In the silence of the desert, in the solitude of the cell, free from worldly entanglements, one could ascend to the contemplation and knowledge of God, and loving union with Him. This inner tradition of becoming “sharers of the divine nature” (2 Peter: 4 ) — all but lost to modern Christianity — survives, almost unchanged over the centuries in certain corners of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg is the founder of Monachos.net, the world’s premier site on the Church Fathers, monasticism, spirituality, and Church history and theology. He can also be heard on Ancient Faith Radio on his podcast ‘A Word From the Holy Fathers’. Hieromonk Irenei is one of Orthodoxy’s most gifted thinkers, writers and public speakers and this is his exclusive seminar in southern California in 2010.
The life in Christ is a mystery. It’s something that cannot be explained. It cannot be rationally comprehended to a degree that ever begins to articulate what it actually is. This has been the problem of theologians from day one, literally from day one. From the first moment that Christ opens his mouth and preaches, theologians have misunderstood what Christianity is about. That misunderstanding leads to the crucifixion. It leads a little while later to schisms and controversies. It leads a little while later to an abundance of terrible theology books, many of which can still be found in libraries all throughout the civilized world.
The problem isn’t that trying to understand is wrong. The problem isn’t that seeking to articulate is a bad thing—these are wonderful things. The scriptures themselves are an articulation of the divine, and we know them to come from God. So we must accept, as a basic premise, that it is possible to speak about this life. And yet, for all that we could ever say, all that we could ever speak, the fact remains that the life in Christ is a mystery. It ultimately goes beyond the things we say.
And it is on this notion that Christianity is mystery that I would like us to focus in our time together tonight and tomorrow. What does it mean?
To begin my talk with that phrase—the life in Christ is a mystery—is homage to a departed monk who, when he heard years ago that I was going to start lecturing at the university, was not terribly happy about this. He said, “These secular institutions—they’re no good! They’re no good!” His one condition for giving me his blessing was, “You must begin every lecture with the phrase ‘The life in Christ is a mystery’.” —which I have tried to do.
For us, it serves perfectly. What does it mean to say this? What does it mean to speak of Christianity not as a faith or a religion but as a life? And what does it mean to say that this life is bound up “in Christ”? We don’t say the life “of Christ”. We say the life “in Christ”. What does it mean to say that such a life bound up in the Lord is mystery?
I’m brought to this theme—mystery—because mysticism is a very popular word in our world today. I must say that, having moved from England to California, I’ve noticed it a lot more than I used to. We talk about mysticism, mystical experiences, mystical visions, mystical encounters, and mysterious moments. What are we talking about? What does this word actually mean? Mysticism is one of these lovely slate of words that fills our general spiritual vocabulary that means basically whatever we want it to mean at the moment we utter it. Usually it means something that I can’t describe by any other words.
The problem with words that mean anything is that they also mean nothing. If it can mean anything that you want it to mean then it has no meaning. Yet we continue to use a word which has no definition, at least in its common usage.
In particular, Orthodoxy is described very often as a “mystical Christianity”, a Christianity that has not lost a sense of mystery, Christianity with a “mystic” dimension. I am always on the one hand pleased to hear this and troubled. Pleased, because it’s good that there is an understanding and apprehension that there is something different about Orthodoxy. Yet I am always a little troubled, because if someone says it’s “mystical”, that means something to them —but what? You laugh, but I’m going to ask you in a few minutes. So you just get ready.
I want to start though by telling some stories. I have four stories that I want to tell and one hour in which to speak. So, if I’m lucky, I don’t have to say anything of my own devising. But I do want to tell stories partially because I think that stories are an effective way of conveying truth. The Lord himself preferred this means and method of conveying his own truth. He infuriated his apostles by almost never directly responding to a question with a clear answer.
It’s a fact that we know it infuriated them from a gospel reading that we had according to the Old Church calendar, just the one my church keeps, only a week or two ago. The very famous parable in St. Luke’s gospel of the seeds cast on different types of soil. You get to the end of the story, and there is a sort of implied lull in the conversation before the apostles turn to Jesus, when the other crowd isn’t looking, and sort of whisper under their breath, “What on earth are you talking about?”, and he explains it to them again in a different way.
But the Lord knows that a story teaches something that plain statements don’t. And there is something in that that I think is significant. So let me begin with a few stories if you’ll permit.
The first begins like many good stories do—“A long time ago and (from my vantage point here in Southern California) very far away.” In an afternoon, beside a lake, a man talks to a group of his followers. These men have followed him from their homes, into the city, into the countryside. They’ve seen him loved, and they’ve seen him hated. They have watched him heal the sick. They have watched the dead brought back to life. They have watched him see into the hearts of men and women. They have watched him control the cosmos itself—stopping a storm by a single word, walking upon the sea. After all of this, he takes them aside one afternoon and he turns to them, and he asks them point blank, “Who do people say I am?”
I can imagine the apostles all trying to vie for the right answer—“Some say you are a prophet, some say you are John, some say you are Elijah.” They list off all of the possibilities. Christ doesn’t say anything, but he turns to one of these men, the one whom he has chosen to be, in a sense, their leader, and he changes the question—“Who do you say that I am?” In that moment, St. Peter gives an utterance which Christ himself identifies as divine. He says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Standing before a man—a man of flesh and blood; they’ve seen him eat; they’ve seen him sleep; they know that when he is cut he bleeds; they watched him weep for his friend. Ultimately, this is a man who, when tortured, dies. And yet, looking at this man, they see something that cannot be human in all its humanity. They see something that has to be identified as divine, as God. “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.” That’s the first story.
The second is a little bit different. It takes place a short time later. We don’t know quite how long, but a handful of years. The second story is well known to everybody, I hope. Maybe not. I shouldn’t presume that. It is “a well known story”. On a certain afternoon—we can presume the year was A.D. 35 or 36—during a journey otherwise routine, we are told that journeys like this happened before. We are also told that it happened midday. A small caravan suddenly comes to a halt on a desert road, and one of its members falls to the ground in a state of apparent ecstasy. He looks as if he sees something, and yet no one else sees anything. He converses as if he is talking to somebody, but no one sees an interlocutor. Some hear a voice, but they don’t see another person.
Now this experience, this event, we have no idea what it appeared to be to the people around him. In their later memory, they would all recall it as being a divine visitation. But whether that’s what they thought in the moment, it’s hard to say, as this man collapses to the ground and starts to speak to somebody who doesn’t appear to be there. The event couldn’t have lasted more than a few moments. Only a few words were exchanged. Yet in this brief instance, in this paucity of words, a man’s life is completely transformed. In a very real way, in that encounter, one man dies and another is born. Between the act of falling down and getting back up, a new person stands in the midst of his colleagues.
What could account for this, and what could it possibly mean? Let’s look at it from a slightly different perspective. I’ve just been speaking in a comfortable, objective, or at least appearing to be objective, academic way of the story. Imagine it from the first person.
This is, of course, St. Paul traveling on the road to Damascus. He’s engaging on a journey that, by his own admissions, is familiar. He’s out hunting people. He’s out to get them. He is a devout follower of the Jewish Law. He’s a Pharisee—a group of people who believed that the Law was gift of God, a gift to be cherished, a gift that when it was defaced or deformed should be protected, not because they were legal-minded and enjoyed being bound in by regulation. But because God had said that this Law gave them life and directed their steps.
He believed this with his whole heart, and he saw in this group—this little sect that had formed—what he believed to be a perversion of this divine gift. He would stop at nothing to hunt out those who defamed God. As he himself noted and recorded in St. Luke’s account of the Acts of the Holy Apostles: “This I did in Jerusalem. Many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. I punished them as often as I could in every synagogue. I compelled them to blaspheme. And being so exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
So on this day he was traveling to a foreign city. Who knows what his heart was like? What thoughts were in his mind as he was traveling toward, as he viewed, a sacred mission? Was he looking forward to the task? Did he feel that he was doing God’s work, that God would support him? Whatever his precise state of mind, whatever his thoughts, they are interrupted. The midday sun is completely overwhelmed. Light no longer seems to come it but from something else. Everything in this man’s experience is changed.
Paul, many, many years later before a local tribunal on false charges, he gives an account of this experience to his accuser. He characterizes it in this way: “At midday, O my king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun. It shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Is it hard for you to kick against the goads?’ And I said back, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ and he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for a reason.’”
Since that afternoon, this event has been taken by the whole Christian world as a kind of paradigm for conversion, of a heart utterly changed, of being united to the life in Christ. Not by some little class that we took that somehow made us ready and now somehow we are worthy, but by change, not of what we think but who we are—becoming someone new, even if we are not divorced from our past.
St. Paul so much becomes an apostolic witness that we call him often simply “The” Apostle despite the fact that, of the Apostles, he never knew Christ in the flesh. Yet we call him “The” Apostle. He’s become such a zeal for mission that he travels literally the whole world as it is known to him to spread the faith and becomes an example for mission ever since. All this and we are given to know that this is the only time that St. Paul has such an experience. A few seconds, one day, and life is different.
Story number three. Fast forward. A young boy by the name of Francis is born of Greek parents in the village of Paros, Greece in 1898. I have to give you the date early on or you all will think that I am talking of St. Francis of Assisi. This is a different Francis. From the age of twenty-three this Francis begins to read the writings of the Church Fathers. Particularly, he is captivated by the ascetical writings on the monastic spiritual life. He decides that he wants to know this God and live this life, and he begins to practice his own ascetical discipline in his parents’ small farm yard. He tries this for some time before literally running away and making his way to the famous Athonite peninsula of Mt. Athos. Here, on a granite peak that shoots 2,000 meters directly up out of the Aegean Sea, Christians have been living effusively ascetical life, by the time he is there, for at least 1,100 years.
This is a mountain that has always been prone to big ideas and big feats. Alexander the Great commissioned his chief architect to come up with plans—to carve out of the Athonite peak an enormous statue of Alexander himself, holding his open hands out, big enough to have a small settlement in each open hand. To the great glee of Athonite monks this was never realized. But others, almost as ambitious, were. King Xerxes carved a canal through Mt. Athos. You can still see it today. It’s long since silted in but still clearly visible.
This is a mountain which, according to the tradition of our Church, was turned into a spiritual battleground for the monastic life by none other than the Mother of God herself. And it there that young Francis went, eventually migrating down to the southernmost tip, the most fierce of all the terrain—a place called “the desert”—in order to live out this spiritual life.
Francis’ aim since his youth had been to “know God”—“I want to know God.” But his path toward this was fraught with difficulty and frustration. As later he was to say of those early struggles, “I was almost inconsolable, because I was longing so ardently to find what I had set out in search for, to find God. But not only was I not finding it, but the people who I thought would help me were not even being helpful.” He’s frustrated. If he continued to seek, he did not lose heart simply because the circumstances around him were difficult. God rewarded him for that perseverance. As he would say later to some of his disciples, on one day he began to experience real prayer. In his words, “I was at once completely changed, and I forgot myself. I was filled with light in the depths of my heart, and outside my heart, and everywhere. I was not even aware anymore if I was in the body. And then the prayer began to say itself within me.”
This experience is not an uncommon one in the Orthodox Church, but we would hardly call it normal. It reminds me of St. Simeon the New Theologian, one of the great Byzantine fathers of the 10th and 11th centuries who, having heard that God reveals himself in light, stood up in his room and said, “Show me yourself! I’m not going to sit down until I behold you.” And he beheld the Divine Light. I don’t recommend trying to emulate that as a strategy. It’s not always the case that we are as prepared as Simeon might have been in his youth.
The young man of whom I have been speaking is better known to Orthodox by another name—Joseph, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Father Joseph of Mt. Athos. He was one of the greatest figures of monastic life on Athos in the last century—a man who almost single-handedly by the grace of God saw the life of the Holy Mountain turn around. Disciples gathered around him who went out transfigured by the same God and repopulated monasteries that had been dormant, in decay, physically as well as spiritually. The Holy Mountain in all its history had never been so depleted of monks, and yet by this man’s prayers it is today thriving and growing.
So we have three stories: disciples at the side of a lake, Paul on the road to Damascus, and Elder Joseph alone in his cell praying to God. What binds these together? Outwardly, these stories are radically different. They take place in different times and cultures. Even their contours are not really in common one with the other. The point that I would like to emphasize tonight is that the theme which binds them together is “encounter”. In each of these stories, what changes people is an encounter with God himself.
St. Peter and the apostles are not convinced that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, because he’s rationally argued them into submission. The Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful pastoral homily. It’s not a logic lesson. It’s not a theological tract. They are not convinced to believe that this is the Son because he has told them. They are not convinced because there is a specific set of scriptures that says “A + B + C = Jesus of Nazareth”.
Later on, they will discern that the scriptures did point to him. But they don’t believe he is the Messiah because of some scriptural formula. They don’t believe it because of some rational analysis. They believe it because they have seen him, known him, have eaten bread given to them from him—enough to feed thousands coming from five little loaves. They have been on the boat when he calms the storm. They were there when he walks on the water. They were there and watched him heal the sick and cast out demons. And because of that experience they are able to say, “I think that they don’t understand you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And I say that they don’t understand it, because scripture makes it very clear that they didn’t.
St. Peter, who makes this confession, minutes later, gets a pretty firm rebuke, if you remember the gospel. A few moments later, everyone is feeling pretty good about this and Christ says, “Now it is time to go to Jerusalem so that I can be sacrificed.” And Peter says, “May it never be, Lord.” This is the man who just said that he is the Son of God, refusing to let him do what God wants him to do. And you remember what Christ said to him? “Get behind me, Satan!” Let that be a warning the next time you feel you’ve got everything worked out.
He doesn’t understand it in a rational sense, but he knows it. That’s a distinction that’s hard to articulate—that something can be known completely, intimately, and still not understood. St. Paul does not change from a Pharisee to an apostle because God has told him adequately and amply why pharisaical Judaism has had its run and is now over. He is not convinced by some rational argument. He knew the argument. St. Paul was one of the most educated men of his day—educated by Gamaliel himself—a Jew of the Jews, of the tribe of Benjamin. He knew what he was fighting against.
He’s changed because he meets a person, and that event utterly transforms his view of himself and the world. Until that moment on the road to Damascus, St. Paul, then Saul, had been persecuting a cause, an idea, a concept, a movement. In one moment, he is made to understand that who he is persecuting is a person. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” And that changes everything for the Apostle. Suddenly, God is not an idea to be defended but a person to be known, and loved, sacrificed for, shared, died for. That is a very different kind of belief.
Similarly, Elder Joseph in his prayer does not finally find out how to pray because he has read all the right handbooks, he’s finally made it through volume five of the Philokalia, he knows all the instructions and he can assemble the parts in all the right order and create interior prayer. That’s not what does it. He hasn’t been given the right lessons in the right classes. He hasn’t heard the right lectures or the right speakers. “The prayer began to say itself in me.”
Remember the words of the Apostle Paul to the church of Rome—“When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays in us with words and utterings too deep for the human heart.” When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays. That’s what Elder Joseph experienced—that God could come to him. He had spent his whole youth trying to get to God, and in a quiet moment the Holy Spirit comes into his heart and reveals his presence. And the man is changed.
In all of these stories, the encounter with God is what does it. What it does is alter a life. It alters a life so that this life, this person, sees what before he could not see. He hears what before he could not hear, something that Christ had vaguely promised to them in an ambiguous way many times—“let him who has ears to hear, hear; let him who has eyes to see, see.” These people did not have ears to hear until their engagement and encounter with the Lord changed their eyes, and they saw, as Elder Joseph said, “Lights everywhere; love everywhere; hope in everything.” St. Paul became a man who would joyfully go to his own execution, because he could see the grace of God even there. Imagine that! It is the encounter that changes the senses, the perceptions, of these people.
My fourth story, I hope you all know it. It’s one of the most famous. Can I see a show of hands of those who have read Metropolitan Kallistos’ Orthodox Church? One or two of you. If you haven’t, I believe they are selling copies outside, and I’ll tell him I expect a commission on every sale now. The reason I raise this book is that he talks about the event that I want to share as do many others. It’s one of the more famous, historical moments in the development of the Church in the Russian lands.
Prince Vladimir of Kiev and of all of Rus wanted to find a religion to unite his imperial court. Any religion would do. He just wanted to find the right one. So he did what a good ruler would do—he took emissaries from the royal court and sent them out and said, “Find out about all the religions out there and come back and tell me which one is best, and that’s the one we’ll use.”
They went out and visited many different religions, many different forms of Christianity. Christianity was not yet firmly divided in the way we think of it today, but there were already longstanding schisms by the time of the conversion of Russia. We often think of the Great Schism as being the schism between the Roman West and Constantinopolitan East. But this was a late schism, much sadder. More divisive schisms had happened long ago—schisms, for example, at the time of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Schisms which, lest you think history is all in the past, still divide us today in 2010. Lord, have mercy.
So he sent out his emissaries and they visited here and there. By one tradition, they went to the Islamic court, asked about Islam, and wrote back to Vladimir and said, “It’s a nice religion, but they don’t allow alcohol, and this would never go over with Russians.” They went to Germany, Europe and throughout the world.
One group of envoys went to Constantinople. This is what they wrote in their own words, “When we stood in the temple [this is Hagia Sophia where you can still go today, the Church of Holy Wisdom], we hardly knew whether we were in heaven or on earth. For in truth it seems impossible to behold such glory and such magnificence on earth. We could not possibly relate to you what we saw in that place. But one thing we know, there God dwells among men, and all the worship of other countries is to us, forevermore, as nothing. We cannot forget that beauty which we saw. Whoever has enjoyed so sweet a sight will never be satisfied with anything else; nor will we consent to remain any longer in paganism as we are now.”
What does this story tell us about the life in Christ? Firstly, it has always struck me that the envoys’ comment is about beauty—“It was beautiful. We cannot recount that beauty which we saw.” The thing that affects them first and foremost is vision, experience. It’s not intellect. Bear in mind, these were not Greek speakers. They wouldn’t have had any idea what was being said. And yet, they were convinced—“One thing we know. We know in that place God dwells with men.” No system of catechesis was provided, no indoctrination. Yet through the beauty of that moment, of those experiences, something furrows its way into their heart. They are engaged with something that they did not anticipate. Something becomes real, tangible, visible, and touchable. Many would call this experience “mystical”. They had a “mystical experience”.
Okay, now it’s interactivity time. This is where I prove that I’m a university professor after all. I would like you to take a moment and turn to the person next to you and define “mysticism”. Don’t come up with the right answer. Come up with what you really think it is, and talk to the person next to you and share your definitions.
I’m delighted that on a Friday you are all so enthusiastic to talk about such deep things. Who would like to be the first to be ritually humiliated and stand up and tell us what mysticism is? Great will be your reward in heaven. Don’t be shy. As my tutor once said to me, “There are no stupid questions—only stupid students.”
[First respondent]: Something which is knowable but not by the mind or the intellect.
[Second respondent]: An encounter with the Lord.
I think I should have asked this before I told the stories! Your answers are, from my point of view, sadly accurate and therefore I can’t taunt you. Mysticism is often simply used as a kind of general term to mean something that’s not intellectual, something that isn’t purely rational. I am very happy to see that in both of the straw poll answers just taken that there was a sense not of just being utterly general, but of being general in a Christian way—encountering Christ but in a way that we can’t understand or can’t articulate.
But in popular speech, “mystery” and “mystical” often just means anything that goes beyond rational description. I’m living in San Francisco now, which is a very odd place, and I heard one time a certain type of special coffee drink described as a “mystical experience”. This reinforces my general belief that the word is useless by and large. I don’t like it. I find it disruptive, because it infuses discussions with ideas that have no shape.
Mysticism, by the way, isn’t an Orthodox term, at least if by that we mean a word that in its own right has much place in the history of Orthodox vocabulary. There is another word that does—mystery—and an adjective—mystical. But mysticism, as a thing in its own right, is a kind of odd anomaly—the idea that experience can be extracted away. It’s no longer an adjective that describes how you experience something, but it is the very notion of experience in its own right. That’s strange, because, as someone once said to me, “Who cares about your experiences in their own right?” All that matters is what you experience and how that experience affects you. If you extract those ingredients and just come down to the feelings I have or the idea that I’m getting out of my head and out of my mind and intellect, who cares? As one former student of mine put it, “A few glasses of wine and anyone can be that sort of mystical.”
In the encounter with Christ that we’ve seen in the stories that I’ve told, something rather different happens. They each have experiences that are definable in different ways that in many cases are miraculous, are extraordinary. Yet they serve a purpose of uniting the lives of these people to the life of Christ himself. That is the ultimate fruit of these encounters. Through these experiences, the Apostles, St. Paul, Elder Joseph and ultimately you and I have the ability for our life to come in contact with the life of God, to be changed by being in union with God himself, to become different than we are now.
These are experiences and encounters that are open to us by experience, because we are experiential creatures. We live in history. God gives us skin and bones and eyes and ears. What is it that these apostles and disciples see when they encounter Christ, when they look at him? What is it that they see that is so transformative? It’s not just a great magician and miracle-worker. There were a lot of magicians and miracle-workers in the ancient world. There were lots of ways to do miraculous things. Someone once said, “There are more spirits than just the Holy Spirit.” There is the power to do the miraculous, not to good but to evil.
It’s not the “magic act” dimension that is the focal point of their attention. They see something they have craved and never found. They see the kingdom of God made real in the world around them. They see the end, the fulfillment of all things, walking in their midst. They see someone who shows them the end of the story, a story that involves growth and pain, joy and profound sorrow, a story that shows ups and downs and ins and outs, some of which are pleasant and some of which are most certainly not. In the midst of all of that, the normal human response is to despair. The fact that there is some joy in this experience doesn’t stop the despair—it makes it worse. If I can feel joy and still suffer, what good is the joy? It would be much easier if it was all pain.
Yet Christ comes into this and shows the fulfillment of creation, that God reigns, that the devil loses, that the Father wins, that creation is redeemed, that life is eternal, that sorrow is finite, that pain is a drop that passes, joy is eternal, that sins can be overcome, that death can be defeated. They see the end of all things, and it gives them hope—a hope that cannot come from anything else. That is what they experience. How they are brought to that experience varies, but that is what they encounter. That is what enables St. Peter to look and say, “You are the Messiah.”
As Orthodox Christians, we live in that corporate experience of the kingdom of God made real in Christ. We view history from the end of history, not from the now, not from the beginning. From our point of view as Orthodox people, historians’ biggest problem is that they read history backwards. They are committed to the great fallacy of thinking that you should start at the beginning. It makes for a lovely song (you all know the musical which I am referring to), but it doesn’t make for good theology.
Theological history starts at the end and looks backwards. My life now is a cause for great despair if I just look at it now, look at all my sin, look at my complete inability to do anything holy. Look at the fact that for all my desire, for all my intention, I fall at the first hurdle every time. That’s not a hopeful sign. Yet if you look at life from the empty tomb, this suffering, this sorrow, has meaning.
This is why as Christians, as Orthodox Christians, we don’t pretend that we don’t know how the story ends. Our Holy Week services are a wonderful example of this. We don’t start Holy Monday and pretend that we are unsure as to what is going to happen, which happens sometimes in certain traditions and locales. We sort of put on a drama that leads you to this amazing revelation.
We know how it ends, and we start by singing “Christ is risen from the dead!” Some of the most moving services of the whole year are found on Holy Saturday where Christ is entombed in the middle of the church. The plashchanitsa (Плащаница) or epitaphios (Ἐπιτάφιος) —the burial shroud of Christ—has been taken in procession, a funeral procession. It has been ceremonially buried in the middle of the temple. Then there is this wonderful Service of the Lamentations. That’s what we call it in English. The word in Greek is “praises”, where we stand by the tomb of Christ and we sing the most bizarre intermixture of psalms and hymns you’ll find at any point of the year. Utter sorrow and sublime joy interwoven. We weep and we rejoice, and the reason for that is summed up in my favorite hymn of the year. I’ve been told before that I’m not supposed to say that—you can’t have favorite hymns; you can’t have favorite saints. So taking all that on board, my favorite hymn in the entire year is this most remarkable hymn from Holy Saturday. We’ve been singing to Christ and about him. Suddenly, we sing in his voice, in the first person. We are Christ lying in the tomb, and his mother is weeping over him. The words of the hymn are, “Do not weep for me, my mother, seeing me in the tomb, for I will arise and be glorified!” Knowing how the story ends is important to Christians.
The miracle of this is that knowing how the story ends paradoxically shows us how it began. It gives us a vision of beginnings that we never had before; a vision that itself changes our perception of the world.
Genesis…and I have to be careful saying this because I know that the last year’s speaker was a beloved friend of mine, Fr. Damascene, who must have talked to you about Genesis, I’m sure. He’s done a great amount of work revising for the Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book on this. So let me say this and see if he phones me up in a week or two. Genesis 1, if you read it on its own right, doesn’t matter. It’s a meaningless text. Who cares how the world began? Who cares? It doesn’t mean anything, unless (I hope he hears the whole speech!) we see it from the perspective of the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. In which case, the story means everything!
Without the resurrection, without knowing that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega who finishes history because he started history, you just get interesting facts about what happened on which day and in what order. But in that knowledge, in the experience of Christ, we receive a message about our own life. We look back to the beginnings, and we see a creation. We are told the world is not accidental. It is created for a reason, for a purpose, and we know what the purpose is. It is not an accident of science. It is true science— scientia—true knowledge that Christ has established the cosmos for my salvation; that what is chaotic, he has ordered; that what was dark he has made light; what was lifeless, he has filled with life, down to the finest detail orchestrated so that I can find him and he can be my God.
We hymn over and again that creation fits together like a puzzle. And like a jigsaw puzzle which reveals a picture, the picture at the end is a cross, the empty tomb, and you and me. We are told that we are made— we are made—by God, and that means something critical to us. In the life of Christ, creation is filled with meaning. We love creation. We cherish Christian history—the history of creation—because it is not just about history. It is the story of my redemption. Without that segment in the story, we miss part of our own life as we live it now.
One of the things that we miss, and that the world around us misses, is who we are and what we are. We are told in so many ways, some of them directly (those of you who have had any experience perhaps with the New Age movements), the idea that I’m not really me—this is not really me. I am spirit, ethereal spirit, part of a larger spirit, etc. There are so many variations that it is hard to boil them down into one. But there is a very popular distinction that this isn’t me—this is a little shell that I wear—until such a time as I can at last be liberated from this. This is a demonic idea, because it divorces us from the very thing that God has fashioned us to be—creatures. When we read Genesis in the light of Christ, we see that the very physicality, the dustiness, of our body is integral to who we are. We are material beings through and through. In Orthodox icons of Genesis 1, Christ is the one who fashions us from the dust. You see Jesus walking along, picking up the sand and breathing into it. The ultimate revelation we have that our materiality is important is that God takes it as his own. He becomes a man, flesh and blood.
There’s a wonderful story in the 8th or 9th chapter of John’s gospel where a man is born blind, and Jesus gives him back his sight. He does this in a strange way. He spits into the dirt and makes mud and rubs it in the man’s eyes and says, “Go, wash it.”
In the second century, my patron saint, Irenaeus of Lyons, commented on this gospel. He said, “Some people would ask, ‘Why doesn’t God just go POW! and your eyes are fixed?’” Obviously, he could have done that. God can do anything, why not? Why go through this strange ritual of spitting, making mud, and smearing it in someone’s face? The answer, he said, is that Christ wanted us to know that matter—dust, mud, flesh, bones, the things that the world tries to tell us are coarse and meaningless—these things matter. They can be holy. They can be avenues by which we encounter God’s grace.
The human person, the creature that experiences God, experiences him with its senses. We sing in the Divine Liturgy, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We conclude the Divine Liturgy by shouting aloud, “We have seen the true Light.” We receive into our mouths the flesh and blood of the Lord himself. We surround ourselves with images that flood the eyes. We sing so that our ears are filled with the sounds that lead us to God. We burn incense so that even our nostrils don’t escape. Then we prostrate ourselves and make the sign of the cross so that even our bodies are involved. No sense is left untouched, because we know something. We can sense God. The senses that he has given us are holy, if we use them in the way they have been fashioned to be used. That is something that must be done in cooperation with God himself. When we encounter him and experience him, our senses are changed. I’m going to talk more about that tomorrow.
The human heart is what the Fathers call or identify as the center of our human existence. It’s not exactly the physical heart that pumps blood through our bodies, but it is connected to that. It is not to be divorced from that. But in this they see condensed everything—earth and heaven, the past, the present, and the future, life and death—all are centered right here in the person. And only that creature can know God in his fullness.
If we try to divorce ourselves from ourselves and say, “I am pretty much just mind, therefore I will know God with my mind,” you will know a little bit about God—but not very much. If you try to pretend that you have no mind at all, you will know maybe a little more about God than if you went with option A, but still not very much. But if we approach God in our full personal authenticity—as creatures tip-toeing on the earth (as St. Clement called it), clinging to heaven—then we can know him in his fullness. Without that, our knowledge is shallow. But with it, our knowledge is deep. That brings me back to mysticism and mystery.
In Greek, the root mu- or my- means “depth” or “the deep”. That which is mystical is something which goes to the very depths of reality, beyond the surface things that we see day to day, to the very depth of what really is. This is what makes life mystical when it is lived in Christ. The human person united to his God has the ability to see what cannot be seen, to hear what cannot be heard, to have access to that which cannot be accessed, to—in his or her own heart—overcome the seemingly impossibility that God cannot be seen and yet we have seen the true Light.
Without communion in God, these things don’t work together. It’s one or the other. In the life in Christ, they are both true. We behold Christ himself. The goal of our life in Christ, of this mystery, is to experience the kingdom of God in its fullness, at every moment, to live now, today, that which is coming. Christ calls himself at one point “the One who is to come”— ho erhomenos. It is better translated out of the Greek as “the Coming One”. He is here now. The One who is to come is already here. We attempt to live our life taking seriously what Christ said to the repentant thief: “Today you can be with me in paradise.”
Mysticism, as Orthodoxy might appropriate the term, has to mean the struggle to gain the experience, the encounter in Christ with the eternal kingdom of God. But, as I said, mysticism is a term kind of foreign to us. It doesn’t really appear in our Fathers or in our writers with any sense of regularity. But we have it as an adjective—mystikos, or mystikos deipno (μυστικός δείπνο)—the mystical supper. There it is.
What makes it mystical? In this moment, we see what cannot be seen. We see that bread is the body of the Lord, that wine has become the blood of the Lord, that Christ is here right now. A person who is not living in this mystery will stand right beside you and not see it. They will watch Christ walk across the water, and, like the apostles, will say, “Who are you?” But the person who lives in this mystery beholds these things and says with the Apostle Peter, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
I started off with one line—the life of Christ is a mystery. Maybe we can now understand what this means a little more. The coming of Christ into the world means that God is accessible, sensible to the human person. Indeed, the very reason we are created as we are is to meet him, to have at our disposable what is necessary to meet him. That encounter grounds not a religion —are not a religion. It doesn’t ground a faith either. We possess faith by the grace of God, but we are not of faith. Christianity is a life. It has to be lived. There is no other way to do it.
It is a very peculiar life. It is a life bound up in Christ himself. We get that image most potently from St. John of Kronstadt, whose memory we kept very recently. His spiritual diary was called My Life in Christ, which if you haven’t read you should. When our life is bound up in Christ, it attains a depth, an engagement with reality, with creation, with God and with ourselves that can come from nothing else; that goes beyond experience and yet involves experience; that is grounded in time and yet meets eternity. This is what it means to speak of mystery. This is what it means to speak of a mystical life - the life of God that has been made the life of the human person; the life that leads to the kingdom of the Father. Amen.