The tiny stone church of Osios David, named for a saint who lived in a nearby tree, is up a steep hill in the Ano Poli neighborhood of Thessaloniki, Greece. It’s thought to have been built in the late fifth or the early sixth century as part of the long-gone Latomou Monastery. It now seems to serve as the neighborhood parish, but the nave is so small that it couldn’t hold many people even if they were to spill out onto the pretty terrace, which I assume they do on feast days.
The mosaic of Christ in the semi-dome of the apse is the main attraction. It’s from the same era as the church’s construction, thus it’s one of the rare examples of a large Christian image that pre-dates the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. It’s said to have been successfully hidden from the anti-image activists under a goatskin. A few hundred years later, it was plastered over by the Muslims who prayed there during the Ottoman period, only to be rediscovered in the 1920s around the time of the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece that took place then, when many of the churches that had been made into mosques were restored to their original purposes.
The Divine Liturgy was in progress when I arrived, with about twenty people crowded into the cramped space. I had read that the church had originally been cruciform, but that at some point the bottom part of the cross was lost, so it’s now a sort of inverted “T” shape, with the nave like a narrow hallway oriented north-to-south and the altar occupying the upper part of the cross. I maneuvered myself into a spot in front of the iconostasis that allowed me as good a view as possible of the mosaic above and behind it.
Though it’s marvelously, miraculously, intact, the image is still somewhat hard to read apart from the main figure, whether that’s because the peripheral figures are so subtly colored, or because it’s need of cleaning, or just because the church is dark, I don’t know. It’s an image based on the vision of the first chapter of Ezekiel: Christ appears in the middle of a bright mandorla that serves as his chariot, seated on the arc of a rainbow. Peering from behind the bright circle (if the mandorla were a compass, at northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest) are the beasts that came to symbolize for Christians the four evangelists: a winged man, a bull, an eagle, and a lion. Each holds a book.
It’s the lion, the symbol of St. Mark, at the southwest that first caught my attention. He looks to the side with an un-lionlike demeanor that combines elements of intelligence, obedience, and possibly weariness. I get the feeling that he doesn’t need this Divine manifestation, but he’s dutifully lending a hand in it anyway. He waits, a ferocious beast become an obedient kitten, to see what happens next. He might be growling, but he might also be purring.
The lion is only one of the elements of this exceptionally affecting image that goes against the grain of my expectations. For one thing, its color and composition don’t fit perfectly with the medieval-and-later iconography that fills my mental image banks. But it’s the face of Christ that completes the disorientation: he is beardless, like a youth or an angel—neither Semitic sage nor Pantocrator. His descent into the cosmos seems to reveal that he was never absent from it, and this Christ seems human enough to share in our surprise in this. His descent is a reminder of the glory that’s already there more than it is an inauguration of anything new.
The image struck me as a visual reference to Logos, that principle that gets translated from Greek into English as Word, and that might be identified as that aspect of God1 through whom the cosmos is created or sustained—though I think that phrase is far enough off as to be misleading. I take Logos to be one of our attempts to put words on the reality to which the word God refers—that reality for which words can be only provisional.
Logos is identified with Christ in the opening lines of the Gospel of John, where, in a preview of the paradoxical language that must plague theology, it is asserted to be both God and with God. I’m not sure, but I think it might have been St. Athanasius of Alexandria who first identified the Logos with the second person of the Trinity, in that age when Christians were struggling to deal with the conviction that God could not accurately be spoken of as monad. But the notion of Logos had been brought up by Greek philosophers half a millennium or so before Christ to speak of a kind of reason or principle that permeates the universe and orders it. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria picked the term up from Greek philosophy and started speaking of Logos both as Divine pattern and even as a kind of intermediary between God and humankind. The idea resonated with Hebrew notions of God’s word or wisdom having some sort of independent identity. Perhaps it was a way to make sense of the fact that, though God was taken to be so far beyond our ability to comprehend that it was best not even to speak his name, experience showed that there were comprehensible things about God as well.
Logos helps us makes sense of the confounding encounter with God. Experience confirms to me that this encounter is above or beyond anything I can comprehend—to the extent that I can’t even speak of “it” in terms of “reality” or even “existence.” Ineffable or Uncreated may be among the most useful noun/adjectives, even though they fall short. Neither my body nor my mind (all I’ve got) are capable of comprehending it fully. Yet I’m confronted by the impression that God is also profoundly intimate with creation, and closer to me than I am to myself (closer to me than my own jugular vein, to use a famous image from the Qur’an). To identify the aspect of this God-beyond-all-knowledge that's intimate with creation and name it Logos helps in talking about it. But then, the very act of identifying Logos reveals that there can be no division between God-the-expressed and God-the-ineffable. There are no parts.
Though it’s as imperfect a way of speaking about God as any other, I believe the Logos-Ineffable distinction and the inevitable blurring of the distinction that follows point to an experience everyone ultimately moves toward—anyone who isn’t hijacked along the way by the seductive comfort of idolatry in its myriad forms. I see what I take to be attempts to describe it throughout the religious traditions and outside them as well. Something like the Intimate/Ineffable experience is reported by most of the people who get labeled mystic in any religion. It especially resonates in me with the concept of Tao that so influenced Chinese philosophy and later Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen: the unproduced producer of all that is, invisible in itself, but from which all appearance derives. The opening lines of the great Taoist classic Tao Te Ching declare that:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
But then just a couple lines further down that:
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth.2
It’s not surprising that the Greek word Logos was rendered “Tao” by the Nestorian Christian missionaries who first translated the Gospel of John into Chinese.
We Christians say, along with that Gospel, that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. But that often seems to be taken to mean that God didn’t dwell among us before the Christ event, other than for a few spectacular manifestations perhaps meant to make us aware of his existence and to scare us into participation with him through hope or analogy. If this is indeed the Church’s teaching (and there’s pretty good evidence for it in the iconography and the hymns), it’s a point I disagree with. The Incarnation seems to me something more like a reminder. Maybe the astonishing thing about it wasn’t so much that God was seen in an intimate fashion, but that he was revealed to have been with us all along. The separation between Divine and human was an illusion we perpetrated ourselves. Wisdom and Compassion had always flowed relentlessly toward us who were inured to them. That is to say, things weren’t really so much different than they are now.
This revelatory reminder is what the mosaic of Osios David represented to me: Christ’s right hand, raised in blessing, calls our attention to the God-infused glory that can never be absent. The lion, not particularly in need of the reminder but along for the ride, already understands.
As I stood staring at the image, an old woman came up to me. “Orthodoxos?” she asked. I nodded, which seemed to please her and possibly kept me from losing my spot in front of the iconostasis. It was one of those situations in which I’d have been more comfortable just saying no, but I decided to tell the truth.
The odd combination of feeling at home in an Orthodox church combined with an accompanying feeling of being profoundly out-of-place goes back to the first time I walked into one for a service back in Kodiak, Alaska, in the mid-1970s. There was an instant impression of such familiarity that my mind struggled in vain to find a memory to explain it. Accompanying this was the much more reasonable impression that I had no business being in that exotic environment apart from tourism. My reception into the Church in 1979 did nothing to alter the dual impression of intimacy and alienation, and the passage of time didn’t change things much either, despite the increasing flow into the Church of converts like me. This may have something to do with my reaction to the extremes of good and evil I encountered there. But it may also just be related to the fact no matter how deeply the Church became home for me, I was never able to leave behind where I’m from. Not that I ever wanted to. I’ll always be a kid from the San Joaquin Valley, where incense is never smelt in churches, and from an extended family that was hardly ever inside one anyway. An ancient church like Osios David is a place where it’s natural to hit the intimacy/alienation experience head-on with particular force. These people have the Orthodox faith in their blood in a way a grafted branch like me never will. This is neither good nor bad. There are advantages and disadvantages.
Judging from subject matter of the little silver votive offerings, or tamata, attached to the main icon of the church's patron, St. David seems to specialize in interceding for those in need of spouses or children. Though I have no problem with asking for the saints’ prayers, I register a bit of a negative reaction to the tamata, just based on the superstitious mind-set I’ve encountered a few times among those into such things (like the idea that if you don’t leave a little offering on the icon, the saint will probably punish you with a divorce or take the child away, or something like that). Maybe this church occupies the site of an earlier pagan temple, and similar offerings were made to whatever deity was associated with it. Maybe he or she was also a specialist in romance or fertility and the requests simply got transferred to St. David at some point. Maybe the Muslims who prayed in this edifice for several hundred years asked the same favors of some Sufi saint here, as they sometimes do.
One often hears Orthodox Christians, highly regarded and influential ones, repeat the meme that our faith is not a religion. By this they mean that the word religion refers to an enterprise that’s concerned with something other than communion with the ineffable God and each other. By implication, those who participate in religion are misguided. How do those who hold this view regard what they probably see as the “religious” aspects of our church, like practice of asking God or the saints to give us what we think we want, and all the superstitions that sometimes go with that?
In the case of the tamata, their judgments probably range from the idea that the practice was made holy by Christ and that asking the saint for a husband is essentially different from asking Aphrodite for one—all the way to scorn for such things as pagan survivals that need to be expunged (and good luck with that). But then, what about the other questionable beliefs and practices we came up with all on our own that are much worse, that seem even antithetical to the experience of God? Labeling as religion anything that doesn’t have the God-encounter at heart and then eschewing it would work only if we had incontrovertible knowledge of what leads to that encounter and what doesn’t. I don’t believe we can be confident about having that sort of knowledge.
If you follow the street from Osios David directly down the hill toward the harbor, you’ll pass the cathedral in which lie the earthly remains of St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359).3 St. Gregory, a one-time Athonite monk of the Great Lavra who later became bishop of this city (with numerous adventures before, during, and after) is known as the theologian of hesychasm, as the one who articulated the experience of God of those who practiced unceasing prayer according to the Orthodox tradition. It’s an experience that articulation doesn’t serve, and the only reason to attempt saying anything about it at all is in response to some untruth about it that’s being said. That was exactly the reason for St. Gregory’s theological battle with Barlaam of Calabria, an opponent of the hesychasts, who seemed to argue that God’s transcendence made him effectively unknowable by us other than possibly through analogy.
The experience of those who prayed showed otherwise. The non-thing we talk about when we say “God” is so beyond our created existence that “he” could be said not to exist, “his” otherness too radical to be grasped by the mind. Yet, there is an equally radical experience of intimacy that can’t be denied: of that ineffable, ungraspable, uncreated non-thing being closer to me than the aforementioned jugular vein; intimate enough that I’m compelled to speak of “him” in the personal terms that have been used throughout history. St. Gregory made sense of this in words through his famous distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies. If I understand it correctly, he meant something like this: that aspect of God in which we participate, of which we have intimate knowledge, he identified as God’s energies, which he was able to distinguish from God’s essence, which remains beyond being, knowledge, and so forth. But in making the distinction between essence and energies, one must acknowledge that God can’t be separated into two parts. This was a way of putting in words the experience of those who prayed: God as radically other and intimately knowable. What’s especially interesting to me is that St. Gregory recognized that our knowledge of God is in itself supra-rational. God is above knowledge, and our knowledge of him happens beyond knowledge too (everything in this realm sounds paradoxical when you try to put words on it). The perception is beyond or above our created bodies or minds, beyond intellect, beyond emotion, even while none of those aspects of us is negated or unaffected. Indeed, we employ them all in approaching God. They are, as I noted before, all we’ve got.
How does the experience of God articulated by St. Gregory relate to religion, whatever religion is? It seems to me that the God who is beyond ideas and concepts is indeed beyond religion too, including the Orthodox Christian religion in which I participate. But I don’t believe this excludes Orthodox Christianity from the category of religion. I wonder if the relationship between religion and the encounter with God might in some way be analogous to the relationship between essence and energies, or to the relationship between the Logos and the Ineffable. Seen that way, religion can be taken to be creaturely phenomenon infused with the uncreated, a phenomenon capable of waking us up to the reality of the Uncreated.
The problem with religion is that it so seldom moves us in the direction of that awakening, or if it does, we too often end up snagged on a concept about God that misses the point. Or sometimes religion acknowledges the ineffable God while denying the possibility of communion with him (effectively reviving the position of Barlaam of Calabria). Or sometimes it acknowledges the supra-rational knowing St. Gregory described, but only as something properly to be left to the experts (in our church, usually monastics or academic theologians) and not appropriate for us ordinary people. It’s no wonder that those who’ve encountered God often want to dissociate themselves from religion, or to describe what they’re about in something other than religious terms (or to reject “God” altogether, of course). But I find the whole realm of religion too complicated to make such a distinction myself. If religion doesn’t lead to God, it sometimes teaches people to be kind and ethical, and even aspiring to those qualities can’t help but set us in a God-ward direction, even if we get misled along the way by one of the religious teachings that sets up a roadblock. Kindness is never misdirected.
Religion, Orthodoxy included, often serves people simply as a source of comfort, God being envisioned as some sort of invisible, ever-empathetic friend who can be taken to be on our side or who can be appealed to give us what we think we want. It’s a fairly childish view, but there’s some truth in it, and my encounter with people of a sincere, childlike faith makes it impossible for me to dismiss it. Religion also serves the useful function of identity or community, or it provides a language of symbols to use in making sense of psyche and cosmos. It’s inevitable that religion serves this function, as psyche and cosmos are much in need of being made sense of. The trinkets hanging from the icon of St. David fit in there somewhere.
Some of these above-noted functions are what likely come to mind for the Orthodox who claim that what they’re doing isn't religion (though the claim is, amusingly, cross-traditional. My Buddhist friends never seem to tire of making the identical claim). But I don’t find it useful to draw a line between what I do and what others do, and then to identify what others do by the word religion. In my experience, to draw such a line—in religion or any other matter, other than for convenience’s sake—and then to cling to that division, generally leads me into a lie. The lie in this case would have to do with my denial of what is good and true about religion and of my own participation it.
This is complicated by the fact that much—maybe most—of religion has little to do even with the matters of value mentioned above, and much of the work of religious people is to be abhorred: from pogroms to puritanism, from fundamentalism that denies the intellect to intellectualism that makes an idol of itself, to the successful selling of hatred as compassion and stupidity as wisdom, as so often happens these days. The current crop of newly unashamed atheists who write with such wit do a good work in exposing religion as a perversion of truth and for empowering people to think critically about it. I agree wholeheartedly with most of what they say.
But I’m kept from joining their ranks because I must confess that it was religion, the religious tradition of Orthodox Christianity specifically, that first pointed me in the direction of intimacy with God that’s beyond reason and understanding yet that doesn’t leave reason or understanding behind. It’s the experience to which the words of St. Gregory Palamas point, as does the arrangement of those tiny bits of stone in the apse of Osios David. It’s the experience that can’t even be called “experience” and for which reflections like this one struggle to point to without ever succeeding. Maybe, instead of distinguishing religion from not-religion, I can more accurately say that religion serves its purpose whenever it leads us that way too, and misses its purpose when it leads elsewhere, as it usually seems to. That keeps me from making the false distinction, and it keeps me from placing an unfair judgment on religious people of good will.
When I think of religion, I’m reminded of the Zen admonition to think of the teachings as a finger pointing at the moon: one is told to avoid the trap of focusing on the finger as though it were the moon—focusing on religion as though it were God, one might say. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. But I think there’s a corresponding trap that has to do with disregarding the finger, even scorning it, because it’s, well, not the moon. Without the finger, few find the “moon,” and for that reason the finger is of inestimable value. As wildly problematical as it is, I find religion to be of inestimable value.
Like the finger pointing to the moon, I believe, the Orthodox Christian faith is capable of leading us to the encounter with God, but as soon as it’s focused on as an end in itself, it leads elsewhere. And it’s easy to make religion into idolatry and our God into an idol about as useful as Baal or Marilyn Monroe—that is, useful, but to a limited degree. This temptation to idolatry in religion isn’t limited to such things as praying to St. David for a wife. It hovers around the most exalted of concepts. One can read the words of St. Gregory Palamas or exult in the beauty of the Christ of Osios David and still participate in the idolatry. It’s possible to immerse oneself in theology or iconology even to the point of becoming an expert while allowing the truthful words and images to obscure God like a veil. It happens all the time. And I think religion, even unenlightened, superstitious “folk” religion can probably lead to God. It seems presumptious to think otherwise. Perhaps someone, sometime, through entreating St. David for love or fertility, discovered her desires to be insubstantial before God. And thus, perhaps through her very desire for something earthly, she had her eyes opened to that journey that transcends everything earthly. It’s possible to imagine one of those little silver tamata to be an offering in gratitude for just such an experience. Such considerations further disincline me to draw a line between religion and God.
If it’s true—as is often said by people with radically different agendas for saying so—that the God-man Jesus had no intention of founding a religion, my guess is that he knew that it was inevitable that one would arise out of our encounter with him anyway. I even imagine him pondering it. Say it came to mind during his sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism, after his temptation by Satan, after his time with the wild beasts referred to in the Gospel of St. Mark (maybe there was a lion). He knew that at its best this religion could, through words, images, and practices, preserve the experience of intimacy with the Ineffable that he embodied and that it could lead people in that direction. He also knew that at its worst (and, if he was omniscient, he knew it would mostly be worst) it would cause people to latch onto the words, images, and practices in a way that inhibited or even angrily prevented the encounter. And he saw that there was a lot of space in between those two possibilities too. Maybe he shrugged, sighed, and said to himself, “Well...what can I do?” as he headed back into Galilee to offer himself to the world.
After the Liturgy there was a panikhida, and several bowls of kolyva, the sweetened boiled wheat for commemoration of the dead, were blessed. I stood for a while looking at the image, clinging to the feeling that it aroused in me, which was made more poignant by the knowledge that I might not see it again. I took a photograph of it, which didn’t turn out very well, and which conveyed nothing of the experience I had in seeing it. The same old lady who'd inquired about my religion beckoned me out onto the terrace where the kolyva was being spooned into little paper cups and distributed among those who remained. When we determined we had no language in common, we smiled at each other and sat down on the terrace to eat it together.
1. I use the word God to refer to that reality-beyond-reality that words belie. I understand the baggage that word carries, and I understand why the myriad unworthy concepts it has come to stand for cause many people to reject it. Among those who have abandoned the word, I notice a striving for some other word that has fewer negative associations. The “Universe” is a popular modern substitute I hear people use a lot, but I find that effort to expand the concept only serves to limit it more, since what we’re referring to is beyond universe (and, interestingly, when I hear the “Universe” invoked, it’s usually by someone asking the Universe for employment, material success, or a romantic partner, just as “God” might have been entreated for those things previously). But I don’t use the word God provisionally or simply for convenience, because it’s the word (along with its equivalent in other languages) that has been used by the people who are my ancestors in this faith, for whom I can have nothing other than gratitude. And I recognize that words are not irrelevant. And in the word God I see the ages-old collective process of our coming around again and again to be surprised by the reality the word points to, to have our ideas about it smashed and transcended. And I see that ongoing process in myself as well, and this word helps me not to lose sight of that.
2. This is Derek Lin’s translation from www.taoism.net, but there are many other English translations, all worth reading and comparing, since the original Chinese is said to be so wonderfully rich with possibilities that multiple translations make much sense.
3. Most of us non-academics who know anything about St. Gregory’s theology, do so through the work of Fr. John Meyendorff of blessed memory. Fr. John is the person responsible for reviving interest in St Gregory in our time and for making known the critical importance of his articulation of our church’s theology of prayer.
In his Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, St. Gregory emphasizes that the Christian experience of God is unique, and that it should be carefully distinguished from anything that happens outside the Christian faith. It’s an us-them attitude that goes back to the early Church, seen in such anti-Gnostic works as Irenaeus of Lyon’s Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (does the title signal that it might not be a fair treatment?). It’s discouraging to me that, six hundred years after St. Gregory, this Christian tradition of dismissing the possible wisdom of non-Christian traditions without making the slightest effort to understand them isn’t challenged, even by someone as brilliant as Fr. John. Fr. John is careful to dismiss the physical methods of the hesychasts (involving breathing and concentration) even as he acknowledges them, and to note “the gulf that separates hesychast mysticism from Hindu nirvana.” (St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, p. 109). “Hinduism” is a term that refers to an extremely diverse range of religious philosophies of the Indian subcontinent, so diverse that it’s impossible to refer to a single sort of religious experience among them. And nirvana—the blowing out of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion—is a concept from Buddhism. It’s my hope that Fr. John belongs to the last generation of Christians for whom it will be acceptable not to care about getting things right about “paganism” or to assume that Christ has nothing to do with the experience of any of our brothers and sisters who seek what’s true. Such a dismissal seems to me to have to do with a kind of fear that has nothing to do with the life in Christ. If “Hindu nirvana” turns out to be in some way related to what we experience in Christ, it won't be a challenge. And if it turns out not to be the same thing we’re seeking, we can identify that fact without being afraid of it or making it into a straw-man. Such fear-reduction, it seems to me, could be one of the great blessings to come from our new, inevitably multicultural, world.