Friday, July 31, 2009

The glare of glory…

While praying the night before last, I had an insight into the apophatic dimension of worship. Apophatic worship is always asymptotic, ever approaching the goal of its adoration while never fully attaining it. Apophatic theology (否定神學) assures us that what we know of God means what we know of God is so much less than who God is in Himself. We know God, that is, by not knowing Him. He is known to us most deeply precisely in the act of not knowing Him fully. This asymptotic yearning for God instills in us humility and hope, the former because our unbridgeable distance from God reminds us how low we are, the latter because we may seek Him forever without exhausting the riches of His goodness. [Interesting link, btw.]

I had this insight while praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The "coda" of the chaplet is to pray three times, "Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world." My custom is to raise a crucifix or icon in both hands and bow each time I chant "the whole world." A very good friend of mine had bought me a beautiful small triptych (三折聖畫像) of Christ Pantokrator while he was in Ireland last year. The sacred image is pressed on wood with thin golden foil (or gilded paper?). As I beheld the icon over my head, I noticed how it shimmered as my hands moved. I leaned the icon back a hair and suddenly it shone with rippling golden light (reflected by my overhead lamp behind me). All I felt I could do was hold the icon there, that way, basked in light, a light which, in fact, blinded me to a small degree. I chanted the coda twice more but was transfixed by the icon: it struck me as the perfect metaphor for apophatic worship.

It is a commonplace paradox of orthodox Christianity that God is opaque to us just because He is so bright in Himself. This has often been compared to the way the the sun blinds us by being too bright: God (like the sun) is not a proper object of the human nous (or eye) simply because He (and it) magnificently transcends the natural threshold of human spiritual (or optical) receptivity. Paradoxically, the sun is too visible to be seen by us, unless, that is, mediated to us by a lens or filter proper to our nature, and God is too manifest in the light of His Being for us to fathom, unless, that is, He shows Himself to us through the medium of His Word proportioned to our human nature. As I was praying, I could not see the image on the triptych because it was too well lit.

I also realized how this dynamic should affect our spiritual lives. I could see only three ways by which I could get a clear view of the icon. First, I could lower myself enough that its glare shot past me and I could see it in the shadow "under" its radiance. Second, I could raise myself towards the icon enough to "pierce" its barrier of light and behold it "face to face." Finally, I could have brought the icon down to me into my dimmer location below.

The first method should be a model for our prayer lives. We must continually lower ourselves before the Divine majesty, for only by doing so will we find a view of God in the cool shadows of humility. Interestingly, while this method does give us a view of God, it makes us farther from Him, and therefore still subject to an unclear view of Him.

The second method is reserved for the blessed in Heaven, as they enjoy the beatific vision, and should be our constant model of hope. As we move throughout the day, our heads follow our eyes and our bodies follow our eyes. Where your eyes are, there your life shall gradually approach. As I like to say, "Things start looking up when we start looking upward."

The final method is none other than how God condescended Himself to us in Christ. He came down in shrouded glory and stood before us as the old Adam. By doing so, He gave us the closest and best glimpse of God we can have in our current mode of mortal existence. The only "flaw" in this method is that our glimpse of God in Christ is necessarily bereft of its principal feature, namely, its unshrouded, blinding glory! This is why Christ ascended after His resurrection: to draw our gazes back up to the Father in the heavenly light.

Hence, if we train our eyes on Christ as He is lowered to us and raised again to the Father at every Mass, we will gradually find the gaze of our hearts ascending with Him. All the while, of course, we must still grow in humility as the "carriage" of the Spirit elevates us, sort of like people forced lower and lower in an elevator as it ascends higher and faster to its goal.

Let me close with something James Chastek of Just Thomism wrote:

“Existence is not a predicate” means that existence adds nothing to our understanding of the concept. Existence therefore belongs to anything we have a concept of in virtue of something other than itself; something other than what it is. We know, therefore, that there must be some source of the existence of all things who is wholly beyond anything we can form a concept of- an ineffable creator who dwells in unapproachable light.

Amen and amen!

No comments: