We, with the whole of creation, are fallen. Along with the writers of the Old Testament, we can take that for granted. Scandal, corruption, violence, betrayal – that whole list – should not surprise us – not in ourselves, in others or in our surroundings. Our surprise and joy are found as we discover the Gospel faith that God meets us where we are, builds bridges over the walls we have constructed around ourselves in our fallen attempts to live our own lives in spite of others (including God) and by these bridges, brings us to eternal life and salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This Gospel faith – this bridge-building by God – is what we call revealed religion. One who has experienced such a revelation cannot deny it; one who has not experienced it cannot begin to comprehend it. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Peter, but my Father in heaven…” There is a uniqueness in revelation: a choosing and a calling. “You have not chosen Me,” Christ says to His followers, “but I have chosen you.”
If God has touched us in this way, if we have experienced something of Him through His calling of us, we will know that “our ways are not His ways” (cf. Isaiah 55:8). The experience of the Christian saints down the ages has been that we cannot look at ourselves to discover what we are to be like, but at God in Whose image and likeness we are made.
Yet to look at God is to enter the realm of poetry. The saints who used many words to speak about Him remind us that no words are adequate: whatever we may think or say, His reality remains far greater and beyond our grasp. When we think He fits into our intellectual constructs, we have rather produced an idol which He will delight in destroying. Many people’s loss of faith is actually a step in the right direction – their god was too small and its destruction is sometimes the first step towards a relationship with the true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the main reasons for the crucifixion of Jesus was that those around Him could not accept that God could or would use a man to build a bridge to His creation. God could not be walking in their midst. To claim to be God, as Jesus did, was at best lunacy, at worst blasphemy.
Indeed, it took Christians over 300 years to gradually develop a vocabulary to describe their experience of God’s revelation in Jesus. Then as now, Christians have begun with the reality of the three different persons, with the fact that men and women have experienced Jesus and known Jesus. With Peter and with Martha of Bethany, they have come to see Him as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 16:16, John 11:27). With the apostle Thomas they have come to an overwhelming realization that He is their Lord and their God (John 20:28). With John the Theologian, they have heard Jesus speak to Philip and say, “He who has seen Me has seen My Father” (John 14:9). They are aware that Jesus said, “I and My Father are One” (John 10:30). At the same time, they have heard Jesus pray to His Father and speak of the Spirit as totally other than Himself: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless not as I will but as You will…” (Matt. 26:39) “But when the Counselor comes, Whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness to Me” (John 15:26). At first, they weren’t sure how to describe all this in what we today call the language of theology. There were too many paradoxes; too many facts they could not deny yet which did not fit their view of reality. Indeed, as we continue to grow into our life in Christ, each of us goes through the same process of breakdowns in what we believe.
We do believe that God is love and that it is the nature – not just the choice – of love to pour itself out on the other. For this reason we believe God must have others as part of His very being. While some might say that creation is the other, we believe that creation mirrors what already exists within God Himself, Trinity in Unity. This mirrors our view of human persons made in the image and likeness of God: the unity of humanity does not compromise the uniqueness and integrity of persons; true bridges do not violate boundaries.
Another image of God’s revelation – His bridge-building with His creation – is found in the Biblical theme of love and marriage. In the Old Testament, the Song of Songs and the marriage of the prophet Hosea are examples of this allegory of the nature and love of God. St. Paul is explicit in the New Testament as well – for example, see Ephesians 5:31-32. To use words of theology: in love, God begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit.
Creation is seen by some as a mysterious result of the union of the Divine Son and the Spirit, just as the marriage of a man and woman normally results in the begetting of children. Nevertheless, there is a very long debate on the nature of this union that goes back at least as far as Origen and that has not yet been resolved.
Some, with Origen, have taught that intercourse between Adam and Eve was only a result of the fall; that before then, the unity they had with one another in the Garden of Eden precluded sexual relations. Those who favor this approach still teach that Christians should not have sexual relations except as a matter of catering to weakness and then only to beget children.
There is another equally venerable and Orthodox reading of Scripture, however, which teaches that human intercourse was part of God’s original plan, that love indeed always pours itself out and is by nature creative. In this view, the union of a man and women in marriage reflects the joining of God to His creation, i.e. the “other” who is created and then redeemed to share in the essence of God in theosis, without being destroyed personally. Marriage is seen as a matter of mutual support, love and respect. If children are given in response to such sharing it can only be a blessing. While a choice not to bear children could be sinful depending upon the reasons, to participate in God’s love and creativity can mean an infinite number of other things as well.
When Christian marriage (and community life) shows such a reflection of the love of the Trinity, unity is found in the harmony of differences. Even people who are close enough to know pretty well what the other is thinking and anticipate reactions and behavior, will continue to be strong individuals, not pretending that boundaries don’t exist or trying to obliterate them. Such families, communities and friendships will indeed be fruitful and rejoice as their offspring grow up, move on, become their own persons. They expect them to do different and perhaps even greater things than they are doing and understand that the main heritage they have given them is life in the Church, the Body of Christ.
The Church as well rejoices in her offspring: new missions, monasteries, national churches. Each of these groupings, when it is truly animated by the Holy Spirit, reflects the uniqueness of its time and place as well as the particular people who are called to be part of it. When the first assembly in Jerusalem saw that the gentiles who previously had been far from the Church had received the same Holy Spirit, it recognized that this new situation called for an entirely different framework if the Body of Christ was to flourish with these new members. The Church, speaking through St. James of Jerusalem, refused to place on them the full burden of the laws and traditions of Judaism (Acts 10-11). Thus was laid the groundwork for the unique, autonomous national churches which have ever since characterized the Orthodox Church, with a world-wide apostolic hierarchy descended from that assembly in Jerusalem balancing the local authority within the boundaries of each group.
For us fallen people, however, ignoring and violating boundaries comes naturally; building bridges does not. While as St. Paul tells us, God has been revealing Himself through His creation from the beginning of time (cf. Romans, Chapter 1), our natural fallen response is not to use creation as such a bridge to God, but rather to idolize it; to turn it into an end in itself. This is one of the chief reasons Jews and Christians have needed to place appropriate boundaries between themselves and others, so as not to lose their identity as God’s “Chosen People”; not to bow down in worship to the surrounding society or its false gods.
Yet how do we reach out to others without losing what we have to share with them? How can we make sure we are not used by those things which are meant to be used by us?
Forgiveness seems to me to be the key. Without a truly robust understanding and practice of forgiveness, Christian life is a sham, whether in marriage or community. Forgiveness cannot be something tacked on after all else fails; it is the way Christians approach life, for it is the way our God approaches us. Forgiveness means being able to look clearly at the world and those around us in true detachment, seeing that all is not well (even within ourselves) and loving in spite of that. It does not mean going through life in denial that anything is ever wrong, nor in being scandalized when it becomes obvious that evil has been perpetrated by known individuals.
Such a life of forgiveness demands letting go of control – or the illusion of control that revenge and constant defensiveness bring. It is the way to be sure that we build bridges rather than fortifications and not violate or ignore boundaries. Forgiveness is truly life-giving. Only one who has been truly seen as he or she is and then forgiven can fully understand the gift of grace. For ourselves as well, this means letting go of justification, of the desire to appear better than we are. If we do not let our God and others know us (not just know about us), we cannot know the wholeness and healing of forgiveness. And what we have not received we do not have to give to others.
There are reasons bridge-building and forgiveness are not popular and widely practiced, however. It can mean not only true detachment but also the sacrifice of everything, including the crucifixion of ourselves. It can, in actual practice, mean laying down our life for another or “for the many” as our Lord did.
For those not ready to take on such forgiveness themselves, this can be very threatening. Paradoxically, the way of bridge-building, like the way of the Cross, can be a very lonely one at times on this earth. Christ built the only true and eternal bridge for mankind to heaven when he ascended the Cross, yet that was the time when He knew Himself most forsaken by both God and man.
Death was the only right way of reaching out to us and to the world, yet it was also the way of His leaving us and the world in the flesh. While others do not always see such a leave-taking as bridge-building, when leaving is an authentic response to God as was that of Jesus, it is indeed the most fully loving action possible. Jesus knew He belonged elsewhere and could continue to love those He was leaving only by going to the Father.
For us, the Church and its liturgical life are powerful tools in making forgiveness central to our lives. To be fully members of the Church, we must choose and make time to gather as the people of God, to “come out of the world” for definite periods. Making the choice to come faithfully for Sunday Divine Liturgy may be a real sacrifice for some, yet for the Orthodox Christian it is a necessary first step. As we are present at the liturgy, we bring our lives, ourselves, our loved ones, the whole world to offer in sacrifice – to make holy – before God.
We learn as we do this that the truest relationship we can have with others is to allow them to be themselves and to place them in God’s hands. Liturgy teaches us that this is true prayer. It is the way of radically letting go rather than always attempting to control.
Christians, called into the priesthood of all believers as the Body of Christ offering the liturgy on behalf of all and for all, become by that action the bridge between God and the world. This is a divine reality that transforms in time and eternity both those who participate and all they bring with them. We can forget this reality, for we remain ourselves, with our own personal boundaries and limitations, just as bread and wine remain bread and wine yet truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. To catch even a glimpse of this reality, however, is enough to know the God Who creates and sustains the whole universe at every instant of its being. No one can prove this truth to another. It is something that can be proven only in the crucible of life’s experience. Yet as we continue, our times of prayer will take on the force of reality and move beyond the hours of liturgy. We will continue to grow into God’s own life and will learn how to bring ourselves, one another and the whole world before God as we go about our daily lives.
We will eventually discover that the acceptance of boundaries and the building of bridges through the life-giving grace of forgiveness slowly replaces our fallen approach to life. We will find ourselves on the road to heaven with those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, holding all others up to God in prayer.
Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is the Abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York. She is the author of Living in Christ: Essays on the Christian Life by an Orthodox Nun and Growing in Christ, both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.