To Sing Like a River

outdoor-communion

We stood looking out at a river rushing past the rocks – a brisk morning in the North Carolina mountains, a rare setting for the Divine Liturgy. The tradition of the Church generally holds that services such as the Divine Liturgy are to be held indoors, in the Church. There are exceptions. In monasteries across the world, it is not unusual for a major feast to be held outdoors to accommodate the large crowds that attend. But such events are exceptional. Last Sunday morning was an exception – the occasion being a liturgy for a large crowd who were participating in an area-wide Orthodox camping retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. My parish was among them.

There is an antiphonal quality in such a liturgy – the words, music and actions of the liturgy meet a constant response from the nature that surrounds it. Indeed, nature does not “house” the liturgy so much as join into the liturgy itself.

There are numerous examples in Scripture that speak of creation giving praise to God. To treat such verses as mere metaphor or anthropomorphizing would be a profound mistake. Of course, it is not uncommon in the modern world for people to imagine themselves as the only sentient creatures while staring out into the heavens wondering if there is some other possible life-form out there. We fail to understand the creation in which we live because we do not understand ourselves.

We are thinking matter, made of the same stuff as everything around us. And though we can say much about the activities of our brain, we cannot, somehow, actually translate or even correlate that activity with the thing we experience as thought. It is thought itself that we have mythologized and mis-imagined. With this same failure of imagination, we do not understand the fundamental communion of all created things, nor the utterly cosmic nature of the statement that God “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

We hear our own voices but do not recognize their kinship to every other sound around us. The sound of my voice and the sound of the river belong to the same class of event.

Fantasy novels often do a better job of imagining. Trees speak and animals discuss among themselves. We think to ourselves, “What if trees could actually speak?” But we never seem to think, “What if we actually knew how to listen?”

Most people would be greatly surprised to know that plants have a soul. According to the traditional teaching of the Church (which draws strongly from Aristotle), plants have a “vegetative soul” that comprises their drive towards reproduction and life itself. The human soul also has this same component, also called the “vegetative soul” by some, as well as an irrational component and a rational component. None of these divisions is dogma, and they may well be a bit antique and rooted in older philosophies. However, it is worth noting that the Tradition is quite comfortable with thinking about a “soul” even in plants.

I am convinced that most modern people, and certainly modern Christians, imagine the soul to be somehow distinct from the body and somehow synonymous with “thinking.” It is consciousness that we identify as the self, despite its occasional disappearance. I am also convinced that this understanding is largely mistaken. Earlier, I described us as “thinking matter.” That such a phrase sounds like a contradiction, an oxymoron, simply says something about how we understand matter and how we understand thought. I suspect we are wrong about both.

The mystery of the Christian faith and the belief in a soul is not found in the concept of thinking matter. Rather, it is found in the concept of any sort of human thought or consciousness that is not material. The existence of the soul apart from the body (after death) is sheer miracle and beyond imagining. It is something that God alone makes possible. It is not in the nature of the soul to have an existence apart from the body. The “immortality of the soul” is a statement about what God does for us, not a statement about an inherent property of the soul.

…the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a mistreatment, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. (Wisdom 3:1-3)

Just as a tree longs for water and sends its roots in search of it, so, too, does it long for God, in whom it lives and moves and has its being. A tree’s desire for God differs from our own desire for God in that it has no “rational” component. But the desire remains. We do not speak of rocks having a soul (a “soul” means the “life” of something and is thus only posited about “living” things). Nevertheless, the existence of all created things “tends” towards God. St. Paul describes this as a “groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22).

The Fathers often point towards human rationality as an excellence that sets us above the rest of creation. In modern thought, however, we seem to think that we are somehow distinct from the rest of creation, with little in common. In truth, though, our thoughts are not so much distinct from the the other parts of creation (particularly higher animals) as they are simply more developed.

The tendency to attribute our “higher” faculties to something transcending our materiality comes dangerously close to treating our materiality as merely incidental to our lives. There is indeed a transcendent quality within our lives, but our materiality is not dismissed in its transcendence. The materiality of our existence, so far as we know, is always involved in every thought and experience within our lives. We are not angels.

Modern attitudes towards consciousness and the human body (particularly those found among contemporary Christians) often belong to the “two-storey universe.” We assume that our thoughts and feelings are “spiritual” (not material) while our bodies are not. This is nonsense and a terrible distortion of the classical Christian worldview.

This understanding belongs to the ever-changing world of non-sacramental Christianity, whose version of humanity is largely drawn from the world of pop-psychology and self-help books. The Reformers in the 16th century dropped the earlier understanding of the tripartite soul and opted instead for a simple model in which the human soul was comprised of reason and the will. It was an abstraction ripe for distortion (but ideally suited to consumerism).

St. Maximus the Confessor described a series of polarities: male/female; civilization/paradise; earth/universe; seen/unseen; created/uncreated. It is interesting to note that he did not posit a polarity between thought and matter. Thought belongs to the world of matter.

Despite the many critiques of modern “materialism,” we believe in nothing of the sort. The modern world holds to a false sentimentality. It is insufficiently materialist. Classical Christianity is the true materialism, revealing a dignity of the created order that never enters the sentiments of the modern mind. Our modern sin and failure is not found in loving material things too much – rather, we love them too little and in the wrong manner. We love our ideas about things and how we feel about things. Nothing is therefore loved for itself, but only for the sentiments that arise from its misuse.

The worship of God is a truly cosmic event, something that is the united and harmonious voice of all created things. The song itself is a material offering. We either sing within that harmony and within its key, or we sing amiss. There are no soloists in the choir.

Glory to God for all things, and with all things!

 

 

 

 

 

 

59 comments:

  1. Excellent post Father. I cannot help but draw distinct parallels between modern thoughts of materialism or as you correctly identify “a false sentimentality,” and Gnostic Dualism. From my point of view Gnosticism has invaded Western thought especially theological thought. I wonder if anyone else sees this thread.

  2. This is a great essay. However I do not think Christian thought has a monopoly of these spiritual concepts. Ayuvedic mind body practice, rooted in ancient eastern spirituality, would point out that everything is connected, we are all connected. I do not know enough to get into a discourse, but Taoism has great similarities to the teaching of Jesus, and preceeded him by about 500 years.

  3. Father, rocks may not alive exactly but they are not inert. They certainly have an energy about them that we often recognize without understanding what it is AND they can be raised up to cry out Hossana if I read the Scriptures aright.

    Rock imagery is plenteous throughout the Bible. I discovered that quite by accident many years ago doing a home study with my then young son. The only thing I remember is our conclusion: God loves His Rocks.

  4. Thank you Father for putting into an extremely informative article the deep seated knowledge that comes to the surface of my life when given the opportunity. Such an opportunity came about recently as I watched the trees on a mountain top in Oregon moving with the wind and saw them ” lifting and waving their arms” in praise to God. It was a most wonderful and encouraging moment, one that has opened up my mind and heart to look for such examples of creation giving praise to it’s creater.

  5. Actually Father, I read that article right before your post and the links were fresh in my mind. I am also studying Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and noting all the assumptions he is working from that are core Gnostic/pagan beliefs about the nature of the Divine. When in Seminary I took a class from Dr John Oswalt entitled “The Bible among the Myths.” He went to great lengths to show the pagan world view contrasted with the utterly new and unique Hebrew world view portrayed in the Pentateuch. In order for us to grasp his argument, he ha to teach us a great deal about the pagan view of the Divine. I see many echoes in later Western Theology and this was one very big factor in my conversion to Orthodoxy as these assumptions are totally absent in our thought.

  6. Thank you for this, Father. There is an experience common to all human beings that, I think, should teach us on a daily basis that we cannot identify ourselves with our thoughts, with our consciousness.

    We all sleep.

    I have often wondered if we “think” enough about sleep when we ponder our own humanity. I know I don’t.

  7. Hi all,

    I like a priest who wears sandals with socks. Reminds me of my mum in the garden watering her tomatoes wearing socks and flip flops.

    I recall watching a documentary on the crystal formations in water and how the Formations were messed up and distorted when the water was exposed to harsh sounds like heavy metal music.

    Years ago I was staying in Athens and met a guy who had just been to mt Athos. When I asked him what his experience was like he said he picked up a stone and just wept. I asked why and he said he didn’t know.

    That’s all I’ve got.

    Glory to God

  8. Not only the rocks, but “The Heavens Are Telling The Glory of God”
    (Cue Haydn earworm for the day…)

  9. Excellent commentary Father ! Even creation speaks to us – the sweaking wheel gets the attention . Also, silence “speaks to us .

  10. Fr. Stephen, Dino,
    This question is only tangentially related to above. Often, I try to think of someone’s name and cannot. Then I go about my business, forgetting about the name. Perhaps two hours later, and, there the name is. It suddenly is in my conscious brain. I think we’ve all experienced this. Here’s my query. Cannot our prayer, of for example the Jesus prayer, work somewhat in the same manner? This time in the heart as well. Cannot our spirit be praying the prayer while we are not consciously aware of it? Could this be a way of praying unceasingly?

  11. Let me add…cannot our heart be doing what our mind does when it unconsciously is searching for the name?

  12. Dean,

    I think that we ‘pray unceasingly’ to the measure that our being is God-wards orientated. However, the degree to which our unconscious still rules over us will be the extent to which we are deficient in our true presence before the Lord. Our presence is more important than the mere repetition of His Name in a mechanistic fashion, especially when this is verging on the ‘unconscious’ repetition: something very ‘shakey’… The Saints that acquired the profound depths of unceasing prayer that we read of in the likes of St Silouan had become entirely “conscious” – if we can use such a psychological term. But even non-directly-prayerful-motions, such as our grateful joy at having a clear conscience, or our repentant contrition at our sinfulness (which we know God forgives in His unfathomable mercy), or our fearlessness to bare torments for the sake of the Lord, all such things are usually strong indicators of prayerfulness and communing with the Lord whom we know and can pervade more and more of our being when we help them towards this.
    The mechanistic repetition of the five words of the Jesus prayer without such accompanying energy is of very little use, whether conscious or unconscious [it is unconscious really], it is something small however, but it cannot compare to these states that include the movement of one’s heart…
    But we have to proceed with vigilance as well as joy towards engaging our hearts, not with guilt and self-preoccupation.
    The genuine believer never experiences guilt. Guilt has nothing to do with authentic repentance. On the contrary, it is a form of self-absorption. (If we loved God, we would have remained in the sphere of holy humility, i.e.: we would have stayed God-centered.) A good definition of ‘God-centered’ in this context would be that I unceasingly remember that God forgives and liberates me as soon as I turn to Him [His love is a given and -like the sunlight – I just need to open my closed eyes to participate in it], as soon as I repent and confess and bare any shame springing from my sinfulness with complete surrender and trust in Him. But I consequently ought not to trust in my own self, and this is a shield that means I cannot ever become depressed, not even after the greatest sin. To the measure of our God-wards orientation we commune with this joy.
    So, back to the question, I think that one can ‘almost’ pray unceasingly this way you describe but it is still just a very very distant relative of the real thing’s profundity. The real thing will have demonstrable fruit: manifestations of the heart like continuous joy, tears, spiritual vigilance, etc.
    May God grant us these!

  13. Thank you Dino for your quick and spiritually thoughtful response. You’ve left me with much to ponder. After over 20 years Orthodox I know I am still a toddler in many ways. Your words in the past have encouraged me as well, especially when you write about being in His Presence in the night watch.

  14. Am I correct to assert there is an immaterial aspect of human nature? One that lives together with the material aspect of our nature to create the whole human being, of which images God’s immateriality, but is created and distinct from it? I assume the immateriality of angels is a created nature distinct from God.

    Human nature is comprised of the immaterial and material in a unifying marriage. These are two distinct, unconfused, and unmixed aspects, coming together to create one undivided and inseparable whole.

    I’m guessing the problem isn’t so much that we can indeed regard the uniqueness and distinctness of these two contradictory aspects of our nature, but rather the fact that modern Christianity does, in fact, border on heresy by viewing human nature as a mixed medium, that is very much divable and separable.

  15. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for a wonderful post. I am in the process of reading St. John of Damascus “The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”. In Book 2 he speaks about how all created things are made from fire, air, water and earth. In great detail he expounds on this. At one point he says: “That man has community alike with inanimate things and animate creatures, whether they are devoid of or possess the faculty of reason.

    Man, it is to be noted, has community with things inanimate, and participates in the life of unreasoning creatures, and shares in the mental processes of those endowed with reason. For the bond of union between man and inanimate things is the body and its composition out of the four elements: and the bond between man and plants consists, in addition to these things, of their powers of nourishment and growth and seeding, that is, generation: and finally, over and above these links man is connected with unreasoning animals by appetite, that is anger and desire, and sense and impulsive movement.”
    Your post is a wonderful example of what St. John teaches us. I am just beginning to “digest” these truths…it is truly fascinating. Sad that we have ventured so far from living in the simplicity of life as our God created. In the meantime, we strive to get back to that. At least I hope we do.

    Dean, not that this is an answer to your question…I only say that just as the mind does not “shut off”, so too the heart…whether conscious or unconscious. So I’d like to think that our prayers indeed do remain in our hearts, as our heart is turned towards God (despite our imperfections).

    Indeed, Glory to God to all and with all things!

  16. Thank you Dino,
    What you wrote is so beautiful and incredible. It confirms for me that our intention and effort (our human element) are still needed and important, even if God does most of the work after we open our hearts to Him….
    Thank you for asking the question, Dean!

    Indeed, may God grant us such prayer, and the fruits of it….

  17. Charles,

    I have no doubt that various schools of eastern religions/thought have similar ideas about creation or the fact that they were around before Christianity. This is because Christianity isn’t about inventing something new, but rather about the resurrection of all that already was but needs redemption through a relationship with Christ.

    It is worth noting that in this conversation it is not creation itself that needs redemption, but rather our ability to see what is and always has been true. Furthermore, most of what God reveals to me gives me hope, not despair.

    Glory to God for all things!

  18. Despite some seeming concordance with non Judaeo Christian creation beliefs there are many more differences. The first and most important is that all pagan religions have as a core belief that matter has always existed in a chaotic form, contrasted to our belief in the creation of all out of nothing. In the pagan mythos generally the first thing that emerged from the chaos was a god who, depending on whose system we are discussing, in some wise fashioned more organization out of the primordial chaotic matter. The common scholarly term for this chaotic realm is the Meta-Divine that can and does exert influence over the gods. These gods generally reproduce through sexuality which is considered as the creative force which is why pagan worship had temple prostitutes (their purpose was to influence the gods by their behaviors to be more creative). There are some pagan systems that deviate from this generalized system of creation as they have no gods, such as Buddhism, but they still believe in the eternal existence of matter.
    Another stark difference is that they think in cycles like the seasons of the Earth. There is no beginning and no end, just an endless cycle of death and rebirth. The Hebrews were the first people who ever experienced something that made them think outside the box and understand creation, time and the Divine in an entirely new concept of reality. An excellent read on this subject is “The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?” Dr John N. Oswalt, the author, taught this class at my Seminary and I was blessed to have had the chance to take this class the last time he taught it. My statements in this post come directly from my class notes and his book (which was written from his lecture notes.)
    When one finishes this book there is no doubt that the Hebrews had encountered someone who was truly transcendent and entirely different than any man made god ever devised. It also sets the Hebrew Creation Myth, the Biblical Flood narrative and the relationship between man and God totally separate from any other narrative from the pagan world.

  19. Nicholas,

    Thank you for your comments; I don’t disagree in the slightest. Personally I still feel like the pagans were able to discern more from their created surroundings than modern man is today. Like I heard awhile ago (Fr. Stephen?), pagans are actually easier to be around because they often can be approached without a hint of malice or cynicism.

    I realize I’m picking flowers here instead of looking for weeds, but Lord knows we could use more flower pickers. I’m not one for “ALL HELL ALL THE TIME!” (wink)

  20. Drewster2000
    I have to agree that pagans are often thinking with a more open min. After all “Day unto day poureth forth speech and night after night proclaimeth knowledge…” God in His love and profound wisdom never left humanity with out a trail of bread crumbs to follow.

  21. I am thinking that real prayer involves a connection through God with the person for whom one is praying such that it is possible to be with that person in a very intimate way–even if one is praying for oneself or one’s enemy.

    Perhaps that is what Archimandrite Zacharias means when he says that novices at his monastery have to learn how to pray for themselves first before they can pray for anyone else.

    To be given the grace of real prayer is a great gift indeed. Even without that, we still need to muddle on relying on God to give the increase.

  22. A thought or two on this excellent post and discussion.

    There is a wonderful book called “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. I have only just begun reading it. The book is not theology (directly) but forestry – and tells about how trees communicate and take care of one another. Did you know that trees have ways of signaling each other in a crisis? (Say a giraffe is around that is eating their leaves – they can warn nearby trees which then produce toxins in their leaves in defense.) Or that they sometimes surround and keep alive the stump of an elder for hundreds of years? And that trees live longer and better in “community” than when planted alone?

    So much that we do not know about the creation around us and how we are made of the same life and matter. We indeed were given a special role in this creation. Sadly, we have perverted it terribly and in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend. Another way in which we are called to repent.

    When I go to a certain hermitage – or even in my back yard – I often talk to the creatures, plants, birds, insects, worms, etc. Sometimes I exhort them to praise God – but very often I realize that I need them to teach ME. They are living within His Way – I am not.

    +++++++

    Note to Charles Waterhouse – If you have not read “Christ the Eternal Tao” by Hiermonk Damascene, you might find it very interesting. It is one of the first books recommended to me here and remains one of my favorites because of the way it draws together the ancients into Christ.

    +++++++

    Note to Dean – My comment is not nearly as eloquent as Dino’s – but I believe to truly “pray without ceasing” is a gift from God. With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there is a “praying” because the Spirit never fails to be in communion with the Father and Son. And so in our hearts, it happens. But I don’t think it for us to worry about whether (or when or if) this is happening in us. It can too easily then become about ourselves, ego and attainment. So I believe we just pray as best we can, repent, pray some more, strive to keep the commandments and keep loving. God will move us along the path and give what gifts He knows are best for us at a given time.

  23. Father,

    I am an avid reader of your blog, though I do not post comments, until now. You may remember me: my wife and I drove you back to your hotel room, with a stop at Walmart, after you spoke at our church in Michigan earlier this year. We thoroughly enjoyed your visit to our parish!

    I have been following your posts regarding “the modern project” closely. I do essentially agree with your argument, but the following passage raised a question for me:

    “The Fathers often point towards human rationality as an excellence that sets us above the rest of creation. In modern thought, however, we seem to think that we are somehow distinct from the rest of creation, with little in common. In truth, though, our thoughts are not so much distinct from the the other parts of creation (particularly higher animals) as they are simply more developed.”

    How does your comment above differ from the materialist that opines that our consciousness is nothing more than physiological activity in the brain? Could it not be said that modern thought is akin to the materialist? Could it not also be said that modern thought sees our thoughts exactly at you describe them in the last sentence of the quoted passage? I know that you are not saying that, but rather that the spiritual and the material are inextricably connected and not so easily delineated. Please distinguish (for my sake) your idea from the modern idea that human thought is nothing more than more developed chimpanzee (or dolphin, or elephant) thought.

    Thanks in advance!

  24. Hi Dino,

    I’ve thought lots about what you wrote. Perhaps I struggle to understand because I am not a true believer. Is all guilt self absorption?

    Theo

  25. Dino, I just read this from CS Lewis and I see what you mean.

    “Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes”

  26. Theo,
    CS Lewis is sublime once again! Yes, all guilt is self-absoprtion. Take self-absoprtion away and you suddenly have something different. Instead of ‘how could I do that’, [centered on the ‘I’] it’s as if you have something like, ‘Father I have sinned, I am the greatest sinner – it’s a given- but I turn to your incomprehensible mercies in shame and trust and awestruck wonder at you unconditional love’ [centered on God]

  27. Theo,
    It’s as if this healthy ‘self-hate’ {to deploy this often-misinterpreted expression from the great Elder Sophrony Sakharov} of true repentance –that excludes guilt– is nothing other than the absolute rejection of any return to pridefulness, a total refusal to see things from the habitual, egocentric point of view [: the underpinning of guilt] because of this salvific clinging-to-God-alone-in-utter-trust and with all the strength one can muster…
    And this reorientation is actually joy – it’s paradoxically, simultaneously a deep contrition, a compunction of my heart and yet it’s full of joy (beyond any joy this world can ever offer), as it’s centered on Christ, who has already forgiven all.

  28. I fly for a living. My office is often more than 7 miles up and moving at around 8 miles a minute. My office window offers more than a 180 degree panoramic view.

    The business of the flight often prevents more than scattered moments of reflection and praise to God. However, here are a few observations.

    I’ve yet to see a state colored red or blue. In fact, despite my repeated searching, I’ve yet to see a black line across the ground separating states or countries. Neither have I seen discernible racial or ethnic groupings. There is either land or water and only condensed or scattered gatherings of people.

    An aviation writer once noted that birds do not fly; rather, they romance the air. I like that; to me it is the difference between trying to control nature and being responsive to “her.”

    After many years, I’m only just learning to listen to nature. I used to plan a flight and try to bend nature to my will. Now, I try to listen to nature, who is very much alive, in constant motion, always changing, and always communicating, and to participate with “her” to complete a flight. I am, however, well aware of her groaning; it can be quite challenging to be in those areas of her unrest.

    Flying makes me sad that I am neither poet, writer, photographer, artist, or musician. I can only report what I see but have no real talent for expressing the energies of the ineffable God who is so visible on both sides of the cockpit window.

  29. MikeB,

    Someone recently said, “To be human is to be creative. Creation is just something that humans do.” I wouldn’t discount your artistic abilities too quickly. I am a writer and above here I just saw you write.

    The key is not to watch yourself being creative; just create and then go on with your life. It’s not a transaction to profit from, but rather a moment to be lived.

  30. Dion,
    The modern materialist betrays the fact that he is not a materialist. He states: “Our consciousness is nothing more than a physiological activity in the brain…” “Nothing more than…” is his problem. I have no problem, essentially, with his claim…or I think the faith should have no problem with such a claim. What is problematic is the “nothing more than,” as if our material reality were insufficient or somehow “not spiritual.”

    This duality of material/spiritual is the problem. It is language that can be used to talk about 2 aspects of the same thing, but when it becomes language that posits 2 realities (denigrating one) it falls into error. I am pushing the notion of the spirituality of matter, and even of conscious matter partly because I know it grates on us somehow. But unless it is pushed to that point we do not begin to understand the true nature of our material existence.

    There are a lot of Christians who are deeply troubled by this, and desperately want to prove that there is some consciousness apart from matter, and feel like such a metaphysical proof is necessary to Christian believing. I don’t think it’s necessary at all. Indeed, it’s two-storey thinking.

    We read, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” but what we think (as moderns) is “The Word became conscious in a human body…” and we think the conscious part is what’s important.

    We must contemplate the reality that matter can think. Matter can be self aware. Matter can talk. In a way, we do not even begin to understand ourselves until we can say these things, nor do we understand God’s work of creation. It is only when we begin to understand this that the resurrection actually makes sense. Most modern Christians really don’t believe in the resurrection except in a very abstract way. They mostly believe in some sort of immortality of the soul living in heaven. They do not realize how bizarre that actually is from a Christian perspective.

    It is bizarre – though indeed God preserves the soul awaiting the resurrection. I think it would be more accurate if we said “life” instead of “soul.” It would help us think more accurately about the soul – and what the Fathers meant by “soul.”

    As to chimpanzees and dolphins. I’m really not sure. For one, we are a “microcosm” of all creation (St. Maximus). We are the most fully “Logos-like” of creation. Lewis captures this to a degree in his Narnia fantasies. All of the animals can talk, and as such have this special relationship. But the Logos only became a human, thus humans have a special role.

    Part of that role is the raising of creation towards what we are, even as God raises us towards what He is. This is Adam naming the animals. It’s such an interesting thing. God brings the animals to Adam to “see what he would call them.” The animals only fully become what they are when Adam calls them by name. That some animals chimpanzees and dolphins, etc., are more like us than others says something about them (not entirely sure what since I don’t know any of them personally). But all animals are like us to one degree or another. It’s what it means for us to be microcosm. St. Maximus also says we are “mediators” of creation. And we cannot mediate between God and creation except in the degree to which we are both like creation and like God. Most writers are comfortable talking about becoming like God (theosis). I’m trying to help us understand and become comfortable with our being like creation. Both are essential to the truth of our existence.

    The modern materialist thinks he has a point. He does not. His argument should not bother us at all…except for his “nothing more.” St. John of Damascus said: I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.”

  31. Mike B,
    Drew already encouraged you very nicely…
    I was going to add that you are a poet, you just don’t know it!
    🙂 🙂 🙂

  32. The post and discussion reminded me of this poem. Happy concurrence that “The World” he refers to here would undoubtedly resemble in our time the “Noise” described in the previous post.

    The World Is Too Much With Us

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

    -William Wordsworth

  33. Mike B. Are you familiar with the works if Antoine de Saint-Exupery? His book Night Flight is extraodinary. He too was a pilot during the late 1930’s to mid 1940’s.

  34. I am thinking that real prayer involves a connection through God with the person for whom one is praying such that it is possible to be with that person in a very intimate way–even if one is praying for oneself or one’s enemy.

    Perhaps that is what Archimandrite Zacharias means when he says that novices at his monastery have to learn how to pray for themselves first before they can pray for anyone else.

    Of late, I’ve been pondering what it means to “pray for the entire world” and “pray without ceasing”. I think the beginning of it is to pray for our enemies, and those who persecute us, with tears of love and hope for their salvation. Only such love can bring us closer to God, though His grace keeps Him always close to us. Just my thoughts.

  35. Fr Stephen, et al,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Your comment, Fr, of living life as a poet gave me pause. I found an old article in the Huffington Post, part of which says this:

    “Bringing the poetry into your life, is not necessarily about starting an art class, or becoming the next masterchef, or dusting off your old guitar, it is rather about bringing the consciousness of the artist into what it is that you are already doing.

    “Your work is your Art. It is all in the mental approach. Start to see yourself as an Artist and a Creator, and your work as a contribution in the greater sense.”

    Perhaps living life as a poet is not only hearing the song of the river, but joining in with the song of one’s own life.

    [Help me to do Your will, to sing to You, to confess Your from my heart, and to praise Your all holy name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.]

    And thanks, Michael, I do know of Saint-Exupery, one of many great aviator-writers.

  36. Elder Porfyrios:
    “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. That’s what it is! You must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love. Love makes effort for the loved one. She runs all through the night; she stays awake; she stains her feet with blood in order to meet her beloved. She makes sacrifices and disregards all impediments, threats, and difficulties for the sake of the loved one. Love towards Christ is something even higher, infinitely higher.

    And when we say ‘love’, we don’t mean the virtues that we will acquire, but the heart that is pervaded by love towards Christ and others. We need to turn everything in this direction. Do we see a mother with her child in her arms and bending to give the child a kiss, her heart overflowing with emotion? Do we notice how her face lights up as she holds her little angel? These things do not escape a person with love of God. He sees them and is impressed by them and he says, ‘If only I had those emotions towards my God, towards my Holy Lady and our saints!’ Look, that’s how we must love Christ our God. You desire it, you want it, and with the grace of God you acquire it.”

  37. Michelle,
    Good question. I suppose that if there is an immaterial aspect of human nature, it cannot exist apart from the material, except by an extraordinary work of God. Material existence is part of our nature. There is no pre-existent soul, for example, one of Origen’s errors. We come into existence with our materiality. Our state between death and the resurrection of the body is quite an anomaly.

  38. It seems to me if there were not an immaterial aspect to us we would not have the saints

    It is horribly wrong to put our material and immaterial aspects at odds with one another, even worse to say that one is intrinsically better than the other. Both viewpoints are, in fact, heretical.

    Dualism seems to be quite a persistent heresy however as it keeps rising up in new mutations of seduction and deceit.

    Perhaps there is something about our fallenness that makes dualism logical (though the assumptions are false) and attractive (perhaps because dualism seems to make things so easy)?

    So it would seem prudent to look at human beings as both material and immaterial but hypostatically united. Death is such a horror, in part, because that union is sundered. Only by God’s grace is the victory achieved in the Ressurection and the separation not permanent.

    So when we joyously proclaim Christ is Risen, trampling down death by death, we are also acknowledging the end to our own dissolution. Our own sense of existing in a dual reality.

    Does that sound right?

  39. Thomas Traherne, Centuries II, 66:
    That violence wherewith sometimes a man doteth upon one creature, is but a little spark of that love, even towards all, which lurketh in his nature. We are made to love, both to satisfy the necessity of our active nature, and to answer the beauties in every creature. By Love our Souls are married and solder’d to the creatures and it is our Duty like God to be united to them all. We must love them infinitely, but in God, and for God and God in them: namely all His excellencies manifested in them. When we dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way: and all in too short a measure.

  40. In college I encountered a poem. The narrator has a dream and the Cross of Christ speaks to him. The Cross recalls being a tree, being cut down, being formed into a cross for the torture that men dread, seeing our Lord and wanting to bow before Him but not daring to because Christ wanted to work our salvation.

    It is a poem from the perspective of a tree. It is the oldest known poem in the English Language: The Dream of thd Rood.

    “I lifted a mighty King,
    Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
    With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen, open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
    They mocked us both”

    It is exceptional
    http://lightspill.com/poetry/oe/rood.html

    I am not sure if it is a common quote but Met. Kallistos in a talk about the meaning of Lent cites a monastic saying

    He who does not love trees does not love God.

    They make me feel less alone during the week when I am not at Church. There may be countless mocking God but the trees are worshiping Him.

    They remind me to worship Him, to thank Him, to return to joy.

    I can look at them and say ‘Let us worship God together.’

  41. Michael,

    I very much like the way you presented that and, to me, it does sound right.
    While we’re on the subject, I faintly recall St Gregory of Nyssa talking “on the resurrection” (to St Macrina) and discussing this very subject –the “immaterial and material” mystery in man– in great lengths. An image he used and which has stayed with me was somewhat along the lines of the human soul being for the body something analogous to what the ‘transcendent-in-essence yet immanent-in-energies God’ is to the cosmos/creation. Thought provoking.

  42. I have simple question… In light of nonliving things not having souls, how are we to understand “even the rocks would cry out” (Luke 19:40)?

  43. Chris, You may have seen my comments before, but in case you haven’t, I’m a chemist, though no longer working in my profession as professor.

    In my work I came across data involving space, that corroborated literally the prayer:
    “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who are in all places and fill all things…”

    I was a teacher of chemistry and had a practice of integrating information. I understood at that point, that my life as I knew it was going to come to an end, because what I then understood from this data was quite radical regarding a science that sees inanimate creation as “objects” —there is no substance not even space itself (that which we would have said was nothing) without God in it.

    I love Fr Stephen’s articles about matter. And I deeply appreciate the quote of St John of Damascus given above. These words like the rivers and trees and rocks, sing of God’s majesty.

    I can’t help but believe even rocks have souls. Lord have mercy. I’m an infant in the faith and know nothing at all.

  44. Matthew 27:52. The rocks do cry out.
    I think the sons of Adam are a collection of a great many things.

    Perhaps a betrothal, at great cost.

    When the animals are named, that is the Creator’s teaching of entangling destinies. Much responsibility.

    I think that if the sons of Adam fail there are always others.

  45. All if creation sings praise to God, the Creator. The music of the spheres is not just a metaphor. It is real. The rocks are filled with God’s life each in their own particular way.

    That particularity can be perceived by we humans ad such perception is necessary for us to fulfill the commandment that we dress and keep the earth and bring it to fruitfulness.

    That ability to perceive had been darkened by sin as St. Paul points out in Romans, but it is still there. It is a human attribute that is noetic and will be cleansed as we are cleansed.

  46. Chris,
    They would cry out in the manner appropriate to rocks. That’s the best answer I can come up with. 🙂 Of course, you’re assuming that only a soul can “cry out.” But, apparently not. Creation is a hymn, sung by God. The rocks, each rock, offers some part of that hymn. The saints, at least some of them, can hear them.

    Modernity has too little imagination sometimes. The Medieval world spoke of the “music of the spheres.”

  47. The verse Numbers 20:8 “…Speak to the rock before them, and it will give its waters;…” This is interpreted as a ‘type’; yet it’s meaning is profound to me and I labor to understand. It takes me a long time to read scripture.

  48. Lovely post (and photo)!

    Lately, I’ve been watching some raw food enthusiasts on Youtube talk about the effects of different nutrients on our bodies and even our spiritual state. Not surprisingly, much of the information directly parallels what the Fathers teach us about the effects of fasting and different types of eating as well. We are indeed fire (energy), air (apart from the gases in our gut, there are gases in all our cells), water (around 70 percent in a healthy person) and earth (minerals, etc. form the structures in our bodies).

    In talking about rocks crying out, I’m reminded of the mention (in poetry, in ancient science?) of the “music of the spheres.” I’m almost certain some “Nova” episode has to have confirmed that there is resonance (on frequencies not audible to the human ear, obviously) from every celestial body in the universe.

  49. Dee, I suspect your way of reading Scripture is preferable to most.

    I am still in the first three chapters of Genesis and have been for 40 years off and on. I keep going back and finding new depth.

    I doubt that it is possible to ever finish reading them. The important thing is to read them. (Note to self).

    Thank you once again for your insight.

  50. And this……
    Psalm 96 11-13

    Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
    Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
    Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
    Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy
    Before the LORD, for He is coming,
    For He is coming to judge the earth.
    He will judge the world in righteousness
    And the peoples in His faithfulness.

  51. Michael,
    Thank you for the reference to the music of the spheres. I had heard of it but never explored the concept in this context until your post. It deserves more thought and reflection!

    When we explore the wave functions of atoms, our description is very similar to how sound waves are described in music. And when we use radio frequencies to explore molecules. I want to say that would be similar to speaking to and listening to their voices. It is easy to critique this thought as anthropomorphizing. But despite this critique, I’m inclined to think this way, when I approach and engage creation prayerfully. It gives me hope, as St John says, that matter–all of creation, works for our salvation.

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