In the essay on “Judaism and Christianity” from In the Time of the Nations, Levinas recalls a story mentioned by Hannah Arendt. When she was a child, she said one day to the rabbi, “’You know, I have lost my faith.’” And he responded: “Who’s asking you for it?’” Levinas says, “The response was typical. What matters is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’ Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of the ritual. Moreover, are believing and doing different things? What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions? What do we believe with? With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)! What the rabbi meant was: ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion” (Levinas 148).
I am positive that you see here the beauty of Levinas’ thoughts. But I think you can also see the danger: if one perceives oneself as the source of “doing good,” one is already in the pit of self-idolatry, of creating a god of himself. Certainly, one can make something bad out of anything good, and my last statement may just do this. But there remains the question of what it might mean to do good. One may say that this question belongs to the discourse of the West, the language of philosophy. Indeed, in the same essay quoted above, Bishop Hemmerle, Levinas’ interlocutor, says, “I often wonder whether I am not betraying him, even when what I do seems right at the moment I am doing it” (149). And indeed such a question deals with a truth that can be checked, verified–a truth that, I think, is criticized in Levinas.
In fact, when I approached Levinas, I always felt that I could not recognize myself, an Orthodox Christian, in the Christianity that sometimes was put down during the discussions I had with my peers. The “scientific truth” of the Bible was never an issue for me. Whether the Bible is or not the Truth was an incomprehensible question, for I had not applied truth and falsity to the statements in the text, but rather to that which was beyond the mere words. There is no sense in claiming that, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened Luke’s and Cleopas’s eyes to be able to understand Scripture unless truth is beyond statements. So the question whether I am betraying him who calls upon me to act (as asked by Bishop Hemmerle) is relevant only as long as one sees oneself as the source of one’s actions and thus can in any moment blame or idolatrize oneself.
Eastern Orthodoxy perceives things differently. Kenosis, the emptying of oneself, is seen in the East as a making space for energies that are not of oneself, but rather of a radical Other. In kenosis, one becomes truth by acting as truth–by believing with all of one’s bones. Perhaps this would mean taking the same road with him who calls upon my responsibility—giving yourself to the other.
There is an icon (icons in Orthodoxy are not objects of worship, but windows of the soul) where Jesus knocks at the door of a house. On the other side of the door, people busy themselves with their human lives. But there is a striking difference between the two sides of the door: it cannot be opened from the outside; it does not have a handle. The call of the Other is always there, but it is only you who can give up yourself. In order to open the door, you have to be prepared to give yourself to the Other, to the point where it is no longer you who live, but the Other lives in you. If the Other lives in you, then you can no longer perceive yourself as the source of your actions. If you are the source, then you are also object of idolatry—I am giving myself to the other and I am fully proud of it. Opening the door to Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy means allowing Christ to act in you. In other words, you become yourself an embodiment of the Torah.
Now think of this icon that I just described as a text with gaps–perhaps we need a midrash to read it. Father Arsenie Boca, a Romanian priest and monk who suffered immensely during communism – people of all faiths were imprisoned simply because they did not renounce their faith – said in one of his homilies, published under the title Living Words (the title itself is suggestive for the way in which Orthodoxy understands texts – if these texts are of any value, it is because they are alive and, as people do, live and call upon us), that the reason why we do not open the door to Jesus, to the Other, is because we do not even find this door anymore. What we do in life is creating a God in our image; we posit things about God, we surround ourselves with beliefs, our little own gods, our mirrors, and we busy ourselves with contemplating these images, these creations, further closing us up in our own caves. In a room full with furniture (Father Thomas Hopko may have said something along these lines a while back, I think), our furniture, the door is no longer seen. And thus the call of the Other is no longer even perceived because we answer only to the call of what we take to be another when we look in mirrors. This so-called “other” is nothing but us.
I mentioned above the story of Hannah Arendt confessing the loss of faith. Allow me to tell you another story from someone’s confession. A friend of mine once went to confession and summed up the courage to tell her priest that she did not like to go to church and participate in the liturgy, but she preferred to do things for others. This could be taken in two ways. On the one hand, it must sound good, Levinasian: “Doing good is the act of belief itself,” so perhaps the priest should have congratulated her. On the other hand, participating in liturgy, or being part of the church (the body of Christ), is an important part of being a Christian, so the lady was right to fear some scolding from the part of the priest. But he did not do any of these things. He only asked her, “what do you do for them, then?”
At that very moment, my friend started to cry. You must know that tears during confession are a good sign because they are seen as a new baptism. In her case, my friend’s tears were her realization that the refusal to participate in tradition was itself a worship – a worship of the self. “I am above liturgy; I am above tradition; I know what is good – doing things for others.” But the priest’s question revealed to herself that this was only a show because she was not doing anything. Perhaps the occasion was not present. Or the “hineni,” the “Here I am,” was absent from her bones, including in reference to the liturgy.
Perhaps Orthodoxy and Levinas’ philosophy are not that far away from each other. In both we find a faith of the bones, a lived faith. In the words of Father Arsenie Boca, whom I mentioned before, the Kingdom is present here, on earth, in what we do for one another. There is no life in the Kingdom of Heaven unless we already live in it here, on earth. Allow me to emphasize this: not believe in it, but live in it.
When I was a child, my aunt took me one day to a monastery close to where I lived: the monastery at Sambata de Sus, Romania. A blind monk lived there, Father Teofil; he had fame among people. Some were saying that he had clairvoyance and that he sensed characters, seeing what people did. I was really afraid because of that. I was a child, but there was something of which I was ashamed. I do not remember what it was, but I clearly know that I did not want my parents to find out. I went to the monastery wondering how much this monk would see through me. In fact, I did not want to go there and I did not want to see him. Of course, I did not confess my fear to my aunt–why would a good Christian boy be afraid of going to a monk?–but I was quite uncomfortable. Father Teofil was sitting on a chair outside the small church. My aunt told him something, and then I saw him opening his arms largely, calling for me. I went towards him slowly, without opening my arms but rather keeping them close to my body, as any shy boy would do. When I reached him, he held me strongly at his chest. I quite remember the feeling: it hurt. I don’t remember what he said to me, and I don’t remember whether I said anything back, but I strongly remember the feeling of being held in his arms. I could not resist, so I melted down, and then it hurt no more.
After that moment, I always longed to see Father Teofil. Whenever I met him, he looked like a joyful grandpa, ready to have a good laughter. Have you actually noticed how grandparents embrace their grandchildren? They open their arms largely and wait on that position until the child comes to them and embraces them back. Their open arms are the image of a gift–their own surrendering to the child. But it is an active and joyful surrender which is seen in the opening of their hands in the form of a cross. The grandparents wait like that on a cross until the child runs to them and embraces them back.
I think it is always this way when we embrace people. If we really do it genuinely, without any rest, we open our arms largely, as if we were on a cross. Any genuine embrace begins on a cross, in giving ourselves to the other. And perhaps our lack of ability to embrace others may just be the reason Christ still is on the cross. He waits for us to embrace Him back, and so He remains with His arms open to embrace the whole humanity. It is a gift of love that does not depend on our response. What depends on us is His descent: our embracing Him back would make His hands come round us.
If we are made in the image and likeness of God, then each one of us is made to be on the cross for the other. We were made to be our brothers’ keepers. We were made to be on the cross for our brother. But the being together of these brothers (“How good it is for brothers to be together”) brings all crosses in a universal embrace. In fact, Christ waits for me on the cross in every person I encounter. Whenever I judge and so refuse the other, I refuse to take Him down from the cross. Regardless of how buried He is in him or her, He waits for my embrace so that He can come down.
St. Peter and St. Paul, two embraced crosses
The path toward Christ goes through the other, any other I encounter. I cannot embrace Christ alone. Who am I to ask Him to come down only for me? He cannot embrace me at the expense of the world or at the expense of any other human being. He needs to remain on the cross for them. If I truly want to take down Christ from the cross, I need to bring the entire world to Him in me. This means I cannot embrace Him unless I am also on the cross, for each and every one of my neighbors.
I am a nobody for whom Christ is on the cross. And I am a mighty nobody, for I have the power to bring Him down from the cross. May I have the weakness to accept it.
The opening line of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, “nothing to be done,” seems rather a closure. If there is nothing to be done, then maybe we should indeed do nothing. Or, better, not even nothing should count for something to be done. Here we have, finally, what our age has been looking for: a final answer – there is no answer. It might be too easy, though, to say that Waiting for Godot, or, for that matter, any text that suggests that there are no answers and that we try too much finding meaning where there is none, fails in contradictions. After all, this problem seems to be as old as Western thought, since maybe Socrates’ “I only know that I don’t know anything.” We know, then, that there is no conclusion, and instead of liberating ourselves from the power of any definition, we remain determined by our new god: “there is no god.” In this sense, “nothing to be done” still leaves us in a realm where, while it seems that we liberated ourselves from all prejudices and preconceptions of truth, “nothing to be done” becomes the new norm, the new language, the new philosophy.
But then, at the end of the play, Estragon asks, “And if we dropped him?”
The question cannot, after all, have an answer. If we dropped Godot for good, would we be able to leave this place? It seems it depends on what we mean by dropping. In a sense, leaving this place, this “here,” is never possible, for we would always arrive still here. It would be a different here, maybe, a here that is not-here, if we think about the first here, but still a here. We leave behind a theory, an idol, by falling into another one.
“Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.”
Imagine Vladimir and Estragon bursting in laughter and falling into each other’s arms…
They have already left.
In Beyond Torture, a documentary about the Pitesti Phenomenon—the experiment that took place in communist prisons in Romania and that had as purpose the complete change of a human soul—Father Roman Braga recounts that he experienced the devil in Pitesti, but that he found God in solitary confinement. He says, and I paraphrase, that the communists believed that if they put intellectuals in solitary confinement, these people would not resist because they need books. But the inmates discovered there themselves, and by discovering themselves they found God.
One may wonder how it is that God is found in solitude, especially when Jesus Himself places the commandment to love one’s neighbor very high. Is it that we find God when we close ourselves to the other, when we are no longer bothered by the desires and the lack of probability that the presence of another free person brings into our lives?
I think it is in the answer to this question that we also find how spiritual life has meaning for ‘everyday’ Christian living. Within ourselves, in introspection, what we find is a kingdom—and so the neighbor is there also. When you discover God within, you discover a Kingdom. But this means that I am pregnant with Beauty, with the Kingdom itself, and that the only way in which I can live with responsibility toward my nature—that of being pregnant with the Beautiful or, I would say, that of being a birth-giver of Beauty—is to be responsible for that which is in me, the god according to grace that can have life only as long as it is connected to the kingdom.
Photo by Sorin Onisor, used with permission. In this picture, Alina Onisor, his wife, pregnant. To see more of his work, visit http://www.sorinonisor.ro/
The metaphor of pregnancy can well explain the spiritual described in Metropolitan Philip’s Meeting the Incarnate God, and I will start with a concept that we find in the “Mystery of Fidelity.” We must begin with violence. Indeed, “the person of faith must do violence to his own heart if he will become faithful to God and his fellow” (55). In pregnancy, we must do a similar violence to our own soul if we are to be faithful to the beautiful that is within us. In pregnancy, we discover that we no longer belong to ourselves, but we belong to that to which we give birth. It is the first acknowledgement without which no one is called to self-violence. For we love ourselves—we love our habits, our coffee in the morning, our going to the gym. But once we are pregnant, we realize that our whole world changes. Our bodies go through events that we do not bring upon us, but to which we cannot say no unless we say “no” to that which has a life within our body. There may be moments of despair, moments when we cry, “I want my body back,” “I want my time back,” or “I want my freedom back.” But all of these moments disappear when we hear again deep within us the call of the Beautiful, our child that is ours, on the one hand, but is also not ours, in a deeper and more profound sense, on the other hand. This call of the Beautiful that brings upon us responsibility toward that which, in a way, precedes us, this call, then, does not allow us to say “yes” to all our desires, but gives us the power to do violence to them. And we accept the pain experienced by the body with a new and surprising feeling, that of joy, and we are ready to embrace our new situation, that of a birth-giver of Beauty, who has the potential to give birth but is not yet there. Slowly, we open our arms to receive this beautiful, to offer ourselves to it, and without even realizing we take upon our shoulders our cross—our own personal cross, but also Christ’s cross, for it is the Beautiful, the Kingdom, which awaits to take life from us. It is by this daily violence that takes place in carrying our cross that we express our desire to fulfill that which we are called to be: birth-givers of beauty.
It is in such ways, I think, that we are co-creators of the beauty of our world. The world is already made beautiful for us, but it is such only with our activity in it, in our synergic working with God.
I mentioned above that this Beautiful with which we are pregnant is not solely of our creation. We are impregnated—we are given a gift. It is the image and likeness of God that we also find in the other. After all, this gift is the life of another. As in any relationships with other free persons, the gift is not determined and is not deserved. The gift is not limited (it has no determinations) and we have done nothing for it. But by accepting it as gift (so with no determinations and without believing that we deserve it), “we accept the condition of allowing that other entrance into our lives, allow the other to penetrate, to engage our existence through his offered gift” (29). Marriage is a possible path to finding yourself because it reminds you that you cannot be in control, that you depend on another free person and that the only way to rejoice in the other person and not object (that which you may want the other to be, something with clear determinations) is to enjoy her freedom. But we also see that finding yourself you truly find the other, who is already in you, in the Kingdom. For before you realize that you depend on another to be you, you cannot have genuine relations with the other person, but only with what you make out of him. In order to find the other, to be with the other, you need to go within your depths, and from there to cry out, “I am with you.”
What Fr. Roman Braga said, then, that we find ourselves within us does not mean that we close the door to the others. In fact, it is by closing the door to ourselves and thus going within our depths that we truly find the others: the members of the Kingdom.
If you lived in Romania during communism, you probably remember the beautiful evenings in which an entire family gathered together around the light of a candle or a gas-lamp. Ceausescu, the dictator of the country, planned to pay the entire external debt, so he imposed a harsh austerity on the population. Electricity was often taken in the evenings, so people had to manage however they could.
They gathered all of us in the evening and pushed us into the train cars as if we were cattle: all around there was only dung, straws, and dirtiness. There was one shelf on each of the two sides and two small barred windows. A man could not go through the window, but they still had bars!
The people came in as they could, put their luggage down, and slept on the luggage. There was no air because the doors were immediately closed. When you were suffocating or could no longer bear the stench, you were going to the window to breathe a bit.
This is how we went toward Siberia. Once every three days, they stopped the train in a train station to supply it with water. They allowed one from every car to come out with a bucket to fill it. But what was a bucket of water for thirty-five people? It was only for one day, and we only had drops of it. Then, we were again thirsty and thirsty, especially because we received some salty fish for food, and even that only once every three days.
We had our bodily necessities in a hole in the floor of the train car. We, children, were not very ashamed, but the young lads and girls were so ashamed! Especially the girls; they asked their parents to stay in front of them, to cover them. You could not even think about washing your hands or anything.
Next to me, on the shelf, there was a woman around seventy years old; she was tall, lean, and she lay down all the time. She was lying there with her eyes open, staring at the ceiling. She fell asleep at times; she dreamt, but she was always silent; from time to time only, she exchanged a word with bunica (grandmother).
One time, dad looked at her longer and told me: “Hey, go and touch her,is she cold or warm? She seems dead!”
“How dead?” I asked, because I did not even know what it meant back then.
I touched her, and she was cold. Looking at the white skin around her mouth, the people said that she had been dead for two days.
We began knocking hard on the door, to make the soldiers open so that we could tell them. But they did not open; they only asked what the matter was. Cazacu Petre, who knew Russian, shouted: “We have a dead woman here, she must be taken down because of the stench!”
They opened only the fourth day. Just imagine: 40 degrees outside, sweat, so many people unwashed in the car, the dead woman there, decomposing, and we were breathing this air.
The fourth day they took her out. And I remember how bunica was looking at her compassionately, saying: “Why didn’t she say that she was hurting? Look, I have a candle, and I would have held her the candle if she said…But she was quiet, and look how she died, like the pagans! Where will they bury her, and who will know where her tomb is?!…”
Bunica was lamenting so much. She did not cry, but she was lamenting terribly! And not only then, but later as well, whenever they stopped the train to throw out one of the dead, she lamented that there is no one to communicate home, to the relatives, to let them know where someone died and where that person is buried. What if the dogs will eat him? And she began to pray harder and more often so that it would not happen to her as well, that God would keep her alive until she goes back home, to die there.
After this, we went for another week or so, day and night, without stopping. By now we were really animals. We had scabies and lice all over, and everyone was whining about something. Someone was vomiting, another one could no longer move, another asked for water, but there was no water. We were thumping on the train cars for nothing. They did not open!
Finally, after one week, they stopped the train on a bridge, above a river. But the train was very long. I remember that, whenever there was a curve, Emil went to the window to count the cars: he could count until forty or so, and then he lost count. When they stopped the train, one part was before the bridge, one was on the bridge, and the other was after the bridge. They opened the doors. The people in the cars on the sides of the bridge started to come out. But we were over the water. Where could you get out, in the river? You had to cross all the cars to get out. Do it if you can, because the soldiers were shouting: “Five minutes, you have five minutes! Go, wash, and take some water, each of you in whatever you have!”
But who had what? A bottle, a bucket, a flask… Dad took a pot, Emil a bottle, and we ran all those cars until we got to the bank. But it was already full. The people had put their heads into water, and they were drinking like the cattle. Perhaps two-three cars out of the forty managed to string over that bank. We were waiting for our turn when all of a sudden a young guy jumped into the water and began swimming. When the soldiers saw it, they started to shoot in the river. He was going into the water, then coming out, then going back in, and the soldiers were shooting all the time. Then they began to shout at us: “Nazat! Nazat!” That is, go back to the cars; otherwise, they would shoot us. There was such an agitation because some people were just coming out of their cars and we were thronging back; there was shouting, cursing—a true hell. In that whirlpool, Emil got lost. A soldier hit his back with the gun, and Emil shouted aloud, “Daaaad!” Dad heard it, but how could he go back, when we were so crammed into one another? I was holding onto dad’s pants, crying, and dad was calling Emil, without moving. Finally, we found him, barely walking and holding on to his back. He had a big large bruise for a long while after that moment.
With great difficulty, we arrived at the train car, and we sat down as we could. Some cursed that boy who ran because he created problems for us, and we could not get washed or take water. Others blessed him because at least he escaped and could tell the people how the Russians tormented us in the train cars. I remember that I was upset with him because he messed up everything, and I wanted to wash, to take water, to be full…
The train started and we went again until we arrived into a city, where we stopped. They allowed one man from each car to come out to take a bucket of water; even that man was flanked by guns. If they allowed at least ten men in each car to take a bucket, then maybe we would have each had a little.
After we calmed down somewhat, we heard that in one of the cars, while the train was on the bridge, a woman threw her four months old baby in the river through the whole in the floor and drowned him. When the people came back from the water, they asked her: “Where is your child?”
And she answered honestly:
“I finished him! I could no longer endure to see how he was dying before my eyes, and I do not have milk in my breast! If I had water to drink, milk would come, but there is no water. Look, I have three children here, what do I do with them? They took my man, and I do not know anything about him. What was I to do?!…”
Of course, many scolded her; others took her side, saying that the child was bound to die, one way or another, if she did not have anything to feed him. I remember that bunica condemned her, saying, “It should not have been her to take his life, but God! She should have left him fade by himself; she should not have committed this sin! Great sin has fallen upon her head!…”
Some years ago, when I was in grad school, I got a part-time job as a baker. It was a small bakery, and the lady who was in charge of baking bread had to switch to cakes; she was happy about it, so she wanted to get me ready to take over her job as soon as possible. I had never baked bread before, so I was quite nervous. The lady was patient, and she led me through all the stages. We were baking 50-60 loaves per night, starting at 2:15 am, and every loaf had to go through our hands.
The hardest job was to form the dough into a ball. “You don’t have to overdo it,” the lady was telling me. “You just have to knead it long enough so that it looks like the cheek of a toddler.” The first two nights, I just could not give it a smooth surface, and the stress coming from my failure was not helping at all. My dough never looked fresh. But just when I thought I would never become a baker, the lady told me something I will never forget:
“Tavi, don’t worry! Bread forgives you. It will take it over from where you leave it, and it will be fine.”
The dough on my work-table had already embraced me. Who was I to say no to it?
I was walking in the neighborhood. A rabbit got scared, ran into the street, and got hit by a car. It was part of my daily involuntary participation in ugliness.
Two things I heard at the same time: the muffled sound that ended the rabbit’s life and the voice that justified in my head my lack of responsibility. I had no intention to scare the rabbit and I actually rejoiced when I first saw him. By all accounts, I seemed morally and legally not-guilty. I am not-guilty.
But the voice soon got silenced. It was the muffled sound of the car that silenced it, although the car was already far away. In that silence I remembered my non-moral responsibility. I do participate in this world and by my participation I contribute to its ugliness. It is not about cause and effect; this is just how things are. In this world, fallen as it is, ugliness takes place everywhere, and my example with the rabbit is insignificant if we compare it with tragedies all over the place. However, the rabbit story is part of it. The rabbit and I are ingredients of the large soup that the world is (I heard this analogy someplace, but I don’t remember who said it). My belonging to it makes me part of its beauty and of its ugliness: I contribute to the taste of this soup. And since I participate in ugliness most of the time, regardless of whether I want it or not, I need forgiveness. It is not the moral or juridical forgiveness, but rather the curative one. If the world suffers and I am part of it, then the world and I need to be cured. Ugliness as disease took place this morning, when the rabbit died. Ugliness as disease takes place when we harm others. Asking for forgiveness is asking to be with the world in its healing process.
When he saw me walking, the rabbit did not come to me, but ran away. The symptom of brokenness, ugliness, and separation. Forgive me, little rabbit.