Being Orthodox Part 14: Holism
What does it mean to be human? This question has occupied humanity since time immemorial, and of all the different answers we have come up with, I find none so true, so useful or so satisfying as that given by Orthodox Christianity. In Eastern Christianity, there is a powerful push for integration rather than disintegration. It is very easy for the Christian to end up with a life divided into a lot of separate little boxes labelled ‘Work’, ‘Recreation’, ‘Family’, ‘Spirituality’, and so on. So, when I go to church on Sunday, I jump into my Spirituality box. When I finish and go home, I jump out of Spirituality and into, say, the Family box, since of course, these are two very different things. And on Monday, I jump out of Family and into the Work box, a different thing again. This may be our natural tendency, but that is only because we live in a broken and fallen world. Because our world is broken, our lives also tend to be broken. In this state, inconsistencies, internal tensions and hypocrisy are all too easy to fall into.
Instead, we ought to strive to make all these aspects of human life just different faces of the one unified and integrated whole, so that there is no contradiction between any of them, so that I am the same person whichever of them I happen to be engaged in, and so that the presence of God permeates and characterises them all. Instead of having lots of little discreet boxes and jump from one to another, we ought to have just one single box in which we live all our lives, and into which we pour every aspect of that life; the box, labelled ‘Christ’.
This principle of unification applies at every level of our lives. In the Church, lots of different individuals come together. As a Church, we aim to unify all the disparate and unique personalities that we bring into one unified Body of Christ, united in the liturgy by partaking in one voice, one heart and one prayer and in the sharing together and partaking of His one Body and one Blood. No matter how many people there at a Coptic liturgy, there can only be one loaf of bread to be consecrated as Christ’s Body – even if it must be the size of a truck’s wheel – and one cup of wine to be consecrated as Christ’s Blood – even if it must be the size of a large bucket.
As Christians living in this world, we aim to bring harmony and unity to everything in it. We pray for and strive for harmony between families, neighbours, races, religions, genders and even nations. We strive to bring harmony between humanity and its world. Christians understand humanity to be the pinnacle of the creation. That does not mean a selfish rapacious authority whereby the world exists only to fulfil our needs, but Christ-like stewardship and service. We are the servants of this world, of the animals and the birds and fish, and even of the global environment. We have power over the world, but like Christ, we exercise that power to care for the world to do all we can to help it to flourish and grow in beauty. We rejoice in its beauty and its health, and weep over its destruction.
As Christians sojourning in a broken and fallen world, we yearn not for the world’s destruction, but for its renewal. We see in this world still the light of its Maker shining through the patina of evil, and wherever we find that light we cherish it, protect it and nourish it that it may grow and spread. In so doing, we partake of the work of God Himself, with Him, by His great love and mercy. We get to share in the work of reuniting heaven and earth, of making the creation whole again. “You reconciled the heavenly with the earthly,” we pray in the liturgy of St Gregory, “and made the two into one, and the dividing wall, you have demolished”.
Being the pinnacle of this creation means we human beings are the crux of this reunification. Our goal as Christians ultimately is to become one with God through Christ. We are to become not just followers of Christ, not just friends of Christ, bot even just adopted children of Christ – all of these relationships are but steps on the way to the final goal. Ultimately, we can only be fully our true selves when we surrender those selves to Christ completely, utterly, willingly and joyfully. In one of those paradoxes so characteristic of reality, we are only ever truly individuals when we surrender our individuality to Him. Because He is love, He does not take our individuality to be His own exclusive property, but He blesses and sanctifies it, and restores it to us transformed. When we are one with Him, when He abides in us and we in Him, then alone are we fully alive and fully our own unique individual selves. Then alone are we truly free to live life in all its glory. This is the mystery of the one and the many, and how even those two concepts are united and brought into harmony in Christ.
This holistic principle applies also to the individual human being. Although we find in ourselves three disparate components, which I shall call body, mind and spirit, Orthodox Christianity aims for a spirituality and worldview that unites these three into one, just as the Holy Trinity is Three yet One. We humans are given the honour of being invited to be swept up into the love that unites the Holy Trinity, and this is reflected in our own internal nature. Where there is discord between body, mind and spirit, be sure that it is not how we were created to be, but a result of departing from the design of the Grand Designer who made us. And since Christ came to heal the brokenness of this world, and so also necessarily of humanity which is the crown of this world, that healing must include healing the discord within each one of us.
To that end, you will notice that Orthodox Christian worship is very holistic. It is not just about emotions, it is not just about intellectual ideas, it is not just about the performance of certain actions, but it is a harmonious symphony played upon the violin strings of the body, mind and spirit using the willing bow of the human will submitting joyfully and completely to the will and the genius of the Master Musician, the Holy Spirit. And each of us is a different instrument, producing a different sound, but all guided by the unifying principle of the Master Musician.
With our bodies we bow and kneel. We smell the incense, hear the tunes and see the icons. We raise our voices together, in praise and thanks, worship and supplication, the many timbres of our unique voices flowing together like little streams that join to create an irresistible river brimming with life and majesty. We exchange a Kiss of Peace, physically affirming our entwinement in each other’s lives by entwining our hands together. And of course, we consume the one Body and Blood of Christ Himself, becoming, in a mystery, one with Him even physically, thus having our physical bodies blessed and sanctified by His physical presence within them.
And all of these physical actions are understood by our minds. We think thoughts of goodwill towards one another, and thoughts of trust and assent towards the Creed of Faith we recite together with one voice. We embrace and rejoice in the salvation that Christ has given to us, and we seek His help, guidance and protection in living that salvation this day and every day of our lives. We surrender to Him our needs, laying at the feet of the “Feeder of every body” our supplications for the necessities of life as well as for the fruits of His Holy Spirit. Here, there is no division between life inside the church and life outside the church. In Christ who gathers us under His wing, the two become a seamless whole. Through our liturgical prayers we bring our worldly life into His Life, and when we leave the liturgy we carry Him into our worldly life. The liturgy does not end with the priest’s words, “Go in peace” – that is just the announcement that part two is about to begin. Part one was receiving Christ, part two, just as important and just as necessary, is sharing Christ with the world.
And with our spirits, infusing both body and mind, we renew constantly our utter commitment to God and all that He is, goodness and truth, light and life, divine, unconditional love. With the freedom that can exist only in the spirit, we choose our fate – the fate of those who belong to God.
Although we can separate these actions as we think of them, in practice, they are not separate, or should not be separate, but they are all indivisible parts of the one whole, the human being in the act of worshipping his God. The Mysteries of the Church themselves illustrate this holistic approach to humanity. Each Mystery has a physical aspect, an intellectual meaning, and a spiritual power. Each engages, heals and sanctifies body, mind and spirit. Another illustration of this principle is in the concept of our relationship to the physical world, and especially to living world. As human beings, we are given a responsibility, a stewardship over the world, to keep and care for it, and to do all we can so that it may flourish, live and be beautiful. In Second and Fourth Canticles of the Midnight Praise we celebrate the way the natural creation – the mountains and valleys, the birds and the animals, the sun and moon and stars – praise God simply by being what they are. Such hymns remind us that we too are part of that physical creation, inextricably bound to it by our biology and our physicality. The true Christian is an environmentalist!
In modern civilisation, and even in some forms of Christianity, there is strong tendency to separate the human being by overemphasising one aspect over the others. Some have overemphasised the body by focusing too much on the outward forms of worship and life, on getting the clothes and the actions of prayer just right, or by expecting God to be impressed by our good deeds in and of themselves without attention to the heart that produced them or the motivations that were behind them. Some have overemphasised the mind and turned Christianity into a philosophy, trusting in the human mind to uncover God rather than submitting before God and letting Him reveal Himself. And some have focused on spiritual ecstasy, on the speaking of tongues and the slaying in the spirit, or even just on the emotions you feel or don’t feel. As is often the case with narrowed attitudes, they miss much that is of importance in the other aspects of humanity and fail overall because they are not true to the reality of the nature of the human being. They are unnatural, because the drive artificial barriers between the different aspects of the whole human being.
As we understand Christianity in its original form, it brings reunites the divided person into a single organic whole. It reunites fallen and selfish humanity into a single loving whole. It reunites humanity with its world in harmony and peace rather than division and disorder. It reunites earth with heaven so that we dwell in heaven on earth. And most importantly, it reunites all with God its Creator, infusing all the creation with His life, light and goodness. Division impoverishes and destroys us; unity enriches and builds. This is one of the most beautiful things about ancient Orthodox Christianity: long before the word became trendy, it was holistic.
Next Time: Engaging the World.