Friday, February 15, 2008

Orthodoxy & Bridal Mysticism, Part 3 of 3, Doctrine

In bridal mysticism, one ends up very pleased with himself. May quotes Teresa on p. 100: “Teresa says, ‘I can find nothing with which to compare the great beauty of a soul…we can hardly form any conception of the soul’s great dignity and beauty.’ And John, trying to describe the experience of the soul in realized union, says, ‘The soul sees herself as a queen.’” Francis of Assisi said a similar thing: “During my prayer two great lights appeared before me — one in which I recognized the Creator, and another in which I recognized myself.” I remember that once, meditating in a garden, I picked up a rock and immediately had the strong sense that by picking it up, I had blessed it!

That is why, at some point along the way, bridal mystics lose sight of God, an experience they term "the dark night of the spirit".

I was taught that this losing God was a normal development, and a good one, showing great spiritual progress. Imagine, said my teacher, that you are on a spaceship headed for the Sun. Now obviously we can’t really go to the Sun because we’d be burnt up, but this is a thought experiment. Well, then, the Sun would at first appear as a round orb in your window. As you approached nearer and nearer, the orb would grow larger and larger and would occupy more and more of your window space. At some point, you would get so close that the Sun would take up your entire field of vision. And at that point, in effect, you would stop perceiving it. That’s because we perceive by contrast. And there would no longer be anything to contrast with the Sun, nothing except the Sun, no way of distinguishing it from anything else. So it is with God, when one has drawn close to Him. You think you have lost Him because you can no longer distinguish Him from anything else.

But all it really was that caused me to lose sight of God was insufferable pride, as proven by subsequent regrettable episodes in my life. And of course pride will never fail of depriving us of communion with the true God. Far from joining us to God, pride drives us as far from Him as it is possible to get.

It is true that in Orthodoxy, too, at various points along the journey, God will “hide Himself” from us for brief periods to teach us how to trust Him even in the darkness. In this sense, the Orthodox, too, experience “dark nights”. But that is not what is happening when you think you are by nature God!

Orthodoxy has some doctrinal (and other) safeguards against that kind of pride. They aren’t foolproof, for we fools can defeat nearly anything; but they help.

The first is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, not out of anything. It means you are not God by nature. You become God by grace. It means God did not fashion you out of Himself, but out of “dust,” in the immediate sense, and in the ultimate sense, not out of anything at all. (And this in itself is a miracle! How does God, who is everywhere present, “move over”, as it were, and “make room” for beings other than Himself?) Raised from non-being, we, unlike God, are dependent and contingent beings. We depend every moment upon God to keep us in being. God is at our core, says Bishop Kallistos (The Orthodox Way, pp. 56-57) or else we cease to exist. But God’s nature is one thing, and our nature is another thing. Thus our pride finds no gratification in the thought that we have the dignity, majesty, honor and glory of having been born divine. We are indeed born in God’s image, but we have to become divine.

The second doctrine that tends to preserve us from pride is the distinction between the Divine Essence and the Uncreated, Divine Energies. “God is all that He does,” says Bishop Kallistos in The Orthodox Way. (p. 56 in my older edition) His doing is as much Himself as His Being is, but they are not the same.

We can acquire the living of God’s Life and all His attributes, can participate in all the workings of the Holy Trinity. But we can never acquire His Divine Being (Essence), because for starters, the very idea is self-contradictory. Whatever His Being is, God has had it, or rather has been it, from all eternity. If it isn’t something you have been from all eternity, if you have to start being it, it isn’t God’s Being. Our destiny is to be completely united with God – but not with His Essence/Being. We are to be gods but not God, you could say. (Psalm 82:6) We are to be divine; we are to share in all God’s powers and doings, but not in His very Essence. Instead, we are united with Christ in His human nature, and He, in turn is united to the Holy Trinity in His divine nature, so that in His one Person, God and man are joined in a single, divine Person and Life.

Put another way, these two doctrines guard us against pride-inducing pantheism or panentheism. (The question to ask of pantheism and panentheism, which I have never seen credibly answered, is, What’s to make us think God would ever choose to become some creature who/which did not even know he, she, or it was divine? What would motivate God to become, say, a rock, or a squirrel, or a cloud, or a person subject to the illusion that he is non-God? How does God manage to fall prey to this illusion? Does He trick Himself?)

The third guardian doctrine is the teaching on original sin, or what the Orthodox more properly call the ancestral sin. That doctrine, in Orthodox Christianity, is not about inherited guilt, but it is about the enormity of our inherited brokenness, what secular people term, “the human condition”. This doctrine says it takes a whole lifetime to combat the effects in us of that tragic condition. This doctrine keeps us repenting. (And true repentance is not at all morbid, not a form of beating up on oneself, but of turning to new hope, to new life, to forgiveness and new love. True repentance is extremely sweet, because in its midst one discovers and deeply knows the infinite, tender mercy of God.)

Orthodox saints end up not admiring their souls, never satisfied with themselves, but noticing in themselves mainly the ways in which they are still in imperfect union with God (i.e., still separated from Him), still in need of healing. Because they love God so ardently, every remaining thing that keeps them from being perfectly like Him and perfectly joined with Him, however small that may be, seems to them huge. They, with St. Paul, forget those things which are behind and press forward to the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, not imagining they have already attained it. (Philippians 3:13-14) They keep repenting to their last breath.

In short, bridal mysticism is a heady mix of flattery, sublimated sexuality, emotional anesthesia, Gnosticism, and religion on the cheap, with no emphasis upon repentance; for in bridal mysticism, it is usually assumed that one has already pretty well “cleaned up one’s moral act” as a prerequisite for the spiritual journey.

Practicing bridal mysticism for ten years, what I lost first was God. God had been replaced by “God as me”; in other words, by my aggrandized self, as Gerald May describes: “The dawn [after the dark night] is an awakening to a deepening realization who we really are in and with God and the world..." (p. 182) Well, sure. When I fancy God and I have merged into One, guess which of us that One is? It’s me, of course; and God disappears! And least, in bridal mysticism it’s me; in Orthodoxy, it’s Christ. In Orthodoxy, one is united with God in Christ, in Whom both God and man are perfectly preserved.

And then, having first lost God, I lost myself as well, unable to feel, to suffer, to rejoice, to love or even hope to be humble, unable to care about anything or anyone, including God, including myself. It was a living death.

From which Christ raised me. That’s why, when I became Orthodox, I took the name Anastasia, which means Resurrection.

Glory to Him forver and ever!