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!