Sometimes I sit down to write with an idea and I know that I am either getting ready to write something good, or something really bad. That is how I feel about this particularly topic. I have good feelings about it because I am writing about something that is close to my heart and which I think about frequently. I have forboding, because such things are notoriously hard to capture.
Some years ago when I was writing academically on the doctrine of the holy icons, I came across a distinction made by St. Theodore the Studite in which he spoke of “hypostatic representation.” In short, he made a distinction between representing the “essence” of something and the “hypostasis” of something – between the “isness” of someone or thing and its “personhood.” In short, he said that icons were representations of the hypostasis (the person) and not the essence. There are many theological implications to be drawn from his writings, but I will not do that here (I largely wrote a thesis on the topic).
Instead, I want to contemplate for a moment an idea that I first encountered in Met. John Zizioulas’ writings, in which he recognized a “presence in absence,” that is not unrelated to St. Theodore’s thought. Suppose you are in a restaurant waiting for someone whom you care a great deal about. There may be any number of people who come and go while you wait, but you pay them no attention. In fact, you are so aware of the absence of the one who has not yet come, that the presence of others is no presence at all. Met. John has much to say about this, and if you are totally devoid of reading material and have several months, I suggest you read his book Being as Communion.
But as years slip by, and the “nest” in which I live changes with age, much of my life is filled with the “absence” of others. I have two married daughters who live away, and many times their absence is “hypostatically real” for me. It is as though I could touch them and converse. These days, everyone works or is in college or school (our youngest is a sophomore in high school). Thus, most of the time, what I know is known in absence.
The same is also true in the parish. Most of the time, everyone is somewhere else. They are at work, at home, wherever. And so I stand at the altar each day to pray for them and they become present, like so many icons round about the altar, as I remember them before God.
Finally, as someone who has buried well over 350 people in his ministry, there is this other hypostatic cloud of witnesses. Never at one time, it seems, but often, and poignant.
To speak of someone being hypostatically present, is also to speak of them being “personally” present (but in a way that is meant in the Church’s technical sense of “person” and not in popular parlance).
I am slowly learning that these are moments for thanksgiving and prayer and not moments for grief or longing. Though I miss those who are absent from my immediate awareness, I rejoice that I remember them, and that they are present to me. As children grow older, parents have present to them their children at a variety of ages. I remember them all in their growing up and can hear them now. This is not a loss, but a great gain.
I think, too, that God’s eternal remembrance of us, is a remembrance of the fullness of our person which is more, somehow, than who I am at this moment. It is me through time and in my fullness. It is one of the reasons that I have never been happy with the “as a tree falls so it lies” theology taught by some out there with regard to our death and judgment.
Some say that the whole of our eternity depends on the final state of our soul. Hamlet famously refrains from killing his stepfather when he comes across him in prayer, lest he thus dispatch him to heaven. The idea’s been around for a while. But we are so much more than this moment. This moment is not even the sum total of all other moments in your life. None of us seem to live with such fullness.
But God remembers such fullness and intends that for us. I hold that in my heart for my children, and I cannot separate them from the fullness of who they are and who they have been. Thus I hold their triumphs (even when they are small) in great esteem if I see that triumph in the context of their true personhood.) Surely God does this and more.
May God bless all who touch my day, from the past, the present and the future. Those present, and those absent (who are not truly absent).
May we come to know each other in a way that knows no absence.
Photo: a hypostatic representation of a little girl who is now addressed as “Khouria” but is present to me in so many forms every day. And even calls me on the phone – God bless her.
What fantastic thoughts! I remember being in my parents’ home–the home I’d grown up in–immediately after my father’s funeral in 1989. My dad had died of post-polio syndrome. He’d been in a wheelchair most of my life. I’ll never forget the memory and the feelings which, until now, have always been ghostly. I remember sitting in the living room and waiting for the sound of his wheelchair to come rolling down the hall. His presence was absolutely real by virtue of his absence. Is that what you’re referring to and which I was experiencing?
Yes, I think there is precisely something of that in such experiences. I can think of funerals I’ve been to, on the other hand, when someone says, “He’s not here,” and pointing to the body, “That’s not him.” Which of course, is not true. He is here, though not fully, and that is him , though not fully. But it is not someone else’s body. It is his body and thus he is hypostatically present to some extent.
Many things are like this. It is very much what icons are about. It is not what the Eucharist is about, because there we do not have a hypostatic representation, but the very Body and Blood of Christ (this was made clear in the 7th council).
But many things serve as “icons” of sorts. Making others hypostatically present to us (including even their absence). The Fathers said that Scripture does with words what icons do with colors, and so we find Christ present in the reading of Scripture, or even someone else as we read their letters.
There is this experience I have of the Church in Divine Liturgy, when there is a sense of the whole, all of us, gathered together. Sometimes parts of it are made more clear when I see an icon of someone I “know.” (I know some saints better than others).
Thanks for the thoughts.
I miss you too. I learned to tie my shoes on those wild purple high-tops, you know– my memory is “hours” alone in the closet with the laces. Better be careful who I say that around…probably sounds like a miserable childhood… “Ah, those days when I was locked in the closet with my dad’s gym shoes…” Heh.
“Sometimes I sit down to write with an idea and I know that I am either getting ready to write something good, or something really bad.”
In this case, Fr., you have (as always) written something really good. Thank you.
My Dearest Kh. Kathryn. I miss my purple hightops. The Bishop thinks they’re not appropriate beneath my cassock. I suppose I agree.
But remember, in the picture, you’re standing next to the man who won the “most improved player” award, which is really incredible since I never scored a point!
The hypostatic nearness of you, in all of your ages is a daily blessing. It’s lately that I’ve been thinking about the fact that “hypostatically” we are present as the fullness of who we are – that the little girl I knew and loved is no more disappeared than the Christ child we love and greet so at Christmas.
For a man whose nest is half empty it’s a great comfort. Tell your sister that she’s hypostatically present, too.
I took a “brag” book with me to Detroit (just to embarrass you) with pictures of all you chldren.) I knew there would be friends there who would appreciate seeing them, and that everyone else would be polite and let me gush in my joy.
Your post, Father, also speaks to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He commands us to do it in ‘remembrance’ of Him. Such remembrance, as you point out, is not just a faded memory or reenactment but participation in the life of the person. How much more full is such participation when it is instigated and blessed by the Holy Spirit? I find it telling that those who tend to hold to the “as it falls it lays” approach to judgment also tend to be non-Liturgical.
Fr. Thomas Hopko in his Apocalypse lectures makes the distinction between worldly time and Liturgical time. As we allow ourselves remembrance of others in prayer or simply as we go about our daily life, are we not entering Liturgical time? Are we not living in the Church as we are meant to?
As someone who has fairly recently lost a spouse I find your words particularly poignant in two ways: living with the grief in remembrance of her life and as pointer to understanding better why the Church recommends that we not remarry.
Indeed, your words touch me – the loss of a spouse is great – may her memory be eternal!
According to the Fathers, the eucharistic presence differs from hypostatic presence in that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood, whereas in an icon Christ is hypostatically present.
It’s a theological distinction, that probably doesn’t enter into the day to day experience we have of those around us and the great cloud of witnesses.
You have, once again, clearly and eloquently summed up an issue I have been struggling with for years.
Father, yes, of course the real Body and Blood, but totality of the worship experience and our ability to enter into and receive the Body and Blood includes the hypostatic presence as well does it not? Of course neither would happen if it were not for the Incarnation.
I am currently working on a series of articles about ecclesiology. I have begun the articles with a discussion of the foundational theology of the Trinity as the beginning of our understanding of the Church.
Now with this additional contemplation, I am left to wonder at the mystery of godliness once again.
This hypostatic presence has such implications as to how we live out the theology of both the Trinity and the Church.
You have just lengthened my work, dear father. Thank you.
Dear Father Stephen:
Thank you for a clear and cogent clarification, in your discussion of ‘hypostatic absence’ of the distinction between the Presence in the Eucharist and the hypostatic reality of an icon (if that is a fair way to put it). I find it hard to articulate this difference sometimes in a concise way and the analogy/parallel to the nature of a corpse to the ‘person’ or ‘is-ness’ of a person is extremely helpful.
Your comments about the absence of another made me think of the Psalm and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s discussion (in his book, ‘Life Together’) of the great privilege of being able to gather together:
Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
“So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.
They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude . . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday’ (Ps. 42:4). But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will.
Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus, the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist, celebrates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations ‘in the Spirit on the
Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1:10). He sees the seven candlesticks, his congregations, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in all the splendor of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortifies him by His Word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrection.
The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. . . .
The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!
. . . Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pp. 18-20, (Harper, 1954).
Please excuse the lengthy quote, but it came to mind and Bonhoeffer, put to death by the Gestapo in 1945 on a Sunday after leading a worship service with his fellow prisoners, seems in this little passage to capture some of what you were expressing, and in a not-unOrthodox way.
Fr. Stephen, it is a great privilege to have fellowship with you even in this ‘public’ correspondence. Pray for me, and my family.
Do I hear the hint of a jazz standard in the title of this thread?
It’s definitely the sort of things theologians whisper in the ears of their wives, it brings about peals of laughter.
Father, do you think this hypostatic presence/ absence distinction can be applied to some of the effects of Covid stay at home orders? It seems like you would agree that the congregation might (along with the cloud of witnesses) be hypostatically present to a priest when celebrating mass “alone” or rather as the only one physically present in the church building. If so, does the fact that many liturgies and masses are live-streamed – thus many faithful are actually present in an unusual technological way that is not fullness physically, nor is it fullness in terms of telos, but it’s also not the complete absence that would seem to elicit the Traditional form of hypostatic presence. Perhaps the omnipresence of these new technologies that allow unique and incomplete forms of presence have impaired our sense of true hypostatic representation that is real and full.
Thank you. Apologies if this is confusing to anyone.
I will say that, in celebrating the mysteries of the Church during the Covid19 lock down, the absence of the congregation (replaced by 2 singers), has been just about the strongest presence in the room. That, of course, is a mystery. I longed for their physical presence as well – but have attended to the ache in my heart as a sacrament of their presence. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone who suggests that the technology in any way has been satisfactory – other than to serve as a poignant reminder of the ache in our souls. It is somewhat “iconic” in that respect.