Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.
By Joseph Brodsky [unknown source, posted by friend on social media].
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wild flowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
Wendell Berry, from Given: Poems.
Fr. Thomas Hopko speaking in a ten-part lecture series about the Lord’s Prayer. Here he speaks of praying “thy will be done” as a commitment to love like Christ loved:
Therefore the most terrifying part all this has to be accomplished when you are in fact abandoned by God himself. …The ultimate act of love is when you are really getting nothing from it, even from God. …The myrrh-bearing women are used as an example of this. Because they go out to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body when he is dead, thinking that it’s all over. …The point that we have to make today is, if we are going to pray “thy will be done,” then that means we love and obey when we feel in total darkness, when we feel that there is nothing in it for us, when we feel that even God is absent.
We like to think … that Jesus crushed death by His divine power (“…By the splendor of His Godhead hast thou crushed death”). But how did He crush death by the splendor of His Godhead? The answer is by perfect and complete and total unconditional love as a crucified slave. That’s the power of the Godhead. It’s not brute force. It’s love from the inside.
Speaking of God’s relation to humans, Lewis writes:
Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves….
From The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 45-46.
I like the language of wooing and cake eating that Lewis uses, but I’m not so sure that God never ravishes. Certainly, God’s felt presence in any full sense would entirely overwhelm us, but his wooing at times can be fierce. I am reminded of this poem about God’s ravishing, the teachings of Maximus the Confessor, and Hendriksen’s definition of kingship as harmony with God’s will.
For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.
Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Philip Rieff argued (in The Triumph of the Therapeutic) that every culture survives “by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.
…With echoes of numerous theologians who have related the imago dei to our essential relationality, Berry questions the understanding of freedom that dominates modern culture. “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom of Words, ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. All this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”
Ken Myers rarely has a thought that is not backed up by much reading and reflection. These thoughts of his from an online posting spoke volumes to me in several areas.
I need to read Gregory the Great and Maximus the Confessor directly, but these passages from Robert Louis Wilken’s study of Early Christian Thought illuminated human nature for me in some fresh, clear and simple ways. Yesterday’s post reminded me of these passages.
Gregory speaks of human freedom as moral freedom, the freedom to become what we were made to be. Freedom, as he puts it, is the “royal exercise of the will,” but will is much more than choice, than deciding to do one thing in preference to another. It is an affair of ordering one’s life in terms of its end, freedom oriented toward excellence (the original meaning of virtue) and human flourishing. As we gorw in virtue we delight in the good that is God. Hence freedom is never set forth in its own terms, but rather is always seen in relation to God. Because human beings were made in the image of God, our lives will be fully human only as our face is turned toward God and our actions formed by his love. Freedom is as much a matter of seeing, of vision, as it is of doing. (location 1676)
…The human will is not less human but more human because it is in harmony with the divine will. Like Cyril, Maximus wishes to say that Christ showed us a “wholly new way of being human.” Christ’s life, writes Maximus, was “new, not only because it was strange and wondrous to those on earth, and was unfamiliar in comparison to things as they are, but also because it carried within itself a new energy of one who lived in a new way.” (location 1454)
From The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken (Yale UP, 2003, Kindle Edition)
This is a passage that I have been coming back to over and over during the past year. (I first heard it referenced in a sermon at our church.) It speaks primarily to kingship and mentions the issue of judging rightly (pursuit of the good), allowing me to categorize it under that heading, although it touches all three. (More on this theme tomorrow from Maximus the Confessor, as I populate these first several days with old treasures.)
To reign with Christ means to experience in one’s own life the restoration of the royal office. By virtue of creation man held the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. As prophet his mind was illumined so that he knew God. As priest his heart delighted in God. As king his will was in harmony with God’s will. This threefold office, lost through the fall, is restored by God’s grace. The joyful response of the believer’s will to the will of Christ, that response which is true freedom, is the basic element in this reigning with Christ. Moreover, even during the period before death Christians rule the world by means of their prayers, in the sense that again and again judgments occur in answer to prayer (Rev. 8:3–5). In heaven they are even closer to the throne than are the angels (Rev. 4:4; 5:11). In fact, they sit with Christ on his throne (Rev. 3:21), sharing his royal glory. And when Christ returns, the saints sit and judge with him (Ps. 149:5–9; I Cor. 6:2, 3).
From New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles. Vol. 4. by W. Hendriksen and S.J. Kistemaker (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 258–259.