Wednesday, April 4, 2012
“A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless.”
—Simone Weil, the great French Jewish mystic who died in 1943 at the age of 34
“The (Roman) emperor (Hadrian) said to Rabbi Joshua b. Hananiah, “I desire greatly to see thy God.” Joshua requested him to stand facing the brilliant summer sun, and said, “Gaze upon it.” The emperor said, “I can not.” “Then,” said Joshua, “if thou art not able to look upon a servant of God, how much less mayest thou gaze upon the Shekinah (the very Glory of God)?” —Ḥullin (Talmud), 60a.
“’The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God,’ says St. Irenaeus, getting to the heart of what happens when man meets God on the mountain in the wilderness. Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God.”
― Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy
One of the great questions during Holy Week, of course, is why the Church calls this coming Friday, the day Jesus was crucified — and the day that Cuba, led by the Castro brothers, will now, following the recent visit to the island of Pope Benedict XVI, celebrate as a national “holy day,” which is the true meaning of “holiday” — why the Church calls this sorrowful day “Good.”
Why is it “Good” Friday?
Because it reveals God’s glory to us, that is, his nature and his love.
We need a science — a system of knowing — which can enable us to understand this.
The modern world needs such a science, in keeping with what Simone Weil (1909-1943), the French Jewish scholar, philosopher, mystic and activist in the French Resistance during World War II who was profoundly attracted to the Christian faith, once said: “A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless.”
The problem we face, however, is that God is, often, frustratingly, hidden.
He cannot be easily seen.
He seems absent.
His dwelling place, the Temple (but human beings, of course, are the true temples of God) seems to have no divinity in residence… no radiant glory… nothing great or meaningful at all… a briefly-animated collection of chemicals that inhale and exhale, then turn to dust…
And if something is not present, and cannot be seen, then there can be no science of it, no knowledge of it.
In fact, as the Talmud relates in the story cited above concerning the conversation of the Emperor Hadrian with the Rabbi Joshua b. Hananiah, human beings, it seems, cannot look upon God. Looking at God is no more possible than gazing directly at the sun, the Rabbi tells the emperor.
And “to look upon” here, of course, is a metaphor for “to know.”
The human mind, therefore, one must conclude, cannot “look upon,” cannot “know” God, his reality, his nature, his glory.
And yet, it seems, this too is not entirely true. For, as Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) wrote some years ago in his book On the Spirit of the Liturgy, citing St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in about 180 A.D., “The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.”
We are led to this conclusion: if a man, or a woman, has a vision of God, he, or she, becomes alive, and being alive, shines forth… the glory of God… the “Shekinah” of God…
What is this “glory” of God? What is this “Shekinah” of God, which we can catch a glimpse of when we see a “man alive”?
It is holiness.
And it is this holiness that is ultimate reality, because it is God’s nature, his glory, to be holy. It is His reality to be holy.
And, because holiness can be glimpsed in the lives of the saints, in the lives of those who have themselves “glimpsed” God, and so have been made alive, becoming visible, living icons of His glory, the Church presents the saints to us, in order that we may catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and so of God Himself…
And among the saints of our tradition, none is greater than St. Francis of Assisi, who received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on Mt. Alverna, after 40 days of prayer and fasting — 40 days of seeking to “see” God — in the year 1224 A.D., two years before his death.
And this is the reason a small group of pilgrims, including myself, left Rome this morning for Assisi, city of Francis.
The purpose of the pilgrimage is to seek a “new science” which opens the way to a glimpse of God, a vision of God, and so, opens a way to life.
We will return to Rome on Holy Saturday, for the Vigil Mass, when the basilica will begin in total darkness, and then be lit, beginning with Benedict XVI’s lighting of the pascal candle, by thousands of candles throughout the basilica, symbolizing the light of God’s glory in this fallen world, that is, the light of the Resurrection.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the dwelling place of God’s glory. St. Paul writes in Colossians (2:9) that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
Christ’s glory was also veiled: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
And so there are many, today, who do not glimpse His glory — perhaps often because the faults, and sins — the unholiness — of Christians have in some way helped to obscure it.
One of the greatest of the Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa (335 A.D-after 384 A.D.) meditates in a profound way on this matter of God’s glory, and what it means to men to glimpse that glory, and it seemed fitting to offer his meditation here, though it is in fact used in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for the 7th Sunday after Easter, in preparation for Pentecost, because Gregory’s words may help prepare us now for the imminent glory of the Easter Triduum…
The Glory of the Holy Spirit
By St. Gregory of Nyssa, Doctor of the Church
(Excerpt from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, Hom. 15: Jaeger VI, 466-468)
“When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then the unity brought us by Our Savior will be fully realized, for all men will be united with one another through their union with the one supreme Good.
“They will possess the perfection ascribed to the dove, according to our interpretation of the text: One alone is my dove, my perfect one. She is the only child of her mother, her chosen one…
“Now the bond that creates this unity is glory. That the Holy Spirit is called glory no one can deny if he thinks carefully about the Lord’s words: The glory you gave to me, I have given to them. In fact, he gave this glory to his disciples when he said to them: Receive the Holy Spirit. Although he had always possessed it, even before the world existed, he himself received this glory when he put on human nature. Then, when his human nature had been glorified by the Spirit, the glory of the Spirit was passed on to all his kin, beginning with his disciples.
“This is why he said: The glory you gave to me, I have given to them, so that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, I want them to be perfectly one.
“Whoever has grown from infancy to manhood and attained to spiritual maturity possesses the mastery over his passions and the purity that makes it possible for him to receive the glory of the Spirit. He is that perfect dove upon whom the eyes of the bridegroom rest when he says: One alone is my dove, my perfect one.”
“Glory to the Hidden One”
And here is an except from an ancient Orthodox hymn which also reflects on the hiddenness of God, and on His glory:
“Glory to that Hidden One, Whose Son was made manifest! Glory to that Living One, Whose Son was made to die! Glory to that Great One, Whose Son descended and was small! Glory to the Power Who did straiten His greatness by a form, His unseen nature by a shape! With eye and mind we have beheld Him, yea, with both of them.
“Glory to that Hidden One, Who even with the mind cannot be felt at all by them that pry into Him; but by His graciousness was felt by the hand of man! The Nature that could not be touched, by His hands was bound and tied, by His feet was pierced and lifted up. Himself of His own will He embodied for them that took Him.
“Blessed be He Whom free will crucified, because He let it: blessed be He Whom the wood also did bear, because He allowed it. Blessed be He Whom the grave bound, that had [thereby] a limit set it. Blessed be He Whose own will brought Him to the Womb and Birth, to arms and to increase [in stature]. Blessed He whose changes purchased life for human nature.”
—Nineteen Hymns on the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh, Translated, I.-XIII. By Rev. J. B. Morris, M.A., [Oxford Library of the Fathers]; XIV.-XIX. By Rev. A. Edward Johnston, B.D.)
(to be continued…)