The most excellent theologian …is not one who has discovered the whole of God’s being but one who has assembled more of truth’s shadow.
Gregory of Nazianzus paraphrased by Natalie Carnes in Beauty.
The most excellent theologian …is not one who has discovered the whole of God’s being but one who has assembled more of truth’s shadow.
Gregory of Nazianzus paraphrased by Natalie Carnes in Beauty.
Found in the unfinished novel The Notion Club Papers, this is the “The Death of St. Brendan” by J.R.R. Tolkien:
At last out of the deep seas he passed,
and mist rolled on the shore;
under clouded moon the waves were loud,
as the laden ship him bore
to Ireland, back to wood and mire,
to the tower tall and grey,
where the knell of Cluain-ferta’s bell
tolled in green Galway.
Where Shannon down to Lough Derg ran
under a rainclad sky
Saint Brendan came to his journey’s end
to await his hour to die.
‘O! tell me, father, for I loved you well,
if still you have words for me,
of things strange in the remembering
in the long and lonely sea,
of islands by deep spells beguiled
where dwell the Elven-kind:
in seven long years the road to Heaven
or the Living Land did you find?’
‘The things I have seen, the many things,
have long now faded far;
only three come clear now back to me:
a Cloud, a Tree, a Star.
We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
no field nor coast of men;
no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
for forty days and ten.
We saw no sun at set or dawn,
but a dun cloud lay ahead,
and a drumming there was like thunder coming
and a gleam of fiery red.
Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer
a shoreless mountain stood;
its sides were black from the sullen tide
to the red lining of its hood.
No cloak of cloud, no lowering smoke,
no looming storm of thunder
in the world of men saw I ever unfurled
like the pall that we passed under.
We turned away, and we left astern
the rumbling and the gloom;
then the smoking cloud asunder broke,
and we saw that Tower of Doom:
on its ashen head was a crown of red,
where fires flamed and fell.
Tall as a column in High Heaven’s hall,
its feet were deep as Hell;
grounded in chasms the waters drowned
and buried long ago,
it stands, I ween, in forgotten lands
where the kings of kings lie low.
We sailed then on, till the wind had failed,
and we toiled then with the oar,
and hunger and thirst us sorely wrung,
and we sang our psalms no more.
A land at last with a silver strand
at the end of strength we found;
the waves were singing in pillared caves
and pearls lay on the ground;
and steep the shores went upward leaping
to slopes of green and gold,
and a stream out of the rich land teeming
through a coomb of shadow rolled.
Through gates of stone we rowed in haste,
and passed, and left the sea;
and silence like dew fell in that isle,
and holy it seemed to be.
As a green cup, deep in a brim of green,
that with wine the white sun fills
was the land we found, and we saw there stand
on a laund between the hills
a tree more fair than ever I deemed
might climb in Paradise:
its foot was like a great tower’s root,
it height beyond men’s eyes;
so wide its branches, the least could hide
in shade an acre long,
and they rose as steep as mountain-shows
those boughs so broad and strong;
for white as a winter to my sight
the leaves of that tree were,
they grew more close than swan-wing plumes,
all long and soft and fair.
We deemed then, maybe, as in a dream,
that time had passed away
and our journey ended; for no return
we hoped, but there to stay.
In the silence of that hollow isle,
in the stillness, then we sang –
softly us seemed, but the sound aloft
like a pealing organ rang.
Then trembled the tree from crown to stem;
from the limbs the leaves in air
as white birds fled in wheeling flight,
and left the branches bare.
From the sky came dropping down on high
a music not of bird,
not voice of man, nor angel’s voice;
but maybe there is a third
fair kindred in the world yet lingers
beyond the foundered land.
Yet steep are the seas and the waters deep
beyond the White-tree Strand.’
‘O! stay now, father! There’s more to say.
But two things you have told:
The Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
The Star in mind do you hold?’
‘The Star? Yes, I saw it, high and far,
at the parting of the ways,
a light on the edge of the Outer Night
like silver set ablaze,
where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,
as an unseen bridge that on arches runs
to coasts than no man knows.’
‘But men say, father, that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would hear you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.’
‘In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.’
In Ireland, over wood and mire,
in the tower tall and grey,
the knell of Cluain-ferta’s bell
was tolling in green Galway.
Saint Brendan had come to his life’s end
under a rainclad sky,
and journeyed whence no ship returns,
and his bones in Ireland lie.
Wendell Berry in The Hidden Wound. First, about his childhood caretaker and companion, Nick:
Within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.
…He is yet another master of the customs of necessity, the minute strategies of endurance and of joy.
Next about another such childhood caretaker, Aunt Georgie:
I wanted desperately to share the smug assumptions of my race and class and time that all questions have answers, all problems solutions, all sad stories happy endings. It was good that I should have been tried, that I should have had to contend with Aunt Georgie’s unshakable—and accurate—view that life is perilous, surrounded by mystery, acted upon by powerful forces unknown to us. Much as she troubled me and disturbed my sleep, I cannot regret that she told me, bluntly as it needs to be told, that men and events come to strange and painful ends, not foreseen. …And no doubt because of this very darkness of cosmic horror in her mind, everything in the world that she touched became luminous with its own life. She was always showing you something: a plant, a bloom, a tomato, an egg, an herb, a sprig of spring greens. Suddenly you saw it as she saw it—vivid, useful, free of all the chances against it, a blessing—and it entered shadowless into your mind. I still keep the deepest sense of delight in the memory of the world’s good things held out to me in her black crooked floriferous hands.
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves-that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.
For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses.
My second-most-read post of all time is “Myrrh, Mercy and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All.” These are not high numbers that I am talking about. My most read post has 352 views to date: “Response to Walter Wink’s Book Naming the Powers.” However, at 348 views to date, “Myrrh, Mercy and Oil” is likely to take first place soon because its views have collected at a slow but steady rate over time whereas almost all the views of my “Response to Walter Wink’s Book” were shortly after I posted and shared it (a while after the post on myrrh and mercy). In the last 90 days, for example, 42 people have viewed my post on myrrh and mercy whereas only 8 have viewed my response to Walter Wink.
Because there seems to be some small lasting value to my post on myrrh and mercy, I’ve decided to add this mini update.
One or two weeks ago, my priest, Father Peter Pier, told our congregation a story that he had been told by his bishop many years ago not to share with his congregation. In his sermon, Fr. Peter was talking about miracles and making the overall point that all of us should feel close to miracles, should know ourselves to be wonder workers. He pointed out that even those of us who have seen and believed in one or more miracles do not tend to think of them as something close to us, something that is a normal part of our lives, something that we do.
Fr. Peter’s story was this. Over a decade ago, he noticed an icon in our church streaming myrrh. He smelled it and wiped it off carefully and noticed it again the next time he was in the church. At that point, he decided to call his bishop and let him know. (this was Bishop Antoun serving Metropolitan Philip, both of blessed memory). Bishop Antoun responded that Fr. Peter was one of about seven priests who had called that same week to report a myrrh-streaming icon. Fr. Peter was instructed not speak to anyone about this within his congregation unless the myrrh-streaming became so visible that multiple people began to comment and ask about it. Therefore, Fr. Peter never said a word about this event to anyone until this recent sermon, even though more than one other icon within our church streamed myrrh again during the intervening years.
Our priest shared that this directive not to speak about myrrh-streaming icons came from Metropolitan Philip to all of his bishops and priests because he did not want congregations to be distracted from the primary and normal means of grace: the eucharist offered at every divine liturgy. As we are nourished regularly with the body and blood of our God, Savior, brother, and friend Jesus Christ, we should give thanks in our hearts primarily for this, and we are likely to be excited and distracted by reports of special events and signs of God’s mercy and love.
Fr. Peter’s primary point in telling this story was that we all work this wonderful act of God weekly (at least). He wanted us all to consider ourselves close to the powerful works of God and to know that we participate regularly in the working of wonders. When we say “Amen, Amen, Amen” during each divine liturgy, we are enacting a miraculous wonder. The occasion of this sermon was the Sunday on which we have the epistle reading about Peter raising Tabitha from the dead. Elizabeth and I named our last child Tabitha two years ago, and she is also a daily means of God’s kind and loving work within our lives.
I suppose Metropolitan Philip’s point about distraction is confirmed by the fact that I am not likely to blog about the eucharist very often or that such posts would not likely be read and pass around by many people. Apparently, we want the unusual far more than we want the wonderful.
One other point that I take from this story is the place of trust or witness in the function of miracles within the life of God’s people. There seems to be some basic reason why what we think of as miracles never lend themselves to scientific replication and verification. I’m not going to try and figure this out fully here. Miracles do hold up under careful rational scrutiny, but they are not replicable, verifiable, or falsifiable in the ways that our modern preferences demand. Most of us today place far more value on the replicability of an event than we do on the character of the person bearing witness to the event. I have every reason to believe the story that my priest, Fr. Peter, told about various icons in our church streaming myrrh over the years. This is because I’ve come to know Fr. Peter well in recent years as a very normal, humble, and loving man with great integrity. However, this kind of testimony will mean very little to anyone reading this who has not gotten to know me or my priest. This is one of the values that we have lost as a result of our increased mobility and lack of intergenerational community within modern society. We no longer have a lot of deep and long-standing relationships in which the testimony of one good person about something that happened over a decade ago might be highly persuasive and meaningful to many others around them. Sadly, this is a large part of the reason why so many do not find the case for the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ to be very persuasive in our day.
This is the point that C.S. Lewis is making he has the Professor say to Peter and Susan that “a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed” (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Lewis is pointing out that we are no longer able to fully understand the seriousness and the value of testimony to truth that is based simply on someone’s character and reliability. Finally, I suppose that the directive from Metropolitan Philip to his priests (not to talk about myrrh streaming icons without good cause) lines up remarkably well with the last point that the Professor makes to Peter and Susan: “There is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying. …We might all try minding our own business.”
The more highly industrialised the country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. Britain has been highly industrialised longer than any country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women—of all classes—detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.
T.S. Eliot in Christianity and Culture.
Anamnesis (ἀνάμνησις) is the word that Jesus uses at the Last supper: “Do this in memory of me” (Greek: “τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν”, Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24–25).
In episode 7 of the Amon Sûl podcast, Fr. Andrew Damick defines anamnesis as:
The invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now.
Bringing the Savior, whose salvation we remember, into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.
Severals did see the Second Sight when in the Highlands or Isles, yet when transported to live in other Countries, especially in America, they quite lose this Quality, as was told me by a Gentleman who knew some of them in Barbadoes, who did see no Vision there, altho he knew them to be Seers when they lived in the Isles of Scotland.
—Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692) in his short treatise on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (1691). This passage came from an an extended citation of a letter by Lord Tarbett (Tarbott?) to the Honorable Robert Boyle, Esquire. Reverend Kirk, in addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter (1684), also possessed the second sight and became the subject of a wild fairy story after his own alleged disappearance at the end of his life.
C.S. Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves, 22 June 1930:
Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.
We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
“Darwin and Christianity – Part 13: God and Creation” by Father Thomas Hopko.
You could contemplate a tree and know the glory of God himself in that tree. Now, the tree is not God. The sun is not God; the moon is not God. That’s what Genesis wants to say. But that they declare the glory of God, and that they even express ideas in the mind of God who is the Logos from before all eternity. So there’s a sense in which all creatures and every single creature, from the highest seraph to the lowest grain of sand and everything in between, so to speak, are showing forth in creaturely form what God is.
Fr. Bulgakov, a Russian theologian who was very dissatisfied with how Christian theology formulated the issue of the relationship of God and the world, and he brought forth his own theory of the divine chokmah, the premudros, the sophia of God, the divine wisdom as a way of trying to understand it—I think rather unsuccessfully, but nevertheless very interestingly and worth studying, but probably, ultimately, not acceptable—but he tried. He tried his best. But in any case, it’s probably better simply to follow the Church Fathers and Palamas in what they actually do, what they actually say.
But they affirm the mystery negatively, as Fr. Bulgakov pointed out. They said that divinity and creation, the uncreated and the created, or speaking, taking the cue from the divinity and the humanity, the one Person of Jesus Christ, are united in a perfect union, and then they use four negative adverbs: achoristos, adiairetos, atreptos, and asynchytos, in Greek, which means without separation and without division, but without fusion and without changing. So God is always God, creatures are always creatures, but there is a real union that is effected by the grace of God through his divine energies, where humanity really can become co-worker with God and can really be deified. Human beings can really know God through his divine actions and energies.
Ultimately these actions and energies of God, they all proceed from the Father, through the Son, and are accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit. And that means that all the divine energies and actions and operations of God, from creation to redemption to salvation to deification to transfiguration to glorification are all enacted by agency of the Logos who is incarnate as Jesus Christ—in other words, by the agency of Christ himself, as the Creed says, following St. Paul, “through whom all things were made”—and by the accomplishing action of the power of the divine breath, the divine wind, the divine Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the all-holy, good, and life-creating spirit.
So you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting in the world from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, the Spirit in us through the Son, taking us into communion with Father, and there really is a union without separation or division, but without fusion and mingling. God doesn’t become a creature; creatures don’t become God. God doesn’t stop being God; creatures don’t stop being creatures. God is always God, and he can’t stop being God, and creatures are always creatures and can’t stop being creatures.
Nevertheless, the union exists without a separation and a division. We abide in God; God abides in us. We in him, he in us—what the process theologians would call panentheism: God is in everything, and everything is in God.
…Bulgakov, when he tried to solve the problem of how uncreated relates to created, he said a sentence once which is unacceptable. He said the creation, wisdom in its created form—he [spoke] about the uncreated wisdom and the created wisdom—he said is God in created form, that the cosmos is God in created form. Well, that comes close to process theology. However, I think the classical patristic Orthodox theology, following the Bible, would say God doesn’t have a created form—God is God—but that creatures in the forms that they have show forth and manifest that which exists in an incomprehensible manner within the Godhead—that would be the truth, that there are the divine ideas, the divine logoi of all creation that exist in God and are somehow even actualized in the divine manner within the divinity.
As the Roman Catholic great monk, Thomas Merton, a writer, a thinker, a philosopher, a spiritual writer said, “When I go out to feed the rabbits, I contemplate the eternal rabbithood of God.” Now, he wasn’t a Platonist who said, “I go out and contemplate the perfect rabbit in the divine idea of rabbit that exists in the Platonic world of ideas.” What he meant by “the eternal rabbithood of God” was that God himself actualizes within divinity something somehow someway that we can’t even imagine that has its created form in that little rabbit or in that tree or in that lion. Here the holy Fathers would speak about all of these elements in creation being symbolic of God, and by the way, they are. Everything that exists in the created order can somehow symbolize and manifest God, can give us an idea of God.
Analogies are right, but the Christian theology goes beyond analogies. We not only can contemplate an idea of God through trees or through animals or what-all exists that there must be God, he must cause it, he must be beautiful, it must have a purpose—but in experiencing those very realities themselves, within them we actually touch God, because the claim would be God indwells everything, and if he didn’t, as the book of Job says, if God withdrew his breath, everything would disappear.
But there are the presence of God and the Logos of God in all things. The holy early Fathers spoke about the logoi in plural that are spread in through creation and have their created forms. So we could say there is a necessary connection between God and the world for sure, but it’s a world that God created and in some sense that God does not need to actualize everything that could possibly be actualized. God actualizes everything that can possibly be actualized, we would say philosophically, within the Godhead itself.
But then I think we could take the next step and say: Since God has decided to create, God has also decided to actualize in created form as creaturely expressions of what exists in an incomprehensible way within divinity in all the things that exist, and that all proclaim his glory and his wisdom and his power and his beauty and his strength; and that our groaning and in travail, as St. Paul says, until the revelation of the children of God when anything ultimately will be transfigured and deified, and everything will be filled with all the fullness of God and therefore creation will ultimately reach the omega point that it was created to be from the alpha point, the arche and the telos, what it was supposed to be from the beginning and ultimately will only reach and become and more perfectly become forever and ever in the coming kingdom of God when Christ comes in his glory at the end to bring to completion God’s plan which was there from the beginning which according to St. Paul was hidden even from the angels from before the foundation of the world. This is how Christians look at it, I believe.