When the Book of our Life is in our Hands

I won’t claim to be a writer, though I like to write.  I found the imagery below by St. Isaac the Syrian to be an intriguing way of seeing one’s life – a draft document, a work in progress.  Of course he wrote in a day and a age when once something was in print, it was cast in stone and not easy to change.   He did not know the joy of the electronic document which can forever be updated, corrected and improved.  Despite what technology makes possible, there still is a sense that when something moves from its electronic form to its hard copy print form it becomes more permanent, indelible.  St. Isaac though when referring to a document seems to have in mind official government documents – in his time it would have been imperial documents with the king’s seal.  The documents he is thinking of in his metaphor become official decrees and laws of the empire.    But this imagery has some value to us as we consider God’s Book of Life is an imperial document with the kingdom being that of Heaven.  There is a permanency to the document – once officially issued, decreed, it will remain what it is forever.  Until that time however, we have the ability to change, alter, and improve the story of our life.

God is the author of the book known as the universe, but each of us co-authors with God our lives.  (I’ve also been intrigued by those scientists inspired by our new found ability to read the genetic code who have suggested that in that genetic code and in the human genome we can really see the hand of God with the code being a script recording what was happening to humanity through the vast time in which our ancestors have been part of t his world.)

God is writing the book of the universe’s existence, but allows each of us to write our own chapters within the Book.   As St. Isaac has it the book of our life is for a short while in our hands, and we have the ability to add good things to it.  It is marvelous imagery about how we co-operate with God and shape some of the details which God incorporates into His book of life.

“Our way of life in this world resembles a document that is still in draft form:  things can be added or taken out, and alterations can be made, whenever one wants.  But life in the world to come resembles the case of completed documents that have the king’s seal already upon them, and no addition or subtraction can be made.  While we are still here, where changes can be made, let us take a look at ourselves, and while we still have control over the book of our life, and it is in our hands, let us be eager to add to it by means of a good life-style, and delete from it the defects of our former life-style.” (THE WISDOM OF ST ISAAC OF NINEVEH, p 22)

Blogs from Post Paschal Sundays 2012 (PDF)

If you are interested, I’ve taken all of this year’s blogs I posted related to the Gospel lessons for the Sundays after Pascha and have put them into one PDF available at  Sundays After Pascha 2012 (PDF).

You can find links to a PDF for blogs related to the Post Paschal Sundays from each of the past years since 2008 at Post Paschal Sundays (PDFs).

A list with links to all the blog series that are now available as PDFs is available at Blog Series as PDFs.

Beauty Now and In the World to Come

St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century AD) wrote some wonderful poetry reflecting on creation and the Creator.  

He noted the wonderful beauty of the world, and yet recognized that this world created by the eternal God is not the only reality, nor the permanent one.  

Rather our marvelous earth given to us by God as a blessing to be enjoyed and a treasure for our wise care is still only a foreshadowing of life in the world to come, which is the permanent reality.  St. Isaac writes:

“How did God bring creation . . . out of non-being into being?  

And how will he again cause creation to perish from its wondrous harmony, the beauty of nature and the well-ordered course of its creatures:

times and seasons,

the union of night and day,

the beneficial changes of the year,

the many-hued flowers of the earth,

the beautiful buildings of the cities,

their magnificent palaces,

the swift course of men and their nature which endures hardship from its beginning in life till its departure?

 How will he suddenly abolish this wondrous order and establish another age, wherein the memory of the former creation will never again enter into the heart of any man,

“I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)

but a change of another thought will come to pass, and other deliberations, other concerns? (St. Isaac)”


St. Isaac goes on to say that despite the wonders and beauty of this world and all that we find to enjoy as a blessing from God, we who love God will never regret leaving this world behind when we experience the blessedness of life in the world to come.

Conversion: Reading the Biblical Story Anew

Noah saved from the flood

“Within the speeches of Acts, Jewish people might hear the familiar stories borrowed from their Scriptures, but these stories have been cast in ways that advocate a reading of that history that underscores the fundamental continuity between the ancient story of Israel, the story of Jesus, and the story of the Way. Israel’s past (and present) is understood accurately and embraced fully only in relation to the redemptive purpose of God, and this divine purpose comes to decisive expression in Jesus’s ministry, crucifixion, and exaltation, and through exegetes operating in the sphere of the Holy Spirit. The coming of Jesus as Savior may signal the fresh offer of repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel (Acts 5:31; 13:38-39), but the acceptance of this offer by Jewish people is dependent on their embracing this interpretation of God’s salvific activity…calls for conversion. And what is conversion, but transformation of the theological imagination, which includes incorporation into the community of believers and concomitant practices? Conversion as Luke develops it entails a reconstruction of one’s self within a new web of relationships, a transfer of allegiances, and the embodiment of transformed dispositions and attitudes. That this conversion is to a particular reading of that ancient story – a reading that insists that the only genuine line tracing the actualization of God’s purpose passes through the life, death, and the exaltation of Jesus, Messiah, and Lord.”

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, pg. 47-48)

Ecumenical Councils in the Church

“The first truly ‘ecumenical’ action was the Council in Nicea, in 325, the First Ecumenical Council. Councils were already in the tradition of the Church. But Nicea was the first Council of the whole Church, and it became the pattern on which all subsequent Ecumenical Councils were held. For the first time the voice of the whole Church was heard. We do not find in our primary sources any regulations concerning the organization of the Ecumenical Councils. It does not seem that there were any fixed rules or patterns. In the canonical sources there is no single mention of the Ecumenical council, as a permanent institution, which should be periodically convened, according to some authoritative scheme. The Ecumenical Councils were not an integral part of the Church’s constitution, nor of her basic administrative structure. In this respect they differed substantially from those provincial and local Councils which were supposed to meet yearly, to transact current matter and to exercise the function of unifying supervision. The authority of the Ecumenical Councils was high, ultimate, and binding.”    (Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture: Volume 2, pg. 94)

Regulating the Perishable

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his book, THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, comments on the vast difference St. Isaac saw in how the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God in the New Testament approach holy things.

“The Old Testament cult required a devout and fearful attitude towards sacred objects.  Whenever the priest entered the ark, ‘he did not dare raise his eyes and examine it, for the awesome Shekhina of the Divine was in it’.  But if the type was so fearful and honourable, how much more honourable should be ‘the very archetype to whom belong all symbols and types’.  At the same time, the veneration offered to sacred objects in the Old Testament was caused by fear of punishment to which everyone who showed disrespect to them was subject.  In the New Testament, on the contrary, ‘grace without measure has been poured out, and severity has been swallowed up by gentleness, and a familiarity of speech . . . has been born . . . And familiarity of speech is in the habit of chasing away fear, thanks to the abundant kindness of God which has come upon us at this time’. (St. Isaac)”   (p 168)

St. Isaac and Archbishop Hilarion’s words are very reflective of ideas expressed by St. Paul in the New Testament in his epistle to the Colossians:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?  All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”   (Colossians 2:20-23)

Jesus who is Lord of the Sabbath is also Lord over all holy things.  In Him and through Him we are able to touch holy things – the hem of His garment, as well as the consuming fire which is His incarnated Body and Blood.  Those who are baptized into Christ are made by Christ able to touch the holy things.

The Ascended and Recognizable Christ

“There is still more. Jesus appears several times in the form of a stranger in order to point out that, henceforth, when the historical Christ has ascended into Heaven, it is with human features easily recognized by us that His divine nature will be clothed. Already He declares to His disciples long before His death that He was hungry and thirsty, that He has been naked and sick, a stranger and a prisoner, in those whom we have fed and given to drink, clothed and looked after, received and visited – and in those who were in need of these things and whom we did not help. ‘As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me.’ God and His creatures will never be identical. We are not Christ by nature, but we are by participation and by grace. We are His members. It is under this form that Jesus becomes visible and tangible to us. To this generation which declares itself realistic and is unwilling to adore a phantom, Jesus says: ‘See My hands and feet.’ Today on this earth, He has no other feet than those of men. If you are unable to climb directly to Jesus through prayer, leave your house and at once you will find Him in the street in the form of the man and woman who are passing by.”  (Lev Gillet, Jesus a Dialogue with the Savior, pgs. 178-179)

The Ascension (2012)

A blessed Feast of the Ascension to all who celebrate it this day.

Christ ascended in glory, granting joy to all of us, His disciples.

“‘To see heaven open’:

 … these four words signify the very mystery of Christ, of the Christian faith and hope.  

‘For we have the certainty that heaven, which opened three times in the unfolding of the mystery of salvation, remains henceforth open forever.  Nothing and no one can reconstruct the barrier that the sin of the first man erected between God and man.  No one can excavate again the abyss which Jesus has filled between heaven and earth.'”  

(Maxime Egger in THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER, p 32)

War, What is it Good For?

Edwin Starr asked the right question in 1969, when he rocked us with his lyrics:

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Say it again y’all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker

War can’t give life
It can only take it away

E.O. Wilson, the indefatigable defender of biological determinism, in the June edition of DISCOVER magazine, takes on a different question from Starr’s.   His article is entitled,”Is War Inevitable?”,  and unlike Starr Wilson thinks war has served such a powerful purpose for humanity in evolution that now war is in our genes.  The article is an excerpt from his new book, THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH.   His bottom line is depressingly enough: “We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained paleolithic ancestors.”  It reminds me of the much discredited 1968 book The Population Bomb in which the Ehrlich’s predicted massive famine and starvation in the 1970’s and 1980’s because the earth could not support the growing human population.  The world has added 3.3 billion people since 1970 and their predictions like many religious end time prophecies failed.  Turning lemons into lemonade, they claim that due to their book the world took the growing population problem seriously and changed its ways enough to stave off starvation.

EO Wilson who has championed biological determinism also once predicted that eventually they would find a gene that would determine everything about being human, including a gene that would differentiate believers from non-believers.  Even that idea has fallen from popular view among many geneticists who recognize the truth about genes determining behaviors is far more complex than originally imagined.

I give DISCOVER magazine credit for following the Wilson article promoting biological determinism in regards to war, there was a rebuttal  by John Hogan author of THE END OF WAR.   Hogan totally acknowledges the brilliance of Wilson in biological studies, but thumps Wilson for perpetuating “the erroneous- and pernicious- idea that war is ‘humanity’s hereditary curse.'”  Wilson in a new book claims, according to Hogan, “that science can help us achieve self-understanding and even, perhaps salvation.”  Maybe science is religion after all.  Hogan writes: “Wilson actually spells out his faith that we can overcome our self-destructive behavior and create a ‘permanent paradise,’ rejecting the fatalistic acceptance of war as inevitable.”  But Hogan believes Wilson’s deterministic bent is wrong and ending military conflicts is far more possible than Wilson thinks.

I am reminded of the arguments of Raymond Tallis in APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY that evolutionary biologists ought to take evolution seriously and recognize that in fact the human species has evolved to the point of consciousness which means humans now can guide their own continued evolution and are no longer determined completely by genetics.   As Tallis wrote humans now lead their lives rather than simply live them.   Biological determinism is a philosophical presupposition not a scientific fact.  War is not biologically inevitable.  Humans are capable of making conscious decisions that are not determined by genetics.

I wrote extensivley about Tallis in my blog series which began with THE BRAINLESS BIBLE AND THE MINDLESS ILLUSION OF SELF.

While science has certainly brought about many technological inventions that have improved life on earth, faith that science can “save” the earth and accomplish something religion did not or cannot do, always seems to fail to take into account that humans will be humans.  Scientific humans will make as many errors in moral judgement as religious humans, and perhaps even more since they will rely on humans to decide all ultimate values.  Human hubris has proven itself enough times in history to make us realize it is a fact of life with which we must contend whether we look to science or religion for dealing with human failings.

I hope this summer to read Wilson’s new book as I try to read at least one book from current scientific writings each year.