The edge of the precipice

Feeling in need of some spiritual nourishment, I dug out my copy of Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way last night.

One of the things I most appreciate about Orthodoxy is its sense of the numinous, of the mystery and unknowability of God. In theory, Lutheranism shares much of this, through Luther’s “theology of the cross” – which emphasises how we cannot know God by ascending up to him to encounter him as he is, but can only know him as he has descended to us in Christ: Christ incarnate, and Christ present today in word and sacrament.

This ought to make us able to speak of God in the same terms described by Bp Kallistos:

The Greek Fathers liken man’s encounter with God to the experience of someone walking over the mountains in the mist: he takes a step forward and suddenly finds that he is on the edge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath his foot but only a bottomless abyss. Or else they use the example of a man standing at night in a darkened room: he opens the shutter over a window, and as he looks out there is a sudden flash of lightning, causing him to stagger backwards, momentarily blinded. Such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God: we are assailed by dizziness; all the familiar footholds vanish, and there seems nothing for us to grasp; our inward eyes are blilnd, our normal assumptions shattered.

However, in practice we often end up sounding trite and banal in our talk of God and in our worship of him. When’s the last time any of us had anything like the experience described above, whether in our own personal prayer lives or in our church services? How many of us could identify with the sense of the numinous described in this story told by Bp Kallistos?

When Samuel Palmer first visited William Blake, the old man asked him how he approached the work of painting. “With fear and trembling,” Palmer replied. “Then you’ll do”, said Blake.

I don’t say this to be negative, but just as an opportunity to reflect on how grateful I am – as an irredeemably western Christian – to be given the opportunity to join in a prayer like this occasionally:

Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins,
kindling my heart with the flame of your love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For You alone are my King and my Lord.


One thought on “The edge of the precipice”

  1. I had the privilege of meeting Kallistos Ware once.

    I like the Orthodox sense of the Divine too – it makes a lot more sense to me than the anthropomorphised Western deity.

    In the end I found Orthodoxy too ascetic, but their theology is fascinating, especially their view of the role of Christ.

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