Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"A new name written, which no man knoweth": Reflections on the letter to Pergamos

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it" (Apocalypse of John 2:17).

Our Lord says a number of interesting things in this passage, the third of the Seven Letters to the Churches of Asia, the Letter to Pergamos. Most striking, of course, is the beautiful promise, with all the mystery therein, that He makes to "him that overcometh", i.e. those who overcome the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Note that phrase, "the hidden manna". We know, of course, what manna is. In the book of Exodus, it is the food that God sends down from heaven to feed the Israelites as they wander in the desert. Some people think that this was based on a legendary recollection of a real historical event, and that "manna" corresponds to an actual food source the Hebrews found in the desert- perhaps tamarisk, or honeydew (aphid secretions) or some kind of insects. In a deeper sense, of course, we know that the story of the manna is a figure of the Eucharist, and that the physical manna in the story of Exodus represents the real, spiritual Bread of Life which is the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, ordinary bread is transformed, in substance, into the body of Christ: not symbolically, not metaphorically, but in truth.

But here Christ isn't referring to the Eucharist, for he refers to something secret and obscure, "the hidden manna", not to the public sacrifice which is the Eucharist. He is referring to something equally mysterious, glorious, and powerful as the Eucharist, i.e. the mystical communion of Christ with the believer. Just as in the Eucharist we accept Christ into our body, so in mystical union we accept Him into our souls.

To those of us who do His will, and who hold fast to Him, the rewards of mystical union with Christ will be unfathomable. At other points in Scripture, and in various noncanonical writings, communion with Christ is talked about it terms of love, beauty, the fulfilment of desire, in terms of erotic desire or hunger or thirs, and other attributes. Here it's talked about in terms of knowledge (and perhaps the hunger for knowledge is a kind of desire in the same sense as the desires for food, water, sex, or love). Christ here promises that to those who overcome the world as he overcame, he will reveal hidden knowledge, secret knowledge, that will belong to that person alone and will not be evident to anyone else. That knowledge can and should be shared, and passed on, but it can't be fully understood, or fully experienced, except the one who has been graced with a personal vision and inspiration of God.

Most of us have seen beautiful rock crystals before, minerals into which you can look and see some of their internal faces, reflecting light with a beautiful radiance as you rotate them. They have naturally formed smooth and planed edges so neat and immaculate that it looks like they were artificially cut, but we know that they were never touched by the hand of man. All the beautiful, straight-line faces we see were formed by natural processes, with so much precision it's hard to believe. I remember walking over the limestone outcroppings in northern Madagascar once and marveling to my friend at how flat, clean and straight were the edges that had formed- she was a geologist and said it wasn't uncommon for that kind of rock to form in shapes like that. It's the same way with some crystals. We can turn them around and see the light reflecting off their faces, and we can look into them and see perfect order and beauty. Crystals occur in lots of different colors: reddish-orange carnelian, blue like tourmaline, green like jasper. But some of the most beautiful are white. Imagine the order and simplicity of a white quartz crystal. That is the image that Christ himself gives us for the joy, elation, and mystery of what personal experience of the divine will be like. When we experience Christ personally, like the Russian envoys did during Divine Liturgy at the Church of Holy Wisdom in the city of Constantine, we will "not know whether we were in heaven or earth". We can see into that white stone but we can't see through it: so it is with the things revealed to us by the Spirit. We can see into them, a little, and experience them, but we cannot understand them. For in the last analysis, as St. Augustine said, the peace of God passeth all understanding but His own.

I haven't ever been blessed to experience Christ in my waking hours the same way that St. Joan of Arc did, who heard his voice as the bells echoed after the Angelus, or as St. Therese of Avila did who felt as she had been pierced by a flaming lance, or William Blake did who saw God as a child in the form of a giant face in his nursery. The closest I've come to it- the closest many of us come- is in dreams. Perhaps this is today, we would be more likely to dismiss visions of Christ in the wakeful day as hallucinations: in dreams we are more innocent. I can't quite describe these experiences, for as St. Paul said of his trip to heaven, such things are indescribable. But I will say that my temperament and nature incline me to be an intellectual, more than a romantic or a mystic, and so for me my experiences of the supernatural took the form of knowledge. I was at once in the presence of perfect knowledge, like a book that held the answers to all questions that could be asked, like a book for each person of which a new chapter was written for each day of their lives. Scripture uses such a symbol for the presence of God, when it talks of the book of life. Such a book would hold the answer to every question we have ever asked, with our mouths or with our hearts. In those curious, strange, indescribable dreams I learned more than I ever could during my whole waking life, and delighted in experiencing knowledge the same way other people delight in a warm bath on a cold day. And then I awoke, and all that supernatural knowledge was lost to me, draining away as I emerged into consciousness like water drains from sand. But it left me with a longing, a thirst, to be back in the presence of the divine again, and to experience not simply perfect knowledge but perfect love, perfect kindness, perfect beauty. And it left me with no doubt that I had experienced something inexplicable by natural means.

This dream recurred many times throughout my life, and together with it recurred another type of dream, in which I was spared from death, from a death that was no dream but was very real. The interesting thing about dreams is that in and of themselves, they have their own internal logic, and represents a world that is concistent and logical on its own terms. When we are out of them, in our waking life, we can see them as phantasmagoric and illogical, but when we are within them it is the waking world that seems unreasonable and silly. As the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu said, he knew not then whether he had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The Australian indigenous people had a similar belief, that the primordial innocence from which we had fallen was called the Dreamtime, that it was more real and more true then the present world, that all we saw around us were mere shadows and reflections, like the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave, and that only in dreams could we see the world as it truly is. There is a lot that is compelling about that view of the world.

In this type of recurring dream I knew that what I saw and understood was as real in its own way as that which we experience in our waking lives. So it was with all the mystics and sages and saints who have directly experienced God. They were filled, for a short time, with the presence of One who filled every pore in their skin, every capillary in their bloodstream, every cell in their body. Like heat is present in a horseshoe heated in a fire, such that the horseshoe glows when taken out, as salt dissolves into a solution and interpenetrates the ever-changing, ever-separating and reconnecting matrix of water particles, so God becomes present within us when we directly experience him. As the bread, the visible manna, is dissolved and forms part of our physical substance, so the grace of God becomes part of our spiritual substance, and is incorporated into our existence such that we could not be what we are without it. And like that glowing horseshoe that experience should make us glow when we enter the world, reflecting His light as the moon reflects the light of the sun.

Throughout Christian history, from the very beginning, there have been endless debates about some very interesting theological questions: the nature of the Incarnation, how God can be Three and One, the two natures of Christ, the origin of evil, the ontological status of the devil, the creation of the world, the miracles of Christ, the Last Things, and many more. Often the division over these questions has involved the question of authority. Who has authority to speak in the name of God? The bishop of Rome, as the Catholic church said? The Bible, as evangelicals say? The ecumenical councils and the national patriarchs in common, as the Orthodox say? Personally, I think it's a mixture. God speaks through living Tradition, and through his church: through the bishops, priests and laity. We owe deference to the universal church, in all its representations, for Christ promised that in some sense the Holy Spirit would guide the church and speak through it. But equally importantly, I think, He speaks through individuals, through personal experience and personal revelation, as He did with the three children of Fatima. Many times in history we have seen a heroic individual, or a heroic minority, standing firm in their faith against the authorities of their time, secular or religious. And sometimes, those individuals as we can see in retrospect, were right.

Bishop Athanasius was right when he stood against the Arian* heresy that had swallowed up three quarters of the empire, that looked like the progressive, victorious ideology of the future, and that appeared it was going to swallow up Christendom and corrupt it. He was right, though he was excommunicated for his trouble. There came a day three centuries later where, on two separate occasions, four of the five great Patriarchates embraced Monothelitism** (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople on the first occasion; Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople on the second), and when the Monothelite idea seemed the wave of the future; in both case one courageous Patriarch stood against the rest, and was proven right by history. St. Joan of Arc was right when she stood against the villainous Bishop Cauchon and went to the fire for her troubles. The Quakers were right when they stood against slavery, as Galileo was right when he stood for the rotation of the earth. And those are just the cases we know about. How many other heroic martyrs for the truth have gone to their graves for protesting against the religious authorities of their time, but have seen their views swallowed up by history, and have seen the world forget about them and what they held? They will be vindicated eventually, for we know that in the long run, and in the fullness of time, Christ promised that His church would not embrace error. But 'the fullness of time' can be a long time. Who is to say on what issues the dissenters of today may not be absolved by history?

I don't want to go into detail on which particular issues I think the church, or a majority thereof, has 'got it wrong' in the past. This isn't the time nor the place. But we should conclude from this haunting and beautiful passage, that Christ is not bound by His nature to speak only through kings or bishops or only through priests or poets. For "the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). He can speak through whomever He likes, and often he speaks through individuals. It is said, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40). We have the obligation to listen closely to what He tells us, himself or through his agents, in the innermost stillness of our heart, and to proclaim it to the word. We need to test our experience against the collective wisdom of tradition and the church, but we also need, at the last, to be faithful to our conscience. For we know that conscience is ultimately a man's surest guide. And we also know the words of this promise: "For I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, that no one knows saving he that receives it."

This saying is a promise, but it's also a prophecy. And it had, when made, at least three time-frames in which it would be fulfilled: in our lives and individual experiences here on earth, in the vision of God that we will experience in the afterlife, and also in the experience of His church here on earth. Because the divine purpose is fulfilled in history as well as outside of time, and in the lives of communities and nations as well as in the lives of individuals. As Alexis Khomiakov said, when we fall we fall alone, but when we are saved we are saved together.

One of the fascinating things about history, and one of the things that sets the history of Europe apart from those of other regions of the world, is the degree to which scientific thought and understanding of the natural world advanced there as compared to other parts of the world. Many other regions of the world (in Africa, in South America, and elsewhere) produced a great deal of experiential knowledge about plants and animals and their properties, which became very important to modern medicine and botany. Many other regions produced important technological advances- China and the Arabic/Persian world most signally. Many more regions- India, Mesoamerica- produced important mathematical discoveries that all modern science depends on. But only in early modern Europe, out of all the world, were these different branches of thought unified into a coherent worldview, modern science, which allowed us to understand the natural world and to predict and explain everything from the growth of a wheat plant to the flight of a sparrow to the movement of the planets in their orbit. Various explanations have been proposed for why modern science advanced more in Europe than anywhere else, but I think it's at least in part because Christianity- which synthesized the Greek idea that nature was rational and predictable with the Jewish idea that nature was inherently good- provided a singularly hospitable ground for the growth of understanding of the natural world. And this, too, was a fulfilment of Christ's prophecy that he would bring not only love and faith but also knowledge to the world. As Augustine said, "we believe that we may understand".

Not merely understanding of the natural world is inherent in the Dominical promise, but also understanding of ourselves. For we are given not merely the white stone, symbolizing whatever is beautiful within nature, but also a new name, connoting a deeper understanding of ourselves and our unique destinies and identities. It is often said that the idea that we are individual beings, each infinitely different from each other and each of infinite value, was also a gift that Christianity brought at least to the Western world- there is little trace of it, certainly, in the thought of classical Greece or Rome. Christ died not only for all of us but also for each of us, and if you or I had been the only person out of all the world in need of salvation, then He would have shed his blood just the same as he did. God loves each of us infinitely, and He also loves us each differently, and in the fulness of time each of us shall understand an aspect of God, and live out that aspect in our lives, better than anyone else. For the human race is like "one body [in which] we have many members" (Romans 12:4), and each organ contributes to the well being of the whole in a unique and different way, just as each organ cannot live outside the body. The modern cult of ultra-individualism that exalts individual choice over collective obligation and sees no other authority beyond the individual will is, of course, wrong and dangerous. But like all truly dangerous things, it is the corruption of something good rather than its negation. For individualism in the true sense, which sees us as precious and unique beings in the way we relate to the Good, rather than singular definers of the Good on our own, is in itself a good and true thing, and one of the gifts that Christ foretold that He would bring to the world. And like all of His promises, it was fulfilled: it was fulfilled in history, it is fulfilled in the lives of each of us as we seek to serve, to enjoy, and to understand the Good, even if we may not believe in God yet or identify Him with that Good, and it will be fulfilled in the kingdom of heaven as well. For his promise, like He Himself, is something that "was, and is, and is to come": that exists in the past, in the present, and to eternity.


*Arianism: the belief, held by Arius in the fourth century and by various historical figures like John Milton, that Christ was a created semidivine being, inferior to the Father
**Monothelitism: the view that Christ, though possessing two natures, had just one "free will".

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