Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition XIII

Becoming Prayer

In the way of tears we become prayer; we no longer labour under the illusion of prayer as technology. As Clément says, we are "offering the world on the altar of (our hearts)":

"The condition of space-time which gives rise to the beating of the heart, is no longer an endless prison, but a temple walled with light. The man "feels" (taking the apophatic meaning of the "feeling of God") the risen Christ, who is the face of the Father, in the light of the Spirit."

We do not pray, we are prayed. And only when the last element of creation has become transfigured through the tears of Christ living in humankind will tears cease.

But there is more. We must remember that these are not tears of sorrow only, but of both sorrow and joy. As Isaac says, "here is sweet and flaming compunction"; or, mixed sorrow and joy like honey and the comb, to use an image of John Climacus. Mixed because in this singularity we somehow come to know more and more (in the most intimate biblical sense) that we gaze upon the face of God (Matthew 18). The promises made for us in baptism are fulfilled in us by this new and unceasing pouring out of fiery tears through our life within the blessed Trinity, whose love has become the polarity in this unending exchange of kenosis. This is the baptism of tears. The dark glass though which we see is washed by tears that magnify the face of God as we gaze upon it. And the only sin of which we need repent is the turning away from this gaze.

We come to know that in this singularity we are brought to the freedom and possibility of the primordial moment of creation, pregnant silence of hesychia. We know then that water and fire are one, that our tears ignite God's fire upon the earth. Syrian literature and liturgies are full of this knowledge:

See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you!
See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptised!
Fire and Spirit in our Baptism;
In the Bread and in the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit! [12]

We begin to see that tears break open our stony hearts, like alabaster boxes from which the oil of the Spirit's anointing is poured upon the earth. We begin to understand that our tears, like the water Elijah poured on the fire, ignite the baptism of fire which Christ has promised, salting creation with fire; that his apophatic fire breaks out from all things.

As we pass through the strait place, we not only are drawn, we become impelled by the gaze of Love into infinite possibility of transfiguration. We become outwardly oriented. We become self-forgetful: we become so found in God that self-reflection becomes less necessary and less possible. Our only security is the insecurity of listening unknowing, and then acting in faith on what is heard and given. Our prayer is being prayed. Our only perception is nonexperience. Our longing no longer seeks fulfillment, indeed, is no longer noticed as longing.

We have not touched in this article on discernment, or types of tears that have been identified through the ages, or the social and political implications of understanding that tears are at the heart of Christianity, and the ultimate hope of the world. But perhaps this does not matter, for in the end the way of tears and fire is a commitment not to have any way; not to have any way, that is, except God's way, which remain unknown until it is unfolded in the silence of mingled divine and human kenosis.

In the words of Isaac of Nineveh,

"From stillness a man can gain possession of the three [causes of tears]: love of God, awestruck wonder at his mysteries, and humility of heart. Without these it is unthinkable that a man should be accounted worthy to taste of the wellspring of flaming compunction arising from the love of God. There is no passion so fervent as the love of God. O Lord, deem me worthy of this wellspring! [13]

[12] "A Hymn of St Ephrem to Christ on the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the Sacrament" tr. Robert Murray, ECR 3 (1970), pp. 142-50.

[13] Unpublished translation by Dana Miller, Book II.


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