Category Archives: theology

Suspenseful, but not impossible.

Wholeness was the plan, when God created the cosmos. Then, humans distanced themselves from their maker, the one with whom they had walked in the garden. Harmony between the man and the woman was broken, and they both lost connection with their true selves, which had been grounded in the Giver of Life.

C.S. Lewis imagines how an unfallen world might have looked, in his novel Perelandra, which I recently re-read. A scientist with a utopian vision comes from Earth to a strange planet — of course, we have plenty of this stuff to export! — to be the tempter of the Eve figure, the Green Lady. She struggles to maintain her natural and primal, essential oneness with her god, and the drama that ensues is full of suspense.

I suppose it is because of my non-fiction fallen-world perspective that I despaired of the Green Lady being able to withstand the arguments of the oily Weston, even while descriptions of the grace-full divine dance with humans lifted my hopes. I don’t think it’s in my power to say more about this book or the whole trilogy, and what I have just written probably makes little sense, but the story came to mind when I read the poem below. Because the Green Lady won’t remain firm unless the strength comes from knowing who she is.

In this in-between world, the time of waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom, we get moments and glimpses of unity and wholeness, an intuition of how it might feel to be in full communion with one’s own being and one’s Maker, and from there, with other people. But our parts are mostly disjointed and disconnected.

IMPOSSIBLE FRIENDSHIPS

For example, with someone who no longer is,
who exists only in yellowed letters.
Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden
porcelain cups — and the talks about philosophy
with a timid student or the postman.
A passerby with proud eyes
whom you’ll never know.
Friendship with this world, ever more perfect
(if not for the salty smell of blood).
The old man sipping coffee
in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone.
Faces flashing by
in local trains—
the happy faces of travelers headed perhaps
for a splendid ball, or a beheading.
And friendship with yourself
—since after all you don’t know who you are.

-Adam Zagajewski

Father Alexander Schmemann writes about this in The Eucharist:

“… nowhere is the darkness of ignorance into which we were immersed with our fall from God more obvious than in man’s staggering ignorance of himself, and this in spite of the insatiable interest with which, having lost God, man studies himself and endeavors in his ‘sciences humaines’ to penetrate the mystery of man’s being. We live in an era of unrestrained narcissism, universal ‘turning into one’s self.’ But, as strange and even terrible as this may seem, the more elemental is this interest, the more obvious it is that it is nourished by some dark desire to dehumanize man.

“The thanksgiving offered by the Church [in the Eucharist] each time answers and destroys precisely this not only contemporary but age-old lie about the world and man. Each time it is a manifestation of man to himself, a manifestation of his essence, his place and calling in the light of the divine countenance, and therefore an act that renews and recreates man. In thanksgiving we recognize and confess above all the divine source and the divine calling of our life. The prayer of thanksgiving affirms that God brought us from nonexistence into being, which means that he created us as partakers of Being, i.e., not just something that comes from him, but something permeated by his presence, light, wisdom, [and] love….”

-Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist

This new balance remains fragile.

St. Gregory Palamas

To the brief passage below, taken from The Theology of Illness by Jean-Claude Larchet, the author attaches four footnotes, in which he references St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory Palamas, Vladimir Lossky and the Book of Job. He is a patristics scholar for sure! And he manages to incorporate many quotes from church fathers and Scripture  in the main text as well, without making it hard to read. In fact, it is pure pleasure to follow Larchet’s explanations as he gathers from great minds of the church and reveals the unity of their thought and faith.

“God, who envisions the salvation of man and through man of the entire universe, does not allow the forces of evil to submerge and destroy His creation. Man and nature remain partially protected by His Providence, which imposes certain limits on the negative activity of the Devil and his demons. Thereby God stabilizes the cosmos in its slide toward nothingness, establishing a certain order in the very heart of disorder. Even if man has lost the ‘likeness’ of God which he began to acquire, he nevertheless remains bearer of the divine ‘image,’ even if that image is veiled, obscured, and deformed.

“Thus man is not totally deprived of grace. Even in his weakness he retains sufficient spiritual power to be able, if he wishes, to turn again toward God and to obey the commandments which he continues to receive from Him (Dt 30:11-19). And thereby he is able to maintain, according to God’s own promise, a certain mastery over nature (cf. Gen 9:1-2).

“Nonetheless, this new balance remains fragile. Man and nature have become a battleground where evil and good, death and life, wage a permanent, merciless combat against each other. This combat is made evident by sickness, infirmity and suffering; and until the Incarnation of Christ, its outcome was uncertain.”

-Jean-Claude Larchet, The Theology of Illness

 

Returning to non-existence.

“Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

St. Athanasius of Alexandria, d. 373.

Read the whole book online.

The body is a nave.

Jean-Claude Larchet is a contemporary French patristics scholar and theologian who has written on diverse subjects such as the Theology of Illness, life after death, and mental disorders. (I’m currently reading his The New Media Epidemic.) Several years ago our parish did a study of his book, Theology of the Body, and last week when I was thinking on that topic I was glad to find it still on my shelf.

In the chapter on “The Body in Spiritual Life,” Larchet discusses the physical aspects of our worship, beginning with the tradition of standing in church, “… a posture that symbolizes the resurrection, that key point of the Christian faith and hope.”

“In addition, mention may also be made of the ‘passive’ liturgical participation of the body in the setting that is so characteristic of the Orthodox Church, where the splendor of the celebration, so often misunderstood by those who have no experience of its meaning, has an important spiritual role to play – the beauty of the architecture and the ‘decoration’ of the churches whose walls are covered with frescoes and icons; the solemn character of the services; the richness of the celebrants’ vestments; the magnificence of the chants; the incense; the lights of the lamps and candles; and so on. All these things – which never cease to awaken a sense of wonder in the faithful – have a fourfold meaning.”

Two of those “folds” are 1)symbolizing the kingdom of heaven, and 2) giving the faithful, in a symbolic way, a taste of the riches and glory of the kingdom of heaven, and also of the new conditions of existence there, when the body is transfigured along with all the senses….”

The next and last paragraph I will share here struck me as alluding to realities so holistic and fundamental that they must constitute the very business of our life. The story we can read in the specific details tells who we are and what we are made for, and includes many mystical, or hidden, elements, no less real for their hiddenness. It is the true story of humanity:

“The very interior of an Orthodox church introduces the body into a space that is different from the ordinary; it is a space transfigured and sacred, whose profound symbolism is superbly analyzed by St. Maximus the Confessor in his Mystagogia. He stresses in particular that the church’s spatial structure symbolizes the human being: the altar representing the spirit, the sanctuary the soul, and the nave the body. Conversely, the human being symbolizes the church: his spirit is, as it were, an altar; his soul, a sanctuary; and his body, a nave. And this is not simply by their nature but by their own specific functions in spiritual life: the body represents in particular the practical or ethical dimensions; the soul stands for the contemplative dimension; and the spirit its pinnacle, theologia, in which the believer receives from the Holy Spirit supernatural knowledge of the divine mysteries.”