“Person” is among the most difficult words in the classical Christian vocabulary. It is difficult on the one hand because the word has a common meaning in modern parlance that is not the same meaning as its classical one. And it is difficult on the other hand even when all of its later meanings and associations are stripped away – because what it seeks to express is simply a very difficult concept.
Most of what the world understands as “person” is either a description of the “ego” or of a legal concept. But Person (I will capitalize it for use in its classical form) is not at all the same thing as the ego. In the ego, we describe a set of feelings, choices, memory, desires, etc. that are unique. It is, in its most true form, turned in on itself. The ego is “me for myself.”
For many people, when they think of life after death, they imagine some continuation of the ego. Indeed, many of our thoughts about heaven seem problematic precisely because they seem to contradict the needs of the ego.
“Will there be golf in heaven?” The joke begins.
“Well, there’s good news and bad news,” the angel answers. “The good news is that there is indeed golf in heaven and the courses are beyond description. The bad news is that your tee time is tomorrow at two.”
Such jokes could easily be multiplied – for we imagine heaven (and life after death) to be somehow the fulfillment of our desires and wishes. An existence organized around our wishes, desires and memories is not, however, the meaning of Person.
Person is an “organizing principle,” the center around which and by which our existence is defined. But its character is strikingly contrary to the ego.
The Elder Sophrony Sakharov has been one of the most careful exponents of Personhood in our contemporary period. He notes that the “content of the Divine Hypostases [Persons] is love.” And that “Divine love is selfless; it is a fundamental characteristic of the divine life of the three Hypostases, in which ‘each Hypostasis is totally open to the others’ and thus manifests the oneness of the Holy Trinity in an absolutely perfect manner.” (Quoted from Christ, Our Way and Our Life).
Our own Personhood is no different. Our Person is the self-for-others. It is the content of St. Paul’s statement that “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” The Person here is the Yet-Not-I.
This is a difficult thing both to understand and to realize in our own experience. How do we explain to someone that the Yet-Not-I is their true self while their ego is, in fact, a false self? Of course, the Yet-Not-I is insufficient as a definition. A negative statement will not serve as a proper placeholder. St. Paul adds to his Yet-Not-I, the But-Christ. This moves us closer.
When we consider the persons of the Trinity we move to more helpful ground. Their content is love, Elder Sophrony says. And this love is not some simple force, but a complete disposition towards the other. Christ says of Himself:
Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. (Joh 5:19)
Christ’s Person is the Son-of-the-Father. He is the Nothing-of-Himself-But-What-The-Father-Does. The Father pours His being into the Son and realizes Himself as Father in the Son and in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from Him. The Persons of the Trinity are not In-Himself Persons, but For-The-Other Persons.
And Christ directs us towards the same manner of being:
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (Joh 15:5)
This is the true content of St. Paul’s Yet-Not-I.
This understanding is made difficult for us precisely because we insist on living for ourselves. The ego is my existence for my own ends. This is so profoundly true that we often cannot imagine any other way to exist. But we are taught of Christ that the content of our true existence is love, just as it is the content of the Divine Persons. We are created to live in His Image.
And this is the slow and patient work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is not simply the moral improvement of the ego. In truth, the ego will never be moral for it is always centered on itself. This existence we are told is meant to die, to be put to death. Putting the ego to death is the true aim of fasting and prayer of almsgiving and of all the commandments. Likewise the same things direct us toward our true life, the Not-I-But-Christ whose content is love. The good news embodied in the gospel is that such a life is not only possible but is the fulfillment of our true existence.
This is the Personhood that is made manifest in the lives of the saints. What we see of them is generally not the story of an ego but a life-for-others – a life that is, in fact, defined by its for-otherness.
Something that should be clear if we consider it, is that this kind of existence is something not yet realized in our lives. The legal concept of persons generally considers a living individual to be a “person” by definition. But again, this is not the meaning of Person in the Church’s language. That Personhood is a gift from God, birthed in us but not yet realized. It is the movement of our lives yet to be fulfilled.
Also worth noting is the infinite character of this true Personhood. The ego is always limited because it is turned towards itself. Its boundaries must be clearly defined, both to protect it from other egos and to protect other egos from it. But the Person whose content is love inherently reaches out and can ultimately know no limit. It includes all of creation in its embrace.
The Elder Sophrony describes this as the “hypostatic principle” and sees it as the basis of true prayer and true being. He contrasts this with a psychological mode of existence (the existence of the ego). The ego can struggle to be similar to the Person but can never reach it. The Person is charismatic, that is, gifted by the Spirit. It is God’s good gift to us.
And the teaching on the Person, particularly as made known through the writings of a saint who knows by experience what he says, carries us to a description that exceeds our imagination. Writing of this inner life, the Elder Sophrony says:
Since he has first lived the drama of cosmic desolation through the experience of kenosis, and acquired consciousness of the state of all mankind, he begins to assume a self-awareness of meta-cosmic dimensions. Enduring the sufferings of this stage, he is being crucified with Christ, and ‘he becomes receptive to the infinitely great Divine Being’. This elevated state of man’s spirit is manifest in his prayer for all the world, which he would not be able to withstand unless he had already become a partaker of ‘the universality of Christ Himself, Who bears in Himself all that exists’. Christ, Our Way and Our Life
And so is fulfilled St. Paul’s words:
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him. But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. (1Co 2:9-10)