One of the most frightening phrases in the English language is: “It’s nothing personal.” It almost always precedes something bad. For someone to tell me that what they are about to do is not personal is already a confession of sin. But why should the word personal carry such weight?
In the life of the Eastern Church few words could be more important. Oddly there is not a single definition for the term, only, as Met. Kallistos Ware notes, “a series of overlapping approaches.” And yet there is agreement as to its importance. The Elder Sophrony stressed what he called the “cardinal importance of the personal dimension in being.”
But what is it that is so important? Personhood, which is the Latin-derived English word for the more technical Greek “hypostasis,” refers not so much to what we are as to who we are. But it refers to a manner of existing as an individual that is not individualistic. To exist as person is to exist in a unique manner of communion. Person has the capacity for ultimate self-giving (emptying) and ultimate receiving (fulness). It has an individual aspect in that the person is unique and unrepeatable, but it is a unique and unrepeatable existence that always exists by communion (emptiness and fulness).
Speaking in such a way about personhood makes it somewhat clear that none of us yet exists in such a manner in any way that we could think of as complete. Personhood is indeed the glory that is being worked within us as we are changed into the image of Christ. The Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Person Who is manifest to us in the incarnation. That Person Who from eternity is Divine by nature, “hypostasizes” – gives Personal existence to human nature in taking flesh of the Virgin and becoming man. Thus the image of personhood set before us as the Divine goal of our conformity is none other than the Person of Christ, human and Divine.
Personhood is the proper end of man – it is what we should have always become. Existing as less than fully personal beings – as mere individuals who do not share (emptying) nor receive (fulness) – this sinful mode of existence manifests itself in every form of selfishness and greed. Its ultimate expression is the sin of murder. The Biblical account does not wait to tell us of murder as a sin that took eons to develop, but rather in the second generation of humanity – between the brothers Cain and Abel – jealousy results in fratricide.
Murder is the utter antithesis of personhood. It does not give, nor is it interested in receiving that which may be legitimately received. It is interesting that Christ said that our enemy “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).
A more subtle form of murder than Cain’s is the frequent diminishment of another human being to something less than person – or the self-murder we perform as we refuse to allow ourselves be raised up towards the level of personal existence. There are many ways in which this is done. Making of another human being nothing more than an object or granting nothing more than a collective existence are both denials of personhood. When a human being becomes for us a mere object, then we find it easy to do to them anything we might do to a stick of furniture or something else that we regularly treat as object. The collective existence is manifest when a person simply becomes an example of a larger group: worker, management, nationality, gender, etc.
“It’s nothing personal!” is the battle-cry of murderers through the ages. We hear elements of it in Cain’s defense of his murderous action: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His “brother” in this case is less than a personal category. He does not call him by his name.
Though none of us yet exist in the fulness of personhood, we are, nevertheless called to that mode of existence and our Christian life offers us disciplines and the grace for precisely this purpose. One of the Biblical images that frequently reveals this graceful manifestation is found in the stories of the changing and acquiring of names. Thus the Patriarch Jacob, who begins his life conniving and tricking to get everything he wants and all he feels has been promised to him. His name, Jacob, means “one you tries to take someone else’s place.” Jacob endures muc, including wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. After that experience, Jacob is partially crippled. He has been marked by his struggle with God. The end of the matter is his name is changed. He has moved from someone who does not share and cannot receive legitimately, to one who is now, “The Prince of God,” Israel.
Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. The stories surrounding these changes are the stories of personhood coming forth. Christ frequently gives new names to His disciples. Peter, the Rock, who had to live nearly an entire lifetime to fulfill the name Christ had given him. Saul becomes Paul. Indeed in the Revelations of St. John, each of us will receive a new name. Personhood is our common destiny in Christ.
But we live in a world that does not know Christ and thus does not know of the human destiny of personhood. We speak about “personal” relationships with Christ, even though we ourselves have not yet reach personhood. Thus the phrase misstates the present case. “Personal relationship” is a weak term. Of course, it is not a Biblical nor a Patristic term – but something that has largely grown out of modern American evangelical jargon. There it exists with little or no theological underpinning, just a phrase to be used.
What we seek from Christ is Personal Communion. We want to participate in Him as He is Person. The transformation that flows from that communion or participation is the transformation of our individualistic existence with its greed and self-centeredness to a growing manifestation of personhood in which our heart contains more of the universe and our lives are marked by giving (emptiness) and receiving (fulness).
Fr. Sophrony describes this transformation:
…[It is] in the utmost intensity of prayer that our nature is capable of, when God Himself prays in us, [that] man receives a vision of God that is beyond any image whatsoever. Then it is that that man qua persona really prays ‘face to Face’ with the Eternal God. In this encounter with the Hypostatic [personal] God, the hypostasis [person] that at first was only potential, is actualized in us.
The Elder Sophrony’s Grand-nephew, Fr. Nicholai, offers this observation:
When man’s self remains his ultimate existential concern, he is existentially directed toward himself and so his potential for embracing the infinite, God, and thus himself becoming infinite, is not realized. And vice versa: when his existential concern is reoriented toward the infinite, his own infinite potential opens up and comes to its realization:
Quoting his uncle:
I is a magnificient word. It signifies persona. Its principal ingredient is love, which opens out, first and foremost, to God. This I does not live in a convulsion of egoistic concentration on the self. If wrapped up in self it will continue in its nothingness. The love towards God commanded of us by Christ, which entails hating oneself and renouncing all emotional and fleshly ties, draws the spirit of man into the expanses of Divine eternity. This kind of love is an attribute of Divinity.
“It’s nothing personal” is a statement that is almost correct. More precise would be: You are not personal. You are nothing. Beware of such men and don’t be numbered among them.
Quotes from Nicholas V. Sakharov are from his work: I Love Therefore I Am: the theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony.