For the monk as well as for any human being, the fundamental question at the core of our existence is not whether or not God exists (in fact, a reasonable case for this can be made on purely natural grounds); the real issue is whether or not God has spoken – indeed, speaks – and if so, what does he say?
If God does communicate, then the most pressing issue in our lives is to learn how to hear and to respond to this. Silence is no less a part of this than speech. As in any language, we have to learn to understand what the silence means. (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 144-145)
You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. (Psalms 104:19)
The first day of fall 2017 came on September 22. The Autumnal Equinox marks the beginning of autumn with there being approximately the same amount of daylight and nighttime darkness. We have been in a dry spell with unseasonably warm temperatures. So far the color change has been slow in coming. Though I do see brown, dry leaves on the ground, the trees are still mostly green with color only slowly appearing among the leaves.
Daniel said: “Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons…
I really do enjoy fall weather – the passing of high humidity days brings a drier warmth and pleasing breezes. I love to see the colors of the leaves as they mark the passing of the seasons. They are a harbinger of winter but I enjoy their current beauty, not what they are pointing to.
For both we and our words are in his hand, as are all understanding and skill in crafts. For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars… (Wisdom of Solomon 7:16)
I walk in the woods, enjoying God’s creation and the changing nature of the world. I have lived through more than half of century watching summer end replaced by autumn’s tones. It is always the same and yet each season is new and wonderful.
John Donne writing in the 17th Century offers a wonderful reflection on seasons and time as related to God’s own love for His Creation. The version below was adapted to conform to 21st Century spellings and grammar.
“God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons.
But God made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies. In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is always Autumn: his mercies are ever in their maturity.
We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday. He never says you must [come] again tomorrow, but today if you will hear his voice, today he will hear you.
If some king of the earth has so large an extent of dominion in north and south, as that he has winter and summer together in his dominions, so large an extent east and west as that he has day and night together in his dominions, much more has God mercy and judgment together.
He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light. He can bring your summer out of winter, though you have no spring.
Though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, you have been benighted until now, winter and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied until now,
now God comes to you, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of spring, but as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons. ” (LXXX Sermons; Sermon II)
The sense of the presence of God. Something I pray everyone I know may have. I wish everyone in the world could have it.
In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener. They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them. And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking. They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence. They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator. Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God. Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything. In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do. They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise. Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]
How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made? And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God. Amazing! Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.
God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence. When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power. God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will. Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example. God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power. The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits – the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence! Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.
If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation. The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms. In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices. Just look at Genesis 2:19 – “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal. God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates. Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation. [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians. In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals. Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be. Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story. God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done. Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]
The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence. We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example, God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.
And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation. Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence. The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.
Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation. The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.
In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion. For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve. We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation. We can experience God directly and fully. We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection. Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father. Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God. We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ in our midst and Christ in us. As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :
Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.
O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your anger, Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled; But You, O LORD—how long? Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake! For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks? I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears.
(Psalm 6:1-6, Of David, A Prayer of Faith in Time of Distress)
King David, was loved by God, and yet in the Psalms he composed, he offers woeful lamentations about the suffering he experienced in his lifetime. His Psalms certainly speak to those of us who have suffered, as well as expressing the sorrows of our hearts. Distress, pain, sorrow, and suffering can all seem to go on forever with no end in sight. We do wonder with David, how long will God let the suffering go on?
We can also have the same experience of endless suffering just by listening to the news. And depression itself can come upon us like a darkness which will not go away.
What brought this all to mind was the words of St. Paul:
“It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
As I mentioned in the previous blog, Light Shines in Darkness, I realized what hope we have in the God who shines out of darkness. God is there present in the darkness. God doesn’t have to shine light into the darkness, for in the darkness we will find God, even if hidden, and we realize we don’t have to get out of the darkness to find our Lord. He is there where we are. The darkness is not darkness to God (Psalm 139:12)
I also realized that while suffering and worry seem to go on forever, there is another scale of time within which I can understand my own existence or even the times we are in. It is the time of the The Cosmic Calendar. The Cosmic Calendar tries to give us a graphic view of time from the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago) as science calculates it, to the present day. It takes this long history of the universe and puts it all into a 1 year calendar. Assuming the Big Band occurred at 1 second after midnight on January 1, and then showing when other things appeared in the universe, based on scientific calculations and assumptions. Here is just a very brief glimpse at when some things appeared in our world:
January 1 – 13.8 Billion years ago The Big Bang
Not until December 25 – is the Age of the Dinosaurs
December 31, 23:59:49 – Invention of the Wheel
December 31, 23:59:55 – Jesus Christ walks on earth December 31, 23:59:59 – The past 500 years
When viewed in this perspective of the universe, we realize that relatively speaking nothing we humans have experienced has lasted all that long. In fact all of human history and experience lasts less than a minute on the Cosmic Calendar. Even if one doesn’t believe in the Big Bang, or thinks the universe is younger than these scientific claims, still we come to realize how whatever we experience in the world is still a very small part of the whole, no matter how much of our thinking and lives it occupies. When we think things last “forever”, or when we worry about why God lets some event happen, we can see things from the perspective of the Cosmic Calendar and realize on the grand scale of things, our troubles are a minuscule part of time.
In the perspective of eternity or of the eternal God, we begin to understand the wisdom of Scripture:
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9)
In the absolute immensity of space and boundlessness of time , God shines forth out of the darkness. God is there. The darkness may obscure God to us. The vastness of space and the of enormity of time, may hide God from our eyes, causing us to see only darkness. Sometimes events occur which make us feel the darkness will last forever. But out of this darkness God will shine, illuminating all of time with eternal light and divine love.
I will extol You, my God, O King; And I will bless Your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless You, And I will praise Your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; And His greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise Your works to another, And shall declare Your mighty acts.
I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works.
All Your works shall praise You, O LORD, And Your saints shall bless You. They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom, And talk of Your power, To make known to the sons of men His mighty acts, And the glorious majesty of His kingdom.
The eyes of all look expectantly to You, And You give them their food in due season. You open Your hand And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
We do speak, metaphorically, about feeling or being closer to God or further away from God. The imagery does describe an awareness we may have at times, but cannot really describe our relationship to God since God is not limited to any one place in the entirety of existence, for God is everywhere present and fills all things.
It is also true that we live and move and have our being in God. As the Fathers often note there is no front and back to God, no closer or further away. Such ways of referring to our relationship with God are purely human attempts to describe what we experience, but do not in any way describe our relationship to God who exists beyond space and time. Language is the way we communicate our ideas and feelings, but language is sometimes inadequate to the text of describing reality, especially when it comes to portraying our relationship to God. Fr. Meletios Webber notes:
“One of the paradoxes of human existence is that there is nowhere where God is not. Even though we naturally assume that He is more concerned with certain parts of our lives than with others, God is not nearly as restrictive as we are.” ( Steps of Transformation, p 147)
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall* on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
“Love does not depend on time, and the power of love continues always. There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is all an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God through the Holy Spirit, she feels without a shadow of a doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our mind, with all our heart and with all our soul, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourself.
And when this love is in the soul, everything rejoices her, but when it is lost sight of, man cannot find peace, and is troubled, and blames others as if they had done him an injury, and does not realize that he himself is at fault: he has lost his love for God and has accused, or conceived a hatred for, his brother. Grace proceeds from brotherly love, and by brotherly love is grace preserved; but if we do not love our brother, then the grace of God will not come into our souls.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, p 372)
St. Isaac of Ninevah (6th Century) makes a very astute theological observation about God. St. Isaac’s basic premise is that God is love, and everything God does is an extension of the Divine love. God’s actions toward human beings and God’s activities in creation cannot be inconsistent with God’s very nature.
God by definition of God’s nature is not altered by time or change, so God is forever acting toward creation, not reacting to it. Human behavior, including sin or rebellion against the will of God, does not change God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to love their creation because that is their very nature. The mystery of course is that we exist in time and God does interact with us. God is not an impersonal force, but in a manner beyond our comprehension, takes into account what we do with the free will God has bestowed on us. God has created the universe with quantum uncertainty. These are factors God deals with in God’s eternal being – they all are part of creation as God intended it and as God loves it. And the mystery deepens for God in Christ enters into creation in the incarnation, subjecting Himself to time and space. None of this changes God’s nature or the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
St. Isaac ponders:
“But we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser (place) in His love, no before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, (then) we know that this (original) cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation.”
Because we exist in space and time and are temporal, mortal beings we experience God’s love within our human experience and interpret it as love or justice or anger or grace or judgment. Our experience of the Divine is real, yet tempered by our created, mortal natures. We may gain glimpses into the Divine Life, but our understanding of it is shaped and limited by our own limits, and by the limits language imposes on our ability to conceive and explain.
God’s love is not diminished by God’s interaction with us nor by God’s ability to condescend to our limited understanding. We experience God within our capabilities of understanding and articulation. This does not change the love of God or the God who is love.