One of the most common words used in Orthodoxy, drawn very much from the writings of the New Testament, is the term “fullness” (pleroma in the Greek). St. Paul uses it to mean something that is in its completion or its final state, transcending things as we often know them.
Because the term often refers to things at the End of all things, or to realities that are greater than the reality that we presently know, fullness is a difficult term to discuss. The Church is described by St. Paul as “the fullness of Him that fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). St. Paul does not describe the Church as something that shall be the fullness, but something that simply is the fullness. Of course, our daily experience generally is not aware of the Church as fullness. We are far more likely to be aware of the Church as that which fails to be fullness of God.
I will offer a personal side-trip to look at an experience of fullness (or an experience analogous to fullness). I have had the joy for a few days last week of having my children under my roof at the same time. This is a rare experience since they are now grown, and all married – and span both coasts of the United States. My oldest has been away from home for around 12 years or more.
One evening last week, as my wife and I prepared for sleep, I turned to her and said, “Can you feel it?” She replied, “What?”
“We’re all here,” I responded. We both offered contented sighs.
It was a particularly apt description in light of our common experience across the years. When the subject of children came up during the years in which we were “having” children, my wife said that she always asked herself the question: “Are we all here yet.” It was as though she was waiting for some fullness, a completion that she would know when it occurred. My inner experience has been the same. Though we lost a child, his presence continues to make up part of the fullness, and he is never “not here.”
This is only an analogy – but it is an experience of fullness that points towards a fullness I do not yet know.
This image of the Church, particularly as a present reality, is worth dwelling on. Our world, especially as seen through the lens of our culture, is always changing, always becoming something different. We see ourselves in the same manner. We see the economy and science and our culture as sharing in this same phenomenon. Few today see the world as evolving or changing towards some perfect state (or state of fullness). We have become accustomed to change and judge things largely not in light of any perfection, but in the light of usefulness.
The reality of Church long ago ceased to have a sense of perfection for most Christians. In a world where Christian denominations number over 20,000 – such an idea would not be likely. There are those who inherited the language of Scripture and the Creeds and use words such as “perfection” and “truth” and even “only” to describe the church to which they belong. As an Orthodox Christian, I belong to a Church whose language is very much marked by such ideal adjectives. Of course, we were using those adjectives when no other “Church” existed. In such a context, the words have a slightly different meaning – one which is not necessarily polemical.
I do not believe in an “invisible” Church (in the sense taught by many Protestants). The “invisible” Church lacks the character of scandal (who can be scandalized by an invisible Church?). An invisible Church is about as helpful, and perhaps exactly the same, as an imaginary Church.
Rather, the Church is the “fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Perhaps the problem isn’t in the scandal of the messiness that seems to fill so much that we name “Church” and instead lies within our own eyes and heart. We do not see anything within our experience that could be described as the “fullness of God” but neither do we see the truth of almost everything around us. We see enemies and wickedness where something else is the case. (“The wicked flee when no one pursues…” Proverbs 28:1). The darkness of the world is often simply the projection of the darkness of our own hearts.
Christ tells us that “the pure in heart shall see God.” I would assume that the pure in heart would also be the only ones who can recognize the “fullness” of the same God. Such purity is born of love and nurtured in repentance and forgiveness.
I do not wait for the fullness to appear – the fullness waits for the purity of my heart. I give thanks that God is patient.
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