, living, in-your-face Jesus back in February of 1987 in my college dorm room. No, there was no alcohol involved. I will be circumspect about the details, which are what St. John would call the “rind,” and get to the meaty core.

I can say that that encounter was very specifically an experience of Christ as the Pantokrator, the omnipotent “All-Ruler.”

It was absolutely unanticipated, unsought. I don’t know why it was even that facet of Christ, and when it happened I had no context for locating it anywhere in my worldview. That made it simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, like looking off the edge of a steep cliff and losing all your bearings, and yet feeling strangely drawn in by the thrill of the danger. Something like that, at least. It left me — and still to this very moment leaves me — with utter and unmistakable certitude that Jesus Christ is the source and ground of all that exists. I received at that moment an intuition that everything around me was absolutely contingent, utterly dependent on Jesus (and not just a generic “God”) for its existence at every moment. I’d never thought of such a thing before, and it took me weeks to even adjust my thinking sufficiently to regain my footing. I remember even crazily touching the concrete walls around me immediately afterwards, thinking, “It’s all His.”

If I had been familiar with Colossians 1:16-17 that day, I would have told you: That’s it!

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.

Or John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made
that was made.

Logos

This all came back to me recently as I was reading Richard B. Hays’ fascinating book Reading Backwards. In there he makes a comment about the identity of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel that, I thought, captures my insight from that day perfectly:

Jesus is the incarnation of the Logos who was present before creation, through whom all things were made. All creation breathes with his life. He is the divine Wisdom whose very being is the blueprint of all reality. That is why he can declare, “I and the Father are one,” both evoking and transforming Israel’s Shema…

The Shema he refers to is the Jewish daily prayer/profession of faith from Deuteronomy 6:4:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”

The effect of this experience on me remains now, and everything else that has followed in my life related to faith, I can say, in some way flowed from that 2/87 encounter. I will never seek to have it again (c/o St. John of the Cross), but when I recall it, its effect revives. In fact, it is this prayer in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that best captures the tenor of that graced evening:

It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou it was who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven and hadst endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son and to Thy Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen; and we thank Thee for this liturgy which Thou hast found worthy to accept at our hands, though there stand by Thee thousands of archangels and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their pinions, singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!

Heal me, Jesus!

St. Maximus the Confessor, 580–662 A.D.

Re-post from 2013

“The person who truly wishes to be healed is he who does not refuse treatment. This treatment consists of the pain and distress brought on by various misfortunes. He who refuses them does not realize what they accomplish in this world or what he will gain from them when he departs this life.”

~ St. Maximus the Confessor

When I first read this quote many years ago in the Philokalia, I was just plain puzzled. My immediate thought was, “Isn’t healing meant to take away pain? How are pain and distress a remedy?”

Then as I read and re-read Maximus’ treasure-laden Centuries on Charity — which is largely about how to engage in the “unseen combat” of cultivating virtue and starving out vice — it dawned on me that the “goal” of inner healing in Christian thinking is not some vague and painless pacific oasis, but rather the restoration of our original capacity to love without measure in the midst of an unloving world. It reminded me of something my “soteriology” (the study of salvation) class Instructor had said while I was in grad school (I am so happy I saved my chicken-scratch notes!):

The Council of Trent, in defining the effects of Baptism in the soul, said that, although sacramental grace removes most of the destructive effects of Original Sin, it leaves behind one great spiritual wound: concupiscence, which is aptly called the fomes peccati or “the tinder for sin.” Concupiscence is that tendency toward evil and self-destruction, and all of us — this side of Paradise — will retain its effects more or less. Why did God leave it? Why not just take it away? Trent gives a fascinating answer: God leaves concupiscence in the soul “for the sake of the battle,” that we might participate freely, and so through great struggle and effort, in our own redemption.  As St. Augustine had said, Deus, qui te fecit sine te, non te iustificat sine te, “God, who created you without you will not justify you without you” — so the Council affirmed that God’s gift of freedom to His creature requires that His creature exercise that freedom … and in a fallen world freedom means struggle, hardship, endurance, agony…

My personal experience accords with this. Any psychological or spiritual healing that has happened in my life, that has had and lasting effect (and was not just a temporary release of pressure), has only caught traction in the form of rugged virtues, e.g. patience, mercy, chastity, trust, courage, charity. And traction is only gained by me, or confirmed in me, through the mediation of “pain and distress.” Not that I like this! But…only struggling makes me able to freely own the “call to wholeness” offered to me by Jesus. Making it my own, for me, has meant having “forged under fire” the free and repeated choices that alone can make my new virtuous dispositions firm, fierce and rooted in me as character. The Spirit “driving me into the desert” (cf. Mark 1:12) to struggle with my struggles has shown itself again and again to be the divine Physician’s finest salve and most effective treatment.

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer helpfully argues that, though grace may be offered to us by God without cost (what he calls “cheap grace”), grace is only received into us unto salvation at great cost (what he calls “costly grace”). Receiving the life of God ultimately means death to self, as those who receive must then give away all they receive. As Fr. Tom Hoko says it, “It’s better in Christianity to not talk of salvation as healing — though that’s there — but instead to talk of salvation as death and resurrection. We are healed through death into resurrection. To live, you have to die to all your selfishness; let go of all you cling to, and give it all away to God before you can receive any of it back. Because for us healing doesn’t just flow out of the open side of the dead Christ hanging on the Cross — it invites to join Him on that Cross and with Him to die and be buried before we rise again…”

This is what the early desert monks called áskēsis, from which we get the word asceticism. It means training through struggle or combat, and for the monks mostly meant working the theological and cardinal virtues and countering the eight deadly passions. And ascetic struggle was always understood to be the indispensable flip side of any pursuit of mysticism. For orthodox Christians there can be no cool-breeze mysticism apart from hot-sweaty asceticism. Mystics apart from ascetics produce, as Fr. Hopko also said, “Mist, I and schism.”

After thinking long on Maximus’ quote, I went to Mass one day and later wrote:

Even the Blessed Sacrament — the “Medicine of Immortality” — that we eat and drink comes from the life-giving “pain and distress” of Christ on the Cross — the Wounded Healer — who only made this Bread from Heaven perfect through suffering. Perfect, meaning capable of empowering me to love.

Each day is a new step toward this healing. And every morning I make St. Francis’ deathbed words mine,

Let us begin again now, for up until now we have done nothing.

“St. Francis at the Cross,” by Lorenzo Monaco c. 1420. Taken from stblogs.org

Incomprehensible God, Part III

“The Widow’s Mites,” Taken from christthesavioroca.org

Stretching prayer

For people of faith this is not just a speculative theorem. When we pray we get caught up into this mystery. When we pray, if we allow God to be God, we own the words of Hebrews 10:31:

It is a fearful thing [phoberon] to fall into the hands of the living God.

Fearful, that is, for the small-minded who still prefer to remain in Egypt — what Jews call mitzrayim, “that narrow place” — rather than go out on a risky exodus across the desert into that “spacious land” of God’s Promise.

I think here of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta’s comment on prayer offers us a revolutionary way for thinking about why we pray, and why people of prayer gladly endure every imaginable hardship, dryness and struggle to remain faithful to daily prayer. She says:

Prayer opens the heart, until it is capable of containing God himself.

When one thinks of the fact that Mother suffered an agonizing darkness and desolation for decades, the forcefulness of her exhortation to “pray until it hurts” bears great power.

Whenever I find my prayer to be dry, arduous, aching, or stretching to the point of painful discomfort, I think of her and realize my prayer has just begun. As Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh said it to me when I visited him to talk about St. John of the Cross, “In the mystical tradition, purgative desolation, which produces an intense sense of God’s absence, is understood to be, in reality, an intensification of the divine presence under the form of longing.” That blew my mind.

The ultimate goal of prayer is not getting stuff, or getting our way, but preparing ourselves to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

St. Thomas Aquinas was known to spend whole nights in prayer. Once during the night he was praying in the chapel of his Dominican priory at Naples. One of the sacristans concealed himself to watch the Thomas at prayer. He later testified that he saw Thomas lifted into the air and heard Christ say from the crucifix on the chapel wall, “Thomas, you have written well of me. What reward will you have?” Thomas, the sacristan said, replied aloud, “Lord, nothing but yourself.”

Soon after that experience, Thomas’ secretary, Br. Reginald, testified that Aquinas had yet another experience of God. On the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273, Thomas was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation that so affected him that he dictated no more, leaving his Summa Theologiae unfinished. He said to Br. Reginald, “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”

As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him (Daniel 7:9-10).

Perhaps Thomas saw Daniel’s vision and knew his words of straw had to first pass through the streaming fire before he could see God’s unveiled face.

Love without borders

My grandfather (“Pop”) wrote my wife and I a letter several months before our wedding, which I’ve quoted before in this Blog. I think his words articulate far better than I ever could the deepest meaning of divine infinity. Here’s some of what he said,

From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine.” Only “us.” “ours.” I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. And for over 66 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity…faithful love alone is worthy of a marriage made in Heaven.

So it’s love, above all things, that captures most perfectly the infinity of God. Love knows no end, no bounds, no limits. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). Love transformed the widow’s mite into an infinite treasure, poverty into limitless riches…propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem.

Love is the ark appointed for the righteous,
Which annuls the danger and provides a way of escape.
Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. — Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

“I want to see God” — St. Teresa of Avila at 6 years old

Thank you for enduring my long and winding reflection. Let me allow Job and St. Faustina Kowalska to lift us into God.

Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were graven in the rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! — Job 19:23-27

On one occasion I was reflecting on the Holy Trinity, on the essence of God. I absolutely wanted to know and fathom who God is … In an instant my spirit was caught up into what seemed to be the next world. I saw an inaccessible light, and in this light what appeared like three sources of light that I could not understand. And out of this light came words in the form of lightning which encircled heaven and earth. Not understanding anything, I was very sad. Suddenly, from this sea of inaccessible light came our dearly beloved Savior, unutterably beautiful with His shining Wounds. And from this light there came a voice which said, “Who God is in His Essence, no one will ever fathom, neither the mind of angels nor of man.” Jesus said to me, “Know God by contemplating His attributes.” A moment later, He traced the sign of the cross with His hand and vanished. Be praised, O merciful God, One God, Holy Trinity, unfathomable, infinite, incomprehensible. Amen. — Diary #30.

Divine Mercy Image. Taken from caelumetterra.files.wordpress.com

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.

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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

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