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“O precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.
“Adam was banished from Paradise through disobedience and cast out from delight, beguiled by the words of a woman. Naked he sat outside the garden, lamenting, ‘Woe is me!’ Therefore, let us all make haste to accept the season of the Fast and hearken to the teaching of the Gospel, that we may gain Christ’s mercy and receive once more a dwelling-place in Paradise.”
So opens the hymnography from the Lenten Triodion for Forgiveness Sunday. In earlier times, this Sunday was referred to as the Sunday of the Casting out of Adam from Paradise. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this shift in focus from Paradise to Forgiveness, and in my mind, the Casting out of Adam from Paradise is a little fuller understanding of what we’re about as we begin Lent.
These words from the Lenten Triodion usher us into Great and Holy Lent with the customary “joyful sorrowing” of Lenten hymnography. There’s a clear and present knowledge of our own fallenness, but oh, wonder of wonders, there’s a merciful God waiting to welcome us. These words give us a compelling image of the paradisiacal home that Adam, and, through Adam, all mankind has abandoned. The hymn is masterful and evocative in its imagery of the beauty and splendor of Paradise—“glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints” and bluntly forthcoming about our desperate banishment from Paradise which we have brought upon ourselves by our sinfulness—“the gates which I closed by my transgression”. We have a beautiful Paradise waiting for us and yet we ourselves have closed the gates. How dire is our situation and how desperately we long to return. As the hymn states, Adam is the chief mourner of our lost life of delight and we pray that we not follow in his footsteps, but rather that we “hearken to the teaching of the Gospel, that we may gain Christ’s mercy and receive once more a dwelling-place in Paradise.”
In addition to exhorting us in our Lenten journey, this hymn is an excellent catechism on beauty and the Church. So, today, I’d like to read through this hymn with an eye to what it has to teach us about the use of beauty in the Church.
The hymn begins, “O precious Paradise” and by the use of the adjective “precious”, we learn that Paradise, that delightful and compelling place, is dear to us. We do not refer to it simply as “Paradise” as we would “California”, but we call it “precious Paradise”, thereby designating its importance from the outset. Paradise is real and it is of great value. By opening the hymn this way, the Church is calling to our attention the importance of this topic, since it is speaking of our precious homeland. It is a theologically correct declaration of the Kingdom of Heaven made to those who believe in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Imagine being an immigrant coming through Ellis Island in the early 20th century, leaving behind a land with people and places you loved deeply, a land you cherished and held dear, and yet might never return to; you might very well be tempted to refer to your previous residence as “O precious homeland”. If not with your lips, yet with your heart, you would be thinking of your homeland as precious. How much more we are called to cherish Paradise, our ultimate homeland as Orthodox Christians. Paradise is not simply a place held dear to us in a certain time and place like our homelands on earth, but it is the great and glorious dwelling-place of man with God, and therefore the homeland of our souls.
Furthermore, unlike the fictitious immigrant I just mentioned, we are not in a state of nostalgia for a left-behind homeland that we will never see again. As Orthodox Christians, we are called to be present in Paradise each time we partake of the Divine Liturgy, since the Kingdom of Heaven is manifested on earth through the manifestation of Christ in the Divine Liturgy. Where Christ dwells, there is the Kingdom of Heaven; when Christ is present among us through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, there is the Kingdom of Heaven. This is no mere visual aid to an imaginatively-challenged Christian, but a bedrock truth of our faith. If we believe in Christ, we believe in Paradise and the Kingdom of Heaven. [long pause]
But to understand beauty in the Church, we must first and foremost grasp the origin of beauty and this origin is no less than the mind of God. As can be heard in the hymn, Paradise is so beautiful and wondrous because it is “built by God” and contains not only visual appeal, but deep, lasting spiritual joy and gladness. It is not built by hands and is in no way artificial or superficial. It is entirely and ultimately true and profound. As fallen human beings, we know that the only true and lasting things are those “built by God”. So, we know that Paradise, and subsequently, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth that we experience in the Divine Liturgy, is lasting. We are called to live lives “built by God” because anything built by God is eternal. If our ultimate goal as Orthodox Christians is union with God, then we must constantly be crafted or “built by God” in order to share in that eternity. One of the qualities of beauty in the Orthodox Church is that it is God-created, not man-made. The artisans of our churches, iconographers and chanters, woodcarvers and tailors, all ask that God might bless the work of their hands, in the full knowledge that they create nothing out of their own fallen and sinful human existence, but rather, their works might become works of God, “built by God”. There is no room in the beauty of the Church for individual self-expression. This sounds quite strong, especially given this day and age which are infatuated with self-expression and the glorification of the self, but a true craftsman of the Church understands that he is just one very small sinful person in a far greater context. He does not aim to create something novel, but rather to venerate and perpetuate an ultimately spiritual, not earthly, tradition.
One of the hallmarks of beauty within the Church is its quality of “unending gladness and delight”. There is a peaceful quality to the beauty in the Church as expressed in her architecture and chant and adornment that is restful to the nous, that part of our being that meets and knows God for who He is—our Creator and Savior. The beauty of the Church is not sentimental or emotive. There are no jarring or discordant melodies or motifs, but rather a sweet gladness, a joyful delight that keeps one coming back for more. A Russian theologian once remarked that “Christ charms us into the Kingdom” and this is in no way more evident that the physical manifestation of beauty in the Church. The colors are exquisite and compelling, the sounds are prayerful and fascinating, the space is one of purity and harmonious repetition. When someone walks into an Orthodox Church for the first time, they often remark that their breath is taken away at the beauty. I think this is because the person is experiencing a “gladness and delight” on both a physical and spiritual level. There is a depth and richness to beauty in the Orthodox Church because her beauty does not originate from the exterior, which is the physical, corruptible world, but rather from the interior, which is the spiritual, incorruptible world.
Christ warns against “exterior” beauty in Matthew 23:27-28 when He says:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
We are called to holiness from the interior, from our nous, and it logically follows that if the center of the Orthodox Church is Christ Himself, than a beauty that is “unending gladness and delight” will emanate to our exterior surroundings. In this way, the beauty of the Church is also an operation of the Holy Spirit at work among the people of God.
Another of the qualities of beauty within the Church is that it is the “glory of the righteous”. If we return to the original Greek of this phrase, we discover that it reads closer to the “glory of the just” or the “glory of those who have been justified”. Paradise is the glory of those who have been brought into alignment spiritually, those who have become “sons of God”. It is their correct and fitting place—it’s where they belong. It’s a citizen living in his homeland, not living as an immigrant in a foreign land. It is home and hearth, but a home and hearth that have been given to us through God’s mercy and love.
Continuing through the hymn we next see that Paradise is the “joy of the prophets”. What would be the particular joy of a prophet?” A prophet’s joy would be his prophecy coming to fulfillment. Prophets seemingly live at one remove—in a way, they don’t live in their time and place, they are always looking forward because they are prophesying, so they live a kind of a chronological disjunction—the physical life they live in their time and place and the spiritual life they live in the time they are prophesying about. Their joy would be one of fulfillment and so we see that one quality of Paradise is fulfillment. All we have needed and all we need and all we will ever need is in Paradise. It is entirely complete and needs no additions.
Next, we find that Paradise is the “dwelling of the saints”. I find this a most heartening phrase since it tells without equivocation that we’re in the right place. Kind of like when you have to go in one of those big buildings downtown, maybe for a building permit or dog license, and you’re not sure where you’re supposed to be—“Am I in the right place?” Well, if you’re a saint, as we all work and pray to be, then, yep, in Paradise you’re in the right place. And, you’re not just visiting—this is the “dwelling” of the saints. It’s not a resort or vacation spot, but home. I think of all the times I’ve been away from home for awhile and then walked through my front door. I always give a big sigh, glad to be home since it’s where I belong. The furniture’s comfy, the décor is what I’ve chosen—a man’s (or woman’s) home is his castle, after all. It’s also important to note that any dwelling of the saints could not be ugly. By the virtue of their saintliness, they mystically change their surroundings. Even prisons become beautiful when saints enter in. Ugliness is simply not a quality or attribute of saintliness—the two are mutually exclusive. Likewise, our churches cannot be ugly because ugliness would be a barrier to the dwelling of saints and in Orthodox Christian theology, we understand the saints and angels to be present at each Divine Liturgy. So we see once again that beauty in the Church is not an afterthought, but an actual and real necessity for our partaking of Paradise.
Now that we’ve covered what Paradise IS, the hymn moves on to tell us what Paradise is to US by describing Adam’s, and therefore all mankind’s experience. We read “with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Like and the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.”
Adam is beseeching us to pray to the Maker of all, the Creator of Paradise, God Almighty, that ” He may open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression”. Adam, and we along with him, are taking responsibility for our actions. We’re acknowledging our fallenness and sinfulness and how we closed the gate. Herein lies a beautiful spiritual jewel—we don’t get to enter into Paradise until we own up for our sins and take responsibility.
My daughters are at the age where they are really testing where the limits of responsibility are and the number of creative excuses I’ve heard for not emptying the dishwasher could fill a book! When they first began to do this, I tried to explain and reason with them, attempting to help them understand their accountability. After awhile, I realized that I was just buying into the distraction of the excuses and so I began countering each excuse with a firm recitation of what needed to be done—“Oh, honey, I’m sorry the dog stepped on your foot, but you need to unload the dishwasher.” or “Sweetheart, I understand you’re not wearing your dishwasher-unloading tshirt, but you need to unload the dishwasher.” Because when I finally figured out what they were up to, I knew at bottom, it was all about responsibility and accountability. Likewise, our entrance to Paradise is completely dependent on our taking responsibility and accountability. “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it”. (Matthew 7:14) It’s interesting that in this hymn we get a taste of our “precious Paradise” before we’re told what we need to do—sort of like a divine “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” The hymnographer obviously thought we needed the good news first and so describes the beauty and splendor of Paradise before dropping the bomb that we were gonna have to do some work. But then just after he gives us the news that we’re going to have to do some work, he follows with, “may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.”
We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but if Adam is asking God to count him worthy, then that means that there is a possibility of being worthy. You don’t ask for something you know is completely possible—as in “make He count me worthy to be a small, green alien”. So, here is Adam, banished from Paradise, but he somehow knows he might be counted worthy “to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.” We begin to wonder, what could possibly make Adam worthy to enter again into Paradise? The only possibility of being worthy comes through Christ’s saving death on the Cross. We know that our work, no matter how ascetical, will ultimately not be enough to get us through the narrow gate into Paradise and we need the merciful sacrifice of God’s only Son to enter into our Paradise of spiritual splendor.
Just after we’re basking in the glow of our possibile “worthiness”, we have another sobering reminder, “Adam was banished from Paradise through disobedience and cast out from delight, beguiled by the words of a woman. Naked he sat outside the garden, lamenting, ‘Woe is me!’”
Adam was banished due to disobedience and beguilement. He disobeyed God’s explicit instructions and then was beguiled by the “words of a woman”. Disobedience we all understand, but when’s the last time we’ve given thought to beguilement? What beguiles us? What charms us in an unholy way and draws us away from Paradise? It might be anger or pride or too much computer time or fancy cars or any number of either physical or spiritual things, but in order to return to Paradise, we have to figure out what beguiles us so that we are no longer “cast out from delight”. We don’t want to be like Adam, naked and sitting outside the garden lamenting “Woe is me!”
Nakedness is a state of “unclothedness”, a state of unadornment, a state of spiritual vulnerability. Unlike Adam, the Church as the Bride of Christ is to be clothed and adorned. While some would argue that this means a purely spiritual adornment, I would counter that there is a physical adornment that happens as an outward manifestation of spiritual adornment. Once again, our churches should be beautiful because it is a theologically correct declaration of the Church being the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, our precious Paradise, our beautiful Home. This is why a modern “stripped-down”, “simple” type décor doesn’t have a place within the Orthodox Church.
Now that we have an understanding of what Paradise is and what we did to abandon it, we want to return. So how do we do this? The remainder of the hymn tells us: “Therefore, let us all make haste to accept the season of the Fast and hearken to the teaching of the Gospel, that we may gain Christ’s mercy and receive once more a dwelling-place in Paradise.”
We don’t enter the fast grumbling and grudgingly, but with haste as if we were running to Paradise itself. The season of the Fast is our time on earth before entering Paradise and we want to accept it and ultimately, embrace it, because it is the path to Paradise. This past fall, I took a trip with my youngest daughter. She’s only travelled by air a few times, so air travel is still a novelty for her. Prior to the trip, I was complaining about the airport when she burst out with, “but I just love the airport—the security line and everything!” She was so excited about the final destination that even something as seemingly annoying as going through security was delightful to her. Now, Lent is not airport security, even though sometimes it can feel as frustrating, but it’s important to ask ourselves if we’re just going through the motions of Lent or if we’re “accepting the season of the Fast” as the first step on our journey to Paradise.
The hymn concludes with a prayer that we receive a dwelling-place in Paradise “once more”—reminding us again that Paradise is our true dwelling, our rightful place as sons of God. Beauty is our honorary birthright, Paradise is ours by adoption as the sons of God.
In fact, this visual joy is not merely “pretty”, but a physical manifestation of a spiritual operation. A merciful God must needs be a beautiful God. And just as our fallen human minds cannot even hope to comprehend the mind or the essence of God, we cannot visualize the bright and everlasting beauty of Paradise. And, yet, paradox of paradox, we are called to such beauty: we approach it not as a temporary visitor, but rather as a son of God, inheritor of such a Kingdom.
For some, beauty is seen as an afterthought, something to be attended to after the really important “work” is done. Through the influences of some of the earliest heresies all the way through the Protestant Reformation and the settling of America by Puritans, beauty has been associated with the “merely” material. These heresies teach that all matter is evil, but it is of vital importance that as Orthodox Christians we reject such heresies. In their place, we understand that the true origin of beauty is in the mind of God and that through Christ’s glorious Resurrection, all matter has been redeemed and now takes its proper place in creation by being used to glorify the Creator of All.
What is so compelling about this hymn is that we are not being reminded of our sinfulness by a threat of the fires of Gehenna, but of the shining and glorious beauty of Paradise.
And here lies the heart of the Church’s teaching on beauty: True beauty, the kind of beauty that originates from God, always has a repentant aspect. It reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is our true spiritual home and acknowledges, both through a physical manifestation and an outworking of the Holy Spirit, that our life here on earth is but a shadow of something more. True beauty beckons to us, calling us back to Paradise.
In this way, true beauty has a spiritually healing power. Just as Adam remembers being cast out of Paradise, we, too, have a spiritual memory of the beauty of Paradise. How often have we heard someone say, “It’s so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes.”? I believe that the tears are two-fold—tears of grief at what we have lost in leaving Paradise and tears of repentance in order that we may humbly return. The beauty of Paradise is in the memory of our nous and is one of the most important pieces of evidence of the existence of God and of our fallenness as human beings. No culture or society can entirely wipe out this “nous-memory”. (pause) The existence of beauty is the existence of God. An atheistic or anarchic world would not be beautiful as there would be no need for beauty if there was no God. There would be no Paradise, no Kingdom of Heaven, no practical reason whatsoever for the existence of beauty.
Therefore, let us all make haste to accept the season of the Fast and hearken to the teaching of the Gospel, that we may gain Christ’s mercy and receive once more a dwelling-place in Paradise.”