Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Divine LIght, Theosis and the 'new mysticism' a scattering of thoughts

The image of the Sacred Heart, like the image of the Divine Mercy which is closely resembles, came from a concrete mystical experience. In the substance of the material world, the Uncreated manifested Himself, and in this particular instance as light and flame.  Saint Margaret Mary had frequent visions of the  Sacred Heart of Jesus.  According to Saint Margaret Mary, His Divine Heart was "more radiant than the sun and as transparent as crystal," with its adorable wound visible, and as a "furnace" of burning flames. Teilhard responds with a sense of the energy of love, and makes this the centre of his devotion.

Interestingly, in the eastern Church the image of light and fire as manifestations of God’s energies has a vital place in Hesychast spirituality. I explored the idea of the divine energies in my last post.

Aristotle Papanikolaou Papanikolaou, in his book “Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, And Divine-Human Communion” summarises the teaching of a contemporary Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas who shifts the emphasis about the understanding of the energiesthat is to be found in the work of Vladimir Lossky, that we looked at in the last post:

“Zizioulas “emphatically affirms that an energy is never apersonal. The energies of God are communicated only through the persons of the Trinity. This emphasis on the personal character of energies is indicative of the primacy of an ontology of personhood and communion in Zizioulas’s thought. Second, salvation is not described for Zizioulas as an increase in participation in the divine energies, but as the transformation of being into true personhood in the person of Christ. For Zizioulas, the essence/energies distinction is ‘nothing else essentially, but a device created by the Greek Fathers to safeguard the absolute transcendence of God without alienating Him from the world.’ The energies are God’s actions in the world and are saving events. The ultimate saving event, though not excluding the divine energies, is not simply a matter of God’s action, but a relational event of communion that constitutes human personhood as true personhood in the image of Christ.””

This idea of ‘a relational event of communion’ is surely a description of love, and that this is about becoming truly who we are as persons through participation in Christ is surely akin to the Teilhardian idea about love as the evolutionary force or energy in humanity and the cosmos, at least as David summarises the position: “Teilhard rather uniquely places the potential which humanity has for love as the driving force of evolution, rather than self-interest. The future of mankind would be all about how humanity harnessed the energy of love, as in the past it had been the story of man’s ability to make use of the energy contained in matter.”

If these energies of God are never apersonal, they must therefore be manifested in profoundly personal ways, that is in ways which draw us into being more truly personable, that is in relationship one with another. As Papanikolaou puts it, "Personhood is the goal; the means are the energies of God conveyed through the person of the Holy Spirit. One assimilates more fully in personal existence the energies of God already present throughout the creation." In the Person of Jesus we see our humanity lived perfectly personably, in relationship to His Father, to Himself, and to others. The Gospel is a reading of our humanity unveiled in its glory, a glory of love for neighbour and above all of God revealed in the Person of the Word as the Loving Father. What David has written echoes this: ‘This, it seems to me, is the challenge highlighted by Teilhard: how to harness the mystical experience and vision of love with our experience of human problems which as so often the result of hate, despair and lack of trust.”

In classic Christian spirituality, both east and west, this process of union with God, theosis, is usually focused on the ascetic ideal, of an individual person in love with God to the point of transcendence from the material world. However, if the emphasis is shifted slightly, to the transformation of the human person into an ever deeper personableness, that manifests itself not just in love for God but actualised in a deeper participation in the love of God for all creatures, especially his or her fellow human persons, then I think we find ourselves with a vision of theosis that engages profoundly with the public space, as for example in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who strove to ensure that Jesus’ love was satiated by, for example, ensuring that no one died unloved and alone. Her inspiration she found in a deep Eucharistic spirituality, which is an important connection back to David’s post about Eucharistic Adoration.

The classic mystical manifestation of this personable energy is as light and fire, the roots of which reach back the Transfiguration, and further still to the manifestation of God’s Name to Moses at the Burning Bush. I think I will return to this in greater details in future posts, as it is an important grounding in the spirituality of iconography, but at this point I would just like to highlight something that St Gregory of Nyssa explains about the nature of this experience:

“ Lest one think that the radiance did not come from a material substance, this light did not shine from some luminary among the stars but came from an earthly bush and surpassed the heavenly luminaries in brilliance” Life of Moses. He sees in this manifestation a pre-figurement of the Incarnation: Mary bore and gave birth to God without being destroyed by the divine presence just as the Bush was on fire without being consumed. 

The Uncreated energies manifest themselves in the created order as Light, flame, fire. Yet in the end, the journey of becoming takes you beyond the knowable, the perceivable into a deep and intense darkness of ‘knowing the unknowable’. Here science and human rationality cannot go. So science, as a sort of mysticism, can take you to the edge of knowing but beyond into God, can lead you to wonder and awe through comprehension of discernable realities but beyond that faith alone can lead. Thus there are limits to the rational quest but the quest itself is without end. Essentialy evolutionary. As St Gregory writes: “Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied”.

This quotation is cited by an eminent Orthodox iconographer, Solrunn Nes, in her book ‘The Uncreated Light’ in chapter 2. She says succinctly, “In Bethlehem God clothes himself in man’s nature, on Tabor he manifests his divine nature”. Here, in the manifestation of the Uncreated Light, we have the immanence of the Creator in the created order, experienced mystically but rooted in the enfleshment, the incarnation of the Divine Logos. God enters into the scientific order, as it were. We could take a hair from his head and put it under a microscope. And we can behold the glory of His Uncreated Light which takes us far beyond the microscope, beyond the infinitude of human wonder at the cosmos and the order and beauty of creation, to the very portal of God Himself, known as Unknowable, leaving us breathless at the sheer enormity and yet simplicity of it all. And this is the point where again we can return to Teilhard, and his idea of ‘the new mysticism’; again I quote from David: “an organic and evolutionary view of the universe now pointed towards a new way of thinking which could satisfy the mystic and the scientist.”.

Reflecting this back upon the story of our world, the cosmos, and critically our humanity, David  explains that for Teilhard “the critical energy in the evolutionary story of the future would be mystical not material: the mystical energy at the heart of matter – the Sacred Heart’. This is surely what Metropolitan John Zizioulas is pointing to, albeit from the approach of traditional Christian mysticism, and which Mother Teresa has lived out in the very concrete realities of her vocation on streets of the great city slums.

If I could add my own reflection here. The aim of the Christian life, as understood within its classical mystical tradition, is theosis –  which we can define as a re-uniting of created with the Creator, more than a restitution but a reinstatement of a projection, a destiny, a going forth and a returning to. The more we enter into this the more human we become, the less isolated both in and from ourselves, and the more deeply ‘at one’ (atonement) with our self, our neighbour, our world and with God. The unity of all things, the ultimate experience of which is the union between the human person and God Himself.

Science presumes an order, a unity, a connectedness between all things that is harmonious, detectable and decipherable. This is perhaps something of what Theilhard means by calling science ‘the new mysticism’? The universe not as a mechanism, but as an organism, something organic, inter-related, evolving, becoming.

The inter-relatedness of all creatures, the needing of the other which is presumed in the idea of something being organic, the sense of destiny and becoming that underlines the idea of evolution, Theilard views through a Christian paradigm, the paradigm of love which is simply the union of all things, even to the point of the sacrifice of the self.

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