Around the Corner

trailAmong the most appealing aspects of CS Lewis’ children’s fiction is at the point that I would describe as “turning the corner.” It is not that he creates a fantasy world, but that the fantasy world he creates somehow intersects with the world in which we live. It is the discovery that at this moment, quite unexpectedly, the back of an old wardrobe is a door into another world. 

You turn the corner, and…

It certainly intersects with something every child feels – the sense of surprise and the encounter with the unexpected. 

Some years back when our parish was just beginning, we occupied a storefront location next to a dime store. The space where I parked my car was hidden by a head-high bush. One morning, coming in to the parish, I could hear a young girl playing on the other side of the bush. Based on her fantasy monologue, I could hear that she was somewhere in a Harry Potter novel. As I stepped around the bush, she turned and saw me. I was wearing a gray cassock, was bearded, and even wore a pony-tail at the time. Her mouth opened wide and her eyes wider as she stared at me. I smiled.

“You…you’re beautiful!” she stammered.

I have never been more delighted to be an object of wonder. It was a reaction far removed from the fairly frequent looks of consternation on the faces of adults who are clearly disturbed that something so strange should be walking freely about their city.

The child’s reaction is not a mark of immaturity – but a mark of a human being still capable of belief.

In a secularized culture expectations are reduced to a minimum. Whatever occurs, nothing will be “out of this world.” Whatever corners are turned, what awaits is always more of the same. But there are exceptions.

Charles Taylor in his magisterial work, A Secular Age, writes of a sense of “fullness”:

In this case, the sense of fullness came in an experience which unsettles and breaks through our ordinary sense of being in the world, with its familiar objects, activities and points of reference. These may be moments, as Peter Berger puts it, describing the work of Robert Musil, when “ordinary reality is ‘abolished’ and something terrifyingly other shines through”, a state of consciousness which Musil describes as der andere Zustand (the other condition).

Even more surprising is the recent case of Sam Harris (a noted atheist and writer) describing an experience he had by the Sea of Galilee. In his book, Waking Up, he relates:

As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.

Harris does not come to the conclusions of a believer, but he recognizes experiences that point towards something often overlooked.

My personal reflection is that Harris sold the experience short and could have gone further (deeper). But, in many ways, his experience fails precisely because he turns back to the self (ego).

In either case, there is and always has been an aspect of human experience of that which is “just around the corner.” I prefer Taylor’s term of “fullness” on account of its place within the Christian tradition.

It is one thing to speak of an experience of God, quite another to speak of an experience of the “fullness” of God. In the apprehension of fullness, the self recedes, even to the point of disappearance, while the fullness “fills” everything (hence the language of fullness).

This is, interestingly, language that is associated with the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, the Spirit “fills.” Persons not only receive the Holy Spirit, they are “filled” with the Spirit. The prayers of the Church address the Holy Spirit as “filling all things.”

It is difficult to describe the sense of “fullness,” other than to say that it refers to a completion, to a superabundance, to something of which there cannot be more. This is in contrast to the experience of emptiness and lack, the nagging disappointment that accompanies our adult existence and our encounter with the world.

In our family tradition, our youngest daughter always seemed to summarize our Christmas experience with, “This is the best Christmas ever!” Of course, as a parent, it is almost never the “best Christmas ever.” The time of year is too fraught with contradictions and concerns. The magic of a child, however, sees a fullness:

“You… You’re beautiful!”

This brings me back to Lewis’ intuition with a simple question: Is there anything of note just around the corner? Jesus’ parables surrounding the Kingdom of God suggest that there is.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46)

The Orthodox tradition points to this deeper reality as a quality to be found everywhere (the fullness is “everywhere present”). It is not a quality, or a reality that forces itself on our awareness. Instead, it is a quality of which we are normally not aware – and we are not aware because the lacking is within us.

This lacking is the very aspect of our lives that is addressed by repentance. The cry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” is not an enjoinment to moral improvement. It is a call to recognize the very emptiness, the lacking within ourselves. Repentance is the personal recognition that Christ’s word is fulfilled in us: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Oddly, it is the very border of such an experience described by the atheist, Sam Harris: “a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts…. the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” His experience falls short of repentance in that he fails to admit that the experience is true. His thoughts, his “separate self,” is indeed, nothing, or bordering on nothing. He thinks that he is something, a man among men, an author, a thinker, a knower, one who considers the universe. He could have gone further had he sung, “All we are is dust in the wind.”

But the emptiness of self, the knowledge that we are but dust, is known by many. That we are nothing does not immediately reveal what is around the corner. That fullness is a recognition given as a gift. It can come quite unbidden. Treasures hidden in fields are most often discovered without maps.

The Orthodox life is the purchase of the field, the buying of the pearl. Finding the treasure and the pearl of great price is the gift of God. Around-the-next-corner just reveals itself to us. Then we labor and pray, sell what we have, share with others, forgive enemies, and repeatedly acknowledge the dust of our existence that we might live around the next corner in the fullness that God Himself.

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Phi 3:8-15)

29 comments:

  1. I am thankful for this articulate explanation of the source and solution of life lived in painful isolation. This article is a treasure of healing.

  2. I relish the Narnia Chronicles for this very reason: divine wonderment. After numerous readings of all these novels, I again want to step forth, hopeful of a breath of a reality that refreshes and renews me. I wonder if that is what Harris experienced at Galilee? If so, he did indeed sell the experience short. That Reality is to be our daily dose of immortality. As you note, the generosity of God in Christ drains away the dead man/woman, making room for the Fullness of God.

    A powerful word, Father. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Father Stephen!

    Your article reminded me of the words desert Father Lazarus Al-Anthony spoke to the “Extreme Pilgrim” Anglican priest after the latter had spent 21 days in the Red Sea desert. He asked him to “carry this emptiness, this full emptiness, the full emptiness of the desert…and I hope that you will stay in and be saved by this full peace”.

    Is it necessary to empty ourselves from everything in order to feel the fullness of God? I know the reverse to be true: as long as I am connected to a device, glued to a screen and filling my mind with earthly concerns, God cannot get through…

  4. Sometimes we see around the corner best in the midst of intense suffering. This is the really good news – not a change in circumstances, but that the fullness is with us always, and we get to see it when we need it most. It teaches us and feeds us. Most of all, it holds us.

    This is always my prayer and my hope, especially when faced with such heartbreaking suffering all around and in my own life. Sometimes I am also given little glimpses and these glimpses nourish me during the times I cannot see.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  5. Father Bless,
    Your post made me think of what the Lord said in Luke 18:17 “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” and see it in a much clearer light. Thank you.

  6. Dear Father,

    Your story reminds me of Bishop Kallistos Ware, who said that he is more often identified as Dumbledore that the actor who played the character. 🙂

    However I am so often reminded when I stand in our beautiful church during the liturgy, looking up at the icons of the saints painted on the dome that HERE are my fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers. In this strange world between worlds, where heaven and earth somehow intersect, the mystical become corporeal and the corporeal are revealed to be mystical.

  7. Beth,
    Summer-year-ago, I was in Oxford. Wearing my cassock, I suppose I was the only one who looked like he actually belonged there! Japanese tourists kept stopping me and asking to take pictures with me. I’m sure it was a Harry Potter thing rather than an Orthodox thing. 🙂

  8. What you’ve written, Fr. Stephen, has brought to mind the word “magical”. I know what the word has become, but it was derived from the same root as “magus” the plural, of course being “magi”. And the Magi of the Bible somehow had a deeper knowledge of what was real than most of their contemporaries. I’ve read a couple of books that assert an ancient message of the gospel in the stars and constellations based on the names they were given that existed prior to their corruption in the zodiac. I have no way of knowing if such assertions are true, but they are certainly appealing.

    The reason I mention this, is that one of the things I’m conscious of that drew me to Orthodoxy was the value of mystery. Not only things beyond our reach (outside the box entirely), but also those things that are “below the surface” that God is seemingly pleased to reveal to those who seek Him. You probably think I’m bordering on some sort of Gnosticism here, so let me try another tack.

    In the C.S. Lewis chronicles you referred to, there was a description of a picture hanging on a wall that “magically” transported three children into Narnia. In my mind I’ve often thought of this as a depiction of what is possible through an icon of the Church. No, I haven’t had such an experience – I’m so fragmented, distracted and jaded by the world of which I am so much a part that I can only believe in the possibility. The churches from which I came seemed to almost blissfully free of awe, wonder and mystery. We seem to be more enamored of the works of our own hands than with the awe and mystery of the created world around us. I mean, how many people do you see walking semi-absently down the street, eyes looking down, utterly transfixed by a small electronic device held in one hand?

    I shouldn’t write when it’s late, but I appreciate what you write both for the challenges and the comforts. Thank-you.

  9. Forgive me, Father. I don’t think I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and I don’t know what that means. I have been approached (in the past) by strangers who wanted to know that. I usually answered yes just to end the conversation, because if I didn’t, they would want to save me, God forbid! I like God. I like the Spirit, but I don’t know about Jesus Christ. I must say that the Gospels are my favorite sections of the Bible. I believe in the words spoken by Christ. “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” So am I condemned to hell?

    I learned how to paint out in the badlands. Hours, and hours, and hours, I spent out there. But I was just repeating my same mistakes over and over. Then one day, I was perched at the top of a grassy hill overlooking the badlands. The painting was underway. I was studying the ravine just below me, when something like took over my hand and my vision. I became one with the subject I was painting. I became it. I just started painting wider, more confident brush strokes. I opted for the impression and my thoughts of how I felt rather than a detailed reality as told by an accountant. When I got home, I just wanted to look and look at the painting in total amazement. A woman came over, and when she saw the painting, she immediately wanted to buy it, like she had discovered a pearl of great value. I received a vision, a new way of seeing and painting would never be the same for me. It isn’t the hand we need to train. We can all write our names fairly well. It is the eye, the mind, and the seeing. Seeing, I discovered that day, is really an inward thing. From then on, I would stay at the canvas long enough for IT to come and take over my hand and my mind. I can’t really tell you how it works, except it does. I sometimes wondered if it was the Spirit of God. But I don’t know about Jesus Christ as my personal savior.

  10. Janis,
    I do not think what you are describing is the Spirit of God. It’s not nothing (there are many things out there, including just aspects of our own soul). But the role of the Spirit is to point us towards Jesus. It’s quite personal, that is, it’s about a Person, the Person of Christ.

    God alone can say whether someone is “going to hell”. Finding the path to Christ Himself is an even greater adventure and journey than learning how to see properly. It is, indeed, seeing the most important thing.

    First, simply ask, when you pray, for Christ to make Himself known. Don’t expect lights and flashes, or any particular inner experience. Rather, trust that He will make Himself known in His own good time and His own good manner. Normatively, it begins or is consummated in Baptism in His Church. But just start with the prayer.

  11. I’m catching up on your blog after vacation–this post really struck me, Father. Particularly this:

    The cry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” is not an enjoinment to moral improvement. It is a call to recognize the very emptiness, the lacking within ourselves. Repentance is the personal recognition that Christ’s word is fulfilled in us: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

    This is beautiful and true! If I believe anything, it is this.

    Yet, I can’t help but recall all the times I’ve been told by other Orthodox that this call to repentance is exactly an enjoinment to moral improvement: “Do better, because you’re about to be judged!”

    Your writing is helping me to stay Orthodox in the face of that, Father. Thank you!

  12. Nicholas,
    There are many who speak in moral terms because it is easy to understand. Some of the Fathers made a distinction that seems apropos here. They noted there were slaves, hired hands and sons. The slave acts out of fear, the hired hand seeks a reward, the son acts out of love. They also noted that the language of slaves was appropriate for beginners who lacked understanding. It helps make sense when it comes to Christ’s sayings as well.

    There are many today, particularly as we live in a time of moral decay and collapse, who themselves become fearful. And they are afraid that any form of speaking that does not include a heavy dose of fear and warning is itself a product of the decay and collapse. I’ve sometimes been accused of this.

    I often write, however, in the mode of a son because in a time of moral decay and collapse, many ears have grown deaf to warnings and threats. I also find fear to be a very poor long-term companion. The question for me, as an Orthodox writer, is, “Can I say these things well enough, by God’s grace, to awaken the desire of a son within the heart of a reader?” It seems to me that this is what first drew me to Orthodoxy. I longed for a Father and to be a son. I longed to be able to love and give myself without reservation. In the Orthodox faith I have found that possibility – despite the sins and shortcomings of others. Don’t be afraid to be a son and don’t worry about those who concern themselves with making slaves.

  13. Father, sort of along these lines, and sort of along with the question from Nicholas, I’ve got a question for you. Last night, I listened to the podcast from your retreat in SF earlier this year. In it, you touched on a theme that you’ve mentioned before on this blog: The way up is the way down. Find God in your weakness. In a world in which we try to excel at everything, this is against our grain.

    On a conceptual level, I get this message. I get that the Gospel is not a call to “do better” or to live a “more moral” life. Yet at the same time, it almost sounds like the same message I hear from my Evangelical friends: We’re a mess, but thank God that He loves us in our mess, so it’s all fine. So, my question is this: how does theosis/synergy/cooperating with God’s grace, fit in with finding God in our weakness? Is it possible to fight against the passions, while still finding God in our weakness?

  14. Alan,
    Good question. Indeed the way you’ve asked it helped me understand how I should say this.

    The Evangelical friends “We’re a mess, but thank God He loves us in our mess!” is actually not the way down at all. It doesn’t really treat the mess as serious – indeed, it minimizes it. What I am saying in “the way down is the way up,” means you actually have to be willing to enter into a bear the reality of the mess. This is what Elder Sophrony called “bearing a little shame.” It can also be described as “keep your mind in hell and despair not” as the saying given to St. Silouan has it. It is an act of self-emptying, embracing the truth of our emptiness which Christ alone can fill.

    The difference between this and pursuing our excellence and moral improvement, is that it is actually the way of repentance. Repentance doesn’t mean doubling down and working harder. It means true self-emptying in the presence of the living Christ. “He must increase and I must decrease,” St. John the Baptist said. Instead, people think, “I have got to work a lot harder to increase, because of synergy, etc.”

    Our synergy is not our effort added to God’s effort. Our synergy is our emptying added to God’s filling. For there is absolutely nothing that we can add that contributes to our deification. Only that which is God can make us to be God. But my cooperation is my self-emptying, my repentance.

    It is best seen in the Theotokos, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word.” She didn’t say, “I’ll do my best to be a good mother, etc.” It was her constant self-emptying and utter humility that allowed God to “highly exalt” her. The way up is the way down.

    Or even more boldly, in the words of Elder Sophrony, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.” Compared to that, the way of moral improvement is just nonsense. Those who advocate it simply do not understand this aspect of the faith.

  15. Father, thank you for your response and also your response to Alan. Your clarification about synergy was very helpful to me. I rarely see things put that way, but it makes some sense of the whole issue of synergy vs. grace for me. I’m now curious how you preached the parable of the wedding banquet.

    Don’t be afraid to be a son and don’t worry about those who concern themselves with making slaves.

    I will carry this around with me for some time. Thank you!

  16. ‘I must decrease and He must increase’.
    What a paradox we are, how oblivious to our own conflicting and mysterious motivations…
    On the one hand, no matter what we do, the one thing that surely hides under each and every one of our actions, is invariably our yearning for God.
    Yet ironically at the same time, the very opposite holds true: my appallingly self-preoccupied ego lurks behind all that I do.
    This means that I can be repugnantly, yet surreptitiously, selfishly driven, in all of my assumed ‘virtues’ and ‘struggles’, yet it is utterly undeniable that, every person, is unknowingly seeking God alone and nothing else, even in their sins and distractions…
    My problem is therefore more than just that I fill the ‘God-shaped hole of my heart’ with other things, it is that although I desire God, I, am the absence of Him.
    ‘I must decrease and He must increase’, we must walk that tight rope of constantly knowing that ‘I am nothing and He is everything’.
    It’s the essence of ‘Thy will be done’, especially as expressed from within the Jesus Prayer as a petition of ‘all of Hell’ (the “me” bit of “have mercy on me a sinner”) to all of Heaven (the “Lord Jesus Christ” part)…

  17. Father, if I may, I have a follow up question on your response to me.

    More than once, you used the term “self-emptying.” Would praying, fasting, giving alms, and reading scripture be considered ways of self-emptying?

  18. Alan,
    They can be, though not necessarily. “Self-emptying” is the primary description of “the mind of Christ.” He utterly empties Himself for our sake. What does that mean? He empties Himself of every divine prerogative, and accepts our sin, our shame, the complete emptiness of our being, even Hades itself, and took it on as His very own. He united Himself with us – In our Sin! This is stunning:

    For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21-1 NKJ)

    People rarely consider this verse, I have found. He made Him “to be sin”, not just carry it, forgive it, etc.

    For us, self-emptying is the slow journey of following Christ completely in this very same journey. So, prayer could be a way, but it’s a very different prayer than most pray. Fasting, etc.

    I highly recommend reading some of the stuff on the life and teachings of Elder Sophrony. Good place to start is Fr. Zacharias’ Enlargement of the Heart.

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