First Letters Between Sita and Roland

Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart divulged that Roland W. Hart is engaged in a substantial volume of online research and collaboration—finding email to be a helpful medium for a dog. He has read all of the reviews written for the book so far, including my own which Roland considered to be a touching account of one reader’s elementary grasp of a basic motif within the work.

Astoundingly, I know this because I received an email from Roland myself a few nights ago just as I was closing up some transcription work from a recent online conversation with David Bentley Hart. There, in the glow of my screen was a name that had me reading with bated breath. Roland deemed me a fitting trustee for the first instance of the online distribution of a rather remarkable correspondence that he thought the public might appreciate. Having, of course, first checked with his fellow correspondent and learned that she approved the idea, Roland has shared with me a couple of recent letters between he and Sita Cutsinger that the readers of Roland in Moonlight might appreciate.

For those not familiar with Sita, she is the friend and companion of professor and author James Cutsinger who Sita lost to cancer just over a year ago. James and David had some overlap of scholarly and personal interests and enjoyed a few events and meals together. Sita first wrote to Roland about a month ago, and this has precipitated a warm exchange of letters since, although they have never had the pleasure of meeting in person.

Their idea is that some of their letters might be shared with editors who have some familiarity with the issues raised so that portions might be provided to the human readers of David and James, in case these humans should find encouragement or companionship in their reflections.

Roland’s email made it clear to me that they hope to find multiple editors for this task, so please be on the lookout for an email of your own and please be prompt in sharing its contents with the rest of us. But now, without further introduction, here are the two letters, that I received to pass along:


March 6, 2021

Dear Roland,

I’ve just completed the reading of David’s memoir from your recent years together. As you know, I lost James a little over a year ago, so this tender and precious book came at a good time for me.

While you and I have never met, I hope that you might share my sense of our mutual companionship as already having some ground in reality. This is my feeling by virtue of David and James having enjoyed being together in person on several occasions. To be direct, correspondence with you would be a consolation to me in my last years without James. Moreover, in offering any friendship and encouragement to you, I hope that I might also represent the legacy of James in some small way as he so appreciated David’s work and as you are such a support and guide to David in his continued work. It would comfort me both to find a friend in you and to think that my friendship might be a support to you in your support to one who was so dear to James.

Before sharing the reflections that came to mind for me while reading Roland in Moonlight, I wished to mention that I have just ordered your first volume of haiku and that I look forward to reading your own work as well before long.

As one further aside before addressing some of the topics that I so look forward to considering with you, it seems prudent to directly address a difference that somewhat publicly distinguished the two men under our care. I speak, of course, of their divergent responses to the work of Frithjof Schuon. As you know, James has written of him that, “as for our personal relationship, I shall simply say that Frithjof Schuon is one of the greatest men I have ever known, and I am profoundly grateful to have had his friendship.”

In stark contrast, David has shared with a nephew of his that he finds Frithjof distasteful. As his nephew has phrased it on David’s behalf: “he finds Schuon pretty icky, as he does a lot of the earlier Perennialists.” Putting his assessment even more bluntly, David’s oldest brother has recently described Frithjof as “a first-class bullshitter” within the same forum.

I understand, of course, the revulsion at the Nazi associations of some other thinkers in this same traditionalist school of perennialism, but those closest to Frithjof found no such associations with his own thought.

In the even more sensitive matter of the allegations brought against Frithjof in 1991 and subsequently dropped as baseless, I will simply note that James described Frithjof as “one of the greatest men I have ever known” within an essay published in 2002. This essay by James was included within the book Every Branch in Me alongside an essay by Frithjof (as well as a host of his fellow traditionalists). Coming ten years after Frithjof’s public ordeal, it is clear where James stood on the matter of Frithjof’s integrity and character despite these scandalous accusations.

James wrote that “the mystery of Christ” was a kind of “key to Schuon’s entire approach to the world’s religions.” Quoting Frithjof several times, James further noted:

“All genuine religions are Christian”; or again, “every truth is necessarily manifested in terms of Christ and on His model,” for “there is no truth nor wisdom that does not come from Christ.” Now of course what he means is that “the other religions are ‘Christian’ inasmuch as they have the universal Christ, who is the Word that inspires all Revelation.” Schuon is not saying, in other words, that in order to be a true Muslim or Hindu, one must identify the man Jesus with God; but then, as we have seen, neither should the discerning Christian acquiesce in so simple an equation. God and man have been united in Jesus Christ, but unless we choose to be heretics, the Christian tradition forbids us to think that the manhood in question was merely that of a historical individual, or that the Divinity was that of the pure Absolute. Rather we ourselves are that man in our essential humanity, and the God who assumed us into Himself was the Divine Logos or Word, in and through whom the inaccessible Essence makes Itself known to all.

I find nothing in these conclusions to conflict in any way with the writings of your David. If anything, they are ideas that David himself has shared in other forums and that lie near and dear to the heart of all David’s scholarly and theological work.

James delighted in these ways in which Frithjof showed how traditional Christian dogma regarding the incarnation was, in fact, a sustainer of the core truths within all the great religious traditions of human history. James also loved David’s work and would, no doubt, have most thoroughly enjoyed Roland in Moonlight. In all earnestness, I feel confident that James continues reading books such as these even in the more immediate presence of God. As James reads, he will feel himself even further vindicated by David’s call for humans to “believe everything at once” and to refuse to “relinquish any dimension of anything that [we] find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” (326). James loved these ideas as well and advocated for them boldly and tirelessly throughout his life.

For my own part, I was struck by David’s insistence that humans must “draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event.” David understands that dogs are not so bound by human history, and that we are more free to take hold directly of the valid symbol. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that James was more ready to share in our enjoyment of the symbol itself without being constrained by historical particularities. James was, dare I suggest it, a better student of us dogs in this regard.

I will await your reply with eager confidence in your kindness.

Most Sincerely Yours,

Sita


March 12, 2021

Dear Sita,

Your letter reached me quickly and was relayed promptly to me by David who has (only very slowly) grown most reliable in this regard. (If you might excuse a quick aside, how do you handle this delicate matter with your people? They are far from consistent in recognizing that letters addressed to me are in fact for me.)

It was with great sadness that I learned of having lost James at so young an age for a man. He was a rare gift to the world and a man whose work I loved to read. While we know that he must, most certainly, be continuing to read, it is a loss to us that he can no longer reply with material of his own—speaking to us openly within this veil of tears where we remain. Finding this photo online of you two together was a joy to me.

You must also have found comfort in the reference to your love for each other from the note announcing his passing. I was moved to learn that James started each day with “a hike in his beloved Hitchcock Woods with his canine companion, Sita—whom he named after the heroine of the Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana.”

I agree with you that the many loves shared between David and James give to you and I a wealth of topics in which we might also delight together. It was tactful of you, certainly, to raise the only substantial difference between them of which I am aware. While I cannot speak for David, of course, I will respond with a few thoughts of my own that come to mind on this matter in response to what you shared. While I do love to tease David for his inability to acknowledge his heart’s journey into Hinduism, I do appreciate that David sees a distinction between what a human can accept and what a dog can accept. Speaking in generalities, dogs are more open to all truths than humans can be.

For example, David has been considering for some time the extent to which all humans must now be moderns—even David himself who is such a harsh critic of modernity. Humans live enmeshed within a shared or collective destiny inside of which they must move and the constraints of which they must honor in their daily choices and routines. David recognizes that each human age has its own peculiar evils that must be faced and called out but that also cannot be ultimately undone except by the vision of another age or another time—one that is more real than this current fickle time in which we live.

These constraints apply to human religion which is always nothing but a roiling stream of contending ideas, images and practices on the one hand and yet also a potential witness to the beauty and love of God on the other. While loudly proclaiming his love for the fullness of this diverse witness across the ages, David also seems to have a kind of abiding suspicion of any attempt to claim that humans can too closely identify or define the nature of the common ground or live out their lives within any kind of pure synthesis. Dogs, of course, do not share all of these same constraints. Our more immediate openness to the reality and beauty in the creation surrounding us leaves us dogs able to enjoy the witnesses of various human cultures without the modesty and reserve that must attend the more damaged and fragile spirits of humanity. Humans must, I think, make more difficult choices than dogs because they are constrained by certain limitations peculiar to them.

In these matters, I suspect that James was really not so different from David. My own hunch is that their primary difference was in the ways in which they each chose to bestow their generosity. James offered his generosity directly to Frithjof Schuon out of appreciation for the precision and insight of his thought, from which James had benefited so deeply. David, for his part, offered his generosity to the plight of modern man who cannot be asked to “return” to some kind of abstract and ideal synthesis of ancient insights and practices as the solution to their current plight. For humans to suggest such a solution, I humbly submit, so easily becomes something dangerously close to an act of hubris or control. Nonetheless, it is not for me to judge regarding whether or not Frithjof offered any such false hopes in his own care of others. Regardless, Jame and David, clearly held to a common ground here within the limitations of their own personal lives. They likely would not have been in such different places regarding Frithjof and the traditionalists had they had more time to consider these matters together. Each might have moved toward each other in their own ways I suspect. However, they no doubt found other matters even more delightful to consider together, and likely never thought to focus upon this possible point of contention amid all of their shared joys.

In a similar way, your initiation of this correspondence with me opens up vistas of joyful reflection that I’m confident we will be able to enjoy. Many thoughts beg to be expressed, but I quiet them now as I consider that this letter has already grown long.

I look forward to your next letter with gratitude bursting already—a greening seed in pungent soil.

Warmly Yours,

Roland

The Last Fruits of Humanity

“Auntie Miriam, will you hold my hand?”

Hearing his quiet question, she took his small hand, squeezing gently in response to the pressure of his fingers against hers. Glancing down at him, she saw the pain that she knew so well tightening the dark skin on his face. He remained attentive, however, to the movements of the censor and the robes in the half light before them. Their priest made his circuit around the interior of the stone church, casting the golden incense bowl toward them as he passed, jouncing the bells on its chains with a lively cadence amid the slow voices of the others chanting prayers around them.

After the vespers service, Miriam walked with her husband, her nephew and her own children back to their home. A breeze stirred the fronds in the date palms that lined the path, filling the evening with a deep rasping sound that lay loudly over the softer rustle of the rice in the fields on either side of the road. She could smell the incense from the church in the hair of the child who she carried.

Her nephew Isaac spoke again. “Can I see my father tonight?”

“No. It is too late. You must get dinner and get to bed. You can see him in the morning. Sarah can walk with you. You know how she loves the river trail. She will be glad to go with you.”

“Do you think father will be alive when we wake up?”

“Yes, Isaac, he ate the rice and quinoa with relish that we brought to him today. He was strong. I’m sure that he will be glad to see you in the morning.”

They covered the short way that remained with no more conversation. As Isaac and the other children eat their noodles and peanut sauce with roasted cauliflower, Isaac asked, “Did you know that when you held my hand in church, my mother stood behind us and held both our hands?”

“No, Isaac, I did not see or feel her, but thank you for telling me. She is with me often when I am working in the garden. We loved to work together there as children.”

“Can we pray to my mother again before I go to bed?”

“Yes, of course. It was kind of Sarah to write that icon of your mother last week. We live in such a blessed time to have all of those who die recognized so quickly as saints. You know, children, that for the thousands of years of human history before us, only a very few who we lost were recognized as saints.”

“Yes,” Sarah replied. “I cannot think how difficult it would have been to live in a world where almost no one knew of God’s love and care.”

As the children finished their meals and washed their utensils, Miriam took each aside to dispense their evening medications, log their temperatures and take their last blood samples for the day. She loaded the samples for the automated analysis and recorded all of her activity on a screen so that the doctor could pull this data and confirm the next day’s dosages for each child. Every human life in their community was carefully monitored and preserved amid the onslaught of physiological and genetic damage that had long ago left most of the earth barren. Their community was the last of several that had held out for many centuries in carefully constructed and maintained biospheres within the most protected and favorable locations on the planet. These final human communities had enjoyed digital communications with each other from their physically isolated locations where they had each supported the final colonies of any biological life upon their devastated planet. Everything outside of these last pockets of plant and animal life was a wasteland of toxic oceans and stormswept deserts, and now their biosphere was the last one with any humans still left alive.

“Saint Esther, mother, pray to God for us. Be with father tonight and keep him with me until the morning. I ask that I might see him again tomorrow before he goes to be with you.” Isaac, four years old, stood praying aloud with Miriam and his cousins before the corner where a host of handmade icons, the faces of saints new and old, were arranged with care in rolling ranks over two small tables and up over the surface of both walls. Each halo flickered in the light of the candle as the wooden surfaces—of so many sizes and shapes—held the quiet presences before the family at the close of this day.

Sarah awoke before her cousin and spoke to him quietly. “Wake up, Isaac. The sun is up, and we should be getting ready for our walk to see your father.”

It was a privilege to spend time walking and caring for Isaac instead of her regular studies and chores, and Sarah was clearly excited and glad to be helping. She gently hurried Isaac as he washed and dressed. Then she got the boy fed and helped with his medicines. Isaac’s father, Ishmael, was close to death, which came to everyone now not long after the age of thirty. His wife, Esther, had died two years earlier, only a couple years after the birth of their one child, Isaac.

Sarah walked just behind Isaac on the trail following their great river. It was beautifully fashioned along the old bed of the Blue Nile (T’ik’uri Ābayi in Amharic) although a little smaller than the natural original. Upstream of their biosphere, there was a massive purification plant that handled the incoming water and a great drainage system that diverted the remainder of the polluted waters around them. The coursing water that they walked beside now was the last clean stretch of river on the planet. Sarah knew that its life-filled waters came at great cost and that they only flowed like this for the short stretch of its journey through the biosphere that preserved them. Sarah loved this river. She was named for Amma Sarah who had lived long ago beside the Nile River. Sarah knew that, during many decades spent in prayer and in teaching the great men who came to learn from her, Amma Sarah never once allowed herself to look over the river’s shimmering surface. She kept this discipline out of love for the river so that the river could become a help to strengthen her focus on its own beautiful Maker. As Miriam stood by the Nile telling this story to Sarah when she was small, Miriam had added that Amma Sarah’s abstinence made even more sense in the light of her young daughter’s wonder at the story.

“Isaac, have you heard how the Nile River far below us used to flood with seasonal rains and how the river up above us flows through many treacherous gorges, some more than 5000 feet deep?”

“Yes, Sarah. I have looked at the pictures of the beautiful fields that it once watered far below us and also of the fearsome gorges through which it rushes high above us. It is incredible to have this gentle river here with us now.”

“I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to feel real rain and to see a river rolling over its banks, carrying away trees, great rocks and even homes in its terrible current. She was a mighty goddess or god—giving and taking lives. Here we have just a beautiful portion of one glistening arm. Even in death, it is still lovely and still gives life to a thousand fishes, frogs, dragonflies and other dancing creatures. Our river is attended even now by her most devoted Naiads and other nymphs who play within and beside her laughing current. What will this deity be like, Isaac, one day, in full life again?”

“I don’t understand everything you say,” Isaac answered. “But she is beautiful. Maybe I will ask my father today about the life of rivers.”

“On my eighth name day, Uncle Ishmael gave me a copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and he read his favorite passages aloud to me in that next year. It is from American, from a great river near the fifth-to-last biosphere. Your father reads so well.”

The children paused here at the same time, both knowing that a tree with massive roots grew out over a bend in the river bank. This made a wonderful place to sit, watching the sun and shade play on the riverbed below the little fishes. Taking off their sandals, they let their feet into the water, making new shadows on the sand and pebbles and bringing the little fish to nibble at their toes. Even a freshwater crab slipped out from under a stone to see what the fish had found. In only a few moments, however, Sarah pulled an extra napkin out from their lunch satchel to dry their feet and finish their journey.

Isaac’s father was asleep when they arrived, but the nurse said that he had eaten a little breakfast. Almost as soon as they sat down to wait, the nurse came to say that Ishmael had awoken and was glad to hear of his visitors.

As Isaac climbed onto the bed beside him, Ishmael asked if his son wanted a story. Sarah held the book, and Ishmael turned the pages while he read. It was a story of Saint Krestos Samra, a princess who became a nun from the people who had lived in this land long ago. This picture book was about the time when Krestos Samra saw Christ and immediately begged him to pardon everyone who had ever lived:

“If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon all those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not even fill your hands.”

Hearing this bold request, Christ had summoned the Archangel Michael to guide Krestos Samra into Sheol so that she might preach there herself. Michael’s power in the brilliant pictures was like fire leaping off of each page. Isaac pointed to a great wing stretched over the top of two pages with many-colored feathers above a coffee-dark and potent arm. Ishmael smiled at his son’s delight.

“Do you like those powerful colors?”

“Yes!”

“This is a book I drew for you last month when I first learned that the doctor would have me keep to my bed.”

Returning to the story, he read: “The number of souls who escaped on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was over one hundred thousand. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.”

Isaac laughed at the beautiful words and drawings in his father’s book and at his father’s strong, joyful voice as he read. It was a story that Isaac and Sarah had heard before, but Ishmael’s book brought them into the story again, like it was their first time.

As he finished reading, Ishmael pushed other books aside so that Sarah could place Isaac’s book on a table near the bed.

“Father, will others come also to carry all of the souls out of Sheol on their mighty wings?”

“That is what we pray, Isaac. And that is the will of Christ in his death, giving himself for the life of the world, to feed and sustain us in this place of death. That is why we pray for each person who has died before us, asking God to have mercy on us all. The world has seen so much death, Isaac. Do you know how many have lived before us now—before all of us now living here in our little scattering of villages under this last biosphere beside our beautiful Nile?”

“No, father. How many?”

“Probably over two hundred billion, Isaac. Do you know how many more that is than the one hundred thousand that Krestos Samra and Michael carried out on their mighty wings?”

“Is it twenty thousand times more, father?”

“Yes! Are you only four years old? That is excellent arithmetic, Isaac! So, yes, if there are twenty thousand like Krestos Samra, then her wish will be fulfilled.”

“What is that book on your table, father, with a dog on the cover?”

Sarah picked it up, smiling at the dog as she opened the book.

“That is the work of a great American sage from just before the first great burning of fossil fuels. It is a series of visions in which the sage dialogues with his dog, Roland.”

Sarah asked, “Can I look at it, Uncle Ishmael?”

“Yes, of course. It is a beautiful book. I’ve finished it recently. You may take it home with you.”

“Thank you, Uncle. I will start it and see if I want to bring it home with me now. I know that books and paper are as precious as wood. Is it true that the gold and gems on the Gospel Book used to be more precious than the paper and wood of its pages and cover?”

“Yes, we were able to keep a great store house of gold, precious metal and other stones, far more than we need. But plant products such as wood and paper have been very precious for many centuries. For most of human history, however, trees and plants were plentiful while precious metals and stones were rare because they were difficult to mine from deep in the earth and to refine with hot furnaces.”

Sarah moved to a couch near the bed where she read as Isaac continued talking with his father.

“Are you in pain, today, Father?”

“Yes, Isaac. It is hard most days now. How is your pain?”

They remained together quietly for a time, rubbing each other’s backs to ease the pain that was a part of every day for all of those now living.

“Will I see you tomorrow, father? Auntie Miriam has told me that the doctor thinks you cannot live for much longer.”

“You have grown old and wise, already, Isaac, and you are right. I don’t know how much longer we can be together. I heard from your aunt that you recently went to stand with those who pray beside the great glass windows, looking out over the vast poisoned desert of our home, to pray with them for our lost planet, for all its dead and even for the devils wandering witless through its trackless wastes. That is brave of you, Isaac. I never stood with them until much older. You, however, may need to be very brave, my child, as you grow to be a man. You know that I will always hold you in prayer before God’s throne even when you have had to kiss me one last time and lay my body in the ground. And you know that our pain and our fear is the pain and fear of all those who came before us, stored up and held now by us. Like Christ, we carry the sins of the whole world. We know something of what our loving Lord knew upon the cross. We must forgive them and know that—even alone and abandoned—we dwell in the love of Christ, our Creator and our brother who has entered into abandonment and death to be with us, and even there, at the end, we find the life of God.”

Ishmael paused to look at Isaac, to caress his hands and to kiss his forehead.

“You know, Isaac, that it is growing more and more difficult for us to reach adulthood and for children to be born. Our doctors expect that we are close to the last generation of children and that some of our children now may be among the last humans to live and to pray upon this earth. I have been so blessed to have you, as my son and to have your mother, Esther, as my wife. I pray now for those who come after me, for you and your companions who may face the very end together. Remember me in your prayers, and remember whoever remains of those who have not yet been taken up from out of Sheol by the power of Christ and the loving prayers of his saints. I will hold you and all those with you in my prayers before God as you labor to maintain this biosphere in the last years of life upon this beautiful but wasted home.”

Ishmael grew quiet again, his fingers softly massaging the hair on Isaac’s head.

“Father, may I ask the nurse here and Auntie Miriam if I may stay here at the hospital with you?”

“Yes, son, I think you are old enough to walk the path yourself to complete your lessons during the day at the school and to return here at night to be with me. You know that I cannot let you miss your lessons and your chores too often, but I will speak to your aunt and the nurse here about you spending the nights here with me.”

Father and son did not speak again until Sarah said that it was time to go. She had decided to take her uncle up on his offer to lend her the book Roland in Moonlight. Together, she and Isaac kissed Ismael goodbye and made their way back down the river path, toward home and school, in time for their afternoon lessons.

Epilogue

God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him.” Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then.

…[God] saw, “Who knows all things” even “before they be,” comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals.

…[When] the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time.

On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Notes with some related reading:

Photo: Tis Abay (or Blue Nile Falls), Ethiopia

Twelve Years with a Saint

The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis was a gift to one of my children from godparents who far exceed me in wisdom and grace. I selfishly interrupted my child’s own reading of the book (just a chapter into it) to ask if we could read it out loud as a family (after our youngest, currently three years old, was in bed). We finished The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios as an entire family only one day before I finished reading Roland in Moonlight to myself.

If you’ve read my recent review of Roland in Moonlight, you’ll know that David Bentley Hart’s beloved dog, Roland, insists that David is actually a Hindu. It was a little disorienting—but good—to be reading these two books at the same time.

In full disclosure, several books that I’ve read recently point out substantial and meaningful points of common ground between ancient ways of understanding our world, each other and our origin in God. Vedic, Jewish and Greek traditions are all placed within a common larger context in the ancient world by books such as Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy by Stephen R. L. Clark and The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart (as well as, without the same depth of Chrsitian understanding, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies by Thomas C. McEvilley).

It was helpful to consider the experiences of a young man in Greece who found his fascination with a wide variety of far eastern traditions and new age beliefs (during the youthful cultural revolutions in Europe following World War II) to be entangled with dark and frightful experiences as well as controlling passions. In brief, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis is a translation from Greek of a book written by a man who knew Elder Paisios for 12 years (starting in the 1960s) and who was profoundly helped by the elder. Elder Paisios lived 1924 to 1994 and was canonized on 13 January 2015 by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as Saint Paisios of Mount Athos. Dionysios Farasiotis is a pseudonym used with the 2001 publication of The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, and the author has since identified himself as Athanasios Rakovalis (in a video posted online in 2018 and shared in several places since then). Following the publication of The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, Athanasios Rakovalis has published other books under his own name. These contain more collected teachings that Elder Paisios shared with him during their years together and that Athanasios kept in notebooks from his days with the elder. (Because Athanasios has identified himself, I will use his actual name for the sake of simplicity in the remainder of my review.)

The memories that Athanasios shares from his youth are gripping and heartfelt with an honesty, simplicity and sadness about them that are convincing and easy to relate to in terms of what it is like to be young and seeking earnestly for intellectual answers and for true love within the modern world. His experience of love and support from Elder Paisios are also wonderful (in the most literal sense), and I highly recommend the book for reading with young people because of these powerful elements.

As a young person in 1960s Greece, Athanasios was caught up in many sensational experiences of intellectual life as well as magic, new age and far eastern mystical teachings. He was clearly a charismatic and delightful young man who enjoyed many friends in diverse circles, but he ultimately found himself feeling false, unloved and unloving. At one point, he spent an intense period of months seeking to eliminate any false displays of meaningfulness, attractiveness or impressiveness from himself and his life so that he might find out what it would be like to be loved simply for who he was and not for any false pretenses of his own making. In the midst of such intense (and somewhat self-absorbed) experiments, he found that there was one person who loved him more deeply and profoundly than anyone he had ever known—even more than his own parents. This was a hermetic monk that he had met on a trip to Mount Athos, Elder Paisios, taken initially on a whim with a friend. This love that Athanasios experienced from Elder Paisios never left him despite his years of wandering and an extended trip to India during which he wanted to give the greatest yogis the opportunity to provide their own guidance and to demonstrate their own capacities.

Athanasios recounts these experiences with an admirable reserve and care. His narrative is convincing because you can feel the intensity of his memories but also his effort, in every sentence of his book, to be matter-of-fact and careful in his recounting. His content is sensational at times, but he makes every effort to avoid sensationalism and to withhold judgement. In some of his accounts, however, Athanasios is describing deeply personal memories from dark and confused periods of his early life. He focuses upon an intense contrast between dark and menacing spiritual powers and the love and light that he continually finds whenever he turns toward Elder Paisios.

This love for and from Paisios slowly gives way to a love for and from Jesus Christ, who Elder Paisios is continually pointing him toward. These words from Elder Paisios were a beautiful example of his teaching:

Man is worthy of being loved just because he’s in the image of God. It doesn’t matter at all if he’s good or bad, moral or sinful. Man is worthy of being loved for what he is. Christ loved and sacrificed Himself for sinful, corrupt people. ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ We should be the same way: we should love everyone without making any distinctions. Just like the sun rises on everyone, intelligent and unintelligent, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, our love should be like the love of God—love that’s like the sun and shines on His whole creation without making distinctions.

Elder Paisios even tells Athanasios that he has prayed for Satan himself when Satan came to harass him. However, Elder Paisios added, Satan had no interest in repentance. At home again, not long after recording this answer from Elder Paisios about the love of God, Athanasios shares about having this experience of God’s presence:

Then, on one of those evenings, when I was praying alone in my apartment, I felt Him approaching me. I came to know ‘the perfect love that casteth out fear.‘ …He touched me, but not just on the surface. He touched the innermost depths of my being, filling me and permeating me. He united Himself with me so closely that we became as one. I was intoxicated by God, and I became like fire so that my very body burned. I wanted to be completely open towards Him, without a single corner of my soul remaining hidden, no matter how ugly or filthy it was. I wanted everything to be known to Him, so I confessed to Him and showed Him all my crooked and filthy Ways, all of my vices. I longed for every corner of my soul to be visited by Him, by this vast infinite Love coming from all directions and filling all things. As Saint Symeon the New Theologian cried, ‘O Deifying Love that is God!’ This Love holds the universe together, connecting every part of it, giving it the strength to exist, and being the very cause of its continued existence.

Not long after this experience, Athanasios recounts his travels in India. Despite his deep love for the elder and multiple experiences of profound blessing, Athanasios still desires to find out for himself if other religious traditions offer similar blessings. He records his extended stays in three different ashrams in different parts of India. In two of these, the leading disciples are largely Westerners. Within both of these communities, and in connection to both of their leaders, Athanasios remembers several disturbing and negative experiences as well as several impressive and powerful ones. Some of these experiences pick up on experiences of demonic oppression from his youth and carry over into strong feelings of this same kind oppression and eventual relief under the ministry of Elder Paisios. Athanasios also has some more restful stays within a less prominent ashram, where the only residents are local India practitioners. This distinction is not made in the book, but I suspect that there is some degree to which the ashrams wrapped up with impressive international connections tend to involve more manipulative and spurious spiritual powers. Many instances of gurus in this book involve a highly commodified exportation of Hindu religious traditions, no doubt with some money and prestige heavily involved.

There is also a strong theme of competition from the author who was interested from a young age in finding the truth through manifestations of power as well as of love. One positive and dramatic example of this is posted here in which Elder Paisios shows Athanasios the sweet, immaterial, noetic light of God as an answer to his having been impressed with a light that was visible coming from a prominent yogi under whom he spent some time in India.

With these experiences of competition as well as manipulative and demonic oppression, I can see many important lessons to be learned regarding the ways in which we can become fascinated with spiritual powers. There is also much to consider in terms of how modernity invented the category of religion as an abstraction made up of competing ideologies rather than a universal aspect of our humanity (see books such as The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism by Tomoko Masuzawa or Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri or The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith). Among other problems, this false construct of religion allows us to turn religious or spiritual practices into commodities to be bought and sold in ugly ways.

One contrast to Athanasios and his experience of Indian religion is Christine Mangala Frost. The author of The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs, she brings to bear her own experience as a cradle Hindu who embraced Orthodoxy (via the Anglican Franciscans, who have an inculturated approach rooted in the missionary experience of founding a Christian ashram in India) to encourage nuance and give Christians the conceptual tools they need to navigate a foreign tradition with respect and honesty yet without compromising the integrity of their own faith or relativizing its commitments. Frost read The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios and spent what she describes as a long delightful evening with Athanasios and his family talking with Athanasios about his experiences. She did this while writing her own book on Hinduism and Orthodoxy which can, to some degree, be seen as a sympathetic response to Athanasios and his story, although it provides a different approach from an Orthodox Christian who has her own life story. While I have not read Frost’s book, I’m confident that it would be a valuable read alongside the account by Athanasios of his experiences in India.

In the end, one of the most meaningful passages in this book by Athanasios was his description of an experience with the elder outside of Mount Athos, when Athanasios was driving Elder Paisios from one place to another through a mountainous part of Greece. In a moment that Athanasios describes in hindsight as somewhat foolish and irreverent, Athanasios asked the Paisios to tell him what God was really like:

The elder didn’t say a word, so I simply continued to drive up the curving mountain road in silence. Suddenly, I began to feel God’s presence everywhere: in the car, out in the hills, and to the reaches of the farthest galaxies. He was “everywhere present and filling all things,” without being identified with any of them. He permeated everything, without being mixed or confused with anything. Being Spirit, the ever-existent God permeated the material cosmos, without ever being identified with changeable matter. Being Spirit, God dwelt in the eternity of an infinite present containing past, present, and future.

…Indeed, His power is everywhere present, yet beyond all perception and beyond the reach of arrogant human attempts to discover it, able to be known only when it reveals itself. This power is what brought the trees, the mountains, the stars, and man himself into existence and what sustains them. In a moment, this power could make them all vanish without any uproar, any tumult, or any resistance, as easily as the flick of a light switch can plunge a well-lit room into total darkness.

Simultaneously, I felt in my heart that God’s almighty power is also infinitely noble, with a refinement that could never allow His power or His presence to pressure anyone. Although He is so very near us, He remains unseen, so that we feel neither weighed down nor obligated even by His presence—for He in no way wishes to restrict us, but instead desires us to be completely free to do as we wish. He not only avoids compelling us through fear, power, and might, but He even avoids swaying us with His beauty, His love, and the irresistible sweetness of His presence. He does this out of an unfathomable respect for human freedom. Of course, He loves us with a fiery love and desires to draw us towards Himself, resorting to manifold other ways that reveal His boundless wisdom, personal attention, and tender loving care for each one of us. Indeed, the vastness of the universe which He watches over in no way lessens His love and concern for us. In turn, He seeks but does not demand, our love, which can be found only with complete freedom.

My soul felt such joy, contentment, and repose in the presence of Gods Who is so simple, yet so mysterious. I now understood what One of the Church Fathers meant when he write about how God becomes all things for those who love Him?

…In God’s embrace, I was filled with a deep calm that cast out all fear. Resting in the palm of His almighty hand, I had nothing to fear, for He knows all things in perfect wisdom and love. I felt a certainty about the origin of this world, its path through time, and its ultimate destination. And I rejoiced, forl knew that in the end He would be victorious and that His kindness and holiness would prevail.

I wasn’t in this state very long—perhaps for about two or three miles along the winding mountain road—but it was a very distinctive state, set apart from other altered states one experiences under the influence of alcohol, drugs, pleasure, pain, distress, or fear. It was as though someone lifted a veil from my mind, enabling my soul to live, not in a different world, but in the same world—the same world in its entirety. Like a deaf man who suddenly begins to hear the sounds of the world surrounding him, like a blind man who suddenly begins to see the images and colors of this world, hitherto invisible.

…I suddenly began to sense God in the world, with all the immeasurable wealth, beauty, and significance that this sensation contained. For a moment, I was taken out of thc tomb of my passions and lived as man was meant to live. I imagine that in an earlier age such a sensation was more common among the sons of men. In Paradise, before man’s Spiritual senses were damaged by the fall, Adam and Eve no doubt had an even more vivid sense of God’s presence than I did at that time, since Holy Scripture relates how they saw, heard, and spoke with God. Alas, the thick scales of vice have now coated my spiritual eyes and the muck of sin has stopped up my spiritual ears.

It is certainly worth noting that the elder responded to my request to hear a few words from him with fervent prayer that moved God to grant even a wretch like me such an inestimably rich and bountiful experience.

Whatever sophisticated commentary I might wish to make after reading this book by Athanasios, it is clear to me that this is an honest account by a humble man regarding a great love and profound gifts that he received from Elder Paisios over the twelve years that he knew the elder. What a blessing to us in the modern world to have witnesses such as Saint Paisios and those such as Athanasios who are willing to share these accounts.

Roland in Moonlight: Generosity Amid the Hellscape of Modernity

Roland in Moonlight (cover)
Image of the book cover.

Roland has earned a place in my heart that I expect will be with me still as I face my own death and even beyond. While I am unabashedly rhapsodic about Roland in Moonlight, I easily acknowledge that some will find plenty to hate in this book. For example, there were hundreds of new words for me (as well as a few rich political diatribes). Regarding the big words, within the book’s last pages, when Roland uses the term “xeric regions,” David remarks that this is “exactly the word.” Roland quips, “At least, exactly the word that you or I would choose to use. In my case, out of precision; in yours, out of pretentiousness.” (352) This teasing and adoration of words goes in both directions. Earlier in the story, David mentions to Roland that “your appetite for classical neologisms is worse than mine” (204).

This is an expansive book, but Roland easily holds together its many narratives and its sweeping discourses. David Bentley Hart experiences the death of both his parents over the course of this story as they lived with him and his family in their final years. Even after sharing a few reflections following the death of his mother, however, David returns quickly to his dog and reminds us that “this is Roland’s book” (314). Remarkably, the story introduces us to Roland’s larger-than-life persona while still enjoying him as most definitely a dog. To name only a very few of his many accomplishments, Roland hires a troupe of Shakespearean players to perform a masque for David late at night in a forest glade behind the house (69), cares for David during a prolonged illness by writing up and submitting David’s application for a fellowship with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies (122), and publishes multiple volumes of his own haiku (287). Despite all this (and much more), Roland’s warm sides, his ever-present tongue, and his keen nose are tangible realities on virtually every page and throughout many sleepless nights.

Although Roland defies a properly fictional status, it is technically correct to describe this book as a compelling memoir in which all the normal trials and joys of life are shared with two fictional characters—one very much alive and the other among the honored dead. David’s great uncle Aloysius Bentley (1895-1987), has a storied life, and even this life is brought to David by his faithful dog. Roland spends much of his time meticulously organizing, editing and publishing this great uncle’s private papers. Reflecting near the end of the book on what Roland has brought to light regarding Aloyius, David concludes: “Every person’s inner life is a mystery to everyone else, even those who know him or her most intimately—which would be the greatest of tragedies if it were a limitation of our natures that should prove final and immutable, rather than one that we have some cause to hope will one day—on the other side of the veil or through the looking-glass—fall away” (347).

Although Roland’s late-night conversations with David span many topics (from artificial intelligence to Freudian psychology and quantum physics), these two return most regularly to the religious, the metaphysical and the contemplative. A strong theme emerges that is very close to the point made by C. S. Lewis in his essay “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

David and Roland take a very similar thesis and develop it together brilliantly over the course of their exquisite conversations. Some Christians (along with devout believers of various other ancient faiths) may be offended by the doctrinal speculations indulged by Roland and David. As an American Evangelical myself—a happy convert to Orthodoxy it is true but coming increasingly to recognize that I will always be, to some real and good extent, an Evangelical—I can easily relate to these concerns. However, for any who might share them, I counsel patience here.

For one thing, dogs clearly do not have the same religious needs as humans. In this book, we learn many details from the entire mythic and religious history of dogs, including their own original sin (involving open car windows and bacon) as well as the origin of their generous condescension to abide with and to help humankind in our abject moral and physical poverty. Roland says to David, “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine first truly met” (190). In part, the religious speculations between David and Roland should be read in the clarifying light of this difference between dog and man. Even more fundamentally, however, this book’s theological theme is in response to this claim by Roland:

And so, in an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That’s why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith. Arch-traditionalism, I mean, and of course fundamentalism, which are in fact manifestations of a morbidly impoverished power of belief, a faith wasted away by inanition and hardened by desiccation, and of a frantic attempt to hold onto relics or remains that one mistakes for living possibilities. …Well, the regress is infinite. It’s simply the case now that almost everyone of your race today—in the modern world, I mean—even the most devout and convinced of them, is more profoundly an infidel. Real, guileless faith in the divinity that shows itself in the evident forms of creation has become catastrophically attenuated, like the fading scent of a chipmunk on the porch after two days of rain. And that’s a tragic condition to be in, because the divine dimension is real, and is moreover the deepest truth of your own natures. To be estranged from it is to be shattered within yourselves… to become something less than machines… fragments of machines… a heap of springs and sprockets. (328).

If Roland’s assessment of our current situation is bleak, his expectations for our future are even far worse:

There was a time, again, when your kind was much better able to see the gods—the angels, deified mortals, spirits, fairies, what have you—than now you are. Not because there was a stabler and more open causeway between the two hemispheres of your brains or anything like that, but because there was a wider, more richly populated open causeway between your souls and the cosmos. And those gods—or what have you—were also mirrors of what you are, as spiritual beings, there above. I don’t mean they were Feuerbachian projections, figments of alienation or anything of that sort, but rather that they came more easily into full sensuous manifestation so long as human beings were in a state of what Barfield called ‘original participation.’ Unlike him, however, I don’t believe that your kind’s estrangement from that original, more vividly theophanic world is simply a temporary stage—a kind of probationary process—on the way to a post-critical ‘final participation.’ It would be nice to imagine that that’s the case, but I fear that the reality will be one of continuing, deepening estrangement, an ever more precipitate descent toward total spiritual eclipse, and toward a final, enduring darkness in which the true light of spirit has been all but extinguished. Then you’ll be worse than mere savages. You’ll be a race of nihilists. You may even… you may even forsake your moral tutelage by dogs.

To this dire prophecy, David only responds, in a faint voice: “Don’t suggest that. It’s a horrible thought. Hell on earth.” (327)

It is because of such horrors, that David gradually comes to agree with Roland about the primary need to treasure every great truth and beauty from the many ancient contemplative traditions of humankind. Throughout the book, Roland insists that David is secretly a Hindu, and Roland will never allow David to finish any of his sentences in protest against this claim. Eventually, as the two are considering several stories of glorious revelations from various other faiths, Roland declares: “You believe everything. You despise doctrinaire religious certitudes, not—as is common for your kind in this age—out of skepticism or incredulity, but out of a superabundance of belief” (322). David concedes substantially, but not entirely, to Roland:

It’s true, as you say, that I can believe everything at once, though I suspect that it’s a choice I make principally on account of my unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful. Not for my kind, at least. We have to draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event. (326)

David is holding on, just barely, to the uniques of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As a child of American Evangelicalism, I cannot resist the temptation to provide a prooftext at this point. Compare David’s “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” to Philippians 4:8. In Hart’s own translation of this verse, we read: “As to the rest, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever grand, whatever right, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good repute—if there be any virtue and be any praise—ponder these things.”

For the Christian reader, there is a surprising return, in the last pages, to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. I cannot recall any other place where David Bentley Hart has written about Mary who is uniquely the Mother of God. In the final pages of this book, however, we ponder the mystery of Mary saying yes to God as she takes a last breath before the angel’s “glory and immensity of presence” knowing that “all depends upon this fleeting / Instant, wherein all of eternity / Lies hidden, hanging in suspense upon / One spoken word.” As she gazes upward in this moment: “The weight of silence grows. / Between her and his dreadful glory looms / Time’s fullness: all its empires and its wars, / Its deaths, its countless hopes and countless dooms.” (339) To reflect more upon the full context of these poetic lines would give too much away, and I do not want to steal anything from the unfolding of this book to each blessed reader.

However, I will also note that, alongside this deeply Christian meditation, we have another poem reflecting on the waking of the child Maitreya (348), a promised bodhisattva who currently waits in the Tuṣita Heaven. This heaven is also where Roland once resided, as we learn very early in the story (29).

My reflections here have become sadly dominated by theological and religious questions, but I want to return, in closing, to what is at the heart of this story. It is a generosity of spirit on the part of Roland Hart, who is clearly a profound help and guide to David. In his typical mix of profound yet deeply intimate, Roland shares this summary of his philosophy with David as they gaze out at a sunset together early on in the story:

It certainly seems reasonable to say that being is manifestation, that real substance is revelation, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable—and that, moreover, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. …Every act of conscious, unified, intentional mind is necessarily dependent upon infinite mind—which is to say, God. …Experience of the ‘natural’ proves to be ‘super-natural’ knowledge. …We see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion. (157)

There is so much more that I want to say about this book, but it should wait. I will close by noting that this story moves through four parts, named for four homes that come to mark stages in the family’s journey from an edenic forest, through a hellish city and finally back to a modest garden haven. Each chapter is numbered simply with roman numerals so that the larger structure is not obstructed. In the end, Roland prepares David for a final farewell that David anticipates with tearstained face as they sit together upon the grass of Mama’s garden (to use Roland’s name for David’s wife). This closing account of a great sea voyage, shared by two persons who love each other, is worth the price of this volume. Buy yourself a paper copy now. You’ll not regret it.

Discovering the Ancient Roots of our Christian Interconnectedness: Sunday School at Derry Presbyterian (Hershey, Pennsylvania)

[Note: this is the text prepared and delivered for an adult Sunday school class at Derry Pres (video here), a three-hundred year old congregation near my home.]

Thank you so much to Andrew for the kind invitation to share with you this morning in your beautiful and historic church.

I think of myself as a Pennsylvanian having been born and baptized in Doylestown (a little north of Philadelphia) while my dad was in seminary. At just six months old, my parents took me to Taiwan where I grew up speaking two dialects of Chinese. Although Kaohsiung was a growing and boisterous city and has a population of almost 3 million today, it was a very traditional southern Chinese culture, and this, no doubt, influenced my outlook on the world.

Since moving back to Pennsylvania, to attend college and eventually to settle down for the past fifteen years of my life, I have come to love the ancient Susquehanna River valley running from Harrisburg to York and Lancaster. (By the way, the Susquehanna may be one of the three oldest river valleys on the planet. There is geological evidence that the Susquehanna’s riverbed predates the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and that it once flowed in the opposite direction over rocks far beneath the surface of its own current bedrock.)

I taught high school at Covenant, a classical school in Harrisburg, for seven years, and then served as academic dean and principal at Logos in downtown York, another classical school, also for seven years.

I have some personal connection to Hershey as my wife, Elizabeth, and I served as weekend relief houseparents at the Milton Hershey School for about nine years until our move to York and the birth of our third child when we needed to retire from that position.

With all of my love for local lore, it was a delight to read a little about the history of Derry Presbyterian. What a remarkable story of 300 years so far in the life of your congregation.

Although my Presbyterian missionary parents have always modeled for me a lifelong love for Jesus Christ and although I always felt at home in the church within which I was raised, I ended up moving as an adult into the Orthodox Church, being chrismated at Saint John Chrysostom Church in York with my wife and three children when our youngest, now three years old, was baptised. Having taken a job with a curriculum publisher, Classical Academic Press, a little closer to Harrisburg again, we now attend Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Mechanicsburg. To be clear, I am not remotely qualified to speak for my new church family in any way, and whatever I share today is simply my own personal reflections (although I certainly hope that they do reflect some of what I am learning within the Orthodox church).

There are many ways to approach or to describe my thesis this morning: the entire world holds together in God in profound ways. This simple thesis was essential to the ancient Christian understanding of reality.

Probably the easiest approach for our modern minds to understand is our physical and biological interdependence. This is only one result of our more substantial connectedness, but it is a good place to start. Contemporary Anglican philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark, in his book, God, Religion and Reality, says:

A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival.

This claim that our bodies literally depend upon the entire universe surrounding us is one way to approach an ancient understanding of the human body and the cosmos as profoundly connected, and this cosmic body must, of course, also be a shared body.

We modern Americans don’t wake up and go about our days as if the entire universe is our body. However, many humans did experience this as a daily reality prior to the Enlightenment. As difficult as the image might be, this vision of a shared cosmic body is important to consider seriously if we want to understand our Bibles, our world or ourselves. Dale Martin is a preeminent New Testament scholar with distinguished careers at Duke and Yale. Without endorsing many specific aspects of his own theology, Martin’s scholarship regarding what Paul believed about human bodies is profoundly respected and lines up with many others that I will reference. These passages from his book The Corinthian Body provide a quick introduction:

Greeks and Romans could see as ‘natural’ what seems to us bizarre: the nonexistence of the ‘individual,’ the fluidity of the elements that make up the ‘self,’ and the essential continuity of the human body with its surroundings. (21)

In most of Greco-Roman culture the human being was a confused commingling of substances, [and] the human body was of a piece with its environment. The self was a precarious, temporary state of affairs, constituted by forces surrounding and pervading the body, like the radio waves that bounce around and through the bodies of modern urbanites. In such a maelstrom of cosmological forces, the individualism of modern conceptions disappears, and the body is perceived as a location in a continuum of cosmic movement. (25)

No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic. …One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)

To be clear, this understanding of our bodies extends far beyond Paul’s world and was actually the norm for most of premodern human history. Calvin College philosophy professor, James K.A. Smith makes this clear in a passage from his book How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (which provides a set of guided notes through the massive work of Charles Taylor called A Secular Age). Smith writes:

The human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment.”

To turn aside from theologians and philosophers for a moment, we can see these same points profoundly unpacked for us by the farmer and poet Wendell Berry:

The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice.

…What is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is therefore the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them.

…The concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy.

These passages were published by Berry in the year that I was born, 1977 [The Unsettling at America, pp. 103-112]. They are his first comprehensive statement of a thesis that he has lived out as well as defended with stories and prose to this day.

As Wendell Berry points out, “we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before.”

While our modern minds can understand something about an ecological network of mutual dependence (extending out into the cosmos and even across time) and our body’s radical reliance on the world around us, this point goes far beyond just our biological life. This ecological approach is only the most accessible way of considering this question, and we have already seen hints in the Apostle Paul and Wendell Berry that these truths must be considered more holistically and that they point to what is holy.

For all ancient people, the material world was understood to be dependent on even more substantial realities. Some of these more substantial realities are also fairly easy for our modern minds to grasp, such as the realities of language and light—two basic realities that J.R.R. Tolkien loved best. Tolkien’s use of light and darkness shows a respect for the reality of both and a need to be gentle and modest in our love for the light, so that we can learn to see and to love the light even amid the sometimes gift of darkness. Tolkien was clearly aware of a long tradition regarding the uncreated light of God that Moses saw in the burning bush. In a recent essay for the Front Porch Republic, I described how Wendell Berry, George MacDonald and Maximos the Confessor all reference this revelatory power at the burning bush. Picking up on a theme already old in his day, Maximus writes:

The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of His beauty inside every thing, …a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being.

[Cited in The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty by Paul Evdokimov pointing to Ambigua ad Iohannem p. 9 (or paragraph 1148C) translated by Constas 2014 and Jeauneau 1988 (from a Latin translation by John Scottus Eriugena).]

To move on, however, to other ways of considering the more substantive realities that connect us all, the most familiar would be mind, spirit, angels and God. Our problem is that all such categories tend to feel more subjective than substantive to us moderns. We very easily think of these realities as functionally irrelevant to daily life if not outright falsehoods or fantasies that exist only in our minds. Material objects and their components tend to be the only realities that we grant outside of our private imaginings or intellectual abstractions. Even Christians today (myself included) tend to live as though the material world is the only reality.

Furthermore, among Christians, any talk of spiritual or other realities tends to raise the concern that we are despising matter and the stuff of creation. It is as if the spiritual must either not exist or be a strictly private issue and as if, among believers, any consideration of the spiritual as real becomes an immediate threat to our respect and appreciation for the material world in which we live.

In fact, however, there is a deep and wide heritage of thought that acknowledges and receives our material world with respect and appreciation while also acknowledging that our material world participates in spiritual realities and ultimately in the life of God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all. These are schools of contemplative life and metaphysical thought stretch from the Vedic traditions of India to various Presocratic and later Platonic schools of thought in Europe. These contemplatives have insisted that existence itself is a good gift and an inexplicable mystery.

Into the midst of this wide accumulation of interrelated contemplative traditions, the Jewish nation comes to be and the news of God’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension arrives among us. Early Christian thinkers quickly identified the neoplatonic school as both their greatest rival and their next most inspired neighbor. In Origen Against Plato, Mark Edwards explains that disagreements between schools of thought in the ancient world were not primarily over ideas but over allegiance to certain canons or collections of writings and their inspiration. Therefore, many Christians freely made reference to both similarities and differences with various ideas from neoplatonic thought, but the critical difference for Christians was that these ideas now found their highest life meaning within the accounts of Jesus Christ and those who followed him. In the end, ideas in isolation made no sense to them. Both neoplatonism and Christianity were understood, most essentially, as rival allegiances and ways of life, and it was only within these communities of practice that the ideas had any value or vitality. With our modern ways of thinking, we tend to focus on the abstract ideas or doctrines as if they are of primary importance, but they were secondary among all the ancient schools of thought.

Within the ancient world, the neoplatonists understood the material world sacramentally. In other words, nature both truly participated in and revealed the life of God. In Ancient Mediteriann Philosophy, Stephen R.L. Clark explains:

Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists …found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’.

Likewise, the classicist and Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart said in a recent podcast on the topic of Christianity and gnosticism that if he had to identify one thing to use in classifying schools of thought as gnostic it would be their lack of any “explicit metaphysics of participation” or (to state the same thing in reverse) there “willingness to amplify provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism” (a separation between evil matter and higher goods).

Although neoplatonists initially thought of early Christians as among the despicable gnostic sects, the early Christians appreciated the sacramental understanding of creation within neoplatonism and very widely understood the incarnation of Jesus Christ to be the ultimate expression and guarantee of this sacramental or participatory relationship between creation and the Creator. At the same time, Christian writing to condemn the gnostics who borrowed from their scriptures, famously called themselves the true gnostics. In doing so, however, Christians were separating themselves over principles such as the goodness of creation and its participation in the life of God, principles that were widely recognized, from the side of Christians, as shared territory with the neoplatonists. It’s not a simple picture, but the boundary lines were clearly maintained over centuries of debate for all of those within these competing schools.

This more complex picture runs against two different and equally strong tendencies among contemporary Christians. Our first wrong tendency is to lump Platonism, gnosticism and early Christianity together as despising the material world and our bodily lives. That is largely true of gnostic sects but not of either neoplatonism or Christians. Early Christianity should be understood within a long but consistent process of understanding the truth of the incarnation in terms that fully reveal the glory and goodness of the material world as this was expounded at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 which famously and loudly celebrated the goodness of all material things. All of the exposition of Christian worship and belief at this council took place within cultures that had little reason to think of the material world as good outside of the powerful declarations of this within Jewish scriptures and the neoplatonists who most closely shared the ideas involved in an understanding of the material world as a manifestation of God’s glory and beauty.

A second common misunderstanding that all of this needs to clear aside is our modern idea that “the God of the philosophers” is utterly impersonal and incompatible with the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible who becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ. It is certainly true that the Jewish and Christian God is profoundly personal, embodied and active within the Jewish scriptures and that the Christian claims and recognition of Jesus Christ as God among us and in our flesh was a profound and irrational scandal in the minds of sophisticated and educated people throughout the Roman Empire. However, there were also critical and meaningful points of contact in the world of ideas, and these came to have profound significance as the Christian faith spread rapidly across the Hellenized world proclaiming that Jesus Christ, a Jewish manual laborer and crucified rebel, was also the eternal Logos of God, fully identifiable with God outside of time and inside of time in every aspect of transcendence and immanence. This astounding claim picked up and transformed or fulfilled the highest aspirations of the neoplatonists among many others.

One of these ancient claims, argues the patristics scholar Andrew Louth in a recent lecture [The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology], is that creation is utterly a gift. This idea of creation ex nihilo comes from Greek thinkers as they encounter the Christian faith and enter into it. This ex nihilo concept was not understood by the neoplatonists in terms of time, primarily, but in terms of existence itself as a gift in every moment and instance of it, regardless of its temporal duration. This insight into creation as a gift given to us by God out of nothingness became the basis for understanding the incarnation in some essential respects because the eternal Son of the Father and Logos of God was understood to be a person within the timeless and triune life of God who was the eternal purpose and template of the entire divine intention and plan with regard to all of creation. God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ, the first fully human person, was seen as the ultimate purpose of all creation and the essential link between the timeless life of God and the life of all created things.

This idea has been developed in many ways by various thinkers, but one of the most famous is Maximus the Confessor. Maximus famously developed the concept of individual logoi as the eternal purpose of every individual thing within God’s vast and diverse creation, and Maximus taught that the logoi of each thing was a direct expression of the eternal Logos of God. Summarizing three related teachings within Maximus, patristic scholar Jordan Wood says:

Maximus walks the ancient path first tread by Irenaeus: Christ reveals the truth of creation. The truth he sees in the historical Incarnation is that everything, all of creation, the entire world, is that Word’s Incarnation. Maximus never qualifies his conviction that the Logos’s self-distribution as the logoi is an Incarnation of this Word. …In his famous and curt explanation of Gregory Nazianzen’s remark that “the Logos becomes thick,” Maximus proffers three instances where this is so: the Word’s historical Incarnation as Jesus Christ, his ineffable self-encryption as the logoi of all creatures, and his consent to be “embodied and expressed” in language.

“Creation is Incarnation: the Metaphysical Peculiarity of the Logi in Maximus the Confessor” from the 2017 issue of Modern Theology.

Christ’s incarnation fulfills the entire function and purpose of all created things in multiple ways. When we begin to grasp the full extent of God’s participatory relationship with creation, binding all of His glorious diversity of creation together into a vibrant and living whole, we can start to understand the full meaning of the Greek poet that Paul quotes on the Areopagus in Athens: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). [End Note 1]

For the Chistian Platonist writing in the tradition of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:

[God is], to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.

This typical way of seeing insisted on God’s utter transcendence and even unknowability apart from the cosmos because the life of living things is not any of those lives and the being of beings is not any of those beings. God is beyond all living things and all beings which also means that God is not any living thing or any being. These statements about God’s transcendence can be misleading, however, because it is the very transcendence of God that make possible God’s radical immanence and our individual lives. God is the only source of existence at the innermost core of every particular thing that exists and the only source of life at the innermost core of every particular living thing. Only this combination of utter transcendence and radical immanence makes possible our participation in this life and this being that is God as well as the revelation of God by each thing in the cosmos to all other things. An excellent, although thorough and technical, exposition of these ideas is Eric Perl’s Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite.

However, to be clear, these basic concepts are not those of an esoteric minority following the rise of Chrisitianity, but they show up ubiquitously across early Christain writings. In his prayers, Augustine says to God: “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” [Confessions, 3.6.11]. George MacDonald no doubt had this in mind when he wrote that “the God to whom we pray is nearer to us than the very prayer itself ere it leaves the heart” [Paul Faber, Surgeon in chapter 35, “A Heart”].

While it is easy to see how such statements could mistakenly be collapsed into modern pantheism, this would be to miss the insistence on a transcendence that all Platonists and Christians most clearly understood as essential to any concept of God as the sustainer of all creation out of nothingness. In brief, pantheism reverses the ontological grounding between God and the cosmos, saying that God exists because of the cosmos while most ancient sages (even those who held to an eternal cosmos) would have insisted that the cosmos exists because of God who must be transcendent in order to be immanent. [End Note 2]

Today’s most outspoken and popular advocate of this ancient view is the Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart, and the most direct survey regarding this ancient understanding of God and the cosmos that I would recommend is The Experience of God. Describing the way in which everything is contingent or dependant on God at the most basic level, Hart takes an illustration from the American philosopher Richard Taylor:

[He] once illustrated this mystery, famously and fetchingly, with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. As Taylor goes on to say, the question would be no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds. It is the sheer unexpected “thereness” of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature, but of its very existence. [End Note 3]

Each moment of our life and every detail of our existence is fundamentally a direct gift of God. We see the reality of our past and our present only insofar as we can learn to see them as gifts of God and works of God. Moreover, only this vision reveals to us the ultimate connectedness in God that we have with each other and with the rest of creation.

Within this shared life and mind of God, we each find a profound common ground. Saint Gregory of Nyssa in On the Making of Man gives the most developed version of this vision:

All humanity is included in the first creation. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, …but this power extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, …how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, …[Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time [that he] names a moment and the twinkling of an eye.

These passages show that Gregory understood the “image of God” as only being manifested by all of humanity taken together as one body. For God, every single individual was in view from the outset of creation so that we are all created at once, as it were. Nonetheless, this creation outside of time and within the foreknowledge of God, takes place for us now within time so that we must wait for every individual human to show up within our fallen history before the full image of God is made known and the transformation of this fallen creation into the new heavens and the new earth can finally take place. With this full number of souls brought to be, God will suddenly roll up all of cosmic time within a moment or a twinkling of an eye as time is taken into eternity. This understanding of humanity as only being the full image of God when taken as a collective whole, is wrapped up with the restoration of all things taught openly by Gregory of Nyssa as one of only a few church fathers to do so. This teaching of radical solidarity across the entire human race is picked up and expounded at some length by David Bentley Hart in his controversial book That All Shall Be Saved (which uses this concept of Gregory’s as part of what is likely the most dogmatic and demanding case for Christian universalism that the church has witnessed to date).

I hope to have suggested that these principles of common ground rest on deep foundations, have far-reaching implications, and show up in many ways of thought. It is really far too vast a topic with too many expressions and corollaries to do more this morning than just provide the most basic of surveys. Although any additional sharing would go even further beyond my very limited knowledge, we could look in much more depth at a long list of closely related topics only some of which I have mentioned in passing this morning: the eternal Logos, the lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos in Revelation, christology, the theory of logoi in Maximus the Confessor, God’s body as a nexus of powers, the divine essence and energies distinction of Saint Gregory Palamas, deep incarnation, sophiology, mariology, sacramental theology, iconography, the theophany of God at Christ’s baptism, the uncreated light of the burning bush and the transfiguration, and even much more.

These ancient ways of thought remained in some forms up through the Protestant Reformation and were never entirely erased, even by the Protestant reformers. For example, John Calvin wrote in his Commentary on Ezekiel:

All creatures are animated by angelic motion …because God exerts and diffuses his energy in a secret manner, so that no creature is content with his own peculiar vigor, but is animated by angels themselves.

With these statements, John Calvin is taking for granted that the peculiar vigor of every human and animal is continually infused with the energy of God himself through the animating power of angels. We no longer think in these mixed and layer categories, but they were commonplace even up through John Calvin’s time.

In Eighty-Three Different Questions, Augustine says that love is “a kind of motion, and all motion is toward something.” Dante says that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, “Paradiso”, XXXIII.145). C.S. Lewis says:

In every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one.

From Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

Our internal lives are no less mysterious, as Augustine’s says in his Confessions:

Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves.

Christian Saint Macarius in the 4th century says:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. ….It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

From The Fifty Spiritual Homilies in homily 15.32.

As Lewis says in “The Weight of Glory,” there is a great deal involved when it comes to human potential:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. …There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

David Bentley Hart takes this a step further:

In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end—to risk a formulation that will offend just about every Christian, but that merely expresses the inescapable conclusion of thinking the theology of divine incarnation and human glorification through to its logically inevitable terminus.

From Theological Territories in “Remarks to Bruce McCormack regarding the Relation between Trinitarian Theology and Christology.” (With more on this topic, Hart has a book releasing soon called You Are Gods, taking his title from Psalm 82:6.)

We see some of this same language as well as one source for Gregory of Nyssa’s vision in the Apostle Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Romans 8:19-22

All of the cosmos is waiting to be born only once the full number of humanity has themselves been spiritually born as the image of God in Jesus Christ.

Such grand visions are instructive but not sustainable, of course. The one simple thread connecting all of this together is the life of contemplative prayer. The single eye of the heart, says Jesus in Matthew 6:22, can fill the whole body with light. This single eye is the nous (our intuitive mind), and it can guide us when at rest within and in command from the heart (our chest as C.S. Lewis calls it in The Abolition of Man) and when it is not under the tyranny of either our analytical mind (head) or our passions (belly).

Seeking to see in this way places us into a relationship with the world and the life that it has apart from us. Although, because of this independent life, the cosmos is all the more in a real relationship with us. Wendell Berry laments the loss of this relationship with Lady Nature in his essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation.” Berry quotes C.S. Lewis [Studies in Words, 1975, p. 42] saying that “of all the pantheon, Great Mother Nature has… been the hardest to kill” [A Small Porch, p. 77]. Berry goes on to say:

We have lost the old apprehension of Nature as a being accessible to imagination, linking Heaven and Earth, making and informing the incarnate creation, and requiring of humanity an obedience at once worshipful, ethical, and economic. Her stern instruction …that we humans have a rightful but responsible place in the order of things, has disappeared, and has been absent a long time from working consciousness and our formal schooling.

Although Wendell Berry generally puts things in plain language that is fully comprehensible to modern ears, he knew and loved C.S. Lewis and would have understood Lewis perfectly when Lewis wrote that, although he does not expect to see it, it would be a hopeful sign to one day see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” [“Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest, 1952].

Wendell Berry understands that the world is alive but does not seek to sensationalize the fact. He is content to advocate tirelessly over a lifetime for the dignity of local farms and businesses and to call out the blindnesses of large-scale industry and centralized power. What many do not realize is that his principles can apply just as well to city life as they can to farm life. You can live in a city and find advocates working to awaken a respect for our land, attention to local neighborhoods, and empowerment of institutional structures that honor what Berry calls “the human scale” (i.e. when everyone bound together by the commitments of the institution can know everyone else by name).

So what do we do? Although sojourners, we must learn that eternity is only in contact with the present and that heaven is only in contact with our current place. We must learn to dwell with each other now in the places that we share. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves (June 22, 1930), C.S. Lewis once shared this about another friend:

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.

Without all returning to six generations of caring for the same place, we must all learn to better see the beauty and glory of God in all that is around and within us.

We can be intentional about learning to see with our intuitive mind (or the single eye of our heart). Then we can recognize—from within a quiet heart and a gratitude for our own place and moment—the connections that we have to each other and even to our entire world across space and time. We can find that each human heart is capable of reuniting heaven and earth, in each moment of life, within the presence of our Creator who has become, forever, one of us, even now under this current veil of death. Jesus Christ is the only crucified God, and this crucified God is also our Creator who reveals the power and beauty that overcomes sin and suffering. Jesus, then, calls His people to follow him in a task that is difficult for us but possible in his strength, to gain a quiet and grateful heart that knows how to be connected and in communion with the suffering as well as the glory of our neighbors, our enemies and our world.

Some resources:

  1. As a guest here in your Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I want to share that a PCUSA pastor, Aaron Berkowitz, is one of the moderators for the very lively social media group called “Fans of David Bentley Hart” on Facebook and to recommend him as a remarkably well-read resource on these topics.
  2. You would also be very welcome, of course, as visitors to the churches that I have called home across several relocations in recent years:
    1. Christ the Saviour in Harrisburg
    2. St. John Chrysostom in York
    3. Holy Apostles in Mechanicsburg

Twelve books to recommend:

  1. The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart
  2. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma
  3. For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann
  4. Poems and Prose by Gerard Hopkins
  5. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Meletios Webber
  6. Our Only World by Wendell Berry
  7. A Small Porch by Wendell Berry
  8. Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
  9. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles by James K.A. Smith
  10. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken
  11. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
  12. Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl

End Notes:

  1. This ancient understanding of God and creation must also be distinguished from three modern inventions. First, deists confuse God with a gnostic demiurge or a cosmic clockmaker who exists alongside his creation while remaining highly exalted above it. Among the ancients, such thinking would have only been found in some popular understandings of gnostic dualism with a timeless evil at war with a timeless good or in the case of a lesser created being who could create a world and walk away from it. No ancient philosopher, however, would have been able to conceive of the kind of separation between the transcendent and the immanent that deists and most modern thinkers take for granted and that leaves us with a material world disconnected from its Creator. While respecting modern science and locating its origins clearly in the development of ancient technologies, Stephen Clark makes it clear that modern science does not start within ancient philosophy and that all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transcendence of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). He warns us that it is a mistake to “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of ‘spirits’” (10). Dale Martin agrees, even with regard to the famous materialist and first atomists, when he explains how “according to Lucretius, the mind strikes the spirit, the spirit strikes the body, and so the body walks or moves” (9).
    Atheism is a second modern invention that is only made possible by deism as a first false step. Atheism today—as it is popularly understood to mean a reduction of all reality to material processes—requires a total separation between transcendence and immanence that was never entertained by any ancient philosopher. As Dale Martin pointed out with regard to Lucretius and the primacy of the mind and spirit in moving the body, ancient atheists did not deny that transcendent realities were responsible for and involved with the most intimate details of daily life. When Socrates and Christians were accused of atheism, it was because they denied the power of the pagan pantheon and placed One utterly transcendent and immanent God between humanity and these lesser gods.
    Pantheism is the third and last modern invention to clear away as a possible misunderstanding when studying ancient views of God and our interconnected cosmos. Pantheism is a recent term coined by the Irish freethinker John Toland in 1705 and constructed from the Greek roots pan (all) and theos (God). It has been most famously advanced by Albert Einstein as a way of promoting an impersonal God who is entirely identifiable with the cosmos. As William Mander puts it within the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.” This claim that God and the cosmos are identical does not satisfy the most basic concerns of any ancient thinker as they insisted that we must look for transcendent causes or foundations that can sustain the diversity of life and movement in which we exist. Particularly in the Platonic school of thought, the case was made for a transcendent reality that was so fundamentally responsible for every particular instance of existence that this ultimate reality’s transcendent and its imminence are mutually dependent and the only possible explanation for each of us existing.
  2. To clarify the distinction between a participatory metaphysics and pantheism, some scholars use the term panentheism. However, it is probably least anachronistic to just speak of a classical theism that is centered on a strong participatory metaphysics and not charactured in terms of the the utterly aloof or impersonal “God of the philosophers” who is nothing more than the infamous “unmoved mover.” What I’m pointing toward is a classical theism that is fully grounded in a neoplatonic and Christian vision of a sacramental goodness in the material world as all of creation participates in the life of God.
  3. Hart goes on after this passage to describe how “the physical order confronts us at every moment …with … [our] necessary and total reliance for [our] existence, in every instant, upon realities outside [ourselves].” As he surveys thousands of years of reflection on this point, Hart writes:

Everything available to the senses or representable to the mind is entirely subject to …impermanence, mutability, transience. All physical things are composite, which is to say reducible to an ever greater variety of distinct parts, and so are essentially inconstant and prone to dissolution. All things are subject to time, moreover: they possess no complete identity in themselves, but are always in the process of becoming something else, and hence also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. …Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming. Everything that one is is a dynamic and perilously contingent synthesis of identity and change, wavering between existence and nonexistence. To employ another very old formula, one’s “potential” is always being reduced or collapsed into the finitely “actual” (always foreclosing forever all other possibilities for one’s existence), and only in this way can one be liberated into the living uncertainty of the future. Thus one lives and moves and has one’s being only at the sufferance of an endless number of enabling conditions, and becomes what one will be only by taking leave of what one has been. Simply said, one is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same is true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature.

Thank you again to Andrew for this invitation.

Your Wife, Faye

[Note: this is a short narrative by Elizabeth Russell written as a college course assignment on the topic of my mother’s death and our family’s goodbye to her. Also enjoy this wonderful reading of the story by Dr. Leslie Sillars, Professor of Journalism at Patrick Henry College.]

To my dear, beloved husband of almost 43 years:

You are trying to sleep right now behind me, fully clothed in your work attire, on a noisy crunchy plastic couch several feet shorter than you are. [You are] here with me in the hospital, after a very long hard day full of all kinds of stress, sacrificing, trying with all that is in you to serve me and help me. It’s a very appropriate picture of your life as my husband these many years…

He knows the words well by now. They bring back so many memories – raising nine children, years of missionary work in Taiwan, countless hikes and adventures and books read aloud in the evenings. The letter is creased and worn from many readings. He doesn’t know when she wrote it, exactly, but it must have been only a week or so before the end – before November 21, 2018, when cancer overwhelmed her body and sent her on ahead to God.

Steve and Faye Hake. Both of their names are etched into the headstone at his feet. They were not meant to be apart. Every month since her death, he has driven out to the cemetery to sit beside her in an old camp chair – reading her letter, reading his Bible, praying, remembering.

Today marks one year since her death. Here, among the cemetery’s bare trees and rolling hills, in the quiet and the cold, he has come to keep vigil with her. He will stay near her all day and all night.

It’s November 18, 2018. The Hakes’ small house, tucked into the rolling hills of West Virginia, is full of people. Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, and their whole family has gathered to celebrate. The living room overflows with grandchildren and games.

Faye spends most of her time in her bedroom, slipping in and out of a medicated sleep. She’s declining rapidly, and they all know it. But no one says anything.

Faye never wants to talk about death. Ever since she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in May 2014, she’s been fighting and planning and questioning the doctors’ grim diagnosis. She’s so optimistic and full of life – it simply isn’t in her nature to accept the statistics. Only 22% of patients with Stage IV breast cancer live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But Faye is determined to be in that 22%. If she can just gain a little strength, she can start another round of chemo, hold on a little longer… But Steve has known for a long time that she is dying. He can almost bear it if they do it all themselves – if they make sure it’s done right.

Months ago, he began researching natural burials and chose a local cemetery that allowed them. He bought a Walmart flat sheet to use for the shroud, and coils of hemp rope to lower her with. He asked his son-in-law Joel to carve the headstone – a smooth gray river rock taken from a property they’d loved. He even chose the hymns for her funeral. But he’s never been able to tell Faye any of it.

Steve’s oldest son Jesse pulls him aside.

“Have you asked Mom about everything? Is she okay with it?”

“I don’t know if I can,” he admits.

So Jesse goes into the bedroom, alone, to confront his mother with her death.

A few minutes later, she shuffles out into the kitchen. The room is crowded with children and grandchildren. Everyone is laughing – they’re making her an egg salad sandwich with pickles on top, some family joke. She laughs about the sandwich with them.
When the laughter dies down, she speaks quietly.

“Jesse told me about everything, and it’s okay.”

It’s very still. Then the jokes and laughter begin again, and that is all. But it’s enough.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 2018. Faye was taken to hospice yesterday and slipped away quietly this morning, sometime just after sunrise. Steve spent the night on the floor, lying beside her bed. Now, he and his children are bringing her home.

Somehow, they get her body into the back of the old van. When they reach home, four of the boys gently roll her onto blankets and begin carrying her inside. Steve walks with them, at her head. They wonder if the front or the back way is fastest. They choose the back door, but the room they are carrying her through is full of boxes and old furniture from a move. A table leg sticks out too far, and they wait in strained silence while one of the girls rearranges the furniture. Someone breaks into nervous laughter. It’s strange and sad and comical and Steve wonders, Are we doing this right?

He doesn’t know. But it helps that they’re doing this together. The vast wilderness of loss is not uncharted; it only feels that way. He clings to that moment in the kitchen, to her voice saying softly, “It’s okay.”

Steve knows that Faye is not here anymore. But the body still feels like her. So they dress her in her favorite clothes and drape her in her favorite blue-and-brown blanket. They fill the bedroom with flowers and prayers and readings from her favorite Bible passages. Someone is always in there with her, holding her hand. Her hands are cold; under her are 25 pounds of dry ice, to keep the body from decaying. But the pain is gone from her face. Her gray-brown hair has been smoothed back from her full cheeks. She looks almost like she did back in college.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Steve is mostly numb with the strangeness of it all, like an amputation. But a weary thankfulness washes over him – gratitude that at least they can honor her. At least they can say goodbye like this.

Two days later, Steve and his sons are digging her grave. The morning is cold. They take turns, shovels biting into the deep red soil and heaping it up on either side of the grave. Six feet deep, six feet long, two feet wide. It’s hard work, but it feels good to do it themselves.

He needs to know what it will be like for her. Struck by a sudden impulse, he lies down in the grave. Staring up at the pale blue sky, he thinks One day this will be me, next door.

A year later, night is falling as Steve sits beside the grave. He can still make out the pale letters on the headstone that read Steve and Faye Hake. Cancer now runs through his body, too. How long before he is laid next to her?

Steve doesn’t know. But he is not afraid.

It’s okay.

He hopes that, when his kids dig his own grave, they scoot him over right next to her.

As dusk falls, he lies down beside her, huddled in an old sleeping bag. He stares up into the cloudy night-blue sky, and her words come back to him.

I am getting very sleepy and fuzzy with pain medicine now, at 1:19 a.m. in this hospital bed. You are snoring peacefully behind me, if not comfortably, on that couch. I hope to have a few more days, weeks, or months – if not years, possibly – to hear and enjoy your snoring that I sometimes flipped you over to avoid.

I will quit now. I love you, Steve…I can’t wait to bow down together before God someday…and afterwards, to express our gratitude…

Thank you for the lovely long hike. I love you, Steve.

Your wife,
Faye

Creation, Fall and Evolution in Maximus the Confessor According to Torstein Theodor Tollefsen

Preface

Several people have asked me questions about what this post means, so here is a summary in advance with more direct language. God doesn’t need death to create, but He subverts death to achieve all of His original intentions anyway. The Bible teaches a human fall outside the start of time and of our cosmos as we know it. All death (of any kind) is a result of this atemporal human fall (which is also manifested within history as you can consider in this post).

In other words, God has always had incarnation in the form of the Son as an eternal plan and purpose, and humans are actually created outside of time as we now know it. Our showing up within this current corrupt reduction of time and space is a result of our collective decision outside of time to try a shortcut that resulted in this corrupted first creation that we now know but which is still being made (in Christ) into the new creation that will be fully revealed at Christ’s second coming.

The image in Revelation 13:8 of a Lamb slain from he foundation of the cosmos has come to mean a lot to me, as this captures the idea that Jesus Christ has been suffering with His creation since the start of time.

Original Post

“One major challenge to any ancient metaphysical conception of the world is the modern doctrine of evolution.” Torstein Theodor Tollefsen raises this critical point at the end of “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” (his contribution to Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen). While Tollefsen immediately acknowledges that “Maximus probably held the view that the world was made recently and that all species were made by God in the beginning,” Tollefsen goes on to explain how modern evolutionary science can fit seamlessly within the metaphysical system that Maximus provides. As far as I can tell, what Tollefsen proposes lines up to a remarkable degree with the position outlined in “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall (posted to the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on May 1, 2017).

In summary, Maximus sees the fall of humanity as having two aspects. These can also be expressed as “two senses of hamartia” (the Greek term typically translated sin). They are not two falls of humanity but just our human fall seen from two perspectives: 1) humanity’s relation to God outside of time wherein we collectively made a free and culpable choice to become what God intended for us via the wrong pathway and 2) humanity’s suffering within time under the bondage of corruption alongside of the entire cosmos that we are meant to tend and bless.

In its first aspect, our fall is an atemporal event that takes place within the “eternal now” of God’s presence and in which humankind “reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.” (Although Tollefsen does not specify this directly, it seems clear that Adam in this sense for Maximus is understood as God’s vision of humanity seen collectively as a whole—as the perfect body of Christ to use Paul’s language.) In Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” (Note in this blog post that Maximus actually makes this strange claim “on three separate occasions.”) Tollefsen explains that this “first ‘failure’ of Adam …was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil.” According to Tollefsen: “Maximus does not …commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. …The first [sense of hamartia] was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally.”

In its second aspect, our human fall “was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption.” This consequence of our fall is “innocent” in that we and the entire cosmos (with no rational will of its own and therefore no choice in the matter) suffer a contingent consequence that we could not have fully foreseen. Tollefsen says that this aspect of “humankind’s fall from perfection …is probably understood in a temporal sense” in that after “a period of existence in paradise” we experienced the fall “with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.” Summarizing Maximus, Tollefsen further explains: “Corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.”

Critical to the full metaphysical framework that Maximus presents is that “the plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and [it] shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages.” In God’s final purposes, “particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity.” In conclusion, Tollefsen claims: “The transformation from incorruption to corruption [of the entire cosmos] may be interpreted within this picture. [It describes] a purpose that is not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”

When taken together (and summarized in my own layman’s terms), we get a vision of creation as being initiated within God’s timeless presence with the central and guiding principle of creation from before creation’s start being the incarnation of the Logos as human. Christology, in this case, expresses a unity between God and creation—with humanity being the principal link within the created order. Humanity, however, grasping at a false path toward our ultimate end as the focal point of God’s image within creation, recasts our entire experience of the process of creation itself within a contingent corruption of the entire cosmos (expressed within our current cosmic time). For now, we are no longer fully able to see God’s creative work underway except in so far as we can see it through Jesus Christ, and all that we see is subject to the delusions and blindnesses imposed by ourselves and many others within our current contingent time. This human fall does not prevent God’s creative acts and intentions from taking place, but our falleness introduces the temporary experience of suffering and death into the entire creative process as it unfolds within time. From start to finish (even before humanity arrives within the fallen temporal sequence), creation within cosmic time is marred by corruption (but not prevented or destroyed). Within this context, the incarnation, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ become the revelation and restoration of our true and eternal condition as well as remaining the telos of creation as it always was. This telos is enacted within history as the incarnation of Jesus Christ but reveals a truth that cannot be fully seen or known until history is finished and transformed.

Biological evolution, in this scheme, is just the creative work of God unfolding as this ongoing work is experienced within the fallen confines of our current cosmic time. The entire natural history of our cosmos combines together the achievement of God’s eternal ends with the contingent experience of corruption, suffering and death. In this, the whole of creation becomes a kind of prolonged and painful labor and delivery. Ultimately, the claim here is that all the eons of biological evolution participate in the crucifixion and death of Christ as well as in Christ’s transfiguration, resurrection and glorification (rendering all the suffering of humanity and the cosmos contingent yet fruitful in the end). In this way, the final telos of all creation is “not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”

Passages from Tollefsen relating to what God intends and is creating according to Maximus:

How does God know beings? They are known, Maximus states, as his own acts of will. Maximus says that in the logoi, beings are circumscribed essentially and genetically (that is, as known and as willed) by their own logoi and by the logoi of beings that surround them.

…God knows particulars. He not only knows them; he loves them. …The logoi, as conceived by God, are contemplated by God according to the essential relationships they were intended to found. …Natural relationships are for …the actualization of a movement of love, which is what God has made possible within this system of being. According to Maximus’s interpretation, when beings are conceived within such an order, this is meant to guarantee a certain integrity of being and to make possible a certain providential and soteriological dynamics of movement.

The plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and is as such shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages. Particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity. However, in the present age this particularity has turned into a source of self-enhancement on the part of particular beings. This self-enhancement is sinful, since it involves an encroachment upon the integrity of both one’s own being and the being of others. In this way suffering, pain, corruptibility, and death rule the natural world. The divine remedy, however, is not the reduction of particularity, plurality, and diversity to an essential, ontological unity. Rather, it is the reduction of self-enhancement to the detriment of other beings to a unity in love that is made ontologically possible because God has transcendentally (in his logoi) knit the bonds of being that make it possible.

…The infinite divine Mind who eternally contemplates his own knowledge of beings has contemplated them in their logoi in all the possible ways of development these possible beings might enfold.

…While it will not accord with the methods of science to search for final causes, a metaphysical doctrine of the world as made by God cannot dispense with the concept of final causality.

…Even if the natural development of life is replete with struggle, suffering, and death, the Christian metaphysics of Maximus reckons with a final consummation in which all suffering and corruptibility are overcome. A cosmos made by God according to his goodness, will, and purpose must be conceived as directed, in the divine Mind, toward some goal.

Passages from Tollefsen relating to what we experience in this life given our fallen condition according to Maximus:

Maximus expects a universal transformation of the cosmos. Also, salvation does not just concern the remission of sin, since only rational creatures can sin. In Ad Thalassium 42, Maximus interprets the Greek term hamartia, which is usually translated “sin,” in its literal sense as a failure or as missing the mark, like when one shoots with a bow. The first “failure” of Adam, he says, was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil. This is what we would designate as sin in the usual sense of the term. The second failure, however, following upon the first, was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption. According to Maximus, corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.

…Maximus does not, as far as I can see, commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. He …distinguished between two senses of hamartia. The first one was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally. However, in Ad Thalassium 1, he mentions in passing humankind’s fall from perfection. This is probably understood in a temporal sense: there was first a period of existence in paradise; then came the fall with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.

…What Maximus actually says does not have to be interpreted in the sense that one has to reckon with some kind of historical paradise in the past. If we look at the divisions of being in Ambiguum 41, one of the divisions is between paradise and oikoumené, as if these were somehow present in the cosmic building and not as if one came before the other in time. Further, in Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” These Maximian descriptions need not be anything other than a metaphysical sketch of the structures or powers and possibilities of the world and of culture. When humankind originated within the fabric of nature, it reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.

Note that, while working to grasp Tollefsen’s summary of Maximus on these points, it can be helpful to have this additional map in hand:

In Ambiguum 41, Maximus presents his system in a nutshell. He draws a perspicuous and, I would say, beautiful picture of the cosmos as it comes forth from God in its procession (that is, creation) and converts to God in the final restoration. He describes five basic divisions in accordance with which the cosmos is arranged: (1) the division between uncreated and created nature, (2) the division of created nature into intelligible and sensible being, (3) the division of sensible being into heaven and earth, (4) the division of earth into paradise and oikoumené, and (5) the division of oikoumené into male and female. By oikoumené he probably means the inhabited world [as Andrew Louth translates it in Maximus the Confessor, Early Church Fathers (London: Routledge, 1996), 157].

Traditional icon of the creation.

Wondering Where Music and Laughter Come From

We have two extended family chat threads where all the living grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews read brief messages and share photos (or occasional videos and memes) from everyone else in a setting that is private to ourselves. (One is on my side of the family and the other is with the family of my wife, Elizabeth.) This practice in each extended family has its moments of fatigue, hurt and confusion of course (and more often than not, these are my fault), but both are ultimately a source of connection and joy to all of us Harrisburg Hakes.

Yesterday, my little sister Elsie shared a post—a less frequent and delightful event in my large family, where I am the oldest (and most obnoxious) of nine siblings (now much extended by our marriages and children). I got her permission to share her comment here on my blog (as well as my father’s permission because Elsie is not yet 18):

Jesse, I’ve enjoyed your comments on the Splintered Light book [by Verlyn Flieger], and am interested in reading it at some point. Here is a memory that I have that goes along with that quote and which would be of interest to you all. A few years before he passed away, Uncle Jerry sent me an email in which he said that he wondered where music and laughter came from. Since then, I had / have toyed with writing a story where music and laughter are in the form of two great waterfalls, and are kept by the Light People. Jesse, you would probably have a better idea and form of conveying those than I do, so I’ll just put it out there. I love you all very much my dear family! May God bless you richly!

I assured Elsie that I would not have a better idea than hers for conveying this idea regarding the source of music and laughter. Both Tolkien and Lewis, I am sure, would fully understand and appreciate these two great waterfalls kept by the Light People.

Also following up in response to Elsie, my sister Katie (mother of seven) shared this passage with waterfalls and song from Psalm 42:7-8 (that Katie had read the same day):

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

I’m tempted to write more, but I’ll just note a little here about my Uncle Jerry, my mother’s oldest brother. He was the first of the five children (my mother and her four siblings) in that family to pass away. My mother was the second of those five to die when we lost her about two years ago. My Uncle Jerry started his adult life as a high-school English teacher but eventually ended up building a large and successful swimming pool construction company. He was a generous man who lived large and who loved to laugh and who always resisted making too many claims about God (or any related matters). In some ways Uncle Jerry was a lost sheep (within a family that sometimes seemed to specialize in lost sheep). Near the end of his life, he remarried my Aunt Dotty (who he had divorced for a period of many years) and settled down, much to his mother’s delight. However, he still did not approve of those who claimed to know much about God. His comment to Elsie was typical, however. He promoted wonder. And it’s a blessing to have a little sister who values and continues that legacy. Lord have mercy on me and grant me a heart that does not falter in wonder.

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland (photo from online but a place that I have visited with Elizabeth many moons ago)

Christmas Ghost Story 2020: A Chat with Mom

“Did you say that you couldn’t get the coal stove lit?” My mother’s voice was strong and young and all the more evocative because of it.

I pulled my knees closer to my chest and tucked my ears farther under the edge of my sleeping bag, away from the December cold. After their marriage on the third day of Christmas 1975, my parents had spent a couple of hopeless days up here in this ancient farm house. It was a story that I had heard a thousand times. My dad couldn’t get the old furnace lit. Then, without anything on hand but ice and snow, he couldn’t wash the thick coal dust from his face and arms. They had decided to make the best of it and go tobogganing anyway only to hit a tree on their first run down the hill, splintering the toboggan. Finally, given up amid the frigid temperatures, they walked a mile back to their car at the bottom of the mountain only to find its battery dead because they hadn’t turned off the radio.

Rumor had it that this place was built in the late 1700s as a stagecoach inn along the frontier trail from Binghamton to Albany. As a boy, I had loved hearing my uncles tell stories of the Briarcreek Ghost who haunted this house. Just north of the Catskills, my Grandpa Brown bought these 500 acres on top of a mountain as a place to settle down in his retirement. He had just finished his career with the New Jersey power company that had hired him following WWII. When the war broke out, he had dropped out of highschool, married his sweetheart and joined the Merchant Marines. My mom was the second-to-youngest out of Ralph and Arlene’s five children. A spirited girl, with a name that referenced the elemental life of nature, her father used to tell her, “Don’t be facetious, just be Faye.”

The property had a three-story barn built into the side of the hill with timber-frame construction and stacked-stone foundations so solid that you could drive a modern tractor into all three levels despite its one hundred years. My grandpa had just reroofed this barn, remodeled the beautiful old farmhouse and built a massive new fireplace and chimney before he developed the emphysema and Parkinson’s disease that ended his retirement so early.

Here I was, an old man myself now, back to visit the beautiful folks of this place at Christmas with my own grandkids in tow. I’d been down to the cemetery near the Susquehanna River to pay my respects at the graves of my grandparents, Ralph and Arlene Brown as well as Ralph’s sister, my Great Aunt Ruth. My grandma often made me a bed as a child under this hallway window, looking out over the little front porch roof. It was colder than the bedroom, but I had chosen this childhood overflow bed on this Christmas eve night.

My thoughts blurred as I drifted back toward sleep before I heard my mother’s voice again, still strong but not so young: “Jesse, are you upstairs?” She was laughing, knowing that I must be surprised. I had taken her last remark about the coal stove to be a snatch of dream, but this summons was unmistakably part of a wide-awake world. It came up the stairwell that was beside me in the center of the hallway. I got up slowly and made my way around the banister to the top of the stairs. She could likely hear the steps creak as I descended to check the living room from where I had heard her. Yes, there she sat, in a rocker, smiling at me.

I spoke first. “That’s funny, Mom. You know that the Briarcreek Ghost always chose a rocking chair. Are you and he on familiar terms now?”

“Jesse, it’s good to hear you teasing me again. It’s probably going to set me back, but it’s really good to hear you again. I’m glad you’re not terrified or scandalized. I was pretty sure that you’d be up for a chat when I saw you pick out that old bed under the window.”

“Yes, well, I’m pretty old myself, Mom. You can get away with all kinds of things, now, I guess. What did you mean by saying that this will set you back?”

“Oh, I’m not really sure what I mean. A kind angel tried explaining some things to me years ago about my progress, but I was watching Katie’s twins wrangle some sheep. I told the angel to try explaining it to me another time. But I’ve thought more about it since. Whenever that explanation does happen, I can probably already guess the basic gist of it. Since dying, I’ve had a lot of time to pay attention to things around me. There’s something beyond it all that I need to see. I mean, obviously it’s Jesus, my Creator and Savior, but I only sense Him very obscurely, and I’ve never seen him. I thought I would see him when I died. I thought it would be clear after death. In one sense, it is. The world is much more clear after death, but it’s not any easier to see Jesus. It’s harder, actually, when the world gets so clear and bright. Oddly, I think that I’ve fallen more in love with life in this world after dying than I ever did before, and you know that I always loved a whole lot about life in this world. Anyway, if I have to guess, my eventual progress probably has something to do with dying all the way. I’ve got to lose my life to see what it truly is. Of course I always knew this, but I never actually did it, you know. But I’ve got a sense growing in me that Jesus is waiting, and I get this impression, more and more from everything around me. They are all pointing beyond themselves, asking me to let them go so that, together, we can see Jesus and what we are all about.”

We sat silently together for a few moments before I said, “Yes, that makes sense.”

She added, “Sometimes, I understand Aslan and the moon. Remember that passage from Prince Caspian? ‘All night, Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.’”

“Yes, I do. It reminds me of that passage after all the journeys and wars are finished for Gandalf, Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘Long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world…. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.”

“Yes, there is so much to be seen and said in that way. I’m learning to love it.”

“Were you talking to Dad a few minutes ago about the coal furnace?”

“Ha! Yes, I was. I don’t travel through time in the same way anymore. It’s all more and more present to me in some ways now. I still move slowly through space, as with a normal body, but much of my life is before me continually now. Of course, I don’t remember all of it, but I’m seeing what I do remember better and better. My first time through life, I saw so very little of it, and I was a pretty perceptive woman.” She paused to smile with me over this. “It’s wonderful to go back and watch Dad now, going through all of his labors on behalf of me and our family. He worked hard, that man, and he was good at seeing certain things that I wasn’t quiet enough to see. I was always doing or loving something, but he was my Steve, the first martyr.”

“Have you seen Dad since he passed away?”

“Yes, he and I were together for a while after he was buried. We were a little like that passage that you described with Celeborn and Galadriel. There was a lot to say, but we said it slowly and with long periods of quiet attention. He had learned a lot since my death, and I think he saw Jesus already—more fully than I do even now.”

“When did you come up here to the farm?”

“I’ve walked to a few places since I was buried, including a few trips that took many months. Most of the time, I’m slipping in and out of different times as I walk, but that makes less and less difference. I’m seeing the same beauties triumph more and more amid the sufferings. It’s a delight to see it all. Oh, but to answer your question… I hope you won’t mind. I caught a ride with you and Elizabeth.”

“Ha! That’s good to know. Hope you enjoyed the ride. It will be nice to have you with us all tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Celebrating Christ’s birth with all these beautiful families.”

“You know that passage in Lewis about Aslan and the moon? I think the moon was his mother.”

“Wow, mom. Have you been studying your C. S. Lewis since you died? Yes, at his resurrection after his death on the stone table, Aslan walks out from the brightness of the sun. And Lewis was certainly familiar with the long tradition—inspired in part by John’s language in Revelation 12—of Mary as the one who reflects the life-giving Light of God. That passage about Christ and his mother gazing all night ‘upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes,’ comes in a book where Casipian marries a star’s daughter and where scholars have identified the entire book as Lewis expounding the life of the sun. What a beautiful image for this Christmas Eve, to reflect on Christ and his mother enjoying each other in eternity.”

“Yes, Jesse. I’m progressing, I suppose. There are things I’m coming to love and see now that I would have laughed at during my own life. You were way ahead of me, but I see that you still enjoy pointing it out.”

“Ha! Well, thanks for waking me up tonight to say hello and to let me know how right I am. With all this flattery, I’m sure to be blinded to the Christ child now. No Christmas for me. You know, Mom, I can’t help thinking of Elder Lua as we sit here chatting together. All those years as missionaries, and all we could do was shake our heads at him. I guess maybe his stories weren’t so crazy after all.”

“Yes, I’ve remembered him as well, often, since I died. Dad and I loved to tell the stories of our Presbyterian elder who would often sit up at night, smoking and chatting with his long-dead father who had been a shaman during his life. This pagan father loved to visit his Christian son around Chinese New Year. I guess we always took him seriously enough, but it was, well, mostly just a story. What did we know? That crazy, generous, strange man. Yes, who knows what he understood that we could not.”

“Wow, it’s good to be with you again, Mom.”

“Jesse, you know that poem by Charles Williams that ends with this stanza?”

But my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”

“I’ll be praying for us both to learn better to say yes with Mary.”

“Yes, I’ve listened for a voice telling me from the cross, ‘Son, behold your mother.’ But that is only a help along the way as we listen, finally, for the cry of the babe that our soul bears with Mary. I’ll be praying with you, Mom. Thank you for your prayers. Merry Christmas.”

We didn’t say any more, but we sat quietly, each glad in the other’s gaze. I eventually nodded off to sleep in my chair. When I awoke in the cold darkness, her rocking chair was empty, and I made my way back up to my bed beneath the hallway window. It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would need my rest.

P.S. Today is my parents’ anniversary, two years after my mother’s passing. It is also the Feast of Saint Stephen (or the day after on the Western calendar). This story is just that, a story by a child who loves his parents and misses his mother.

P.P.S. I also realized later that I probably got some of the “pictures” behind this story (without knowing it) from Wendell Berry:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.” —Wendell Berry (A World Lost)

“I know by now that the love of ghosts is not expectant, and I am coming to that. This Virgie of mine, this newfound ‘Virge,’ is the last care of my life, and I know the ignorance I must cherish him in. I must care for him as I care for a wildflower or a singing bird, no terms, no expectations, as finally I care for Port William and the ones who have been here with me.” —Wendell Berry (Hannah Coulter)

Our Nativity with Christ and Paul’s Expectant World

In Romans 8:22, Paul describes the world giving birth to a new creation: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” This birth involves all of us because, a few verses earlier, we learned that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19, ESV here and above). As we prepare for the birth of Christ, there is much to learn from this image of a world waiting with the eagerness of an expectant mother for a renewed humanity and suffering in the pains of childbirth for the revelation of a new cosmos.

Paul understood Christ to be the first human (consider the clear logic of 1 Corinthians 15:44-50, for example), and therefore Mary gives birth to the second Adam who will finally make possible the creation of the first Adam. Christ as the eternal Son of God is the original form upon which the first Adam was modeled, and Christ incarnate also becomes the firstfruits of a humanity for which the first Adam was always intended but to which he and all of his children had never attained.

Therefore, as Mary carried Christ, she carried all of us in our potential as fully realized humans. Moreover, containing Christ, Mary contained the whole of the new creation that Christ would bring about. Many ancient nativity hymns speak of Mary’s womb as paradise restored. Here is one example:

Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.

Creation is ongoing and incomplete apart from Christ. Cut off from the Tree of Life, we are estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world. God’s primary work is speaking as His Logos is coeternal with Him. However, God’s secondary work is shaping, and what we experience within the fallen world is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. It is not possible to resist the Logos of God, but God allows us—the material called into existence—to defy the shaping work of His hands to some degree. In fact, our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our rebellion against the image of the Logos that God longs to give to us. We will eventually delight to express this image in its fullness, but our opposition has resulted in a long and difficult labor, one in which the entire world must struggle to give birth to a new creation.

This language of the womb (both Mary’s and the world’s) is the language of creation for Paul. When God shapes humanity in Genesis 2, the same Hebrew verb (yatsar) is used as when the scriptures talk about God shaping each of us within our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–16 and Isaiah 44:24). Likewise, God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” in Genesis evokes a mother bird spreading herself over the eggs in her nest. The same verb used for the hovering of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 where we read that God cares for Israel “like an eagle who rouses his nest, over his fledglings he hovers” (Robert Alter’s translation throughout this paragraph).

Clearly, we have two related images with the work of the potter and the labor of a woman giving birth. Jean Hani, in his book Divine Craftsmanship shares wonderful insights into God as a potter (33-37):

The author of Ecclesiasticus pauses a moment to watch the potter at work and gives us a graphic portrait of him: “So doth the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set to his work, and maketh all his work by number. He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet.” (Eccles. 38:32-33)

This care, this skill, this freedom of the human artist before his work, perfectly evokes the attitude of the Divine Artist vis-à-vis His creature: “All men are from the ground, and out of earth, from whence Adam was created. As the potter’s clay is in his hand, to fashion and order it all: all his ways are according to his ordering.” (Eccles. 33:10, 13-14)

Saint Irenaeus …presents this gloss of Ecclesiasticus (Contra haer. IV, 39, 2): “If then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out.”

In the Letter of Barnabas 6.9 (AD 70 to 132) we read that “the human being is earth that suffers.” Citing this passage, John Behr expounds on our “suffering as we are molded by the hands of God, as clay in the hands of the potter, into his image, a process that continues throughout our lives, culminating in our death and resurrection, at which point one can even say that we are created” (The Wheel, 2008, “From Adam to Christ”).

Scott Cairns writes about the annunciation and nativity in a poem that is bookended by these images of formation and birth:

Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting
once again the ember of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew falls gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh
adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down.
And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become
the kindled kindred of a King whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.

This poem (composed for Gordon College students during a stay in Orvieto, Italy) opens with the work of God upon our collective clay and ends with the truth that, as Mary gives birth to Christ, she gives new birth to us all.

This world and Mary are both expectant, and we all wait to be born again in a birth that now can only come through death. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot contemplates how “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This is why the traditional nativity icons always depict the baby and his mother deep within a cave. It is a cave like that in which Christ’s dead body must be laid after his crucifixion. For the same reason, his swaddling clothes as a baby are the same in all the old icons as those bands that will wrap his body for burial. Christ, joins us in the womb of his mother and in the belly of the earth, both in his birth and in his death. God is with all who are just “earth that suffers” so that we, and the whole cosmos with us, can be remade and born again.

Traditional Nativity Icon (Elizabeth Zelasko at elizabethzelasko.com)