Any reader of this blog will very quickly notice certain ideas and words that come up repeatedly in my writings. Some of my parishioners say that I only have one sermon – so perhaps it’s also true that I only have one blog article…
But I have been meditating on some of my favorite words or thoughts and why they are as important to me as they are. The first that comes to mind is the word “fullness” which I would couple with the word “smallness” or “emptiness.” Another couplet are the words “to know” and “mystery.” A third set are the words which surround the question of existence versus non-existence. These are all words drawn from Orthodox theology – so there is no surprise in my usage. It is their importance to me on the most fundamental level that brings them repeatedly to mind (whether in writing or in speech).
Fullness is a wonderful word – common to both the Scriptures and the Fathers. It can carry meanings that other words do not. For instance, I prefer to say that within Orthodoxy is the “fullness of truth,” rather than saying, “The Orthodox Church is the True Church.” It’s not just a matter of semantics – but says something about the nature of the truth as it abides in the Church. The Church does not possess the truth as though the truth were a syllogism to be debated or memorized – but is indwelt by the truth in its fullness. Thus you can live in the fullness of the truth, but you cannot simply think the fullness of the truth. Orthodoxy is not an argument. Fullness says this better than “the complete truth,” for that simply sounds as if we have more words or better words, etc. The fact is that the fullness of the truth is something that transcends words – all the words in the world could not completely express it. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He did not become a book and dwell among us – nor can Scripture as the “word” of God be spoken of interchangeably with Christ who is the Word of God. We are not “people of the book.” In the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God we sing: “Athenian philosophers became as mute as fish” before the wonder of the Virgin Birth. Indeed. Great art Thou, O Lord! There are no words sufficient to hymn Thy wonders!
Related to fullness is the word smallness or even emptiness. This is the great mystery of our salvation – that the Fullness emptied Himself and became man. One of the deepest aspects of the love of God is made manifest in His willingness to empty Himself, to become small for the sake of all whom He loves. It is, indeed, defining of the very character of love. This leads us to understand that if we would have the fullness of life, we must be willing to empty ourselves as well. The mystery of prayer is found in this “empty fullness.”
Not unrelated to this first set are the words to know and mystery. In my writings (and preaching) the relation of these words can be seen as an effort to keep our understanding of knowledge closer to a Biblical and Patristic model – rather than the merely rational or logical understanding that sometimes dominates the use of the various words for knowledge in our culture. There is a way of knowing that is irreducible to anything that may be spoken or rationally expressed. The doctrines of the Church – her Creeds and dogmatic definitions – are not statements that exhaust the truth, but statements which set limits around our speech about the truth. They point us in the proper direction but do not contain the end to which they point. Thus, to say that “Christ is the only-begotten Son of the Father” is entirely correct and cannot be contradicted in the teaching of the Faith. However, the Fathers are quite clear that the manner of the Father’s begetting of the Son is beyond all understanding. To say that something is “beyond all understanding,” however, does not mean that we cannot know it, if we remember that knowledge is often had in the form of a mystery – that is – it has held in a unspeakable manner.
I frequently push this understanding to its farthest limits – to urge readers to see that not only is God a mystery, but all that He has created is mystery as well. It calls for a different approach to other persons, and to every tree and blade of grass. I do not suggest such things in an effort to deny science, but in an effort to reduce science to its proper place. It is not the queen of knowledge, but simply a useful form of knowledge. We may study things and know them in many ways – but having done so is not the same thing as saying that we know things in their very being. Again, I do not deny that things can be known at the very level of their being – but they cannot be known in such a manner through the means of science. Science cannot express nor understand how it was that the “winds and the seas obeyed” the voice of the Son of God.
I also write and preach frequently around the subject of existence and non-existence. In this I am following particularly the writings of St. Athanasius the Great. It is also evidence of the influence that Dostoevsky has had on my understanding as an Orthodox Christian. To me, the failure to perceive the precarious position of humanity, indeed, of all creation, is the failure to see things as they are. We are poised at the very precipice of non-existence. We are not as solid and immutable (nor is the world) as we tend to think. Some of this is rooted in my early childhood experiences in which the sudden death of beloved family members and friends was more frequent than is common in our American culture. At age 10 I was already having something of an “existential crisis.” The fragility of our existence is simply a given. I have personally ministered at the deaths of hundreds of people (part of this as a chaplain with hospice). That “we are dust and return to the dust” is staggeringly real to me.
Perhaps it is for this reason that I find St. Athanasius’ account of salvation in The Incarnation of the Word so compelling. He describes our salvation in terms of being grafted into Christ and given the kind of life that is not ours by nature. By nature we are mere creatures – whose existence is brought out of nothingness. Without the gift of God, we would fall back into our nature and into non-existence and nothingness. But by God’s gracious gift we are sustained in life and invited into His own very life. In this sense, the deepest question of my heart has never been about “how do I get to heaven?” but “how do I not cease to be?” The answer in Christ is a gift far beyond mere existence – a life that is beyond all imagining.
I remain perplexed that this question is not as universal as I would have thought.
There are doubtless other words among my favorites. You may be all too familiar with them. I suspect, however, that the readership enjoyed by these writings is an indication that some of these words are as helpful to others as they are to me. I can only write about what I know – or I can only write responsibly about what I know. Every effort I have made to do otherwise has met with what felt like disaster.
The prayers of readers and your encouragement are of deep value to me – thank you.