Finding God in the Heart of the Soul

 

The Prodigal Son is said to have “come to himself” when he was feeding the pigs in a foreign land. Hungry, lonely, having wasted his inheritance, it is said that he envied the pigs for their food. But, what does it mean that he “came to himself?” This is one of the primary stories of repentance in the Scriptures, as well as a primary story of forgiveness and restoration. If it is true that he “came to himself” among the pigs, it must also be true that he “lost himself” when he chose to leave home and live a life of waste and extravagance.

It is impossible to know God and not know the self. It is also the case that it is impossible to know the self and not know God. St. Gregory of Nyssa described the soul as a “mirror.” And though this image can be abused, it is, nevertheless, the case that it is within the soul that we see and encounter God. The search for God is thus a search for the self as well. If these are authentic, they tend to occur together.

The modern world is a difficult place in which to find the self, if, for no other reason, than its own fascination with what it describes as the self. The creation of an identity is among the many modern projects – it has become an object of our consumption. We not only “pick” an identity, we tend to “accessorize” as well.

Back in the 90’s, there was a fad that passed through the area for “line dancing” at a local bar with Country and Western music. My wife and I were invited out for the evening and soaked up the atmosphere at the local venue. I do not know if this is still something people do, nor whether the venue remains open. However, it was more than a place to dance. It was a place to wear Western outfits, complete with boots and jeans (and so much more). People enjoyed themselves. I did not, however, figure out why middle managers and such in East Tennessee needed to dress up as cowboys in order to dance. It is simply one of the many subcultures that dot the landscape.

As an aging citizen, I am doubtless out-of-touch with the subcultures of the present, and would likely be yet moreso were I to take a tour of such today. But I see our struggling identities scattered across the public landscape. (And urban cowboys would be the least interesting of them!)

The soul is not a project. We do not pick an identity or choose one as a matter of lifestyle decision-making. The ephemeral things that people imagine themselves to be, even the middle-class parlor games of personality-type tests, fall infinitely short of the truth of our existence. The things we imagine, analyze and spend time on, are often little more than the neurotic struggles of a shame-filled culture in which some version of “well-adjusted” is pretty much the goal of everyone you meet.

The stories in the lives of the saints point us towards a much deeper journey. The pleasure-filled dissipation that marked the life of the young St. Mary of Egypt, with her very frank description of her sex and alcohol addiction related years later, would fit well in the annals of human sin at any place and any time. It is the story of a lost soul. The story of her salvation, remembered each year in Great Lent, bears some initial resemblance to the Prodigal Son.

When Mary is miraculously prevented from crossing the threshold of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like the Prodigal, she “comes to herself” and sees the frightful truth of just how lost she is. Unlike the Prodigal, there is no fatted calf, ring, or robe immediately greeting her and welcoming her home. Instead, there is a meager loaf of bread and a lifetime of wandering in the desert. It was there she received an invisible robe, and even a crown. She describes her struggle:

…Seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts — mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much, for I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had once learned. But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.

We can only wonder from the outside at the light that shown on her “from everywhere” and the “lasting calm” she experienced. These are part of the experience of the “true self,” found only in union with Christ. It is the place where this “harlot of the desert” can speak with love and wonder to the most pure Queen of Heaven without fear or the self-loathing that forces us to hide.

Modernity has a goal of mediocrity (despite its excessive praise of athletes and such). Indeed, we entertain ourselves with movies that depict super-heroes, made by people whose actual lives rival the debauchery of the young Mary in Alexandria. Of course, the mediocrity of the modern world is a measure that continues to sink lower through its own vacuity. Virginity is ridiculed while murder is praised as freedom.

St. Mary’s path is hard. It is worth pondering what she thought was on the other side of the threshold she was prevented from crossing. It was far more than a selfish desire to see a famous object (the True Cross). Only the knowledge that she was but a few feet away from the very truth of her own existence in the presence of God could have propelled her to make the rash promise that pushed her through that Door.

“…as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you lead me.'”

Of course, had she been turned away completely, she still would have already seen what she needed to see.

I have written before about the importance of asking the right question. For St. Mary, the question was the request to see the Wood of the Cross. She asked it in the right way – all or nothing. We frequently think that we want to know God. What we often mean by that is that we want to know God as a fact – something we can walk around, examine, discuss, and think about. The real question is whether we want to know God like St. Mary of Egypt knew God. That question comes replete with a self-knowledge she had refused all her life. She was only able to find God in the heart of a drunken, Alexandrian prostitute. It is in similar places of the heart that we will find Him as well.

36 comments:

  1. “It is impossible to know God and not know the self. It is also the case that it is impossible to know the self and not know God.”

    just “Wow”.

  2. “Modernity has a goal of mediocrity”. That is the natural outcome of the dialectic isn’t. Excellence is not allowed except for a few who are outside the process. It is not really considered in terms of the purity of the soul and joy in the Lord which we are heirs to in Jesus Christ.

  3. Thank you for your steadfastness with sharing/publishing your meditations. There is always something worth thinking with for the rest of the day. This is a challenging and fulfilling place to come in an internet age of post modern shrieking. God bless you. And Gospodi pomiluj

  4. The subject of “identifying” invites such an incredible array of sarcasm and lampooning. Yet so many people take it soooooo seriously. Just one mild example: I have long had the idea to establish a group, complete with website, called Speeders United. Driving over the speed limit is such and integral part of who I am that it is impossible for me to feel whole while obeying the speed limits. The laws against it are oppressive and discriminatory. Those who enforce them are simply speediphobic. La, la, la.

    In reality most are Christophobic and will do all sorts of mental and emotional gymnastics to avoid the truth of the ugliness of our souls. At least I do, speedist that I am.

    As Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick said recently on his blog: “we are either being transformed by God and Jesus Christ or by the demons.”

    Or as the Bible says, we cannot serve two masters.

    Taken to the most sublime and beautiful: “My soul doth magnify the Lord”

    Have mercy on us.

  5. Michael…really? You think our souls are ugly? Like repulsive? That nasty? That is just too harsh for me to swallow. Sick, injured, fractured, disintegrated, hardened, darkened…sure. But not ugly. That’s just too much for a sick soul to accept.
    Too soft a sentiment? Maybe for some.
    I’d like to look at my soul like Jesus does. I’ll believe that when I know it from Him.

  6. Paula, fine point maybe but all the things you mention are ugly, which manifest as ugliness. I am sure your’s is much prettier than mine.

  7. Come to think of it, the language of penitence during Lent is harsh.
    Likewise, Jeremiah tell us we do not realize how deceitful “above all things” the heart is.
    But as I understand it, the purpose of this language is for each person to look at themselves in the’mirror’ in the hope of seeing the condition of the soul…such as the prodigal “came to himself”. Also, as Father points out, this is difficult (to impossible) to face apart from the “forgiveness and restoration” of our Lord. He is the One who knows the condition of my soul. No one else can possibly know. I don’t even know, fully.
    This is a matter between God and the person.
    As for the other person, I believe we are told to think the best of them.
    Not so easy, sometimes.

  8. She found God in realizing who she was.
    Is this something we or I do alone? Or can do alone?

  9. Thank you for this deep article.
    Who is the artist that painted the inner turmoil of his subject?

  10. Of course Paula, there is also the fact that beneath the ugly is light. Occasionally it seems out. I do not think there are many who have allowed the ugliness to overwhelm entirely. God is merciful

  11. Andrea,

    Do what you do: live your life humbly, pray, give alms, take part in the life of the Church. St. Mary did not go to see the true cross out of reverence, but God revealed Himself to her all the same. Never despair that one does not do “enough”. God creates the increase.

  12. Paula, if you want harsh, read the Cannon of Repentance from the Jordanville Prayer Book. The Church has always taught that it is better to accuse oneself first, then the devil has no hold on you. At least that is what I have understood.

  13. Michael…yes. I have that prayer book.
    It is one thing to accuse one’s self of ugliness. It is another to say all souls are ugly.
    I can accept the hard words of the Saints. They are saints.
    Those prayers are for a person to read ‘in their closet’, between them and God.
    There are some I prefer to read over others. Because of reasons that have been stated here before, I seldom read those prayers which cause adversity within me. There are many others to choose from.
    If my priest should suggest any for my benefit, no doubt I’ll pray those too.

  14. Yes, I stay away from the Canon for Repentance for that reason. It is the accretion of sin that is ugly. Sometimes that is all that is readily seen. Repentance leads to the beauty and the Bridal Chamber. Without both the promise of that beauty and the demonstration of the beauty, repentance is too difficult to consider at all. But, as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” through repentance. We should always try to look past the ugliness especially in others, but in ourselves as well.

    Thank you.

  15. And thank you, Michael.

    Having a love for Christ, knowing that He is your ‘all’, it still takes a good amount of diligence to approach His face. Along with the gift of the seal of the Spirit, with the guidance of those that have gone before us, we set our face toward that Beauty, yes, that Bridal Chamber. It is true to say we are to live a life of repentance.
    In a way, this addresses Andrea L’s question of whether we do this alone. As Father answered…both alone, and within the Church. And as Dee mentioned in another post, and here, Byron, all elements of salvation exist at once, in the Body, as a living, organic, sacrifice.
    I think this is why it is very hard to describe ‘how’ this all ‘works’, but it does. Because it is the will of God. A very good God.

  16. Can a soul be ugly?
    If it is a like mirror reflecting God the Creator, it can not.

    If the mirror is not kept clean and polished, it can loose its beauty and appear to be ugly, but it only needs a good clean to sparkle again. Tears of repentance will help to wash away the dirt, and the God of Mercy will look with love on a broken heart, who longs to come back.

  17. Sinnika, Michael, et al
    Sinnika is correct. The soul cannot be ugly. It can be become dirty, in need of its surface being cleaned (like a mirror), but the soul is good. It is beautiful. It is always, always important to maintain a constant faith in the essential goodness of all things – that is the nature of the good God’s creation.

  18. In my defense, I never intended to say the soul was ugly; only that ugliness from sin is there and it is a daunting task for me to face at times. To me that is a big distinction. Please forgive my careless use of words. I deeply appreciate it being called to my attention.

  19. Bonnie,
    The artist was John William Waterhouse. The painting is of Cleopatra and was done around 1887. My thought in choosing it was that perhaps it was Cleopatra that St. Mary of Egypt had in mind when she was lost in prostitution and drunkenness in Alexandria. The inner brooding of the painting particularly recommended it to me.

  20. “…It is always, always important to maintain a constant faith in the essential goodness of all things…”
    I think we all share in the difficulty of facing our sins…along with years of repugnant self-talk of worthlessness. That’s one of the reasons why we pray for each other.
    The goodness of God is Father’s repeated message to us…and it bears repeating!
    So, yes Father…”always, always”! Thank you.
    And thank you Sinnika for your simple but succinct, uplifting words…the image of God in the mirror and the need to keep it “clean and polished”. Yes, exactly…

  21. I did not feel bludgeoned at all. It was a good and fruitful conversation. I am strong enough, thank God, to actually flourish in such an exchange. None of it was done with malice, indeed the opposite. I frankly expect more push back than I normally get
    Like it actually.

    God is good

  22. Thank you, Father Stephen, for posting this.

    I have heard it said, the Father of The Prodigal Son watched for his son looking out on the same road he left on. The true self is that road. Christ’s love gives me the perfect compunction to come to myself and walk it.

  23. It is maybe a little late to chime in on the discussion between Paula and Michael but I always liked the confession from the Anglican Morning Prayer service from the old 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which maybe captures something of what both of you are saying :

    “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways
    like lost sheep: We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts: We have offended against thy holy laws: We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us …”

    Modern Anglicans have generally edited down the robustness of that confession presumably because it sounds harsh to our late modernist ears, and maybe off putting, particularly, that line “And there is no health in us”? But I really like it, including that line, and I still sometimes make use of it. I find it interesting that such forthright – and well expressed – sentiments were around in some forms of Western Christianity until fairly recently (and presumably these formed people like Lewis). Maybe it’s a formulation that might satisfy you both? I have found it just to be true, and I know from personal experience and reflection that to the extent there is any health in me, really it hasn’t come from me (whatever “me” really means I suppose), and that my wounds run really, really deep. And I also love the line about the “devices and desires” of our hearts in the idea that it’s not just our desires, but there are “devices” in our hearts that cause sin too.

    All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I think I appreciate where I think Michael was coming from, and I don’t personally have a problem with it, even while acknowledging at the end our souls are from God and the glint of gold I sometimes sense at the bottom of the murky river is from Him.

    On the more general issue, one reason I have always liked the story of the two sons (as I prefer to call this parable, because I think it’s the Elder son who is at least as problematic) is that for me it makes the who business of hell and punishment rather moot. It points out that the problem with an un-repented life is that we simply risk dying far from our true home, still existentially alone, but degraded and wallowing with pigs having entirely squandered our inheritance. Really, who needs hell? It’s something we bring on ourselves, no divine punishment necessary really. It’s never been the Father who has the problem, it’s us.

    Father, I loved hearing this take on St Mary’s story – and of her journey home through her own wilderness. Daunting and inspiring at the same time. May we all find our true questions, and similar keys to eternity. Thank you.

  24. On the more general issue, one reason I have always liked the story of the two sons (as I prefer to call this parable, because I think it’s the Elder son who is at least as problematic) is that for me it makes the who business of hell and punishment rather moot. It points out that the problem with an un-repented life is that we simply risk dying far from our true home, still existentially alone, but degraded and wallowing with pigs having entirely squandered our inheritance. Really, who needs hell? It’s something we bring on ourselves, no divine punishment necessary really. It’s never been the Father who has the problem, it’s us.

    I think this an excellent understanding of the parable, Ziton. Thanks for sharing it.

  25. Profound Father. Thank you.

    I’ve been a regular – not that regular really, nevertheless – reader of the St. Mary story for the past couple of years. I’ve also narrated her story to my family a few times as well.

    St. Mary of Egypt’s repentance is in itself a miracle, but what astonishes me more is that i do not want to ponder over the kind of life she led before her exile into the desert. Like a wall my thoughts are not allowed (and do not want) to cross, instead focusing on her transformation. I’ve always felt it’s proof of the absolutely clean slate that God gives to those who turn to Him completely.
    I hope i’ve made some sense.

    A link of the akathist to Sts. Mary and Zosimas: https://akathisthymns.wordpress.com/mary-zosimus/. She’s someone to turn to in times of trouble, especially when confronted with lust.

  26. Father, maybe it’s the picture you chose, but as I have continued to ponder your article – and the idea of knowledge of the self being intimately tied in with the knowledge of God – the image of Dorian Gray visiting his increasingly corrupted painting has kept on coming up. Your comments about the cult of celebrity and ‘heroes’ who are in fact privately louche make me feel that Oscar Wilde was maybe quite prophetic!

    I can’t help feel that the grace given to St Mary was the suddenness of the revelation to her of her corruption, and a corresponding hope. Where for so many people they engage in the long slow decline and making of compromises, without even Dorian Gray’s benefit of watching the degradation of their (and of course I am in their on this) souls play out on a canvas. And maybe that idea of the soul as being like a canvas is interesting, if only thinking about its relevance and its limitations.

    In the novel Dorian does sort of realize what is happening and flips between trying to do something about it, and falling in love with and indulging his worst and increasingly demonic impulses. It’s all tied in with a narcissistic obsession with self and ideas about pleasure – an almost anti-Mary response, but scarily modern.

    I am wondering … do you see any value in continuing down this line of reflecting on the story in the context of Mary’s? Or is this is something it’s safer just to leave alone? (If I can, of course, now that the genie’s out of the bottle, but deflections may help).

  27. Lust easily metastasizes when dwelt upon as lust. It is overcome through acquiring virtue. Two acts seem especially helpful in my experience: fasting/almsgiving and the contemplation of chaste beauty. St. Mary of Egypt was given an extreme fasting regimine. Chaste beauty seems easier but it is not easy to find.

  28. Michael Bauman, I suspect that lust – like any of the passions – may well be amenable to appropriate virtue training in the early stages. That said, because lust is one of the more directly powerful ones (cf, say, gluttony, which I have found to be sneakier) I do wonder whether a full frontal defense will always work, and maybe even end up being counterproductive if done in a way that just amounts to crude repression. In any event, once lust has turned into full on addiction, it will be sort of like any other in that it may need other interventions, including a willingness to seek outside assistance, especially if the lust problem is tied in with other injuries and issues, like early abuse and so on. Like all of them, though, the patient needs to accept they are sick, as St Mary clearly did, and be willing to admit it and then act. Her “strategy” at the end (after that long and horrid period in her own wilderness) seemed almost one of of bust through or bust though rather than the careful cultivation of virtues, which maybe suggests that with the operations of grace there are many pathways, or horses for courses? Thank you for sharing the strategies that have worked for you though. The chaste beauty one is not one I had thought of, and is interesting. For me, it seems a little dangerous though, as I doubt I trust the ‘chasteness’ instincts of my own corrupt and devious heart – I can see myself choosing an image I think is chaste only to find out that it wasn’t, or that my own corruptions went to work on it. As Our Lord said, it is from our own hearts that all this stuff comes.

  29. Concerning lust, I have found that only constant prayer is truly helpful. A big part of lust is objectification: the person becomes an object of desire, not the Image of God. I find the struggle to be a return to Godly focus and that only prayer helps me there. As Ziton mentioned, addiction has deep roots that are difficult to pull up. Just my thoughts.

  30. Ziton, you are correct on the frontal assault. One’s will is simply in adequate to the task, particularly during Lent it seems. However, acquiring the virtue of continence and chastity should never be forgotten. Real fasting for the fullness of the reasons always helps, I wish I could do it more faithfully.

    As to chaste beauty: I think looking for a living human form as “chaste beauty” is nearly impossible, at least for me. In my case my wife gave me a beautiful prayer bead bracelet made of wood. Truly beautiful in every sense. I have taken to using that, grasping the cross and contemplating the beauty that the prayer rope is and is an icon for plus prayer is also involved in that. Of course, an icon of the Theotokos I suspect would work as well. The fabric prayer ropes, as wonderful as they can be, do not quite make it for me in this case.
    (full disclosure, the suggestion on chaste beauty came from Father Andrew Stephen Damick on his blog.)

    Actually, reflecting on the manner in which my lovely wife loves God and how kind she is can also be “chaste beauty” for me and experiencing the maturation of our marriage is quite helpful. Then there is the beauty of the natural environment (some places hard to come by). In my state, Kansas, there is an area called the Flint Hills which still has areas of virgin prairie (never plowed nor farmed) with the natural prairie grasses still dominant. It is used primarily for grazing cattle and is absolutely gorgeous. If left ungrazed, the native Giant Bluestem would grow to over 6 feet tall. That is the “sea of grass” that early settlers going west saw and certainly the men on the Coronado expedition that penetrated into central Kansas, the first Europeans here.

    Gluttony and lust seem to be similar temptations.

    Temptation being what it is, and my soul being what it is, a variety of disciplines seems to work better for me.

  31. A day late on the feast day of St Patrick but I post this in light of our trials that lie ahead. It is a powerful prayer.

    The Breastplate of St Patrick

    I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness towards the Creator.

    I arise today through the strength of Christ with His baptism, through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial, through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension, through the strength of His descent for the judgement day.

    I arise today through the strength of the love of cherubim, in obedience of angels, in the service of the archangels, in hope of resurrection to meet with reward, in prayers of Patriarchs, in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors, in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

    I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me’ God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me’ God’s host to secure me—against snares of devils, smiths, and druids, against temptations of vices, against inclinations of nature, against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and at hand, alone and in a crowd, Christ to protect me this day against poison, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance of reward.

    Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

    I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness towards the Creator.

    Salvation is of the Lord,
    Salvation is of the Lord,
    Salvation is of Christ.
    May Thy salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.

    Amen

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