The Texture of Life and the Kingdom

There is a “texture of life” that cannot be reduced. It has a richness that rational descriptions cannot capture. Though we battle with powerful forces that draw us towards the destructiveness of sin – there is written deep within us a hunger for wholeness and the capacity for God. In the words of St. John, “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

This texture also belongs to the Kingdom of God, though in even greater measure.  Christ Himself brought the Kingdom into our midst. Wherever He went the signs of the Kingdom followed: the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were received back to life, and the poor had good news preached to them. How do you measure the gift of sight to a blind man, or the joy of a family who receives back into its midst one whom they thought dead?

The Orthodox Tradition, which is often described by many as “mystical,” is not “mystical” in any sense of “esoteric” or “strange.” Such adjectives for the faith are simply a reaching for words to describe a reality that is richer than any merely rational scheme or metaphysical explanation. It is the largeness of a Kingdom that cannot be described or circumscribed, and yet is found in the very heart of the believer. What words do we use to describe something which dwarfs the universe and yet dwells within us?

It is the texture of depth – or to use St. Paul’s expression: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). This is not merely a statement that nothing has the power to separate us from God, but that nothing has such height or depth as the love of God. It is a rich mixture of images – from the measurement of space, to the angels of heaven, to the elements of time – nothing reaches to the end of the love of God – the very stuff of His Kingdom.

It is for such reasons that I always find myself repelled by efforts to reduce doctrine to simplified formulas. Doctrine – the teaching of the faith should not reduce our understanding but enlarge it – to the very point of silence – and beyond. It is why it is so frustrating to try and explain icons. No one has an argument with the presence of words in the Church – the icons do the same things words do – only with color and in the language of silence. I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the incessant chatter of my own mind. The icons speak with the texture of the Kingdom – opening windows and doors that transcend every height and depth, things present and things to come.

Becoming aware of this texture requires the careful attention of an Orthodox life. Our lives are often filled with tensions and judgments with jealousy and greed – all of which serve to deaden our hearts and make us blind to the true character of the Kingdom in our midst. The Kingdom is reduced to slogan – a cypher for a set of opinions. Patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness are the disciplines that make it possible for us to perceive the texture of the Kingdom. It allows its depth to be formed in our hearts.

The stillness of an icon should be approached with a stillness in our heart. The rhythm of the liturgy should be allowed to become the rhythm of our souls. The words of Scripture should not sail over our heads but echo within us. The texture of all these things is the same texture as that being formed within us by the work of God’s Spirit. It will become the texture of our true existence.

Comments

  1. Yannis says

    Well. “esoteric” practically corresponds to how you use “depth”.

    But its clear that the former word is associated with complex conceptuality/intellectuality and you want to put a fresh light in it for your readers, which is an excellent idea. The most important things are right under our nose, and it is no accident why Buddhism values tremendously the “begginer’s mind”. There is a relative saying in that tradition: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind few”.

    Indeed seeing without conceptual lenses is often revealing, as all the pure perception from the unconscious is allowed to naturally surface to the conscious. I also testify that the Church is an excellent place to perceive this way. The length of the liturgy, the icons, the candle light, and the unhurried waves of the priest chanter all help with switching of the conscious mind and perceive wholly and directly.

  2. says

    As consciousness is a gift of God I value it highly. Whenever I begin to push aside some function of my mind in order to exalt the operations of some other function (in the mistaken belief that here spirituality is found) I soon discover that I have come to error, to twisting or blindness or breakdown or darkening, by that method. Whatever the path to spiritual success (I don’t understand this path yet) I have at least found out that it doesn’t consist in choosing one mental function over another. I have also found that the name of Jesus Christ my God has power to nourish all the streams of my being from the most conscious to the least conscious, from the most felt to the most rational.

  3. Yannis says

    That sounds spot on and is very nice, AR.

    Pianists can by their trade have a first hand experience of what quintessential prayer is. When playing one should not be concerned with what his fingers are doing but feeling the flow of the music from the inside out. The mind needs to be free from all concretisation to properly pray, as for to play the piano. All tensions, all fears, all expectations all conceptions need to be emptied and so then pure perception is left.

  4. says

    Yannis, there are indeed mistakes the mind makes, such as fear, self-will, groundless fantasies, and forcing the way where skill has not yet been acquired. These, I will agree, must be dismissed and shed…

    I do not, I repeat, include among these the actual operations, or functions, of the mind. Such are natural and good and have a purpose that is not limited to the mundane – that is, their end is God.

    In playing the piano I do indeed have those golden lucid moments. My understanding of them is not they they are pure perception. Perception is only one function of the mind. There are other functions that cannot be left behind – the operation which makes choices, the operation which connects mind and body, the operations which imaginatively leaps to the meaning of the music, and much more. Does I mean by this that the mind can enter that lucid state while experiencing a multiplicity of operations? No. I imagine there is agreement that singleness of mind is necessary to piano playing (and prayer.)

    But here is the point of disagreement, I think. You seem to be defining singleness by subtraction. One subtracts, you seem to imply, both the errors and the natural functions of the mind together. The one function that remains is then in a state of singleness which approaches purity. It would feel like a very rarefied experience, I would imagine, perhaps giving the impression that nothing else is real or matters. In reality it would be an experience of the mind functioning in a severely restricted and reduced state, like the brain when deprived of oxygen. My experience of piano playing, like the Orthodox idea of prayer, is different. Singleness is acheived not by subtracting all mental functions until only one is left. Rather all the mental functions strive toward the same goal until in an inexplicable moment, all of them unite into a single conscious act, a whole. In the music world this struggle is known as “not being self-indulgent.” The self-indulgent musician is the one who believes in himself more than in the music or the composer of the music. He has no respect for anything that exists outside himself and his feelings. He is prey to himself.

    In that lucid moment, the fruit of struggle and the union of all my mental functions, I am truly a musician and partake truly of music. It is in that moment, when I am most truly united to the music, that I truly know that there is such a thing as music and that the music is not merely a projection or construct… I realize I’m using postmodern terminology here but that’s what I’m most familiar with.

    My experience, I will agree, seems to be much like the Orthodox idea of prayer. Here the mind itself, once purified of error, and united in a whole, in turn must be reunited with the heart as both struggle toward God… only when everything properly belonging to the human person is miraculously united in its original whole is true singleness experienced (not by the subtraction of wholes but by the addition of fractions) and then the human being is both united to God and distinguishes God’s real existence.

    Understand, I am not trying to convince you of any religious viewpoint. I am trying to insist on a distinction where you are using language that implies that even my disagreement with you is actually agreement. And I understand perfectly that as long as you continue to use that language there will be no argument either to win or to lose and possibly I will end up looking like an unnecessarily pugnacious person. I enjoy clarifying distinctions, the act of which implies a certain article of my belief about God. I am willing to take the risk.

    All the best.

  5. Yannis says

    Thank you for this well thought out and clearly written reply AR.

    In my perception its not reducing or subtracting states but actually leaving behind coarser states and moving on to subtler ones, which do not exclude the coarser ones but encompass them in an ever narrowing circle to the center of the Self. What i term “my” will, reason and emotion make up the “I”, my false sense of individuality. As i move on in these “lucid” moments where there is less and less “I”, i am me and yet someone else who is me and not me, and because of this i am more me than i can ever be through “my own” faculties. It is no accident that these states are so subtle, that as much as noticing them, ie bringing the ego about in them, makes them dissapear.

    I apologise if i sounded like i tried to paste my view on top of yours with a cheap stratagem ie like pretending to agree with you. That was not my intention; i also enjoy making distinctions, often more than its actually good for me and others. From that experience i have learned well that in making distinctions, one cuts up reality into little conceptual bits, which, regardless of the complexity and genius of their conception are always intermediaries between the Self – the Christ in one if you like – and reality, the very texture of which is no other than God himself.

    You often say that you don’t know what “true spirituality” is. All i can tell you from my own poor – no doubt – personal experience, is that its found in oneness. And oneness, comes about when one stops making distinctions altogether.

    Then, all levels of the self wrap up in action and all is left is pure action in itself. There is a reason why the Jesus prayer, that after all is said to bring about vision of the divine, uncreated light, is monologic ie it makes away with – to use your language – all other parts of consciousness other than the subtler ones, and aims to reach the most subtle one, the holiest of holies, the gate of the Heart itself. Advanced hesychasts say that the prayer becomes “self active” and that then “the Holy Spirit prays for you”. I would imagine that a musician can easily relate to what they are talking about.

    In my view, “true spirituality” may be far closer to you than you realise, and that in many senses you may be well versed in it already.

    All the best for you and your husband as well.

  6. Yannis says

    Perhaps this video of Elder Cleopa of Romania, a man of very high spiritual reputation and modern hesychast, talking about the practice of the Jesus prayer, might also be helpful, in transmiting my point:

    Notice that the Elder says that at the gate of the Heart, the Mind encounters too tollhouses; that of imagination and that of reason, and they are both to be left behind altogether in order to enter the sacred ground within. This is because they are the very pillars of the “I” – our false sense of individuality.

  7. Darlene says

    AR & Yannis,

    Sometimes words just fail in their ability to explain the unexpainable. Sometimes too many words actually confuse the point one is trying to make. I say this because I got lost on both of your comments.

    But, as long as you two are able to understand each other…well then, I suppose I’m just on a different plane. :)

  8. Yannis says

    heh, not really Darlene.

    AR very sharply noted a distinction that is as real as it is important; she rightly said that consciousness or any part of it cannot be shed in achieving oneness in prayer or playing the piano oranything else, as this would be as delusional as futile.

    I readily agree, however, there is something that is droped, and that is objects of consciousness. Emptiness in the context of hesychia means the heart is “empty of”, not empty itself.

    In effect, i think we agreed from the start on what is important, hence why i replied as if we did agree although we apparently disagreed.

    One though needs to be very careful with those who can discern such subtle and key distinctions, and treat them with all possible humility and honesty.

    I sincerely apologise if i haven’t.

  9. Micah says

    How true, Yannis.

    What seems to be missing, in man’s daily conversation with himself is the notion (actually no notion at all but the all-encompassing reality) that God is sovereign, and utterly above all things.

    And yet, in His sublime transcendence He has literally embraced all events in space time willingly and lovingly (=”not a sparrow falls”).