An Exercise in Wonder

The transcendence of God

God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.

—Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399)

One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony, and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said, “You have not yet found the answer.”

Last of all, he said to Abba Joseph, “And what do you think the text means?” He replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said, ‘I do not know.’”

—The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (sixth century)

Imagine a sheer, steep crag, with a projecting edge at the top. Now imagine what a person would probably feel if he put his foot on the edge of this precipice and, looking down into the chasm below, saw no solid footing nor anything to hold on to.

This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. For here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; our minds cannot approach it.

And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.

—Gregory of Nyssa (d. about 395)

The mystery of the incarnation

God became man so that men might become gods.

—Athanasius (d. 373)

He whom none may touch is seized;

He who looses Adam from the curse is bound.

He who tries the hearts and inner thoughts of man is unjustly brought to trial;

He who closed the abyss is shut in prison.

He who closed the abyss is shut in prison.

He, before whom the powers of heaven stand trembling, stands before Pilate;

The Creator is struck by the hands of his creature.

He who comes to judge the living and the dead is condemned to the cross.

The destroyer of hell is enclosed in a tomb.

O thou who dost endure all these things in thy tender love, Who has saved all men from the curse,

O long-suffering Lord, glory to thee.

—Vespers liturgy for Good Friday

I know that he who is far outside the whole creation

Takes me within himself and hides me in his arms,

And then I find myself outside the whole world.

I, a frail, small mortal in the world,

Behold the Creator of the world, all of him, within myself;

And I know that I shall not die, for I am within the Life,

I have the whole of Life springing up as a fountain within me.

He is in my heart, he is in heaven:

Both there and here he shows himself to me with equal glory.

—Simeon the New Theologian (d. 1022)

The paradoxes of prayer

Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is a mystery of the world to come.

—Isaac the Syrian (d. about 700)

The brethren asked Abba Agathon, “Amongst all our different activities, Father, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?”

He answered, “Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than praying to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, try to prevent him; for they know that nothing obstructs them so much as prayer to God. In everything else that a man undertakes, if he perseveres, he will attain rest. But in order to pray, a man must struggle to his last breath.”

—The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (sixth century)

Think of a man standing at night inside his house, with all the doors closed; and then suppose that he opens a window just at the moment when there is a sudden flash of lightning. Unable to bear its brightness, at once he protects himself by closing his eyes and drawing back from the window.

So it is with the soul that is enclosed in the realm of the senses; if ever she peeps out through the window of the intellect, she is overwhelmed by the brightness, like lightning, of the pledge of the Holy Spirit that is within her. Unable to bear the splendor of unveiled light, at once she is bewildered in her intellect and she draws back entirely upon herself, taking refuge, as in a house, among sensory and human things.

—Simeon the New Theologian (d. 1022)

The further the soul advances, the greater are the adversaries against which it must contend.

Blessed are you, if the struggle grows fierce against you at the time of prayer.

Do not allow your eyes to sleep or your eyelids to slumber until the hour of your death, but labor without ceasing that you may enjoy life without end.

—Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399)

Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the publican and the prodigal son to receive God’s pardon. . . . Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father!

Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The publican’s short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief.

—John Climacus (d. 649)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

—The Jesus Prayer (seventh century)

By various Orthodox writers

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #54 in 1997]

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