One of the peculiar marks of life in the modern world is the sense one has of standing on the edge. We are always (it seems) either standing on the edge of disaster or on the edge of some great discovery. Of course, a lot of this is simply the way we market the world to ourselves. But it is an inherent part of modernity to constantly look towards the future and forget the past. This is not to say that our culture is eschatological – we are merely oriented towards constant change with competing visions of light and dark with regard to a relentless future. To be properly eschatological (from the Greek for “concerning the last things”) is to believe that there is an actual end-point that is the fulfillment of all things – the fullness towards which God is drawing His creation.
To stand on the edge of the future is often experienced as anxiety. Like all of modernity, we believe in progress, but the myth of constant progress towards a utopian world has been shattered by the many tragedies of the 20th century. Like previous centuries it had its wars and its oppressive regimes. But unlike previous centuries, we learned that modern wars and modern regimes are apocalyptic in the fullness of their nightmares. We are at least as certain of a bad end as we are of a good end – and, I suspect, more people expect things to get a lot worse before they get better – if they get better.
There are other experiences of standing on the edge. I think that when we confront God, we find ourselves on an edge. As it says in Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It is not that the living God holds any animosity towards us, or that He intends us any harm. But the Light and the Truth that radiate from Him require light and truth to be present in the one who beholds Him. If we have no light and truth then His presence reveals within us the darkness and the lies that are present.
Any number of times in my life I have stood at that edge. To some degree, every occasion of private confession is an approach to the edge, to see the face of God. “Behold, child, Christ stands here invisibly before you receiving your confession,” the priest says. I have stood beside many, many others as they approached the edge and I have seen the wonders of the effect of God’s Light and Truth.
I can also recall very large moments – such as the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy. In some respects, I stood at the edge for nearly 20 years (and very consciously for at least seven). In various comments by readers, it is obvious that many stand at the edge of Orthodoxy and sometimes for a long time. Was I afraid? Yes, I was. Was I afraid of God? Yes I was. I was afraid of the Truth, of the Light, of myself, of everything around me. I can see now that my fear was baseless and that my waiting so long on the edge held far more drama than was necessary. But standing on the edge can be like that.
Dostoevsky had a feel for the edge. The tension that builds in the character Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) becomes almost unbearable until the young man at last turns himself in for the murders he has committed. And like all the rest of us who murder (at least in our heart), turning ourselves in, getting past the edge, becomes the path of salvation just as it was for Raskolnikov.
My children, while quite young, became aware that I had difficulty with heights and edges, particularly while driving. A long, high bridge, or a narrow mountain switch-back, raced my pulse and pumped adrenalin throughout my body. I believe it was my son who first came up with the game (though it could have been his sister who is having a birthday today)… When we were traveling and would reach such a frightful point, he (and his sisters) would begin to shout, “Over the edge!” Which usually sent me into paroxysms of terror and shouts of various threats. They found it great fun. To enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children. Over the edge!
Awesome post Father!
Picture: the book jacket for Everywhere Present (my new book), published by Conciliar Press.
Fr. Stephen pray for us,
It seems I/we (my wife) are on the edge with everything right now. On the frightening edge of Orthodoxy (heading in?); the edge of thick darkness from deep physical suffering to the point of despairing of life; on the edge of a possible relocation; on the edge of financial difficulty. On the edge of children leaving home.
I hate the edge. I love the edge. God is present at the edge but it’s excruciatingly difficult to find him here. The smallest flicker of light brings unbelievable gushes of hope. But one whiff of a breeze seems to send it harshly back to black. Jesus was at the edge and knows it well.
I hope for the resurrection of the dead.
May God bless you. The elder Sophrony once said, “Stand at the edge, until you cannot bear it, then have a cup of tea.” Good advice.
What is this edge? death, abandonment, evil, harm, calamity, destruction, ignorance? What is its source? Man, God, both? Is it real or an illusion brought on by our fears? I fail to understand.
The is a real edge in which we are forced to face our own inadequacies fears and failures and our existential pain. There is also the manufactured edge that the media, government and, all too often, the Church strives to keep us on for distraction purposes: the state of fear about the latest whatever.
The real edge involves the salvation of our soul, the manufactured edge plays to our passions and makes us think that other things are more important that the salvation of our souls.
The real edge is in a different place for each of us, and I think changes within our souls too. Prayer and particularly the sacarment of repentance seem to be quite efficacious in navigating the edge without too much damage.
If I may. All of these things. Simply stuff which become clay in the hands of the Lord!
“But the Light and the Truth that radiate from Him require light and truth to be present in the one who beholds Him. If we have no light and truth then His presence reveals within us the darkness and the lies that are present.”
We humans, although we hate and fear the edge, live there most of our lives by our choice/choices. Jesus was/is there by love. Our fears prevent our seeing Him there, but our love will clear the fog.
Father, this is the truth, and nothing but the truth..
Canadian, I’ve been there (and may yet again!), and will pray for you. Meanwhile: Do not live in fear–JUMP in faith, hope & love!
What a beautiful book jacket. I will buy it! Thank you for the good words today and every week.
Lots of peoples are on the edge right now, especially financially, but our trust should be in God.
..”God is present at the edge but it’s excruciatingly difficult to find him here”..well put Canadian. …..that dark abyss we find ourselves staring into at some point in our lives may very well be our one and only defining moment of truth..its times as these that can resurrect a soul as it forces us to our knees begging before Almighty God..those gut wrenching pleas are as “real” it gets..and then we wait for Him on the edge.
..by the way..Excellent comment Michael Baughman…The real edge always solicits Salvation in one form or another and often from ourselves..whether its an Alcoholic on the verge of suicide..A mother addicted to pain meds..A teenager who becomes pregnant..a spouse caught in adultry or a gambling addict who has lost everything…God dwells at the edge.
Are there any plans to make your new release available as an eBook?
isn’t it sometimes that “the edge” is in fact no more than a perverse magnetism of death and self-destruction, like in your driving example? If so, how is then “becoming like children” wanting to go over it?
Like you, i am pretty certain that the fear you speak of is connected to the ego greatly, but i am not certain at all that wanting to go over it is teh liberation you imply. In my experience, liberation has come only when one is not concerned at all anymore with s”taying where one is” or going “over” – which essentially means that no edge is perceived, which then means that one is no longer at the edge. Essentially the same than what you mentioned that St Silouan said ie “having tea/coffee there” – that is, it has become commonplace and thus no longer an edge. This means integration of subject and object, perceiver and perceived, man and edge.
Also – many times “approaching the edge” in a confessional manner, in a holy mystery that is meant to reveal our failings by default, there is the (frequent?) danger of actually enlarging the unecessary drama through it right there, by blowing out of all propotions “the edge” – a bit like smokers do when they smoke allegedly to calm themselves, while they are actually multiplying their anxiety manyfold because they make it manifest to themselves. The same happens with other habbits people have, that function in the same way, as well as in “counselling sessions” where people are asked to repeat their failings again and again, essentially being spurred on to identify with them.
In short, i am not certain that love, thankfulness and forgiveness understood as commandments necessarily make up for walking the salvation path. For by turning love, thankfulness and forgiveness into complulsory commandments one is running the risk that people will in fact enlarge “all the lies” by being unable to explore them and so realise them as such, ie as lies.
Our experiences may differ of course, but i see many a good Chrstian turning away from the salvation path because they are Christians and not because they are not. Of course, Christ was very much aware of this, and a very large part of his talk was about it – essentially Pharisaism.
The Pharisees didn’t kill Christ because they were bad priests and religious adherents. They killed Him precisely because they were good priests and religious adherents. Their attachment to their tradition and its practices ie the letter of the Law was bigger than their love of Truth ie the spirit of the Law. Hence, when prompted to choose between the two, they unambiguously chosen to stand by the letter of the Law – and undoubtedly they were all convinced that they were doing good by getting rid of another “extremist absolutist prophet”.
I often think whether the Orthodox or any other in fact Church or major religious institution would recognise the Truth “clothed in flesh” today more than it did then. Given the very hard time St Nectarios, St Joseph the Hesychast and Padre Pio of St Giovanni Rotondo – three of the most authentic christian saints of recent times – had with their own institutions that at times fought them to no end, i very much doubt it. As for your favorite St Silouan, had it not been for F.Sophrony’s book the chances are that he would have passed away like most Athonite monks do; ie the world at large would have never known that he had lived at all.
Having said all that, of course the Church, that by default stands on God’s revelation, and functions in order to preserve it and transmit it to the ages of ages (hopefully) cannot be ambiguous or half measured-like in what it preaches and practices and that is fine.
What is not fine though, at least by me, is establishing a spirit of unrealistic and characteristically middle class puritanic moralism, as both Church people and parishioners seem often to be doing – a moralism that although desirable as a final goal, ie for a purified person, is a very far reach for most (including Churchmen) at their current state. Hence its all reduced to a show of appearnces and in fact brooding of “the lies” each carries within, because it hides the face of God from them more than it reveals It.
When “being good” is the officially established state of affais, being “not good” is politically incorrect and suddenly evil starts creeping in people that follow the commandments because they have forbidden themselves to actually stare at their lies and see their reality. And because so, they are actually bound to repeat them all, time and again, with Church practice being the shroud with which they hide them from themselves. In other words, the spiritual life is turned into “another cultural arrangement”, to quote you.
Yet, it is said that God loves us “in and despite our sin”. And that makes sense because from love’s perspective its the person that matters most and not the actions. As you may have written here: “ask your mother”.
I am sure of course that in your wisdom yourself and your fellow Chuchmen and the Church at large “know all this”. But seeing many talk and act (quite often i would say) as if they didn’t, makes one wonder if they/you really do.
I’m sorry, like yourself i’m not trying to be a purposefully contrarian or scandalise – although no doubt i’ll get an avallanche of answers that defend the Church, its people and its practices.
I just pose these genuine questions, spurred on by your deep and well written exploration of the themes that concern them, for which i thank you.
It’s a meditation – if it’s useful – well and good. I would not want to make more of it than I have written. Christians, myself included, are full of hypocrisy and sin.
I’ve been on that edge many times, and think I’m approaching it in this season of my life. It is at these times that I have been most aware of the evil that tempts me, the evil I fear may swallow me up, the evil that resides within me, the evil that I fear I may not be able to resist. And just when I think I may fall off the edge, I am rescued. Christ comes to me, just like the shepherd in that famous painting clutching the lamb before it tumbles off the edge of the cliff.
….me too Darlene…except for me its the image found in the catacombs of rome depicting Christ carrying a goat on his shoulders…..:)
I’m not sure if this fits into the conversation, but about 30 years ago as an Anglican I went on a Cursillo weekend and while there bought a poster showing a man diving off a cliff – a perfect dive. That became my icon for several years, for my throwing myself on God’s mercy, and simply trusting Him. Not like the temptation where the devil urges the Lord the throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, but a real dvie with open eyes knowing I was safe even not knowing the final outcome.
I’m so glad you have had this book published, Father. May God bless those who read it. That includes me! : )
father stephen, thank you for this and your book. i am reading it and appreciate you sharing your knowledge, wisdom, and faith with all. i highly recommend it, whether you are orthodox or not.
It was because it was certainly useful that i enquired about the point where my experience apparently diverged than yours as written in the post. Its up to you of course not to reply – but i can’t help but noticing that texts that include explicit encouragements like “over the edge!” may be a bit more than meditations on a theme.
Your honesty is certainly refreshing and greatly appreciated.
I frequently write in an “existential” mode, which certainly varies somewhat from the language of tradition, though, I find it quite complementary and useful. Over the edge, for me, has been synonymous with the call of God to do what I would not do (die to self, obey the gospel, etc.). It is been an image that I have found helpful over the years – and my children’s awareness of my sensitivity – to be something of a comic taunt to teach me how silly I am in some of my sensitivities.
I see. In my case, i have had a (similar) such fear with equally strong connections to the ego, as those you mention in your driving example.
Everytime i tried to “get over it” and force myself through it “over the edge” of it, the fear grew to no end and things got pretty bad. That was until i realised that “wanting to go over it” was more of the same, ie an ego based overcoming for which the ego would claim credit and essentially remain the sole motivator and base.
The very fragility and pretentiousness of it, a mouse posing for a mastiff, was creating the problem all along. At that point i stoped trying to overcome and fully accepted my weakness, self and life as it was. My freakish high and cruel standards of judging others according to their “achievements” as well as myself – all that my parents, teachers and friends explicitly and implicitly ever tought me that was “worthwhile” were dropped and abandoned and the problem very soon diminished to unnoticeable levels.
It might be that this is a slightly different type of edge though, than the one you mention in your case ie one of having to go actively forward against the ego as a way of life – mine was more of discovering its existence and hold on me, hence probably why our experiences appear divergent slightly at some point.
Looking forward to reading your book.
But can you answer a question? On Ancient Faith Radio you mentioned that there were some Catholic authors who touched on the subject of the, as you put it, one-storey universe. Would you share some names with me?
Sean, I particularly had in mind Thomas Howard’s Splendor in the Ordinary. He does not offer, as I recall, a particular critique of secularism (whereas Schmemann does this quite well). The classic Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God are also excellent.
There is a danger for sacramental Christians if they continue in a two-storey world that the sacraments simply become special (holy) things in an otherwise profane world. I believe this has happened in many instances. Of course, there is the New Age reaction to that which then goes into opposite errors (pantheism, etc.).
Thank you, Father.