A Patient Joy – Finding the True Self

Among the weakest things in the world of social relations is the truth. That might seem to be an odd statement. However, the weakness of the truth is the limitations placed upon it by its very nature. It cannot say just anything, nor can it ever pretend to be something that it is not. Those restrictions are not shared by lies. It is the nature of a lie that it can assume any shape required by the objects of its suasion. “Whatever it takes” would be an excellent description of the nature of a lie. America spends roughly $250 billion per year on advertising. The bulk of that effort is not directed towards sharing accurate information – it is the creation of desire. Truth is rarely a controlling factor.

Our own lives can take on this same shape – an effort to construct an identity that suits our liking. That the persona put forward is less than true is of little concern. We have become comfortable with lies, so long as they are the lies we ourselves choose. There is a common experience that is labeled “imposter syndrome,” a feeling that, somehow, we are pretending to be someone who we are not. I am surprised that it is not a constant state of being for most.

Lies do violence to the truth. If God is the Truth (as we assert in our faith), then lies are idolatry, an effort to erect a truth that is not the truth of God. It is an act of murder, a drive to establish non-being in the place of being. The life that is contrary to the gospel is the life that is based in violence and falsehood. Both represent a Nietzschean assertion of the human will as sovereign over all things: what does not conform will be made to conform.

The non-violence in the life and teachings of Christ are of a piece with His existence as the Truth. There is no compulsion in His ministry, no pleading or rhetoric. As often as not, His teachings were parables that left people bewildered (like the world around us).

We have to observe of God that His will is asserted among us in a non-violent, non-coercive manner. Though many will rush to various stories in the Old Testament, they cannot rush to examples of the moment. The great evils of our time generally run about un-checked. Whatever we can say of Christian history, it has not been marked by heavy interventions of Divine action, correcting and protecting His people, or punishing and chastising the wicked. We may debate whether a later judgment awaits, but judgment in the present tense seems sorely lacking. We do not profess that God does not care. Rather, we are taught that He is patient.

Of course, there is a large number of Christians who cling to an active notion of Divine Justice in which God forcibly moves history towards His desired ends. If the only evidence used for that contention are the stories drawn from the Old Testament, a critic would do well to ask for contemporary examples. The story of our planet (particularly in our modern period) would argue against such a contention. For if God uses violence to achieve His good ends, He could easily be charged with failure. It’s not working.

I do not mean to suggest that God somehow stands back from history – that notion would be pure secularism and utterly removed from the truth. How God enters history is another matter entirely. Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are the primary examples of God’s presence and working in our midst. He is committed to us beyond the point of death – even death on a Cross.

The day Christ died on the Cross, no one standing around in Jerusalem would have noticed that anything had changed. That there was an earthquake or other such phenomena, would have been dismissed by everyone as easily as it was overlooked by the disciples themselves that day. And yet, as it was, history itself had come to its End. The final word of God and moment of justice had taken place.

The Septuagint translation of Exodus 17:16 has become a favorite verse for me across the years:  “Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation.” It describes quite precisely the nature of God’s work of salvation within the world. As St. Paul noted, the preaching of the Cross is foolishness. We point to the death of an itinerate preacher in an out-of-the-way location and proclaim it to be the focal point of all creation. And this is the truth.

This is not only the truth but is the very nature of the truth. God’s work of providence, sustaining and directing all things is a “secret” work, in that it can be discerned or just as easily ignored. It does not have the character of violence.

The truth has this same character. We are able to live our lives through violence and lying, neither of which alters the truth. The truth abides and remains untouched and responds to us with a secret hand. That itself is a continuing testament to God’s patience and kindness towards us. Were our violence and lies able to change the truth of things, we would long since have turned creation into hell itself.

God not only works in the world with a secret hand but invites us into the same way of life. Christ underwrites His teaching on kindness and forgiveness with an appeal for us to be like God (Lk 6:36; Matt. 5:45). This is the path towards an authentic existence, the journey towards the truth of our being.

We ask the young, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question will stay with them for a great part of their lives. Our culture concentrates on “making” something of ourselves but offers very little or nothing towards actually knowing the truth of ourselves. Perhaps this is because such truth cannot be commodified.

Such knowledge is born of patience and the careful attention to the truth of what lies around us. There is within this, I think, a foundation of joy and thankfulness. The nature of “what actually is” includes its giftedness. It is not something we have created for ourselves – it is given. At the same time, there is joy that comes as we slowly realize that what God is giving to us is good, the same goodness that He displays on the Cross.

So much of our modern drive towards “happiness” is composed of entertainment and other fictions. Those things that have no true reality to them are ephemeral, necessarily creating anxiety in the emptiness of their promise. In contrast, that which truly is, including the truth of our own existence, cannot be taken away. Our surprise in its discovery is experienced ultimately as joy, the wonder that comes in finding out that the deepest longing of our hearts is actually true and real.

Fantasy and fiction, at its best, is not good because it is created by someone. They are good because they make it possible to see more clearly what God has created – something that is neither fantasy nor fiction. Such are our lives. Gifts. Joy. Wonder.

18 comments:

  1. Father,
    this is very deep!
    Thank you.
    I think the penultimate sentence needs editing for clarity?
    Do you imply: “that which truly is” when you say “It” in: “It is good because it makes it possible to see more clearly what God has created – something that is neither fantasy nor fiction.”?

  2. I’ve been feeling the near-constant anxiety (from myself and others) of the question “What are you going to make of yourself?” for longer than I’d like to admit. Most of the time, this anxiety feels like it will never lift, but it did as I read the truth of your words. Thank you for that, Father.

  3. If the truth (Truth) is a *secret*, then is most of our lives a lie? If not a lie, then at least an ignorance it seems. On one level at least Father Stephen you seem to be saying that our fundamental epistemic ignorance, which is a basic character of our life, is a kind of lie.

    On the other hand, our spirits/minds/body are always in motion (kinesis) and this is itself a “given”, so our epistemic ignorance (of where we are going, and thus of where we began and what we are) is neither a “truth” or a “lie”, but something else…what *is* a “secret”, exactly? What is the ontology of a”secret”? It does not seem part of the world of knowledge (of good and evil)…

  4. Christopher,
    Wouldn’t we normally say that, (whether this takes place ‘secretly’ or in a clearly ‘discernible’ manner),
    any words, thoughts or deeds of truth are only those that have a “direction” towards Truth, (and of lies, a “direction” away from Truth)?

  5. Dino,
    I think so, too. That everything has a direction – is not particularly an issue. Our movement (kinesis) is as much a part of our nature as is the truth of our existence itself. Lies are a movement in a direction contrary to our nature.

  6. Thank you for these thoughts Father, your writings continue to be a great ministry to me.

    I have a question regarding “playing pretend” or performance.

    Children from a very young age learn by imitating their elders. They play “dress up” or “fireman” or whatever by pretending to be something that they are not. And in the pretending, they often develop skills and language that allow them to really become what they pretend.

    “Fake it till you make it” is kind of a trite saying, but it also seems like a kind of truth. We become things by practice and performance.

    So is it lying when we imagine ourselves into a societal role, or imagine a canvas into a beautiful painting, or imagine anything into a kind of subsistent existence? If so, what is the alternative? It seems that if we were to cease to imagine, to cease performing, we would have to cease to move and even exist.

  7. Nes,
    It’s a good question. I would, I think, compare it to the sorts of fantasy and fiction that I described which point towards what is true and allow us to see it more clearly. Play is a gift of God, a primary tool for human learning. In a certain manner, the Divine Liturgy is “playing heaven.” There are, of course, all kinds of subtle uses of play, and not all of them are salutary and helpful. That becomes a matter of discernment.

    There is a manner of play that is becoming more commonplace in which “virtual reality” is preferred over reality itself – the passions that seek to be satisfied though pretense and entertainment come to rule the person. So, there’s a place for prudence and discernment. It’s rarely as easy as point to a good behavior or a bad behavior. The dividing line runs through the human heart rather than the thing itself, I suppose.

  8. Father,
    In Greek we would probably clarify that ‘our movement (kinesis) is as much a part of our true nature, and lies are a movement in a direction contrary to our true nature’. A significant detail.
    I say this because I have found that, mainly in Greek, the accepted theological understanding of the word ‘nature’ is sometimes trumped -in practice- by the more experiential understanding of Man’s corruption and weakness when using that same word (‘nature’), and then theological clarifications are needed.
    However, this second use of the term, is why many Fathers –although magnificent theologians– actually used expressions with this (second) notion of ‘nature’ that concentrates on Man’s current experience of mutability and corruption rather than the (‘logoi of beings inspired) experience of (God’s pre-eternally intended) and eschatologically manifested perfection.
    A famous example is St Basil’s (in the first prayer before Holy Communion), “by thine own Blood didst renew our nature corrupted by sin”.

  9. I think when they describe the ‘corruption by sin’ (of our nature), it is always upon the backdrop of what our true nature actually is, and how we can only ever fully become united with God (and never with sin) despite our experience of a common “corrupt nature” (Romans 8:7).
    Sorry for sidetracking…

  10. Dear Dr. Stephen,
    thank you for sharing these priceless simple revealing words.
    While reading , I somehow realized that the unforced God’s secret guiding can maybe be found in those “on the little doorstep” moments when He reveals Himself to us. His Mercy and our love towards Him or willingness to accept Him in our lives in one particular moment.In those snaps of awareness we may realize that Christ has always been there. He has never left. Only, we are leaving Him at the very moment we distance from our true self believing in the lie of the mask. In that same way we realize that the truth can not be changed or hurt by the lie of living in the sin.
    Those are just separate worlds.
    Maybe it is buried deep inside us and it should be unpeeled, striped from the lies. On the way of finding our Godlike image.

  11. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    I apologize for the spelling mistake at the begining.
    I wanted to greet you with
    Dear Father Stephen ,…
    Wish you all that’s good.
    May Christ be in our midst.

  12. Bless Fr Stephen!

    What a wonderful post!! Thank you so much.

    I love this: “the weakness of the truth is the limitations placed upon it by its very nature. It cannot say just anything, nor can it ever pretend to be something that it is not. Those restrictions are not shared by lies. It is the nature of a lie that it can assume any shape required by the objects of its suasion. “Whatever it takes” would be an excellent description of the nature of a lie.”

    JP

  13. ‘patience and the careful attention to the truth’

    Thank you for these words, Fr Stephen
    Attention – that to which we give ourselves. Whatever we attend to we give ourselves to.
    The heart of our faith is to give ourselves to God in Love and gratitude, but we are distracted in so many ways, we live with a deficit of attention which is spread so thin, and so we do not attend to God, who is our Life.

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