In a now-famous experiment, volunteers were fitted with inverting lenses, such that everything they saw appeared upside-down. In a few days their brains adjusted and what they saw appeared correctly. When the lenses were removed, their naked eyes now saw things inverted, though again, after a few days their vision returned to normal. We are fearfully and wonderfully made and created in such a fashion we adapt to even very strange circumstances. We were created to survive. This adaptability is both a wonderful and a dangerous gift. It allows us to survive, but it also allows us to tolerate severe distortions of reality.
This is important to bear in mind as we go through a world that boasts of its objectivity and commitment to what’s “really there.” To the average modern person, objects appear to be inert, empty and stable. They belong to a material world devoid of spirit and the like. To attribute properties to matter that go beyond such an inert notion is perceived as mere superstition. Things are just things – any value they have beyond their mere existence is wholly within the mind of the beholder.
This perception, if viewed from a classical Christian understanding, represents a distortion, the result of a set of lenses that render the world flat, devoid of any dimension other than what seems most obvious. Our language preserves the memory of a different world, a time when thing and spirit were not seen as separate.
One of the most observant scholars of this aspect of our language was Owen Barfield, close friend of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, one of the Inklings. Both Lewis and Tolkien were profoundly affected by Barfield’s thoughts and observations. Those who are carefully familiar with the work of all three can see Barfield ever present within Narnia and Middle Earth. But his observations were not intended for the world of fantasy, but for our own.
The word “spirit” is itself a good example. It is a borrowing from the Latin, with an early meaning of “breath” or “wind.” This meaning is also true for the Greek word “pneuma.” In English itself, the more common pre-Latinized word was “ghost,” as in “Holy Ghost.” That word is derived from the Old English “gast,” probably from the Old Saxon, “gest.”
Our modern ears hear this and only imagine metaphor. We think, “They believed that spirit is like breath.” That is inaccurate and anachronistic. It would be more proper to say that spirit, breath, wind are all one thing, without a particular distinction. The world was perceived, according to Barfield, with “original participation.”
Our modern consciousness separates from the words their meanings and that to which they refer. Indeed, we say “spirit,” and have no thought whatsoever of the wind or our breath. It is simply a word, and we’re not at all sure about its referent. Spirit is only a sound for us, a placeholder in a sentence used to discuss an abstraction. “Klaatu barada nikto” would work just as well.
This abstraction from our very words represents more than a shift in meaning: there is a shift in our very consciousness of the world itself. Barfield completely destroys the theory that primitive man invented stories and concepts to explain cause-and-effect which he did not understand. He does not call the wind “breath” because He is imagining its cause to be some giant being breathing. It is breath, just as is his own breath, the two not being particularly distinct.
God breathes into Adam, and “he becomes a living soul.” Breath/soul/life have a common meaning in a manner that modern people can barely imagine.
In the service of Holy Baptism (Orthodox), the priest breathes on the water. Modern onlookers see this activity as a ritualistic symbol of the Holy Spirit moving over the waters in the Genesis creation account. But the priest also breathes in the face of the one being baptized during the exorcisms. He also breathes over the oil of the catechumens that he blesses. The modern imagination, if it goes so far to accept the notion that objects and people are somehow “blessed” of God, then they imagine this happening in a manner that cannot be seen or described. Actions such as those of the priest are of little importance. Mostly what matters are the words he says. Man speaks, God listens. God hears, thinks about it and answers.
Such a modern imagination actually creates a distance between ourselves and the world in which we live. It is, at its very heart, a denial of the Incarnation of Christ, or a failure to fully engage the actual reality of the Incarnation. In St. John’s account, when Christ gave the Spirit to His disciples, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). This, like the Last Supper, involves a communion between word, action, reality. They are not three separate things, but one.
This is not just an ancient way of seeing and understanding. It is also a better description of life as we actually experience it. It is our consciousness, represented in our use of language, that has changed, not reality. We are, in fact, utterly embodied creatures. The soul is the life of the body, not the “ghost in the machine.” Every thought has a chemical/biological component, and the information we receive from the world around us comes to us in physical form (I include light within this description). At every turn, God has shown Himself to us by means of the very physicality with which He had created us. St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.” This, however, does not mean that we cease to be embodied.
St. Maximus the Confessor maintains:
that the soul remains just as intrinsically oriented toward its body, even after death, as the body is toward it and that therefore the final perfection of knowledge and experience can be expected only when the whole range of sensible and intellectual capacities is restored. (from Cosmic Liturgy, Hans Urs von Balthasar)
The vision of the Church is that expressed in St. Paul in which creation is not overcome, but “set free” into the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21). It would be ironic if modernity had to await the Second Coming in order to return to a truly embodied existence.
Fortunately, there remains a truly embodied Christianity, completely consonant with the deposit of the faith once delivered to the saints. What is endangered, however, is the consciousness of that embodied faith. Orthodox Christians within the contemporary world are as likely as anyone to wear the distorting lenses of modernity and notice only a feigned sacramentality. Accepting the materiality of the faith, its full incarnate reality, is probably a greater difficulty than any other facing the Church. It is all the more difficult in that it is generally unaddressed in the writings of the fathers – they lived in a pre-modern world where human consciousness had not been robbed of its perception of reality.
My own observation of encountering an earlier consciousness is that it strikes the modern mind as superstitious. My suggestion is, therefore, to pay attention whenever something seems so, it might be a clue to reality. A Greek priest friend once commented to me that he always gets a better crowd at Church when “we’re giving away something.” What he meant was when a service involved the blessing of water for distribution, or the blessing of oil, or bread, basil, the many things that are associated with various feast days, those services draw a crowd. Protestants will turn out for an idea, or an entertaining service. The traditionally Orthodox want holy things. They understand that holiness most frequently comes in the shape of things.
When the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God returned to Russia in 2004, the crowds gathered in numbers that would strain credulity. It was seen as a sign of the Mother of God’s favor – “she” was coming home. I should add that I’ve never heard of great icons being described as “it.”
The abstracting of our faith, its transformation into precepts and sentiments, robs us of the power of the concrete. Human beings are not angels – they should not seek to pray like them. Embodied prayer is the tradition.
I will conclude with one of the finest examples of embodied prayer, from one of the greatest saints of the West.: The Lorica, or St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.