Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery, in the first half of a transcribed (and then translated) speech called “The Progression of the Soul” speaks of stages to the beginning of the spiritual journey. The beginning point for him is found in rightly negotiating the second stage.
The first stage of the spiritual journey he calls the feeling of exile, the feeling that we are far from God, that there is a wall between us. This feeling of exile is the feeling of Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise. It is the feeling of pain, not necessarily physical pain; in fact, physical pain is not at all what he is speaking about. The pain he is speaking of is the pain of longing, the pain that induced Adam and Eve to listen to the serpent. Being lords of the universe, possessing everything, Adam and Eve came to feel they didn’t have enough, that somehow God was holding out on them. Being very rich, they thought themselves poor and thus were easily deceived by the serpent. This is the pain Archimandrite Aimilianos seems to be speaking of, the painful feeling that something very important is missing.
And of course, something very important is indeed missing. We are children of the fall. We are born in pain and raised among thorns and thistles. Everywhere we turn we are poked and prodded by needles of want, envy, fear, and desire (just to name a few). Yet we don’t want to admit it. We want to explain it, explain it away. We say, “It is someone else’s fault. I’m not really that twisted, at least not as badly mangled as some others. And besides, I could change if I really wanted to, if I only tried harder, if I only got a break.” And so we keep busy. We keep busy so that our focus can stay outside us, so we don’t have to feel the pain, the inner pain, the pain of exile from God, the pain that Archimandrite Aimilianos says is directly related to nakedness.
The pain that we do not want to feel is the pain of our nakedness. Having been clothed by God in the Garden of Paradise, clothed with God’s glory the Fathers and hymns of the Church teach us, having been clothed with God’s glory we intensely feel its absence, we feel exposed and unprotected, we feel the cold wind of our existential contingency: having been called into being from the dirt by God, what are we now that we have lost His glory? St. Augustine spoke of a God-shaped hole in our hearts. The experience of the orphan or of a lost sheep are metaphors pointing to this inner feeling of exile, of pain, and of nakedness. It is this very feeling, the feeling of this pain, this knowing that we are naked, that Archimandrite Aimilianos says the first stage of the spiritual journey.
The second stage of the spiritual journey, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, comes when we confess that we are sinners, when we know intensely that something is separating us from God, when we no longer deny our nakedness. This, he says, is the most critical point
because at that point one of two things will happen: either I’ll get up and get dressed or I’ll remain naked. In other words, I’ll either present myself to God in my nakedness and say, ‘I have sinned,’ or I’ll try to hide from God like Adam and Eve. And when God says: ‘Adam where are you?’ I’ll say: ‘Hiding because I am naked.’ And when I emerge from my hiding place, He’ll see my fig leaves.
Then Archimandrite Aimilianos asks why this is. Why do we hide ourselves? Why is it so hard for us to present ourselves naked and sinful before God? The simple reason, he says, is “that it is a terrible thing for us to realize that we are nothing”:
Do you know what it means to go from thinking that you’re special and important, from being respected publicly, from thinking that you’ve done great things, from being talented, wonderful, good-looking, charming and I don’t know what else besides, to recognizing that, on the contrary, you’re naked and of no consequence whatsoever? It requires strength to accept that, a lot of strength. And yet we can’t even accept the slightest blemish that we might have, or any fault, failure, error or sin that we may have committed, without covering it up with a lie, and then cover up that lie with a second one, and then the second with a third.
A person may conceal his or her nakedness by means of an inferiority complex, by acts of aggression, by self-justification, by donning various masks, or by many other means…. Such strategies of denial also involve concealment from myself. What does that mean? It means that, even though I’m naked, I’ll live as though I were not, and thus live a double life. Or I may refuse to grow and progress, as though I weren’t naked at all. And this is something much more terrible, for it is the rejection of reality, and such a rejection can only have tragic consequences for me.
Life is full of people like that They know they’re sinners, they know they’re naked, and yet they go through life doing the very things which they hate, which disgust them, which they know are beneath them. And they know that they must somehow silence the terrible cry of their conscience, which torments them.
The soul’s alternative is to accept its situation and say: ‘I’ll do something about my nakedness. I will declare my sin. I will confess my sin and my nakedness.’ And naked though I be, I will nevertheless present myself to God. I’ll tell Him: ‘You clothe me.’ And that takes great strength. To turn to God as if nothing else in the world exists requires tremendous honesty and authenticity.
This is the crucial point: will I accept the painful reality of my nakedness or prefer my version of the lie, my version of the fig leaf? I think many of us are confused about the appropriate role of strength and will in our repentance. I think many of us invest a great deal of our will power and a great deal of our effort into sewing fig leaves. We think that is what we are supposed to do, we are supposed to get better, supposed to be better, we are supposed to make ourselves less naked. But we can’t, so we lie to ourselves; we shift our focus, assign blame, keep busy, and above all never spend much time alone and quiet, never give ourselves an opportunity to see and feel profoundly how naked we really are.
You know one of the most common things sincere believers confess in confession is the sin of laziness. However, much of the time I think the person has fallen prey to this confusion of the role of strength and the will in our journey to Christlikeness. They confess they are lazy because they have not been able to cover their nakedness sufficiently, they have not been able to fast or pray or do good works to the level they think they are supposed to be at. But I don’t think that is what strength and will power are for. St. Paul gives us the clue. He says, “When I am weak, then I am strong” and “I rather glory in my weakness that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Archimandrite Aimilianos tells us that strength really is about standing naked before God and before ourselves. Faithful application of strength and the power of the will is to deny our self-justifying delusions and unlike our forefathers and foremothers to step naked out of the bushes and to present ourselves to God without excuse, without prettying ourselves up first, embracing all of our weakness, all of our shadows, all of our inability and insignificance. This is where strength is needed. This is where the power of the will is redeemed.
And if, like St. Paul, we can learn to glory in our weaknesses, if we can learn to accept the reality of our brokenness, of our impotence, of our lostness, if we can find the strength to look squarely in the mirror of our conscience and not turn away, then, then we have the possibility of being clothed by God, then we have the possibility of returning in some small ways to the relationship our foreparents had with God in Paradise. It is a long road, but at least according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, this is the real beginning. Everything up to this point is preparation. Preparation is important. The Holy Spirit is active in this preparation. But the turning point, the beginning of the actual return to Paradise is here. It is here in the acceptance of our nakedness, in the forsaking of the various fig leaves we sew and have sewn for ourselves. This is the beginning.
Strength is called for, “tremendous honesty and authenticity,” as Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it. Strength is called for, but not the strength to change, but the strength to accept yourself and to accept God’s love for us as we are. That’s the beginning.
Now a final word. Archimandrite Aimilianos points out that this first step, this beginning, is not like the beginning of a journey in a straight line. It is a journey of transformation that is circular. That is, we are continually having to begin, continually having to gather the courage to step out of the bushes of our self delusions to stand naked and broken and sinful before God. And even though we have experienced God’s gracious love in the past, each new beginning has its own new insecurities and fears, shame and disappointment with ourselves. Each new beginning requires strength, strength to stand before God again and say, “O my heavenly Father, again, I am naked, please clothe me.”