Discerning the Mystery

tumblr_m5bdbrlSGa1r6x9qxo1_500Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:

If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.

I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.

I have written about this topic previously primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of Classical Christianity. But it is this world-as-object that dominates our modern understanding. For the use of allegory and related manners of searching for the depth in things, is more than a mental exercise. At its heart, the fathers see that these deeper meanings may be discerned, because they are actually there! In the same manner, the things in the world have a relatedness and referential character, because this is truly and really so, and not just through mental inference.

This is a radical claim about the nature of reality and, in many ways, lies at the very heart of the distinction between the classical world and the modern. It is an understanding that lies beneath every classical teaching of the sacraments and even touches upon the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. Is the world as it exists capable of depth? Is there any true relation between one thing and another? Is there a mystical aspect of truth or is mysticism mere sophistry?

An answer to this question comes within the Christian teaching of the Triune God. For the God-who-has-made-Himself-known in Jesus Christ is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And more, as Father of the Son, the Father from whom the Spirit proceeds, and Son of the Father, the only-begotten, and Spirit of the Son who proceeds from the Father. None of the names by which God has been made known to us is a self-contained, non-referential name. And we have not been given a revelation of a God behind Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not a matter of human perception or mental inference – God-as-Trinity is the very ground of all existence.

Thus at its most primary level, the Christian revelation proclaims a related and referential character of all that exists. Creation is no mere collection of things but are that-which-is-brought-into-existence-out-of-nothing by the Father, through the Son. This belongs to the creation as part of its “goodness.” What God creates is not only brought into being (a mere collection of things) but is said by God to be “good.” The word also carries the meaning of “beautiful.” What exists has an order and a meaning and a relatedness to God, who alone is good. To declare creation as “good,” is to declare its referential character to the God-who-alone-is-good.

To see the beauty of creation and its goodness is more than recognizing its existence: it necessarily includes discerning its mystery, that-within-which-its-beauty-lies.

The so-called “literal” reading of Scripture is thus never truly “literal.” Meaning is never a thing-in-itself. Meaning is relationship, connection, participation and commonality. No event described in Scripture is interesting in and of itself. These things hold interest only because of their meaning (relationship, connection, participation and commonality). St. Paul asserts that Christ is our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7). Such a statement (and so many others – “Lamb of God,” etc.) not only provide commentary on Christ but on Christ as the beauty and goodness of Passover itself.

There is a fear within many that any adumbration of the importance of the literal is an assault on the integrity of Scripture itself. The “meaning” is, for them, located within history. I have countered that history, particularly most of Biblical history, is a thing that cannot be known. I cannot “know” or be sure of the details of the parting of the Red Sea. I can know what I read in the text, but assertions about the character of the text is secondary. I am here asserting that the character of the text is much like the character of the world itself. The Scriptures are good and beautiful, something that must be discerned (so Christ gave his apostles to understand the Scriptures after the resurrection). Were the beauty and goodness of Scripture a matter of mere surface, literal apprehension, discernment would not be necessary: the unaided reason of man would be sufficient.

But as it is, this is not so. Nor is the world rightly understood in a “literal” manner. The Christian perception of the world is of the good and the beautiful. The Modern Project has drawn our eyes away from the depths of creation and promised a new age birthed through reason alone. The manipulation of phenomena by which we may control the world will give rise to unprecedented freedom and wealth. Technology (the manipulation of phenomena) is indeed a generous Lord, but not if the cost is the emptying of the world of goodness and beauty. Our substitute for such a world has been our imagination of good and beauty (always in the eye of the beholder). We thus know nothing but our own ideas!

But our crisis as believers nurtured in the modern world is revealed as we stare blankly at what appear to be empty, inert, unrelated things around us. Those who see more seem superstitious or new-age. My mother’s whispers from childhood haunt my adult struggle of faith: “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” But her reasons for saying this could just have easily been applied to a wider range of concerns. “There’s no such thing as sacraments.” “There’s no such thing as miracles.” Even, “There’s no such thing as God.” For the God who remains after we rid ourselves of “no such thing,” is nothing more than idea.

I am a modern believer. I am not a product of a classically Orthodox world. I speak the words of a classical faith as I stand at the altar, my modern soul judged, even crushed by their discernment.

I cannot offer solutions to others. But I share what I have. I step back from the emptiness of my heart and consider the matter of being and existence. For though my modern mind often refuses to discern anything more than what it literally perceives, I must at least grant that what I see exists and that what exists came from nothing. The universe, this side of the Big Bang, is itself the most eloquent argument for the existence of God. He-Who-Caused-All-Things-To-Be ( יְהוָ֔ה) has all things as His witness. And the Christian teaching that all things were created through Christ reveals Christ as Beauty and Goodness incarnate. It is His goodness and beauty that are reflected and revealed in the cosmos.

But our temptation is to think that beauty and goodness are properties only of the mind. And this finally exposes the true emptiness of the Modern Project. Having emptied the world of God, Goodness and Beauty, it admires only its mind. But as the subject turns upon itself and the mind beholds the mind, everything disappears in a sea of post-modern doubt. And the darkness of the night whispers, “There is no such thing as beauty…”

And I remain amidst the things that exist and wonder at the Goodness and Beauty which may there be discerned.

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.


35 responses to “Discerning the Mystery”

  1. Christina Avatar

    “And I remain among the things that exist, and wonder at the Goodness and Beauty which may there be discerned.” Just beautiful, Father! It reminds of the end of CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, when the dwarfs can only see the inside of the dark stable, not Aslan’s country. It seems to me that our culture has become those dwarfs (or perhaps, more accurately, those dwarfs are our culture?). But, oh, why can’t they want to see the Goodness and Beauty? I admit, there have been days when I haven’t been able to see beyond the “shadow lands”. But I can’t imagine not wanting to see beyond them.

  2. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    I can remember one of my evangelical seminary professors almost 40 years ago berating the early Church Fathers use of allegory because it had no controls on it as did rigorous exegesis of a passage. And later at my ordination board I was asked to defend my belief about a certain doctrinal stand (as I recall it was about spiritual gifts). I referenced a passage from the book of Acts. A pastor board member “corrected” me saying that to defend my belief I had to rather make use of a didactical book such as Romans. These episodes from years back came to mind as I read your article and also that of your fact=truth paradigm.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In a certain sense I was raised out of phase with the modern project. Not entirely divorced from it but by parents who saw and lived within an interconnected understanding of creation — I was surrounded by the reality of allegory as the only proper way to understand and express the wonder of creation, life and man. Not as abstract ideas but as the only way to see and know beauty and bring it forth.

    My parents did not quite understand it themselves and they struggled with constant frustration in their lives because no one else could comprehend what they so readily saw.

    What they never grasped while in this world was that understanding only lies in Jesus Christ and only He can unfold it for you.

    It is the truth that I found when I first walked into an Orthodox parish and experienced Jesus walking down the aisle with the priest in the Great Entrance.

    Glory to God! May He forgive the hardness of my heart and the darkness of my mind.

  4. Paula Hughes Avatar
    Paula Hughes

    Very well said, Father. Any of us who have had epiphanies where for an a micro-instant we can ‘see’ the mystical reality, will agree with you. Charles Taylor ,in his masterpiece ‘A Secular World,’ uses the term ‘disenchantment’ of the world to describe the modern attitude that all things can or will be explained by reason and science.
    My husband sees religion as an extension of primitive ‘ancestor worship’ or maybe as communion with our own unconscious and not with anything supernatural, or even the action of brain hormones. He and others like him seem to only be able to see things to ridicule in religion and Scripture, and then that cynicism extends to just about everything. I would rather be a fool for Christ than live in this disenchanted world.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Everything falls to dust if one ignores the pneumonous reality which surrounds us and interpenetrates us, the life which we are given by the Holy Trinity through the Holy Spirit.

  6. Dino Avatar

    What a beautiful reflection…!
    After the series on the Modern Project, and this last entry, what Paula just mentioned (quite reminiscent of Dostoyevsky actually) :

    I would rather be a fool for Christ than live in this disenchanted world

    naturally rings very true.
    The true emptiness of the Modern Project is revealed to be more than just reliance on reason, there seems to be an underlying hidden pride. This is becoming more evident (as manifestations of it spring up that care not whether they look blatantly ego-centred to all) as it evolves.
    However, it is a “secular” hidden pride.
    Hidden pride normally assaults ‘spiritual’ people – who often resort to very harsh self-repproach as the only method to fight this. However, the hidden pride that underlies modern secular thought might be far more easily overcome, this requires little more than a situation that reveals the futility of this disenchanted world.

  7. Dino Avatar

    rephrasing:…the hidden pride that underlies modern secular thought might be far more easily overcome; all that’s required is a situation that reveals the futility of this disenchanted world for that pride to be overcome

  8. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I am reminded of the famous question posed in The Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams): “What is REAL?” The answer given in the story was very much a relational one, not an rational one, a deep truth hidden in a children’s book.

    As fond as my camera and I are of beauty in nature, without relation to God, this beauty would be intolerably empty, “a mere collection of things”, and therefore not beautiful at all. Though the blooming flower is “real” in the sense that I can touch it, smell it, analyze its properties, once it withers and dies, I am left with nothing.

    The sort of beauty thus considered “real” is fleeting and empty. It breeds consumerism, as we chase after a “better beauty” among the new and varied things the world offers, hoping to fill the void left by this unbeautiful “reality”.

    Similarly, a literal reading of Scripture is empty. Without being in relation to the Word, it is but a story to be believed – or not. Once read, we want to move on to the next story. Our understanding of the Word is like the seed that was sown on the rocky ground – it does not last because it has no roots (per Matthew 13).

    We humans long for an eternal Beauty, an eternal Word. We have been given both in Christ. Merely believing is not enough, however. Just this evening, I read St. Silouan’s words: “It is one thing to believe in God and another to know God.”

    Thanks be to God who offers us the grace to know Him, the eternal Beauty, the eternal Word. (Forgive me, a sinner, unworthy to write these words.)

  9. […] (Father Stephen again, Discerning the Mystery) […]

  10. Roger U Avatar

    The Enlightenment brought a lot of good*, science, medicine and a higher standard of living, but these were just the bait on the hook of humanism. Humanism influences every aspect of modern western thought, now, and it doesn’t allow for the spiritual and must stamp it out. Materialistic relativism replaces absolute truth and beauty when man is the measure of everything.

    “…all the European humanisms strive consciously or subconsciously, but they strive unceasingly, for one result: to replace faith in the God-man with a belief in man, to replace the Gospel of the God-man with a gospel according to man, to replace the philosophy of the God-man with a philosophy according to man, to replace the culture of the God-man with a culture according to man. In brief, they seek to replace life according to the God-man with life according to man.” St Justin Popovich via orthodoxchurchquotes.com

    *We could probably debate the goodness of a lot of scientific advances if we were so inclined.

  11. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen
    I lost a comment from last night – in the spam filter?

  12. Brian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I so relate to Yannaras when he writes of technology, efficiency, utilitarianism, and other aspects of what you call the Modern Project as things that “torment” man.

    The only solaces from this torment that I know are the services and disciplines of the Church, prayer, contemplative Scripture reading, and trying (as best I can in a suburban environment) to ‘reconnect’ to the earth through gardening, walks in the woods when possible, etc.

    Still, most of working life is centered on technology, efficiency, the tyranny of the urgent, and so forth. It is a constant struggle to avoid getting drawn in to the premises of the Modern Project, one littered with failure. What other means of freedom from these torments would you council?

  13. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Thank you, Father. This resonated with me profoundly and brought to mind Vox Day’s post on the Nothing People, which gives a historical context and clarity to our present situation. I can’t cut and paste the URL since I’m on a tablet but I urge your readers to search it out.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Roger U. It is not the science that is the problem. It is the premises on which the science is carried out and the reasons it is put to use.

    When we start trying to replace God with the works of our hands and use what we discover to destroy and enslave others.

    Cyborization is a looming problem.

  15. Dino Avatar

    Roger U,
    that’s a great quote…
    Saint Justin fought the atheist-materialistically interpreted notion of man being evolved from animals due to his particular time & circiumstances. I believe that, had he lived in our times, he would find that notion harmless when compared to what is currently coming to pass nowadays: none other than man evolving into animal… even if this is presented with a technological facade.
    The LXX version of Psalm 48 (ie: KJV Ps. 49) gives us a deeper meaning: “Man, being in honour, did not understand this, he became like the beasts that are dumb..”

  16. Roger U Avatar

    Michael Bauman,
    I would posit that technology has given us too much free time that we use for less profitable pursuits than we should. To be brief, it has freed man to pursue his natural inclinations. That said, the tech is not the problem, man’s inclination to worship himself is, so we are in agreement, but I think the Amish might be on to something.

    Over and over the Bible says that self worship lowers us. Today, St Justin would have plenty to write about, unfortunately.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann described in his journals an experience that happened while he was hearing confessions at the seminary one day. He was overburdened, as I recall, with the more or less petty quality of people’s confessions (and thus the focus of their daily attention). He said he felt like stopping, and shouting to everyone, “Just live!”

    There is much in this. What constitutes our life? Much that torments us (whether born of technology or just distraction) is simply those things that take us away from living.

    Mindfulness (the practice of truly paying attention) is touted these days by many therapists, by popular Buddhism, by lots of things… Orthodoxy would call it “nepsis” (“watchfulness”). On its primary and first level, it’s just doing what you’re doing when you are doing it. If you eat – then eat – and eat with attention. Etc. It is the distracted life that is much of the modern torment. It becomes a fierce torment because in the modern world we have the added burden of thinking that we’re supposed to be inventing our lives and not just living them. Thus we often feel that we’re falling behind and are pushed and rushed. Where are we in such a hurry to go? The faith would say that you’re already there.

    The two deepest emotions of our age, shame and envy, also leave us restless. Shame is unbearable and envy gnaws away. The answers to our life is in Christ – who is our Life. But it’s so essential to understand that Christ is always “now.” He’s not the God of memory or the God of the imagination. He is now (“now is the time of salvation”). So…we slow down…way down. We begin to be present to ourselves…to God…to the task at hand…to the other person at hand… Only eternity will be our judge – not any life achievement.

    I am increasingly aware of how fortunate I am at present to have entered a “mature” stage of my life. I’m 60 and have survived a heart attack. I’m not 20 thinking about what I want to be when I grow up. I have things that I would like to do, but mostly they are simply using opportunities that are given to me (like getting the next book written…). But I have had at least a “peek” at my last day. Were it to be tomorrow…would it find me living? “Blessed is he whom the Master finds watching…”

    We don’t have to drop out (become Amish) in order to pay attention and live. The anxiety of “what should we do?” is sometimes a modern hoax. Do nothing! Stop thinking about what you’re going to do or what you must do and just do what you are doing. Immediately.

    That is a small thing and is quite close to being everything.

  18. Brian Avatar

    Thank you.

  19. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen
    Too bad I didn’t read this blog when I was 20!:) I can look back on my life (now 67) and can see how most of the time I was living in the future…what should I do next? What does God want me to attempt, etc.? Usually I wasn’t present in the present. But God is so good to us and works even in the midst of our failings and weaknesses. Now my wife and I are retired and have four beautiful grandchildren. Just tomorrow we’ll be able to spend 5 hours with the 8 & 6 year olds (parents have in-service). What joy they are! Children especially know if you are “there” with them. We can relax, play with and especially just listen. They do the rest! Truly Psalm 128 has become a reality in our marriage of almost 49 years…”Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children shall be like olive shoots around your table…may you see your children’s children.” And “grandchildren are the crown of the aged” (Prov.17:6). I am so blessed and grateful to God. Thank you for your ministry father. It is yet another great blessing in my life.

  20. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    “the fathers see that these deeper meanings may be discerned, because they are actually there!”

    Yes! That is precisely the case. They discerned a pattern that is veiled. The sacred is often veiled, isn’t it Father?

  21. davidp Avatar

    Fr…I enjoyed your article. One question that I do have is what other names did the fathers used for “allegory”? Because I have one definition for “theoria” as vision.

    From an article by Metro Hiertheos of Nafpaktos, he mentions that there was a difference between Medieval West and the Orthodox tradition of “praxis and theoria”. I have been studying hesychasim and possibly I am limiting the above definition in hesychasim to what was mentioned in your article. Blessings. david

  22. Dino Avatar

    Father’s council “Do nothing” has great depth in it, far more than our experience enables us to comprehend (unless we are true hesychast anchorites!).
    A Christian in the world will often see a particular side of this true ‘diamond’ though: everything that befalls us, outward or inward, from the weather, from people, situations, feelings, moods, thoughts, demons, words, etc. etc. etc. is marginal…!
    Time and again we see (through this special mindfulness) that these things are insignificant when we focus (and train to accustom ourselves) on being in the presence of our Lord’s loving gaze. That is the true essence of the beginnings of the Christian life – in the “hear and now”.
    It is a simple thing of infinite depth.
    All the talk of Nepsis, of love of enemies, of eschatological mindfulness of death, of unmovable joy, of being in communion, of true cosmic personhood, of the mind in the heart, and all these great notions have their very basis on this very simple little secret.

  23. davidp Avatar

    Hello all…just came across this:

    Allegory vs Allegorical Interpretation

    To understand what is meant by allegorical interpretation, we need to draw a clear distinction between that and plain allegory. Allegory is a figurative or symbolic representation referring to a meaning other than the literal one. Certain passages of Scripture contain allegory, as well as other figures of speech, which can be understood using the normal rules of interpretation. For example, Paul uses an allegory based on Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21–31) to illustrate why the Galatians should not listen to the Judaizers.

    Allegorical interpretation, on the other hand, involves looking for a symbolic or figurative meaning beyond or instead of the literal/historical one. One extreme example comes from Philo, where he interprets allegorically the cherubim guarding the entrance to Eden (Genesis 3:24) as representing the two hemispheres of heaven (On the Cherubim 7–8). The key difference between allegory and allegorical interpretation is that for the former the meaning is found in the text itself while the latter looks beyond the text and relies heavily on the ingenuity of the interpreter.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t know where the quote came from, but this is actually typical of a literalist approach to allegory. Allegory is only seen as true when the Scriptural writer uses it (St. Paul with Hagar and Sarah) but “extreme” when Philo sees it in the cherubim at Eden. This distinction is modern, not at all patristic.

    The most pressing point in my article – is the contention that we may see allegory (deeper meaning) because it is there. It is a contention about the nature of Scripture, and also about the nature of all created things. St. Paul shows us one. And we are not told by him to just read what he wrote, but to do what he did! And this the fathers and the Church have done and still do. And in doing so, they reveal the fullness of the truth (and not just its surface).

    Allegory includes the use of types (typology). Some call it the “mystical” reading. The names don’t matter. And it is not a method that can be learned. Because there is not a method that can replace discernment. “My words are spirit and they are life” (Jn 6:63). The literalists don’t actually believe this (or believe it in a manner that distorts and changes its meaning).

    Several things we must do to follow this way. Pray. Begin slowly to live the Tradition. And immerse(!!!) ourselves in the liturgical life and texts of the Church. There is the true and great repository of all revelation and depth. It is good to read it. It is better to sing it. It is better to be with others while it is being sung, surrounded by the whole of the Church.

    Nothing is given to us that excels the liturgical life of the Church. It is the life of heaven on earth. If we would know the things of heaven, then we should learn to dwell there in our hearts.

    And it takes time. Patient listening and inclining the heart repeatedly.

  25. Dean Avatar

    I appreciate your comments. Of course we have Christ’s admonition to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And I realize that when we seek Him in this way that our life is truly ordered. Perhaps I’m not hearing what you are saying though. For you include people in your list of things “marginal.” However, Christ’s words continue that we are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. “On these (both) hang all the law and prophets.” Thanks for any insight my brother.

  26. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post, it is very encouraging; however, I have received “more” from your comment to Brian in the comments section here. I am going back to this again and again, thank you! Glory to God for All Things!

  27. Dino Avatar

    I originally meant this: whatever befalls us could have its origins anywhere (including people), but in the spirit of Nepsis/mindfulllness, our reaction, to any (inner or outer) stimuli is not our life anymore, it all becomes marginal, (even my emotions and even my sinful ‘falls’ are of little importance under His gaze – only He is important to me) our life starts to be Christ. Even my sins and weaknesses or my sadness for them matters little in comparison to how God who is lovingly gazing upon me ‘feels’. I do not therefore repent because I sinned; I repent because I saddened Him. I do not love others because I love them, but because He loves them. I do not even know what true love is as a fallen human anyway.
    This, of necessity starts with living in the here and now under His gaze.

    However, responding to your question one could also say that the First commandment is the fuel for the second. Love of God is the motif that inspires healthy love of neighbour. It is the first commandment! The second commandment of love of neighbour is certainly the proof one can see (of the 1st commandment) , and the swaying power to inspire others towards it (towards the 1st commandment). However, if a human was to love neighbour without it being inspired by the Holy Spirit, even to pity the entire world like Saint Silouan, even without any measurable ‘unhealthy attachment’ or ‘preference of one over another’ (which are obviously not ‘love’), this could lead to blaming God…
    The vertical part of the Cross (love towards God) is always the longest one that holds the Cross together, the horizontal part (love of others) is part of the same Cross, it’s not something different, there is no separation between the two, but it is supported on the vertical one.
    The restoration of peace with God, joy, gratitude, and love towards Him, and ultimately His indwelling in the heart is what gives birth to a true love of neighbour.

  28. Dean Avatar

    Thank you Dino for the clarification. It helped me see what I didn’t in the first posting. I am especially heartened by your phrase “God who is lovingly gazing upon me. “

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, may I suggest that a truly allegorical approach is a bit like the purification of gold ore. The gold is real, but to get at it often times a great deal of less valuable rock has to be sifted through: this is the literal, the time-bound the material matrix within which the gold lies. It is a bit like unpacking what one at first assumes is a two or three dimensional object only to find out it is a doorway that opens to somewhere else entirely, connected in unforseen ways to unforseen places and times. (Narnia is one rather mundane and simplistic example of what I mean)

    Such insight has nothing to do with anyone’s ingenuity but only with one’s humility to receive what God wants to reveal. It is quite often a gift of being in a community rather than for any individual.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have a bishop visiting this Sunday, and the parish is swept up in preparation. My wife is directing the choir (her first hierarchical) and I’ve been hearing the music preparation for weeks. During the greeting of the Bishop (and his vesting in the Church), the choir sings one of the sweetest, mystical hymns of allegory to the Mother of God:

    The prophets proclaim thee from on high, O Virgin, the Jar, the Staff, the Tables of the Law, the Ark, the Candlestick, the Table, the Mount Uncloven, the Golden Censer, the Tabernacle, the Gate Impassible, the Palace and Ladder, the Throne of Kings.

    Knowing how each of these things is so, is one part of the mystery, and it is sweet. But it is in the singing, or hearing the singing, and knowing the Mother of God as person, all of which pierces the heart so truly sweetly. In this we do not stand like old Genevan curmudgeons discussing the Book – but now stand in the courts of heaven and hear the sound of the angels who cannot help but sing the praise of the Mother of Life. It is the mystical sharing in that wonder and awe that these depths of allegory and the like open to us. It is the true meaning of heaven, and the true meaning of the Scripture.

    It is rapture and wonder unknown to the literalists for God has hidden these things from the wise! These things are not yet those wonders that St. Paul heard “unlawful to be uttered.” But God did shroud even these somewhat so that only the understanding of the simple could know them and enjoy their sweetness. And when we do hear those “unlawful” things, then the very foundations of all creation will be laid bare and we will see the good things God has prepared for those who love Him, and has hidden until the very End.

    And the mystery of the last allegory will be revealed.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and a couple of my favorites from the Akathist to Mary: “the wall of virgins” and “mystic hiefer” .

    Allegory is the language of love that is only understood in love and by love. Every poet, even a bad one, knows this. It is at once expansive and deeply intimate; ineffably concrete. Literalism can’t compete.

    I was thinking though of the time I was involved in a study of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”. We read the simple words out loud and then it was a bit like having meaning after meaning unfold before our eyes and in our hearts. Sometimes would spend an hour on a sentence or two–not parsing it, but allowing it to bloom and grow, expanding our hearts and souls in the process.

    It was an allegorical process.

  32. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen – it is not usually my practice to point out other people’s typos, given then I make so many myself…however, this one…

    In your wonderful comment to Brian yesterday, I’m sure you meant to compare mindfulness to “nepsis” not “sepsis”. I wouldn’t recommend the latter to anyone. 🙂

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    The dangers of auto-correct.

  34. […] the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (1990). Father Stephen discusses it a bit on his blog, as does Aaron Taylor. But the entire essay is also available online (and shared […]

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