Goodness and a Word in Due Season

There is an old mystical Jewish belief that when God created all things, He did so by speaking their names (in Hebrew, of course). It was further believed (and here’s the mystical part) that if you could manage to speak that name in the right way, you, too, could cause it to be. The instinct behind this is true, regardless of our inability to do such a thing. That instinct is that there is a link between the truth of something and its name. When God created the heavens and the earth, and all the things that are in them, He gave them being, existence, goodness, and truth. There was not a single false thing that was created – only true. Indeed the Fathers write about three things that are somewhat interchangeable: Goodness, Beauty, Truth.

This sense of the connection between the words we speak and the goodness, beauty and truth of the world find a connection in the simple injunction: “Do not lie.” We generally think of lying as being sinful because it has the potential to cause harm. And we thus describe certain lies as “harmless.” But there is a deeper problem with lying: it attempts to create what does not exist, or, rather, to uncreate what does. It becomes the enemy of Goodness, Beauty and Truth. We should take to heart the fact that our adversary is named the “father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).

Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously (and correctly) said that in the sacraments of the Church, we do not make something to be other than it is, but to reveal it for what it truly is. St. Basil sounds this same theme in his Eucharistic prayer. The priest prays that God will “bless, hallow and show this bread to be the Body of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ…”  In Orthodox practice, the most essential moment in the Liturgy is the “epiclesis” the “calling down” of the Holy Spirit on the gifts. This is the “Spirit of Truth.” The Holy Spirit does not make us or anything into what it is not, but reveals its truth.

This pattern is consistent with all of Christ’s miracles. The lame are made to walk, not to fly. A human being becomes truly human at the words and hands of Christ. Of course, revealing the truth of someone is not always welcome (if the heart has come to hate the truth). As Christ walks through the land, people are shown to be what they are. In this sense, Christ is the Judge (Shophet). The Judge sets things right. But the Judge doesn’t set things right by forcing and making them to be right. Things are simply revealed in their rightness, their truth. But this truth is so “truly true,” that sickness and its falsehood are swept away.

In the resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, they say, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road?” The truth, when it is truly and rightly spoken, brings forth a burning “Yes!” within us that wants to leap to its fulfillment. Someone recently wrote asking, “How do we know when our words are true words?” I would say that they are true when they are trending in this same manner (towards the burning “Yes!”). And this points to the strange case of “falsely true” words that injure and maim.

In Acts 19, we are told of the “seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest,” who tried to perform an exorcism saying, “We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches…” The demoniac turns and attacks them saying, “Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are you?” Words alone are not the thing. These were right words, spoken to the right persons (the demons), but lacked the right heart. They spoke what they did not know.

I see this frequently, particularly in the abuse of theology and doctrine. I was asked last year to speak at a writers’ conference. The topic was writing and the spiritual life. One of the more important points of that talk was to say, “Only write about what you know.” This same advice was given me years ago about sermons. Why (or how) could I preach what I don’t know? And yet, such sermons are quite common. They may be factually correct, or morally correct, but they may do more damage than good. Those who are ordained are not charged with repeating what they’ve read. They are charged with speaking the word of God. That word is living and active and can only be spoken “by heart.” I do not mean it cannot be written. But it must be written and known in the heart before it can be spoken and true. Our words fall short of this goal many times, if not most. It is wisdom, however, to understand this reality and hold it in mind when we speak – particularly when we speak of the matters of God.

I spent a week in an icon workshop with the late Xenia Pokrovsky. I recall her statement concerning an icon that depicted a very grievous incident. She declared, “This is not an icon!” I remember looking at it and thinking, “But it’s painted in the correct style, etc.” She said, “It has hate. A true icon cannot have hate.” And I could see that it was true. Nothing that breeds hate in the human heart has about it the nature of truth. This is a hard saying.

We are a people who live by facts (or imagine that we do). We think that a fact “just is,” and is neither one thing nor another – it just is. As such, we think that facts are neutral things. But this is secularism. Nothing in all of creation is “neutral.” Nothing “just is.” Everything exists only as it relates to God. Everything exists only as it exists in the truth. It’s “fact-ness” can be beside the point, and even contrary to the point.

In our digitalized, printed world, we have access to almost everything. The vast discourse of the saints, the details of the canons, the deeds and records of empires, are all available to almost everyone. Someone wants to make a point and assembles a long list of quotes drawn from the saints. Every word written is true, and yet the presentation is not true.  It is impossible to argue with such things – you are resisting the saints! And it is equally impossible to help someone whose heart is in delusion to understand that such a collection can be false – primarily because it was assembled by a false heart.

The Scriptures are abused in the same manner. It is terribly frustrating to be confronted with a vast collection of verses gathered in the service of a false teaching. The same thing was confronted by the fathers early on. Fr. Georges Florovsky gives this summary of an account by St. Irenaeus:

Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματα, λεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (hypothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).

The true “hypothesis” must first be found in a pure heart. How can a heart that cannot see God proclaim God in the truth?

If all of this pushes us towards silence, then well and good. “Even a fool is considered wise when he remains silent.” But it should also push us towards God and the purification of the heart. Only the path of true repentance founded in love, meekness, and kindness, can find such purity. When words produce anxiety, fear, shame, condemnation, and sadness then we should pay attention to their fruit. Perhaps the words are “true” but they are not God’s words-for-you.

A word spoken in due season, how good it is! (Prov. 15:23)

Christ warns us about our words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mat. 7:21). Christ means to draw us into our hearts, into the reality of our communion with Him. We do not find Him in the “letter of the Law” but beneath the letters where He dwells in richness. Even in the words of the saints, what is true must be found within the same heart that spoke them. There are no short-cuts to knowledge, to truth, to beauty or goodness. They only come in true union with Christ.

The Fathers of the 7th Council declared, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Everyone who writes or speaks is an iconographer. Either we make present what is declared in heaven, or we reveal the opposition that is found in our heart. There is only this.

 

 

29 comments:

  1. Glory to Jesus Christ! A sublime call to the sublime. I cherish the connection between truth, beauty, and goodness. That a lie wounds all three. And that one can declare the truth, falsely.
    Just today I had a stirring conversation at work about those ‘whose hypothesis is formed in false pretenses’, or without wisdom, or for their own motives.
    Providentially I now read this. You always help gently mold my perspective into what I consider true Orthodoxy, and the boundless love and healing which springs forth from therein.
    May God grant us many more years to be challenged and edified by your writing.
    Four years a convert from your blog and Gods ineffable kindness, Nicholas.

  2. Nicholas, “God’s ineffable kindness…”
    What a wonderful phrase. So descriptive, evocative and poingant.

    Father, I want to say that there is no truth without mercy but I am not sure that is correct. I feel I am missing something that makes that statement not fully true.

  3. Michael,
    The Psalmist says:
    “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (85:10)

    God in His mercy, can meet that which is not fully true, and in His good providence redeem it and repair that which is lacking.

  4. Father, as someone who is just beginning the journey into faith, I have recently read things that have left me deeply troubled and questioning whether I could ever truly embrace the Church . Your post has come, quite literally, as the answer to my prayers for guidance and I am beyond grateful to you. Thank you, with all of my heart.

  5. Katherine,
    Thank you for your kind words. Feel free to email privately if I can be of any assistance in your journey. email hidden; JavaScript is required

    The times we live in can be so strange … God give us the grace to find Him!

  6. Father, has there ever been a time that has not been strange? The tension between what “the world” demands and what life in Christ is always create a tension between what is real and what is not. Being in the world but not of it.
    The current cultural situation seems to be creating a clarity about whom we are to serve. The world presenting two, seemingly diametrically opposed virtues and clear paths of action in support of each way–both wrong because they are fundamentally untrue and are enforced by fear.
    That makes it more critical to know the Truth and follow Him.
    Repentance seems to be crucial, at least it has been for me.

  7. Father, this reminds of the moment when Hamlet catches Claudius in prayer and doesn’t kill him because he figures he’ll go to heaven if he dies mid-prayer. After he leaves, Claudius gets up and says “my words fly up, my thoughts stay here below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” I think of this whenever I catch myself praying on autopilot. As you yourself said in a video I watched, even now you find yourself startled by hearing something in the liturgy as if for the first time. Getting beneath the words, both spoken and heard, isn’t that true prayer?

  8. During a hike this week, a friend and I stopped at an overlook along the side of the trail to marvel at the view. As we stood there, a woman approached and proclaimed, “Wow! You guys look iconic!” How profound a statement that was. It wasn’t us that she was awed by. Seeing through us and past us, she became enrapt in that which we were pointing to in our silent gaze.

    It’s not just writing or speaking that makes us iconographers. More than doing, it’s about being. In our movement towards Being, we become icons, revealing “He Who Is,” in Goodness, Beauty, and Truth.

  9. Hi Father Stephen,

    If I’m understanding correctly, the sacrament is not to transform the bread and wine but to reveal (show) that bread is the Body. Can you elaborate on this? Or are we limited to explaining this because it is a mystery (incomprehensible)?

  10. Mike,
    You’re correct – in that it is beyond explaining. But, I’ll offer something anyway. 🙂

    First, Fr. Schmemann was not saying that the Liturgy is unnecessary (just grab some bread and wine). But the Liturgy itself is the “truth” of our own existence. It’s in that “true” existence that we are able to “see” that which is so. And the words we say are part of making that possible. We are very much people who have become so accustomed to thinking in terms of “making things happen” and such that we tend to import it into the Liturgy as well.

    Of course, St. John Chrysostom’s epiclesis “make this bread to be…” supports that kind of thinking, though I don’t think that’s his intention. I’ve often thought with the Eucharist that there are questions that we should refrain from asking (even within ourselves). One of those is the question, “When is it consecrated?” We are creatures of time who are standing in a “timeless” place. Because we are creatures of time – the Liturgy takes and hour and a half (or more). But the only time in the Liturgy is “now.” It’s just a very long now. 🙂

    There is a now in which we live – and, to a degree – it’s the only time we ever live. The world is a Eucharist – which is why giving thanks always, everywhere, and for all things, is the right way to live. In that life, we slowly let God “show” us His world and the truth of it.

  11. Father, doesn’t the Divine Liturgy express, in a sense, the natural state of Thanksgiving and the interrelationship of Our Lord and us?

    When still young in the Church, my parish did a Liturgy of St. James. My late wife chanted it. That was about 35 years ago and I still remember the immediacy of the Thanksgiving at the core.
    That is certainly there in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom but not quite as “in your face” as in the Liturgy of St. James.

  12. Fr,

    The inner life of the Trinity is timeless, but in the Son’s Incarnation He put on time. I think it could be misunderstood that Liturgy removes us from time, which is not the case—that would be a denial of Jesus Christ! Rather, the Liturgy brings us into a “timeless place”, as you said, *without* jettisoning the past, present, and future. It is a fulfillment of time, not the loss of time.

    This is partly revealed in that the Liturgy has an inner order. We do not consecrate the bread after we eat it—in any rite I’m aware of, East or West. It just doesn’t happen. So while there is a timeless quality to the consecration—a fullness beyond time that extends backwards and forwards across time—it is very much an event in time. There is a before and after, just as we have an Old Covenant and New, just as the Israelites used unleavened (lit unrisen) bread and canonical Christians use leavened (lit risen, for Christ Is Risen!) bread. It might be tough for us to speak of a time of consecration, but we must speak what we know—and it would only be harder for us to speak of its timelessness, for that is not natural to us: we only know that by union.

    As for the “now”, I have found this can get incredibly misused. As part of my many “live” theological experiments, I’ve tried living a “now” in everything from finances to liturgical prayer to work. In all cases, the fruit was exceedingly bad. I think that it is possible to forget the “now” and misuse the “now”, but the answer to that isn’t to then react against and cast off the past and future. Indeed, God does not live in the “now” any more than the past or future: God is so far beyond “time” that His existence is as utterly different from past and future as it is from “now”. Rather, to pull out another vital quote from Pr Alexander Schmemann, “the strength of the Church is not in the past, present, or future, but in Christ.”.

  13. JBT,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I think that I would add some correctives. Christ’s admonition to “take no thought for the morrow” comes to mind, as does “now is the time of salvation.” How you personally might have tried to “live in the now” and found it not working is of note – though it might have been a misguided effort. I would not generalize on the matter.

    In the incarnation of Christ, He certainly lives in our “time,” and yet, He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” That we have a historical existence, or, rather, an embodied, physical existence, is not an endorsement of how modernity reads time. Modernity has a deep distortion of the “historical” and abuses it consistently.

    I think I will let my observations stand as stated, noting that you’ve had some problems in it. If you speak of “what you know,” I would not use that to assume that others do not know something else. As we walk in Christ, by union, we know much more than we would otherwise. I would suggest, for example, that when we “remember” the past, we are bringing it into the present. We do not actually “experience” the past, much less the future. You don’t have to try to experience “now,” since, that’s the only time you ever live. There is, of course, regret, when we wrongly see the past, and anxiety, when we wrongly see the future. No. I think that it is incorrect to speak of us as “historical” as though that were the same thing as physical. It is not.

  14. Fr. Stephen,
    I have not read extensively on the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist, so please excuse any errors in this post and please feel free to point them out.
    I found it quite liberating to see the Eucharist as mystery, accepting Jesus’s words literally – ‘this is my body, this is my blood, without having to try and bend my brain into understanding the concept of transubstantiation and philosophical speculation of accidents, etc.

  15. Additionally,
    If you attempt to live in the “now” using rational thought, it will not only fail but will make you miserable and a little crazy. “Now” is a noetic perception – in fact – pretty much the only mode that the nous operates in.

  16. Andrew,
    Of all the time that has been wasted in theology, the efforts to find a way to explain the Eucharistic transformation ranks at close to the top. Generally, Orthodoxy says, “Don’t do that.”

  17. Ahhh. History. My favorite history professor in college, Dr Gordon Ross, defined what historians do as “The creation of a past that allows for a future into which can come the ever emerging now.”

    He realized that for all our denial time is mutable. I still remember the joy of my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

    God is with us. I truly experienced being in the world and being being lifted up at the same time. In the 36 years since I have allowed that sense to atrophy a bit from time to time. Only repentance seems to restore and enlarge that sense.
    Mt 4:17.

    Or the proclamation from the Christmas vigil: “God is with us! Understand all ye Nation and submit yourselves for God is with us! ”

    I have a tough time finding time in any of it. As God Himself said ” I am”.

  18. A friend asked me to post this thought:

    Everything that we have to do is worth doing. Everything from doing the laundry to washing the dishes to arguing with the spouse to chasing after the kids. None of it is trivial. From the perspective of the nous, all of it is eucharistic and shares in the Cross. From the perspective of psychology, it is drudgery, and living in the now means doing things exciting and limbic-pounding. It is difficult not to live strictly as psychological creatures. But, that is the task: To move from the psychological to the noetic, from personal to hypostatic.

  19. “But that is the task: To move from the psychological to the noetic, from the personal to the hypostatic.”
    A lot there to contemplate.

    Unless I am wrong modernity wants everybody to live in the personal, isolated from everyone else. As far from The Cross as possible.

  20. Fr. Stephen, please forgive me if this has been mentioned, but the best explanation of the nous and living in the “now” that I have ever read is in Fr. Meletios Webber’s book: Bread, Water, Wine and Oil. He does a magnificent job (for me) in describing the Mind, the Heart and the Nous and also the Past, the Future and the Present Moment. I thank God that I have read this and re-read it many times. Glory to God for All Things!

  21. I found “The lame are made to walk, not to fly” very clarifying for considering the Eucharist. Many thanks!

  22. On the theme of the personal to the hypostatic, we are now faced with a new enemy: transhumanism. Facebook just announced a name and concept change. The new name-Meta. The new concept is an artificial computer generated environment that people can be in and interact with each other in the artificially generated computer world.

    That is the challenge of modernity. To remain human through repentance and union/communion with Jesus Christ.

  23. Surely the most fearsome words in the Bible are “(t)he heart is deceitful above all things”.

  24. Maria,
    Yes, that’s true. But ponder this statement by St. Macarius:

    “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.” (H.43.7)

  25. Father Stephen:
    An excellent, helpful post.
    I value your treatment of ‘truth’, its connection with being, creation, as well as Beauty an d Goodness. Purposeful falsehood – lies – have never sat well with me. It seems like Fake news, doctored images, etc, are all almost crimes in a way. And to think some people make their living generating fake news. When the internet was new, such revelations were shocking, and we wondered why such was even legal. Now we are jaundiced.

    It never seemed like an oversight to me where, in the Ecclesiates 3 list of everything (many negative) for which there is a time (or season), that lying was not included. Truth is always triumphant. Yet even here, we can postulate instances where lying might be called for (“No, Captain Gestapo, there are no Jews in this house.”) Perhaps I am too simple.

    I need to choose silence more often. As you say, my words might be true, but lack meekness. In my vigilance for truth, I can sow shame, fear, or division. I hope I will want/choose to be a peacemaker more often, and an “opener-of-eyes” less often, or at least only “in due season”.
    thank you.

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