We have devoted most of this year to the discussion of, not the problem, but the mystery and the reality of revelation. Yet we have not touched on one aspect of it. It is the knowledge which we have, inwardly, of God , a knowledge which is not intellectual and not emotional, which is a direct knowledge born of a sort of communion with God given through a sort of communication of God to us. I use the phrase “a sort of” because I will try to make it more precise in the course of this talk but I do not want to start with more than we have already attained. And I would like to preface this talk, which is basically on revelation, with an example which refers to prayer, but will serve as an introduction.
In a rather remarkable book a French writer called Alphonse de Chateaubriand, not the great Chateaubriand but a quite small one, presents us with the discovery of prayer. There are several examples and images which he gives, and it is one of them which I would like to discuss now. He tells us the story of a child born in a village somewhere in primitive lands. The village was built by a stream, and on the other side of the stream stood a rock on which in ages immemorial someone had carved the face of God. This face was marked with beauty. It had about it a sense of serenity and of power and of greatness. And there was a legend in the village that one day this god will come and dwell among the men. For centuries this image was revered, admired. But one day a child was born in this village, who, as soon as he could crawl, discovered the image of God on the rock. And he was so profoundly impressed by it that whenever he was free, he crawled to the edge of the cliff, sat there, and looked. He simply looked at the image because it was so meaningful to him. Years passed and the child became a boy and a youth, and he continued to spend hours and hours sitting opposite the image and looking into the face of his God.
And one day as he was passing along the street the villagers saw that their God was in their midst. All they could read in the face of their God carved in the rock was now on the face of this man who stood as one of them and yet who was now partaker of everything that one could read in the face of God. This man had been silently contemplating the face, and all that this face had to say he had received, but not in terms of objective knowledge. This face had never been an object he had scrutinised. It was a vision which he had communed with until one day he had become what he had been contemplating.
Here we can see that, thanks to this vision made objective to him, a vision of something, this face that was confronting him from the outside as it were, all his potentialities had become reality. They had become actualised, potentiality had become fact. We can see here the dynamic relatedness between what he was and what he could be. And the way in which he became what he could be, because he became the like of the One in the image of whom he had been made. At the origin there was potentiality, a possibility to become, but a possibility that was rooted in the fact that between him and his God there was something they had in common. This is what we would call in Christian terms the image of God, the conformity between man and God. And what had resulted from these years of contemplation was resemblance, likeness. Here we are confronted with vision that has conveyed a content, that has revealed a divine attitude and beyond this divine attitude a divine being, the way in which God is. And this knowledge of the divine content had led to a change in the man. Through divine action, through the impact of the divine it bore fruit in him, it had found human expression.
And so this situation can be expressed in three terms – two terms which we have perceived in the story already, and one to which I’ll come later. These three terms are, first of all, a relatedness between the child and the God carved in the rock, between the potentialities of man and his calling, the possibility for him to become the like of the one who made him in his image. There is also as a condition for this becoming, some sort of participation. I use again this phrase `some sort of’, because I will dwell more on this point. And then, if this God is a person, then relatedness and participation result in a discovery of him and into a relationship with him.
Let us look at these three points. First of all, the relatedness. I will not dwell heavily on this point because we have discussed it in several ways in the past. First of all, the relatedness is at the root of our very existence. If we mean earnestly that we are created by God, that from radical absence we are brought into his presence and into a mutual presence, at the root of this act there is the fact that God has willed us into existence, and we are willed in an act of love, because the will of God establishes us vocationally, potentially at the very beginning, as companions of God for eternity. He does not will us into existence for a while, that we should disappear later; he wills us into stable and eternal presence. And when I use the word `companions’, I use it in the strongest possible sense. A companion is one who is allowed to break the bread with you. Companionship means, in that respect, equality, because one calls to one’s table one’s equals. One breaks the bread with those whom one has chosen to be one’s friends.
We may consider this in its most elementary aspects, that God shares with us and shares out to us all his richness. But ultimately this bread which is shared is that which is the eucharistic bread, which is communion to what God himself is. At the root of this existence of ours as created beings there is an act of divine will which is an act of divine love. But our situation with regard to God is defined from the very beginning and till the end of time by the words of the first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Not simply the poor, because to be poor does not yet define a blissful relationship. St John Chrysostom, trying to define what poverty means, says, `Poor is not a man who does not possess; poor is the man who lacks what he does not possess, who desires, covets what he does not possess.’ And so one can be infinitely rich from an objective point of view and still be infinitely poor in the only thing which would make sense. The only thing which we would desire is the thing which we have not got. And on the other hand, no amount of deprivation can be called poverty if it is treated with wisdom. There is in a book compiled by Martin Buber, `The Tales of the Hassidim’, a passage in which he relates the story of a Polish rabbi of the 18th century, who lived in utter misery, in hunger and in cold, in loneliness and dereliction. Yet every morning he began his day by a thanksgiving to God for all his benefits. And one day someone challenged him on it. `How can you be so hypocritical as to thank God for all his benefits when you so well know from experience that he has given you nothing?’ And the man said, `No, I am not a hypocrite, but you have no understanding. God looked at my soul and asked himself, “What does this man need in order to grow to the full stature of his possibilities, to become truly what he is capable of being?” And he saw that what I truly needed was loneliness and dereliction, hunger and cold and all the misery which I am experiencing, and this he has given me in abundance.’ So that poverty or richness is an appreciation of a situation and not at all an objective situation. In itself a situation is always ambivalent. The sign plus or minus which we put in front of a statement give it its meaning. This man, from the point of view of those who surrounded him possessed nothing of what they felt is important. And he was deprived of these things. From the point of view of this man of the spirit he had been richly endowed with poverty and deprivation. So that the words of the Gospel – poor in spirit – are essential for our understanding of what is meant here. It’s not an objective poverty that can be weighed up on any kind of scales. It is a poverty understood in a certain way. And indeed, poor we are. There is nothing we possess which is ours. There is nothing which we can securely call our own. We exist because we have been called into existence. We live because the life is sustained in us. Intelligence, health, strength, feeling, – everything, including our friends and the circumstances of our life, are practically out of our power. We cannot retain them when we choose to. We cannot shed them when we wish to.
But this is not enough to acquire a sense of bliss. This sense of utter poverty, this understanding that there is nothing we possess which is ours, can lead us to despair unless we realise that while we possess nothing as our own, we possess all these things – we have life, existence and breath and friends, a mind, a heart, a will, a body and so many other things. But because they are not ours, because we cannot appropriate them to ourselves, they are continuously in a sustained way a sign of God’s concern for us and God’s love for us. If any of these things we could appropriate and keep securely in our own hands, lose this insecurity which the gift of God implies, we would have detracted, taken away from the mystery of love as much as we would have been able to take into our own hands.
There is a phrase of one of our young theologians who says that food – if I remember well, but that’s an approximate quotation – food is divine love made edible. Well, it is true. And everything in our life is divine love made visible, tangible, edible and – I haven’t got enough adjectives to characterise the other things. So that at the root of things, at the very basis of things; there is this relatedness in which we possess nothing; and yet we are so immensely rich, partly by what we are given, and infinitely more by the love these gifts express.
So that there isn’t such a thing as a created being with a created nature thrown out, put before the eyes of God and then later endowed with this and that. There is the fact that we are created and simultaneously endowed with divine love, and more than that, endowed before we exist, with the divine love and all it can give and all it stands for. So that we are totally dependent, and this is our joy and this is the basic, the first beatitude of man. But totally dependent we are. Yet in a way we are autonomous. We are autonomous in the sense that on a certain level we can reject, we can be free, we can no longer accept, we can determine ourselves. We have an independence which one can define in two ways. On the one hand we are not of necessity for God. He does mot need our existence in order to be himself. He is self-sufficient without us. And therefore he does not create us in order to be fulfilled. In a way, apart from the mystery of love which I have hinted at, we are superfluous as far as God exists. And because we are such, we have an independent existence. We are not like a candle lit in noon-day light. We are not like a shadow of the divine presence, an appendix, an additional something that would be a last fulfillment of God. God is fulfilled without us. And because we are not all this when we are positive before God we have full independent existence, although for our existence we depend on this basic first act of the divine will.
And then also we are autonomous in one way. St Maxim the Confessor said that God can do all things except one: He can force no one to love, because love is sovereign freedom. Freedom is given us, but freedom is also within the mystery of love. Some of you are probably tired of my semantic digressions, but I think I can put it in short here. We think always of freedom as an ability to choose, and indeed it is freedom as long as we are not confirmed in what one could call real mature integrity. But there is in choice an element of vacillation, a hesitation between good and evil, between life and death. And finally, conferred freedom cannot be a continuous and endless vacillation between God and the Devil, between life and death, between good and evil, between self-destruction and self-fulfillment. And indeed this is what ire find expressed in a passage which in the Greek translation of the Septuagint reads as follows. It’s a passage from Isaiah, I think the 7th chapter, which is read on the eve of Christmas and is applied to the Lord. Before he is able to discern good from evil, the child will have chosen good, because in him there is no corruption and there is no need of hesitation and vacillation between death and life, self-destruction and integrity of fulfillment.
So although under those circumstances which have become normal or are normal in our life, freedom expresses itself continuously in the possibility to choose. Ultimately freedom must become a state when the choice is open but when the vacillation is no longer there and the choice is inherently according to our true nature, to the fulfillment, the actualisation of all that is eternal, real possibilities in us. And this explains why the various words which we use in our languages are rooted not so much in the idea of choice as in the idea of love. The Latin word libertas defines the situation of a child born free in a free man’s home. All his education, however strenuous, however severe, however rootless, will aim at making him a master of self in order that he should become a master of others. And in this mastery he acquires his freedom, his ability to be himself in the full and true sense. The aim of all the strenuous training of the child is an act of love which is directed towards making him free from dependence, from enslavement to impulses, to prejudice, to fear, to cowardice, and so on. And the relationship between him and whoever is authority is not that of subservience, which would destroy the very aim of this education, but that of discipleship. Discipline is not a drill; it is the state of a disciple. And a disciple is one who in order to learn sits at the feet of the master, in whom he recognises greater greatness than his own, from whom he wishes to learn to outgrow himself, or, rather, to bring to fruition all his potentialities, become truly and actually what he is potentially, virtually, as a possibility.
The English word `freedom’ (and this I have from a dictionary so that I feel that I stand on safe ground in your presence) – the word `freedom’ comes from Old English, from an expression that means beloved, loved. `My free’ meant `my love’, `my darling’, `my beloved’. And the Russian word for freedom, svoboda, means to be oneself, to be myself. And here we see that this potentiality becoming act is what we mean basically by freedom, the way in which in ancient thought people spoke of a statue being included in the marble and being simply freed from all that covered it in order to appear in all its glory. In this process what is essential is the fact that we can choose, but also the fact that we are endowed with ability to choose according not only to our human nature (because the consideration of our human nature is no answer to the choice) but according to the divine potentiality which is in us, the call to this companionship of which I have spoken. It teaches us to listen, that is obedience, to be attentive, to be daring, to outgrow ourselves.
And now let us turn to the second aspect which I have mentioned, participation, because all of what I have said before would be impossible if there was no divine impact or divine act. We could not outgrow what we are, we could not grow beyond what we are if there was not an act of God that makes it possible. This participation – and I will now keep to Christian terms – is not participation in the Persons but in the nature of God. You remember this passage in the Epistles, in the Epistle general of St Peter, in which he says that we are called to become partakers of the divine nature. I would like to dwell on this for a moment. God can be considered, as we have seen, in several ways. We know him in the revelation of the scriptures, which is the meeting-point of the divine mystery and the human ability to comprehend it, or at least to approach worshipfully, prayerfully, by faith, in awe. He is disclosed to us as one God in three Persons. But however sublime this revelation, however mysterious this revelation, it is revelation, unveiling, and it is meant for us to possess, to grow into, to comprehend; this is the aspect of God as knowable, God to the extent to which he can be known. But beyond the God knowable there is God as we cannot know him, God as he knows himself, God in himself. In this realm no human categories have any meaning. We can no longer say that God is a person or personal, but we cannot either say that he is not a person or personal. To use the words, I think, of the Cloud of Unknowing, he is simply God, and there is nothing else we can say about him except to say he is God, and to answer that to any question which arises beyond the limit of the God knowable and made known by his free gift.
But apart from this aspect of the knowable and the unknowable, there is something else. God cannot be participated in, in the sense that you cannot become him. And yet he communicates himself to us. Incommunicable, he is also communicable in the same sense with the same precision and definiteness in which, knowable, he remains unknowable, this is an act of God which is part of the experience of saints. In the 14th century on Mt. Athos a controversy that seems to us theological, that is academic (in the worst sense of the word, because that’s the way in which ‘theological’ is used usually), arose between St Gregory Palamas and those who prayed on the holy mountain, and more academic theologians. The argument was this: Is grace divine or is grace a created gift which God bestows on us. Theoretically it seems to be quite beside the point. For one thing, how can you know or not? But the point of the discussion was rooted in two things: on the one hand, in the direct knowledge obtained by prayerful experience and the experience of the sacramental life by the ascetics. They knew that what was going on in them was – shall I put it this way? – an invasion of their being by something divine, that it was not an expansion of their created capabilities. It was something which was properly God, coming and pervading them, acting, becoming perceptible to their inner senses.
And then there was also another ultimate problem for them, as there is the same problem for us. If grace is created, then there is no way of bridging the gap between him and us. However connected we are, we will be connected with him in a mediated way, indirectly. There can be no vision face to face, because vision in that sense does not mean gazing at. There can be no inner knowledge of God; there can be knowledge only of after-effects of his existence.
Well, to use an image which is probably as theological as anything I am capable of saying, many of you have probably read ‘Daddy Long-legs’. Well, you remember all these girls who had all of them someone who had made himself responsible for them. And yet they were not allowed ever to meet them, ever to see them. All they knew was that there was such a person who existed, who paid for the school, who produced Christmas presents, and so on. This is really, expressed on a very low level, on my level, the Palamite discussion. Is there a God who is to Jerusha Abbott like Daddy Long-legs, who exists but who can be known only through after-effects, or is there for her someone with whom she will be in deep relationship, which ultimately expressed in Daddy Long-legs, which probably was not meant to be a theological statement, in the marriage between Daddy Longlegs and Jerusha Abbott. I think that is important, because what was at stake and still is at stake is the fact that however simple we are we can claim that we know God not only as a person in the sky but as some experience intrinsic to us and that this experience is neither sentiment nor emotion nor fantasy nor intellection but the concrete knowledge of the divine streaming into us, pervading us, active in us, transforming, breaking and, eventually, transfiguring us.
This is, in the theology of St Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Church since the Councils of the 14th century, the view on grace. Grace is that aspect of God which is communicable. God when he communicates himself, himself, not gifts of his, to man, is called grace for all intents and purposes. This – and again, the Palamite expression is `the energies’, that is the active aspect of God in us – these energies are in operation not of the Persons but of God, one will, one God. It has a nature, which is the divine nature. And it is communicated to us freely by God in any way He chooses: In the sacrament, which through this theology acquired a concreteness and a realism which is complete and which implies a theology of matter capable of being spirit-bearing and God-bearing, in prayer, in all the ways in which we can commune to God. ‘Commune to God’ does not mean becoming identical with Him. Some of you remember probably the story, which I will not repeat, of the doll of salt, who discovered what the ocean was when it finally melted in the ocean, but it never did discover what water was.
Now, against this background of relatedness, of participation, then we see how it is possible that we can be mystically related to the Persons of the Holy Trinity. We can discover them because there is a guide for this search, we can discover them because the energies of God are active and alive in us, and we discover Him whom we already know in His nature in a variety of persons. Now the difficulty which one finds very often concerning this point is the confusion that exists very often in people’s minds between person and individual. When we speak of persons we always think of a limited and a limiting aspect of beings. Well, an individual is the last term of dividedness. An individual is the point at which one must stop unless one goes too far. The human race can be divided in nations, tribes, races and so forth. There is the moment when one finds oneself in the presence of an individual. If you try to divide farther, you obtain a corpse and a departed soul. This is the moment where integrity is broken. But this is a term of dividedness, and every individual can be recognised by contrast, by opposition, by common features grouped differently. He is not absolutely unique, and this is what Orthodox theology means by the concept of the person. The person is that in us which cannot be contrasted, opposed, differentiated, which is so unique that there is no common measure with any other person, and therefore there is no opposition; there is uniqueness. That is what Scripture means by this white stone which is given to each of us in the Kingdom of God with a name written on it which no one knows but God and he who receives it. Total uniqueness, uniqueness such that no one knows and can know it except God, and we to the extent to which God chooses to make us discover our own mystery.
This is what we mean by person whether we speak of God or whether we speak of human persons. And in that respect we can be related within the knowledge of God received through the energies divine, through the grace divine, to each Person of the Trinity, but related and not displaced. When St Paul says, `It is not I but Christ who lives in me,’ he does not mean to say that there is a Person called Christ who has displaced in me another person that was Paul, and that what is left is a shell that appears to be Paul while in reality it is Christ. It is something quite different. There is no displacing, because the person is unique. But there is a relatedness in which Christ, who is the total man – all there is in man – can make actual in each person all that he is capable of standing for, of the total humanity. The way in which we are related to the Son, to the Spirit, to the Father could be an object for a separate talk. But it is important for us to realise that our relatedness to God and our participation leads us to knowledge of God, concrete, deep, live, of each Person and establishes a relationship between us and them.
To conclude, I would like to turn to another aspect of things. In the example which I gave in the beginning there was a giving and a receiving. There was this face divine that made an impact. There was an act of God which resulted in a change in man. Grace, in our ordinary speech, very often means an act of kindness, of love. In Greek and in Slavonic very often, or rather on certain occasions, it has got an ambiguous meaning. It means both gift and thanksgiving, and the link between the two I think is worth underlining. How can we truly express gratitude for a gift? If we try to examine our own experience we see that when our gratitude is great enough, we cannot express it in any way. We begin to express gratitude when gratitude is less. And we are perfect in expressing gratitude when we turn gratitude into a way of freeing ourselves from it. If someone whom we do not like gives a present to us, we immediately, hastily, passionately look for a way of paying back the benefit in order to be free from gratitude. But when there is a certainty in the love of the one who gives and a response of love on our part, then we feel nothing to express gratitude except a perfect way of receiving the gift.
This is what we find, for instance, in one of the psalms: What reward shall I give to God for all His benefits? And the answer: I will receive the cup of salvation. How can I express my gratitude for what is done? By receiving and accepting it, with the heart absolutely open, exulting with joy and gratitude, so open that it can receive without ever feeling this constriction of heart which we have when we feel uneasy about this love of the other or our love of the other. And in that respect the Eucharist, the evcharistia, which means ‘gratitude’, also means ‘gift’. It is the greatest gift of God. It is the most perfect expression of our gratitude – in one way only, by our readiness and ability to receive the immeasurable love of God with immeasurable joy and readiness. And then we discover that grace, that the gift of God, is what makes us dear to God and what makes God dear to us. The word gracia is what makes one ‘gratus’. And ‘gratus’ doesn’t mean grateful, it means dear, acceptable. It is because we open up in such a way that we can receive all things, that we can be received to perfection, as we have received. In other terms, we shall know as we are known.
Well, this is the end of these talks on revelation which I intended to give against the background of Orthodoxy and to make you perceive something of what is essential in Orthodoxy. Next year, that is, beginning with the end of September or the beginning of October, we will – those of you who will have survived – will meet here and you will then discover what the subject of our meetings will be, because I want to find something into which I can put my heart, but the subjects which have so far been suggested are far beyond my brains, so I must find something which will be a middle way. We have got now about 20-25 minutes for contributions.
Answers to questions
I don’t get what the difference is between the ocean and the water in the doll story
I think there is a great difference. The ocean is a salty water. The salt can know what the ocean is and the water can know what the water is, but I surmise that neither knows what the other is. I may be wrong about salt and water. What I really meant is that we can know God by participation but that does not imply that we can know God as He knows himself. I suppose it would be much simpler without the parable.
Things that come to us through grace are often contrasted with those things that we do for ourselves, and the implication often is that we are overcome by grace rather unwillingly, I mean that it’s an invader. That’s wrong, isn’t it?
I think the second half isn’t quite right. Grace is gift but grace is also receiving. At times it makes eruptions, at times we open the door for it to come, but whenever we receive, there is our participation one way or another. God may almost force Himself into our experience, yet we are always in a position to shut the door and to say no. In that respect God, say grace, fulfills nature but does not break it. That’s one aspect. The other aspect, which is much more learned, is the discussion between St Augustine and Pelagius concerning grace and freedom concerning how far can we participate in our own salvation? Is there anything we can do except receive. But I think that without arguing against Augustine, from our practical point of view an important thing is to realise that receiving does not mean being passive. One must receive actively and not simply be there hoping the rain will come down, because whenever we start on parables of that kind of course we are bound to consider the recipient as being passive, while in our relationship with God however receptive we are, our receptiveness will depend on the way in which we open up and opening up, being silent in order to listen, being willing to receive, etc., is an extremely active situation,
Can you say grace falls on the just and the unjust?
The love of God shines on the just and the unjust. Grace is offered to everyone, and that’s an essential thing because if grace was offered only to the just, they could very well do without. It is the unjust that are really in need it. And if we could reason in terms of just and unjust to the last point, of course grace is there for everyone, knocking at our door, trying to come to us but without discrimination, because the aim of any divine action is salvation, not reward, and where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. Love divine may be a joy, it may be a suffering, it may be a glory, it may be a tragedy, but it passes no one by.
Does it mean that any natural fulfillment on any level is an action of God’s grace?
I think we may not consider nature and grace as completely divorced from each other. I don’t think that one can say there is someone who is pure created being devoid of grace at all, because it would mean, at least in the terms of reference which I have used, that he is simply outside the whole of God’s purpose and the whole relatedness to God…
Does it matter whether a person knows he is opening himself to grace, even if he calls it something else?
It does not matter up to a point. It matters beyond a certain point. That is, a man can have a religious experience without calling it by the right name. It is not any less genuine, but there is a great deal of advantage still in discovering what the right name is.
Do you think any experience as long as it’s fulfilling life would be religious?
If you take religious in the truest, strict sense, a way of being related to God, yes. If you mean religious in inverted commas, i.e. pious etc., probably not, or possibly not. But certainly yes.
How would you interpret “ kicking against the pricks” (St Paul)
We can go against God because we have such a precise view of what God is, that we can’t recognise what he truly is. Let’s say in the example of St Paul. He had an absolutely clear view and he was certain that he had to fight Christ in order to vindicate God. It was an error and he was kicking against the pricks. He was trying to fight for God while in reality he was going against him. And God stopped him at that.
Could you give a further word about what this …. means to our relation to the Holy Trinity and to other people?
Well, apart from a certain universal relatedness of which I have spoken mainly, and within this relatedness, when we read the New Testament or the lives of saints, we see how men were related to Christ, to the Spirit, to the Father. We know, for instance (I am using formal definitions because it’s short and easier) that in baptism we are grafted onto Christ and become a member of the body of Christ. This is a way we are related to him and not to the divine nature in general. It’s a personal relatedness. He is central. We know that in Pentecost everyone who was a member of the nascent church became a temple of the Holy Spirit. We know that, from St Paul, that the Holy Spirit alive in him and the faithful taught them to call God and say ‘Abba, Father’. We know from Scripture that God is creating in us the knowledge of God. We know from Colossians our life is hid with Christ in God. These are just examples that show that there is a basic Christian situation in which we are related to the Son, the Spirit, the Father in different ways and in ways of which we can and must be aware, because it is part of our inner experience. This is just a hint.
You said that when the grace of God is given it can be refused. St. Paul was not able to refuse, was he, even though he could have denied it later?
But I think that in the case of St. Paul one can see that the readiness of Paul to receive whatever was God’s will was such that God could reveal his will in any way and be accepted, while in so many cases we are prepared to accept the will of God within very, very narrow limits and therefore it knocks at our door and we just say, no, no, not today.
I think we should now make an end to our meeting. I should like to thank you for a year’s patience and to end perhaps again on a parable. There is a Spanish story in which we are told that the devil opened a school of theology. He taught most brilliantly and he never asked his pupils anything except they should learn and be proficient in all the devilish tricks which students can invent and play on the population. And then at the last day he gathered them and said, `My dear friends, I have taught you all that you need to know to be a worthy parish priest and I have never asked of you anything, and you will understand why: I am the devil. He pushed his friar’s hood off his head and they saw the horns, and so they all rushed out. Eventually one was caught. Well, the parable is really this: we have got at the moment in France a children’s camp which is in extremely bad financial condition. If any one of you felt he can help at all, could you please help? That was the devil’s appeal.