Giver of life

There’s a phrase in the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed identifying the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of life.” This phrase often gets unpacked in ancient hymns that expand on the Holy Spirit as the source of all the glorious life in the world around us. These examples below are not the most effusive, but I noticed them today as this kind of expansion upon the key phrase in the creed. At the bottom, I’ve also placed a few passages from the Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart that remind me of this phrase as well. When I come to this phrase in the midst of prayer and worship it often overwhelms me with a sense of gratitude and wonder that isn’t reducible to words (something of joy and awe at God’s loving presence pouring out life so abundantly, graciously making and remaking as I take breath after breath amid it all—a constant gift).

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life.

Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed.

With the Holy Spirit every gift is good; for He doth shine forth together with the Father and the Son; and in Him doth all creation live and move.

Verily, all the riches of honor are of the Holy Spirit. And of Him too is grace and life for all creation. Wherefore, He is to be praised with the Father and the Word.

A couple of the ancient hymns from today’s Orthros service.

As God is Trinity, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as infinite music, and creation too might be described as a music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, triune polyphony.

…For Christian thought, …true distance is given in an event, a motion, that is transcendent: a pure prolation in which all patterns are “anticipated,” in an infinitely fulfilled way that allows for every possibility; it even makes space for the possibilities of discord, while also always providing, out of its analogical bounty, ways of return, of unwinding the coils of sin, of healing the wounds of violence (the Holy Spirit is a supremely inventive composer).

…One might best characterize the properly Christian understanding of being as polyphony or counterpoint: having received its theme of divine love from God, the true measure of being is expressed in the restoration of that theme, in the response that submits that theme to variation and offers it back in an indefinitely prolonged and varied response (guided by the Spirit’s power of modulation).

…Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line.

…In short, it is a “thematism of the surface;’ not a thematic “content” more essential than created difference: a style of articulation, a way of ordering desire and apprehending the “shape” of being, its proportions, dimensions, and rhythms. Being is a surface of supplementarity, an expressive fabric forever filling itself out into ever greater adornments of the divine love, a porrection of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to creation and, thereby, to the Father.”

The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart.

He may be approaching our consciousness from behind

To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit, in regions unknown to us, and do much work that we can be aware of only in the results; for our consciousness is to the extent of our being but as the flame of the volcano to the world-gulf whence it issues; in the gulf of our unknown being God works behind our consciousness. With His holy influence, with His own presence (the one thing for which most earnestly we cry) He may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that He is answering our request—has answered it, and is visiting His child.

George MacDonald (as quoted in the anthology of 365 readings collected and published by C.S. Lewis).

moral responsibility arises neither from contractual relationships nor from the cooperative exchange between independent individuals

For gentleness requires, as Reimlers observes, that we learn to see that “the other person is ‘given’ to us in the sense that, prior to rules and principles of social morality, the presence of the other in our lives constitutes our responsibility. Moral responsibility arises neither from contractual relationships nor from the cooperative exchange between independent individuals. Instead it arises from the nature of the moral self that discovers itself within a network of social relationships. …The benefits bestowed by love and friendship are consequential rather than conditional, which explains why human life that is constituted by these relationships is appropriately experienced as a gift. A society that accepts responsibility for dependent others such as the mentally disabled will do so because there are sufficient people who accept something like this account as true.”

Long story short: we don’t get to make our lives up. We get to receive our lives as gifts. The story that says we should have no story except the story we chose when we had no story is a lie. To be human is to learn that we don’t make up our lives because we’re creatures. Christians are people who recognize that we have a Father whom we can thank for our existence. Christian discipleship is about learning to receive our lives as gifts without regret. And that has the deepest political implications. Much of modern political theory and practice is about creating a society where we do not have to acknowledge that our lives are gifts we receive from one another.

From Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier.

On Life and Motherhood

Life (that is the quality of being alive) is so easily seen in all aspects of creation, and this kind of seeing may be far more reliable than we know. Rocks and landscapes live lives of great loveliness, depth, and mystery. After all, the Spirit, the Giver of Life, broods over all that “is not” and encourages all that “comes to be.”

We say in the creed: “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” And this is expanded when we pray in the Trisagion: “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”

All of life both contains and is contained by bewildering contrasts: wildness and welcome, threat and nurture, symmetry and divergence, predictability and volatility. In all of this layered life, there is a dependable beauty. There is also a direction or purpose that can be sensed or glimpsed but not grasped or seen.

These contrasting and developing qualities of all living things make them impossible to posses, consume, or use. Life’s independent development as well as its irreducible complexity make it impossible to fully describe or to employ. We can respond to life, commune with it, enjoy it, but we cannot have it for our own or make it work for us. In fact, our own life depends on our communion with the life around us, and any effort to have or use the life around us is a destruction of this communion and a step toward our own death. Life cannot be demanded or taken but only received in gratitude and humility.

The difference between communion and consumption is life and death. Sadly, we teach consumption in every aspect of modern life. We teach only efficient production and consumption. Find ways to learn to commune. Find an altar before which to stand in quiet anticipation. Find a eucharist to receive. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word comes ultimately from the Greek word for “grace” (a gift offered freely with no expectation of return).

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in motherhood we have this same generous communion—this giving and receiving of life. It is no mistake that the first and most living image of the Spirit is that of a mother bird who spreads herself over those within her nest. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 that is often translated “hover” actually means “brood,” as when a mother bird broods over her eggs to bring forth life.

Jesus takes up a long tradition of this image across Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:10-11, Ruth 2:12, and Psa. 17:8, 57:1, 91:4 for examples) when he says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

Rather than seeking to seize, to use, and to hold onto life, may we all learn to receive the life so abundantly offered and to give up our own as an offering poured out. May we learn from our mothers how to live.

I give you your faults

“You will need help,” she told them, “but all I am allowed to give you is a little talisman. …Meg, I give you your faults.”

“My faults!” Meg cried.

“Your faults.”

“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”

“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy….”

Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time.

I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill

Excerpted from a 1903 article by G.K. Chesterton in Black and White called “My Experiences with Santa Claus” (reprinted in the London Tablet in 1974):

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. …What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

celebrants of the sacrament of life

This is the first meaning of our bringing to the altar the elements of our food. For we already know that food is life, that it is the very principle of life and that the whole world has been created as food for man. We also know that to offer this food, this world, this life to God is the initial “eucharistic” function of man, his very fulfillment as man. We know that we were created as celebrants of the sacrament of life, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God.

…To be sure, it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.

From chapter two in For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (34-35).

God sends good gifts and blessings in sleep

Sleeplessness and the incapacity for leisure are really related to one another in a special sense, and a man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep. …Or as the Book of Job says, “God giveth songs in the night” (Job xxxv, 10). Moreover, it has always been a pious belief that God sends good gifts and blessings in sleep. …It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visisted by an awareness of what holds the world together … only for a moment perhaps, and the lightning vision of his intuition has to be recaptured and rediscovered in hard work. (41-42)

From Leisure: the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1952).

And I am reminded of this poem by Czeslaw Milosz:

Window

I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree
translucent in brightness.

And when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden with
fruit stood there.

Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of what
happened in my sleep.

in the beginning there is always a gift

The tendency to overvalue hard work and the effort of doing something difficult is so deep-rooted that it even infects our notion of love. Why should it be that the average Christian regards loving one’s enemy as the most exalted form of love? Principally because it offers an example of a natural bent heroically curbed; the exceptional difficulty, the impossibility one might almost say, of loving one’s enemy constitutes the greatness of the love. And what does Aquinas say? “It is not the difficulty of loving one’s enemy that matters when the essence of the merit of doing so is concerned, excepting in so far as the perfection of love wipes out the difficulty. And therefore, if love were to be so perfect that the difficulty vanished altogether—it would be more meritorious still.”
…The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; …he refuses to have anything as a gift. We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of “Grace”; let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is Himself called a “gift” in a special sense; that the great teachers of Christianity say that the premise of God’s justice is his love; that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift—we have only to think of all this for a moment in order to see what a chasm separates the tradition of the Christian West and that other view. (31-33)

From Leisure: the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1952).