ENGLISH RETREAT 8 April 1989
Year after year we have these quiet days, these retreats, and they are always centred on the Incarnation of the Lord, on Easter. It is not easy for me to discover new ways of presenting things which are at the very heart of our faith. So I will inevitably repeat things which I have said all too often. Perhaps my only excuse will be that things true remain true even when they are presented time and again. And another thing is important. To know things to be true is one thing; to live with all one’s mind and heart the things which we know to be true is another one. There is a story in the life of archbishop William Temple which I think could apply to us. He preached in Canterbury, four Sundays running, the same sermon, and he was taken up by a parishioner who remarked on this. And the Archbishop said to him, ‘I know I have repeated the same things, but what have you done about what you heard?’ And when the parishioner said, ‘Well, I don’t know’, he said, ‘Well, in that case I’ll preach the same sermon next Sunday.’ I wonder whether this doesn’t apply to all of us, not only to those who hear but who when I speak.
So my intention is to speak today of the way of the cross. But I want to place it in a total context. When we think of the incarnation, the life, the crucifixion, the descent into hell, the resurrection, we hardly ever think of the fact that although all this was made necessary by the fall of man and by human sin, human sin could not have introduced into the mystery of the Trinity something that was not there at the beginning. In other words, the sin of man could not have brought into the mystery of the Triune God the cross. It was there not only from the beginning, but before all beginnings, before all creation. It was there as part of the divine mystery. God in Himself, in what He is, is beyond our knowledge. We cannot know God as He is. He Himself alone can know Himself. In a way St. Gregory of Nyssa said it very clearly when he spoke of the divine mystery as being divine darkness not in the sense that darkness in our vocabulary implies absence of light, but impenetrable mystery. When we are confronted with the thought of God we can only bow down and adore what is beyond us. This is a first point which we may well remember in the course not of this retreat alone but of all our Christian life. God is one before whom one can bow down, prostrate oneself in adoration. And it is only in adoration, when we renounce to know intellectually, indeed even emotionally, more about God than He will reveal to us, that we can discover Him to the extent to which He unveils his mystery to us, to each of us differently, to all of us in one way or another.
This knowledge is a knowledge of communion. I have said more than once that the word ‘god’ originates in a root that means the one before whom one falls down, one prostrates in adoration. It is the one whose presence, once it is perceived, brings us to our knees. And this is all that we can know about God in His mystery: God as impenetrable darkness.
But on the other hand God reveals Himself to us a s light. He unveils his mystery to us. He conveys to us a knowledge and understanding of Himself which is accessible to us. And the limit of this knowledge is the Holy Trinity. We tend to think — and rightly so — that the mystery of the Trinity is beyond our grasp. And yet it is, as it were, the hem of the garment. It is that knowledge of God which we can hold on to, an amount of knowledge which finds its reflection in human relationships, in human reality. It is not humanity projected into God. It is God mirrored in humanity.
And so we can reflect on the mystery of God revealed to us as Trinity and ask ourselves whether in it we have not a first sense, for the first time we can approach something of God that reveals man and something of man that reveals God. And this is important because the discovery of God leads us to understand ourselves, and a deeper, ever deeper understanding of ourselves can lead us to the discovery of God if it be true, and it is, that God made us in his own image and called us to his perfect likeness.
And what do we see in this mystery of the Trinity that is relevant to the way of the cross? St. Gregory of Nazianze, speaking of God One in the Holy Trinity, tells us that if God is love, He must be the Triune God, God revealed, God real in three Persons. He tells us that if God was only a monad, an arithmetic one, He could not be love; He could be self-love. He would only love Himself, contemplate Himself. There would be nothing apart from Him and He would be closed in into Himself. This is the first question which we can ask ourselves. Are we a monad? Are we an arithmetic one in our experience of self and of our neighbour and of life? Is all our life nothing but narcissism, but contemplation of self?
The word which I used now is taken from Greek mythology. It is a story of a young man of supreme beauty who saw his face one day in the stillness of the waters and was so captured by this beauty that he could no longer detach his eyes from it and died in contemplation. What about us? How do we live? Can we detach ourselves from self? Can we look outward? The beginning of St. John’s Gospel tells us: ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was (and this is the meaning of the Greek text) towards God.’ It was turned to the Father. All its йlan, all its motion was towards the Father in complete forgetfulness of self, his eyes, his heart, his whole being Godwards.
Now pursuing his thought, St Gregory of Nazianze says also that two cannot be perfect love. Indeed we see in our experience, we see in world literature how intense, how absorbing can be the love of one person to another. And yet, however intense, however perfect within its limits, it has got one flaw about it: there is no space for the third one, whether this third one be a single person or a collective whole, a person or a group of people. The love of two would be totally, ultimately absorbed into one another, can either ignore every third one passing by, never noting his or her or their existence, or on the contrary, be excluded. We see that in so many of the stories of mankind. Tragedy or comedy, the presence of a third one creates a real problem. And this cannot be perfect love because perfect love must be beyond the problem. But how can that happen? It can happen in two ways that have been suggested by different writers. The first one is the readiness of each of those who love, so to respect, so to venerate — I was about to say ‘so to worship’ — the relationship that exists between the two others, that the third one, whoever he or she may be would be prepared to step out, to be forgotten, no longer to exist in the momentary experience of the two so that the two can be perfectly at one, as though nothing could exist apart from them. If we think in terms of the Holy Trinity — again these are the terms of St Gregory, not mine — you will see that outside of time, outside of any succession of moments, each Person of the Trinity is prepared, as it were, to die, to accept self-annihilation, self-naughting so that the two other persons can remain in perfect mutual contemplation and communion. And it is only the love of the other one that can bring back into the fullness of life the Person that has accepted not to be so that the two others may be in the fullness of this term. But this means that within the mystery of the Trinity there is sacrificial love, a love of renunciation, a love of total self-forgetfulness, a love which is tantamount to dying that others may live. And there is also a resurrection, a raising from this metaphysical absence, from this metaphysical death, into life, but a life which is beyond death, a life which is victory over death because the three persons have accepted and are accepting death and receiving the resurrection.
This perhaps is what is meant in the Orthodox service of Vespers when the priest, standing before the Holy Table, proclaims ‘Glory be to the One Holy, Consubstantial, Undivided Trinity’ and at the same time makes with the censor the sign of the Cross inscribing the cross in the mystery of the Triune God. This is one aspect of things. The other aspect which is related to it is this.
If two are no longer two but one, then there is no third one, because the two, having become one, can face what objectively is a third person in their oneness.
And this is also part of this mystery of love.
There is a passage in a codex of the Gospel in which a disciple, ask Christ: ‘When shall the kingdom of God come?’ And his answer is ‘The Kingdom of God has come when two are no longer two but one.’ And in this oneness all which is exterior or seemingly exterior can be absorbed, united, raised into eternal life.
And again, this image of the Trinity, of the trinitarian relationship, of existence, of sacrificial love, of death and resurrection, is an image from which we can learn a great deal. Where do we stand in relation to any third one? The third one may be anyone. Between husband and wife it may be a child that brings out tragically the fact that one of the two spouses discovers himself or herself as primarily a parent and not a spouse. It may be, in relation to friendships. It may be in relation no longer to one person but to groups of people. Our identifying with one group if we do not accept the mystery of the third, may alienate us to another group, create not only estrangement but dislike, suspicion, fear, hatred. So here again the mystery of the Trinity confronts us, challenges us, asks us to reflect on ourselves and on every way in which we relate to the world in which we live, to persons and to things, because one can be as totally enslaved by things as one can be enslaved by personal relationships.
So here we are, confronted with a God who is not simply incapable of death, but a God in whom death and resurrection are one, a God in whom the cross is inscribed in the terms of perfect, exulting and perfect crucified love. Here begins, perhaps, at the very heart, at the very core of the Holy Trinity, the way of the cross. Before all things, before any creature appears, life has conquered, and yet life as fullness of love is sacrificial love and victorious life.
So when we think of the fall of man, it is not the fall that brings into God a new dimension, the dimension of compassionate love. The compassionate love is-there from the very beginning and is projected into human history — the same love of which Christ says ‘No one has greater love than he or she who lays down his life for his friend .’ And perhaps it is worth noticing that the Russian word for friend ‘droug’ means, as it were, the other myself, my alter ego, one who is radically different from me, who is not me, and yet with whom I identify totally, perfectly, unto life and unto death.
When we think of the act of creation we cannot but realize that in this act of creation God knew all that would happen. The fall of man was a result of the gift of freedom offered him from the beginning was known to God. And yet in his wisdom, and indeed in his tragic love, He creates man and He gives him this freedom, without which there can be no relation, without which there can be no love. There is a passage in the life of Archpriest Avvakum, who lived in the 17th century, in which he suggests a sort of dialogue that precedes the creation of man. Commenting on the Athanasian Creed, he says: ‘Even before the Council of the Father was conceived — that is the decision to create — the Father said to the Son: ‘let us create man in our own image and likeness.’ And the Other made the answer: ‘Let us create him, O Father.’ And the Father came to him and spoke again: ‘O, my Only-begotten, O my Holy One, my Son, my Word, Thou shining of my glory, if we shall accomplish this creation, it behoves Thee to clothe Thyself in the body of mortality, it behoves Thee to walk on the earth, to take upon Thee flesh, to suffer and accomplish all things.’ And the other made answer: ‘Thy will, Father, be done.’ And thereon Adam was created.’ Here again we see this same image of God taking upon Himself all the consequences of his creative act. So often we think that God created us, launched us into existence, and then rested on the seventh day, abandoning his creation to whatever may occur, having endowed it not only with existence, not only with life which is from Him, but also with dread, the complex gift of freedom that allows us to choose, to choose between Him and not Him, between life and death, between love and hatred, between light and darkness, between salvation and damnation, between God and Satan. And He takes full and all responsibility for what He has done.
From the beginning the Son was doomed to mortality. From the beginning the crucified love of the Trinity was offered to men. When we think of God we think of Him at times with awe, at times with fear, at times with love, but there is more to God, to the God in whom we believe. It is a God whom we can not only fear, love, revere, worship; it is a God whom we can respect, a God who takes all responsibility for his actions and pays all the cost of his actions, for the act of creation, for the gift of freedom and bestowed upon us. This is very important. When we think of ourselves in relation to God, in relation to one another, isn’t that something we can meditate? Where do we stand? Do we not at times, clearly, or without daring, accuse God of all the ills that befall us? Why did You give us freedom? Why have we got to choose? Why is there a choice to be made? Are not Thou, O God, responsible, and not I, for my sins, for my mistakes, for all the evil of the world?
I remember a frightening phrase which I heard from an old man who had had his share of suffering and who said to me: ‘Why did God give me so much suffering? I did not ask to be created. I did not ask to enter in the fallen world in which we live. I did not ask for the freedom to do wrong and the freedom that has allowed others to do wrong.’ And I said to him: Has not Christ suffered more than we can even imagine we have suffered? And he gave an answer that was truly terrifying. He said: ‘I am a victim of his act of creation. He deserves all the suffering He has endured, because He has chosen to do what He has done.’ Now every one of us does not speak words of such crude cruelty, but let us ask ourselves whether facing the circumstances of our lives — all, each circumstance — whether we do not judge and condemn God for his act of creation, for the gift of freedom — not ours, but the freedom of others and ours also, because we also make tragic, miserable, destructive choices. So let us reflect on this also. I will end this introductory talk at this point.