MILWAUKEE–This week I had the privilege to attend a lecture at Marquette University by one of the most preeminent authors, scholars, and theologians of our generation: His Eminence, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, MA, D.Phil, titular metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain.
With his bishop’s hat, flowing robes, scraggly white beard, and distinctive British accent, this esteemed professor emeritus at Oxford could surely be mistaken for a Defense-Against-the-Dark-Arts instructor at Hogwarts. (To see what I mean, check out this interview with Metropolitan Kallistos on the Philokalia.)
A prolific theologian, many would count him a worthy candidate for eventual sainthood, possibly even of the kind called Equal-to-the-Apostles.
Like every Orthodox bishop I have ever met, his warmth, grace, and above all, humility was most noticeable. He’s very down to earth. What brought him to Milwaukee? Word has it His Eminence was drawn to view the collection housed at Marquette of the original manuscripts and writings of his esteemed Oxford predecessor, J.R.R. Tolkien. Thanks to Marquette for that! The Metropolitan gave us much to think about and mediate upon, particularly as we are about to embark upon our inner journey through Lent.
Given the state of the world “out there” today, our collective prayerful journey through the Lenten desert “in here” in 2016 may well be one of the most crucial, or perhaps most meaningful, of our lives. May our prayers bear much fruit.
Lenten Meditation: In the Image and Likeness of God
In Orthodoxy, we learn to hold our hand in a very specific way to make the sign of the Cross. Join together index, middle finger and thumb, to represent the holy Trinity. Fourth finger and pinkie, folded down into the palm, represents the dual nature of Christ as both fully God and fully human.
This theological symbol we make using our own hand could summarize Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s lecture.
Like Christ’s paradox of being both fully human and fully God, Kallistos pointed out how we human beings, too, are full of paradoxical duality. Humankind embodies both hope and disappointment, frailty and strength, beauty and ugliness, “Godlike apprehension and the quintessence of dust,” he said. We are both earthly and heavenly, temporal and immortal, spirit and flesh. In theological terms, we know from Genesis that we are made “in the image and likeness of God,” while formed out of dust. Grounded in the earth, “our personhood reaches out into infinity and into eternity.” This paradoxical duality causes us human beings to be a mystery–to our very selves.
Even though we may know we are “‘made in the image and likeness of God,’ we understand only a very small part of our personhood,” said Kallistos. “We don’t understand ultimate fulfillment. We don’t yet know what we will be. And so we ask ‘Who am I? What am I?’” Perennially, in every generation.
Human beings are born with a sense of needing something. We are driven to find it. It is like we’re born as a puzzle with a missing piece. There is always a sense of something missing, which drives us to go out and seek for something: a yearning for fulfillment.
Kallistos’ comment parallels a core teaching in A Course in Miracles, how there is really only one problem in life –separation from God–we often go looking in the wrong places to find the solution. It might be relationships. It might be material wealth. It might be adventure, a good time, a sense of wonder. It might be creating a life of comfort around us, in which we feel physically safe—which we do by accumulating wealth or power. Or it might be investing our lives in something more than ourselves—raising our children, or contributing to a cause.
Yet none of these truly, deeply satisfy. When we chase things and power—we always seem to need more. When we seek fulfillment in others, they all seem to leave us, eventually: if they don’t let us down, they grow up and move way, or they die. When we seek wealth and power, we find it never lasts: the more we have, the less safe and more vulnerable we feel, and we never can take it with us. And though we may devote our lives to a “cause,” often that cause is never truly fixed, but continues on past our time here.
The only way to find that missing piece of the puzzle—to fully know ourselves—is through getting to know God.
“We have within us a God-shaped hole,” Kallistos said. “Only when it is filled can we become fully human.
‘You see, the two questions, ‘what is God?’ and ‘what is man?’ are intimately connected. It is only when we look into the depths of our hearts: it is there that we find God, reflected back to us. Self-knowledge and God-knowledge are utterly co-dependent. If you know yourself, you will know God. And if you know God, you will know yourself.”
In the image of God is the image of the Trinity, and the image of Christ, Kallistos explained. Quoting Charles Williams, he said: “It is not good for God to be alone.” God is three persons in relationship, loving one another, in an interpersonal way: “not just a unit, but a union,” he said. God is communion. God is a relational being. God is social and dialogic. God is self-giving: sharing, reciprocal, responsive, and in solidarity.
We are formed in this same image and likeness. We, too, are social, relational beings, sharing, reciprocal, responsive, and in solidarity. Dialogic means two persons in communication with one another. “It means ‘I need you in order to be myself.’”
“I need you in order to be myself.”
I understand this idea very well. I was born into a wonderful, loving, kind, generous–yet flawed–family. Like so many families, mine suffered some kind of breakdown in structure long before I was born, leaving it bereft of stable emotional support structures. Emoting was just not safe. Love was conditional: fail to behave properly, and love was withheld.
For many years I suffered the consequences of conditional love: self-loathing, low esteem, self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts. Thank God, my one attempt at suicide was very lame and I failed.
Psychologist Frank Dance described growth in human communication from birth on to traverse a spiral shape like a helix. At birth we are the center of our universe: there is only us and our needs. We cry, and God in the form of our mother meets our needs. We think we cause everything. As we start to move higher and see farther, we realize we share this world and live in the context of others: family, parents, siblings, cousins, extended family, neighborhood, city, state, planet. We circle back around, reflecting upon our past experiences while moving forward, higher up in an ever-enlarging circle. We learn that are NOT the center, we are not alone, who we are affects others, they affect us, and so forth.
With each passing experience, our circle of experience grows bigger and we rise higher. Only by interacting with others do we see ourselves: our gifts, our talents, our abilities, within a context of a social structure. As we come around to higher levels we develop the ability to empathize: to imagine ourselves in someone elses’ shoes, feel what they feel. We develop perspective, empathy, and compassion.
But for some of us who grow up with conditional love, movement forward along the growth track can feel like an electric shock. Perhaps because of abuse, neglect, or addiction, we stop moving forward. We recoil. We put on thick gloves and shields. We build a wall. We, in essence, get stuck at a developmental stage of feeling like we are at the center of the universe. The world “out there” is going to harm us, and we have to defend ourselves, put up walls.
That was the kind of family I grew up in, emotionally. Lots of walls.
Then I had the transformative experience Metropolitan Kallistos described: “I need you in order to become myself.”
I distinctly recall the moment. I was in my mid-20s, newly married, deeply in love with my new husband. We spent a lot of time gazing into each other’s eyes, sharing our stories. And then it happened. I saw myself as he saw me: I saw what he loved in me, in myself. Unconditional agape love: so strong and pure, no matter what I did, how I behaved, what mistakes I made, it forgives and endures forever. I will never forget the uplifting sensation of the opening of my heart, when I was first experienced seeing my own value, my own worth, reflected in the eyes of another. To clarify: it was not that I was validated by him. My husband did not validate me. My husband was simply the mirror–not the source. What I saw was who I REALLY am–love itself. I saw the I AM that is love, that is God–reflected in his eyes. I AM, HE IS, WE ALL ARE, that LOVE. There is only One.
God’s love. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”—John 4:16 There is no love but God’s love, says A Course in Miracles.
That sensation of opening, of seeing that love, felt uplifting, as a revolution completed in the helical journey. I was up at the next level, looking back, and a whole new vista appeared. I experienced level of compassion for my own broken family that I had never been able to perceive or conceive of before. They simply were stuck back there, and did not know about this kind of love! How sad! (I won’t get into the years spent trying to share it with them. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion!)
Our society today is stuck, like I was, in a conditional love. Society needs to move along the path of growth. We have all suffered so much hurt, so much abuse, so much pain, many of us frozen in fear, are afraid to love, afraid to move on, afraid to trust, afraid to fall, afraid to let go.
A wonderful anthem for this generation: Let It Go! Good Lord: help us let it go! (Queue up Disney.)
Here is the point: as tightly as we cling to our fears, that does not stop the unconditional love from being there, right here, right now, right before our eyes. Love is eternal. It has and always will exists. Remember: death was overcome! John 8:51. Why hold on to fear? What is needed is to open our eyes, to simply be able to perceive God which is love. In order to perceive it, we must seek mirrors — those who reflect that love back to us. We must become mirrors ourselves: we must look deeply and with love into the eyes of anyone and everyone with whom we interact, and reflect that love to them, and act upon our love.
An inner work
People make mistakes all the time, every day of the week. Whether surrounded by unloving people, terrorists, or conditional love, many in this broken world go through life alone, with conditional love. We withdraw our love for them, put them in prison, and leave them to suffer alone.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem.
“One human being in solitude is no human being,” Kallistos said.
We are not being fully human when we are like abused children, hiding alone in the closet. We all need to come out of the closet.
The answer, of course, is that we are never actually alone in the closet at all. So long as one child hides in a closet, we need to rescue them, get them out, look into their eyes, reassure them of the truth: What is real is Christ God within us, complete man and complete God, a relational being–that’s Who is real. He is right here, inside our hearts, ready for us to find him. He promised and he keeps his promises. A heart that seeks Him, finds Him.
This message is arguably the most profound truth in all of human history. This message represented a re-setting of our reality as human beings: an entirely new paradigm. It was so profound, back in the day, that it reset our consensus calendar to begin retroactively with Christ’s birth. Look at the calendar we all share. We are in the Year of Our Lord, 2016.
“Christ’s birth,” Metropolitan Kallistos said, “was the birthday of the whole human race. Not until then were the full dimensions of human personhood revealed.”
“Theology is actually a branch of Christology,” Kallistos said, not the other way around. Above all else, “we are to be faithful imitators of Jesus Christ.”
Kallistos issued a challenge to all Christians: we must go beyond simply imitating Christ. “We will greatly err unless we take it further.”
“Let us not forget Hamlet, who reminded us: ‘I have bad dreams,’” he said. “Human beings reside midway between majesty and lowliness. While we are flawed icons, always remember: Christ is our constant companion until the end of days.”
Freedom, Self-Knowledge, Creativity, Growth and Cosmic Dominion or Priesthood
Metropolitan Kallistos encouraged us to consider five points: freedom, self-knowledge, creativity, growth, and cosmic dominion or priesthood.
With regards to freedom, he challenged us to recognize that God’s freedom is absolute and unlimited, while human freedom is limited. It is within our limitations that our freedom is to be found. Don’t worry about shackles and injustice and prison bars. They mean nothing.”You must change your mind about the purpose of the world, if you would find escape,”as A Course In Miracles so eloquently states.
Knowledge of self arises out of knowledge of God. What is He always telling us? “God says: become your true self,” Kallistos said. That’s it. Everyone can become their true self. Everyone. “Recognize that nobody is dispensable, unnecessary, or useless. It is tragic that anyone ever feel that no one would notice if they died.”
It is in our own creativity that we “bless the Lord….for in wisdom hast thou made them all.” (Psalm 103-104) All of us are made in His wisdom.
Recognize that we humans are sub-creators, as Tolkien said. “God creates out of nothing, we create out of what God has given us.” It is in offering what we make of the world, and giving it back to God, that we become truly ourselves. We transfigure, revealing in glory, what was hidden.
For example, God gives us wheat which we transform into bread and give back to him. Likewise, He gives us the gift of the vine, we transform it into wine, and give it back to him. He receives our offering, transforms both, and gives them back to us in the Eucharist. He told us to do this to re-call him back to us. Western Christianity translates it “do this in memory of me,” but the correct translation from the Greek is “do this to call me back.” It is in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, prayerfully made by our own hands, in a circle of giving, that He comes back into us: his sacrifice was not just on the Cross. His sacrifice continues every week Divine Liturgy–a Eucharistic mystical supper of his body and blood transformed mystically–to keep us alive, spiritually.
Of course, Kallistos pointed out, human beings are not the only creatures to whom God loves and gives his fruits and seeds.
“Squirrels collect nuts,” Kallistos said, “but they don’t transform them into liqueur!” Only human beings can transform, transfigure, and transmute what God gives us into something else.
“To be human,” Kallistos said concerning growth, “is to be a pilgrim, a journey from the image to the likeness.” The image is essentially our equipment, whereas the likeness is holiness. The journey is “the act of reaching forward,” or as I describe, moving along that path of growth, in an ever widening spiral, higher up, seeing more.
And through all of eternity, Kallistos assured us, “God will always remain a God of surprises.”
Cosmic Dominion and Priesthood
Regarding cosmic dominion and priesthood, “dominion does not meant domination,” Kallistos said. It is always to good to “remember the gentle service of Christ washing the feet of his disciples.
“Christ said ‘I am the One who serves.’ We in modern times have forgotten this.”
“Reflect on the contemporary ecological disaster. To say ‘environmental crisis’ is not strictly accurate. The crisis is not ‘out there,’ but in the human heart. The ecological disaster is a spiritual problem. We have lost sight of our true relationship to the world God has given us. Our human image is grievously distorted. What we need is an ecological change of mind.”
It is important, he said, to bear in mind the distinction between the king, the steward, and the priest. The concept of a king is not popular and is widely misunderstood today.
Many Christian ecologists, Kallistos said, call upon us to be “stewards,” for the world belongs to God, not us. But there is a disadvantage in that view. By taking on a managerial or utilitarian point of view, our egos inflate and we succumb to the temptation to elevate ourselves above creation. How do we prevent this?
“See nature not as an ‘it’ but as a ‘thou,’” he said. “Act as priests of the Creation. We are ordained, through the laying on of hands, to a natural, intrinsic priesthood, that is both eucharistic and doxological. How we become our true selves is to be who we are: Man the Offerer.”
“We must turn the world itself into a eucharistic offering—requiring, on the one hand, sacrifice, and on the other, love,” said Kallistos. “Love is at the heart of the Trinity.”
A commandment of God not written down, Kallistos said, is: “Love the trees.”
Many criticize organized religion for how it causes us to have to worship God, and to believe blindly. But God does not need us to worship Him. Nor does He need us to believe in Him. He exists whether we worship or believe in Him or not.
The fact is, it is us human beings who need to worship. That is our nature. Whether we worship money and stuff, logic and science, sports figures or movie stars, political heroes or villains–the truth of the matter is, we are eschatological beings: we have a need to worship. Why? Because we are designed with that missing puzzle piece that is God; we are designed to come into union with Him. That is what worship is. Worship is about opening ourselves to Him.
The truth of the matter is, “the human person is a mystery,” Kallistos said, “an inexhaustible mystery.”
“A day without prayer is a wasted day.”—Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
“Today is all that we have. Pray every day,” he said. “A day without prayer is a wasted day. Today, make a fresh start in all these things. Show compassion. Show practical help to the people around you. Then you will be a true person.”
I am so grateful I got to hear him speak, particularly now, at the beginning of Lent.
And particularly this year, this Lent, in the year of our Lord, 2016, let us all meditate upon our hand and who we really are: you and I are both made in the image and likeness of God. Fully man and fully God; relational, dialogical beings. In our hearts we find God who is love. We find ourselves, we who are love, and we become true selves: mirrors, divine sub-creators.
May your prayer bear much fruit this Lent, and may the Good Lord have mercy on us.