CHRISTIAN WISDOM: Where We’re Going by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

Where We're Going by Frederica Mathewes-Green

From: The Illuminated Heart

Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)

Let’s start with a basic question.  Where are we trying to go, anyway?  Is our goal the same as Anna’s?

A modern Christian might say that the point of this Earthly life is to be like Jesus.  We want to cultivate the virtues that Christ had, we want to have a loving heart like the Father’s, we ask what Jesus would do.  We have decided to follow Jesus – and that’s where we remain, a few steps behind him, all our lives.  We never imagine that there could be more.

As Anna hears the Epistle read in church each week, she keeps hearing the phrase Saint Paul used so often about being “in Christ.”  This is a profoundly transforming condition; it means the very life of Jesus himself is within you, illumining you.  Anna expects that this is the calling of every Christian.  The process is called theosis, which means that one’s essential being is permeated and filled with the presence of God.  It is something more than merely resembling Jesus, more than merely “following.”  It is transformation.

A Western Christian’s radar goes up at this; is this what they call “mysticism”?  That sort of thing, we think, is a rare calling for a handful of people  An occasional saint might be led to this path, and some self-appointed oddballs might think that they have been.  A person who intends to pursue divine union, we expect, is likely to be somewhat otherworldly.  We don’t mean that as a compliment.  People like that run the danger of getting unbalanced; too much heart and not enough head, we think.  We contrast them with dry and solemn theologians who can tip too far the other way.  We take this division between head and heart for granted: On Sunday morning we hope to have a worship experience that will move our hearts, then retire to a classroom and talk about Biblical concepts.

Yet humans do not have any such division.  The split between reason and emotion is unknown to Anna.  We are created a unity, and when we encounter God he, in turn, encounters every bit of us.  For Anna, worship is full of theologically complex hymns, packed with teaching.  Yet they address God with such humble awe and adoration that they move her profoundly.  The insight that moves the mind will move the heart as well; God’s truth is beautiful, and this beauty casts us to our knees.

We think of theology as an intellectual undertaking, an attempt to construct a systematic, comprehensive explanation using tools of ordinary reason.  But for earlier Christians all theology, all teaching and preaching, had the practical aim of assisting the believer toward theosis.  That wasn’t taken as an excuse for sloppiness or imprecision, since our God is a God of truth, and some theological conflicts required strenuous efforts to resolve.  Yet even those debates were directed toward increasing the health of the Christian soul, rather than conquering some theological Mt. Everest simply because it was there.  Like the psalmist, early Christians could be content as a weaned child, not occupied with things too great for them to understand.  They could in tranquility let some mysteries of faith rest unexplored and unexplained.

So for Anna the split we modern Christians presume, between intellectual and emotional responses to God, does not exist.  The primary thing for her is that initial confrontation with God.  Her response to that encounter might include both emotion and reasoning, but even if she doesn’t feel particularly moved or enlightened, God is still there and still faithful.  Her goal is to be faithful as well, and persevere, rather than to gather emotional or intellectual experiences.  In marriage, another lifelong process of union, intellectual understanding and emotional response are intermingled, inseparable, interdependent, and sometimes quite transporting.  Yet the day-to-day experience of a healthy marriage is more ordinary than that, and the main requirement is simple perseverance.

In Anna’s world, theosis is expected to be a practical process, largely a matter of self-discipline.  Strong emotions are not routinely expected, and routine over-emotionalism is seen as self-indulgence.  Nor is this path often marked by vivid supernatural experiences.  Any that occur must be treated with skepticism, as a possible demonic trick.  Theosis is not for “mystics;” it’s for everybody, and is largely down-to-Earth.

The analogy Saint Paul uses most frequently is not that of a swooning visionary, but an athlete.  We press on toward the prize, subduing our bodies, striving to pray constantly, so that we may no longer live, but so that Christ may live in us.  This spiritual training is hard work, or in Greek, ascesis, a term that means training for a craft, profession, or contest of strength.

Words like “striving,” “work,” and, worst of all, “asceticism,” can set off more alarms for Western Christians.  In our history, one of the most contentious questions has been whether good works help pay for our sins or enable salvation.  To our way of thinking, each person runs up a long list of bad deeds, and salvation amounts to getting the bill squared away.  Salvation is a “Debt Paid” concern about the bottom line, rather than the view we’ve been learning about above: a lifelong process of restoration and healing.  The controversy in our corner of the world has been over whether good works have any impact on this debt, or pay for past sins.

But Anna is looking forward, not backward.  She knows that her sins have been forgiven, and reflects on them mostly as a sobering antidote to pride.  It is future sins that these spiritual disciplines are aimed at.  An athlete doesn’t exercise to pay for past failure, but to gain strength for the contest ahead.  Anna practices these disciplines in order to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely,” as it says in Hebrews.  Through self-knowledge and self-control, Anna hopes to stumble less often, and continue on the journey toward theosis.

This path is open to every Christian.  It is a reasonable journey, a feasible journey, and the life each of us was made for.  It is a journey we can begin today.

But there’s a catch.  The first step is repentance.

 

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