Everything Is In Motion

For years I have been told that the meaning of the word hamartia (translated “sin”) means “to miss the mark.” This is certainly accurate. However, the image I have always had in mind has been an arrow aimed at a target and missing the bull’s eye. Thus I have thought of my life as a moral effort to hit the target.

This is not incorrect but it leaves out important information. God is the target (not an abstract moral standard) and we ourselves are the arrow.

There is a great tendency in our thought to conceive things in stationary, static images. Such images are easier to conceive and explain. Setting everything in motion complicates our efforts to comprehend. However, it is essential to understand that everything is in motion. Oddly, this concept is not some post-modernist imagery of dancing Wu-Li Masters: it is part of the teaching of the fathers of the Church.

The idea of movement and change (both in time and space) was not original with great teachers of the Church (such as St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius or St. Maximus the Confessor). These thoughts originated long before with philosophers such as Plato and Heraclitus. But the fathers of the Church took up the concept and refined it for the use of Christian theology.

God’s creation (as we should well know) is everywhere in motion. Every object in the universe is moving (further apart we are told). Even the particles of matter that compose so-called stationery objects (such as rocks) are in motion. Nothing is completely at rest. It is odd for a modern man to discover that such thought is in no way new.

However, movement is not the only thing of importance in this patristic understanding of creation. Everything is in motion, and everything has its direction. That direction is its purpose – its reason for existence and reason for continuing in existence. This reason is its logos. The Logos of all logoi (plural), is Christ Himself.

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. All things were made through Him…  (Jn. 1:1)

Each of us has a purpose and reason for existence. For human beings (and all creation), that purpose is union with God.

… [God has made known to us] the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the economy of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth…

It is this purpose and direction that are the mark towards which we move. Whatever causes us to deviate from that mark is what is meant by the Biblical word “sin.” Moving away from the mark distorts our purpose, our inner relationship with God. The result is death and corruption.

Christ restores our right relationship with God and through that living communion restores our purpose and direction. We move rightly towards the end for which we were created.

Salvation, like all things in God’s creation, is dynamic and not static. Those who reduce salvation to a single moment, “I was saved,” run the risk of distorting the proper understanding of the Christian life. The injection of discrete moments of history (“I made a decision for Christ”) can be misunderstood as describing something which happens once and is finished. But we are moving. A “decision for Christ” is properly a description of a direction rather than a destination. As directions, our lives need to be referred to Christ at  every moment and in every place.

Living as part of a vast swirl of movement can be dizzying. It is little wonder that we want to re-imagine the universe in a stable, static form. But the universe will not stand still for such imagination. It continues to swirl while we stare at our delusion.

It is customary in some of the monasteries of Mt. Athos to set the central chandelier in motion during the singing of the “polyelion” (the hymn “for His mercy endures forever”) of the all-night vigil. Sometimes the lamps before the icons swing as well. I have heard it described as representing the dancing of the angels before God. It certainly incorporates movement within the worship of the Church. For the liturgy is a great dance – the proper movement of creation itself.

We were created as a movement. The continual offering of ourselves to God in praise and thanksgiving is the fulfillment of our very being. We do not need to comprehend the universe. We need to be swept towards Christ.

 

 

37 comments:

  1. Everything is in motion, that much has been clear since Heraclitus. But I have to confess, my own image of peace includes a profound, absolute stillness. It seems to me there might be another dimension, one of perfect “stationary motion” or moving stability which is unlike the troubled movement we’re accustomed to.

  2. Byron and Leonard,
    The stationary or position of rest is also present in the fathers. Your “stationary motion” is a very rich phrase, Byron. I like it.
    Leonard, St. Gregory of Nyssa held to an understanding of eternal movement towards God. It has some drawbacks, but there are ways in which it works.

  3. Interestingly, Dante depicts Satan frozen in ice created by the ceaseless flapping of his miserable wings, which can no longer lift him to high heaven.

    “That emperor, who sways
    The realm of sorrow, at mid breast from the ice
    Stood forth; and I in stature am more like
    A giant, than the giants are his arms.
    Mark now how great that whole must be, which suits
    With such a part. If he were beautiful
    As he is hideous now, and yet did dare
    To scowl upon his Maker, well from him
    May all our misery flow. Oh what a sight!
    How passing strange it seem’d, when I did spy
    Upon his head three faces: one in front
    Of hue vermilion, the other two with this
    Midway each shoulder join’d and at the crest;
    The right ’twixt wan and yellow seem’d; the left
    To look on, such as come from whence old Nile
    Stoops to the lowlands. Under each shot forth
    Two mighty wings, enormous as became
    A bird so vast. Sails never such I saw
    Outstretch’d on the wide sea. No plumes had they,
    But were in texture like a bat; and these
    He flapp’d i’ th’ air, that from him issued still
    Three winds, wherewith Cocytus to its depth
    Was frozen.”

  4. This motion to which you refer, if I understand correctly, is dynamic, somewhat like a dance, what John of Damascus described as “perichoresis.” I’ve always found intriguing the image of us dancing with God. For one, it suggests (to me) a joyful, energetic relationship. Dance done correctly is graceful (even hypnotic), structured (orderly), and uplifting (whether one participates or observes). Done incorrectly it is awkward, stumbling, and inharmonious, capable of landing one in the floor on one’s head. The image of the dance done poorly strikes me as an apt comparison to those who move discordantly against God’s leading.

  5. Greg,
    There is also the image of us singing (of everything singing and of God singing). What seems to be lacking is a static image.

  6. Father,
    this happens to be a very approachable introduction to some of the most important points in St. Maximus…
    Thank you again.

  7. Dee,
    Thanks. I’ve been reading a fair amount in St. Maximus over the past year – including good secondary sources. It’s beginning to come together (though so much further to go!). When I first began reading things on St. M. over 30 years ago, there was almost nothing in English (Lars Thunberg and some inferior RC stuff). I’m reading Von Balthasar now, a great improvement over earlier RC treatments are really helpful (thanks to PJ for loaning me his copy!). Reading St. Maximus is its own experience of trying to understand something in motion!

  8. A faithful exegesis that rings true, Fr. Steve.

    If I may, hamartia (or hammarta) also sounds like it might also refer to the slanderer or literally the one who “makes” something red (red here means sinful), particularly when it is not).

  9. How are you deriving ἁμαρτία? I do not know hammarta (it’s not in the NT). Dee? Ring any bells in your Greek ears?

  10. To “sin” (“αμαρτάνω”) I think is derived from the negating “α” and the ancient word “είμαρται” -passive of “μείρομαι”- which essentially means I take the part that belongs to me, what has been appointed to me, my fate (same root as the word “ειμαρμένη” which is ancient for fate). So with the negating “α” at the front it actually signifies a kind of usurping of the Logos (since the Λόγος is what defines each things “fate” or destiny – I guess “fate” was the closest thing to the idea of the logoi behind everything in very ancient times. This is impressively close to your explanation of taking a movement away, rather than towards our Logos (“destiny” here)
    I promise, this is not far fetched, even if it sounds kind of technical…
    😉

  11. to clarify the above further, ἁμαρτία, according to its etymology would mean a movement away from the Logos indeed. ..
    ἁμαρτία is made from the “ἁ” as in “anti” and “μαρτία” as in destiny/fate/logos/design…

  12. Andrew,
    I thought you were probably trying to derive from the semitic. It’s NT – thus a Greek word.

  13. Dinoship,
    Just to get more technical, isn’t the negating prefix normally an unbreathed “a”. This would give “amartia” rather than “hamartia”.

  14. Father, I knew there was value in Von Balthasar but, being incapable, couldn’t sort it out for myself. I sold my set and don’t regret it. This post is enough for me and I am so thankful for God’s gift of your direction which includes scholarship, your heart and ministry here. Thank you yet again.

  15. Andrew C,
    the reason we add an “ha” rather than an “a” in English for “ἁ”, is because of that little squiggly thing on top called “thaseia” in Greek.
    It is for the same reason that we do not say “istory” but “history” because of the Greek “η” in this case (at the start of Historia) having a squiggly daseia again, which faces the way it does… (there are other squiggly bits too, but unfortunately a previous Greek government in the early 80’s decided to get rid of them all for ‘simplicity’, but has been highly criticised for destroying the language as well -as taking it further away from the one used for the NT)

  16. Andrew,
    I’ll ask dinoship’s forgiveness – but your observation is correct. The alpha with the “rough breathing mark” is not the “alpha privative” that is commonly used for negation in classical (and NT) Greek. The root of hamartia is hamartanein “to err or miss the mark.” The origin of words with the rough breathing is different from those without.

    My college Greek included from Homer forward – with a smallish foray into Linear B – which is a bit more theoretical since there is so little of it in evidence. The “rough breathing” mark, in its origin seems to indicate the presence of an earlier letter which has “elided” and disappeared. Thus, though the spelling, beginning with an alpha, or one of the other vowels, looks similar to other words so beginning (but with “smooth” breathing marks) is actually quite different. That’s more linguistics than I usually want to write on – but it was my original field and I couldn’t resist. And now, back to our story…

  17. Michael Patrick,
    My experience with Von Balthasar, as well as St. Maximus and a few others, is like eating an elephant. You have to do it one bite at a time. Thus I eat a little, digest a lot (a whole lot), wait for a coin to drop, and then proceed. I remember studying Zizioulas when I was in grad school, and being under the gun (a paper due on him). I read and re-read until my hair hurt. One day, totally inundated and swimming in him, a singing thought fell in place, and suddenly everything became clear! He’s been easy ever since. I think many writers are like that – they have a “key” that unlocks their work. The trouble is finding the key. If I’m able to offer keys to others on these things, then I will be a highly successful writer indeed! Once in a while, maybe.

  18. Sorry! That is in fact correct – brings me back to second grade…- the negating alpha never has a “rough breathing” mark, and I distinctly remember that there were no exceptions to that particular spelling rule unlike others!

    So if it is not a negating alpha (which I have heard before as an etymological explanation, but I realise now this cannot really be) it does sound like the Turkish word for sin ‘haram’ which we actually use in modern Greek to mean that something went haram (was lost/missed)…
    There must be someone who knows better, unless it is one of those words with 2, 3 different possible etymological explanations…

  19. Andrew,
    It’s a reasonable question. However, since Hebrew and Greek belong to entirely different language families (Semitic versus Indo-European) there are very, very few examples of common roots. Those few examples are generally when one language borrows a word from the other. Greek borrows words such as Amen, and Alleluia, from the Hebrew, through religious practice, but there a almost no normal borrowings at all.

    As an interesting aside…Indo European is the language family of Greek, Latin (and thus the Romance languages), Sanskrit, the Slavic Languages and the Germanic languages (including English), etc. They show many common roots that run back to a theoretical single common ancestor “Indo-European” that would have existed around 10,000 B.C. or so. That tribe disperses at different times in different directions (some going into India). The land of origin seems to have been somewhere on the Steppes.

    But, there is evidence that at some early period, Proto-Germanic, the common ancestor of English, German, Scandinavians, etc., encountered a Semitic language (possibly Phoenician). Evidence of this encounter can be found in what are called “strong” verbs. These are verbs who change their tense by change the sounds within the verb (run, ran; drink, drank, drunk, etc.). Normal verbs, in a Indo-European manner, change endings to demonstrate tense (wish, wished, etc.). This pattern of “strong” verbs is common in Semitic languages, that make changes within the verb to indicate the equivalent of tense. Scholars suggest that these tribes encountered each other and that Proto-Germanic assimilated them (as well as some verb patterns) – patterns that only occur in Indo-European languages descended from Proto-Germanic. I love obscure facts like that. I dare you to ask me something else!

  20. The “motion of conversion” was something that really struck me. The “moment of conversion” always bugged me for some reason. Maybe it was because I felt like I had *always* been coming to Christ, from a small child. To name a moment in time when I was “saved” was false.

    Eugene Peterson’s book title, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” somehow set me free, even before I turned to Orthodoxy, to understand the motion of conversion. Brilliant phrase.

  21. This site really has it all…

    … but back to the article indeed, which was spot on. Again, speaking as one from a more evangelical fold, I would not entirely disparage the “decision for Christ” moment. For some people, there really is an identifiable moment of crisis (Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, perhaps?). For many, there is no such moment: the pastor of the church I attend says he made umpteen “decisions for Christ” as a teenager; and though he isn’t sure precisely which one it was, one of them obviously stuck. In the best instance, it represents a change of heart, of mind, of action which leads to a lifetime devoted Our Lord.

  22. Andrew,
    From an Orthodox perspective – such decisions are not unimportant. If you are going to change direction – head towards the mark – then there are obviously moments – even a single moment in which an initial “course change” is made. Though it’s often the case that we were already beginning to turn in that direction, such that the single moment seems more significant to us than to anyone else. Many who knew me for years before my conversion to Orthodoxy, laughed and said, “What took you so long.” In truth, I had been turning in that direction for over 20 years, though my reception into the Church stands as one of the single most important moments in my life. And as your pastor would note, every day involves “umpteen” decisions for Christ. To be His disciple is to always be open to “mid-course correction.”

  23. I don’t think there is any denying that one can have life-changing, Damascus “minutes/hours”. Nevertheless, there is invariably a very long period of “assimilation”(as Elder Sophrony Sacharov describes it) afterwards.

  24. I can confirm that my dictionary of Modern Greek by G.Babiniotis gives the etymology of amartia as “to fail, to miss the target”, but also from a- and I.E. smrt, smer “to share in something, participate, recall”, and further related to moira, eimarmene. This is very interesting, thank you for pointing it out; it seems almost as if sin and the rejection of one’s destiny were identical.

  25. Dino, if I may — in the collective imagination, the road to Damascus presents itself as a bleak wasteland yet the Fathers tells us that it is full of the riches of Christ. Like the holy cross of Christ, it has a beginning but not an end. It therefore falls (utterly) outside the metrics of ordinary space and time.

  26. Hi Fr.

    Bruce Cockburn has a song called “The Gift” from which the below lyrics are taken. Upon reading this post I was immediately reminded of it.

    “These shoes have walked some strange streets
    Stranger still to come
    Sometimes the prayers of strangers
    Are all that keeps them from
    Trying to stay static
    Something even death can’t do
    Everything is motion
    To the motion be true”

  27. Andrew,
    sorry I am not sure of the “collective imagination” notion, I simply meant the possibility of ‘moments’ such as Saint Paul’s sudden conversion on the road to Damascus, or Saint Silouan’s and other’s moment of encountering the living Christ cannot be denied, (they are but momentary visions with the extremely pregnant potential of turning one’s life completely) yet require a long period of assimilation afterwards.

  28. Abe,
    Hmmm. Analyzing my metaphors? Well, it cannot mean that the target (union with God in Christ) is itself changing – and it could certainly be described as “at rest.” However, from the perspective of the one hurtling at the target, it is clear that as we move towards it and are thus able to resolve it, our perception clarifies and changes. “Change” would be rendered “movement” in the thought of St. Maximus.

    What I wanted to evoke in the metaphor is the completely dynamic character of our salvation. Think of a space probe moving towards a planet. It has to aim at where the planet will be rather than where it is right now.

    It’s only a metaphor and not a dogma. It works in some ways, but will break down like all metaphors. I have been interested in the imagery of a universe in motion and yet completely related to itself lately. When I think of all of those relations as “events,” and think of my life at any moment as simply one of those “events,” I find a strange comfort. The comfort comes in wondering at the whole of it and all things unfolding as they do and the providence of God guiding each one. Wonder is too small a word. It works for me. Thanks for the question.

  29. Hi Father Stephen (and anyone else),

    I loved this post and found that, without my planning it, I started writing about the universe in motion on my own blog.
    So I referenced my reader(s) back to you.

    I again have the itch to share – but it is fine if you don’t have time. Many blessings to you for nourishing my spirit. What I wrote (from a different context):
    http://findhope-mary.blogspot.com/2012/09/change.html

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