“We circle aimlessly in the void, in the insoluble mystery of death”

We circle aimlessly in the void, in the insoluble mystery of death. Countless galaxies around us, and beyond us stars “like the sand on the shores of the sea.” Dead worlds without the smiles of flowers, the songs of birds, the colors of sunsets. A pair of human eyes and the consciousness behind the startled glance are “another” incomparable universe. And in this other universe we seek to solve the riddle of death. The lifeless worlds of the galaxies do not know death; only our tiny earth throbbing with life gathers death in every handful of soil.

What does the uniqueness of our earth mean within the infinity of the universe? What does the uniqueness of every person mean in the infinite succession of generations? Prehistoric people of the caves, of the stone Age, how much animal instinct and how much personal otherness was expressed in their being? Retarded children, cases of grave imbecility, the forgotten sufferers of psychological illnesses, schizophrenia, and senile dementia. And even the myriads of aborted embryos, the countless fertilized ova which are expelled by the mother’s body a few weeks before they acquire a beating heart. Who decides on this implacable natural selection: nature on its own or God? Who can say what is the boundary between human and non-human, between reality and potentiality, the given and the possible?

Our mind cannot conceive of an inert personality, without thought, reason, judgment, imagination, will, or expression. Nor can it conceive of existence outside space, time, and number. How can we conceive of human existence after death, personal otherness without bodily and psychological energies? How do “all” attain immortality, and what is this “all”? We cannot determine when the fertilized ovum attains conscious personhood, nor can we draw a boundary between conscious personhood and congenital amentia.

We have discovered the constitution of the atomic nucleus, the structure of DNA, the composition of light, the material elements of the most distant galaxies. And yet we do not know how to define either the beginning or the end of the human person, of our own self.

We search for the solution to the riddle of our existence, to the mystery of life and death, in the way that earthworms after rainfall move, blindly in the mud, within predetermined insuperable limits. Thought and word do not guarantee us anything other than the illusion of knowledge, parables, allegories, images seen in a glass darkly. We latch onto the experience of others, the experience of people who testify that they have seen God. They have spoken to him. And we objectivize these ineffable experiences in solid concepts to support our views. So that upon this logic we can build our psychological self-sufficiency, the defense that wards off fear and panic. …

“What use is our struggle in this world? What use is our imagined view of transitory things? All is dust, all is ashes, all is shadow.”

Perhaps there is “another” knowledge, that begins where our particular knowledge ends. Perhaps it arises as a more certain knowledge when everything becomes dust, ashes, and shadow.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant.

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you.

Which shall be the darkness of God.

There exists a particular state in which you have doubts, and yet make an act of trust. And we encounter this state only in erotic love. Love signifies faith, trust, self-surrender. You are lost in the darkness of endless unanswerable questions. Yet you abandon yourself to longing, and this confirms to you whether the Other longs for your longing. And then your unanswered questions have been answered. What is signified functions without the signifiers. There is only the language of reference, the language of longing. This is the language the infant speaks as it suckles its mother’s breast. This is the language lovers speak in the silence of the “one flesh.” …

The darkness of these questions is the natural distance that separates human beings from God. “All things are distanced from God, not spatially but by nature.” It is our nature that prevents us from giving answers to these questions. That is why even denying the existence of God, the eternity of the human person, is a natural stance. It is understandable. To transform the natural distance into a personal relation is an achievement of self-withdrawal from nature; it is love.

“How long will this age last, and when will the age to come have its beginning? And for how long will these tabernacles sleep in this form, and our bodies be mingled with the dust? And how will that new life come about and in what form will this nature be raised and constituted? And in what manner will this new creation come? And when he has pondered these questions and others like them, wonder comes upon him and deep silence, and he rises up at that hour and falls on his knees and gives thanks with copious tears to the only wise God who is glorified in his all-wise works for ever.”

The gift of thanksgiving replaces the unanswerable questions. “For all things, those which we know, and those which we do not know.”

Christos Yannaras

 

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5 Responses to “We circle aimlessly in the void, in the insoluble mystery of death”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This post concludes my excerpts from Variations on the Song of Songs.

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  2. The comment on the darkness being the natural distance separating us from God–it reminds me of the Western liturgical tradition around Easter (just before Easter or Pascha if you prefer) where we cover all our icons (statues, crosses, religious paintings, stained glass, etc.) up with purple cloth reminding us that our sins separate us from God.

    How Jesus reminds us (the Ephesians specifically) that he is our first love and we have forgotten him.

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  3. Frederick says:

    Paradoxically the key to living Right Life is to thoroughly and very intelligently deal with the meaning & significance of death, and what it demands of us in each moment.
    The real man or woman learns to live by becoming willing and able to die.
    Therefore, the primary initiation that leads to human maturity is the confrontation with mortal fear.
    Only when the ultimate frustration that is death has been fully considered and felt and understood as a process can the individual live without self-protective and self-destructive fears.
    Only in freedom from mortal recoil is the individual capable of ecstasy under all conditions

    Therefore, be alive – but learn right life by first dealing with your death.
    Become willing to die in every moment – by not holding on to your life and the need for comforting religious illusions.

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  4. albert says:

    “…when he has pondered these questions and others like them, wonder comes upon him and deep silence,”

    and he sits there for a long time with his thoughts, which could be understood as prayer if he sits long enough and doesn’t talk. This is an issue for me: the vast distance between wonder and words. I have heard there is prayer without words, but it is beyond me. So much is beyond. So I sit here with thoughts “not made by hands” – – mine or yours or yannaras’s–wondering. Maybe praying.

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  5. brian says:

    Whatever one makes of Yannaras, his is a voice that ought to break narrowness and false pieties and religious sensibilities that can easily confuse smugness with possession of a traditional truth. A living Tradition should foster the kind of complex, nuanced openness and sensitivity that Yannaras exemplifies — though, of course, in reality those who risk going beyond safe boundaries and easy certitudes are almost always the rare few.

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