Dreading the Apocalypse

Thou Who art kindhearted to sinners, be merciful also to us in the day of judgement. Forgive us our debts according to Thy loving-kindness and in the day of Thy coming vouchsafe us Thy habitation.

When the multitudes to be judged tremble before the righteous judgement and stand before Thee stripped bare and in fear—then, O my Judge, have mercy on me for I have sung of Thy glory.

When the lips of the wise are stopped and Thy terrifying mighty scepter looms ominously before all, then may my lips be opened, for I have confessed Thee.

When neither friend nor acquaintance can save a man and every man is brought naked to account for himself—then, O Lord, be my intercessor, for I have hoped in Thee.

When the sound of the trumpet blares out, the nations shudder and every man is to receive reckoning according to his labors—then, O Lord, be my helper, for to Thee do I run.

Accept our service, O Lord, hope of those above and hope of those below, and have mercy on us.

Be merciful to us, O Lord, be merciful to our parents, be merciful to our teachers, be merciful to our brethren.

Be merciful to us, O Lord, and give rest to our relatives who have reposed and to all who have died and did confess Thee, believe in Thee and tast Thy flesh and Thy life-creating blood.

Vouchsafe us together with Thy sheep to enter into Thy pasture, and together with Thy saints to offer Thee praise in accordance with Thy greatness unto the ages of ages.

St Ephrem the Syrian; compiled by St Theophan the Recluse for Psalm 87 LXX in A Spiritual Psalter (St John of Kronstadt Press, 1997).

Just today I was thinking about the Apocalypse, the book more specifically than any such-named event, and how through all the time I’ve spent reading commentaries on it, and getting into persnickety little studies on various aspects of it, although seldom really clearing up this most oblique of the New Testament’s books, I realized that we almost never hear about the kind of fear in connection with this book that St Ephrem elicits above. These days people talk and write a whole bunch of nice stuff about how the book really describes God’s love, telling people to ignore the awful stuff as just imagery or rhetorical flourishes. Codswallop. Yes, the book describes God’s love for His own particular people, but also His anger at everyone else, who could be your local espresso clerk, the nice bus driver (but you wouldn’t be surprised if the mean one you don’t like was going to get it!), your mom, your dad, your brother, your sister, your wife, your husband, your children. Oh, God, not them! That gets some of that fear back right away, doesn’t it? Imagine a sound like a trumpet, earth-shatteringly loud, and imagine what follows, after the initial shock has worn off. Stockbrokers running to hide in the sewer from the One with a face like the sun, fanatics denying the reality to the bitter end, and hopefully some of us, the few left, will have the presence of mind to pray like St Ephrem above, for those we love and know, and not just for our own selves, for mercy in the time of judgment. And all the terrors of all the ages before will be nothing compared to facing that Judge in that judgment, the last ever. All the horrid events leading up to the end, visited upon a wretched world not too different from the one we’re living in, will be forgotten then. Game over; time for the score. That fear and dread is something that is a necessary part of the reception of the book of Revelation in anything remotely resembling its original intent, and something we’d all do best to keep in mind if we wish to understand it. Like the plagues and dread of the Exodus, the plagues and dread of the Apocalypse are an integral part of the experience, both as included in the depicted events and, perhaps especially, as intended to be elicited from the reader. But just as the plagues are so much worse, so also will the new song be even more joyous than the Song of the Sea. So, balanced in the dread scales between fear and hope is the Apocalypse. Something to keep in mind.

The Rose

There once was a beautiful, wise and courageous woman, the daughter of a wise and wealthy father. Her favorite pastime was to tend her rose garden, which was well-known for the beauty of form and size and scent of its roses. A day came when she plucked, from among these most beautiful and perfect roses, the most perfect rose. Its shape and the softness of its petals brought to mind all the beautiful things in the world. Its scent was strong and perfect, seeming to lift cares from a troubled mind. She carried her rose with her into the streets of the city in which she lived, wishing to share such bounty with all her friends, her neighbors, and any strangers she might meet. Everyone loved the rose, except for a few who were envious of its perfection. These people surrounded the wise and beautiful woman, and demanded the rose of her. With a gentle smile, she handed the rose to the most violent among them. They took the beautiful rose, perfect in form and scent, and viciously tore at it, ripping it apart with their hands, stomping on it with their feet, wishing to eliminate it entirely. The wise and beautiful woman stood to the side, watching with her wise and gentle smile, now seeming to be a trifle sadder for the solitary tear that slid down her cheek. When the rage of the mob was ended, all stood quiet, as though stunned. The wise and beautiful woman stepped forward and quietly said, “Now, smell your hands, smell the scent of the perfect rose which you have released for all to enjoy.” Indeed, the scent was even stronger now, even seemingly more perfect. It wafted on a gentle breeze throughout the city. The mob, ashamed, went their ways, and the wise and beautiful woman went home to tend her garden.

That rose is Christ.

I wrote this on Lazarus Saturday, 3 April 1999, roughly a year before converting to Orthodoxy. At the time I’d been compiling a number of lectionary indices, and for that Lenten season, read the appointed readings daily for various Western (Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionaries) and Eastern (Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and some ancient Armenian, Georgian and Syrian) lectionary traditions. By Lazarus Saturday in the Eastern calendar, this metaphorical story had distilled itself, and I sat down at an outdoor table at a local pub and wrote it out in the space of just a few minutes.

A powerful theme running through the Lenten readings in especially the older lectionaries is that of the suffering of Christ, and its necessity within the plan of God for the redemption of mankind. St. Gregory the Theologian said, specifically in the lengthy context of a long letter (number 101, available in this handy edition) on the Incarnation to Cledonios, “The unassumed is the unhealed.” That is, what our Lord Jesus Christ has assumed, has taken on, in sharing our human mortality, our weaknesses, and indeed even some of the most extreme sufferings possible for a human through the process of crucifixion, even death itself, was taken on in order to heal every last one of us of every last one of those dread items, including mortality itself.

The scent of a rose can hardly compare to that.

On the Love of God

For humans, love is an emotion. But for God, love is an integral part of Him: “God is love” (1Jn 4.8,16). We tend to confuse what is our emotional love with Divine Love. To be emotionally close, soft, gentle, kind, and nurturing, all these things modernly emphasized by a kind of “spirituality” today, and emphasized in so many churches and religious writings, are aspects of a merely human love. Divine Love, as part of God Himself, is not such a thing based on comfort, but on perfection: “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48). The emotions are things that can too easily lead us astray from perfection.

“Mastering the passions” is part of the ideal of the desert fathers and mothers — bringing the emotions into submission to the ongoing transformation of the Christian life, being transformed by theosis into something purer, more selfless. We cannot allow ourselves to be led into a path where appeasing our emotions is more important than living a life of transformation — the truly Christian life where we are transformed not separate from the world, but transformed with the world. We are the agents of that transformation, akin to the sculptor with his chisel. The sculptor hugging the rock is not working as he should — he must strike, releasing the image within, transforming a mere rock into something new and more valuable.

I rather see the Divine Love as something sharp, pure, as sharp-slicing as a razor, but as infinite as the universe: as clear and striking as a cold, moonless and cloudless winter’s night full of stars. It’s not focused on a warm bed and a nice shawl, or on “me” (as a congerie of personality traits, quirks, and preferences that “I” would want respected, validated, and loved), but on the incredibly vast change in mind and spirit that would make us all Sons of God through adoption and transformation within the Body of Christ, focused on what we could be. It’s a frightening kind of love, this Divine Love, this love that dismisses what we are for what we could be, and that therefore relates to us on that basis. Such optimism! Such a love! It’s a Personal Love that even so dismisses what we think of as personality these days: preferred clothing, hairstyles, choice of reading/listening material, educational level, etc, all these material aspects of “me-ness” (who are we these days once these are stripped away? would even our families know us?).

That Love seen in the chill winter’s midnight of glinting distant star-lights, in that cold yet burning gaze of Holiness and Eternal Intent, is a Love that we’d do better to remember more often.

I am

“I am.” With this statement is begun an eternal relationship, both a trans-historical and historical relationship. For there is no “I” where there is not also a “you.” For here we have an “I” that always “am,” an eternal state of presence, a self-defined, self-aware existence dependent on no other, and yet implying the existence of another who is not also “I am,” this “I am” who is by nature aside from time, being always “I am,” in an eternal present. And there is the other: the other is a “you” who simply “will be” or “were” or “are” for a time, a kind of “is” which is neither permanent nor self-determined, not subjective but rather objective, quite unlike the “I am.” This “you” is stuck to the historic, not transcending it, not causing it, not separate from it and independent, but this “you” is tied to history and is experiencing it, indeed suffering its imposition with its state of being imposed upon it, not springing outward from it in an act of self-will. And yet, and yet. This “I am” yet says “I am with you always”! Ah, the surprise has been sprung! The relationship is revealed! The relationship of the trans-historical and the historical is established through that process of revelation, with the simple statement “I am.”

This weekend we will celebrate that relationship’s important change in its revelation, from “I am” to “I am here.”

May that God, the I Am, bless those who bless Him!