Suspended Above the Earth

Yesterday was Great and Holy Friday. The main service features one of my favorite hymns of the church, as well as one of the shortest:

Today, is suspended on a tree, He, who suspended the earth upon the waters.

The structure of that sentence is all wrong (difficult to read, difficult to parse), but as a whole, it turns out to be perfect. Instead of putting the subject at the beginning, it appears in the center, like a mountain peak, with the predicate climbing toward it and the dependent phrase climbing back down at the end.

The sentence also begins with that “Today,” which functions like an imperative. It has the force of saying, “Listen up.” It is also reminiscent of that great paschal psalm, quoted once a year by the Jewish High Priest, as he sacrifices the paschal lamb: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Great and Holy Friday is that day, the “Today!”

Granted the cosmology of the hymn is all wrong by modern scientific standards because it follows the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews rather than that of modern scientists. But because of that, the force of the dependent clause may be missed. “The waters” are not just chaotic, they are “chaos.” “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and it was a formless void” (Gen 1:1). This is the chaos of uncreation. And from this chaos God formed and brought forth the creation of his desire that was very good. The image of that phrase is one of, not only God’s grace, but God’s beautiful grace. The earth (what we can now think of as the beautiful blue marble in the blackness of outer space) is suspended above the primordial chaos.

In stark contrast, the cross – while we know intellectually it is the victory of our God – is the primary symbol of our emotional chaos at how salvation had to be accomplished. The disciples were terrified by this turn of events, not yet able to understand that the path to winning is losing. We have great comfort and confidence in the stability and underlying orderliness of the earth, its seasons, its consistent day and night, etc. But suspended above this orderlieness of familiarity is the chaos of the Creator dead upon the cross.

So it is that everything in the hymn is slightly out of kilter, and yet the sum of these out of kilter pieces is a perfect balance, a perfect movement, and a perfect harmony. That is the very heart of the “Today!” that Great and Holy Friday is.


Further Thoughts on Shame

In the previous essay  I claimed (following the lead of John Climacus) that we can only be saved by embracing our shame. Living in a family that has a multi-generational issue with alcoholism and the shame that can both cause alcoholism and be a result of it, I recognize this advice might sound rather horrible. I therefore want to delve a bit deeper into the issue.

Shame is the proper internal reaction to sin. Conversely, being shameless is is the hallmark of ungodliness because it indicates we have lost all reference to God and thus lost all sense of our moral standing before God.

When we lose our reference to divine things, we can become “shameless,” or callous. The celebration of debauchery is a form of such shamelessness. When this happens we might say that such a person has become agnostic on a practical level because their actions have no reference to nor consideration of God.

Shame can also manifest itself in a completely different manner, which is every bit as agnostic but not shameless or callous. This happens when a person develops an overwhelming sense of shame that is self-focused rather than divine-focused. Alcoholism, eating disorders, and other forms of self-destructive behavior are frequently driven by this second sort of shame.

It appears that these two problems are opposite ends of a single spectrum and one might assume they need to be dealt with in quite different ways, but this appearance is false. It is the same problem but with two different manifestations. The primary difference is that the seemingly shameless person focuses the self-loathing externally while the overly shameful person focuses the self-loathing internally. In both cases, the problem (as is the case with nearly all sin) is that the focus is on the wrong place. Healing for either sort of shame only comes when we look upon God and go through the discipline necessary to travel the paths that God in Christ has traveled.

When we look fully and openly on God we find it necessary to look away because what is looking back at us, in the form of the energies of God flowing from him, is unconditional love, and that unconditional love is too overwhelming or embarrassing to receive. We are accustomed to being looked at critically or dismissively or having the experience of having people look right past us, as if we do not exist at all. But as we train ourselves to look fully and openly on God and simply accept those energies of unconditional love and acceptance flowing back over us and into us, we can begin to see ourselves as God sees us. Said in this way, it sounds simple. It’s not. This is a lifetime of work, forcing ourselves to stop looking either loathingly or lovingly at ourselves (ie, idolatry), and, in turn, to truly turn our attention on to God.

The Navigators (a Protestant parachurch organization I grew up with) accomplishes this through scripture memorization and contemplation of God through scripture. The Orthodox Christian Church encourages personal devotion through the means of scripture, especially the Psalms, but also through hymns and simple prayers such as the Jesus Prayer or the Trisagion Prayers. Roman Catholics often use the rosary. While each method has strengths and limitations, the aim of each is the same: to help us learn to put our full and (eventually) unflinching attention on God while, through his energies, he gazes back at us, knowing us as we are, and accepting us in all our corruption and immaturity, and inviting us to  travel with him where he, to hell and back again.

When I can finally see myself as God sees me, then (and only then!) can I embrace the true shame I ought to feel. On the one hand, I’m not nearly as good as I believe I am (false pride). On the other hand, I am not nearly as bad as I have convinced myself that I am (false shame). I am created in the image of God and because of that, I am an inherently and exquisitely good creature, a creation of the good God. Simultaneously, I am dead, and the rot of corruption makes me smell like a corpse, act like a zombie, and loathe both myself and circumstances in which I find myself. I learn, as I gaze unflinchingly at God, to be ashamed of the stink while simultaneously holding in wonder the glory of myself created in the very image of God.

And as I slowly but surely learn to gaze unflinchingly at God, God’s energies flow into me, give me life, where before there was only death, and transform the corruption into what God intended me to become in the first place. This is the journey into the very heart of Hades … not by myself, but holding tightly to hand of Christ the Victor. And once I have arrived in the heart of Hades … and only from that spot … can I see, in the distance, the glorious light of Heaven.

One of Elder Sophrony’s most beloved aphorisms is,  “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can take it no more. Then have a cup of tea.” (The abyss he’s referring to is Hades, or as Fr Stephen described it so perfectly, it is simultaneously “the Gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise.”) Gazing at God will utterly undo us. It is disconcerting and even terrifying. In short order we must step away. But Elder Sophrony’s advice is wise. When we step away, don’t step away in shame that we cannot look into the face of our Savior, for that is the nature of being dead. Don’t step away in embarrassment, just step away and (in his classically English manner) have a cup of tea. Try again this afternoon. In God’s time, and with self-discipline you and I will eventually learn to gaze upon the abyss that is simultaneously The Abyss and God and be utterly undone. Only then can God make us anew.

Thanks be to God.

Salvation as Descent

As Holy Week approaches and we solemnly observe the downward (upward) spiral of events that inevitably is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion (leading to Jesus’ victory), I am reminded of the juxtaposition of the movements of ascent and descent in the Christian gospel. Jesus’ victory is not the resurrection (which is the announcement of his victory) but the cross and his descent into Hades. In that movement he finally fully identified with humanity and was therefore, having embraced the full human experience, able to lead the human race from death to life and from alienation to communion with the God who longs for us to join him.

Similarly for us, true winning is losing, ascending to heaven is descending to the depths, the greatest among us are the least, and the poor are the richest of all. Reflecting on the 4th Sundy of Lent (what is popularly called the Sunday of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, based on the book by John Climacus, who is the saint of the day), Stephen Freeman observed that we in contemporary Western culture get the image of our ascending to the Divine completely backwards. “We simply are not saved by getting better; it is a false image and a false goal.”

John Climacus himself, describing how we ascend to God, said, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” His point was that we have to embrace our sins (and our shame). This doesn’t mean that we “sin more so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1), but rather that we don’t pretend we’re not what we are. Self-improvement (the modern concept of works) simply pushes our sin and shame to the side. Thus, when God enters into us and transforms us, the sin is not actually dealt with because it still lurks around the edges. But when we embrace our sin and shame (which is a side-effect of our spiritual death), then we can descend with Christ into the place of death (Hades) and, from that proper starting point, be raised with Christ to new life.

In the prior essay I described the effort required to truly allow the Spirit to fully enter our heart so that we could enter into the unity with Christ we are promised. Here’s one more reason this holy effort is the opposite of the Covenant of Works. We are not working to improve ourselves so that we are acceptable to God; the work involved is rather opposite, embracing all in us that is unacceptable. Or, in John’s words, “embracing our shame.”

“My failure is both the gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise,” says Fr Stephen. “My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is the very heart of our salvation.”

This is not only counter-intuitive, it is offensive to our sensibilities. But this is the drama of Holy Week, and the very reason that sanctification is so hard. And as we enter into the Holy Week Fast, it is the path we must take if we are to share Christ’s joy and victory, when we cry out, “Christ is risen!” on the far side of Hades.

The Covenant of the Heart

I picked up a book expecting one thing but getting quite another. The book is The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (d. 1655). What it turned out to be was a very early Reformed exposition on grace primarily using the frame of the Covenant of Works vs the Covenant of Grace (ie, classical Covenant theology). His argument is familiar. Doing good things is not the essence of Christian piety because doing good things will not get you to heaven.

Fisher recognizes that when Christians equate piety with doing good things, having a good attitude, etc., the Christian in question is slipping back into a Covenant of Works frame. When this happens the Christian is negating the Gospel of “free grace” (a phrase Fisher likes) that is put forth by Paul in Romans and Galatians.

This sort of language is not commonly used in the Orthodox Church, but it is the normative language used among the people with whom I most commonly have theological discussions. A book such as this leaves me with the question of how I explain why what I do is not the sort of works religion that this book is describing.

While reading Fisher, a new category occurred to me that might be helpful. Let me begin by saying that at this point I am wandering off into what might best be described as a fantasia (the musical genre); I’m riffing on a Reformed theological theme and using the covenant frame to explore the doctrine of theosis. What I propose is a Covenant of the Heart (or Nous). The best of Covenant Theology will emphasize that there is only one overarching covenant between God and humanity. It had various expressions (Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ) but each expression both offered more revelation of who God is and was based on a deeper understanding of God that those involved in the previous covenants did not have. Covenants are therefore a means of expressing God’s progressive revelation in a relational rather than rational context. I am proposing that the touchpoint of the Covenant of Grace is our justification while the touchpoint of the Covenant of the Heart is our sanctification.

With this in mind, my proposed Covenant of the Heart (Nous) – which I again want to be clear, is my own invention – is yet another expression based on better human understanding of God’s revelation. Here is a brief overview:

God desires, not only to reveal himself to us (knowledge), but enter into union with us. When God unites with us, we are transformed by what we might call the super-abundant life of God. But our dead, sinful, corrupt humanity resists this living transformation. We therefore need to make every effort to tear away the old skin, the scales, the shell (think of a snake shedding its skin so it can grow) so this process of transformation can, not only begin, but advance and even possibly near completion in this life.

The purpose of life is not only to be stewards of the earth … the purpose of life is not only to learn more about creation … the purpose of life is not only to know God and be known by him … the purpose of life is to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, to enliven the divine image which we all have, and thus allow it to expand and grow and ultimately to become united with God.

The potential of this process is best captured by Elder Sophrony’s contribution to Orthodox theology (as described by Fr Zacharias, his disciple). The true potential, in this life, of the transformation of our being by the Gospel is in the expansion of the “heart” (and here I come to that italicized word in parentheses). Nous is a Greek word that can be, and is often, translated as heart, intellect, or being. It is the true inner person. When we “invite Jesus into our heart” this is where we are inviting him. Similarly when Paul says our “mind” should be transformed (as most English translations phrase it), the Greek word is nous. It is a notoriously difficult word to translate because it has no English equivalent and is thus often left untranslated. Fr Sophrony, who despises the tendency of experts to use technical language that excludes people, almost always refers to it as “the heart.” Following his lead, I will speak of a Covenant of the Heart.

Elder Sophrony, through a lifetime of monastic experience, believed that the heart is the specific link between Creator and created, the divine and human. The heart therefore has the potential to be infinite, or like God. Through discipline, as the heart grows, it can “take in” (or “wrap its arms about,” or, “envelope”) an increasingly larger segment of reality. Thus, as we allow our heart to be expanded by the Spirit, we can love more of the world, pray for more of the world, actually care about more of the world, without losing the specificity of the particular. Ultimately, he surmises, a person’s heart can, through the enlivening power of the Spirit, become so alive and so stretchable, that it could expand to hold the whole world. If that were to happen, such a person would indeed become a “priest” (in the basic sense of the word, not in its ecclesiastical meaning) praying for and being an intermediary on behalf of the whole world.

But if this were to actually happen it would require every bit of dead and resistant “old self” (Eph 4:22f) to be stripped away … a painful and difficult process. This requires a remarkable amount of effort to prepare one’s own body, soul, and spirit to be transformed by the living power of the Holy Spirit. It’s why Paul, the champion of “free grace” is also the one who says we must be like spiritual athletes who force our bodies into submission in order to win the prize of the high calling of God.

And here’s the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of the Heart: All this effort is not aimed at making me acceptable to God … in other words, it’s not effort in the Pauline sense of “works of the law” … this effort is aimed at preparing the ground (Mt 13:8) for the Holy Spirit to create the miracle of the ever-expanding heart. In so doing I am not trying to make myself acceptable to God, rather I am removing all the impediments (the “old self”) that cause me to resist and reject God. This is the irony of extreme effort to open oneself to pure grace … the more extreme the effort, the purer the grace.

There is an undeniable tension between the utterly free gift of grace and the tremendous effort required to not resist the grace. (And yes, the concept that God’s grace is irresistible is considered a heretical idea in Orthodoxy because it reduces us to automata. The greatest expression of God’s freedom is his own willingness to circumscribe that freedom in his dealings with humans who are made in his own image. This is the inevitable wound of love.) Distinguishing between the Covenant of Grace and my newfangled Covenant of the Heart does not remove the tension, it rather breaks it into its constituent pieces in order to better understand the tension.