The Body and Christmas: Coming in the Flesh

There has been a great deal written in recent years about ancient Syrian Christianity as a form of the Church distinct from the Greek or Latin Churches.  Syrian Christianity had its own language and thus a different way to frame theological ideas while participating in the controversies and councils of the early Church.   Even Orthodox scholars today believe that Syriac Christianity preserved some ancient ideas and expressions that would disappear from Greek/Hellenistic Orthodoxy; the rediscovery of  Syrian Christian tradition enriches our understanding of the theology of the early Church.  Byzantine scholar Hannah Hunt writes about the Syrian Christian understanding of the human body:

“Whatever variations there are in the Syrian understanding of the integrity of the human person, underlying them is the Semitic concept of the heart as the centre of the human person: ‘the heart of the inner man is also the heart of the outer man; neither heart can function properly without the other’.  This is rooted in a biblical rather than a Hellenistic concept, in which the heart ‘denotes the seat, not just of the emotions, but also of the intellectual faculties as well’. Because of this integration of feelings and thoughts, seeing the heart as the spiritual centre of the human person means that there is ‘no dichotomy between the heart and the mind’.

Over-simplistic antithesis between heart and mind, affective and noetic spirituality, may be something which is erroneously read back into the early Syrian context through the lens of the later Hesychast movement, which also insisted on the prayer of the heart as a key mode of spiritual practise.  As we have seen, the early Syrian context is affirming of the integrity of all parts of the human person, as a mirror of the perfect unity of two natures in Christ. Human salvation is shown by Syrian writers to depend on Christ’s salvific death on the one hand and on human integrity on the other. Adam can only re-enter Paradise when he is complete and whole.  Redemption cannot exclude the bodily; it has to embrace it to bring the whole person before God.”  (Clothed in the Body: Asceticism, the Body and the Spiritual in the Late Antique Era, Kindle Loc Location 3081-3094)

Christmas is the Orthodox Feast of God in the flesh – God became human to unite humanity to God.  The body, flesh, is not evil but all is being saved by God in and through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  Hunt points out that Hellenistic Orthodoxy in its hesychast expression sometimes denies the body or acts as if the body has to be overcome through prayer.  Prayer and fasting are emphasized suggesting one is to minimize the body in order to be spiritual.   Syrian Christianity can help remind us of the true nature of the incarnation and salvation.  The human body is essential to salvation which is why Christ became incarnate.  A spirituality which denies the body also forgets St John’s admonition:  “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist”  (2 John 7).

Today, there is a popular idea that hesychasm was the only form of monasticism in Orthodoxy, but this is simply false.  Many monks in Orthodoxy were not hesychasts, and not because they failed in their efforts.  One can see in Orthodox history whole monasteries and some saints challenged and even opposed hesychasm – even monks from Mt Athos.  There were centuries in which one could hardly find any hesychasts among Orthodox monks.  Syrian Christianity is a form of ancient Eastern Christian monasticism which held to theological and anthropological ideas that hesychasm does not accept.  But it is true that hesychast writers often adopted Syrian Christian writers, reinterpreting their ideas from a hesychast point of view.

Scripture Means More Than Words and History

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.  (Genesis 2:21-25)

The Genesis 2 account of how God created the first human woman from the first human has been used variously to support among other things,  ideas of gender,  heterosexual marriage and natural law notions of the proper relationship between males and females.  In the New Testament though we find a very different interpretation and use of the text by St Paul.  Paul sees the Genesis text as referring to the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  St Paul like many of the early Christian biblical interpreters saw in the Old Testament not history or literal legal prescriptions, but that the texts pointed beyond those things to Christ.  Jesus Himself said that Moses (who in ancient thinking was the author of the Torah or Pentateuch) wrote about Him, Jesus (John 5:46; see also Luke 24:27, 44-45).  So, St Paul says of Genesis 2:24 –

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.  (Ephesians 5:25-33)

St Paul does get from the Genesis 2 text that husbands should love their wives and wives should respect their husbands.  He doesn’t deny that message, but he believes the text is far more interested in the great mystery of Christ and the Church.  That’s how he interprets Genesis 2:21-25.  And even though St Paul reads the text to refer to Christ, he allows the text to also have a lesser important meaning (He uses this lesser meaning in his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12).  So if today we focus on Genesis 2 as mostly meaning natural law or heterosexual marriage, we are focusing only on what St Paul says is the lesser meaning of the text and we are missing its most important meaning – a reference to Christ.

St Methodius writing in the late 3rd Century or early 4th Century (d. 311AD) is very struck by St Paul’s use of the Genesis text.

Yet, while everything else seems rightly spoken, one thing, my friend, distresses and troubles me, considering that that wise and most spiritual man–I mean Paul–would not vainly refer to Christ and the Church the union of the first man and woman, if the Scripture meant nothing higher than what is conveyed by the mere words and the history; for if we are to take the Scripture as a bare representation wholly referring to the union of man and woman, for what reason should the apostle, calling these things to remembrance, and guiding us, as I opine, into the way of the Spirit, allegorize the history of Adam and Eve as having a reference to Christ and the Church?

Basically, what St Methodius realizes is that if the meaning of the Genesis 2 text is mostly about the marriage of a man and a woman, St Paul wouldn’t need to allegorize it.  St Paul highlights the great mystery in the text because that is what the divine purpose of the text is.  St Paul isn’t adding something that is not there, but rather is pointing out what we might miss in the text if we are too focused on reading the text literally.  St Paul wants us to understand the significance of Genesis 2 for Christians – the text isn’t mostly about human marriage and reproduction, rather it is about the Messiah and the Church.  Methodius continues:

For the passage in Genesis reads thus: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  But the apostle considering this passage, by no means, as I said, intends to take it according to its mere natural sense, as referring to the union of man and woman, as you do; for you, explaining the passage in too natural a sense, laid down that the Spirit is speaking only of conception and births; that the bone taken from the bones was made another man, and that living creatures coming together swell like trees at the time of conception.

Christ the bridegroom

St Methodius is actually confronting and contradicting someone who reads the text literally telling them they are missing the point – the meaning and intention – of Genesis, of Moses, of the Old Testament by reading the text literally.  Methodius does not think the Scriptures are intended just to give us a sex education class or a class on child birth as he sees that as beneath the dignity of Holy Writ.  We don’t need Scripture to tell us about things we can learn from nature.  Scripture is a revelation from God about God – that is what we need to open our eyes to see.   The Bible is not a physiology text for it is a spiritual and sacred writing trying to lift our minds and hearts beyond the physical to the divine.  He would want to know why we want to read the text according to the flesh when God has enabled us to understand it according to the spirit.   Methodius presses his point by reading what St Paul says:

But he, more spiritually referring the passage to Christ, thus teaches: “He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”  (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 575-590)

None of this means that biology or the physical body is of no spiritual importance.  God created us with bodies, with sexual organs and identities, capable of biological reproduction.  We have to learn how to connect our physical bodies with the spiritual in the same way we have to learn how to connect the literal text with its spiritual meaning.  The Bible doesn’t always do this – but God has created us with the capacity to discern the spiritual message of the written word, to harvest the spiritual fruits of Scripture, to retrieve the treasures of the Bible, to fathom the depths of the Word of God.

Unfortunately, sometimes we abandon the road to the heavens to satisfy our fleshly interests.  We move in the opposite direction from St Paul in reading the texts of the Old Testament.  And the end result is that we find ourselves entangled in earthly things or with a worldly point of view.

Want to Overcome Evil?

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St. John of Damascus gives the Orthodox definition of evil:

For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness,

just as darkness also is absence of light.

Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 735-36)

So, if you want to overcome evil, do good for you will bring goodness to any situation.  Goodness will no longer be absent.  Evil will be overcome.  If you find yourself in the face of evil, do the good so that goodness will be a presence.  Then one will not be far from God.

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[I do realize there is an oversimplification here.  Terrorists, violent criminals, abusers of all kinds will not be changed in any one second or one instance by a brush with goodness and might even mock the goodness before trying to destroy the good.  So one does have to have the wisdom to know when it is time to flee or fight or as Kenny Rogers sings it: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away And know when to run.”  But there are many occasions in life where we could make things better by doing a good thing, making goodness present, choosing the next right thing, lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  And especially spiritually, we can come to realize our fear of Satan is misplaced for Satan is ultimately an absence, not a presence.  Doing the good is enough to prevent Satan from entering our hearts or minds, for the goodness is real in a way that Satan is not.]

Holy Patience in the Holidays

The hustle and bustle of the Holiday Season can test the patience of the best of us.  But as Vincent Pizzuto notes, it also is a chance for us to practice being patient!

Modern suburban life presents any number of interactions or situations that may be interpreted either as roadblocks or as invitations to love, depending on our ascetical posture. Commonplace experiences we have come to accept as necessary evils of modern-day life are in fact schools of love: long lines, crowded subways, heavy traffic, fractured families, hostile neighbors, dysfunctional work places, and so on. If we perpetually experience these things as personal assaults or affronts to our inner peace, then we will never find the interior stillness we seek.  ( Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life, Kindle Loc 2241-2244)

If we change our way of looking at the world around us, and stop seeing it as an attack on our inner peace, and rather see it as an opportunity to practice inner peace in the midst of a challenging or broken world, they we might find the peace we want because we will put forth the necessary effort to have it.  Reminds me of a comment by chess master Jonathan Rowson who writes:

“You may have already figured out that our inalienable right to pursue happiness is self-defeating. Happiness may be with us, baked into our present moment, eagerly awaiting our grateful acknowledgment, but nothing is less likely to make us happy than trying to pursue it. On this analysis, we are right to desire happiness; it’s just that the predatory process of chasing it drives what we apparently want out of reach.”

We can’t pursue our inner peace, but we can realize it in any given moment if we choose to do so.  Every moment is the right time to practice inner peace.  Inner peace is not “out there” somewhere, it is within us!   We can’t pursue it outside of our self.  We have to create inner peace no matter what is happening around us. As we create inner peace, we find externals become less significant.  We can’t rely on them for inner peace, rather we have to learn how to establish peace within our hearts and minds and then we can approach the outside world with this attitude.  If we manage some success in this, then we can graduate to what St. Mark the Ascetic  describes:

“Real knowledge is patiently to accept affliction and not to blame others for our own misfortunes.”  (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3627-28)

Judas betrays Christ with a kiss

Not only can we be at peace when there is trouble around us, we can even be at peace when trouble finds us.

Christian Leadership

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.  (Luke 22:25-27)

Leading by example is the Christian way of leadership.  It is the way of giving a sermon without using words.  However, historically as the Christian Church saw its bishops as hierarchs, primates, prelates and masters rather than as shepherds and pastors it tended to rely less on the difficult way of leading by example.  Leaders were those giving directives and enforcing rules.  Pastors became police.   The shepherd of old walked in front of the sheep and the sheep followed the shepherd – followed the shepherd’s voice to where the shepherd was going.  The pastoral image was one that was more amenable to the notion of leadership by example.  As the Church grew in numbers it was tempted to rely on authority and force to keep people in line.  Besides, leadership by example can be extremely frustrating because people don’t always know what the leader is modeling, nor what part they are to imitate or how to do what they think they are supposed to do.   Any parent of a large family of children who has tried to lead prayer before a meal only by his/her example quickly experiences the downside of not requiring all the children to pay attention.

Early monasticism and the desert fathers had their own ideas about Christian leadership which is sometimes counter-intuitive.  But it recognizes that leadership by example doesn’t always succeed and then the leader has to decide what to do.  St. Mark the Ascetic offers this advice to those in positions of Christian leadership:

If someone does not obey you when you have told him once, do not argue and try to compel him; but take for yourself the profit which he has thrown away. For forbearance will benefit you more than correcting him.

For St Mark, the Christian leader does not try to compel people to obey and does not threaten or argue with others or try to guilt them into doing things.  You tell them once and then it is up to them whether they will act or not.  Exasperation is not Christian leadership.

When the evil conduct of one person begins to affect others, you should not show long-suffering; and instead of your own advantage you should seek that of the others, so that they may be saved. For virtue involving many people is more valuable than virtue involving only one. (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 4100-4105)

The only time St Mark thinks a Christian leader should not be overly patient is when one person’s evil conduct begins to badly influence others.  Then one has to consider how many souls may be lost if the evil person is allowed to go unchecked.  So if someone is simply disobeying me, I should ignore that, but if they are trying to lead others in evil, then I have to oppose them.  The issue then is not my authority or position, but concern/love for others.  If I’m being disrespected, that I am to ignore.  Christian leadership is walking a find line – the straight and narrow way of Christ.   We sing two hymns during the Bridegroom Matins for Holy Monday which remind us of Christ’s explicit teachings:

“Let your power over your fellow-men be altogether different from the dominion of the Gentiles: their self-willed pride is not the order that I have appointed, but a tyranny. He therefore who would be the first among you, let him be the last of all. Acknowledge Me as Lord, and praise and exalt Me above all forever.”

O Lord, teaching Your disciples to think perfect thoughts, You said to them: “Be not like the Gentiles, who exercise dominion over those who are less strong.  But it shall not be so among you, My disciples, for I of mine own will am poor.  Let him, then, who is first among you be the minister of all.  Let the ruler be as the ruled, and let the first be as the last.  For I Myself have come to minister to Adam in his poverty, and to give my life as a ransom for the many who cry aloud to Me: Glory to You.

One in Adam, One in Christ

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

St Paul came to the realization that God willed the salvation of the human race, not just the Jewish race.  He came to understand that the Law given to help humans do God’s will had not accomplished its goal and had in fact divided humanity with Jews believing they were to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  St Paul came to the startling conclusion that God was saving all humans and in so doing reuniting them all into one people, no longer two separated by the Law.  However, realizing this truth was one thing, actualizing it in community life proved to be quite a difficult challenge.  For St Paul was telling Jews to embrace Christ’s love and sit and eat with the Gentiles because all the rules for keeping Torah or keeping Kosher were not the way to salvation.  Salvation is love for God and neighbor which the Law cold never realize.

What drove Paul to see that Jew and gentile now constitute one people of God was not his own imagination or sense of social justice, and it certainly was not his “straight” reading of his Bible. If anything, putting Jew and non-Jew on the same level cuts against the Old Testament grain. What drove Paul to this revolutionary, countercultural conclusion was the reality of the resurrection of Christ.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 2989-92)

What St Paul came to understand is the importance of Adam: Christ restores all humans to the one undivided humanity which existed before the Fall.  Adam is not mostly the 1st historical human but the type of all prefallen humans.  Adam is not about biological origins but truly falls to that level of a mere biological being through sin.   Christ comes to restore the full nature of humanity, to reunite the physical and the spiritual, created and Creator, humanity and divinity, the living and the dead, Gentile and Jew.

In [Romans] 1:14 he announces his universal focus when he states his obligation to both Greeks and non-Greeks (v. 14), claiming that the gospel is for the Jew first, but then also for the gentile (v. 16). This is not just a polite way to begin a letter, but an announcement of the letter’s focus: one gospel for two heretofore distinct peoples.  (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3008-11)

The sin of Adam and Eve led to the giving of the Law which resulted in a division in humanity between Jew and Gentile.  However, the Law was meant to give life to all humanity.  The fact that it had caused division rather than bringing about wholeness is in fact the limit of the Law.  The healing of humanity, the end of all separation and divisions, begins in Christ.

Charity vs Coveting

“In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”   (Acts 20:35)

As we move through the Nativity Fast, or as it is better known in America, the Christmas shopping season, it is good to remind ourselves of our Christian faith, for in fact the season is supposed to be preparation for our Christian celebration of the birth of our Lord, God and Savior.  As advertisements bombard us with images of what we should want, request, desire, feel we can’t live without, or get in order to be one up on our neighbor, we can remind ourselves that coveting and greed are sins that don’t lead us to God.  St Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century reminds us:

You shall not covet anything belonging to your neighbor’ (cf. Exod 20:17), neither his land, nor his money, nor his glory, nor anything that is his. For covetousness, conceived in the soul, produces sin; and sin, when committed, results in death (cf. Jas. 1:15). Refrain, then, from coveting what belongs to others and, so far as you can, avoid filching things out of greediness. Rather you should give from what you possess to whoever asks of you, and you should, as much as you can, be charitable to whoever is in need of charity, and you should not refuse whoever wants to borrow from you (cf. Matt. 5:42).

Should you find some lost article, you should keep it for its owner, even though he is hostilely disposed towards you; for in this way you will change him and will overcome evil with good, as Christ commands (cf. Rom. 12:21). If you observe these things with all your strength and live in accordance with them, you will store up in your soul the treasures of holiness, you will please God, you will be rewarded by God and by those who are godly, and you will inherit eternal blessings. May we all receive such blessings through the grace and compassion of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom with His unoriginate Father and the all-holy, bountiful and life-quickening Spirit are due all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and through all the ages. Amen.     (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46520-46535)

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

 

One Self, Many Selves (II)

This post is a continuation of a reflection on Nikolai Leskov ‘s short story, “Figura.”  The previous post is One Self, Many Selves (I).  Leskov presents in the story a man, named Figura, of 19th Century Russian nobility and an army officer who is assaulted by one of his soldiers.  Figura wrestles with what Christ tells him to do with someone who has struck him on the cheek because he knows what the military will demand of him as an officer and what his social rank requires of him.  He decides to follow the teaching of Christ and forgive the soldier who acted not in malice but because he stupidly had gotten drunk while on duty.

What Figura wrestles with internally is a significant part of being a Christian, and yet he is not a Christian alone.  Figura is part of a society which is segregated by status as well part of the military which has an established hierarchy.  He is part not only of the Church but also of a nation which considers itself to be Christian.  His individual decision is thus subject to evaluation by the society around him.  Russia and Russian Orthodoxy did not embrace the individualism created by the Western Europe’s Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  Figura does not reject society and the military’s right to judge his actions.  He accepts that they must, but he decides he also will live according to his conscience and accept the consequences of his own behavior.

Figura’s superiors learn of the event and call him to give account for what happened.  They react to Figura’s narrative as if he has become a religious fanatic (which also was common at that point in Russian history).  They remind Figura that as nobility and an officer he is obligated to enforce discipline.  And though even the Russian army was considered a Christian army, he is told, “You had no right to forgive him!”   His commandant forcefully reproaches Figura about forgiving a drunk and disorderly soldier who had assaulted him: “You only yourself to blame, and whoever put such ideas into your head.”

This Figura knows.  It is Christ who has put the idea of forgiveness in his head.  Christ is to ‘blame’ for forgiveness which his fellow officers see as a weakness.  Figura is not blaming Christ, however, but embracing Him.

His commandant reminds him: “A military man must get his Christian principles from his oath of allegiance, and if you weren’t able to make something agree with it you should have gone to get advice from the priest.”  We see the many worlds a Christian must live in and the many ‘selfs’ each of has or must have.  Figura certainly hasn’t learned his Christianity from the military any more than someone can learn science from the book of Genesis.  He does see there is a conflict in values, even if the army is said to serve Russian Orthodoxy.  [Which in the very modern world raises the serious theological issues as to how the Russian Orthodox Church can bless nuclear weapons, which it has done.  Is the Russian Church getting its Christian principles from the oath of allegiance to the military and to its nation?  How could anyone who claims to follow Christ bless weapons of mass destruction?  Does the Church really have any justification to do so?  Can it really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ blesses such a thing?  or has the Church lost its moral compass and simply become a department of state?  The questions we face today are the same as Leskov did in the 19th Century.]

We also see in the story a sense that the clergy can by some magical power relieve moral contradictions or prohibitions.  The commandant believes that an Orthodox priest can somehow make it OK for an Orthodox Christian to follow the military oath of allegiance over the Scriptures or can somehow soothe the conscience so that one can violate Christ’s teachings because one has made an oath of allegiance to the state.  Not only can the priest do this but apparently a Russian Orthodox priest is under obligation to eliminate by some trickery of logic any ethical problems Russian military orders might create for an Orthodox Christian.   The priest either is able to absolve anything or use sophistry to declare an evil good.  In this way, the Church is not there to uphold Christ’s teaching but rather, more to shore up Christian society and help enforce appearances.  The Russian Church as institution in this instance serves the demands of the state – at least it appears Leskov is making this criticism.  Well did the Prophet Isaiah proclaim:  Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  (Isaiah 5:20)

Figura is told that his fellow officers now refuse to serve with him because they see him as a coward.  Others had heard that Figura had tried to keep the assault a secret.  They thought he did so only so he could stay in the military with honor since he had been dishonored by a peasant soldier.  Figura’s many ‘selfs’ struggle with the opinion of his peers and he finds that to be the worst of all – that they misunderstood his rationale and judged him harshly.  He realizes what was really important to himself is that others think well of him – so though he had done something for noble reasons, he felt a dismal failure since others had a low opinion of him.  Looking good was better than being good, except Figura knows he can no longer live by that lie.

Figura is called before his general, who is portrayed in the story as almost fanatically Orthodox.  The general assumes he understand Figura – that Figura wants to become a monk and that is why he didn’t care about his nobility or rank. But Figura tries to explain, “I had never run across anything in the Gospels about any kind of pride in nobility, but had read only about the pride of Satan which was an offense to God.”   Although there is nothing wrong with the General’s ears, he is hard of hearing because he believes he already understands Figura and ignores what Figura tells him.  The general is Russian Orthodox to the core and offers ‘friendly’ advice to Figura: “The Bible is dangerous – it’s a worldly book. A person with ascetic principles ought to stay away from it.

Here we encounter another issue about Christianity which is very pronounced in Orthodoxy.  On the one hand Orthodoxy has believed it can ‘baptize’ entire cultures, nations, empires.   On the other hand, there is the sense that if you really want to take Christ seriously, you have to withdraw from society (even Orthodox Christian society) and become a monastic.   The question is can someone live in society if he or she wants to follow Christ to the full?  Even if  in the world you personally could live a life of self-denial, taking up the cross and martyrdom,  you still have to deal with family, spouse, children, boss, neighbors, employees.  Is it possible to live the Gospel and please all of these people as well?  Is it possible to live the Gospel and want “the best” for your spouse and children?   Orthodoxy has tended to resolve this by upholding monasticism as the only true way to follow Christ.  Figura however makes it clear he has no inclination toward monasticism.  He believes he can live as a Christian with a personal conscience in the world.  For Leskov it appears that he has a Romanticized idea of the individual who can live in the world and yet not be part of it.  It is a similar idea that we see in America’s Thomas Jefferson and his romantic ideal of the yeoman farmer – everyone can live an idyllic life given enough land and resources to live independently from all others.  It is the ideal upon which limited government is based.   Yet even Adam and Eve alone in the vast expanse of Paradise could not live this idyllic life and fell into the self-love of individualism.

In Leskov’s story, the general assumes Figura’s Christian idealism with his rejection of monasticism means Figura has become some kind of non-Orthodox religious nut.  However, in the story he is not unsympathetic to Figura as he himself is a religious maximalist and he wants to help him find a position in society. Figura declines his offers.  The General tells Figura he has no choice but to dismiss him from the military for his failures.  This is exactly what Figura has decided for himself and tells the general as much.  There is humorous exchange as the General denies Figura can leave the military by choice and insists that he is ordering Figura to leave and Figura must realize he has no choice but to obey.

At the end of the story, we see Figura wishing to bring his many ‘selfs’ into his one Christian self. “…what I valued most of all was my freedom, the possibility of living by one code and not by several, without arguing, without betraying myself, and without trying to prove anything to anybody if he had not already appeared to him from above.”  The realization that his conscience might bring him into disagreement with the Church is a problem in societies in which cultural Christianity predominates.  The state tames the church and makes sure the church produces good citizens who obey the dictates of the state.  Figura can no longer accept the cognitive dissonance of his mind  which is created by being a cultural Christian.  He wants to follow Christ and not just follow rules and regulations for appearance sake nor to accept a sophistry which claims the power to declare the good evil and the evil good.

It is this oneness of self which Orthodox spirituality would say is the goal of following Christ.  Instead of there being a church self, a family self, a neighborhood self, a racial self, an ethnic self, a work self, or a self with any other loyalties, there would be one self who was consistent in every situation – the self which is united to God and devoted to doing God’s will.   Only then can a harmonious symphony emerge within one’s self.  Christ says:  “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”   (Luke 16:13)     Leskov’s character realizes he cannot serve God and state because that is serving two masters which Christ said cannot be done.  Leskov presents the notion of the individual self who must choose to follow Christ even in a ‘Christian” nation and to accept the cross which this will lay upon him or her.

One Self, Many Selves (I)

Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes on how the “self” emerges in the life of a baby.  Immediately after birth the baby’s brain is receiving stimulation from all of its senses even without an “I’ yet existing to process the information.   Somehow a self emerges which makes sense of the sensory perceptions which are constantly streaming in to the brain.  Humphrey asks, does the baby experience the different sensations at first as many distinct “selfs” each experiencing something but not yet as a whole or unified self?  Humphrey compared this experience to watching an orchestra before a concert as each musician tunes his or her instrument – there are only individual musicians tuning instruments and we watching them cannot make sense of them as a unit, nor do we hear yet the symphony.  The conductor must take the stage to form the unified symphony.

A unified “self” does emerge eventually taking in all information the various senses send to the brain and sorting it out realizing “I” exist.  “I” am distinct from all the sensory perceptions.  “I” not only make sense of them, but can act toward them and upon them for “I” am not a mere object being acted upon, but a subject capable of choice and actions myself.   Time passes, we mature and move into the world  where we come to experience our ‘self’ as many ‘selfs’ again.  I am young, a boy, white, I speak only one language.  I am different from others.   I experience the world through gender, race, nationality, language or member of a clan, family, nation, ethnic group.  Each of these ‘selfs’ make up my one self, and at times one of the ‘selfs’ emerges to the forefront as I relate to others or they relate to me.  This may be the self I consider myself to be or that others think is me.   However, no matter who I think I am, I realize others do not necessarily perceive me as I think of myself.  I may see myself as human, they as black or poor or dangerous or friendly or intelligent or fat.  I become part of other groups and there is my self as military, teammate, loyal fan, Southerner, educated, Democrat, Christian.  I an choose to fit in, blend in to community rather than stick out.  Or, I can become a leader, advocate for one of my many ‘selfs’.

Life becomes a balancing act of these various ‘selfs’ as we realize the selfs we identify with shape our worldview and shape the world’s view of us.  We have to make choices in contexts in which peer pressure is real.  I allow what others think of me to shape my ‘self’.  It is possible for my ‘self’ to be amorphous at times as I cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence, opportunity or danger.

For Christians, there is the hope that one self emerges as we grow spiritually and grow in Christ – that believing self which is consistent with the teachings of Christ.  This we understand is part of the healing that comes in Christ.   The many ‘selfs’ are a result of the splintered, broken and fallen world.  A whole self is wholesome.   But, oh, how difficult it is to be consistent in every single circumstance one finds one’s self in.

These are some of the themes that Russian writer Nikolai Leskov  (d. 1895) explores in his short story, “Figura.”  It is a story that has stood out in my mind for decades since I first read it.   It isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read, nor does it resolve all of these issues.  For me, it just helped make clear as a Christian the cutting edge of one’s ‘self’ as well as how individual conscience relates to society, even a society in which conscience is essential such as the church.

The story takes place in 19th Century Russia, Figura is an army officer from nobility in Orthodox Russia.  The story introduces ideas of regionalism (Russian vs Ukrainian, the Cossacks), class and social status (human divisions especially in the context of 19th Century Russia), which play into the many ‘selves’ of Figura.  The story ends up focusing on his Christian identity, which is part of what Leskov wrestles with: individual conscience when one is a member of an institutional church and cultural Christianity.  Figura is an officer over 42 soldiers and 6 cavalry men (who are Cossack’s, another social distinction).  On Pascha night he is feeling his humanity and decides to try to do something nice for his men as he realizes how hard their lives are.  He is struck by what it is to be human and the struggles this brings for each of us.  He spends all the cash he has on hand to buy them tea and sweet treats so they can celebrate the Feast even though they are on guard duty.  He has decided as soon as the “Christ is risen!” is proclaimed after Pascha midnight, he will treat his men.  Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Figura feel compassion for his men – their humanity – will become the thing that confronts his compassion and his ‘self.’  His 6 Cossack soldiers get drunk and just about midnight, in the dark, one of the drunken Cossacks assaults Figura, striking him on the face and tearing the epaulette off his uniform.  The Cossack then passes out.

Figura who had started the night off feeling his shared humanity with his soldiers and wanting to do something special for them because he realized their lot in life was hard, is assaulted by one of them, someone of lower rank than himself and also not from nobility.  For the second time in the story he is struck by the soldiers’ humanity – this time though in a literal and painful way as he is assaulted by the rawness of fallen humanity.  His emotions roil and boil, but then his Christian self comes into the forefront and he has to decide what to do.  The soldiers have witnessed the event and his uniform is torn, so he can’t hide what has happened.  The soldiers know there is dire consequences for a peasant to assault an officer and nobleman.  They are prepared to deliver their fellow soldier over to justice which might include corporate punishment which could result in the offending soldier’s death.

Figura however is overwhelmed by his Christian sense of what to do if someone strikes you on the cheek. He hears Christ saying to turn the other cheek. He knows as nobility he must defend his honor.  He knows as an officer he has to maintain discipline and order in the troops.  He knows he is part of a military hierarchy and so has no choice about what to do.  He is a man, a male, who must defend his personal honor in a society which would admire his willingness to use violence to defend himself.   He feels the pressure that he has to set an example for all the other soldiers standing around him as well as for his fellow officers.  He feels the weight of the expectation that he must defend the prestige of all those of his rank and class.  The issue is not only a personal assault and insult, for he must defend the order of society itself.  All the soldiers around him recognize what Figura ‘must’ do.

Yet, he forgives the soldier recognizing it was his drunkenness not malice that led him to this point.  He is moved by the soldiers tearful begging for mercy and tells all the soldiers to just forget what happened.  He has no heart to see his soldier punished to death for a stupid act.  As Figura says, “I couldn’t remember Jesus and at the same time go against him in the way I treated people.”   Figura’s ‘selfs’ have come in conflict and he has to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

Figura remembers an Orthodox prayer from the First Hour which he begins to recite, “O Christ, You are the True Light, instruct and enlighten every man that comes into the world…”  As the translator notes the Russian word for world and peace is the same and Figura’s mind hears both meanings – “I interpreted this to mean that He would enlighten every one who came from enmity to peace.  And I called out in a still louder voice: ‘May the light of Your countenance shine upon us sinners.’”  Liturgical prayers that he recited all his life suddenly took on meaning in a non-church context, and Figura suddenly desires to live and embody the things he prays.  All his soldiers are moved by his faith and prayers.  They all understand the demands on Figura of social and peer pressure but are moved by his desire to practice his faith.

One self has emerged in Figura as his true self.  This however is not the end of the story.  While Figura comes to peace with God and his neighbor, with the world and himself, he will now be put to the test as his fellow officers and commanders proceed to judge his case.  What he has come to peace with, society still has a say in.  He will again have to weigh his decision.

Next: One Self, Many Selves (II)

 

Double Vision: God and Human

St. Ephraim the Syrian, poetically captures the mystery of the incarnation of God which we celebrate at Christmas.  Look at Christ, then look again.  We can see Him as both God and human, but also as either God or human.  It is, as I’ve noted before for me as a photographer – I can pay attention to the big picture, the landscape, only at the expense of the smaller details.  My lens widens my view.  Or, I can use the macro-lens and focus on the detail, but only at the expense of losing sight of the big picture.  My lens through which I see the world won’t let me view fully both at the same time.  Both views can be beautiful and worth capturing in pictures, but I need to switch between lenses and so can only really view one at a time.  My mind knows both views exist and appreciates both, but isn’t able to picture both simultaneously.

St Ephrem lyrically expresses the theology of Christ:

We come to see You as God,

and, lo! You are a human:

we come to see You as human,

and there shines forth the Light of Your Godhead!

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3039-40)

The mystery of the incarnation is that we see the God-man Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.  It is also true though that in most encounters with Christ people tend to focus on His divinity or His humanity.  We do this not because we can’t accept the truth but because the truth is beyond comprehension.  If we know the theology of Christ, we can only marvel at how it is possible for Jesus to be both God and human.  The mystery and marvel of who Jesus caused many to wonder whether His mother gave to birth to God or to a man.  Holding the truth together was the constant challenge in early Christian theology.  God in the flesh – God becomes that which is not God.  God able to do what seems impossible.