One of the core paradoxes of being a hobby astronomer is that in order to see the light of stars, planets, moons, and the many wondrous objects of the heavens, we must have a dark night. If the darkness is hindered by light pollution, the sky ceases to be a wondrous tapestry of distant worlds and galaxies. At worst, the right amount of light pollution can turn the sky into a type of murky annoyance, offering no reason for the passerby to stop and gaze upon the heavens. To enjoy the vibrancy of the sky, one needs clear contrast.
This thought came to me as I was revisiting one of the classics of spiritual literature, The Church’s Mystagogy by Saint Maximus the Confessor. I pulled this classic penned by the seventh-century spiritual master from my shelf to help prep for my Confirmation class this year. The term “Mystagogy” is a technical term for the process of growing in faith after one has been confirmed. Different models of instruction for Mystagogy have existed throughout the centuries. Though these writings were meant in the ancient Church as post-Confirmation formation, I like to weave some of their themes into pre-Confirmation preparation.
The Mystagogy begins with an explanation of the Church. Though some may presume that this section would provide detailed descriptions of hierarchical structures and Church Law, what we find is a description of a vibrant community of radical differences that is drawn together by the influence of what Maximus calls an irresistible force. Yet, Maximus is clear that this “body” does not lose its distinctiveness despite this newfound unity. Rather, it reminds us that in order for the Church to be the Church, the distinctiveness of its members is to be celebrated as we come together as one in the Church. It was this first section that sparked my earlier reflection on the night sky: God holds all things together in creation, despite the fact that creation contains a vibrant contrast. These type of reflections always remind me of Saint Paul’s analogy of the Church as the parts of the human body.
Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.
Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.
If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:15-25)
In the past, I have shared with you how stars commonly symbolize people in the Bible. I find in this text a beautiful parallel that just as the night sky displays a vibrant contrast of heavenly objects, so, too, is this vibrancy reflected in the peoples of the world. To mute this vibrancy, seeking to distort contrast, creates a bland, monochrome vision of society (and the Church) that lacks interest and flavor. Yet, one cannot allow the contrast to go untempered, spiraling out into a cacophony of destructive disunity. Amid creation’s diversity there also needs to be a unity, a “single force,” also known as the Holy Spirit.
Maximus continues that it is a great mystery that this collection of distinctive people contain the image and likeness of God in the singular sense instead of multiple images. In light of this, we see in the plurality of Father, Son, and Spirit a similar dynamic of vibrant contrast and unity. God is one, but not a monochromatic unity of disinteresting shades of gray. Rather, God is vibrant, lively, playful, powerful, effective in, and affective for creation. Apart from the language of likeness, we can see that all creation bears the image of God. Therefore, just as the human family displays the vibrant contrast of divine love, so, too, does all of creation, from the flowers in our backyard to nebula in our galactic neighborhood, display this interplay of contrast and unity.
Next, Maximus continues his language of contrast by speaking of the sanctuary of the Church, the place in which the priest presides at Mass, and the nave, the place where the people of God congregate. He states that these distinct spaces suggest different functions of communal prayer, but together they contribute to the one liturgy. Similarly, the people in these spaces give glory to God by embracing their unique and diverse roles in the celebration of the one Mass, creating a vibrant, unified community of prayer. This becomes a metaphor that Maximus uses to speak of how creation is divided into the “spiritual world” of intelligible, incorporeal essences and the “sensible world” of materiality with its forms and natures. These two realities do not constitute two creations, but one. This one creation is simultaneously distinct with its multiple dimensions and expressions of created things, but also unified in that they all participate in the one creation. Further, the material world contains symbols that point to the non-material (the language of Sacrament in the Church) and the non-material helps bring meaning to the material. Yet another expression of unity amid diversity.
This last paragraph made me wonder: Would we even have a concept of the “material world” if we did not have the contrast of a transcendent, incorporeal world? This question brings me dangerously close to a dizzying philosophical rant that would leave my Confirmation students wondering, “When will Father let us go home!” Yet, it does make me wonder how much of our scientific pursuits have a hint of a mystical predisposition in the simple statement that science limits itself to the material world that can be measured. Does not this very distinction presume a contrast that speaks to a non-corporeal reality necessary for the material world to receive its definition? Even the atheist who declares that there is no God implies a presumed understanding of God that if removed would render the atheists’s claim meaningless. Does the materialist and atheist create a disinteresting, monochromatic world of truth through subtraction of the diverse elements of human experience? On the flip side, do we as people of faith allow for an openness to understanding creation via addition that is a vibrant contrast of truth the commingling of the corporeal and incorporeal world implies?
Here’s a question for you to gnaw upon for this week: Do we approach God and creation in a way that embraces a vision of vibrant contrast or are we more prone to a monochromatic vision of the world we live? Years ago, while teaching a class on church architecture, we were looking at the statues of the Cathedral of Notre Dame when a student asked, “Father, why don’t any of the statues have eyes?” The question reminded me that, in the early days of the Cathedral, the exterior statues were all painted with vibrant colors – including their eyes. Time has worn off the colors and, I presume, the expense to repaint them has left them “stone gray.”
At times, I wonder if this is a metaphor for what we have allowed to happen in the Church? I find in the Church today a hyper emphasis on apologetics and doctrine to help bring clarity to the Church’s teachings. Yes, these are very important and, given some of the difficulties the Church has faced, is completely understandable. I do wonder, however, if we have so emphasized this part of the Church that we are implicitly falling into a monochromatic view of faith? Do we lose something when we mute the vibrant contrast of theological debates from the past to the point of letting the Church go “stone gray.” One can rightly argue that this emphasis is needed to maintain the integrity of the Church’s structure. True, but have we also lost something of the flavor of fierce, honest, and charitable debate that marks our intellectual and spiritual past? Are there times, whether it be faith or science, that a monochromatic view of the world is not only helpful, but necessary? Yes, there are those times. However, the results from utilizing this “filter” needs to be returned to the whole, not falsely presuming that the monochrome view has become the new whole.
Lastly, if the Church has allowed herself to become “monochrome,” why should we be surprised that other parts of the world have followed suit? If the narrowing of our vision of faith for the sake of clarity has muted the vibrancy of the Church, a Church that is to be caretakers of the things of God, why wouldn’t the materialist minded segments of society intuitively do the same thing, seeing no need for a broadened exploration of the world? And could re-embracing the vibrant contrast of our faith, even if it means times of disagreement and tension, allow the world we live in an opportunity to broaden their arms, and seek truth through addition instead of subtraction?
What are your thoughts? Are these simply wispy ramblings from a parish priest reading an ancient text or is there something in Maximus the Confessor’s Mystagogy that can help our modern situation? Pray with these questions as I go through more of Maximus’ Mystagogy in the weeks to come. Together, may we allow the vibrant contrast of God and the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, help us to broaden our vision of the world we live, seeing not a limited, monochrome life, but the vibrancy and contrast of a life in Jesus Christ!