Many times through the Church’s history, one or other of our priests, in discussing theology has talked about the nature of God as being both at once transcendent and imminent. They are concepts that go hand in hand with the panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism) alluded to in the Apostolic Johannite Church’s Statement of Principles.
Panentheism, pan-en-theos (‘All in God’) is the view that the Divine is present in all there is, while still being beyond space and time- our Statement of Principles #1 references the ‘while the universe is contained within this Divine Godhead, the Godhead transcends it’. God is present in all things, but is not limited to all things and is beyond all things.
We cannot readily or easily reach or touch that infinite part of the Infinite which is beyond space and time, being finite creatures pinned down by the gravity of a thousand real concerns that keep us fastened and rooted to and in materiality.
Thoughts of ‘ultimate concern’ as theologians smarter than myself have called it, weave in and out of the background or on the blurred edge of the periphery when there’s bills to pay, clocks to punch and the Rorschach tests of modern culture and life.
So how to we turn our gaze, mind and hearts to the focus of the Infinite when we are hip deep in the darkness of the finite? Particularly now, when ignorance, fear and illness and where are we going to find some toilet paper, are a part of the thousand real concerns fastening us to the world.
For as long as any of us has been alive- hundreds of times over in fact of years, Christianity has occupied a dominant role in society and culture. Many times unjustly, heartlessly and cruelly. You know the history- persecution of science, crusade against heretic and infidel alike, the list is long. The list of the good it has done is also equally long, and is as impressive as its negative points are depressing.
Neither of these ends however is the point of these written thoughts. I mention this only to say that it has been around long enough where it has existed in a variety of conditions, with a variety of dispositions- that defy typecasting it as either the greatest good, or the darkest evil. It is, as it has been from the beginning, made up of regular human beings- with their attendant difficulties, blessings, gifts and ignorance.
And once upon a time, it was not the globe spanning infighting cultural backdrop of Western civilization so-called.
It was on the run for its life. Hiding in the catacombs in places like Rome, to places as far afield as Turkey. Under persecution by authority.
We’re used to seeing church as something that either plays out in the vaulted ceilings, iconography and architecture of the Western and Eastern Churches, or even more sterile worship houses of evangelical disposition, with its iconography being that of the Pastor on a large screen near an unadorned cross of some sort or other (don’t forget some guy with a guitar).
But in the earliest times of Christianity, its spirituality was intimate, familial, huddled and anxious. Ultimate concern was in the hearts and on the minds and lips of all who gathered in these dark, hidden spaces- and fear nipped at its heels if not outright played in its sanctuaries.
What lay beyond the boundary of human life mattered a great deal, because what roamed beyond the boundary of the nearest doorway, mattered a great deal.
Huddled there, amidst the resting places of Pagans and Christian alike- they made their devotions. God was not an image reflected in architecture, art or hymn, so much as it was reflected in the presence and eyes of one’s own brothers and sisters.
We are in the middle of the Season of Lent- a time of purification, simplification and reconnection with the Divine. A time when so many give up comforts of life in an effort to refocus their attention on matters spiritual. That giving up can be simple items such as chocolate, or an extra hour of TV, or it can be in the sacrifice of time, adding on an extra 20 minutes of mediation, visiting a neighbour who is in difficulty, or sticking around after church to help clean things up. Lent is associated scripturally with the period of days in which Christ went out to the desert, willingly.
I have said it many times before that God desires not our suffering and difficulty isn’t a test, and we’re not having the world taken away just to enhance or refine our faith or test our gnosis, or give us either of these things. The world will always supply us an abundance of lead- it is its nature, but it is through our spiritual practice, and our care for each other, that it can be transmuted into the gold of the spirit.
Like Lent, it is not a Divine test, it is an opportunity. It will come whether you wish it or not, it will come whether you deserve it or not. It is your opportunity to examine the things that are important and the choices and care you make about them- or not.
In the present moment, we find ourselves in an analogous time.
Not of persecution, or heresy vs orthodoxy or pagan vs Christian but a time of danger none the less. The danger of severe illness, the danger of lack, the danger of disregard for our fellow sentient beings, the danger of ignorance. Like COVID-19, many of things on their own are not fatal to us as individuals, indeed, we can carry any one of these things and possibly not be affected by it- but our neighbour can, our society has, and our humanity will, when they are all put together.
In the present moment, the catacombs have become the world, both in the myriad and unclear sounds and information that echo back upon us, or in the danger that lies beyond the corner of our sight in the form of fear, illness and ignorance.
The material world recedes but the image of God remains- reflected in the faces of our fellow human beings. How we honour that matters. We may have the catacombs of the world for some indefinite time from now until who knows, but the cathedral of the heart remains and you stand at that doorway. Open it.
I asked- how to we turn our gaze, mind and hearts to the focus of the Infinite when we are hip deep in the finite? Touching the Infinite that is beyond time and space is difficult, especially now.
We can do this by recognizing the presence of the Infinite in the Finite- not the Infinite which lies in the beyond but in the Infinite which is as near as anything can be. The sacred flame that burns in hearts of your fellow humanity. Our ability to meet in a building may be hindered but the church of God remains reflected in the community of humanity even as the world falls away for a time.
It is established one stone at time with every check-in phone call, its sanctuary lit one candle at a time by each gesture of support, the beauty of its music resonates more deeply with each attending ear to the concerns of another’s difficulty.
The catacombs of the world circumscribe the boundaries of our physicality, but the cathedral of the heart can unfetter the boundaries our spirit.
Open that door.
Before the Sacred Flame,
+ IOHANNES IV
Sovereign Pontiff and Patriarch
The Apostolic Johannite Church