Part 1: Encountering God in Stories
(This talk was given as the Climacus Conference, in Feb. 2017. Click here for audio and images)
The world is made of stories. Of course the world is made of things as well, but mostly, let’s say, most significantly, it is held together by stories.
As Orthodox Christians we believe that we can encounter God anywhere and in anything, that in the language of St-Gregory of Palamas, the uncreated divine energies hide behind phenomena. We believe, within the wonderful frame given to us first by St-John the Theologian, and then expanded by St-Maximus the Confessor, that all things have a logos, have a hidden purpose, have meaning, and therefore all things are connected, united by their logos to each other and ultimately to the Divine Logos in love.
When we hear such phrases, about divine energies, uncreated light, logoi connecting all things to God, it is easy for the skeptic to see this as esoteric mumbo-jumbo. I can understand that. It resembles New Age vagaries or something so obscure one is expected “to just make a leap of faith”.
But really, beyond the somewhat technical wording, it is simply how the world presents itself to us, in fact these truths are so close to us that they permeate all our experiences. And yes, it does begin with faith, not just faith as the mental belief in something, but faith as a commitment to the invisible, faith which leads us to experience how the invisible not only transcends the visible, but is also that which holds the visible world together.
How in the world can the invisible hold the visible together? It can sometimes be quite simple, and stories are one of the most immediate examples of how this happens. A story is a series of facts, facts chosen amid an indefinite amount of possible facts. These facts are characters, places and objects interacting in a string of events threaded together in a pattern of meaning. The pattern of a story is the invisible part, the hidden secret in a story.
The pattern cannot be found in the individual parts of the story, but appears rather as the reason why the particulars have been brought together. The pattern is not arbitrary, rather it imposes itself to our intuition by how much it is meaningful to us. We know something is a story because it captures our attention, it awakens our humanity.
Imagine a series of events:
I put on one sock, then I scratched my nose a bit. I breathed three times and my heart beat at least 20 times. Then I put on the other sock. I coughed a little. I blinked a few times. I glanced at the belt on the chair. I breathed another two times and swallowed my saliva.
As it stands, even though there is clearly a character, there are even events in the description, but that’s not much of a story. It’s boring. If I kept going like that for a few more minutes, I would have people walking out of this room.
For your consideration, here’s another series of events:
I went to put on my socks, but looking into the drawer, I realized that all of them were in the wash. I started to panic because I was already late, so here I am frantically searching the house for a pair of clean socks. After another 5 minutes, I’m at the point of giving up, and I am thinking I will have to dive into the hamper and spend the day in dirty socks, either that, or else I begin wondering if it would be considered cross-dressing to borrow my wife’s socks.
And as I am shamefully sifting through my wife’s socks to find something I could bear to put on, looking over my shoulder hoping she does not walk in on me, what do I find hiding in her drawer? A pair of my own socks, all nicely folded, that found themselves there by the hand of some mischievous elf or by some miracle. Scandal averted.
Now that’s more of a story. Of course one could say that it is a trivial story, a very localized story that could only be understood by modern people, and that is true, but the story’s pattern, the invisible structure which makes one see that it is a story in the first place and not just a random accumulation of facts, that is something truly universal, something which is written in human consciousness, we could say is a mode of human consciousness.
In the little sock story one finds the loss of something important, socks in this case, because I do come from Quebec where socks in winter are rather useful, but more far-reaching stories will use more significant terms, and so what is lost might be the Holy Grail or Sauron’s ring, the Paradise of Adam and Eve. Then comes the wandering, the panic. All hope is lost. But it is in the very descent into chaos and inversion that the thing is finally found by some surprise. For the grail it is in the castle of the wounded Fisher King. For the ring, it is the dark cave of the riddling monster Golum, and the lost Paradise is recaptured on the cross where death and derision are transformed into glory. But in my benign missing sock case, my solution comes as I am sifting through my wife’s sock drawer.
Of course, there are stories which do not follow the patterns very well, and those stories fall to the wayside and are forgotten quickly, all those “how my day went” stories, the novels that end up in the discount bin, all those tv shows cancelled after one season. But the stories which embody universal patterns in terms that have wider importance, well those stories last, they enter our consciousness, support our identities and become the underlying web of references on which we structure our interactions and our lives. That is of prime importance, we all have an underlying web of references which acts like a frame for our encountering the world. That is what the Bible is.
That’s the point of all those stories, from Creation to te flood, through the life of Abraham and his descendants, the judges, the kings, the prophets. All of that is like a giant pattern, part of a cosmic web of logos, or meaning, holding the universe together and preventing it from fragmenting into merely isolated and particular events, a process which ultimately leads to chaos and even the reduction of particularities to statistical possibility. One need only look at where particle physics have led us as it has cut up the world into smaller and smaller discreet points. We need to guard our stories, because the Chaos described at the beginning of genesis, when it says “In the Beginning, God created Heaven and Earth, and the Earth was empty and void”, that Tohu Bohu, the primordial chaos which precedes the light and sound of Logos still lingers, it hasn’t gone anywhere. It still lingers as that bottomless ambiguity under and around the ordered world, under the pattern which stories give us, held at bay by the edifice which Logos establishes to hold creation together.
St-Gregory in his wonderful book “The Life of Moses”, which I will be discussing in the second part of this article, at some point describes the ascent of Moses unto the Sinai to receive the law from God as well as the pattern for the tabernacle:
(Moses) leaves behind the base of the mountain and is separated from all those too weak for the ascent. Then as he rises higher in his ascent he hears the sounds of the trumpets. Thereupon, he slips into the inner sanctuary of divine knowledge. And he does not remain there, but he passes on to the tabernacle not made with hands. For truly this is the limit that someone reaches who is elevated through such ascents. “ 
God shows Moses a pattern of the Tabernacle which he is to have built as the center of Israelite worship, and in his interpretation of this event, St-Gregory does some amazing things. He speaks in somewhat hushed tones of that spiritual pattern which is seen by Moses as “an archetype so that he might reproduce in a handmade structure that marvel not made with hands?”, he almost hesitates to say, but then goes on.
“we say that Moses was… ..instructed by a type in the mystery of the tabernacle which encompasses the universe. This tabernacle would be Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God, who in his own nature was not made with hands, yet capable of being made when it became necessary for this tabernacle to be erected among us. Thus, the same tabernacle is in a way both unfashioned and fashioned, uncreated in preexistence but created in having received this material composition.” 
Worried that we might be offended to see God himself compared to the tabernacle, St-Gregory warns us not to be afraid “for the power which encompasses the universe, in which lives the fullness of divinity, the common protector of all, who encompasses everything within himself, is rightly called “tabernacle.” And so here we have this amazing description of a pattern, encountered beyond the inner sanctuary of divine knowledge by Moses, an architectural pattern which is Christ and contains the universe within itself.
Think about that for a second, Moses is ascending a mountain, but Gregory speaks of “an inner sanctuary of divine knowledge”, that is he is using a general language of place, a sanctuary is a holy place. The inner sanctuary is the inner holy place which is equivalent to the holy of holies of the tabernacle itself, the place where only the high priest could enter and where the divine Glory, the presence of God descended unto the Ark of the Convenent. And so the top of the mountain is made analogical to the sanctuary, and we know that later in our tradition, our own heart will also play that function on a personal level, the place where the human must enter to find illumination. So then moving beyond the holy of holies, we encounter the invisible pattern of that very sanctuary which has been surpassed by transcending it.
St-Gregory then goes on to describe how the different aspects of the tabernacle represent different aspects of Christ, but also his Church, and so what ends up appearing to us are these patterns within patterns — the structure of Israel’s tabernacle, which is also the mountain ascended by Moses, is the pattern imbedded within the person and life of Christ while becoming an image for the structure of the Church and its members all at once, and it is an image of our own experience entering the heart. It is somewhat like the vision of the divine Chariot where the prophet Ezekiel saw wheels within wheels within wheels, patterns imbedded and interlocking with each other.
It is far beyond my capacity to resume this universal pattern. I am not Moses or St-Gregory and I have not entered into the divine Darkness. But like most of us, I have had intimations, have glimpsed some of the smaller patterns which embed themselves to the larger ones which constitute the infinite tabernacle. So Hopefully all I can hope to do is provoke that intimation, that glimpse, and the only fruitful way to accomplish this in our context is how the Fathers went about it, it is how St-Gregory did it, that is by showing how all points to Christ. That is the safest and surest way to encounter God in stories. And so we embark on familiar territory, since for Christians, the traditional vision of the Old Testament is that all the stories there point to Christ, all of them contain prototypes of Christ. St-Iraeneus tells us that
“If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, … For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field … the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables.”
From a Theological and epistemological point of view that makes sense. All the instances of meaning, extend from and point to the origin of meaning which is the Divine Logos, the pattern not made by hands, who entered through his incarnation into the cosmic story, so to become not only the origin of the story, but its very center.
And in practice, really anyone who reads the Narrative parts of the Old Testament simply, as stories rather than attempting to decompose them into competing mini narratives of religious and political factions like the modern scholar it prone to doing — Anyone who pays attention to the stories, cannot help but notice how each story is like a very extreme facet of something, the sharp sliver of a smooth whole that for Christians comes to unity and is transcended in Christ.
As an example, let us take the first two brothers, the first sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain and his seed are the agriculturists, he grows his food Cain is also be the founder of first city, and all the aspects of the sedentary culture come from Cain and his descendants. Abel on the other hand is the shepherd, the nomad. When they sacrifice, Cain offers to God the product of agriculture, Abel offers from his flock. The two sacrifices are unequal, Cain’s sacrifice is rejected by God and then Cain kills his brother out of resentment. We all know the story well. Now Christ is of course Abel, the good Shepherd, the innocent who dies at the hands of the jealous “establishment”, But Christ is also Cain. He is the sower and the reaper, he is called the son of an artisan, he is the first born and is truly his brother’s.
Christ unites and reconciles in his very person, the first and primordial conflict of humanity, and then to just bring my point to a frenzy, Christ takes The Sacrifice of Cain, product of the earth like bread and wine, and unites it to the sacrifice of Abel, flesh and blood., makes them one. And so that takes us to communion. But as we come to communion we cannot stop there, because it was just the story of Cain and Abel which gave us the key to communion, it might be enough to blow your mind, but it’s more, more, always so much more. Christ’s offering also takes the showbread which in the tabernacle was offered in the hidden holy place and unites it with the animal sacrifice offered in the outer court. But communion is not only about sacrifice, it is the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life hanging from the ultimate tree which is the cross. It is the hospitality of Abraham uniting us to the angels, the offering of Melchizedech, the strange dream Joseph interprets in prison. It contains bread which is a staple food, and wine which is a euphoric drink, meat which in the Old Testament was offered up to God and eaten by those sacrificing, and blood which in the OT was never consumed, but placed on the frame of the door, sprinkled on the outside of the altar, the outside of the mercy seat and poured out on the ground, yet it is now part of the totality which the Divine Mysteries make available to us.
Now that last example should blow our mind. And I could spend all day pointing at intimations of the Divine Mysteries based on Old Testament examples, and I would always find one more example of what the mystery contains and therefore what it also transforms and transcends and establishes at the same time.
Just like in the example I gave of Cain and Abel, the stories of the old Testament and other important stories do not attain to Christ, that is Christ and his own story always exceed them, but because of that fact, Christ also becomes the place where all stories come together. We can get intimations of logos from all types of stories when we approach them with humility, the patterns which reveal themselves to us can be mini-epiphanies, and one can experience them as such on an existential level. I have been brought to countless tears by the beauty and power of a sudden connection, of experiencing a hidden order in the world as logos piercing through the opacity of phenomena. There you are, are meditating on a story you have known since childhood and suddenly, it is like a bolt of lightening, and it becomes as if transparent so that you see the hidden pearl it contains.
Christ is the key to Old Testament stories, but as the incarnation of the Logos, he is the key to all stories. In him the major patterns of universal story telling find their summit. Now that is a bold statement, and I cannot extensively prove it here, but what I will do is give one example, one major example and then hopefully this will us all the impetus to meditate on other stories, other patterns which exist in story telling.
The example I have chosen to use is the common theme in story-telling of the Katabasis, that is the descent into the underworld to which I hinted at with my story of socks. Scholars have often pointed to how the Christian vision of the Harrowing of Hell, of Christ descending into Hades to free its captives is a theme taken from world myth. Often, as is common in scholarly approaches to Christianity, there is a tone of smugness in how it is communicated: “Christians think they are so special with our story of a descent into death. We should know that there are hundreds of stories of such a descent which precede ours by thousands of years” For many this not only points to how unoriginal Christianity is, but also points to how untrue it is.
That line of argumentation has always baffled me. I remember in my first year in college, one of my opening college traumatisms, of there would be several more of course, some grad student was giving a lecture on flood narratives. Her point was basically this: There are flood narratives in pretty much every culture, which means the flood narrative in the Bible isn’t true. I was being told that there is a story pattern which exists in almost every culture, on all continents. It is either the oldest memory held in unison by all men, or there is some mental structure that is so deeply embedded into the human psyche that it manifests itself through the universal image of an all destroying flood, and the reaction to that awesome reality is to tell people that the Bible story isn’t true. Baffling.
Back to our katabasis. Like the flood narrative, the descent into Hades is nearly everywhere, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Mediterranean, but also in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In the West we are most familiar with the stories from Greek and Roman Myth. There are found the visits to the underworld, for example we know of Odysseus on his voyage home who enters the underworld and summons the prophet Tiresias or the Roman hero Aeneas who goes down through the underworld and then “up” if you will, anticipating Dante, travelling to Elysium, the land of the blessed, where he encounters his dead father. There are also the stories of salvation from Hades, this salvation usually includes someone from the living or else a god, descending into Hades to save someone else, someone who has died or is trapped there for some other reason.
In this pattern we find the story of Theseus and Pirithous who descend into the underworld to steal the coveted Persephone, the bride of Hades, only to make the mistake of sitting down. Don’t sit down in hell, it is a bad idea. Resurrection means “standing up again”, so best not to sit. So they get stuck there for a while, stuck to their chairs actually. Later Heracles, during his 12th labor, descends into the underworld to capture Cerberus and he frees Theseus from Hades, but is unable to free Pirithous.
As I have mentioned, in Christianity we have the tradition of the harrowing of hades, which of course is the basis of our icon of the Anastasis. Christ upon his death on the cross, descends into death, and in the images and the narrative around this story, scholars have noticed how it repeats the katabasis pattern that we have examined, and so it is obviously just one more example of the universal myth. Or is it?
There has been a lot of discussion in the twentieth century about his, James Frazer and his “Golden Bough” being the catalyst, but other scholars have also tackled this, such as Jung or Joseph Campbell, and have attempted to show the similarities between Christ’s stories with other ancient myths, and then they have been debated, criticised, some debunked, others reinterpreted. Sadly, you find Christian apologists fighting against the mythographers, as if to defend Christ against the accusation that his story is analogical to other ancient stories. It’s funny because I am actually willing to be extremely generous and say if we take the very broad pattern of someone going down into the underworld, or even down into the water or into a cave, to encounter someone or especially to retrieve something, to look for a treasure like Aladdin, or to save someone, their father like Horus did Osiris, like Heracles saved Theseus, I am willing to give it all to them and say yes, that pattern exists and is one of the most basic structures of human consciousness. But what does Christ’s story do to that pattern? You see, Frazer, Jung, even Campbell seemed to have ignored what story Christians actually tell, ignored the whole story. It is false that Christians believe Christ travelled to the underworld and then came out.
We believe that Christ died with everything that implies. He was not visiting Death, he united himself to death, took death within himself. In the extra-biblical traditions We have preserved this image of Hades rejoicing, thinking he had won, believing he had taken everything. And then did Christ just go down into death and come back? No, that is not the story we tell. By bringing God into death, we believe in the words of the Apostle, that Christ abolished death, completely. We say it over and over and over at Pascha, we read St-John Chrysostom’s homily every year:
Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated!
…The evil ones are cast down!
…The angels rejoice!
…Life is liberated!
Christ is risen! And the tomb is emptied of its dead;
Oh death, where is your sting?
Now even before one “believes it” or not, even before one begins to ponder the insane paradox that such statements bring about, if we look at it just in terms of story, at how the story engages the ancient pattern of Katabasis of the descent, we find an example of what Christ does to all stories, what he does to all things, that he all at once transcends, even obliterates the pattern yet simultaneously also universalizes it, connects, grounds and illuminates it.
The pattern of the descent and return from Hades is both transcended and fulfilled at the same time, and that is Transfiguration. And it is not only that, but suddenly, all those old stories are for us implicitly seen in light of Christ. One of the hilarious ironies of all the anti-Christian 20th century scholars, especially Frazer, who used the ancient myths of the so-called dying god to trivialize Christianity, did so by looking at those myths through the lens of Christ. The event of Christianity was so ground-shaking that so many of those who oppose it cannot help but do so looking through the glasses which Christianity provided them.
And so the encounter of the Divine in stories is something which can happen anywhere anytime, even in a story about socks, but in order to experience this our eye must be always focused on Christ, and we must progressively strip away our passions. I now a few people will have read this and felt uneasy that I have not once mentioned moral questions or might think I am proposing some intellectual game. Encountering Christ in stories is a work our entire being. You see in pondering the story of Christ, we all have our “little Christ”, all Christians do, and this small limited Christ is an image of us. It is in this “little Christ” that we want to see the highest thing, because it is an image of us. Some of us are attached to the “infant blessing, sermon on the mount” facet of Christ and see in that the highest thing. Some of us are attached to the “denouncing hypocrisy and laying it out like it is “ facet, others to the “Pantocrator, judge of the world” facet of Christ, others to the teacher of truth, or the healer, the creator, still others to the self sacrificing aspect or to the innocent victim of a corrupt establishment, and list goes on and on. Each of these facets of Christ are good, but taken alone by us without the whole, they can hide our own passions. Those who prefer the “denouncing hypocrisy” facet of Christ might resent authority. Those who prefer the teacher of truth, might ignore the significance of Christ talking to Samaritans, who were the heretics of his day. In order to encounter God in stories, we must first renew our intelligence, but then also let go of our passions, our pride, and as we do, the story of Christ will open itself to us, and we will see more of him in it, more of him in the Old Testament as we discover how immense and all encompassing Christ is, and progressively the light of Christ will start to shine through the world’s stories in the capacity that each story has to manifest that light.
I am not saying that all stories are good in their specifics, certainly not. We see many evil things in stories, just as we do in people, but one is always surprised to encounter a seed of truth in the strangest place, though hidden deep down and surrounded by weeds it might be. Behind all the veils in that tinniest of seeds, the divine spark can be encountered.