Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Between Omnia and Nihil, Everything and Nothing

[You don't have to know any Latin to use this image; see sermon below]

Between Omnia and Nihil, Everything and Nothing

Sermon for St Olave's Church, York, February 15, 2009

Wisdom playing before the face of God; wisdom seducing people in the marketplace; wisdom revealed in the diversity of creation; wisdom expressed through the person of Christ; wisdom in the language of the Logos, the creative rationality of the divine—today's readings are rich enough to make us gloriously dizzy.

And perhaps that's the point. Every once in a while we need to be yanked out of our cozy domestication of God to be overwhelmed with an excess of images. The word excess is important because its Latin form in the Middle Ages is linked to union with God, often signaled by the phrase excessus mentis, a kind of prayer in which the ordinary self-conscious mind is transcended—tipped over the threshold, perhaps, by an excess of images and words.

Words such as God, wisdom and silence are useful in this process precisely because they de-schematize our minds. They can't really be defined because they gesture towards a vastness of life and love that is without geometry, without boundary, without circumscription or horizon. Whatever form Wisdom appears to take, whatever task she energizes, her playground is between everything and nothing; everything in the sense of the limitless God who is Alpha and Omega, and nothing —well, it's the various sorts of nothing that perhaps we need to look at.

God is no-thing—how could it be otherwise since God worketh all thing as Julian of Norwich remarks?

But the infinite potential held in God's no-thing is very different from, say, the tohu-bohu, the messy chaos, the empty ruin of Genesis out of which creation is made; and both of these forms of nothing are different from the de-creating chaos of trapped minds making their own hell, the dead-end of reductive thinking.

Sometimes the words everything and nothing have the same referent. A person can have everything in the material world, but in the context of a personal crisis everything becomes nothing in comparison with the interior resources needed to face death. In a similar way, if we ask, 'Who am I'? we might first think of everything we are, an impression formed largely by paying attention to the noisy opinions of other people which augment our equally noisy and skewed perceptions of our selves, our wants and needs.

This cacophony includes judgements we make about our so-called 'true self' and 'false self', as if the self were a static commodity, to be elongated or chopped off to fit a procrustean bed sized to stereotypes. Worst of all, we make the assumption that we are capable of making these judgements about our selves, an assumption that makes us little better than bandits on the road to God.

If we were able to stop and be silent long enough to allow the noise of opinion and judgement to fall away, we might come to realize that this everyday critique of our selves is itself nothing, is illusion; that only by finding our way past the noise to the seeming nothingness of the silence of self-forgetfulness can the everything of who we are, the fullness of the unfolding truth of our selves, be revealed.

This movement into silence is mirrored by wisdom's progression through this morning's readings. In the Old Testament lesson and the psalm, her delight is a full measure, brimming over in an unquenchable stream. By contrast, her appearances in the New Testament readings, are more coded. By the time we reach the Gospel of John, wisdom is no longer even named; she has become cryptic, tantalizing and unfathomable, the creative rationality of God hidden in logos language. To point this out is neither to praise the Old Testament nor to denigrate the New. The two ways of describing wisdom may themselves be another example of the reach between everything and nothing, from the obvious metaphor in Proverbs, to the gesture towards the ineffable in John.

Everything and nothing dominate the first three verses of the Gospel of John. David Howlett, the editor of the Medieval Latin Dictionary, set this passage as out as poetry. [See the image above.]

In the middle of the Prologue are the words facta sunt/factum est, that is to say the fullness of what is made. What is made is bracketed above and below on the left by the Latin words for 'through him' and 'without him' per ipsum and et sine ipso, yet another expression of everything and nothing.

And all of these phrases are bracketed—again, above and below to the left—by the words omnia, everything, and nihil, nothing. And the entire passage is bracketed by the words Verbum, the silent Word through whom all is created, and tenebrae, a darkness we might think of as an act of silencing, which cannot comprehend the Word or the light of life it brings. It cannot silence Silence; it cannot evacuate into a negative nothing the everything in the hidden Word.

However, what John has written is but a prologue, a beginning.

If we really want to understand what these passages about everything and nothing mean for everyday Christians, we need to turn to the Prologue's mirror, which is the great kenotic hymn in the second chapter of Philippians (5-11), a hymn we will hear repeatedly during the coming weeks of Lent and Easter. Caveat lector! Reader beware! Translations of this passage are often misleading, because the theology that it espouses is today so poorly understood.

The hymn begins by saying that Christ was in the form of God; there is endless argument over what the word 'form' means, but that need not concern us here except to note that this word signals the equivalent of everything. The hymn tells us in verse six that the revelation of Christ means that God's understanding of power is not as we think of power; perhaps an echo of Isaiah 55:8, : 'for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.'

Unlike ourselves for whom wielding power usually consists in self-inflation and self-reflexive dominance, God does not regard power as something to be 'grasped.' This is the word used by the excellent RSV translation, reflecting the Greek harpagmon, which, Tom Wright tells us, means license to grasp. The Latin for this word—reflecting St Jerome's characteristic vehemence—is the much stronger rapinam.

Rejecting these exorbitant and reflexive attitudes towards power, Christ refused to exercise license and instead, in the regrettable phrase most often used in translations, 'emptied himself'. This action would be far better translated as 'outpoured himself.' (Again the Latin is extreme, the word exinanivit has the equivalent opposite force of rapinam.)

The words of the hymn continue the trajectory of this outpouring: humbled, servant, obedient and death. In other words, God's nature is consistently outpouring as it stretches between everything and nothing. And the nothing in this passage is not just death; it is the force of de-creative chaos. The chiasmic text unwinds itself into a chasm, and it is into this unspeakable non-place, without geometry, boundary, circumscription or horizon, that Christ descends.

At the sight of this appalling black hole, it is as if the writer of the hymn—indeed the entire universe—takes a deep, deep breath in the next word, propter. Jerome's choice of this word to translate the Greek dìo, which in English is translated as therefore, is significant. He chose not to use the other Latin word for therefore, which is ergo.

By this choice Jerome reminds us that this hymn is not a proof, QED; it is descriptive. Propter is a space of expectation, of opportunity, the wild, crazy hope that comes only after passing through despair. The joyous words that follow, exaltavit and donavit, exalt and give, are not the consequence of the nothing but were made possible by the opportunity that the outpouring into nothing created. As in John's Prologue where the light does not replace the darkness but grows out of it, the exaltation and gift arise from the nothingness into which the everything of God's love is willing endlessly to outpour.

And the exalted gift is given is a name. In the ancient world, names were power: if you knew the name of a god, you had control over it. But we are not told this exalted name, for it is the silent name of God, the silence of self-outpouring. Laughing in the face of the abyss, the poet uses omne—another form of the word for everything—three times at the end of the hymn signaling all created beings (visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, powers), and all worship; and all praise.

One of the many implications of omnia as the exaltation of this willing nihil is that there is nothing that needs 'redeeming' because nothing, not even de-creative chaos, has ever been separated from God. God's outpouring stretches between omnia and nihil not once upon a time long ago, but now, in each fragment of the creation at every moment; it is the Eucharist we celebrate today.

This complex reciprocity, even identity, between omnia and nihil exists because of the paradoxical nature God's outpouring power. We cannot properly say that God has an identity or a self as we understand it, because for us, identity, like language, can only be self-reflexive. God's identity, paradoxically, is this outpouring, without reflexivity.

And if this were not vertiginous enough, the whole point of the hymn is that God's nature is also ours. We too are stretched between omnia and nihil, not only from birth to death—and which is which?—but in the choices we make in every moment of our lives, choices that ultimately reveal our complex and unfolding truth.

For us to realize our shared nature with the divine we have only to choose to inhabit the 'mind of Christ' which the hymn describes. Again translation is a problem, for the English word mind is insipid compared to the Greek, which signifies the way we dispose our being. The Latin nuances the Greek with resonances of experience, choice, way of thinking, meaning, purpose.

But everything in our consumer culture and our consumer spirituality mitigates against putting on this outpouring mind of Christ. Its noisy message tells us that wealth, power and ruthlessness are supreme. It assures us that walking labyrinths, talking and reading endlessly, participating in spiritual fads will sanctify our selfishness, bring us happiness in our greed; and, oh yes, our success will be facilitated by a lot of expensive kit.

Poised as we are today between the financial excess that once promised everything but has revealed itself to be nothing, and given the ongoing descent of the economy towards an unknown vacuity, few of us care any longer to be extended in this way. Perhaps in the deafening silence of a failed market economy we are beginning to wake up to the fact that everything that has gone wrong with our world, our relationships, our church can be traced to the refusal to put on the mind of Christ, which refusal is manifest in the loss of our lives' dialogue with transfigurative silence, that is to say, wisdom.

Wisdom, which we receive through the work of silence, stretches us with Christ between the omnia, the everything of the past, and the nihil, what appears to be the nothingness, of the future. It is ours as we play before the face of God in the equipoise in the present moment, which is not a moment, but a silence and stillness that remove us from the noise of the artificiality of time, self-reference, and merely linear thinking.

This silence is a wellspring that flows from eternity. We can learn to draw on it continually to inform our daily round, to recover the balance between silence and speech, to enable the hidden eucharistic truth of each of us to unfold. We can learn to silence our mental noise, not by turning to other noise, but by learning to reach through it to wait in the silence of God. A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up.

The way to God is not along the bandits' road of spiritual consumerism, relentless manipulation, and words without root or end, but through the strait gate of silence, whose doorposts are everything and nothing. This gate opens outward into the sanctuary where the angels of comedy and tragedy shelter the empty mercy seat; where we participate in wisdom's delight, playing in the silence of God who speaks in our hearts and says, 'Seek my face.'

Your face, Lord, will I seek.


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