Around the Corner

trailAmong the most appealing aspects of CS Lewis’ children’s fiction is at the point that I would describe as “turning the corner.” It is not that he creates a fantasy world, but that the fantasy world he creates somehow intersects with the world in which we live. It is the discovery that at this moment, quite unexpectedly, the back of an old wardrobe is a door into another world. 

You turn the corner, and…

It certainly intersects with something every child feels – the sense of surprise and the encounter with the unexpected. 

Some years back when our parish was just beginning, we occupied a storefront location next to a dime store. The space where I parked my car was hidden by a head-high bush. One morning, coming in to the parish, I could hear a young girl playing on the other side of the bush. Based on her fantasy monologue, I could hear that she was somewhere in a Harry Potter novel. As I stepped around the bush, she turned and saw me. I was wearing a gray cassock, was bearded, and even wore a pony-tail at the time. Her mouth opened wide and her eyes wider as she stared at me. I smiled.

“You…you’re beautiful!” she stammered.

I have never been more delighted to be an object of wonder. It was a reaction far removed from the fairly frequent looks of consternation on the faces of adults who are clearly disturbed that something so strange should be walking freely about their city.

The child’s reaction is not a mark of immaturity – but a mark of a human being still capable of belief.

In a secularized culture expectations are reduced to a minimum. Whatever occurs, nothing will be “out of this world.” Whatever corners are turned, what awaits is always more of the same. But there are exceptions.

Charles Taylor in his magisterial work, A Secular Age, writes of a sense of “fullness”:

In this case, the sense of fullness came in an experience which unsettles and breaks through our ordinary sense of being in the world, with its familiar objects, activities and points of reference. These may be moments, as Peter Berger puts it, describing the work of Robert Musil, when “ordinary reality is ‘abolished’ and something terrifyingly other shines through”, a state of consciousness which Musil describes as der andere Zustand (the other condition).

Even more surprising is the recent case of Sam Harris (a noted atheist and writer) describing an experience he had by the Sea of Galilee. In his book, Waking Up, he relates:

As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.

Harris does not come to the conclusions of a believer, but he recognizes experiences that point towards something often overlooked.

My personal reflection is that Harris sold the experience short and could have gone further (deeper). But, in many ways, his experience fails precisely because he turns back to the self (ego).

In either case, there is and always has been an aspect of human experience of that which is “just around the corner.” I prefer Taylor’s term of “fullness” on account of its place within the Christian tradition.

It is one thing to speak of an experience of God, quite another to speak of an experience of the “fullness” of God. In the apprehension of fullness, the self recedes, even to the point of disappearance, while the fullness “fills” everything (hence the language of fullness).

This is, interestingly, language that is associated with the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, the Spirit “fills.” Persons not only receive the Holy Spirit, they are “filled” with the Spirit. The prayers of the Church address the Holy Spirit as “filling all things.”

It is difficult to describe the sense of “fullness,” other than to say that it refers to a completion, to a superabundance, to something of which there cannot be more. This is in contrast to the experience of emptiness and lack, the nagging disappointment that accompanies our adult existence and our encounter with the world.

In our family tradition, our youngest daughter always seemed to summarize our Christmas experience with, “This is the best Christmas ever!” Of course, as a parent, it is almost never the “best Christmas ever.” The time of year is too fraught with contradictions and concerns. The magic of a child, however, sees a fullness:

“You… You’re beautiful!”

This brings me back to Lewis’ intuition with a simple question: Is there anything of note just around the corner? Jesus’ parables surrounding the Kingdom of God suggest that there is.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46)

The Orthodox tradition points to this deeper reality as a quality to be found everywhere (the fullness is “everywhere present”). It is not a quality, or a reality that forces itself on our awareness. Instead, it is a quality of which we are normally not aware – and we are not aware because the lacking is within us.

This lacking is the very aspect of our lives that is addressed by repentance. The cry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” is not an enjoinment to moral improvement. It is a call to recognize the very emptiness, the lacking within ourselves. Repentance is the personal recognition that Christ’s word is fulfilled in us: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Oddly, it is the very border of such an experience described by the atheist, Sam Harris: “a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts…. the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” His experience falls short of repentance in that he fails to admit that the experience is true. His thoughts, his “separate self,” is indeed, nothing, or bordering on nothing. He thinks that he is something, a man among men, an author, a thinker, a knower, one who considers the universe. He could have gone further had he sung, “All we are is dust in the wind.”

But the emptiness of self, the knowledge that we are but dust, is known by many. That we are nothing does not immediately reveal what is around the corner. That fullness is a recognition given as a gift. It can come quite unbidden. Treasures hidden in fields are most often discovered without maps.

The Orthodox life is the purchase of the field, the buying of the pearl. Finding the treasure and the pearl of great price is the gift of God. Around-the-next-corner just reveals itself to us. Then we labor and pray, sell what we have, share with others, forgive enemies, and repeatedly acknowledge the dust of our existence that we might live around the next corner in the fullness that God Himself.

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Phi 3:8-15)

Comments

  1. mary benton says

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Once again, you have re-awakened me to things that have already been spoken to my heart – but are so easily abandoned in a moments distraction. It seem almost impossible to repent enough…

    With the children I respond –

    “Further up and further in!”

    (from The Last Battle, CS Lewis)

  2. Dino says

    This reminded me of the best way to annihilate all distraction: wonder – there is little else that can compare with the total ‘concentration’ of a child in wonder. Plus, it is a perfect way to escape the (sad replica) of a ‘Christian career’ too… :-)

  3. Paula Hughes says

    Treasures in fields are often found with special detectors,and we have our spiritual hearts to find our treasure.

    Sam Harris would probably ascribe his experience to neurology. I heard a neuroscientist say that the common feeling of a palpable”presence” is not spiritual, but only a fleeting awareness of our unconscious right brain ,or in effect, part of our own mind.

  4. Andrew_C says

    Are these not the same moments of joy Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy? It was his unlocking the meaning or source, if you like, of these that contributed to his conversion.

  5. says

    Experiencing “fullness” or “otherness” is something I have long desired, but as an experience it has consistently eluded me, even (especially?) as a child. I get tiny, unsatisfying hints that I know somehow fall short; some critical, irreverant ego always hangs over me, even when I am in front of something I can rationally recognize to be good or beautiful. My intellect has gradually come to embrace an understanding of a God-infused and God-contingent world, but I cannot yet “see” or “feel” it. My senses are dead and my gratitude often stalls, leaving me spiritually arid, feeling helpless to awaken anything within the mere rituals of devotion. I pretend to be an artist (writer) and a philosopher, in my own way; yet wonder, the root of both, almost seems something I play at rather than participate in. I am better at describing unremitting hollowness than at understanding being filled.

    I have been to the Holy Land, in my mid-teens, and have not felt “fullness” there, however much I burned for some such spiritual consolation; now I am in the Republic of Georgia for a few months, and do not expect to find it here either (though I still hope). It is clearly not something I can “acquire” simply by virtue of wanting it. Perhaps I am much too far from emptying of self, and want some future trials (if not this very aridity). God apparently sees that I can endure now without such special consolations of feeling.

    May the Lord give me the grace at least to accept the many gifts I have been given.

    • fatherstephen says

      Corvus,
      Thank you for sharing so straight-forwardly. I think our senses are very often “dead” if for no reason than that they are so abused in our culture. It is indeed hard to have by “wanting.” One reason is that we don’t know what it is we “want.”

      I would suggest two meditations. The first is on the emptiness of self – the fathers call it the memory of “death.” This is the awareness that when it is all said and done we die. And that there is nothing we can do about it, and that anything at all beyond our death will be purely gift – we cannot make anything happen – we are utterly powerless. Indeed, it is at this realization of death that we often first come to see that “apart from Christ we can do nothing.” And work at making peace with it. We often fear this realization and the fear causes us to run away. But as much as possible be at peace with it. Acknowledge it.

      And at that point, do the second thing: give thanks. Give thanks for everything you see. For everything you don’t see. Give thanks for your existence for your death. Give thanks for your enemies. Give thanks for your emptiness and unremitting hollowness.

      As you persist in giving thanks, ask God to comfort you. Have no expectations. Only give thanks.

  6. Dino says

    Corvus,
    The classic starting question an Elder would ask is: what is your programme-your schedule? How often do you pray, commune, confess etc. continual Progress in any area requires ‘programming’…

  7. Dino says

    And we cannot forget that, as a rule, spiritual consolation is always proportionate to our abiding renunciation of worldly consolation…
    (and such an abiding daily program needs to be ‘referenced’ -to a Spiritual Father).

  8. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your advice is not new to me, but it is of course good. I have found contemplating my own insignificance and relative nothingness and impotence helpful merely to dampen my pride (not that it has brought me noticeably closer to the sort of spiritual awareness I would love to possess, but as you say that must be a gift, not an expectation). Gratitude is clearly something I must work on.

    A spiritual father…. I am not (now) Orthodox or Catholic. But I admit that a spiritual father is another presence I have desired from childhood and never really got. That is probably due–at least during my recent years of independence–to my own lack of initiative, and perhaps a lack of willingness to trust someone whose flaws I can identify easily. My current transience certainly doesn’t help.

    I visited Samebo (Trinity) Cathedral in Tbilisi last night during and after vespers. The church was gorgeous, as was the unseen chanting. As I first wandered among the icons, briefly I had that surging sense of the numinous that almost brings tears. But as always, it died before it could take root, and eventually I joined the other tourists in taking pictures.

    I know I will never renounce my faith in Christ, and I will always remain “bound” to him. I will continue to pursue the path of sanctification and simply “show up.” But I do so having witnessed no miracles (or even “divine coincidences”), felt no direct presence, nor seen personally Christ’s transformative work, nor having found a logical argument for Christianity irresistably convincing. I think I do so principally because I still, in my rational part, see Christ as beautiful and, besides, my only hope.

    But perhaps this is not a bad place to be. I have been reading St. John of the Cross and finding his description of the necessary trials and aridities “novices” go through encouraging–though I have also wondered why I have never experienced the consolations, of which a sense of “fullness” is arguably the most desirable. I hope I do not seek Christ for such little consolations; if so, I would seem to be proved foolish indeed.

    Forgive me for so many words.

  9. Dino says

    Corvus,
    God’s respect of man’s freedom passes all understanding, both in quantity and quality.
    As a consequence, His unwarranted consolation (in the sense of such “fullness” as we have been considering) prior to a person’s (freely elected) ‘marriage’ to Him (I boldly consider this ‘marriage’ to be the Orthodox baptism here!) would certainly spur that person (you) –irresistibly- to that direction (infringing on his/your freedom).
    It is no news that Love humbly awaits for our distinct initiatives.

  10. aniciab says

    re: child’s articulation of wonder. In my humble attempt to teach my child (and me)to keep alive, be attuned to, and respect wonder, i try to remember to stop in the midst of wonderments of fullness and verbalize “it doesn’t get better than this”; knowing full well that articulation of such things is limiting, but nevertheless acknowledging, powerful, participatory, and therefore nurturing.

  11. Margaret says

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! You have written great thoughts concerning beauty; however, this blog post here has spread before me that beauty revealed by God so that words cannot express my gratitude for the reminder. Glory to God for All Things! And tonight I thank God especially for you, Fr. Stephen.

  12. mary benton says

    Corvus,

    As I was reflecting on what you shared, it made me aware of how little we understand of another’s experience and how hard it is to attach words to our own.

    Have I experienced the “fullness”? I honestly don’t know. If I think I have, how would I know that it was truly what Fr. Stephen was writing of? I have noted that sometimes, when further down the path, I have looked back on what I once thought were holy times and seen them as quite full of sin.

    Though I know nothing about you other than what you have shared here, it sounds to me like you are on a journey. As you travel geographically, undoubtedly you are learning new things. May you be content allowing your inner journey to unfold as well, asking God to teach you what you need to learn. (This is a prayer I have learned to say; it is not easy as surely God will lead me in ways I do not naturally find comfortable or comforting.)

    Though you experience your inner life as arid – and perhaps it is – I sense that something has touched you deeply. How else could you “see Christ as beautiful”? You could not know this on your own…

  13. Dino says

    I would venture to maintain that experiencing the “fullness” would leave no doubts at all in the beholder.
    This is not just any experience of Grace, but the “fullness”: the complete birth of the Hypostatic principle (as Elder Sophrony would say)- becoming a repetition of the Cosmic Christ in such strength of Divine Glory that any more cannot possibly be sustained in this life.
    It would also be a terrifying responsibility.

  14. mary benton says

    Dino,

    This is likely true. However, when one has a profound experience of grace, particularly if person is inexperienced and lacks spiritual guidance, one doesn’t know at the time how to define or communicate it. How does one put it into words or compare it to the experience of another?

    This may lead one to overvalue or undervalue whatever grace God gives us, as we attempt to compare it to what we read or hear of others’ experiences. Yet such comparisons are likely to mislead and distract us (if not causing worse troubles).

    We are simply to follow and God will lead us, both giving and withholding, teaching us in the way the is best for us.

  15. Dino says

    Mary,
    ‘a profound experience of grace’ can never be accurately conveyed in words to a person that hasn’t had the same experience. Typically, everyone understands as much as they have already experienced: If a person has experienced “50” they will take away “50” from what another conveys to them – whether the other is conveying “50” “100” “1000” or just “5” even…
    And indeed, if a person lacks guidance, they are all the more likely to be misled.
    ‘To simply follow God’s lead’ and ‘to be content allowing the inner journey to unfold’ is undeniably good advise, but to place oneself in the safe path of Spiritual guidance is clearly of prime value…

  16. Dino says

    If it is not due to one’s own lack of initiative and willingness to trust someone and it is due to some other reason, then that is truly lamentable…

  17. Drewster2000 says

    Fr. Stephen,

    What post can be bad that references my favorite Kansas song? (grin)

    It brought a couple other things to mind as well. One was The Great Divorce where the ghosts are so lacking in substance that even the leaves weigh the same to them as a bar of gold would to us. The first time I read that story, the concept that heavenly beings may be way more real and “full” than we are was a big revelation.

    The second thing was a dream of my former pastor many years ago. He had a daughter who died from physical complications at 7 or 8 years of age. Some time later he had a dream about her. The two of them were in a field by the edge of a wood with a stream running through it. In the dream he began to cry because he was so happy to see her again. But instead of consoling him all she would do is keep repeating the same things: “Daddy, it’s all alive! The trees are live! The water is alive! Even the grass is alive! Everything is alive!”

    To me these two thoughts – one of liveliness and the other of fullness – come together. The life we live on earth is dead and dying, and by the same token empty or on the way to being so. But as I get older I begin to understand that the true focus here should not be on the tragedy of our situation; instead it is about walking in the footsteps of Christ, allowing myself to die so that I may be resurrected, accepting my emptiness as truth so that I will take the next logical step and turn to Him to fill me.

    I want to be filled with life…but am empty of everything but sin and death. Thank you for the reminder of who we are and who we’re called to be.

  18. Anna says

    Corvus,

    If I might present a suggestion, it would be the prayer:

    “I believe, O Lord, help Thou my unbelief” (or disbelief, I may remember the Gospel verse wrongly).

    This is because you want to believe, but can’t (or at least not fully), because faith is a gift from God, a gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Also, I would suggest not asking for (or desiring) signs from God or from the spiritual realm. He has a way of revealing Himself that often precludes our “personal request” (as from a radio DJ or restaurant chef) for signs and miracles. But if we pay attention, He lets us know He is watching and waiting, perhaps through an unlikely sequence of events that turns out to be providential, or through our providential meeting/finding of a person, book or blog that responds to our deepest, most personal needs.

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