Conversations with Children
By Mother Magdalen
‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ [John 8:58]
‘Everything we will speak about concerns just this point: what form of being do we wish for our children?’ (Reflections, p. 5)
Introduction: Our theology and Our Children
A sure eternal perspective on reality is the best way to remain full of inspiration as we impart faith. Let us begin our investigation into the personhood of children ‘in the beginning’. The mystery of creation is a mystery of love-God made from nothing a cosmos, which was not Him. All that exists is either created or Creator. Words have always failed and always will fail to convey the First Gift that God has given: life itself, which is shared out from the Life giver’s very Being. The most Godlike reflection of the Life giver in creation is humankind. ‘Let us make man in OUR image, after our likeness’ [Gen. 1:26]. Each human has Godlike characteristics and the potential to live – to love like God, in God, for ever.2 As God is Trinity, Three-One, so humanity is many-called-to-be-one. This calling is the purpose of human existence, and in its light the Church fetches us how to live on earth and to raise our children.
At a child’s birth a new person, ‘a man’ (anthropos3) is born into the world, as the Lord said, showing us how each new baby is, even for God, an ‘other’ who is given Godlike freedom: his destiny cannot be programmed by any other person, divine or human. Orthodox anthropology – our understanding of humans – is based on theology: that is, on the revelation we have received of God. The form of being we desire for our children is the form God designed for humanity made in His image.
By borrowing theology from our holy predecessors we can assimilate principles to help us follow in their steps in our families and Church communities. Theology helps us to see what love means in its eternal dimensions, so that we can co-operate with God as He Is while we live with our beloved children as we are and as they are. It is real persons who live. That is why Orthodox theology emphasizes the Personhood of God and of humanity. And that is where the term ‘hypostasis’ comes in.
In the First Being, the Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, live as One Being. Divineness, Divine Being, is a mystery of Triune love. God is love as Trinity; even if there were no creation Divine Life consists in mutual self-giving Love. The Greek Fathers who have given us the classic formulas to express Orthodox thinking about the Trinity chose the word hypostasis for the Person: God is Three Hypostases in One Nature.
In the Triune God each Hypostasis is utterly unique and irreplaceable. The personal characteristics of each remain mysterious to us, and all our knowledge of the Holy Trinity – even the very terms we dare to use – are received by revelation through Christ and the saints. One Person is Father (unbegotten, the source of divinity), One is Son (begotten of the Father outside time), One is Holy Spirit (who proceeds eternally from the Father). In God, the three Hypostases are one Being, with one will and one life. Each One lives the fullness of the One Triune Life, yet as Himself. Personhood is never in isolation, and at the same time the Person is never diluted, or dissolved. Each of the divine Persons gives and receives from the other in personal love. Each Hypostasis lives the life of the other Persons as His own life. Love means communion; hypostatic life means all-embracing love.
The full meaning of ‘person-hypostasis’ in the Triune God will always be a mystery. Personhood in man is indescribable, too; the hypostasis is ‘the hidden man of the heart’ [1 Pet. 3:4] that each is called to become. Nevertheless, from divine Self-revelation, especially that of the One Divine Person who became incarnate, Jesus Christ, we learn what we need to know about true Being. A wrongful idea of personhood in God has drastic consequences for our understanding of human purpose and fulfilment. In religious beliefs where the ‘Ultimate Reality’ is thought to be ‘beyond’ anything personal, human personhood too loses its eternal worth, and becomes something you must dissolve away. Even between the Christian denominations the understanding of Person-Hypostasis differs. Some of these divergences are less obvious to those who are not spiritually refined, even if they may be experts in academic theology. So the Orthodox Church remains anchored in the Fathers’ thinking and vocabulary. As we sing at the Liturgy, ‘Let us worship the undivided Trinity, for the Same hath saved us’.
Literally, hypostasis means ‘what stands under’ something, i.e. the reality of something as it exists. ‘The hypostasis-persona is the inmost principle of Absolute Being – its first and last dimension.’4 The divine Nature does not ‘come first’ in the abstract, and then get divided out into Three. The eternal personal element is what makes Divinity not just an abstract idea but also a living Reality. God is self-existing only as a Triune Being in whom Life is shared in Love. The Persons are, each one, fully and eternally God.5
Mankind is called to live as God lives, as persons united by inter-personal love. A fulfilled human person has found his own true self not by a struggle for self-sufficiency, but by a grace-given union with God and his fellow humans: by love which sometimes reaches the point of what is, in earthly terms, ‘self-denial’. This is the Gospel paradox: to find our real selves we ‘lose ourselves’. To live as persons we die as egocentric earth-bound individuals. The map for self-discovery is traced in the Gospel commandments, which are commandments of love.6 Ultimately we are called to embrace all being – divine and created – in our own life, or as the Gospel commandment says, to love God with all our being and our fellow humans as our very selves.
To distinguish between a fallen human being and the true self each one is called to be, Orthodox theologians often use the word ‘individual’ for someone still in a state of sin and fall, and ‘person’ for someone who has been renewed by life in Christ. These theologians are not denying our individuality; on the contrary, it is sin that destroys our individuality because we become enslaved to it [cf. John 8:34]. Persons are free to embrace others’ lives in love. Use of the word hypostasis for ‘person’ is helpful, because the English word person does not necessarily point to the Godlike form of being to which we are all called. I hope that readers who are not used to this term will become familiar with it, because it can motivate us in our dealings with children, as well as in our own spiritual development.
Love is extended to other persons not by compulsion, but by a gift which becomes mutual when the response is also love. In God the Love is eternally Perfect, so that mutuality is a feature of Divine Life-in-itself. God, our Creator and Sustainer, extends His love to us and – this is the greatest mystery – rejoices in our love which unites us to Him, whoever we are, at whatever stage in our physical, psychological or spiritual development. When the Orthodox speak of grace they mean Divine Life shared with a created being. As important as the difference is between Divine Being and created being, the similarities offered to us are no less important. God’s image and likeness appear in many aspects of humans, but they are primarily manifested in man’s hypostatic form of being. A fulfilled human being is a Godlike reality, & person who loves without limit. Only to one who lives according to grace, to divine life, can the term ‘hypostasis’ be truly applied. Holiness is not a question of duty or virtue as much as an opportunity to relate to God and to other humans in joyfully-given and humble love.
The saints are those who brought to fruition the potential each human has. ‘In the act of divinization (theosis), grace exalts man from the dimensions and patterns of the earth to the dimensions and patterns of Divine life.’7 Divine Nature -the Essence or Divinity the Three Persons share – cannot be shared by any being whose nature is created. We would cease to be what we are if we exchanged our nature. God’s Nature is not changed, either, by His outpouring of His Being on creation. But by sharing His life, His grace, with man, God sanctifies, deifies, human existence. The saints, touched by grace, experience the oneness of the Divine Energy8 and the triune-ness of the Persons. Having experienced God as a personal Being, they learned to live and develop as human persons by co-operating with grace, trying to do everything they do with God’s blessing. Their way of life is a pattern for the path to true humanity, to one’s real self.
There is nothing impersonal in God, and no impersonal path connected to Him. It is by experiencing God as the One whom we address as Person or Persons, to whom we can say Thou art’, that we relate to God, who announced Himself to Moses as I am’. By living in harmony with the divine I am’, we can reach our own created I am’.
This theological vision lies behind all that we do. How does the Living God live? How must we try to live? The answer was revealed in the most concrete way when God joined the human race. When we say that Christ is a perfect man, we do not only mean that He is utterly flawless; we also mean that he is a perfect picture of what every human should be like. In the measure that we are unlike Christ, we could be described as sub-human.9 The Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother are therefore the persons our children will be directed to most often when we speak about relating to God and the saints.
Parents, monks and nuns, children, single people, clergy and laity – in the Church we are all on the journey to person-hood together. If we love each other then we are recognisable as followers of the Person-Model Jesus Christ. In that sense a child can be more hypostatic than a mature theologically trained adult. A childlike trust in God is enjoined on all of us; children were set forth as models by Christ. A heart, which loves unselfishly, which trusts and respects God, is closer to Him and to all humanity than a proud self-enclosed heart. Adults, especially educated adults, are often less humble-minded and open-hearted than children.
So a legitimate question arises: can we teach children anything when we are less pure than they are? Yes, if we speak and act with conscious personal love for each one, and if, when we share information about God, we share what the Church gives us, not as proud know-alls but as older members of the same Family. We should be models and guides for the young, simply because we have lived longer, for although they start out with experience of grace, they start with blank slates as far as life outside the womb is concerned.
If God has given us particular responsibility and authority, through parenthood or through our role – official or unofficial – in the Church community, then we are commissioned to be sources of wisdom for the children in our care. Our respect for their personhood means we cannot be reluctant as teachers, both because children are so loveable, and because they need our adult guidance and authority to lean on. In our turn we look with humble and grateful respect to those over us in authority, such as our spiritual father, our hierarchs. We are all commanded to serve each other whatever our position, following the First Model, Christ, who came to serve and give Himself so as to bring us all to His Father as our Heavenly Father.
Every teacher is well advised to ask himself sometimes as he thinks about his role: ‘Who am I to teach these precious souls?’ In the Light of the Holy Spirit, the answer will echo in his soul: I am a repenting sinner, but I love these children and want the best for them. The Son of God became Son of the Virgin Mary to save me too. Glory be to Jesus Christ our Saviour. I will do my best to share my certain hope in Him with the children in my care.’ The vision of the Hypostasis can radiate from every teacher’s heart with this message: ‘God loves us, and I love you.’
2. Some Fathers make a useful distinction between image and likeness; the image of God in man is given to all of us by nature, whereas man’s realization in God’s likeness is potential, achieved by free personal co-operation with God’s grace.
3. This word is used for a human being, not for males specifically.
4. Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is (Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, 1988), p. 191. I recommend this book for further reading about the hypostasis.
5. This is inadmissible for logical thinking, which demands that what is absolute must be unique. God is not self-existing because philosophical reasoning makes Him inevitable. Philosophical reasoning makes Him inevitable because our reason imitates divine truth, but reason cannot reveal His form of Being as a Trinity of Love. Only Pentecost does that.
6. cf. Matt. 22:40.
7. We Shall See Him as He is, p. 192.
8. This word is often used for the Greek word energeia, which the Fathers used for grace, for God’s life poured out on creation. It is also used in the plural, because the divine life is shared as light, as love, and in other manifestations. The Fathers compared it to the light and heat of the sun, which reaches us. However, earthly analogies and earthly vocabulary are inadequate to convey divine reality to someone who has not shared the Fathers’ experience of God.
9. I should make clear here that the Orthodox Church teaches that humanity is never actually lost.