Outside of Paradise

mary belly tattooAnd we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden…     Joni Mitchell (1969)

The instinct of the folk-music singer celebrating the Woodstock Festival was not wrong. The religious sensibilities of younger generations today would likely say the same thing but with no reference to the Scriptures. The longing that marks the human heart finds many means of expression. I often think as I see the tattooed bodies of the young (and even the old!) that there is a hunger to create a visible identity, to mark ourselves somehow that our uniqueness and our belonging may be seen. In the blended, globalized world of mass culture, the Garden is very hard to find.

Paradise has its place within Genesis, but it also has a prominent place within the spiritual writing of the Fathers. For them, Paradise is synonymous with the Kingdom of God, particularly the Kingdom of God as it finds its place within the heart. Christ tells the people, “The Kingdom of God is among you,” but uses an ambiguous preposition that can also be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The ambiguity works because both are true. Christ, who is the Kingdom of God, is indeed in our midst, but also within the heart. Where He is, there is Paradise. The thief on the cross is told, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” That promise was fulfilled both the moment it was spoken, as well as beyond that moment into eternity. To be with Jesus, even in crucifixion, is Paradise. The good thief could have confessed along with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.”

We long for Paradise in all of our dealings, though we generally fail to know this. Joni Mitchell raised a rock concert to the level of popular myth (a level it had already attained), celebrating its relative peace (there was no war) and three days break from teenage angst, with words that came to be used to describe a generation: the Woodstock Generation.

I was not there…but I had friends who were. But many in my generation thought they were there. We thought that slogans and fashions constituted a revolution and that we were changing the world. The world was changing – but not in becoming Paradise. The land outside the gates is a chimera – it takes many forms but always as the shapes of Hades. The drug culture and sexual license that underwrote the false Paradise of 1969 required more than three days to manifest their consequences. I have no fond memories of the friends who died or whose lives were destroyed as a result.

Revolutions tend to have an eery resemblance to one another in beginnings. Dreams of Paradise and visions of a brighter world provide cover for the iconoclasm and destruction that tend to mark their paths. There was a quiet – a soft, secular quiet that settled in after the excess of the Woodstock Generation. The excess remained but without a theme song. I sometimes hear a new revolution today, rougher, more coarse and with a violence in its iconoclasm that leaves me cold. It makes me want to pray.

And it is prayer that leads us back to Paradise. It is said that when a priest stands before the closed gates of the altar at the beginning of Vespers, he represents Adam weeping before the closed gates of Paradise. I think of that image often as I stand quietly waiting for the Reader to end the prayers of the ninth hour. For as I stand before those holy gates, all humanity stands in me. We all stand before the closed gates of paradise. Many times I find the gates closed even to the Paradise of the heart. My thoughts swirl with a thousand distractions and the gates of hell threaten my undoing.

But it is good to stand still and to bow the head and to weep with Adam. For the doors that are shut will be opened. The gates that are closed will be lifted up. In the wonder of the Divine Liturgy the fruit of the Tree of Life will be brought forth with the invitation, “In the fear of God and with faith, draw near!”

We never get ourselves back to the Garden – not in the way we would like to imagine. I wear a baptismal cross that has a small inscription at the base of the cross. They are the Russian letters for: MLRB. They stand for: the Place of the Skull has become Paradise.

All this time we were waiting for the Cross – the Tree of Life. The thief found his way there first.

 

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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12 responses to “Outside of Paradise”

  1. Grant Avatar
    Grant

    This blog is close to being a series of poems, charged with beauty and meaning.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Poetic language is about the only way we can begin to touch in word the silent, joyous mystery that awaits us at the core of our being.

    Here are a few tales of some who made that journey: With My Own Eyes: http://silouanthompson.net/2009/12/with-my-own-eyes/

  3. Jeremy Avatar

    I love the imagery of the priest standing outside the doors at Vespers only to swing them open during the liturgy. Beautiful.

    As you said, prayer leads us back to Paradise. I have been attempting to learn the beautiful way of inner stillness and contemplative prayer. I have a hard time getting my mind to quiet down. It almost feels like a perpetual Sponge Bob in my head that just won’t shut up, and even compliments me on how quiet my mind is getting, and how it’s the quietest its been all day, but not quite as quiet as it was yesterday, but it is getting close, and do you remember that time….. 😉

    But I think it is important, it is part of loving God and enables us to truly love others: not just do or say nice things to them, but to love them deeply.

  4. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar

    We are always erecting towers, and they always crash down around our ears; Logres declines to Britain, The War to End All Wars becomes the War To Avenge The War To End All Wars, the glow of Woodstock gives way to the corpse-light of Altamont and Benedict Canyon. Even the Internet, which was to usher in a new era of communication and understanding, has destroyed the souls of many.

    Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

  5. Rhonda Avatar

    I sometimes hear a new revolution today, rougher, more coarse and with a violence in its iconoclasm that leaves me cold. It makes me want to pray.

    Ditto! I too have felt this way far too frequently the past few years. I know that in every age there has been murder, war & violence, but it seems to be accelerating as well as increasing. I have pretty much given up on watching any remakes of movies or TV shows from my youth because the remakes always seem to be extremely dark & violent. I seldom watch TV anymore because drugs, gangs/mafias, violence & stupidity are justified at best or glorified at worst.

    “The Kingdom of God is among you,” but uses an ambiguous preposition that can also be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The ambiguity works because both are true. Christ, who is the Kingdom of God, is indeed in our midst, but also within the heart. Where He is, there is Paradise.

    At times I just love ambiguity, & this is one of those times. 😀 Because it is such a wonderful alternative to the above.

  6. elizabeth Avatar
    elizabeth

    as ani difranco says, “a tattoo is no more ‘permanent’ than I am”

  7. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Father, bless! Thanks for this post. I especially resonate with this:

    Many times I find the gates closed even to the Paradise of the heart. My thoughts swirl with a thousand distractions and the gates of hell threaten my undoing.

    Jeremy, your example of “Spongebob in your head” made me LOL! Yes, I recognize that.

    I’m going to contemplate that image of the Priest in front of the closed Royal Doors next time I make the attempt to pray and be still.

  8. jennifer steel Avatar

    Thank you for a gentle reminder of where we are now. No longer in the Garden of Eden and not yet in Paradise with Jesus.

  9. Sabrina Avatar
    Sabrina

    I really enjoyed this blog entry, and of course I just had to go look up on youtube the song that has the lyric about “back to the Garden.”

  10. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Thank you Michael for the link to the stories of pastor Wurmbrand. They made me weep. Years ago I had read his book as a Protestant. It was moving to read of his love for Christ and the Theotokos. The other stories warmed my heart as well. God bless.

  11. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Dean – for commenting here and drawing my attention to the link and these exceptional stories. And Michael, thanks for posting it last year. I don’t know why I didn’t see it then – but perhaps I needed to see it now.

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