Learning by Experience

Протоиерей Джон Бэр

Jan Brueghel «Jonah Leaving the Whale» (1627)
Jan Brueghel «Jonah Leaving the Whale» (1627)
Источник: Jan Brueghel Complete Catalog

Предыдущая публикация: Fiat! Let it be!

St Irenaeus stated that God did not create human beings “perfect” at the outset,
and he offered various reasons why.

He suggested, for instance, that Adam and Eve, whom he depicts as infants in
paradise, needed to grow in order to achieve perfection,
the fullness of being human to which they were called by God.

For example, a mother could give a newborn child meat rather than milk,
though this would not benefit the infant at all.
Likewise, God could have given us a full share in his life and existence from the beginning,
but we would not have been able to receive such a magnificent gift,
without being prepared by learning through experience.
A newborn infant may have “perfect” limbs, but needs to exercise (and to fall)
before being able to walk and to run;
so, too, a creature needs to be exercised in virtue
before they can share in the uncreated life of God.

He further explains that this is bound up with different kinds of “knowledge.”
There is a knowledge that is acquired by hearing, say, that Paris is in France;
and then there is a knowledge which is only gained by experience, such as, what it is for something, such as honey, to be sweet.
Moreover, someone who has lost their sight, but then regains it will value sight much more than those who do not know what it is like to be blind.

Likewise, he suggests it is only by our mortality, by the experience of death in our separation—apostasy—from God,
that we come to value life,
knowing that in ourselves we do not have life,
but depend for it upon God.

Our experience of death drives home this point in a way that we will never otherwise fully know:
it makes the point existentially, in the guts, rather than just in the head.

We need to know experientially what it is to be weak, if we are to know the strength of God, for as Christ both exemplified and affirms:
“my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
St Irenaeus points to the case of Jonah as an analogy for understanding the wisdom of God in these matters.
God appointed a whale to swallow up Jonah, not to kill him but to provide an occasion for Jonah to learn.
By being in the belly of the whale for three days and nights and then unexpectedly cast out,
Jonah acknowledged himself to be a servant of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

So, likewise, St Irenaeus suggests that in preparing beforehand the plan of salvation worked by the Lord through the sign of Jonah,
God allowed the human race to be swallowed up by the great whale from the beginning.
God did so, once again, not so that the human race should perish, but that once they received salvation,
they would then know that they do not have life from or in themselves.

They would, instead, acknowledge God as the Creator and themselves as created, depending for life and existence from God alone and now willing to receive it.

In this providential plan, the human race comes to learn of its own weakness,
but also and simultaneously comes to know the greatness of God manifest in their own weakness,
transforming the mortal to immortality and the corruptible to incorruption.

Jonah is, therefore, a sign of the perishing human race
and, at the same time, a sign of the savior,
for it is precisely by his death that Christ has conquered death.

Finally, St Irenaeus adds that only in this way can there be created beings
who can freely respond to God in love,
who can adhere to him in love,
and so, in love, come to share in his existence.
Any other approach would have resulted merely in “automatons.”

He then concludes, rather shockingly, that if we ignore all this, and especially the need for experiential knowledge of our own weakness:
“we kill the human being in us.”

From what we have seen, we might also say that in order to be a true human being in the image of God,
—who is Christ the true human being, “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15)—
we must be born into a new existence in Christ
by a birth effected through our voluntary use of our mortality
—as an act of sacrifice through baptism—
thereby freely choosing to exist as a human being
and grounding that being and existence in an act of freedom,
so living the same life of love that God himself is.

The human being only comes into existence by giving their own “fiat”
—“Let it be!”

For every other aspect of creation,
all that was needed was a simple divine “fiat”—“Let it be!”
But for the human being to come into existence,
required a creature able to give their own “fiat!”

This is, of course, accomplished sacramentally, once and for all, in baptism.
The life of the baptized thereafter is one of “learning to die,”
learning, that is, specifically to take up the Cross of Christ.

However, until I actually die and lie in the grave, I’m caught in the first-person singular.
I can only say: “Didn’t I die well to myself today?”
It is still I who am working,
while I learn how to let go of all that pertains to this earth and to my self.

If, however, I can do so—if, that is, I can learn to let go, to become dispassionate and not attached to material possessions and riches, even to family and my own image of myself—then, when I breathe my last,
I will be able to say in peace, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

If I do not learn this, then death will certainly be painful, separating me from
all that I love,
all that I can not “take with me.”
Death will finally reveal in which direction my heart is oriented.

However, until that point, it is still I who am doing this, dying to myself.
When, on the other hand, I am finally returned to the dust, then I stop working.
Then, and only then, do I finally experience my complete and utter frailty and weakness.
Then, and only then, do I become clay (for I never was this), clay fashioned by the Hands of God into living flesh.
And so, it is also only then that the God whose strength is made perfect in weakness can finally be the Creator:
taking dust from the earth which I now am and mixing in his power,
he now, finally, fashions a true, living, human being—“the glory of God.”

When this happens, the act begun in baptism is completed, and so too is the Eucharist.
Those who commit their spirit to the Lord eucharistically complete their incorporation into Christ as his body.
St Irenaeus puts the process leading to the Eucharist in parallel with that leading through death to resurrection.
He suggests that
just as the wheat and the vine receive growth and fruitfulness from the Spirit,
so too we receive the Eucharst;
and as we make the fruits into bread and wine
so too we are made ready for the resurrection to be effected by the Word.
just as the bread and the wine receive the Word
and so become the Body and the Blood of Christ—the Eucharist—
so also our bodies will receive immortality and incorruptibility
from the Father.

In all these ways, human death is educational,
enabling us to experience the frailty of our nature
so we may experience the strength of God,
and through this we become a eucharistic gift to and of God.

So, also, will be completed the return on the pledge of the Spirit given to Christians in baptism.
Breathing their last breath—expiring—they are no longer animated as they had previously been by the breath of life.
Rather, the pledge, which had been kindling the spark of new life, will be set ablaze in the fullness of the life-creating power of the Spirit
through our actual death and resurrection in Christ:
“what is sown in an animated body
is raised in a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).

In all these ways, the stated intention of God in the first chapter of Genesis
—to make a human being–
is completed.
The passage from the first creation account to the second
—when God takes our dust from the earth—
traces our passage from the givenness of our existence
to our (re)creation by God through death.

Следующая публикация: «Male and Female Made He Them»