Mystery as Reality

C.S. Lewis once discussed the question of how angels (and such things) could pass through a wall. His response was intriguing: he suggested that they could do so not because they were less substantial, but because they were more substantial. Just as a rock is more substantial than water or air, so, he posited, an angel (or such) is more substantial than our materiality. Of course, this is completely arguable and unprovable. But it is a useful image for thinking about another aspect of reality, that which the Church describes as “mystery.” Our tendency in thinking about anything we do not see in an obvious manner is to assume that it is either fictional or notional, that is, nothing more than an idea. This accounts for contemporary treatments of the sacraments as “memorials” and the like. Anything we cannot “touch” is just an idea.

To a certain extent, this treatment includes not only sacraments, but God Himself. The “God of our understanding,” easily becomes nothing more than an understanding. The radical claim of the Orthodox faith (and of classical Christianity in general) is that the “mystery” of the Kingdom of God is the very ground and meaning of what is “real,” while that which we see and touch is ephemeral and contingent, lacking in any ultimate reality.

 …for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18)

There is a kind of “sacramentality” that describes many contemporary Christians who practice what outwardly appears to be classical Christianity. The forms are preserved, but the mind that accompanies them has embraced the less-than-real attitudes towards what lies beneath the surface. Our culture is permeated with “sentimentality,” the idea that what I feel (or think) about something is what matters. The things about which we think or feel only matter in that they are the occasion for our thinking and feeling. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is, however, utterly contrary to this approach.

Christ proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is not some “later” event for which we still wait. It was inaugurated in His own coming: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). Neither was Christ announcing a process, the beginning of a project which He was delegating to His Church. The mystery of the Kingdom of God is not the work of human beings, nor part of a historical process. The Kingdom of God is whole and complete and always has been (and it cannot be otherwise).

This is utterly essential in understanding the proclamation of the gospel as well as its place in our lives (or, rather, our lives’ place within it). The Kingdom of God is hidden and revealed – it comes by revelation, by manifestation, by in-breaking, by uncovering. It was hidden from the beginning, and always existed from the beginning in its fullness. It is important to understand – the Spirit of God is only ever in fullness. We are “filled” with the Holy Spirit. He is “everywhere present and filling all things.” Fullness is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom. If we see something of it in part, it is not because the Kingdom is in part, but only that the fullness has not been made manifest.

This is important, for it speaks to the very position of our standing with regard to the Kingdom and the fundamental orientation of our Christian existence. Modernity has taught us to think in terms of process, evolution, and temporality. We imagine ourselves as creators and initiators. Too many (even among the Orthodox) imagine our “cooperation” (synergy) with God to be a mutual contribution to a common product. But the “product” of the spiritual life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit itself. We can contribute nothing to that end.

Theosis (divinization) is the stated end and purpose of the Christian life. This is, according to St. Maximus, becoming “uncreated by grace.” There is nothing that the created can do to make itself uncreated. This is solely a work of God. When we speak of “cooperation,” we properly are describing our acceptance of a completed work, not an addition to something unfinished. Misunderstanding this has contributed to a growing Pelagianism within contemporary thought.

The sacraments point unmistakably to the completed reality of the mystery of the Kingdom. A typical prayer in the Baptismal service says:

O Lord, through holy Baptism, You have given to Your servant remission of sins, and have bestowed upon him (her) a life of regeneration. Likewise, the same Lord and Master, ever graciously illumine his (her) heart with the light of Your countenance. Maintain the shield of his (her) faith unassailed by the enemy. Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.

In the same manner, the Divine Liturgy is filled with references to a completed work, often stating things that we think of as future as though they were past:

It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.

This is a very strange grammatical construction. “We have been brought up to heaven [past] and endowed [past] us with the kingdom which is to come [future].” This is the “eschatological” nature of the faith. That which is to come has come into the world and made us already what we shall be.

The fundamental orientation in such a life is towards our salvation as gift. God gives, we receive. It is why our life should be primarily marked by thanksgiving, always and for all things.

There are subtle distortions that take us away from this manner of life. It is common for us to conceive of God as giving us grace (help) so that we can do this thing or that and become this thing or that. And the emphasis becomes our own doing, with God reduced to an auxiliary position. It is a path of anxiety, failure, and despair.

The Pharisees were champions of this approach and excelled in exercising themselves in everything they thought of as good. At the same time, they became angry that tax-collectors and harlots were freely given even more than they themselves had accomplished. In the end, they sought to destroy the Giver of gifts.

This understanding of the Kingdom of God as mystery, as the fully completed end of all things and yet presently entering our life and our world, is absent from contemporary Christian thought. It has been lost and replaced with historicized chronologies that exalt historical process over Christian eschatology. Indeed, “eschatology” itself has been changed to mean “things that happen at the end of time” (often complete with Darbyite nonsense). The Kingdom of God has been moved off-planet and has become synonymous with a “heaven” that exists somewhere else, and, at best, will come here only at the end of time. This is not the Christian faith as revealed by Christ and preached by the Apostles.

The mystery of the Kingdom of God is real and true – indeed, it is the ground of reality and truth. We are plunged into it in Baptism and eat and drink it in the Eucharist. The whole of the Christian life is properly shaped by its presence. Our salvation is nothing other than its manifestation and revealing within us.

I think of St. Paul’s words:

Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. (Col. 4:2-3)

42 comments:

  1. Father,
    Do you think it is appropriate to say that we are actively engaged in a formative process, a process which is accomplished through our willingness to receive the Spirit who makes us alive? I guess I mean that who we are is being revealed because who are is actually being formed, in and through the course of our lives.
    I’ve been reading Ireaneus of Lyons, and I think I’m trying to balance the fullness of our being “hid in Christ” with the significance of our material lives, which is the only way that we become who we are. I hope that makes sense.
    I think I’m also taking Fr. Behr’s cue that we our creation is only completed by our adding our own little “let it be” to God’s big “Let it Be.” Which would make our self, in its trueness, a product of a kind.

  2. Wow!
    I love what you say in the first paragraph about the reality of sacraments.
    I have been Orthodox for 8 years and am still recovering from 60 years as a Protestant.
    Glory to God!

  3. Fullness is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom. If we see something of it in part, it is not because the Kingdom is in part, but only that the fullness has not been made manifest.

    Father, how is this fullness manifest in us via theosis?

    Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. — 1 John 3:2

    I’ve always considered that we will not be fully human, as Jesus is fully human (the fullness of humanity as we are created to be), until we “…see Him face-to-face”. Maybe I’m just overthinking it all and tripping over the obvious, but I much appreciate any clarity you provide.

  4. Jordan,
    We are, indeed, actively engaged in a formative process, as we cooperate with God, saying “yes,” accepting the fullness of our life from Him, to the extent we are able. My point in this is to emphasize the “giftedness” that process. We receive it rather than generating it. But receiving it is not as passive as some might think. Becoming a “receiver of the gift” is a way of life. It is marked by gratitude and thanksgiving at every moment. It also helps us take our eyes off of ourselves. We’re terribly neurotic most of the time – self-focused and anxious. The gifted life is a way to live above this.

  5. Byron,
    Ultimately, that fullness is “we shall be like Him.” There are, even now, moments when that “fullness” appears, even as a glimmer, in our lives. I would suggest that when we keep the commandments, we are being like Him, in some small way. There are moments of grace, for example, when we suddenly see the world differently – when we discover a compassion and mercy that we had not had before, etc. These are also moments of the fullness. But, if those things were magnified infinitely, and permeated even our bodies, then we would be like Him in its fullness.

  6. For my self I have begun to find that God’s Grace is not a “thing” I receive but a reality that I am allowed entrance to–brought into. For instance, I can approach the Well of Mercy as an actual place and actually drink from it. Closer than hands and feet. Or I can allow my sin and and shame to keep me from it and make it appear to be insubstantial and far off.

    When I recognize it a a real substantial place and go there, I can also bring others there to share it.

    As I get older and my body fades I am finding a far more substantial reality that even the evil of the world cannot keep me from. It is a world in which all sickness, pain and sorrow have fled away.
    Interestingly, several years ago when I was given a penance of not being able to partake of the Body and Blood for a time, the Sacrament became no less real to me. I still participated in it in a substantial way.
    Both the penance and the fulfillment of the penance were great blessings.

    His mercy endures forever.

  7. I have also seen it posited that the more we sin, the less substantial we become. Yet the mind of the world tells us just the opposite.

  8. “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” Luke 15:16

    This seems to me to be a great statement about the not only the full presence of the Kingdom but also the grace with which it is opened. Thank you Father.

  9. I’m looking for the verse Janine. I’m super tired and perhaps I’m wrong but I’m not reading the same words in Luke 15:16. Perhaps you’re quoting a different place in Luke. I’m familiar with the words but trying to find the appropriate context and citation.

  10. Father I share your perspective and I’m grateful for your words in your article.

    And I have difficulty with the meaning of the words in Luke 16:16. It’s as though somehow we can obtain the Kingdom by force.

    Then another verse, Luke 17: 5, the Apostles ask (actually it seems that they are making a demand) Christ to increase their faith. In other words, having faith isn’t something I can will to have on my own.

    These verses taken together are difficult to interpret. I believe both the Kingdom and faith are God’s gift to us. But having trouble with the meaning of these nevertheless.

    Father what is your insight? I appreciate whatever words you might offer.

  11. Dee,
    I think this phrase (Luke 16:16) simply contrasts those who are hearing the gospel and accepting it (as in “their breaking down the gates to get in”) versus the Pharisees who aren’t bothering to lift a finger in response to the gospel being preached. Some have been giving away everything they own in order to follow Christ – and the Pharisees are doing quite the opposite. In the context of Luke 16, that is the thrust of the meaning.

    There is, I think, a “mystery” in “increasing faith.” It is both gift and the reception of the gift. The receiving is not at all a passive thing. But, if it could be easily quantified and described, I think we would have that kind of statement. Instead, Jesus responds with more parables.

    I would suggest to anyone who is looking to increase their faith, that they work mostly at giving thanks always and for all things, and give alms generously.

  12. Thank you Father that helps. And good ending note about increasing faith!

  13. The idea that a there is a concrete and strong response to The Kingdom is intriguing to me. It somehow gives substance to everything.

  14. Recently I was being asked some questions by a Protestant man whom I have little to no actual relationship with. He would say he knows a lot about me but he does not. This false sense of familiarity brought on the session of questions. He noted that he had done “some digging online” about Orthodoxy. Most likely feeling he now knew all about it just as he knew all about me. One of the things he asked was how those who are “dead” could possibly hear all the requests for prayer.

    He asked, “I understand how the Saints are alive still, and even my mother is most assuredly aware somehow of what’s going on in my life. But how would it work for them, especially a Saint, to hear all those requests and be able to bring them before God? I mean maybe they can pray for us, but I would rather ask someone I know can hear me because I can see them and hear them.”

    In essence he was saying, “Anything we cannot “touch” is just an idea.”

    By the way, my answer was, “I do not know, it’s a mystery.”

    This did not satisfy him. Nor, do I think, did his attempt at learning about Orthodoxy by doing “some digging online.”

  15. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man the good things God has prepared for those who love Him.”

    Essentially, your acquaintance was exhibiting a failure of the imagination. The saints in heaven, for him, seem just as limited as any person on earth. His heaven is too small.

  16. “His heaven is too small.” Indeed. This is the sixteenth anniversary of the repose of my wife, Pamela. It is also the 17th year since the repose of Shawn, the husband of my living wife Merry.

    Since we met and Merry began her journey into the Church, she has repeatedly told me of her sense that Shawn and Pamela had something to do with us getting together and still are praying for us. Her perception has a quality of truth to it, not just sentimentalism.

    Neither Pamela nor Shawn are saints but both are justified by His mercy. The manner in which each died testifies to that.

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” A Mystery indeed and not one for Sherlock Holmes.

  17. “Just as a rock is more substantial than water or air, so, he posited, an angel (or such) is more substantial than our materiality.”

    We see this in his description of the insubstantial wraiths from Hell who are visiting Heaven in “The Great Divorce”. It is painful for them to trod on the very substantial grass of Heaven, while the more substantioal angels and Heavenly dwellers have no problem at all.
    A wonderful explanation – Thank you Father!

  18. Thanks Father.
    A not easy to understand (paradoxically very easy to understand) subject explained beautifully.

  19. Father,

    I was thinking recently about prayer to Saints, or even asking anyone for prayers, or the activity of guardian angels. And it dawned on me, that what I believe is some autonomy in Saints/guardian angels to respond to prayer or to take our prayers before Christ, is that their wills and God’s will are not different. God is, Love is – you acquire love or the Holy Spirit yes through opening yourself to receive them, but you can’t manufacture on your own. Our autonomy, whatever that is, and God’s autonomy, for the healed person are not different. I only say this because, once someone’s will is God’s will – and it is also truly theirs – then the Kingdom is revealed – it’s not so much gradual/evolutionary anymore. I was thinking about the Judgment after yesterday’s Gospel reading – and the people entering into glory – they were actually like God – which is why they entered the Kingdom. Jesus seems to be describing someone healed – they’re loving without any real self interest to the point that self is forgotten. Selfless love stops differentiating/judging others and loves them indiscriminately. In this way, we love Christ/become love. In the same way, it is how He loves us – without discrimination, selflessly. The Kingdom is revealed in Christ fully, when it is revealed in us – it looks virtually identical to Christ’s love, and it is His love, yet has also become ours, truly ours. The Kingdom is revealed in us, at least in part. In some ways this is what happened to the sheep, the Kingdom in them, was revealed to them though it was already there. The “I never knew you” fits in this way.

    It amazes me now, that the Gospel reading never much bothered me as a Reformed/Evangelical. It never startled me much or disturbed my conscience. And I won’t go into an excursus on Original Sin again, though I blame it – but when your anthropology prohibits Kingdom revelation in you – an evolutionary process will be necessitated. It will be on a timeline. Kingdom will actually mean something different that can’t be revealed until the eschaton when you are force-changed by the sight of Christ. It’s instant theosis. Or you will try and bring the Kingdom by force in this life. But both are by force – which falls in line with my Original Sin thesis. I suppose there is truth to this, maybe quite a bit, but it’s necessitated by a foreign anthropology. But the connection you made to Pelagianism is spot on. It is the reaction I think to a pessimism out of line with the Kingdom. Reformed theology in the Garden is totally Pelagian. The Reformed concern for sovereignty and monergism – it’s not all wrong – they just don’t see it in the places they should. But our optimism is not in our potentiality to be or bring the Kingdom, but in God, who will reveal the Kingdom in us.

    I believe we need, me at least, to keep seeing that Pelagianism is not the correction. Pelagianism and Calvinism are two sides of the same coin. Synergy is not helping God get things done or moving the future towards a trajectory, it is realizing reality now, in us, through us. And what you are describing is not full blown monergism either. If it was, God would force reality upon us, not reveal mysteries that already underlie all of existence/reality.

    Just for my own curiosity, do think I’m tracking correctly?

  20. I forgot this, and I don’t mean to make my posts so long – but the idea that many of us have during Lent, that fasting/prayer/almsgiving are repentance – fits with your post. We think that our deeds are moving us forward towards a goal. Or they are like a diet (not just the fasting) to balance us out temporarily after winter/Covid over-eating without much exercise. Much like how vitamins and treadmills start getting advertising after January 1. But if we saw them as doorways to repentance, they might become much beneficial. Repentance is salvation, only repentance turns God’s displeasure over sin away. Our aim in fasting, prayer, giving is often not repentance, but thinking that these are restorative when they are not on their own. This is Pelagian I would think. The prayer, “Open to me the doors of repentance” – if this was what we were doing during Lent – asking God with our fasting/gifts/prayer to help us repent – to see our sins – we/I might have some Kingdom revealed, instead of thinking the Kingdom is revealed in Lent as a practice.

  21. Matthew,
    I think you first comment was, indeed, “tracking correctly.” Love is repentance. We do not repent in order that we may then love. We turn to love and that is our repentance. All of this, I think, is most easily thought about when we thing that the goal of our existence, always, is union with Christ. To have a common life with Him. It is not identity – but communion.

    When we love, truly love, we are acting in communion with Christ. As in the parable, we feed Christ and in so doing have union with Him. We clothe Him and have union with Him. We visit Him and have union with Him. We suffer with Him and have union with Him. And so forth.

    When we fast – it is good to fast in union with Christ. We hunger because He hungers and we want union with Him in His hunger. And so all. Everything is for Christ, to Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.

    St. Patrick said it well:

    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 when I lie down,
    Christ when I sit down,
    Christ when I arise,
    Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
    Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
    Christ in every eye that sees me,
    Christ in every ear that hears me.

  22. Father, I tend to look at repentance as a movement toward Love, even a submission to His Love but not that Love itself. Surely it is impossible to repent without Him but it is not identical. Am I being too fine?

  23. Michael,
    It is a distinction that is “too fine” for me. What is it I am doing if I am not already loving? We begin to love (and that takes many forms). The commandment is “Love.” Not, “Do something so that you can love.” Just love.

  24. Father and Michael,
    I’d like to share something beautiful Fr. Peter (Hegumen of St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex) said last Sunday about loving Christ. He said Father Sophrony used to tell people to measure their love for Him this way:
    “If Christ came right now, would you run towards Him eagerly, and fall at His feet, or would you run away?”
    So simple, but I think impossible without the work of sincere and honest repentance.

  25. Michael,

    Beautifully said.

    We humble ourselves and acknowledge that all we are and all we have is from Christ, that without Him we are nothing.
    And in return, He gives us everything, makes us who He created us to be, heals and restores us.

    So much meaning in these two simple (well, not really, they are of “bottomless depth”) words: repentance and mercy.

    Blessed Great Lent to all.

  26. Father,
    once again, your statement: “I would suggest to anyone who is looking to increase their faith, that they work mostly at giving thanks always and for all things, and give alms generously”, is pure gold…
    Since man is essentially an ‘interpretative being’ (with a range of interpretation -for one and the same thing- spanning from Heaven to Hell), the continuous practice of trustful thanksgiving (as you describe) is perhaps the most decisive influence on our heart’s interpretation of reality.

  27. Sometimes I hear myself wishing that I could see what others see, such as what we see in this picture, Father. But I know that if I did, I might doubt the reality, and consider myself imagining rather than seeing.

    But on one occasion, I believe that I have seen an angel, however, but the angel didn’t look quite like this beautiful image. Rather, it was a kindly old man sitting near me in a cafe. He apparently sensed my distress in the moment and said some kind words of advice and encouragement. I gave him thanks for his kind words, and then for a few moments looked down at my coffee cup. When I looked up again he was gone. His table was close enough that I would have sensed his leaving ordinarily. And given his kind gesture before, he might have said a word as he was leaving. But that didn’t happen. Rather, he simply disappeared.

    His words were indeed crucial in the moment, and I made important and positive life decisions there after. And I have been thankful for His angel, ever since.

    Perhaps he wasn’t an angel, but just another person like us. Even so, it was a lesson to me. At any given moment we might be God’s angel. I pray that if such a moment comes to me, that I might say or do something to help another, that I might be our Lord’s faithful servant in a moment of need. God willing.

  28. Dee – Abbot Tryphon told an incredible story at one of his talks that I attended about how a black homeless woman comforted him multiple times while he was in San Francisco facing an untrue accusation by a woman who disliked him. He was feeling despondent and emotionally traumatized by the whole experience. This homeless black woman was a veritable “Fool for Christ” who gave him the most perfect words to help him through this painful situation. He is totally convinced that she was an angel. I was hoping to find the story on YouTube to share with you, but I was unsuccessful. It’s extremely powerful.

  29. Thank you Esmee for your encouraging response! I’ll keep a lookout for his story online.

  30. Esmee,
    Yes. Very powerful. I have heard him tell it. Abott Tryphon gave several talks at St. Barnabas Church. It’s in one of them, but which I do not know.
    They are lengthy but worth the listen.

  31. Thank you, Fr. Stephen and everyone. I have not left any comments or questions this time because I think I got the conversation off-track on the last blog. I am just soaking this up and learning this time. Father, is there somewhere else I can ask you the occasional question?

  32. Thank you, Fr., for your insightful words. Forgive me if you’ve already addressed this in the comments. Would you say that the purpose of our ascetical efforts is to train us to be active receivers of God’s grace? In other words, if thankfulness and love came naturally to us at all times, would we have no need to for the ascetical life?

  33. John,
    Since I have no idea what it would be like if thankfulness and love came “easily” (I’ll say that rather than “naturally”), I cannot speculate on that. But I would say that the goal of the ascetical life is probably best measured by thankfulness and love.

  34. Father (and John),
    Thank you!
    What a beautiful question and what a beautiful answer!
    Thank you Father, it’s going to be added to my list of your most unforgettable sentences on this blog.

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