The Journey to a Particular God

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Some years ago I found myself traveling down I-75 with my van loaded with wife and children. Our destination was some hours away in Georgia. The purpose of the trip was to travel to a place where someone was reportedly having visions (and messages) from the Virgin Mary. At about 100 miles down the road the question formed in my mind, “If God is everywhere, then why am I driving 250 miles to pray?” I had no answer for the question at the time. I just kept driving and finished the pilgrimage. Were there visions of the Virgin Mary? Was someone actually hearing from heaven? I never knew the answer to those questions. Part of me remains highly sceptical. But an answer to my first question began to come to me, and has become firmly fixed over the years.

We frequently speak of God in general terms. “I believe that God…” etc. The great difficulty arises when we turn to God in general. In general, you will find nothing, because God is Personal, and does not make Himself known “in general.”

When we look at the Scriptures, particularly in the stories of the patriarchs, we see stories of encounters with God. All of them have the hallmark in which the story occurs, God is encountered, and a sacrifice is made. And here is the particularity – the sacrifice is offered to El-Roi, or El-Elyon, or Yahweh-Yireh, or God (but always with a modifier). Sometimes the place of the encounter receives a new name, such as Beth-el in Jacob’s dream of the ladder.

As we come to know God, we cannot know Him in general (for the general can only be known by a category that shares similarities, as in “all chairs,” “all men over six feet tall” etc.). There is no category for God. Thus each encounter is particular, and personal (not “private” but free and marked by obedient love).

So our life in the Church is marked by many actions that draw us toward a particular encounter with God – physical gestures, feast days, disciplines, icons – all of these are given to draw us toward God.

I recall some years ago a man said to me, “I find that I can worship God better alone, walking in the woods.” Of course this banality didn’t mean that he actually went to the woods and prayed. I replied to him, “Yes, though it is a bit strange. God has an appointment to meet you here at Church at 10 on Sunday morning.”

We cannot use generalities to trap God into our presence. Thinking that since God is everywhere, he must be anywhere I want Him to be when I want Him to be. In such thinking there is no freedom, no love, only metaphysical bondage (which does not exist for God).

God is indeed, “Everywhere present and fills all things,” but for us, He is present only where He makes Himself known – and this is always a gift and a revelation. It is for this reason that a pilgrimage may have benefit. To drive 250 miles to pray is to say to God, “This matters enough to me that I will undertake the struggle.”

My family’s experience of our pilgrimage had mixed reviews. The events we witnessed were disappointing at best. What changed was my family. When we returned home, our family’s prayer life changed. What had been hard became easier – we prayed together. For me, that made the pilgrimage worthwhile. And it said to me that our struggle was met with grace and God gave us the gift of prayer.

11 comments:

  1. ““If God is everywhere, then why am I driving 250 miles to pray?” I had no answer for the question at the time.”

    I am glad you now have an answer, and I’m glad you have shared it with us. I have been wondering/wrestling with this issue as well over the past several months–especially as I am asked to give account to my protestant friends for my new beliefs. My former church spent a lot of time talking about God being everywhere, and trying to minimize the distinction between the sacred and the secular by saying that we can be in all places, doing most of our daily tasks either to the glory of God, or in sinful ways.

    I think I agree with this premise, however, it seems that the way it is played out in my circles is that there is no longer any place or thing that is sacred. I think the intention would be to raise everything up to the sacred–ALL things under the Lordship of Jesus. But oddly, I have found that it has had the opposite effect. We no longer recognize anything as sacred. So, if pressed, I do think that even gathering in a specific place on Sunday mornings or driving 250 miles to pray would logically be considered optional, if just outright a bit crazy. Of course, if you looked around our bare sanctuary, while pretty in a minimialistic sense, leaves little to draw one into God’s presence.

    And then there is St. Nicholas Cathedral…

    “We cannot use generalities to trap God into our presence. Thinking that since God is everywhere, he must be anywhere I want Him to be when I want Him to be. In such thinking there is no freedom, no love, only metaphysical bondage (which does not exist for God).”

    This makes sense to me, but I think it will take a while to incorporate it into my normal way of thinking and to be able to give a genuine response to my friends questions.

  2. My priest recently preached a sermon on the Gospel of the woman healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. Who touched me? The theme of the sermon was that “We are inescapable physical and the spiritual often comes to us through the physical.”

    His observation may seem self evident and in a way it is, but how often do we forget the particular, the so-called mundane. Christ is Incarnate, fully God and fully man. He did not leave our nature or our body behind when He Ascended. One of the many ways in which our dichotomy factory of a culture works to destroy genuine Christian faith is by trying to separate the spiritual and the physcial, the sacred and the profane. God died to unite these things in Himself so that we could be whole. So that we are no longer separated from Him or from each other.

    The Church is the expression of that wholeness. All of the physical things that we do, that we see, that we hear, that we touch, all the people with whom we worship are a testimony to His Incarntion, that awesome, kenotic gift of love.

    Further, it has been my observation that we are not just called to the Church in general, but to a specific parish with specific people and all of the specific circumstances that enter into our lives because of being in that specific place and time. All of it is part of our redemption and the redemption of everyone with whom we have contact.

    Jesus says that we must love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. Love our neighbor as ourself. Neither is possible without the other. Our neighbor, of course is the one in need right next to us. The one with the hearty smile and the depth of pain underneath. The one that irrates us so much we just want to scream. The one who offends us and betrays us.

    God calls, we respond or not. There is no compulsion, only the rather constant invitation, pick up your Cross and follow me.

    Lord, have mercy.

  3. Alyssa,

    You hit the nail on the head. The history of the rise of secularism is directly linked to the Protestant rejection of any one thing being holier than another. All days are holy, thus under the Puritans Christmas is abolished, etc.

    If everything is holy then nothing is holy is, for some paradoxical reason, the result of such thinking. I think that there are several reasons: first, I have to have direct encounter with something, or someone holy to have any idea of what holy means. To say everything is holy, is actually to say that everything is everything – that is to have said precisely nothing. There is the “priesthood” of all believers, but only a Church that actually has a sacramental priesthood has any idea of what the statement means. In many protestant denominations, the slogan “priesthood of all believers” mostly means, “we have no priests.”

    The pressing of religious ideas out of the particular and into the general, has created a “second story,” a religious realm that exists theoretically, but is removed from the “reality” of our secular lives. The average American Christian home is indistinguishable from the average American home. They eat the same food, watch the same TV shows, the abortion rate among many Christian groups who say they do not believe in abortion is indistinguishable from that of the general population, etc.

    Only when we enter into a personal (in the fullest Orthodox sense of the word) relationship with the God Who Is, which is marked by freedom and love, can we actually know God. To believe in the generalized God is as good as believing in nothing. It means nothing. It’s just a theory.

    A large part of my conversion to Orthodoxy included coming to grips with the fact that the God Who Is, specifically wanted me to be Orthodox (gee, that’s an intense condensation of a very long story). But it wasn’t about what I wanted, but about an unavoidable encounter with God. Either He was going to be the God of my life, or I would turn my back on Him and serve a generalization.

    We have to love everyone, but we have to love them one at a time. There can be no “love for humanity,” that’s a useless abstraction. In the name of love for humanity many have practiced genocide (not to forget the wicked who have practiced genocide in the name of Christianity, etc.). I must love each and every human being – which is a very different thing. Christ did not die for humanity – He died for you and me.

    As to how long it takes to incorporate this into your normal way of thinking – I believe that all Americans (Orthodox, non-Orthodox, Christian, non-Christian) are born into a secularized society in which secular, generalized thinking is the default position. It will take a lifetime – for you and for me to see the world as it should be seen.

  4. The distinction between “poersonal” and “private” is crucial.

    I had a discussion about this very thing with my godson yesterday. As recovering “individualistic” believers, we sometimes struggle with the distinction between personal and private.

    Hence, while Orthodoxy is certainly personal, the emphasis on the community of the faith forever remedies the sickness of gross individualism and any notion of a “private” (thereby “alone”) faith.

    This is a primary medicine for the very pietistic and individualistic religious expressions of our precious American nation, and it is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest gifts Orthodoxy offers the West.

  5. “A large part of my conversion to Orthodoxy included coming to grips with the fact that the God Who Is, specifically wanted me to be Orthodox. But it wasn’t about what I wanted, but about an unavoidable encounter with God. Either He was going to be the God of my life, or I would turn my back on Him and serve a generalization.”

    Boy did this hit home. Exactly! But to explain that to your spouse is nigh on impossible w/o it sounding like a slam to them or their faith.

    Thank you for this.

  6. Yes, Athanasia, the particularities of conversion can get quite convoluted. In my case, my spouse said, “We can’t do this soon enough,” which brought me up short making me realize that I was the one who was dragging his feet. Not untypical…my wife is a saint.

  7. Comment on the photo:

    This is from one of my sidetrips in England this summer – one of the towns near the coast in Essex – I’d have to get the map out to remember the name. But the river suggests a journey to me. It always seems a likely place for a journey to begin. Tolkein becomes completely understandable to an American in an English context. The whole country looks like a very likely place to begin an adventure. The Road goes on and on…

  8. When we look at the Scriptures, particularly in the stories of the patriarchs, we see stories of encounters with God. All of them have the hallmark in which the story occurs, God is encountered, and a sacrifice is made. And here is the particularity – the sacrifice is offered to El-Roi, or El-Elyon, or Yahweh-Yireh, or God (but always with a modifier). Sometimes the place of the encounter receives a new name, such as Beth-el in Jacob’s dream of the ladder.

    As we come to know God, we cannot know Him in general (for the general can only be known by a category that shares similarities, as in “all chairs,” “all men over six feet tall” etc.). There is no category for God. Thus each encounter is particular, and personal

    I found this very helpful, Fr Stephen. Thank you.

  9. Thank you, Douglas.

    It interests me – some questions such as this are bothersome in a way – and I find that the answers are all there within the Orthodox faith – but I often find that the answers are not conveniently there. I just tend to remember them when I run across them and file them away mentally (usually for later sermon fodder). But there are many similar points, small in a way but very significant, that I hope to write on from time to time as they come up. Fr. Sophrony’s writings have been the most specific on this point of particularity and its relationship with personhood. I’ve noted before how much debt I owe to his work and life. He is only restating the Tradition, but, doing so facing some of the questions that modernity has posed for us – and thus becomes one of the ever-renewing fonts of the Tradition, which I am only too glad to share.

  10. Personally, I avoid driving great distances to prayer. Rather, I make religious pilgrimages out of the same curiosity that drives secular tourists. For some reason, its “cool” to visit the grave of Saint so-and-so if you can afford it without undue financial strain. I don;t expect any “karma points,” or to have a “religious experience.” Now, when I get there, I do pray. But, that is collateral.

    I don’t go to pray. I think the later is superstition that can work against the spiritual life–what about the dissapointing pilgrimage? Under my scheme, the disappointing pilgrimage — which is rare, as I go to satisfy the imagination — impinge’s only my imagnative expectations, not on my faith or spirituality. The latter being rooted a home, hearth, and parish.

    Xp

  11. I think I would say that if you don’t pray at home, the pilgrimage is likely to disappoint. Or that even when you make the pilgrimage, the prayer is no better there than at home. But there is a benefit in the pilgrimage. St. Mary of Egypt found a benefit even though the “pilgrimage” was for all the wrong reasons.

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