“Jesus said…Split a piece of wood. I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.”—from logion 77 of the Gospel of Thomas1
There’s a tradition in Buddhism as it’s practiced in North America called the circle talk. It’s a ceremony of closure at the end of a meditation retreat, at least in the Zen and Vipassana traditions in which I’ve practiced. For those unfamiliar with them, retreats generally consist of multiple days spent sitting motionless on a meditation cushion mentally following one’s breath or concentrating on some confounding question like, “What is my face before my parents were born?” This punctuated only by short periods of walking, meals, work, and sleep during which an attempt is made to maintain the same quality of attention. The circle talk occurs at the end of the final period of “sitting” on the last day. Meditation cushions are drawn around into a circular formation, everyone takes a seat, and, going around the circle one by one, each retreatant is given a chance to say a few words. Because the idea of verbalizing the experience feels counterintuitive to me, and I’d usually prefer to say nothing at all, I’m amazed at the volume of words that gush forth from my co-retreatants. I take the impulse to “share the experience” in this way to be a particularly American phenomenon. I suspect they don’t do circle talks in Asia.
What most often gets expressed in the circle talk, appropriately, is gratitude, for the teacher, for the opportunity for spiritual practice, for the support of fellow retreatants, and such. And then often gratitude for the Buddhist teachings themselves. What surprises me is how often I've heard expressed in these speeches gratitude for the buddhadharma as a kind of refuge from the religion the speaker was raised in, usually Christianity. It’s not uncommon to hear the speaker express a sense of relief for no longer to having to believe in God or to have such a figure breathing down his neck. One sometimes gets the feeling that the person no longer believes in God but is really angry at him, just the same. The God-concept, having been found to be inadequate, is still, oddly, clung to rather than let go of, with as much suffering found in rejecting it as was found in embracing it.
Being confronted with “God” in this way, in the more-or-less atheistic Buddhist context, inspired me to try to articulate for myself and friends as well as I can some of what I myself came to mean when I say “God,” how that relates to the experience I call the life in Christ, and the implications of that experience for me in the past, the present, and the future.
I was fascinated by religion by from the time I can remember, I think because my family, with the exception of one grandmother, had checked out of it a couple generations back, but none of the fascination I had for churches and their mysterious trappings prepared me for the first encounter with Christ. It came through a little book I found among my great-grandmother’s things when we packed up her house to move her into nursing care. It's interesting that I can't recall the title or much specifically about the contents now. I remember only that the cover bore an illustration of Jesus addressing a group of children. It was probably some sort of Sunday school material.
I can’t underestimate the impact of the emotions that came over me from contact with that little book. Something of the charge still lingers even as I recall it at the age of fifty-six. But I think that even back then I understood that the emotions were only a reaction to a perception of some truth that was above or beyond the emotions generated by it. I might not have been able to articulate much about Jesus or his relationship to God back then, but I saw something there of pure love and compassion (for lack of better words, and I can't really think of any better words) that struck me with a shock of reality. It was primal, universal. Any human attempt at kindness I'd experienced previously was a small expression of it, though they all shared in it. This compassion was a fundamental truth of the universe. It was indestructible, more real than real. And this first perception of it—even with all the sentiment attached—was a shock of knowledge. It was a kind of transmittal by Grace (for I'd not been seeking it or striving for it) of something deeply true. The sentimental picture of Jesus on the cover of the little book belied the power of the experience.
Jesus was soon conceptualized on my behalf by the Baptist church my grandmother belonged to (she alone of the entire large extended family), where I got “saved” and baptized sometime after the experience described above and in response to it. The education about God that followed came through Sunday school, and through the Bible as filtered through the Evangelical lens, and through the hymns. I willingly embraced the notion of Jesus as God incarnate because something of that puzzling idea resonated with the profundity of that first encounter, even if the details of how it worked were confusing to a twelve-year-old. Ultimately, most of the concepts I got sold by the Baptists didn't ring true for me, and not much of their teaching (as it manifested in Central California in the 1960s) survived my own unfiltered reading of the Gospels.
I abandoned the Baptists with relief in my later teens, but as my affiliation with organized religion ended, my interest in it, through reading and through observing the lives of those affected by it, only increased. I think what happened was that the early images and concepts about God I'd gotten from the Baptists were revealed to be inadequate, but there was an intuition of the truth of my original experience that I couldn't in honesty abandon. The concepts I'd gotten weren't adequate, but neither did I take them to be completely untrue.
My retreat from religion was reversed, in my twenties, by my encounter with the Orthodox Church. The impression of holiness (again, for lack of a better word) that I got there resonated with my early encounter with Jesus via the Sunday school book in that it seemed to be something other than an intellectual perception. It was an experience that, by that point, I already understood words would betray. Yet, the Orthodox Church was replete with words, concepts, and images, and they were full of beauty. Without completely understanding why at first, I seemed to be able to embrace them wholeheartedly. It went against the grain of my early (and continuing) Zen-like proclivity toward the apophatic way. But something about the conceptualization of God in Orthodoxy just “worked” for me in a profound way.
Why was that so? In making an effort now to analyze the experience with 20/20 hindsight, I'd say it was because there was a basic understanding that the concepts weren't understood as ends in themselves. Expressions of the God-event/experience somehow began with the understanding that any particular word or image is inadequate: If you think “God” is expressible in words, your words are instantly false; but if you think words fail in the face of that experience, you can actually begin to talk about God in truthful ways. Inadequate words like God and Christ and salvation vibrate with truth as soon as you understand they can't contain it. You can even then use words to make theological definitions when that becomes necessary.
I saw an understanding of this in the best of the Church's hymnography, theology, and art. I take the great beauty of much Orthodox iconography to be be a result of this understanding: no picture could describe the ultimate reality had burst upon the world in intelligible form (even if it was said that people for a few years in a very particular place and time could walk with him, talk to him, eat with him, listen to what he said, and observe his actions). The image bore visual testimony to that reality without containing it, without exhausting it. To the extent that the truth expressed in the image compelled you to look past, it, to transcend it. In doing so you did not leave the truth of the image behind as something to be cast off, but recognized it as something to be appreciated, treasured. Veneration made perfect sense.
Was this characteristic of deep-down truthfulness peculiar to Orthodoxy? It seemed so to me at the time, though I was young and inexperienced, and I’d probably just missed it elsewhere. I think anyone with an inclination to understand what's true (ultimately, all of us) eventually gets to that place of understanding, though their own transcended concepts may be expressed other than by the words God and Christ, as was the case with my Buddhist friends. But I can say truthfully that I have always understood the Orthodox Church to have especially preserved this understanding of the utter transcendence of God in this way that, paradoxically, leads to the intimate knowledge of God.
The implications of this kind of experience of truth are threatening to anyone who's bought into the concepts themselves. There's a fear that transcendence will surpass or negate the concept, when the opposite is in fact true. Transcending it reveals its truth unmistakably (or its untruth, if necessary). Many people are threatened by the idea God isn't containable in any concept or image—including the true and good theological definitions that the Fathers of the Church were compelled by circumstances to come up with in order to describe the Christ-event and say some things about what it meant.
I'd go so far as to say that even the Incarnation isn't containable in that millennia-distant event so powerfully preserved in the experience of the Church and expressed in her theology. I'm unable to believe that Christ is limited to that revelation of the God-man who is said to have walked on earth two millennia ago. St. Paul saw Christ in the rock that flowed with water for the Israelites in Egypt,2 and I don't take him to mean that the rock was “just” a symbol (in the sense that symbolic isn't real). Christ is every bit as much here as I drink my coffee and type these words into my laptop. Once you've gotten the hint that God reveals himself within creation, Christ becomes unavoidable. And the words from the Gospel of Thomas above are revealed to be deep-down true: “Split a piece of wood. I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.” The glorious and saving Incarnation is revealed to be an event in time that isn't to be clung to against all other moments in time.
Meister Eckhart says, in the opening lines of his famous sermon on the Nativity:
Here in time we make holiday because the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature. Saint Augustine says this birth is always happening. But if it does not happen in me, what does it profit me? What matters is that it shall happen in me.3
That Christ is born in me (I might revise Meister Eckhart's statement to say us) is indeed the important thing. God's supreme revelation in his self-emptying entry into our world is in fact of no consequence if it doesn't happen in us, if it doesn't turn us around, change us to the core, start us out on the path of our own self-emptying. If we're not struck with the fact of this radical self-emptying, and then if we're not struck with the corresponding revelation of intimacy with our fellow creatures who are all in the same boat, then the event itself doesn't matter. But if it does change us, if it does set us in an eternal process of reorientation toward God, then it wouldn't matter if the Christ event, his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, were somehow “proven” to be mythical rather than literal. So, it seems to me, that even the incarnation as a concept isn't something to be clung to as an end in itself. If I believe literally in every aspect of what is said about this glorious event in the Gospels, the fathers, the definitions of the councils, but am unkind to my brother and unrepentant for the unkindness, it doesn't matter if it happened anyway.
When it came to the ongoing experience I'd call the life in Christ, I found that the truest things I could say about it always sounded paradoxical. I found “God” to be infinitely other. In some ways every further step “toward” him reveals him to be further away, yet every successive revelation of that infinite distance reveals him to be more intimate to me than I am to myself. If I keep talking, the only kinds of statements that arise are paradoxical like that. The movement seems to be ever toward paradox rather than back to anything easily expressible. I wonder if it's true that comprehensibility to the human mind is a sign of untruth.
I don't take any of this to be unimportant to understand. It's not a matter for academic theologians that ordinary people don't need to get. It's not rocket science. You don't have to be especially intelligent to experience it; you don't have to be able to articulate it. It's not the exclusive vocation of monastics or of those with a special interest in mysticism. It's not optional for anyone who aspires to love what's true. Seeing it doesn't turn one into a saint. It turns one into something more of an ordinary person, though an ordinary person with an ever-increasing tendency to be aware of the ways one moves in a different direction, with a resulting natural repentance that's not much different than joy. The effort to empty oneself to God, as manifested in prayer, participation in the sacraments, and so forth, is simply the logical reaction to the experience of God. It's not about praying in expectation of some sort of reward for doing so, whether the hoped-for reward is inner peace or salvation from damnation. It wouldn't matter if the “reward” were inner turmoil or damnation. The response to God isn't results-driven.
The experience also leads me to an awareness that salvation isn't an individual activity, but something that we work on together. The saints aren't pretending to be humble when they see themselves as the greatest of sinners. It's just that the darkness/brightness, the otherness/intimacy of God, reveals to them that none us are significantly different from one another. One could even say there's no “progress” in salvation, since every moment of the journey reveals how limitless it is, to the extent that the notion of any of us being in some way further along it than our brother or sister is laughable. I don't believe Christ ate with the tax collectors and sinners as a ministry to the fallen, but in witness to the fact that there's no essential difference between any of us.
This life in Christ, this life of communion with God and my fellow beings in response to God's compassionate revelation of himself to the world, is something that's experienced rather than explained or codified. Saying much about it is difficult, because, like I said before, paradoxical statements arise as soon as you try. It can be spoken of, of course, and even codified into theology if it needs to be. St. Gregory Palamas described the relationship wonderfully well, it seems to me, to the extent I've been able to read and understand him, mostly by way of the work of Fr. John Meyendorff. But people had the experience of this truth long before he made the distinction between Essence and Energies, and people continue to experience it who have no knowledge of or interest in his brilliant articulation of it. People get confused by theology, so often taking it to be of greater importance than the reality it describes. For that reason, remaining silent is usually the best practice, unless speaking up becomes necessary in the face of falsehood, as it did with such urgency for St. Gregory.
Much of the above is missing from—or even quite at odds with—Christianity as it's very often taught. And because so, my Buddhist brothers and sisters likely do well to reject the concepts they received about “God.” But the trap I saw some of them falling into was a sort of forceful pushing away of concepts rather than just letting them go. Then a kind of identification of themselves with their rejection in a way that led to the “not-believing-in-God-but-mad-at-him-anyway” behavior that I observed and chuckled about.
But there's a subset of Orthodox Christians who don't feel significantly different to me than these God-hating Buddhist friends. These are the ones for whom “believing in God” is just the flip-side of the Buddhists' rejection of God: rather than rejecting the concept, they cling to it as though it were a raft on a turbulent sea, hoping that if they say they “believe” that the raft will save them. The only sort of God that can be clung to like that is an idea about God, and any idea about God is inevitably unsatisfying. It doesn't matter if the God-concept is something as simple as My Big Imaginary Friend or something much more sophisticated. Even profoundly true words like “ineffable, inconceivable, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same,” can also be made untrue by making them ends in themselves. It seems to me there is little difference between rejecting an inadequate “God” and clinging to one in “faith.” Both modes confuse concept for reality.
This version of Christianity in which God basically becomes an idol has always existed, of course, and probably always will, as a kind of doppelgänger of the harder-to-pin-down genuine life in Christ. People bought into that regrettable version of truth aren't better or worse particularly that those who've had the grace to see past it, and among them are people of genuine good will. But when their view becomes dominant enough to overshadow the vision of the Christ who is inexhaustible, I can only see it as a tragedy for everyone, especially them. Their comfortable ideology is on the rise in Orthodox Christianity in America, and our odd little sect is ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught.
It's ironic, because it should have been otherwise. The brilliant and naive Frenchified-Russian Orthodox theologians who landed in the United States after World War II were responsible for opening a lot of eyes to the freedom that comes from the experience of truth of Christ. They were steeped in the teachings of the Orthodox Church fathers, but, having grown up in emigration, educated in the Western intellectual tradition, they were unable to ignore some aspects of the world outside the boundaries of their Church. I suspect that experience may have contributed to the clarity of their vision. They transmitted their experience to many, but not everyone, even among those closest to them, necessarily got it, and some even seem to have taken their message to be something other than what it really was: something to do with Orthodoxy as a banner to be waved with the pride of identity, or of attachment to ancientness or correctness, or even scholarship.
Their message is obscured more and more these days as people go the opposite direction and take the mental easy way out of constructing a church of concepts one mustn't to look past. This shouldn't be surprising, as it's always been easier to construct a comprehensible God than it is to live with the truth of paradox, and it always will be. But the situation has gotten considerably worse in recent years, as the Orthodox Church in the U.S. has been inundated with people from the Evangelical churches for whom “faith” too often means abandoning reason in the face of the revelation of Christ. Christ thus becomes a concept that can't be looked past, a concept who must be clung to in order to avoid the hell they fear being cast into by not embracing it. Not having understood the life in Christ to be something profoundly different than that, they strain to make the Orthodox Church conform to their truncated vision, and they flee to it as a more theologically and ethically conservative version of the same thing they were doing before, with a beautiful liturgy. If they made an idol of the Bible before, they can now do the same to Tradition, fathers, hymnography, icons. They seem to be succeeding in remaking the Orthodox Church in America into something that suits their purposes, helped along by like-minded folks who already inhabited the church when they arrived. These are the people who may ultimately be responsible for my excommunication.4
I can't say it won't be heartbreaking if this happens (and, the way things are going now, it would be unrealistic not to be prepared for the possibility), not just for me and others like me, but for all Orthodox Christians whose confrontation with Truth makes it impossible for them to exclude us or to themselves remain in communion with those who would. Though, as heartbreak goes, it won't come close to the suffering so many other people have endured throughout the history of the world. That puts things in perspective. But in the midst of the sadness there will also be a good deal of cause for encouragement.
For myself, I have the blessing of having had some preparation for this exclusion. I spent several years away from the Church dealing with the many things I hate about it, and I missed it terribly the whole time. From that experience I came to see that longing is in itself a kind of participation of a sort I can't be excluded from. I also can also take my excommunication as an offering in the Church's ongoing effort to understand what's true. Progress in that realm seldom happens overnight, and I take to be a worthwhile thing to bear witness to the point of being excluded from the Church. That would also be in itself a kind of participation.
But the main source of happiness comes from my knowledge that it's impossible to take away the experience of my life in Christ as I've tried to express it above or to eradicate my participation in it. I can be excluded from the Church's sacramental life, but no one can take from me the experience of the encounter. I can't be set in another direction by anyone but myself. I suspect that exclusion from the sacraments would make this feeling only stronger.
For the most important thing I seem to have discovered in this life in Christ is that it happens eternally right now: the way to God is open before me at every moment. The truth Christians identify with the person of Christ is experienced with great and subtle power in the Church's teaching and its sacraments, but it is in no way limited to them. It’s right here in this moment, in this cafe, as I sit drinking coffee and typing these words on my laptop. Christ is inexhaustible, and, once you've gotten the most gracious hint, unavoidable. All I have to do is split a piece of wood, lift up a rock, or return the waitress's smile as she pours a refill.
There's nothing to worry about.
1. Translated from the Coptic by Marvin Meyer, from his Gnostic Bible (Boston: New Seeds, 2009).
2. 1 Corinthians 10:4.
3. Franz Pfieffer, trans. Meister Eckhart (London: John M. Watkins, 1956).
4. For anyone reading this who doesn't know me, the reason for my excommunication would be the fact that I am gay and in a relationship with a man, for which I have not to date repented. Details of how I came to be in this position in conflict with what is said by many to be the church's teachings will have to be left for another essay. As aspiration to truth compels me to always hold in my heart the possibility that God will reveal to me I am wrong in this, and that I'm suffering from willful self-delusion on the matter, though that hasn't happened yet.