Of lumberjack monks, dead parishioners, and Theosis

I had published my last piece, “The New Normal” with the thought of leaving the topic, but the more I think about it, this is actually where I should take off on the whole question of Orthodoxy and justification. The reason for this can be seen in that one very sharp but wonderful point in Bishop Thomas’s assertion that those who think they have no time to be active in church, but active in their gardens or at jai alai should just die: this breaths what the Gospel is to the Orthodox. To best illustrate this, let us take it up with an eighth-century monk become missionary become bishop; a man born Winfrith, but who eventually assumed the name of Boniface, and is known as the apostle to the Germans. St. Boniface’s life is recorded for us be another monk name Wilibald. There are a couple notable miracles associated with St. Boniface, but I wish to treat only one in particular, his felling of the oak of Jupiter. Of course this was a pagan grove of trees, with the oak in question probably being the largest and most revered of them. When Boniface took an axe to it, at the first stroke the tree split into four parts as a wind from heaven came and toppled it. Thereupon Boniface did what any monk would have done: he used the wood and turned the tree into a church.

So, how do these three seeming dissonant and disparate items – – Orthodox views on justification, dropping dead as the opposite of the new normal, and the felling of a pagan sacred tree – – weave themselves together? To see we should look first at a passage from St. Athanastius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, I.4.

God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should    remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again [to non-existence] according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.

Notice that the divide here for we mortals is not one between nature and grace, nor merely the created and the uncreated, but the created, the uncreated and non-existence. As created we came from nothing, even though there was a heavenly and divine pattern according to which we were made, the Image of God, God the Father’s Word, the Son, who is the express image of the invisible Father. Since we were taken from nothing we only find who we really are by contemplating the divine original or the principle of our existence, namely Christ. Through theoria, contemplation, we first had existence, but this was never enough. But when we turned from this we turned to corruption, and with corruption tended back to non-existence, and so we made our plight only worse. Thus, says St. Athanasius, Him by Whom we were created must also be our Redeemer, the one who saves our life from destruction and oblivion. For as He is the original after Whom we were made, He alone can restore us. And with this restoration, Christ sets the world back on the path to the Kingdom of God, back on the road to contemplation, and ultimately, deification.

For the Orthodox, however, first must comes purification and askesis, coupled with theoria (contemplation) leading to theosis. Theosis is the life of the world to come, the Life in Christ, which St. Nicholas Cabasilas wrote, is consummated in heaven, but begun now. Thus the Life in Christ is the Life of the Spirit, and Life in the Body of Christ. This is why parish life is the new normal, and the life at football or soccer games on a Sunday instead of at Divine Liturgy are themselves reversions to the state of non-existence, for they pull us away from the eschatological presence of Christ within His Church.

And how do we come to the Church? By felling oaks. For what must be absolutely clear, is that oaks (and ash and beech and elm) all exist for the purpose of making churches, gold exists for the purpose of being sacred vessels and adorning God’s tabernacles, and stones are for the erecting of altars. The world finds its purpose fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, that is, in the life of the world to come. When St. Boniface felled the oak of Jupiter what he was doing was not merely destroying a pagan shrine, but was instead converting it to its proper use: a temple for the King of kings.

We must be willing to fell the shrines in our lives that keep us from the contemplation of God. This felling of oaks on the personal level is askesis, asceticism, purification, and the counting of those things we once thought of as gain to be now but rubbish, that which is to be thrown to the dogs. As the ancient Hebrews brought their gold and finery to Moses to erect the tabernacle, so we must bring the gold of ourselves to adorn God’s temple, and thus we should not be opposed to the wearing of our finest on the Lord’s Day when we appear before God. If we are unwilling to take the axe to our shrines and having felled them turn them into temples of God, then we might as well die, we might as well admit that we would rather exchange that which is of ephemeral, or at best of passing and vanishing value, for that which is of utmost importance, and is indeed priceless, namely the health and restoration of our soul. The pagans St. Boniface confronted were following vanities, what St. Paul called “nothing” (“we know that an idol is nothing”), and he was further out to show them the proper use of the wood that had been abusing. So, St. Boniface redeemed the tree, and converted it into its proper function.

We as the children of Adam and Eve are turned from our true selves to vanities, and need to be converted, turned, purified, and see (theoria) properly that we might once again be put to our true purpose, which is union with God. St. Maximus said that truly we shall become God to the extent that God became man. Why and how? We were not created for this world, but for something greater than what Adam was: to be personally united to God and the divine Life the way that God the Son was united to our human life. By this union, through the hypostasis of the Son, divinity is mediated to humanity and humanity to divinity. It is not grace mediated to us, not righteousness, not justice nor goodness nor any other quality. For if this were so we have erected yet another mediator between us and God: merit, or goodness, or faith, or anything else you wish to name. And we shall take this up again at the beginning of next week. A blessed Sunday to all.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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10 Responses to Of lumberjack monks, dead parishioners, and Theosis

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Athanasia says:

    Perhaps it is late and I am tired, or I am just obtuse but for a Bishop to say if one has no time to be active in church they should just die seems a little harsh. Though I can see the point that they are spiritually dead. And by active in church, can I assume he means ‘be there’ and worship?

    By the way, are you going to be at EU’s December graduation? My daughter will be ‘walking’.

  3. David Fraser says:

    I’m not sure I quite understand the implications of this. Perhaps this is a point where we have somewhat different understandings of “heaven,” the Kingdom of God and the nature of this life.Down with idols, to be sure! But don’t take away sport or gardening (or even things I don’t do like golf and skiing) when not idolatrous. Perhaps I don’t fully understand the vision of the Orthodox for the fullness of the Kingdom. Here’s how I think about it (close to N.T. Wright).
    The new creation is the very same creation we now live in only redeemed and renewed. Romans 8:19-20 tells us creation waits in eager longing and groans for the revealing of the children of God. That comes with the resurrection of the children of God to eternal life in new bodies. Creation anticipates that it will be released finally from its current bondage. God doesn’t make new things, but makes all things new.
    Creation was brought into being for humans to rule and explore. Yet creation now watches us as sinful, drunken wastrels who do not steward creation. We do not govern over it with justice and prudence, but with a ferocious plundering and destructive pursuit of selfish pleasures and national narrowness (and awful militarism). Creation waits for the time when the children of God will govern all of creation as God designed from the beginning.
    It means all of the skills, interests, passions and dreams we have had in this life on this earth, in this first creation, will have continuity with the new creation (including soccer!!). We will be on earth, with trees, and beautiful sunsets, and banquets, and birds and, yes, cats and dogs –lions and tigers, and all sorts of marvelous living creatures. And there will be the enormous New Jerusalem into which all the treasures and wonders of human cultures and civilizations will be brought. Revelation 21:26 tells us “People will bring into it all the glory and honor of the nations.” Jazz clubs and great cuisines from the full range of human history. Great libraries and literature. Great music and art. Great sports events. Baseball played at the highest level! So time spent becoming a skilled historian or marvelous singer or jazz player will have continuity with the coming world. “Heaven” is “earth renewed” and populated with gifted humans who obey God and display His image in manifold activity (in other words, “heaven” as we think of it is a waiting room for the real story — God triumphant in the very place where the great rebellion happened — and humans displaying their full range of gifts in that new creation on earth in a renewed universe). It will not be a 500 billion year plus praise service with incense and icons.
    Imagine all the most attractive and wonderful things found in all the cities of the world – and they will be there, for the enjoyment and continuing development of all the redeemed. Unfortunately, there will be no temple, no churches. Pastors, preachers, evangelists will all be on the unemployed list. We will have to find something else to preoccupy us. But then doctors and nurses, social workers and policemen, soldier and arms makers will not be needed. But a whole universe of possibilities will open up to each of us – to be and become more than we ever were in this life.
    It means we take this life on this earth seriously. This life is not simply an exam, qualifying us for eternal life if we bring enough gold into the church and spend enough time in “piety” rather than party (Jesus is the maker of the wine of joy at all our true parties). It is the beginning of that life. If we want to be energized at what we are doing, to be relevant to the challenges of this life, then believe in and hope for “heaven”—and the final destination of a new earth.
    What we begin to become here and now, the passions and skills, the habits and interests that shape us come with us. When we are resurrected, we bring all we are and have become – only now purified, perfected, enlarged. Just as there is continuity between the first creation and the new, so there is with us. We are recognizably the same persons. Our identities are preserved. But that means all of what makes up our identities, only purified.

  4. Cyril Jenkins says:

    David, In reading my post again I know it sounds like the diatribe of a monk against the chariot races (though I don’t know of any diatribe against the chariot races by any Byzantine monk – – but I haven’t read everything). Like you, I love sports, and while my body has been damaged no end by them, I still get on the bike. But this doesn’t mean, as you do point out, that anything is an end in itself, for even our enjoyments are actually for a use. St. Augustine makes a big distinction between use and enjoyment, something that could be refined for all sorts of items, but here I will look at one. I am a fan of the NFL. I follow other sports, but only to check the box scores (the Orioles actually gave me reason to follow them into October this year). The NFL is different, the level of competition, its production, and intensity, the diversity of skills needed, etc. This is my main diversion (apart from reading). I spend about 3-5 hours a week at, though not undistractedly, for I often grade papers or check notes while doing so. Why do I imbibe the brutal, violent sport? Because I am human, and I need rest. The human mind cannot uninterruptedly contemplate but one thing always. And this feeds into your vision of heaven, but more below. In short, humans, as psycho-physical beings are not pure intellects, and God did not create us thus. And so we need discipline and rest, fasting and feasting. When I said trees are made for churches, I mean that the world is given to us as God’s gift, and since it is patterned, as are we, after the Logos, it is given to us as well as sacrament. This is what Fr. Schmemann is discussing in his For the Life of the World.

    But enough of that. I am going to comment on just two of your items. I think we are not in formal, or even material disagreement, except on two matters (maybe). First, you wrote “It will not be a 500 billion year plus praise service with incense and icons.” Well, yes and no. First, we see incense in heaven in the book of the Apocalypse. Just as all the other wonderful, sensory items you listed shall be there, I can’t imagine incense not being (especially, unlike soccer, we already have Biblical warrant for it – – aren’t you a Protestant?). As for icons, well, yes as well, for we are the icons, those made after the image, and who have now obtained the Likeness of the express ikon of God, Jesus Christ. Have we need for windows into heaven anymore, no, for as you point out, God now dwells among us.

    Second, you wrote, “This life is not simply an exam, qualifying us for eternal life if we bring enough gold into the church and spend enough time in “piety” rather than party (Jesus is the maker of the wine of joy at all our true parties).” But we do bring gold into the church, for this is what Paul is saying about gold, silver, precious stones. God has given us all good things to enjoy, and as this life is preparation for the next, so I believe we enter heaven having already prepared for it. God does burn away our wood, hay, and stubble, but this is not to say we don’t suffer loss, for St. Paul says we do. Nonetheless, since human nature is dynamic, and each person is a an enhypostasization of that dynamic nature, we shall forever be learning to glorify good by our “tending the garden.” Not in despair as at the end of Voltaire’s Candide, but now in communion with God as Adam failed of it. And this gets back also to the contemplating one thing, always. In heaven, the new earth, we shall be surrounded by an infinity of goods. We shall never be without the exercise of our will among them. No longer will it be a matter of judging between evils (the U.S. Election, anyone?), but of only between goods: goods that are the saints in glory, goods that are the fruit for our life in God.

    Much to think about every way. Thanks so much for your thoughts

  5. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Athanasia, first, yes I shall be at the graduation. And second, he didn’t tell them to “drop dead” (though that is what some of them told people), what he said was you might as well die, for they had no life in them. It’s not choosing gardening or jai alai, but choosing them over Church that was the point. Glad to hear from you.

  6. David Fraser says:

    Thanks Cyril! Good reflections. I should have included incense to be sure — and, with the streets made of gold in the New Jerusalem, I’m not sure we will have to carry much in with us! Still, I’m looking forward to the great library and reading about all the things I’ve longed to know but am rapidly running out of time….. Not just the wonders of God but the wonders of creation and history as well (and languages and music….) Oh, me. Can’t wait.

  7. Joshua says:

    I don’t want to sound stupid Dr. Jenkins but I am not sure how what your saying here stands against sola fide? Anglicans and Lutherans would both agree that persisting in willful disobedience is faith destroying. Refusing to receive the sacraments or go to mass definitively places us in danger of falling away. Placing anything before God is certainly sinful, but I am not understanding how Sola fide and what your saying here are in disagreement? I find no disagreement in what you have written here.

  8. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Joshua, I am only “taking off.” If my power holds up tomorrow (a big hope), then I trust I can get another post up. I have been in Cincinnati for the best part of this week at a conference and thus why no reply, and why no follow-up post. Patience.

  9. Galaxy says:

    Awesome site you have here but I was wanting to know if you
    knew of any message boards that cover the same topics discussed
    in this article? I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get feed-back from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

  10. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Galaxy, if by the same topics, you mean Orthodoxy, then check out http://www.monachos.net/content/. If you are looking for item on education, look to http://www.mindingthecampus.com/about.html; if you are after broadly polemical matters on Orthodoxy, you could go to http://orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org/, where there are discussions, though no message boards. I hope to have several more things posted here this coming week, as a brutual semester at school, and past few months in my life, have come to a conclusion.

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