Returning to the Beautiful Paradise Lost

St. Ephrem the Syrian used poetry as the venue for expressing theology. He wrote many brilliant, beautiful poems.  Since today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, it is good for us to consider what was lost by humanity when we exited Paradise in order to pursue our own way to divinity.  St. Ephrem writes:

Paradise surrounds the limbs

with its many delights:

the eyes, with its handiwork,

the hearing, with its sounds,

the mouth and the nostrils,

with its tastes and scents.

Blessed is that person who has gathered for himself

the company of all

who have kept vigil and fasted;

they, in return for their fasts,

shall delight to graze

upon its luxurious pastures.

At least in the words above, Ephrem gives Paradise a very physical dimension.   Humans used all their senses to delight in the ecstasy of the Garden of Eden.  Or perhaps, he is telling us that spiritual joy is not without a physical dimension.  God gave us our bodies to enjoy His creation and as the means by which we can know Him and communicate with Him.  We don’t escape the body to encounter God.  We are the Church of the Incarnation – God took on human flesh!

We also are reminded that this world is not Paradise.  What perhaps is more challenging for many of us is to think that in Paradise humans did not enjoy gourmet foods, steaks, lobster, spices, sauces, deserts, cuisines, chefs and restaurants.  They ate plants which is the only food God gave them in Paradise!

Ephrem uses an unusual phrase claiming those who keep the fast on earth will enter Paradise and  shall delight to graze upon its luxurious pastures”.  Most of us might imagine a paschal banquet with roast lamb, or glazed ham or steak or fine cheeses and cheesecakes.  Will we delight to graze on its pastures?  Or do we really love this earth without God more than Paradise with God?

Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,

it enriched me as I meditated upon it;

I forgot my poor estate,

for it had made me drunk with its fragrance.

I became as though no longer my old self,

for it renewed me with all its varied nature.

I swam around

in its magnificent waves;

and in the place that, burning like a furnace,

had made Adam naked,

I became so inebriated

that I forgot all my sins there

St. Ephrem in totally enthralled by Paradise.  He is swept up into its glorious beauty and just thinking about it changes his life.  Adam and Eve through sin lost their place in the Garden of Delight, and became stripped of all its beauty and mystery.  Ephrem is made drunk by its magnificent waves.  He is made giddy and was able to forget his sins because of what God made Paradise to be.

Although I was not sufficient

for all the waves of its beauty,

Paradise took me up and cast me

into a sea still greater;

in its fair beauty I beheld those who are far more beautiful than it,

and I reflected:

if Paradise be so glorious,

how much more glorious should Adam be,

who is in the image [ Gen 1:27 ] of its Planter,

and how much fairer the Cross,

upon which the Son of its Lord rode.

Paradise it turns out is not a destination, but rather a bridge to even greater glory.  Our growth in Paradise is not limited, we never peak, we never plateau, but ever grow in glory, from one degree to another says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 3:18).   However wonderful Paradise is, humans were created for even greater glory!  Thus when we sing of the Theotokos that she is more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, we are acknowledging that she does attain to the level of glory that God intended for all humans.  God intended humans to be more glorious than Paradise.

It was not Paradise

that gave rise to the creation of mankind;

rather, it was for Adam alone

that Paradise had been planted,

for to its buds Adam’s heart is superior,

to its fruits his words,

because rational speech has more savor

than the produce of Paradise;

truth in mankind

surpasses its plants,

and love is likewise more comely

than its sweet scents.

(Hymns on Paradise, “Hymn VI,” pp.109-111)

Paradise was created by God to serve humans.  Humans were not created to serve the glories of the Garden.  In what ways are humans superior to the wonders of Paradise?  The human heart is more glorious than the blessed buds of the trees in Paradise, human rational speech exceeds in splendor the produce of Paradise, human capacity for truth surpasses all the God given plants of the Garden.  Finally, human love is more beautiful than the sweetest scents of the Garden.  Humanity is the glory of God, not Paradise.  We may marvel over what Paradise was and is to be, but humanity is more glorious in the eyes of God than Paradise will ever be.

Humanities expulsion from Paradise is an epic tragedy.  Not because we lost our place there, but because we dehumanized ourselves!  We became less than human, we became inhuman, and this was the greatest loss the universe ever experienced.

The incarnation – God taking flesh from the Theotokos is the beginning of the restoration not only of humanity but of the universe itself.