A Meditation on Questions
How thin are our words when faced with the awesome reality that confronts us. Sometimes, we use those words to shield us from the thought of death, from the betrayal by the flesh which came from the earth and will return to it.
Every handful of soil – this luxuriant, soft fertile soil that we hold in our hands – is a handful of death. It is the result of so many living and non-living things sacrificing themselves in the earth’s voracious mouth that swallows all.
And when we look beyond the earth onto those countless galaxies that seem to stretch into infinity we are struck by our insignificance, our ‘smallness’. Yet, those stars and planets, countless in number don’t have something that we do have but which we fear – death. Because they are devoid of life they are also empty of death and we are struck by the irony of the fact that it is death that points out life to us, it is death that makes us unique in the cosmos.
We have come so far in unraveling the mysteries of this world of ours from DNA to quantum mechanics, how to harness the energy of the sun in nuclear reactions to marvels of structures that we have devised and built. And yet, we remain the deepest mystery to ourselves. Who are we and what is our purpose? Some would say these are unimportant and unanswerable questions because things are the way they are and there the matter is closed. What use is our struggle in this world? What use is there for dwelling on the transitoriousness of things? All is dust, all is ashes, all is shadow. All earth is a burial ground for dreams, for expectations, for hopes and eventually for our bodies. The wise and blessed Buddha proclaimed the mystical fulness of cosmic harmony; Tao and Zen spoke of the logical complementarity of opposites; Krishna and the Upanishads declared the continuing cycle of life. But all of these are merely, eventual, futile antidotes to the fear of death. Every mystical blessedness becomes a mask of escapism from the terror of death. And behind the mask a senseless emptiness mocks: death is not defeated, death is triumphant. And yet, and yet… we yearn for meaning and cannot come to terms with meaninglessness.
We are lost in the darkness and pain of endless unanswered questions but there are hints, there are tantalizing images that call to us. How did all this come into being? Why such a wide variety of species and such richness of living things? And why should all of this come to naught in the frozen death of a cosmos that expands into eternity or that comes crashing down in the ‘big crunch’ to restart this pointless journey again.
We call a fool in love with every work of God a saint. Even things that for most of us seen as blunders and mistakes such as reptiles, savage beasts, malevolent people, the seeming wastage of biological evolution – they are all part of God’s creation. And the saint offers prayers for all of this and for the whole of creation without exception. Those who are in love with God and with his creation are ecstatic fools unrelated to the natural logic of religion and intellectual certainties.
Wise men have said that the darkness of these questions is the natural distance that separates human beings from God. All things, we are told, are separated from God not spatially but by their very nature. Shall man look upon God and live? It is our nature that came into being from nothing and that prevents our gaining answers to the questions that haunt us with mystery and terror. And until we are reborn, we cultivate our illusory self and cannot meet with God, cannot look upon Him.
In what way do the dead ‘survive’ even before the general resurrection? In what way were human persons preserved and kept alive before the Incarnation and Christ’s descent into the land of the dead? How long will this age last and when will the new one come into effect and we are awakened? How will all this come about? What does it mean to survive death? And on and on….
All these questions receive their answer not with logical propositions which can give us no ‘new’ answer but are a mere shuffling of words into new combinations. These answers are short-lived and do not reach into the depths of our yearnings. Our questions are impervious to empirical investigations and answers. They reside on a totally different level and must be answered in a unique and different way. Our avarice for answers belies our self-satisfaction and shows our egocentricity because we want to dominate reality and control it with our thinking and our propositions. But we fail in this because our self-sufficiency cannot lead to anything else but death and a return to the nothingness from which we had come forth.
His own love founds our personhood and we come to realize this through our faith in God who changes our mode of being. In this new way of being, our language hymns the love of God for us, and all of creation, and comes to us in many way, especially through mercy. It is His love that brought us into being through an excess of passionate love and the passionate lover will never abandon his beloved to non-existence. (How amazingly far we are here from the vengeful and judgemental God who does what he admonishes man not to do – to judge.)
Without the acceptance of God’s love, and we are called on to accept this divine love and are not forced to do so – death is just a shocking and inexplicable absurdity and profanity towards God and towards God’s creation. Death is the central sin against which all of salvation history has been struggling and promising to overcome and eventually accomplishing this. Death is what mars the beauty of creation and is an open challenge to God, an open wound. But now, with the coming of Christ, death has become the last and extreme test of man’s trust and self-surrender to God, the God who calls into existence that which did not exist. Death has become a true passover.
We have heard the parable of the publican and the Pharisee many times. The Pharisee is the model of the religious man who seeks his salvation through his moral capacities and achievements, through his faithfulness to the law. He fasts twice a week; he tithes everything he has but he remains mortal and separated from the life that is eternal. The Pharisee is in love with his dedication, with his idolized egoistic purity and not with God. In the iridescent gleam of virtue, we often discern the color of a cold hunger for self-regard. Virtue wouldn’t go so far if it didn’t have vanity to accompany it. The publican, on the other hand, recognizes his failures in moral achievements. He has nothing else to place his hopes in except in God’s mercy. If there is any possibility of salvation for him it will come because God loves him without limit or standard. The publican points us not to a new religion but to a new mode of life and there are others who echo him – the thief, the prostitute, the prodigal – all seemingly non-religious types of people are presented as guides to achieving true life because they embody the possibility of metanoia, the openness to loving change, and distance themselves from individual self-sufficiency. How tragic it is that we humans limit our lives to illusion, to that which has no real being.
The modern world that we live in has fought faith with the weapons of ersatz faith. In the place of a fantastic god, it puts a deified nature with scientists as its priests. In the place of asceticism it has converted the world to a jaded individual enjoyment. And through it all, it has sung the praises of the individual who strives to cast the world in his image.
And when man has pondered the questions which resist the onslaught of logic and rationality, something new starts to creep into man. In deep silence, he falls onto his knees and gives thanks to the only wise God who is glorified in his wise works forever. The gift of thanksgiving replaces the unanswerable questions. A thankfulness comes to his lips for all things, those which we know, and those which we do not know. As Timothy writes: for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.
‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love for love would be love for the wrong thing; there is yet faith but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought; so the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.’