Creative Writing Prompt 1: The Quiet Ascent

The Quiet Ascent: Finding Noetic Meaning in Dynamic Silences

What cannot be said will be wept. – Sappho of Lesvos

This is one of those quotes that brings to mind all sorts of daily scenarios in interpersonal relationships. The give-and-take of any conversation which results in an uncertainty: does the other feel the same, does he or she relate to what I am saying, does he or she enjoy our exchange? Sometimes the doubt or uncertainty can be subtle; other times it can be profound. Each one of us has encountered these situations in our daily interactions with those closest to us, those known to us but not on an intimate level, and then, of course, the many strangers. A lingering glance unacknowledged. A smile left unreturned. A revealing word of deeper meaning or intent left unanswered. A word of concern left without reply.

As we try to process on a daily basis our interactions with other people – some of which give us joy, some of which give us anxiety, some of which simply give us general stress – we often fail to think of all of the processing that we don’t manage to do during the day. Even the most extroverted person, as I am, can only process so much when interacting with so many different people in a given twenty-four hours. Sometimes it is the most meaningful encounters we have in a day that allow us to experience brief periods of genuine joy, the kind that makes the rest of the day’s stresses vanish into the manageability of an adjusted perspective. Sometimes these encounters allow us to experience – later on, once the bustle of the day has died down – the quiet joy of silent contemplation, of constructive silence.

This positive, organic, naturally occurring reflection of one soul on the depth and immensity of what another person has said can awaken in the soul the quiet, higher spiritual joy that is the very essence of what gives any meaningful life solid purpose, and which is at the heart of the Christian faith in particular. These ‘little joys’ are, for we who are called to be ‘little Christs’, glimpses into the deeper mystagogical and symbolic reality of living the Faith – when we experience spiritual joy from our conversations with other human beings, whether they are our spouse, family, friend, or stranger, we are drawn inexplicably, unconsciously into the deeper joy of Christ who made us all.

Paradoxically, sometimes on a given day when we get so caught up in the minutia of simply going about the day’s business – our various responsibilities, tasks, duties, chores, deadlines, et cetera – we do not fully process what we either wished we had said or wish that someone had said to us. For any one of us who is noetically aware, for anyone who is spiritually alive and awakened to the use of the noetic faculties (the “eye of the heart” or the “heart of the soul”) vibrant within himself or herself, it is often in the still, quiet hours of the late night or even carrying over into the pre-dawn when all the world around us is asleep that we do begin to process what we could not earlier.

Often one of the most profound ways a human being does process the depth of the interactions he or she had earlier is through the quiet contemplation that results in the shedding of tears. I could speak to this on a scientific level – what it means for the brain, what is taking place in the moment when someone is crying, there are different kinds of tears and so many different reasons for weeping, of joy, of anxiety, of feeling overwhelmed by an emotional depth and breadth of a certain situation, and these can all cause tears to flow – but relating the original quote, the quote implies a person’s regret for not saying something that they felt deep down, or someone else not saying something that the person wished they had said.

It is often in these blessed moments when we are most truly alone, engaging in a healthy period of solitude, rather than loneliness (one can be alone and not be lonely, and one can be with other people yet feel lonely or detached) that the whole person – the body, soul, and spirit – naturally recharges. One of the most basic ways that anyone who is noetically aware is going to recharge is by contemplative silence. If we are frustrated or disappointed or anxious, or feeling regret about words left unsaid in a conversation we had, if we are upset for not saying something that we wish we had said, we all know what this can mean and how it plagues us. Reflecting on whether or not we said the right thing, whether or not we said the right thing correctly, whether or not we should have said something that we did not say – we come to see that words left unspoken, consigned to the inner heart of the soul, unexpressed publicly but still deeply there, will be wept.

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I think this applies to words that come from the deeper nature within us, the deeper part of each person, that reflects man’s higher, divine attributes (In other words, that which animates us at the core of our being). If the words we say and use in a given conversion reflect that higher, divine love and consideration, we will experience profound spiritual joy in that conversation. If, however, we fear that we did not communicate what we wished to say in keeping with these higher attributes, or if we were hoping for the other to say something he or she did not, this often gives us cause to weep. If we fail to say something of the higher impulse within us, something that recognizes and speaks directly to the noble aspects of the other’s soul, that is something we will naturally regret. When we process that regret, and the very depth of the emotions and sentiments regarding the lack of saying that, we do so most naturally through the shedding of tears.

From an Orthodox perspective – St Silouan wrote about this quite frequently, and that is one of the primary reasons I was inspired to take him for my patron – it is a profound virtue and sign of noetic life and kenosis to weep for all of the world, as well as our own sins. Not to do so deliberately or ostentatiously, but simply to do so organically when moved and prompted by the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. To reflect on our own sins, whatever they might be on a given day, and to reflect on the sins present in and afflicting the greater world – all of the ways people harm and fail each other, all of the ways people remain disconnected or disinterested in others’ sufferings – is entirely natural. To reflect on these things, I think, is a core part of being truly human in the highest sense of what that word actually means. To be truly human is not to sin and excuse the sin out of the idea that “we’re only human”, but to aspire to live, manifest, and reach toward the Eternal Good, to the divine love united to and contained and manifested in Christ, while ever recognizing our own fallibility and imperfections. To be human is to constantly strive, despite repeated failings, to ascend on the ladder, as we say, toward God, toward theosis – and to seek to raise oneself toward the heavenly in all things, in all ways, in synergy or cooperation with the Holy Spirit. As Lewis said, we are not truly divine sons of God unless we realize our God-given humanity, which raises us above the angelic ranks, and we are not truly human unless we realize that we are actually made, we exist, to become ever more divine like unto God Himself.

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Taking this into account, words let unspoken, words left unsaid, that we wish we had said in an ‘angelic conversation’ which raises us and the other toward God together, are naturally a source of regret and, even, some lamentation. We only live as sojourners on this earth for such a time, and so amidst having, on a certain day, a certain number of routine interactions with the medley of people in our lives, to regret not saying something of great import in one of the exceptional interactions of the day is quite normal. We process that loss, that sense of a missed opportunity, often with the flowing of tears.

One of the greatest lies of secular modernity – an emotional and spiritual, and even psychological aspect of what the Russians call дегуманизация, dehumanizatsiya) – is the idea that somehow it is either weak or less ‘mature’ or ‘stable’ to weep in situations when the heart naturally laments. Obviously the death of a loved one is a time in which all human societies say it is acceptable to weep, but in cases of great joy as well, we have cause for weeping different tears; those of rejoicing. The quote refers more to tears of sadness and of an overflow of emotion, of pricks to the conscience or noetic stirrings. Truly, it is a man who is most animated by love for God who weeps in certain situations, not out of a misplaced passive sentimentality, but an active love for the world. Men and women naturally experience a greater animation, a greater earnestness, in talking with those who they esteem and love; thus, to regret not saying something is a natural response after such a discussion.

It is natural for man to experience wonder – all the awe-inspiring thoughts we have in certain conversations as we come to connect deeply with the other and know him or her better, and, of course, wonder and awe at the divine majesty which we encounter in the Church’s holy services and in the stunning beauty of the natural world. Man is made to delight in God’s creation, and above all to delight in His fellow-man as icons of the love and life that exists between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Lord made man for each other, and so by, to delight in each other and thereby draw closer to delight, corporately, in Him. In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God insofar as our relationship with this person is a godly one. When we encounter God, touched by His grace directly in a noetically palpable way, or we are touched by the grace of another person – the grace of God flowing through that person – these experiences are also unspoken moments that are very much real and alive in our souls. They speak wordlessly to the soul; sometimes words deliberately left unspoken, words carefully omitted, give us greater cause for rejoicing, or for grief, than those explicitly stated.

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Words unspoken yet understood nonetheless through silence may sound like thunder or a lion’s roar – they may give us cause for rejoicing, or weeping. An implied but delicately unexpressed spiritual affection of the highest order (philia – ‘affection’ being a rather pale, deflated translation, a cheapening of that concept) becomes a very real attraction to the soul of the person, to the nobility which par la grace de Dieu resides in that soul and animates its very being. Encountering such a noble soul is something which can move any man or woman to tears; when a soul encounters another soul of such beauty, that moves it to glorify God and respond with tears of astonishment and radiant joy. How can we not be moved by our interactions and exchanges with a person who – in their intelligence, their wit, or their thoughtfulness or compassion, or any combination of these things – reminds us of the higher order of things to which all of our souls naturally aspire? That is a natural and entirely human thing; the noble, God-loving soul is dawn to a noble, God-loving soul. This dance of souls, of budding attraction between two persons, is a chaste foretaste of the delights of marriage; an unspoken promise of the drawing ever-nearer to God with another person. This dance beckons us to the divine, as it itself reflects, like a light reflecting off a mirror, the love of God and His providence for each person.

When we perceive in another soul these intellectual sparks, these long-nourished flames, of the highest inspiration, we are in an imperfect yet very real way touching the divine, aspiring toward He who is beyond all yet in all, He who creates all from nothing and entreats us to unite to Him. The human soul is, like our God, no autonomous solitary monad; rather, the soul is meant, like the Persons of the Trinity to each other, to live eternally in loving relationship; we are exhorted as human beings to live in relationship to those around us, drawing, ideally, ever closer in webs of work, friendship, motherhood or fatherhood, and marriage. Along with communing of the Body and Blood of our Lord Himself, the love between two souls, between two people, is the most intimate spark or bond of the encounter with God that we can hope to have in this earthly life. God reveals Himself to us above all else in the Eucharist, but beyond that, yet very much connected to it, in and through other human beings. We are made for each other; God made us to delight in each other on every level of human existence, from the more intimate levels (the most intimate ‘little kingdom’ of husband and wife, and of parents and children, and then, still very close but radiating outward, the bonds of a true, high friendship, and then, beyond that, our neighbors and colleagues) to, finally, the outer – the many strangers we meet who are all made in His image.

The challenge is, as we process on a daily basis our interactions with those of all different spheres and reaches – those who are closest to us, those who are at an intermediate level, and then those who are on the outer periphery of our lives – to respond to so many stimuli in a given moment as best we can. Because of this necessary multitasking, which itself can be overwhelming or sometimes dehumanizing, the centering prayers – especially the Jesus Prayer – offer us a tremendous consolation to center our lives, our thoughts, and put things in the proper perspective. These prayers go a tremendous way in allowing us to recover our equanimity and our sense of inner peace after a day of tremendous stimulation and likely stress.

I initially viewed the quote as a negative one, hinting primarily at feelings of regret, but now I see a positive element: sometimes, as St Isaac says, we cannot approach God, or His presence in another person, with adequate words truly appropriate to or measuring the situation. We are left in a state of sublime wonder and adoration; the highest feelings we can have toward God when married with the three loves in their highest forms. On a microcosmic level, but still profoundly important, when we have that kind of higher love for someone, or for multiple people to differing degrees, then we are truly – as Lewis said – realizing our true ‘spiritual inheritance’ and potential as Christians, as little Christs. It is on that note that I think, ultimately, we are to aspire on a daily basis to ideally speak the words we wish to speak to others, and to appreciate, in profound contemplative silence, the breadth, the majesty, and the beauty of the words spoken to us by another noble soul, and all those in our lives who matter.

Language is one of the greatest gifts that man has; it is directly a gift from God. Human speech cannot ever perfectly praise Him, and so in moments when our languages themselves fail to adequately do so, as magnificent as they are, we resort firstly to using language married to sacred song, to music in which the nous and the voice of the heart pray as one, and then, when even chanting and hymnody fails to fully capture that magnificence and wonder of the Lord, we are silent. We have recourse to silence not as a consolation for estrangement or loneliness, but as a silence of intimate communion. Whether this is communion with God, or with a beloved friend or other such esteemed person, or with a spouse, or children or parents, it is that intimate communion relative to each circumstance and each person in our life to which we are called to aspire. We are called simultaneously to ascend and descend; as St Isaac wrote, to raise our noetic consciousness to “the place where thoughts dry up, and stirrings vanish…where human nature becomes serene, and is transformed as it stands in the other world”, and to bring this same refuge, this same eternal placidity and majesty, to all that we do in this life and all we meet. As St Seraphim of Sarov so beautifully remarked, the foremost goal of our lives as Christians is to acquire the Holy Spirit, and, by doing so, aid in the salvation of those around us.

To the noetically aware, words unspoken carry a meaning all their own, never audibly expressed yet clarion in their meaning. Words unspoken turning to weeping is a natural, emotive impulse in the human person, a reflection of the activity of the soul which wants to connect in the deepest possible way with every other person, and, as life goes on, particularly with those closest to it. We are, simply, to imitate the angels in our mortal conversations, as best we can, so as to have a better taste of the heavenly choirs which ceaselessly praise the King of kings. When we encounter a high soul, a noble soul, in a mortal body, whose soul cannot but rejoice, and weep either tears of joy for the growing bonds, or tears of woe for fear of any loss in the connection? In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God, and any noble soul recognizes the nobility of another like it.

 

The clay and the potter

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every one who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as he is pure.”

1 John 3:1-3

My soul is on fire as if it has been lit by ten thousand candles, and yet I feel a deep calm, an innermost peace, at the same time as this fire. This divine fire which has inflamed my soul is the radiant joy and awe I feel at God’s immediate and immanent presence, which is “everywhere present and fill[s] all things”!

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I am in love with every part of God’s creation, all that is on this earth and in the heavens, but most especially, I am struck by the beauty I see in every face, in every person’s countenance. Old and creased with cares, young and carefree, wrinkled from the accumulation of a life’s work, or soft and smooth in youth – every person I see is beautiful, because each person points to the Creator.

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Whenever I think on the reality that every single person I will see or meet in my life is a child of God, formed by Him before birth in His image (Psalm 138 LXX), I am almost overwhelmed with awe. Every person, at every stage of his or her life, is a precious vessel of the Holy Spirit, the divine Love, the immanent and active grace of our Lord present in all His creation.

Every person is sacred, and the grace of Him who made us all cannot ever be fully absent from anyone. It is always there; the seed of the divine Image remains imprinted upon each soul, no matter what a person does to deny, shatter, or flee from that grace. For we are as clay formed by a master potter; just like clay vessels which travel to the corners of the earth away from the hands of him who formed them, even if we end up far away from Him who shaped us, we cannot escape the reality of our existence. Impressed upon our souls, our very being, is the reality that we came from, and were generated by, the divine Love of God.

The Scriptures are filled with beautiful verses describing God and man in the language of a potter and his clay. Within Genesis 1:26-28, we read:

“. . .So God created [in Hebrew, the word used here is bara] man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.”.

God created man ex nihilo, but the word bara also signifies that He molded and fashioned man as would a potter out of clay. Bara is a word which occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures only in reference to the creative activity of God. It implies that something new has been brought into existence by divine command.

Further, in Genesis 2:1-7, we read that 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed [In Hebrew, the word used here is yatsar] man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [רוח, ruach, or spirit] of life; and man became a living being. . .”.

In Hebrew, “dust” and “clay” are often used interchangeably to refer to soil or earth from the ground. Yatsar, translated in this version as “formed”, literally means to mold as a potter molds clay. The use of yatsar tells us how God formed and sculpted the first of mankind, Adam (אָדָם, whose very name means ‘man’ in Hebrew) and Eve ( חַוָּה, whose name means “living one” or “source of life”). God created man as the summit of His work, the highest of all of His artistic creation, after His own image.

In Jeremiah 18:1-7, we read in the Prophet Jeremiah’s revelation from God a wording very similar to that used in Genesis: “Then the Word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.””

Most beautifully, in Isaiah 64:8, we read:

“Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father;
    we are the clay, and thou art our potter;
    we are all the work of thy hand. . .”

Knowing this by the sweetest and most touching grace of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which imprints Himself upon our souls, we are transformed “by the renewal of [our] mind”, as St Paul writes in Romans 12:2. (Here, “mind”, a latinism, is a very misleading translation of the original Greek word νοός, nous, which is more accurately understood as the eye of the soul or mind of the heart; that spiritual consciousness which makes us aware of God’s immanent presence and grace).

When our noetic faculties are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we become more and more aware that God truly is “everywhere present and fill[ing] all things. . . the Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life”. When we come to look upon every person — no mater their emotional or psychological state or physical appearance or social status — as a fellow child of God, an icon of the Divine image, we see the spark of His love present all around us in everyone we meet and see, each hour of every day. In this, each moment of our life becomes a great blessing.

How can we not love each person as a precious icon of the Holy Trinity, our God who loves us in a way that is beyond our power to rationally describe or conceptually understand? If we know this, once we discern His love for ourselves, then we must realize He loves every other person just as much as He loves us. How can we not but see that the love God has for each of His creatures is a reflection of the perfect love which unites His Three Persons in a unity which transcends our rational understanding?

We read again and again in the Scriptures variations on the reality that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 3, John 3:16, Ephesians 2:4-5, Galatians 2:20, Romans 5:8, etc), which the universal witness of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church has maintained through the centuries. Only by integrating into our daily lives this awareness that our God loves us to the depths of our being, who fashioned each body and soul in His image, may we be transformed and become truly Christ-like Christians, little anointed ones, sons  and daughters of the Most High. What a soul-astounding and glorious challenge this is: to live by love in all things, seeing in the other, in every person you meet and know, the presence of your Creator.

On awareness of the God who searches your heart

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On awareness of the God who searches your heart

St. Theophan the Recluse, also known as Theophanes or Feofan Zatvornik (Russian: Феофан Затворник), (January 10, 1815 – January 6, 1894) is a well-known saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was born as Giorgiy Vasilievich Govorov in the village of Chernavsk. His father was a Russian Orthodox priest. He was educated in the Orthodox seminaries at Livny, Orel and Kiev. In 1841 he was tonsured as a monk and ordained as a priest, and adopted the name Theophan from the Greek θεοφάνεια, denoting a theophany (an appearance or manifestation of God). Theophan later became the Bishop of Tambov.

The Saint is well-known today in Russia through the many books he wrote concerning the inner spiritual life, especially on the subjects of the Christian life and the training of youth in the faith. He also played a leading role in translating the Philokalia from Church Slavonic into Russian. The Philokalia, a classic of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, is composed of the collected edited works of a number of Church Fathers which were placed in a four volume set beginning in the 17th century. A persistent theme is developing an interior life of continuous prayer, learning to cultivate a profound awareness of God’s presence and to “pray without ceasing” as St. Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians.

Thoughts on the grace of God in our lives and the transforming power of His love

How this suffering world would be transformed if we could more freely acknowledge to each other the real presence of God in our lives! Think of how society would be transformed if more of us could understand and connect with each other on this deep spiritual level! These moments, which so deeply transform and illumine us, are little theophanies, moments of revelation of divine love and whisperings of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

These manifestations of our Savior’s love for us touch the very soul and warm the heart of the man or woman open to receiving them. It is these moments which serve to convert and orient one’s soul towards her Creator, which can and should inspire us to seek after God with all our being.

How transformational and glorious these manifestations of divine love and grace are in the lives of those who discern them! If men and women felt free to acknowledge to their fellows this abundant grace of God and manifestations of His love in their lives, the whole world would realize how much more united in His love it actually is. They would see how, in the words of St. John of Damascus (675-749), “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. The Lord who has created all existence, who has painted this icon of His children whom He has fashioned in His image, works with human soul in tapestries of grace and love, His Spirit like a fire warming the noetic hearts of the faithful.

If only more people in the Church felt that they could share their experiences of divine grace, which can come upon any person at any time when they have opened themselves to receiving it! This grace, always a miracle when it visits a person by the power of the Holy Spirit, is bestowed on the heart and soul of someone who seeks after God daily and at all times, who discerns Him as that which is “everywhere present and fillest all things”. Those who have discerned this grace know what it is to live and believe the words of Blessed Augustine (354-430) even if he or she has never heard them: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance.”

Such a person who truly loves Him and discerns His presence in their life constantly remembers the Lord’s chief command, both to those of the Old and New Covenant, to the blood of the House of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to the new Israel of the New Dispensation, that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our might (Matthew 22:37-40). The person who remembers the Lord’s commandments, truly endeavoring to love God with all their being, is on the path to that mystical union with His divine energies and love which shines in the faces of the saints. Such a person is immersed in the lifelong process of theosis: the miraculous and mysterious awakening and transformation of the noetic inner heart and soul of man in union with God’s loving grace through which he or she is divinized.

“God became man so that man might become God”, wrote St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (296-373) in his treatise On the Incarnation. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), who died almost a century before St. Athanasius’ birth, wrote similarly, “In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” This teaching is a universal witness of the early Church, present in all the writings of the earliest Fathers who knew the apostles of Christ or who were trained by their disciples and their disciples’ disciples, and so on.

How can man become God when he is so clearly imperfect? St John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”), St Isaac the Syrian, St Silouan the Athonite, Elder Cleopa (Illie) and so many other holy men and women write of the process of salvation and divinization- for man can only be divinized to the degree that he allows himself to be completely opened to the saving and transformative loving grace of God- as a ladder of gradual, lifelong spiritual ascent. Elder Cleopa (+1998) offers beautifully clear instruction on the ladder of ascent in prayer and spiritual introspection and communion with God here.

The ladders of spiritual growth and increasing discernment through prayer, fasting, repentance and love for God are mutually interconnected to the point of pursuing the same end, reaching for the same transformation in and through and by Christ. First comes the recognition and aversion to sin as anything which separates us from God’s grace and love of the other. Then comes the ceasing of sin and the promptings of repentance, turning away from sinful mindsets and actions, and turning anew to the love of God, With this increasing discernment comes the ability to pray with the lips and the mouth and gradually, the mind; that is, to remember how to pray and what one wants to pray, and to increasingly understand the significance and meaning of what one prayers. Still, this is not the highest level of prayer, which the saints call “prayer of the heart”, the deepest level of communion with God when one’s mental comprehension of what one prays, one’s psyche, descends into the nous, the spiritual eye or the inner heart of one’s soul. Without a lifelong cultivation of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17) and repentance, we may mount the ladder rungs again and again, but never truly begin to ascend in prayer.

We cannot become God by our very essence, which is created, no more than a child can ever become identical in essence to its parent, but we are gradually transformed as our noetic heart and soul open more to the energy and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Man can thus mysteriously and miraculously  become united to His Creator by the most intimate adoption of sonship. Insofar as man, a created being endowed by God with an immortal spirit, can be united to Him through immersion and participation in His illuminative grace and love, he can be transformed and made divine.