“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” Elder Sophrony gave this famous reply to a question from Olivier Clement regarding those who will not open their hearts to the love of God. In this Easter season, with Christ’s glorious and victorious resurrection preeminent, it is worthwhile asking if Jesus Christ is still, in any sense, within hell and among the dead. After all, we do see Jesus one time, long after the resurrection, appearing to be dead and yet enthroned in heaven. When we are introduced with John to the glorious “Lion of the tribe of Judah” enthroned in power at the right hand of the Father, what we actually see is “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:2-10). Even while reigning victoriously from heaven, Jesus Christ is revealed as a victim of sacrifice. Jesus remains, in some important sense, dead.
This idea is in keeping with many fundamentals of biblical truth: that we are united with Christ in his death as well as his life, that we are commanded to take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus, and that we feed ourselves repeatedly upon the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Many mothers and fathers of the church have taught that God is most fully revealed, in all of His glory and power, when Jesus is hanging upon the cross. Fr. Thomas Hopko shared in a lecture that, according to Hugo of St. Victor, “God wants to speak to us, to reveal himself to us, …and when he hangs on the Cross and his arms are open, the Book is open. The Book is totally open, like in the book of Revelation.”
Even before sin and death and all of creation, God was a God who emptied himself. Stephen Freeman has written about an “unfallen suffering” that is found within the life of our Trinitarian God even before creation and outside of time. Each person of the Trinity continually empties themselves in relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Within God’s inner life, there is a profound kind of self-giving, and this should not surprise us because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Therefore, God has always been one who gives Himself fully, and this God is only perfectly revealed by God’s entire self-emptying upon the cross.
Another way of understanding this is to recognize God’s entire strategy against sin and death itself. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.
God’s strategy (of entry into death to commune with those who flee from him) has not changed since Christ’s resurrection. Although God’s entry into death is only accomplished in Jesus Christ, we now also participate in it through our union with Christ. God is now entering into suffering and death through all those who commune with Jesus. In fact, this is the only place to find full communion with Christ, the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We see this at work in every Christian life and when Paul says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Even after the end of time, worship around the throne of our majestic and living king will always include a recognition of his greatest moment: “his voluntary, glorious, and life-giving death” as Christian liturgies repeatedly refer to it. The resurrection power that Jesus Christ displayed on Easter morning came easily to him. His first action after this surge of life brought breath back to his dead body, was to lift the small square of cloth from his face and fold it gently before laying it down. Christ’s great labor came in the final hours of an entire adult life that was directed toward the cross, and this is all that he empowers us to do. If we would seek to exercise the power of God graciously offered to us by Christ’s resurrection, we must shoulder our own cross and pray for the strength to enter death itself. Christ reopened the gates of Paradise that had been shut behind Adam, but he set these gates up just inside the gates of Hades.
I was encouraged to rewrite this poem that I wrote recently:
Your body holds you tighter hourly.
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel.
You have your gasped breaths and throbbing heart.
This morning, your eyes bring less daylight,
and you have let go, almost, of saying.
This less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more.
Today’s snowfall blankets your roof and windows
without your knowing now, joining many here
that taught long of rest and waiting.
These small white bodies
carry downward flames from heaven,
without heat but made of fire still
that banks and burns
Your body holds closer its own light
as a treasure carried far,
carried up, soon, amid a snow that you’ll
a flame to lay down before your Lord.
These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:
My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart
This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying
Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord
Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”
And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:
And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.
From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.
…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.
From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
As modern Western people, our dichotomized categories and preconceived notions about body, soul, matter, and spirit are tragically inadequate to the task of engaging with the full mystery and beauty of reality. Ancient people understood reality in ways that we have lost the ability to understand: its full dimensionality, interiority, and microcosmic qualities. As a modern myself, I’m not able to see just how far short our concepts come from being able to appreciate what is truly around us. Moderns have flattened the creation into just a few simple dualities such as: energy and matter, time and space, or (the ugliest reduction of all) supply and demand. In this simplified and demystified world, we’ve blinded ourselves to both the true beauty and meaning of the world outside as well as to the power of the same world as it also exists within ourselves. For human beings, the material world is supposed to be a powerful portal into the realities of life and beauty, into full communion with our Creator. Instead, we have lost this capacity, and we have allowed the material world to become a curtain that hides the rest of reality from our eyes. To undo this, requires long practice. However, there is also some value in trying to understand the categories of thought that blind our minds. This essay is my attempt to share how my own categories of thought have begun to shift.
Ancient Christians (and all ancient peoples in many essential ways) understood the world to be multi-layered, with simultaneous aspects of the same things coexisting within or across space and time. For example, stars and angels were often understood as the same thing but with multiple aspects: changeless cosmic bodies moving in a stately pattern according to the highest laws and mighty spiritual powers who are both conducting a sacred dance and waging a heavenly war.
The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. [Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.]
C.S. Lewis makes this same point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (chapter 14):
“I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“…In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Ancients also saw the world as microcosmic or structured like fractals, with the whole complex pattern recurring at progressively smaller or larger scales. The entire cosmos existed at multiple levels simultaneously:
Many ancient philosophers as well as the Bible taught that each individual human person is a replica of the whole cosmic pattern, a particular union of heaven and earth, and a complete temple to God.
Likewise, the tabernacle/temple is a miniature presentation of the entire cosmos.
Finally, the entire cosmos itself is a temple modeled after God’s heavenly temple and throne room (with humanity as the priest and the divine image who makes God present within all of creation).
This kind of teaching is taken for granted throughout the scripture. For example, when Christ said that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21). Ancient Christian authors also reflected often on this theme. For example, Augustine wrote:
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea. …Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? …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. …Where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? …What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it. [Confessions (Book X)]
Ancient people understood the heavenly realm or the spiritual world to be both inside and above the physical world or earthly realm. Each of these spatial analogies are true, and both are metaphorical. As moderns, we have only kept a distorted understanding of the idea that the heavenly world is “above” the earthly realm, and this idea only makes it easier for us to reject the relevance or the reality of the heavenly world. Ancients believed that the spiritual world was “within” all of the physical world because the spiritual or heavenly realm expresses deeper truths about us and our world. Heaven, as it exists inside each thing around us, can shows us how each thing is made and what each thing truly is (at the core of its being). Finally, these more essential realities are said to be “inside” because they tend to be “hidden” or “mysterious” to us. We cannot as easily see, take, and try to possess or control the heavenly realities that surround us within the material world. This presumption of possession and control is a terrible mistake that we make constantly as modern people. It blinds us more profoundly than anything else to the true beauty and value of all that surrounds us. Thinking of the world in simply material terms, we make the world less sacred, and we make is more easy for us to think that we can “have” or “use” the things around us. As we try to “make use of” the material things surrounding us to increase our power and comfort, we become completely ignorant of the more powerful and uncontrollable spiritual qualities that are internal to these things. We utilize material things without realizing the spiritual death that we are bringing upon ourselves. We are like orcs chopping down trees while heedless of the ents.
Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers does an excellent job of unpacking the old idea of heavenly or spiritual realities being “within” all earthly or material realities. Although recommending the book highly, I am critical of his implication that the “internal” metaphor can be an almost complete explanatory category. Heavenly and spiritual realities are neither “above” or “within” in any complete or literal sense. Wink would agree with this, but his ideas rely heavily on the “‘withinness” of all spiritual realities.
One more way that we moderns have demystified the world is by splitting the world into material and spiritual realities that do not have any vital need to coexist. In the ancient mind, heaven and earth depended upon each other in a wide variety of complex ways. The spatial metaphor of “above” did teach that heavenly realities were more meaningful, substantial, or vital (“higher” in some sense). However, this idea of heaven being above the earth did not mean that heaven is in any sense distant from the earth. Heaven was always understood to be close at hand. We are in both heaven and earth at the same time every day, and heaven only becomes distant as a result of our own blindness and sin. Paul and other New Testament writers talk repeatedly about us being seated in heaven and carrying out vital activities in heaven at the same time as we are on the earth. We are clearly understood to be in both places. However, the heavenly Jerusalem still needs to “come down to earth” and be married to the earth in a wedding celebration that will heal the rift that has opened between heaven and earth as a result of our human rebellion and blindness:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” [Revelation 21:1-3a]
Earthly and heavenly realities are created to be complementary (as are material and spiritual realities by extension). Each aspect of the world offers something to the other. Earthly things are good and offer to us a relationship or contact point with heavenly things. Likewise, heavenly things are good and can show us the true nature and value of earthly things. As embodied creatures, our communion with heaven is clearly intended to be mediated by a right relationship with the material world (understood as the good and revelatory gift of God that it always is).
To regain contact with reality as a marriage of both the earthly and the heavenly, we must go back into the history of terms such as “body” and “soul” or “spirit” and “matter.” There are well over a thousand years of profound Christian writings (and even more importantly, practices) regarding a whole host of terms about our human abilities and parts. As just a few examples: heart, spirit, soul, body, strength, will, passions, flesh, and nous (“understanding” is a good translation, but we generally just don’t get this term today). Of course, these terms are all rich Greek and New Testament concepts, several with deep Hebrew roots as well. Regaining the good use of these (and several other such terms) should start with word studies, and these words have very physical (enfleshed) roots, particularly in Hebrew. Word studies are not abstractions, because language is always grounded in concrete metaphors from the bodily experiences of human persons. “Spirit,” for example is “breath” or “wind” in Hebrew, which is both remarkably tangible but also impossible to fully see or constrain.
To get at what “spiritual” and “heavenly” mean, it is critical to keep both the earthy word origins as well as the earthly target clearly in view. As the Lord’s prayer says: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As humans, our wholeness is primary, and we cannot separate any part of ourselves fully out from the rest of us or place any part of ourselves into competition with other parts. Ultimately, our spirit, soul and body are mutually dependant entities, and we must start with our bodily experiences as the basis of our spiritual lives.
Another fact that keeps the study of these terms profoundly practical and embodied (vs. abstract or theoretical), is that all of these terms were first developed and debated in the context of learning to worship and pray (by Jews and later by Christians). We don’t realize today that virtually all arguments over the technicalities of terms such as “will” or “nous” or over the human nature of Christ (as well as over trinitarian doctrines and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures) were grounded in the daily practices of worship and prayer. Christ prayed “not my will but your will be done,” and Maximus the Confessor had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off because he insisted that Christ had a fully human will. Maximus was a scholar, but his scholarship was grounded in practices of prayer that imitated Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as well as practices that relied upon Christ’s restoration of our human will to freely cooperate with the will of God. The emperor who ordered that Maximus to be rendered incapable of speaking and writing was actually the one obsessed with pure abstractions. He was intellectually offended at the idea of Christ having a human will. Maximus, however, was motivated by his own experiences of prayer and of striving to be unified with God’s will.
From my little reading in the monastic traditions (desert fathers and mothers), it seems that “nous” and “passions” are the two most seriously lost or misunderstood terms. I won’t try to write about “nous” other than to say that I think it has something to do with having our perceptions wide open to God’s presence. My focus hear, however, is the interrelationship of seeming dualities such as matter and spirit or body and soul. In this context I will say more about the passions, but first I must back up to talk about our bodies.
Monastics systematically subdued and trained their bodies in order to regain their bodies as an essential and powerful means for communion with their loving Creator. They loved their bodies and wanted their bodies back from the tyranny of the passions, and that is why they pushed their bodies to the point of ruination. A weak body that worked powerfully as a mediator and conduit of God’s presence in all of the created world (the original purpose of our bodies) was far more healthy and delightful than a strong body that was enslaved and insensible to God’s presence.
Saints bodies are precious to themselves and likewise precious to those who love the saint. Christ’s body, even dead, was precious to the myrrh-bearing women. Christ’s body, even dead, was a means of God’s presence and communion with us. This is why the Orthodox still treasure and honor the bodies and even the cloths of saints. Elijah’s mantle carried his holiness, and Elisha’s ancient bones brought a dead man to life. Even since God’s Spirit brooded like a mother bird over the surface of the primordial waters and ever since this Spirit indwelt the clay of our first parents, this Spirit has been deeply involved with material things. Our human bodies both make manifest God’s presence (as does all matter) and also bring that presence to us via all five senses.
Paul seems to use “flesh” to denote the desire for things other than God. “Fleshly” and “worldly” vs. “heavenly” in Paul’s writings are not actually about material vs. immaterial. Platonists and Gnostics despised material things. In Plato’s cave, the shadow world had to be left far behind. This is not the Christian message. God’s material creation is good, and it is a powerful tool for communion with God. Paul’s terms “flesh” and “world” do not denigrate the human body or the material world. “Fleshly” and “heavenly” indicate purposes or orientations (specifically, realms of power and authority), with the same good material things being subject to different purposes and powers. Material things are “heavenly” insofar as we allow them to mediate God’s presence and God’s communion with us. These same material things are “fleshly” or “worldly” insofar as we abuse them to serve as distractions, alternatives, or barriers to God’s presence with us.
In a similar way, “passions” (within the writings of the monastics) were not simply strong feelings or bodily desires. This term, again, has to do with orientation or purpose. Within a long and profoundly practical tradition of writing and teaching about Christian prayer, the “passions” came to mean all of the habitual needs and desires that we develop for anything other than God. Feelings that do not control us or draw us away from God are not evil. However, we tend to need much work to learn to desire God, and our strong desires are often cruel taskmasters that work against our ability to love and long after God. Death is sometimes called the greatest passion because all of our desires for things other than God lead naturally to death. Christ’s death is also called his passion. In a remarkable reversal, St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ turned death from the most powerful weapon against our human natures (threatening to destroy them) into our most powerful weapon against sin (setting free our human natures). Christ made our passions and death itself a means of our salvation.
At this point, I want to close with a series of reflections that draw primarily on my personal experience. I find that it is delightful and profoundly comforting to be able to recognize and respond throughout my day to Christ’s presence with us in human history—to be able to enjoy (with my own body) the material results (or relics) of his incarnation as a man among us. What I mean is to be able to venerate his image, his cross, the bodies of his ministers and saints, the chalice from which I receive his body and blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council restored the use of icons to the church after sophisticated thinkers (who wanted to make Christianity as spiritually and philosophically tidy and impressive as Islam) had taken the icons away.
St. John of Damascus wrote beautifully in defense of icons. Adam and Eve were the first icons (same word as images and idols) of God, and God told humans not to make any images of God because God did not want humans to replace themselves as the image of God. The tabernacle and temple were full of images. However, the mercy seat appeared empty (although filled with the fire and cloud of Spirit glory at key times), and the priest was the primary image or mediator of God’s presence. With Jesus Christ, the image of God in humanity is perfectly restored, and all images of the human Jesus Christ are images of God. Jesus Christ brings together the glory-cloud and the priest at His transfiguration. Also, all images of Christ’s saints are primarily icons of Jesus (including his living icons—us the church militant).
Now that Christ has come to live a perfect life among us, participating fully in our material existence, the only way to combat idolatry is to reverence, cherish, kiss, and adore every material thing that points to Jesus Christ (which turns out to be just about every single particle of matter that surrounds us). The only way to learn to worship the true God is to venerate all of the icons, images, and holy object that have been taken up into the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ over the thousands of years since his life among us. I love the line from Winks book: “We discover our body as ‘temple’ by going to a temple.” I would add that we also discover all of creation as a temple (it’s clear purpose throughout the Bible).
Here’s a little from St. John of Damascus (7th century):
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
Even when we can’t see or feel it, we are blessed by having any small sign of Christ’s presence tangibly offered to us. Here is an extract from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a short scene described from memory by Prince Myshkin, the title character, when he is pressed to suggest a subject for a painting):
There is a ladder to the scaffold. Suddenly at the foot of the ladder he began to cry, and he was a strong, manly fellow; he had been a great criminal, I was told. The priest never left him for a moment; he drove with him in the cart and talked with him all the while. I doubt whether he heard; he might have begun listening but not have understood more than two words. So it must have been. At last he began going up the ladder; his legs were fettered so that he could move with only short steps. The priest, who must have been an intelligent man, left off speaking and only gave him the cross to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he was very pale, and when he was at the top and standing on the scaffold, he became as white as paper, as white as writing paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden, and I expect he felt sick as though something were choking him and that made a sort of tickling in his throat. Have you ever felt that when you were frightened, or in awful moments when all your reason is left, but it has no power? I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…When that weakness was beginning, the priest with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips—a little plain silver cross—he kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed for a few seconds to come to life again, and his legs moved. He kissed the cross greedily; he made haste to kiss, as though in haste not to forget to provide himself with something in case of need; but I doubt whether he had any religious feeling at the time. And so it was till he was laid on the plank…It’s strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. I fancy that there is a continual throbbing of ideas of all sorts, always unfinished and perhaps absurd too, quite irrelevant ideas—‘That man is looking at me. He has a wart on his forehead. One of the executioner’s buttons is rusty.’—and yet all the while one knows and remembers everything. There is one point which can never be forgotten, and one can’t faint, and everything moves and turns about it, about that point. And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and…knows, and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron! He must hear that! If I were lying there, I should listen on purpose and hear. It may last only the tenth part of a second, but one would be sure to hear it. And only fancy, it’s still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What a thought! And what if it knows it for five seconds!
Paint the scaffold so that only the last step can be distinctly seen in the foreground and the criminal having just stepped on it; his head, his face as white as paper; the priest holding up the cross, the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that’s the picture. The priest’s face and the executioner’s, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background, in half light, as the setting…That’s the picture!
Since reading this passage, my life now maps in many ways to this prisoner on the way to the executioner’s block. I’m offered the little cross to kiss (in daily and weekly prayers and sacraments), and I’m recalled to life long enough to take one more step, to get up and move forward for one more day or week or minute. Although, in day-to-day living, I am only occasionally aware of my needs to this extent.
To close with a few images that resonate more regularly in day-to-day life, Saint Macarius (4th century) describes the human heart this way:
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. [The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 15.32]
Outside of ourselves, Chesterton has lovely passages about our “cosy little cosmos,” and how it should feel like a warm and welcoming home (rather than a vast and uninhabitable universe). Chesterton captures the idea of the whole material cosmos as conveying the presence of our Creator and Father in heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins also does this remarkably in many of his poems (for example, when he describes the stars as our glimpse into the home of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows“). Finally, I’m reminded of Robert Kirk’s claim (in The Secret Commonwealth) that there is “no place nor creature but is supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole universe.” Taken together, these images of the universe from Chesterton, Hopkins, and Kirk suggest that the physical sciences of astronomy and atomic physics are both exploring the domains of human and angelic life. Madeline L’Engle is another author who makes this point that microscopes and telescopes both point into the realm of heavenly powers. This is the entire premise of A Wind in the Door, and Meg’s battle cry at the end of that story captures much of this:
Be caterpillar and comet,
be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
sea gulls and seraphim,
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the ﬂaming of creation
Even Disney Studios has given it’s own voice to this ancient understanding of our entire cosmos as the home of us and our ancestors:
Pumbaa: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, wit’ you, everything’s gas.
Pumbaa: Simba, what do you think?
Simba: Well, I don’t know…
Pumbaa: Aw come on. Give, give, give… Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?
Simba: …Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Timon: You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?
Pumbaa: Who told you something like that?
Timon: What mook made that up?
Simba: Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?
There are no one-to-one corollaries between the material and the heavenly realms. The connections between “earthy things” and “ethereal things” work like language—like metaphors and the etymologies of words—with multiple clusters of association and with rooted histories branching back into the past. Scientific knowledge is wonderful. However, when we think of knowledge as the exploration of how matter and energy interact (or any other reductions), we impoverish our understanding of the world that we seek to know. True knowledge is always a form of love. The starting point, therefore, is simply to honor all matter—from galaxies to nuclei—to love both their stories and their structures as beautiful and mysterious revelations.
We must regain ways of seeing and talking aboutGod (and all of God’s creatures) within all of Creation. This is simply learning to “pray without ceasing” during every type of work throughout our daily lives. This means learning to have a different consciousness of the physical world and of our own bodies. Our modern lives do not teach us this. Ancient prayer practices did teach this greater consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. In addition, all of the natural processes of maturation and suffering (such as losing a loved one) still do teach us these ways of understanding. We simply have many distractions in our current ways of living. We have to move slowly but deliberately to recover these older ways of seeing.
When Christ ascended to heaven to be hidden behind a cloud (and enthroned beside God the Father in glory until his return), Christ was hidden from view like the sun—just veiled by the clouds. Many ancient hymns draw close parallels between Christ and the sun (reigning victorious from heaven and giving light to all). I often tell my children that Jesus is not far away. Although he has a glorified body in heaven that we cannot see, I emphasized that his heavenly body is “as close as the sun.” It is just hidden by clouds for now, not immediately visible but close at hand, still indirectly seen and felt. I also remind my children that the body and blood of Jesus are given to us in the chalice from the altar—as food and drink that we take into our bodies. We know Jesus Christ through many different things and in many different ways, including this sunlight and this bread and wine. His closeness to us is profound.
Note: here are two books that I felt were particularly helpful to me with some of this a few years ago:
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken.
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith.
I’m also drawing (very ineptly) upon my understandings of many other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Fr. Stephen Freeman.
Father Stephen Freeman recommends Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers:
A book worth looking at viz. the powers is Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers. As successive volumes of this came out, I thought it got a bit strange, but I remember this volume as very much worth the read.
The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.
In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession.
From Freeman, for example:
But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service. …It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.
Within the comments, Freeman acknowledges some common ground with Hart:
Hart is close on in his description, but his article is far too short. “Archons” (Ages) and the like (principalities, powers, etc.) are various forms of spiritual beings – though we shouldn’t necessarily equate them exactly with angels. It’s more complex than that. The gnostics use some of the same terms, but do not seem to have in mind the same things as described in St. Paul.
…It’s a very complex set of understandings – which makes it so easy for pseudo-scholars to manipulate for various agendas rather than trying to articulate what is, in fact, the case (with St. Paul, etc.). But I would agree with Hart, that what most people (i.e. our present Western understanding) see when they read St. Paul is, in fact, not what’s there.
In addition to my reading of Freeman and Hart as a recent convert to Orthodoxy (the tradition that both authors espouse), I personally have been teaching a medieval literature class (to middle school students) and reflecting on the nature of elves and monsters within medieval literature as well as the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and Macdonald. See here and here, for examples.
Within these contexts, I have again encountered the ideas of “the principalities and powers” of the Biblical authors.
Naming the Powers by Walter Wink was a very strong study of the terms involved. Wink starts with the texts and responds to the tendency of modern liberation theology to reduce “the powers” to the institutional, social, and legal structures of injustice. Wink also responds to other modern authors who have attempted to reduce the powers to “good” angelic beings carrying out the will of God.
In his own conclusions, Wink seeks to fully synthesize or reconcile ancient (mythic and spiritual) with modern (material or institutional/phycological/sociological) understandings. In his own conclusions from the texts, Wink is critical of both ancient and modern ideas or worldviews. Wink is critical of traditionalists (including the “orthodox church” specifically) for simply spiritualizing these “powers” as well as of moderns for reducing “the powers” to material or scientific categories. (Wink’s criticism of the Orthodox is ill-informed but in a very typical and understandable way.)
What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power. I suggest that the “angels of nature” are the patterning of physical things-rocks, trees, plants, the whole God-glorifying, dancing, visible universe; that the “principalities and powers” are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the “demons” are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that “gods” are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; that the mysterious “elements of the universe” (stoicheia cheia tou kosmou) are the invariances (formerly called “laws”) which, though often idolized by humans, conserve the self-consistency of each level of reality in its harmonious interrelationship with every other level and the Whole; and that “Satan” is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.
…These “Powers” do not, then, on this hypothesis, have a separate, spiritual existence. We encounter them primarily in reference to the material or “earthly” reality of which they are the innermost essence. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a “personification” of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such.
…It is far from the case, then, that human beings create their gods. The “spirits” of things emerge with the things themselves and are only subsequently divined as their inner essence. The gods, spirits, and demons are not mere personifications or hypostatizations. That is the language of reductionism; it means that these entities are not regarded as real, but only as poetic fictions or shorthand for speaking about realities the historian knows how to describe more precisely with his analytical tools. Personification means illusion. The Powers we are speaking about, on the contrary, are real. They work on us whether we acknowledge them or not. They do not depend on our belief for their efficacy. Humans cannot even lay claim to creating these Powers indirectly, by virtue of creating the structures…. To be sure, we do establish new structures and modify old ones. Insofar as we share in the creative process and bring new consciousness to it, we help create the spirituality of things. There is a reciprocity, so we could argue that it is as true to say that the gods create us as to say that we create the gods.
I agree with Wink that the ancient Christian understanding of these powers (and of the heavenly realm in totality) did not separate the physical and the spiritual realms but rather understood them to be radically and totally coterminous. Wink draws this critical insight out beautifully. However, in his synthesis of ancient and modern categories of thought, Wink does not fully account for the continuity and distinctness of the various “powers” as creatures made by God. We must recognize that God creates the “inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” and that these “inner realities” can exist across time and in relation to multiple physical or “outer realities.” Wink himself gives an excellent example of this without seeming to concede the full implications of his example:
The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization. When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby herd of swine (Mark 5:12). The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event. The unclean spirit can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside (Luke 11:24-26). The sense is clear: demons can become manifest only through concretion in material reality. They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.
I fully appreciate the point about the “demons themselves … abhorring decorporealization,” but Wink seems to miss that it is the same demons inhabiting a single human at one moment and multiple pigs at the next. The demons are more than the “the psychic or spiritual power emanated” by a man (or a herd of pigs) “whose energies are bent on overpowering others.” These demons are intimately bound up with these destructive qualities in the man and the pigs, but they are also independent of both the man and the pigs in some fundamental way. Wink may account for this by not connecting all “powers” and interior realities to specific outward realities, but I did not notice him making this case.
Having read Wink, it seems to me most likely that God made more specific internal and spiritual realities than there are specific material and external realities. Every single person, nation, city, star, and blade of grass has its own unique angel that participates fully with the outer reality of that particular person or blade of grass (God and His spiritual servants being outside of time, the shortness of life for blades of grass is not a major issue here), but there are also angels (fallen, faithful, or just ignorant and confused) who are not directly connected to specific material things and who move among all of the many external/material realities that align with their own ways of being. Any person or institution manifesting hate and pride can accommodate Satan or some other such devils, for example.
These quibbles not withstanding, I am very grateful to Wink for his clear and thoughtful exposition of “the powers” in the Bible. My list of “things learned” from his book would be long indeed! Please see these excerpts and buy his book to read in full. Here are some of the areas in which I took away clarified and enriched understandings:
All New Testament authors were heavily invested in sophisticated ideas and complex vocabularies regarding hierarchical spiritual powers (that were typically coterminous with earthly and material powers).
Heaven is not a remote realm that is separate from earth in terms of space. Rather, heaven is the realm where the spiritual and inner qualities or truths of all things within the created world are seen and manifest.
Spiritual realities are not best understood as simply “immaterial” but in positive categories such as more fundamental, hidden, or interior.
Biblical authors had sophisticated ideas of angels connected to each nation of the earth.
Biblical authors understood heaven, earth, and each human person in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. They understood there to be a deep reciprocity, connection, or correspondence between different realms and on different scales. Each human person is a temple that in some sense reflects all of the material cosmos which is itself a temple that reflects the heavenly throne room of God.
In prayer and in faithful service to God, the church preaches to the angelic powers, teaching and changing realities within their realm. In connection to this, the book includes some specific and meaningful consideration of the divine liturgy in Revelation.
I am trying to articulate the significance of Hart/Milbank/Chestertons’ appreciation for faerie for the endeavor of Christian formation. Any thoughts?
Three answers come to mind initially:
Most clear and helpful: faerie is a realm of story and imagination uniquely suited to teach us that all creation communicates the glory of God and that all creation can be our teacher in the ways of God. Through the world of faerie, we learn invaluable lessons about wonder, mystery, reverence, courage, and patience as it actually exists within the “real” or “everyday” world. G.K. Chesterton probably says this best, and a starting point would be chapter III in Orthodoxy: “The Ethics of Elfland.”
More complex to communicate (but perhaps profoundly important): the world of faerie grounds us and connects us to the stories of our people and our place. A people is know by its language, its gods, and its land. Modernity has uprooted many of us from place and family heritage. We do not know and care for the same streams and hillsides over generations as so many of our ancestors did for past centuries. We have also lost our relationship to our ancestors and our language. As we moderns seek a way home following the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, I expect that we will see lifestyle changes coinciding with a revival of oral tradition and story-telling in formats that span generations. (Tolkien masters this type of story-telling like no one else, as his deeply informed myth-making takes up and synthesizes the entire corpus and tradition of storytelling within the English language.)
Most speculative and difficult to communicate: faerie can be understood as part of a healthy Christianization or as the outworking of Jesus Christ’s dominion over the powers of creation and of the pagan gods. C.S. Lewis makes a strong case that the realm of faerie cannot be clearly categorized within a classical and Christian synthesis of the created order, and he claims that this is a key aspect of its value (chapter VI in The Discarded Image: “The Longaevi”). However, Lewis does end his discussion of faerie with four possible ways of understanding these creatures. He clearly rejects the idea that faerie should be associated with fallen angels and leaves himself only the options of lower angelic beings or of some third type of created beings who have been made closely associated with various areas and features of our earthly home. Decrying that some later Renaissance thinkers associated Fairies with “fallen angels; in other words, devils” and that “this becomes almost the official view after the accession of James I,” C.S. Lewis concludes: “One might have expected the High Fairies to have been expelled by science; I think they were actually expelled by a darkening of superstition.” Lewis speaks positively about the idea that some pagan gods may have developed more modest and healthy relationships with their local communities over time (as the Christian faith spread and these local powers were freed of potentially demonic domination and could live new and potentially less baleful lives): “Some studies of folklore are almost entirely concerned with the genealogy of beliefs, with the degeneration of gods into Fairies. It is a very legitimate and most interesting inquiry.” Lewis uses the term “degeneration” here to have common ground with those making a formal study of folklore, but he clearly would not see this change from gods to fairies as a negative development from a Christian standpoint.
In summary, I would say that a Christian and a biblical imagination must include a robust engagement with the realm of faerie. It is critical to Christian formation, and it is readily accessible to everyone in the form of great stories that lie at the heart and the root of our culture and heritage. Christians should continue looking to the likes of Tolkien, MacDonald, Chesterton, and Lewis for ongoing guidance and inspiration in this task. However, this is not primarily an intellectual or even an artistic task. This is ultimately connected to our lives and how we choose to live them: our commitment to concrete places and heritage.
Three primary sources in my mind:
Chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: “The Ethics of Elfland.”
Chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis: “The Longaevi.” (This book is a collection of his lectures introducing the world of Medieval and Renaissance literature.)
“On Fairy-Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien for the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1939. It received attention in printed form when it was published in Tree and Leaf (1964).
One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of (intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be that the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes in the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion, but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the world depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal.
Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations. Or, I suppose, another way of saying this would be that the ability of any of us to view the world with some sort of contemplative rationality rests upon the capacity we possessed as children to see in everything a kind of articulate mystery, and to believe in far more than what ordinary vision discloses to us: a capacity that endows us with that spiritual eros that allows us to know and love the world, and that we are wise to continue to cultivate in ourselves even after age and disillusion have weakened our sight.
Here are two other blog posts in which David Bentley Hart writes about related ideas:
At the bottom of most traditional images of Christ’s baptism (Theophany icons), there are two figures riding fish (or waves or other sea creatures) and turning away or fleeing from Jesus Christ as He enters the water. These two figures represent all the powers of the deep as they were subdued by Jesus Christ when he entered into the Jordan river. Specifically, the two figures are personifications of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. These two bodies of water are connected together by the Biblical story of Israel fleeing from Egypt and being rescued by God as they crossed the Red Sea at the start of their journey and the Jordan River at the end. We see this idea of God subduing these bodies of water within Psalm 114:5, where the singer writes: “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?”
Within some of these ancient images, these two figures are easily lost amid all of the other activity:
In some images, these figures are blended in with the water as if they are themselves made of water:
Often, one of the figures is pouring water out of a great jar, representing the headwaters or the source and origin of the seas and rivers:
Most often, these figures are shown riding fish and other water creatures, with their local authority represented by the rods, yokes, and reins in their hands. In this last icon, we also see the serpents of the deep crushed under the gates of Hades (in the shape of the cross). Many hymns and prayers at Theophany reference the dragons and sea monsters lurking in the waters and crushed by Christ at his baptism.
These personifications of the Jordan River and the Red Sea are typically understood as simply symbolic. Throughout some of Christian church history, such natural “authorities” have also been understood as demonic. However, within the worldview of those who wrote the Bible and painted these images, these figures were understood as real powers within God’s created order who could serve either God or other powers (such as themselves or the demonic forces). Bible writers refer often to the “gods” as real entities (and not necessarily demonic), and Paul speaks regularly about the various ranks of created “powers” and “authorities” who were made subject to Jesus Christ after his resurrection and ascension to be enthroned in heaven. In Colossians 1:20, Paul says that Christ has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Within the Bible, there is clearly an idea of various types of created powers within nature (heaven and earth) that were originally subject to God (and to humans as God’s image bearers). However, after the fall of humanity, these powers were no longer under clear authority. They could sometimes serve demonic or angelic powers, but might also be simply “neutral agents” connected to many of the specific places and forces of God’s created world. Some scholars would understand all such authorities as being among the various ranks of angels (those who fell away from service to God as well as those who continued to serve their Creator). However, some Bible passages suggest that there are more complex ranks and categories of spiritual and ethereal creatures than simply the angels. One hymn in the Royal Hours for Theophany even references the “gin” (from an Antiochian service):
O Life-giving Lord, when Thou didst come to the Jordan in the flesh, in the likeness of man, willing to be baptized to lighten us who have erred, delivering us from all the wiles of the dragon and his gins.
Regardless of what we might make of all this, it also seems clear from scripture that we are not to be fascinated or fearful regarding these realms and powers. They are not our direct responsibility or concern. The Scriptures simply make it clear that we have nothing to fear in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, however, it is also unhealthy to simply dismiss all such created powers as simply superstitious nonsense. David Bentley Hart makes this point wonderfully in the essays linked above. It is good to have a sense of wonder and mystery about the various powers within God’s creation (without fearing them or seeking to control them).
I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chapter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an oficial status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.
As David Bentley Hart claims: “Deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations.” As Shakespeare famously puts it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Although Hamlet may simply be criticizing Horatio here, within in the First Folio (1623), the text actually reads “our philosophy,” suggesting that Shakespeare was speaking in general terms about the limitations of human thought.
Finally, we may also go one step further than simply a call to humility and childlike wonder. As we submit our lives with humble thanksgiving to Jesus Christ, we may also know that we bless all the powers of nature who continue to wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). David Bentley Hart suggests that human society may change the nature of the “Hidden Commonwealth” that exists within the hills and streams surrounding us. He does this in the essay link at the top when he contrasts the “more Titanic than Olympian” character of the New World faeries with “the winsome charm of their European counterparts” who were “exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This idea can easily become bigotry and imperialism under a strange guise, but it also suggests that it matters tremendously to the created world around us how we live our lives and the kinds of communities that we shape.
We have many precedents for this. For centuries in the east and west, Christian monastic communities intentionally sought out the most desolate places in order to take the fight directly to the evil spirits there and to reestablish communion with God in these places (for the monastics themselves as well as for all human society and for all of the created world around them). “Ever since Elijah[,] the desert had been the preordained place for the restoration of all things.” (From Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought by George H. Williams, page 46. This resource contains some good discussion of the monastic understanding of their relationships with the powers of the created world.) In the Celtic tradition particularly, monasteries were repeatedly established in the most remote forests and swamps only to become thriving town centers. If Jesus Christ makes the rivers and seas into his servants, that is just one more reason for us to treat every stream and swamp with all due respect.
Note: a wonderful question from a reader lead to this further effort to collect my thoughts: Faerie and the Endeavor of Christian Formation. Also, I only read chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis (entitled “The Longaevi”) after writing the initial draft of this post, and I quickly inserted the one key quote above from this essential essay by Lewis. Not surprisingly, Lewis left me thinking about much more that will ultimately refine some of what I have tried to formulate in this post. See also this post from Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”
George MacDonald’s Lilith is almost entirely populated by mothers and children. Therefore, it was natural to think often of Mary and her child while washing dishes and listening to Lilith during this Advent season. (I used an audio recording made by Pete Williams for LibriVox supplemented by occasional references to a free text download from Project Gutenberg.) Lilith: A Romance was George MacDonald’s last fantasy work (1895), and it strongly resembles Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Men and Women which was his first (1858). Both novellas involve a young man coming of age during the course of a journey through the world of myth and faerie (including encounters with child-like innocents as well as several women who run the gamut from mysterious and majestic to macabre and monstrous).
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first reading of Phantastes at age sixteen: “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me[,] not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” All of his life, Lewis was outspoken about his debt to George MacDonald (publishing an anthology of his writings in 1947). In another tribute to MacDonald’s fantasy works, Lewis says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) that Jadis (the White Witch) was descended from Adam’s first wife Lilith:
But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam’s … first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That’s what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes of the giants. No, no, there isn’t a drop of real Human blood in the Witch. (8.35)
In his story Lilith, George MacDonald is drawing deep on mystical traditions and apocryphal stories from the Jewish exile period as well as medieval Christianity. These stories depict a host of characters around Adam, including his first wife Lilith. In some stories, Lilith is made from clay at the same time as Adam. In other accounts, Adam and Lilith are made as one person and only later separated by God into male and female. In these stories, Lilith refuses to remain united in purpose with Adam, is caste out of the garden, and intermarries with angels and/or demons to spawn a race of monstrous Jinn. In some accounts, Lilith takes on the body of a serpent, and she is sometimes depicted as the one who slips back into the garden to tempt Eve with the forbidden fruit. Another prominent feature of these stories is that Lilith hates human children and carries them off to feed upon them. In this fresco by Filippino Lippi (1502, Fresco, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy), Adam is depicted protecting a young boy from Lilith the child snatcher.
George MacDonald’s story of Lilith follows a young man, Mr. Vane, who has inherited an ancient home with a library that was started long before printing. Mr. Vane spends most of his time in this library and finds it frequented by a spectral librarian, Mr. Raven, who has served the family time out of mind. Following this ghostly librarian one day, Mr. Vane wanders into another realm where he learns that Mr. Raven is Adam and that Adam lives with his wife Eve in a home where they tend to all those who are ready to give up their lives and die the death that brings true life. Invited to lie down in his place among these cold sleepers, Mr. Vane finds that he is unable to do it. Instead, he wanders back out and alone into the world outside the great house of Adam and Eve.
Within this realm, over the course of a prolonged adventure, he encounters a girl and two grown women: Lona, Mara, and Lilith. Lona is the innocent child of Adam and Lilith, abandoned at her birth but kept safe from her cannibal mother. He meets Mara and Lilith separately. Mara is a queenly daughter of Eve who tends to all the suffering souls who are still wandering and unready for death. With a biblical name meaning sorrow or bitterness (and often associated with the name Miriam or Mary), Mara is also called the Lady of Sorrow and the Mother of Sorrow. She is a protectress and her home is a sanctuary at times. However, her primary task is to attend upon sorrow and suffering as agents of salvation.
Lona is a child-mother, tending a tribe of abandoned and innocent babes (called “Little Ones” and “Lovers”). These children bring to mind the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem and of all human history (infants aborted and left to die). They live together in a Paradise of little fruit trees and are only very vaguely threatened by a neighboring tribe of utterly stupid giants.
Several subplots ensue as the story follows Mr. Vane’s wandering and striving within this world. However, all these plots converge on Lilith’s salvation as she faces bitter defeat and comes to accept the life-restoring death offered by Adam and Eve. George MacDonald’s universalism is openly defended in this story. Generally well within the bounds of historic Christian teaching (on Christology, trinitarianism, etc.), this is one point on which George MacDonald dissents. In Lilith, Adam says that even Satan (reduced to a dimensionless although expansive and sinister shadow who follows Lilith with a desperate and dependent hunger) will one day give up his flight from God’s love and submit to the memory-restoring sleep of death (ultimately given back his purpose as a creature of God). This salvation of Satan is a heterodox speculation for which the great Origin was sanctioned.
George MacDonald is a profound metaphysician, and this heterodox claim for Satan does not negate an otherwise profound understanding of God’s goodness in creation, the bottomless of our suffering and evil, and the faithful depths to which God will go in restoring us to Himself. Lilith is largely about soteriology, and his heterodox claims are not integral to the insights at the core of his story. While MacDonald’s doctrine of salvation strays far from the typical framework of his own Presbyterian tradition, it is faithful to the oldest ideas of the church fathers. The story of Lilith connects salvation to death and suffering. Adam speaks repeatedly about the need to die and about the presence of true life within death itself. Maximus the Confessor crystallizes the teachings of all the church fathers (including, prominently, that of Irenaeus) when he describes the trick that God played by entering into death itself and placing the source of life at the heart of death. Jesus Christ gave death a new purpose as a weapon that destroys sin instead of a weapon that destroys human nature:
[T]he Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself. …The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin. [Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression.”]
Upon the verge of following the Little Ones into the very presence of Jesus Christ (described only as “the beautifullest man” and whose only words are recounted by “the smallest and most childish of the voices” as “’Ou’s all mine’s, ‘ickle ones: come along!”), Mr. Vane finds himself suddenly back in this world, alone among his library books. Returning to his own life, Mr. Vane reports that he does not see any of the characters from Adam’s realm again, with one exception: “Mara is much with me. She has taught me many things, and is teaching me more.”
Mara, as the Lady of Sorrow who helps each one in the searching out of their own hearts, certainly has much in common with Mary:
And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. …Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” [Luke 2]
Mary is the ultimate point of contact between God and His rebellious creation. Her “let it be to me according to your word” opens the way for God to be present with his fallen creatures in their suffering and death, making their suffering and death into something new, into something divine. Just as Mary is the only point of contact between our fallen humanity and God, so Mara is the only point of contact between our mortal history and the world of myth and faerie. And in both cases, the point of contact is our suffering and sorrow, where God meets us and transforms the purpose of our suffering and death. George MacDonald has this message throughout his writings:
The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His. [George MacDonald in “The Consuming Fire” from Unspoken Sermons (First Series), 1867. This passage has also been quoted by Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and by C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.]
Mary’s most glorious appearance in the Bible is in Revelation chapter 12, which is marked by both celestial glory and intense earthly suffering:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. [For an excellent scholarly exposition of this passage, see the transcription of this lecture by Scott Hahn.]
Mary, like us, was and is vulnerable. She suffered and fled to Elizabeth in the face of expulsion from her community. But she is also the heavenly Queen Mother, and we understand her in the characters of Eve, Mara, Lona, and Galadriel. We also understand her in the tyrants of Lilith and Jadis, those self-imposed queens who hate the destiny of Adam and all his children, those mothers-apposed-to-God who hate the thought of their children bearing God’s image and mediating God’s presence.
In the end, Mara patiently but persistently reveals that this life of mediating God’s presence is available only within suffering and death because creation has fled from God and God has met us at the end of our flight from Him. This is why Mr. Vane comes so close to seeing Jesus Christ in this vision (hearing the Little Ones exclaim as they encounter Jesus) but parts the final veil himself only to find himself alone within his library again, with only Mara and bitterness as his teacher.
Nativity is the intrusion of God’s glorious intention and conclusion into the midst of our moment-by-moment travails in this life. George MacDonald’s story allows Mr. Vane to experience this end briefly without reaching it fully. In this attempt to describe God’s purposes for humanity, George MacDonald pushes his language to the limit. Humanity is the living point of contact between God and His creation—the interplay or amplification-chamber of thanksgiving, consciousness, and desire—where creation knows its Creator. This is humanity’s purpose and life as the priest and the divine image within the temple of creation:
Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. …I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home. …When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel.
…Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. …Two joy-fires were Lona and I [a new Adam and Eve]. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.
Mr. Vane does not stay here with Lona but returns very shortly after this scene to life alone with the Mother of Sorrow for his only teacher. However, Mary’s Magnificat announces that God is with the down-trodden. “He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.” At the climax of Mara’s ministry to Lilith, Mara can do nothing herself but sit down to weep as Lilith suffers:
Then came the most fearful thing of all. I did not know what it was; I knew myself unable to imagine it; I knew only that if it came near me I should die of terror! I now know that it was LIFE IN DEATH—life dead, yet existent; and I knew that Lilith had had glimpses, but only glimpses of it before: it had never been with her until now. …Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free!
Lilith is all of us. We are Adam’s first family. Lilith is Eve without God’s unmerited grace (to use a little Presbyterian lingo). Lilith is Eve without Seth and Mary. Take or leave any part of Lilith and her story, and you are still left with Adam, Eve, and all of their children. When the end finally comes for Lilith, and she yields to Mara, we see a picture of ourselves accepting our poverty and our need apart from God:
Without change of look, without sign of purpose, Lilith walked toward Mara. She felt her coming, and rose to meet her. …Like her mother, in whom lay the motherhood of all the world, Mara put her arms around Lilith, and kissed her on the forehead. The fiery-cold misery went out of her eyes, and their fountains filled. She lifted, and bore her to her own bed in a corner of the room, laid her softly upon it, and closed her eyes with caressing hands.
Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.
Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside.
At Christmas, it is the Lady of Sorrow who opens the door for morning and spring to enter our world and our lives. God’s arrival as a baby does not spare the innocent children from tyrannical slaughter, but this baby who is driven into exile with his young mother will establish a Kingdom that belongs to “such as these.” This “beautifullest man” will always welcome the “smallest and most childish” with: “You’re all mine, little ones. Come along!”
Mary is prominent for all Christians during the Nativity season, and she is particularly on my mind this year as my family and I have all just entered the Orthodox church. Raised in a deeply loving and devout Presbyterian home, I have come to believe that the Protestant and Evangelical churches (as well as Roman Catholics in some overlapping ways) have lost and grown to misunderstand a tremendous amount of the goodness and truth regarding Mary that was well known and cherished by the early Christians (who knew and loved Mary as one of their own community). Here is a very basic outline of what I have come to believe about Mary.
John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Wesley all wrote that Mary had no other children after giving birth to Jesus, and they each defended this ancient teaching as a theologically significant tenant of the Christian faith.
Why would Jesus have placed Mary into John’s care as he died if Mary had other sons of her own? This would have been a flagrant violation of the Law of Moses. Nowhere does Scripture (or any early Christian author) suggest that Mary had other children. James, a publicly recognized leader in the earliest church in Jerusalem, was know as one of several brothers of Jesus, raised in the same household. However, nothing in Scripture and none of the widespread early stories about Mary suggest that James cared for Mary as his own mother after Jesus died.
Many of the most revered early Christian writers use three titles for Mary regularly and in passing, as if these three titles were common knowledge and completely uncontroversial among all Christians: mother of God, ever-virgin, and all-pure. Orthodox Christians reject the Roman Catholic idea that Mary herself was conceived in any special way without sin (in fact, the Orthodox believe that it is a sad distortion of Scripture to teach that our fallen condition is in any way passed on through the God-given responsibilities of conceiving, birthing, and raising children). The Orthodox teach that Mary was a completely normal human who became the greatest example of humble obedience to God, pointing everyone only and ever to God. In this, she is all-holy or all-pure, that is a saint who has fully welcomed God into her life and who reveals Jesus Christ to us all.
To understand the title of “ever virgin,” it helps very much to understand one of the most basic descriptions of Mary used by two New Testament authors (who each clearly came to know Mary well during her life with the early church after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven). These two New Testament authors both understood and described Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. They understand Mary to be the most sacred and set-apart vessel of God’s presence with us: the ark covered in gold, overshadowed by the wings of cherubim, kept within the Holy of Holies, so set-apart that it brought death to many who treated it as something that they could touch. One of these New Testament authors was John, with whom Mary lived and traveled according to all the earliest stories and traditions of the church. The other was Luke who, according to the earliest church traditions, interviewed Mary personally as part of his research for his gospel account. (Some of these same traditions also claim that Luke was trained in drawing the human figure as a standard part of his education as a doctor and that he painted the first image of Mary.)
The greatest feast days of the church that celebrate Mary’s life, center on readings from the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant. These readings are strange without an understanding of how Luke and John clearly reflected the earliest understanding of the Christian community of Mary herself as the Ark of the New Covenant.
This article by Scott Hahn (a Presbyterian scholar who converted to the Roman Catholic faith) expounds this wonderfully:
There is much more to be said about all the confusion that we have today around the interrelated ideas of purity, virginity, sexuality, and gender. As we moderns hear titles such as “ever virgin,” we subconsciously hear a condemnation of sex as dirty and of women as weak. These sad distortions and misunderstandings are based on long and complex abuses and arguments that grow more and more sinister and disconnected from the truth with each passing year. We need good thinking and writing on these topics to be sure. However, the most basic need and “solution” is not intellectual. Most importantly, we need to learn to love and respect some real and specific people. We need to learn to love and commune with Jesus and his mother Mary as revered and beloved members of their remarkable family. Everything else connects back to these two beautiful people and our relationships with them.
Because of the incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God’s family is and always will be a real human family, with many ancestors of God, stretching all the way back to Noah and Adam. (In this sense, Eve and Adam are forbearers of God, just as Mary is the mother of God.) This family is a royal family, the product and fulfillment of David’s dynasty. And this kingdom is established forever with Jesus as the King and with Mary as the Queen Mother (Gebhirah and Malketha in Hebrew, a very prominent and powerful position in the courts of all Biblical kings). The book on this topic by Scott Hahn expounds this wonderfully (Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God). I recommend it highly as a starting place.
As Scott Hahn reflects on John’s relationship to Mary (from the lecture linked above), he points to the fact that we all receive Mary as our mother as we are united to Christ:
“[John] recognizes that he himself as the beloved disciple is merely a symbol of all of Christ’s disciples who are equally beloved. But he also recognized [this], I’ll bet, as he took Mary to his own home that very hour (it says in John 19). I mean, can you imagine living with Mary after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, after the ascension? She is now your mother. She is living in your home. What do you think you would do?”
Wherever you are in life and worship during this year, may your Nativity Season be blessed richly by Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. May he and his mother both be at home in your home.
We no longer respect the idea that some things are “beyond our ken.” We don’t treat knowledge as a serious responsibility, to be given and received slowly and with clear purpose. We no longer think of education as a cultivation of our desires or our capacity for wonder. Instead, education is the amassing of information or the mastery of skills that have no immediate connection to our personal responsibilities or our actual life experiences.
To be healthy, knowledge should always be directly connected to our actual relationships, abilities, and responsibilities. Knowledge in isolation (or for its own sake), leads to apathy, arrogance, and abuses of power. “Stand alone” knowledge is corrosive to the soul. Knowledge is power, and we must have real responsibilities and learn true respect before we wield this power.
It is no coincidence that these English words all share the same Anglo Saxon roots: can, kin, king, ken, and know. If we do not make sure that these words all stay closely related within our own lives, we just end up with young adults who think that they “ken” everything but who “can” do almost nothing of true value for their “kin.” In this condition, we don’t truly “know” anything or enjoy the blessed protection of any wise “kings.” But these days, who wants a king who knows his ken? Yet we are each called to be such a king, following the one who makes us his kin and who taught us to pray “not my will but yours be done.”