Throughout the world today, in the midst of the contemporary emphasis upon being entertained, to seek the presence of God is an unusual goal. If we truly wish to study, the first thing many of us have to do is to turn off the television, stop surfing the web excessively, and stop spending so much time on Facebook, WhatsApp and many other forms of social media. Otherwise, sufficient time will simply not be available to study. For example, with respect to television alone the average daily time per person spent watching TV in 2012 was 4 hours and 53 minutes per day in the United States, 4 hours and 15 minutes in Italy, 4 hours and six minutes in Spain, 4 hours and 1 minute in the United Kingdom, 3 hours and 58 minutes in both Canada and Russia, 3 hours and 50 minutes in France, 3 hours and 42 minutes in Germany, 3 hours and 36 minutes in Brazil, 3 hours and 23 minutes in Ireland, 2 hours and 44 minutes in China and 1 hour and 59 minutes in India (See http://www.statista.com/statistics/276748/average-daily-tv-viewing-time-per-person-in-selected-countries/ ).
Being interviewed in the British newspaper, The Independent, on February 25th, 2014, about his six weeks of successful performances in German in Germany, the British comedian Eddie Izzard commented: “It’s like the astronauts say, when you look at the world from above, there are no borders. To someone [like me] with a pilot’s license, that’s very appealing.” Now, when God Our Father looks down on this world without borders in which people in so many nations are spending so much time seeking to entertain themselves, He might well ask: “Why aren’t people interested in finding Me and finding purpose in their lives, instead of watching television?” A good start to finding both God and purpose in our lives would be to decide in advance what television programmes to watch, cut the time we spend watching television in half, and resolve to spend that time in prayer and study, especially study of the Bible and the Church Fathers and the writings of the saints.
Speaking in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in Rome, Pope Francis told his 19 new cardinals: “To be saints is not a luxury. It is necessary for the salvation of the world. This is what the Lord asks of us.” The Lord asks the same of every one of us. For a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim, the purpose of study is to find the will of God for their lives and to reach out and touch the presence of God Himself. Michelangelo captured that goal very well in his painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where a finger of God touches a finger of man, creating the first human being. Now, Michelangelo was portraying how God created man. However, just as electricity works with both a positive and negative current, another interpretation is possible—that each human being reaches out, seeking to touch God as a personal experience unique to that person.
As I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago, “The Meaning of Baptism,” a second century Church Father, Tertullian of Carthage suggested that St. John the Baptist “called for the baptism of repentance to prepare the way for the Lord. [St. John the Baptist] himself led in that way by [offering] repentance for all whom God was calling through grace to inherit the promise surely made to Abraham. . . He called us to purge our minds of . . . error . . . [and] ignorance. . . [and to make ourselves] clean for the Holy Spirit.” Tertullian himself underwent that purging from error that he asked of others in his second sermon On Repentance (available in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume II, Mark, 1:4).
It might be helpful to spend more time in studying the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The Orthodox Christian theologian, David Bentley Hart, points out in The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2,000 Years of The Christian Faith, that “the books of the Hebrew Bible . . . come from many periods, are written in diverse styles and are the work of many authors. They do not, therefore, constitute a simple continuous narrative. Yet, taken as a whole, they can be said to tell a single, great story—the epic of the Glory of God come to dwell on earth” (p. 8).
David Hart’s understanding of this Glory is worth listening to carefully: “The Glory, which later Jewish tradition called the Shekhinah ([a Hebrew word] meaning ‘that which rests’ or ‘that which abides’), was conceived of as being nothing less than the real, mysterious and overwhelming presence of God Himself. At times, the Glory would descend (often in a cloud of impenetrable darkness) upon the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred gold-plated chest in which the tablets of the Law of Moses were kept. The Ark itself, as the Throne of God, was initially housed within the Tabernacle (or ‘tent of meeting’) prepared for it by Moses, but was later transferred to the inner sanctuary of the Temple built for it in Jerusalem by King Solomon” (p. 8).
Now, that challenge to transfer the presence of God from The Ark to the Temple, of which David Hart has written so beautifully, captures the challenge that Tertullian and each of us face to prepare ourselves to experience the presence of God—“to make ourselves clean for the Holy Spirit” in Tertullian’s phrase. Our goal is to transfer the presence of God in the contemporary desert of an electronically driven secular world into a readiness to receive the Lord in our own personalities—our own beliefs and actions and hopes.
After being purged from many theological errors, Tertullian wrote in Letters to His Wife: “Christians are made, not born.” That I believe is an important question before us: HOW can we be made Christians? Whatever strengths or weaknesses we have inherited genetically or environmentally, whatever our individual cultural experiences or our limited grasp of a universal culture—HOW can we become one with Christ and His Church today in the present moment, in our future lives and for eternity? In the Tradition of Orthodox Christianity, the question is often posed: HOW can we as human beings reach deification—that is, HOW can we be raised up to reach union with Christ?
In Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Father Dumitru Staniloae, has written of how “the Christian grows in God . . . in the course of this life . . . [through] a step by step transformation in his being; he is filled more and more with the working presence of God” (p. 21). HOW can we, within our lives on earth be filled with “the working presence of God”? That is quite a practical but daunting goal.
Father Staniloae sets out a story—a narrative—of how a Christian can reach this goal of being filled with “the working presence of God”: “Deification,” he writes, “begins at Baptism, and stretches out all along the whole of [a person’s] spiritual ascent; here his powers are also active, that is, during the purification from passions, the winning of the virtues, and illumination. In this ascent the natural powers of man are in continual growth, and reach their apogee the moment they become capable of seeing the divine light—the seeing power is the working of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we can say that the deification by which this revival and growth is realized, coincides with the process of the development of human powers to their limit, or with the full realization of human nature, but also with their unending eclipse by grace. . . . Deification never stops . . .deification in a strict sense involves the progress which man makes beyond the limits of his natural powers, beyond the boundaries of his nature, to the divine and supernatural level” (p. 363).
Father Staniloae’s approach to deification is certainly traditional and remains valid—seeking “the purification from passions, the winning of the virtues, and illumination.” However, it may also be possible to “grow in God” and move toward “a working presence of God” in our lives by many other means. As one example, consider music—composing, playing and listening to music. In 1944 the leaders of the Polish Underground asked the committed Christian and Polish patriot, Andrzej Panutnik, to compose a song which would raise the spirits of the Polish people; and Panutnik’s composition “Warsaw’s Children” became a national symbol of Polish determination to oppose Nazi and subsequent Soviet oppression. After Panutnik had escaped from Poland to England in 1954, he composed “Symphonia Sacra” (Symphony No. 3) in 1963 to express his religious and patriotic feelings.
Later, when Panutnik was asked by Yehudi Menuhin to compose a violin concerto for him on short notice, Menuhin suggested to Panutnik, “Start with the last movement, then work back.” That is also good advice for HOW to study: Start with the book of the Bible or the Church Father or the saint that most interests you; and then move on to other readings. Of course, we need to balance study with other priorities, such as our families, our jobs and taking care of our bodies in how we eat, exercise and sleep, as suggested by David Katz in Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well and by Tom Rath in Eat, Move, Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. The choice is personal, but it is worthwhile to include study among our priorities, as we seek the presence of God in our lives this Lent.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. Deacon Emmanuel Kahn