Imagine a character in a story who is wraith-like, barely existing. His every move threatens to draw him deeper into non-existence. As it stands, others around him are only able to see him moments at a time. He often disappears for whole days at a time as he lapses into such ghostly non-being that he cannot be seen at all. Each step he takes either diminishes his existence or establishes it. As such, the path he takes is a matter of life-or-death.
Although this is fantasy, it is a way of seeing our lives that allows us to envision what is actually taking place. We move through our days and with each step, we move either towards the truth of our existence, the fullness of our being, or we move towards non-existence, non-being. Each step towards the truth of our existence is an action of goodness, a move towards that which is good, or, ultimately, a step towards God, who alone is truly good. Each step away from that goodness, away from the path towards God, is a movement away from existence, a movement towards non-being.
St. Sophrony wrote of what he termed “hypostatic existence.” It was language, drawn from the tradition, that sought to describe a way of being that, at best, we have all only begun to taste, but for which we all hunger. It is personal, indeed, the only truly personal existence. It is personal but not private. It is the very mode in which we rightly exist as persons.
When we speak of the Holy Trinity, and the personal existence of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we are speaking of a kind of existence in which no person of the Trinity can be expressed in a manner in which He is alone, or considered apart from the others. The very name, “Father,” asks, “Father of whom?” The name, “Son,” carries a similar question, as does “Spirit.” It is among the many reasons that substitute terms such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” are woefully inadequate and inappropriate. Such terms are functional (at best) but reveal and convey nothing of the hypostatic character of the persons of the Holy Trinity. It is God Himself who has made Himself known to us as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The movement towards such a hypostatic/personal existence, is a movement towards an existence that mirrors that of God. Again and again, Christ teaches us to love: love your neighbor, love your enemies, give to your neighbor, give to your enemy, forgive everyone and all. And He repeatedly tells us that such actions are to be undertaken, “So that you may be like your Father who is in heaven.” Love is more than moral – it is the very nature of true being and existence. Those who refuse love are choosing a path towards non-existence.
It should be common knowledge (though it is not) that the whole of our purpose in this life is communion with God, and, together with Him, communion with all of creation. In the darkness of our present world, we imagine such things as communion to be a “lifestyle” choice, a term that describes little more than a reasonable relationship. In contrast to this, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos proclaimed, “My brother is my life.”
How would our day be different if we understood that the well-being of each person around us was the single necessary thing of our life? Perhaps the first thought would be: “exhausting.” That is, no doubt, true. Our relations with others are often quite distorted, driven by their neuroses and our own. We serve others because we want to be liked, or to receive the same thing in return, or to avoid unpleasantness. We rarely experience acts that are truly born of love. Our hearts are far too complicated.
The spiritual path towards true existence is difficult and even tedious. It requires attention and repentance, the willingness to expose ourselves to God in the naked, honest truth. However, this is not a journey we make alone. St. Paul declares, “Christ within us, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) If St. Silouan was correct in declaring, “My brother is my life,” then we must understand that Jesus has said as much of us: “You are my life.” We have no such declaration in the gospel, but we are told, “…that you may dwell in Me, and I in you.”
We have been shaped far too deeply in our modern individualist world-view. We hear Jesus saying nothing more than, “I’ll help you from time to time,” and we pray in precisely that manner. We fail to see that the Life-of-Christ-in-me is also living and willing my life (Phil. 2:13). Learning to live in union with Him, in a communion of life and action, is the very heart of the life of grace.
If we return to the original image in this article, it’s also possible to use it in understanding our movement away from God. Among the greater lies of our present time is the notion of a “secular self,” that our identities are the products of our own efforts and imaginings. Various forces within us are deeply vulnerable to this siren song of non-existence. We are constantly bathed in the images of the “successful,” touting various versions of desirability. Of course, though various people may be used in selling these images, the truth behind it all is a sham. Hollywood (to use only one example) is rife with misery – failed marriages and lives, overdoses and suicides. Though it rallies itself for political causes and moralistic pronouncements, careful examination reveals only a culture of self-indulgence and emptiness.
The material success of modern technology creates an allusion of greatness. To a great extent it only bears witness to power and wealth. Much that is deemed “progress” is accomplished only through the forced measures of our various artificialities. Money and technology cannot create goodness. Only that which is good, in communion with the Good, has any abiding existence. All else is “hay, wood, and stubble” in the words of St. Paul (1Cor. 3:12).
If, by some stroke of judgment, our world were suddenly stripped of its “hay, wood, and stubble,” leaving only the abiding presence of the good, we would see the truth of things. Many things (and people) who are presently despised would be revealed to be royalty and as brilliant as the noon-day sun. So much else, including people, would be seen in a diminished state bordering on nothingness.
The goodness that is the gift of God, the truth of our existence, is acquired moment-by-moment. I frequently encourage people to “do the next good thing.” We cannot grasp the good as an extended long-range plan. Such things are themselves little more than imaginings. When we study the commandments of Christ, they are quite concrete and specific, admonitions for each “next thing” that confronts us.
When the Rich Young Man came to Christ (Matt. 19:16-22), he asked “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ directs him to God, who alone is good. When pressed further, Christ directs him to the commandments. When the young man presses yet more, he hears the ultimate good thing: “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor. And come and follow me.”
This example confronts us in each moment of our lives. There is ever the possibility to “sell what we have” – to give away the false structures and inauthentic identities that we cling to (including their material support) and to “give to the poor” – to love the other (neighbor, enemy) who stands before us. “My brother is my life” is the renunciation of every false form of wealth and the acquisition of true existence – life in Christ. The treasure of the Kingdom of God is buried in the life of my brother, my sister.
One step. One day. One moment. One commandment.