There is a book that caught my attention and may well hold it to the end of my life. Written by an English hermit—Priest-Monk Silouan, a convert to Orthodoxy now living in a retreat on the Shropshire hills—Wisdom Songs is a collection of “Centuries”, chapters of a hundred meditations each, on a series of spiritual themes. The erudition and wisdom of the author makes these meditations impossible to ignore, and throws the reader deep into a state of yearning for spiritual wisdom.
The book is too complex and multi-faceted to summarize easily. The themes—the Name of God, Wisdom, Beauty, and spiritual Eros via a commentary on the Song of Songs—are the most profound to be discovered in the Christian tradition. Fr Silouan is concerned to show that Christianity, and especially the Hesychast tradition of the Eastern Church where contemplation has been kept alive for two millennia, offers a wisdom that many modern seekers of truth assume is only available through non-Christian traditions.
The style in which the book is written deserves comment. It is neither prose nor poetry, but a kind of mixture of the two. “Be this seeing, sheer grace of being in this seeing in the ground of being” (p. 17).
The richness of the imagery can sometimes be overwhelming.
“He is the axis in the midst of subtle whirling wheels within. His are the sparkling rainbow rings that surround us within. His is the single eye at centre in the inmost heart of all hearts. It is his wisdom that surrounds us like a boundless expanse, for his glory is our firmament. Clear like crystal, translucent and bright, his glory shines through us as light from his throne in the midst. Wheels whirl like winds, all light and winged, resounding through all subtle centres and circles of our being” (p. 200).
None of this is self-indulgent. Each poetic phrase, each startling, colourful metaphor, has a metaphysical edge or purpose, as well as a biblical reference point. What I want to focus on here is the most central theme of all, the Name of God revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush—the God who reveals himself through a Covenant that is also a marriage. This is the key to our own discovery of God within and among us: I, Thou, and We. The Name is the theme that links all the parts of this book together into a single tapestry.
Fr Silouan’s insight into the Name is important because it overturns the entire edifice of modern philosophy from Ockham to Descartes to Kant and everything that follows.
Descartes sought for an indisputable first principle on which to base his philosophy, and concluded that “the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” I think therefore I am. For Descartes, then, the very fact that I am thinking – or that I can doubt that I am thinking – is proof of my existence, and for Augustine, too, fallor, sum (“If I am mistaken, I am”) (City of God, XI, 26). But where does the “I” come from, and to what does it refer? Thinking is certainly taking place, but all that is proven here is that thinking exists.
The foundation of thought is not “I am”—that is too specific, too hasty—but “something is” or “being is”. Being is that in which there can as yet be no distinction between what it is and the fact that it is—essence and existence. It is that whose nature is to exist. Everything else exists against the background of that necessity, a Presence or Principle which contains every possibility. And all human knowledge is rooted in the intuitive apprehension of being through a participation in the uncreated light of God’s own intellect. It is in this light that we contemplate the melody of nature, the thoughts of God expressed in creation, and the Logos holding it all together.
What of the “I”? This is where Fr. Silouan comes in. My “I” comes from that same infinite Being and is a reflection of it. Being must therefore be an “I”. We know this, because every effect is an expression of its cause. Being is the “I” that lies deep within my own “I”. It is the presence of the all-holy, the spark of divine light at the core of our being—“at centre” or “in the midst” as Fr Silouan would say. In the Book of Exodus, Moses is told that God’s proper name is “I AM”. “This is what you must say to the sons of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). The sacred name of God then echoes throughout the Old Testament (YHVH) and the New (“ego eimi”). In John 8:58, Jesus tells the Jews, “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Fr Silouan points out that in the Gospel of John there are seven times that Jesus names himself “I am” with a predicate, and seven without.)
When God names himself “I AM” (Exodus 3:13-15), he is in a sense only confirming the identity of transcendental Being with transcendental Selfhood. This is the deepest answer to Descartes, for the gap between the “I” and the action that manifests its existence (thinking) is overcome. The first act of being is also the beginning of “I”. The Name is sacred and unpronounceable because it is a name that only God himself can utter, since he is the Self in question. Anyone who is not the “I” to which the Name refers is usurping the Name.
God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him (1 John 4:16). To love is to give, to share, to participate, to coinhere. The Name of God, “He who is,” is the same as “I AM,” because to BE is to be nothing other than MYSELF, and the act of being is the act of affirming my own existence, which in the end only God can do. I cannot affirm my own existence, because I am dependent on others. God can, for he is not dependent on anyone.
And so the Name is not merely a label attached to one person by another (as for the nominalists), but an expression of who God is. It is the self-expression of God, the beginning of the revelation that becomes complete in Jesus Christ, when the self of God is united with the soul and body of a human being, expressing itself not just in human language, but as a human being.
The Name in the Midst
Everything that exists does so by virtue of the Name (I AM) in which it participates, the act of Being in which it shares. “Everything above and below is saying I AM, glory loved and known. Everything is a divine name saying ‘I AM,’ and divine names are modes of love unfolding from God to give God glory, enfolding all in all. The beauty is the harmony, unfolding and enfolded” (p. 281).
The word “I” also implies community. An “I” only exists as such in relation to the not-I. My own sense of identity is awoken when I feel called by another, another deep within myself. I am called to holiness, to perfection. But when an “I” is born, so is a “Thou” and a “We”—a communion of persons. And so “the divine name ‘I am’ is equivalent to an ‘I give myself wholly to a Thou,’ and ‘I am one with a Thou,’ and therefore also with a ‘We are’ ” (Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, p. 350). The “I AM” of God, speaking to Moses, implies such a community, which is later revealed as a Trinity by the incarnation of the Word.
The Name is therefore our eternal home, waiting for us; it is the city of light, the womb we seek, the peace we lost long ago. If we start with being, instead of the “I” proposed by Descartes, we will be able to resume the conversation he interrupted. It is the apprehension of being (as John Paul II indicated in Fides et Ratio) that is the foundation of philosophy and of all human thought. A less technical name for it is “wonder”. All philosophy begins in the awakening of the question as to why anything at all exists. To wonder in awe before the world that reveals itself to us is to open the door both to philosophy and to religion.
This Wisdom is the key to an enlightenment that transcends the “neo-pagan humanist renaissance,” the “new age,” and any reduction of Logos to Ratio (Silouan, p. 240). It is the key to understanding insights that remain perennially valid within the Asian traditions, where Atman is identified with Brahman. It is not that the human self is the divine Self, but rather that the divine Self (I AM) is the only perfect being, and is reflected in all else that is. We are not God, but God is the centre of all, so when we turn to our own centre we find, not ourselves, but God. The centre of not-God is God. I exist because a centre exists in everything. Nothing exists without a centre.
Being is also Light, because “Light” is a physical symbol of the giving of self so as to share it with others, to reveal it, to manifest its essence. There is no separation in God between “I” and “AM,” for both are one single shaft of light in the midst, in the centre of all. “No I without AM. No AM without I. The Name re-unified overcomes all dualistic divisions. The Name in its great perfection is complete. The Name is the Great Peace” (p. 27).
“The quintessence of the manifest Name is the unmanifest divine NO-THING, which Jewish mysticism calls AIN SOF. As origin of the generated Name, at once pure awareness, ANI, and pure presence, SHEKINAH, the divine NO-THING is the eternal Father. Unimaginably and inexpressibly, the paternal NO-THING generates the filial no-thing, the ‘I AM’, EGO EIMI. Primordial uncreated awareness says ‘I’. Spontaneous eternal presence says ‘AM’. Before the Big Bang, ‘I AM’. After the big rip, ‘I AM’. Standing under all, ‘I AM’.
To be is to be “I.” It is to be who-one-is – and who is God but to-be, the perfect act of being, which is the act of giving, light from light, true God from true God. All of this is implicit in the revelation to Moses, and the symbolic revelation of the Burning Bush, which gives light but is not consumed.
“We are graced with freedom in these flames. Radiant communion, unconsumed, consumes dark confusion. The flame of the Name reveals God in a burning bush” (p. 293).
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The featured image is “Wisdom” (c. 1560) by Titian (1490–1576) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.