Enoch & Paradise: An Introduction to Russian Spirituality

There is a line in the Book of Genesis that is easy to miss considering the monumental nature of what is presented there.  One translation reads:  “And Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”(Gen5:24)  Another translation: “And Enoch walked with God, and he vanished for God took him.”  A simplistic reading of this would be:  Enoch was a good man and then he died.  No, this line has a lot more to say than that!

Note that there are three elements in that verse:

  1. Enoch walks with God
  2. Enoch “vanishes” or “he was not”
  3. God took him

The first term, “walking with God,” is not some vague reference to moral uprightness or saying one’s prayers.  It refers us directly back to the state of paradise described in Genesis 3: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…”  Although the situation being presented is the narrative of the Fall, the implication of this line is that the human being’s natural condition “before the Fall” was this “casual intimacy” with God–as if walking in a garden with a friend.  So to “walk with God” is to be present to the Divine Presence which fills all of creation.  Now there are degrees and depths to this “presencing”, and it is not until one “returns to Paradise” that it is in its fullness.  This “return to Paradise” was a great theme of the early monastic fathers and the hesychasts of the Russian tradition.  Once the Fall has taken place; once Adam and Eve have asserted the primacy of their ego identity, not receiving the Divine Life as a gift but thinking they could just “take it” as it were; then we are no longer “in Paradise”; we are no longer “walking with God,” walking within the Divine Presence in its fullness.

The next element is this mysterious vanishing, “he was not.”  The “vanishing” is concomitant to “walking with God.”  The Russian hesychasts saw that the “return to Paradise” was signalled by the stripping off of the masks and disguises of the ego identity, by a kind of nakedness of personhood, so that one could say that one’s ego centered identity has vanished.  The general term they used was “humility,” and this has nothing to do with the psychological posturing of the ego or with the sickness of self-hatred and self-rejection–this is a theme we shall return to again and again.  And this is in harmony with the teachings of all the great traditions in their own terms.  For example, the Sufis talk about fana or annihilation–this is the extinction of that very ego centered sense of self.  When al-Hallaj says, “I am the Truth,” he is not blaspheming as the conservative traditionalists would have it, but what he means is that his sense of “I-ness” now comes from God, not from any egocentric affirmation.  His whole identity is now “of God.”  When one “walks with God” one realizes that only God truly IS–and everything else in relationship to that “Isness” is as nothing.

The third element tells us: “God took him.”  It is God’s agency that accomplishes this–not our own efforts, which in any case would be shot through with egocentric desire no matter how “spiritual” they may seem.  There are no techniques, no methods, no practices that will accomplish this “return to Paradise.”  The story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel is one parable of the futility of “reaching heaven” by our own efforts.  According to the Russian spiritual fathers, the return to Paradise takes place through faith, through humility, through continual repentance, and through total forgiveness.  This is an enormous topic to which we shall return many times during this year, but let us consider just one aspect of this “return” now.

The “return to Paradise” now begins at the “foot of the Cross.”  This will mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people in a thousand different situations, but for sure it is now no longer a matter of our moral uprightness or our spirituality or our knowledge that will bring us “home.”  Consider the following scene from Luke 23:39-42:  “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!’  But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov we find several concrete existential depictions of what this “return to Paradise” is like.  It can almost be summarized in three words: forgiveness, responsibility, repentance.  And these three will need an extensive explanation because they are a lot more than the usual surface meanings we give them.  In any case, Dostoevsky presents the early life of his creation, the great spiritual father Fr. Zosima.  As a young man he was a military cadet, and he gets himself into a duel over a girlfriend.  The night before he is in a foul mood and he strikes his servant in the face over a trivial matter.  He cannot sleep very long:

“Suddenly I got up…I went to the window, opened it, looked into the garden–I watched the sun rising, the weather was warm, beautiful, the birds began to chime.  Why is it, I thought, that I feel something, as it were, mean and shameful in my soul?  Is it because…I am afraid of death, afraid to be killed?  No, not that, not that at all….  And suddenly I understood at once what it was: it was because I had beaten Afanasy the night before!  I suddenly pictured it all as if it were happening over again: he is standing before me, and I strike him in the face with all my might, and he keeps his arms at his sides, head erect, eyes staring straight ahead as if he were at attention; he winces at each blow…this is what a man can be brought to, a man beating his fellow man!  …it was as if a sharp needle went through my soul.  I stood as if dazed, and the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing, glistening, and the birds, the birds were praising God…I covered my face with my hands, fell on my bed and burst into sobs.  And then I remembered my brother Markel, and his words to the servants before his death: ‘My good ones, my dears, why are you serving me, why do you love me, and am I worthy of being served?’  Yes, am I worthy? suddenly leaped into my mind.  Indeed, how did I deserve that another man, just like me, the image and likeness of God, should serve me?  This question then pierced my mind for the first time in my life.  [I remembered my brother again]: ‘Mother, heart of my heart, truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.’  Lord, I wept and thought, can that possibly not be true?  Indeed, I am perhaps the most guilty of all….  And suddenly the whole truth appeared to me in its full enlightenment: what was I setting out to do?  I was setting out to kill a kind, intelligent, noble man…. I lay there flat on my bed, my face pressed into the pillow….  Suddenly my comrade, the lieutenant, came in with the pistols to fetch me….    ‘Wait a bit,’ I said to him… I ran back into the house alone, straight to Afanasy’s room: ‘Afanasy,’ I said, ‘yesterday I struck you twice in the face.  Forgive me.’  He started as he were afraid, and I saw that it was not enough, not enough, and suddenly, just as I was, epaulettes and all, I threw myself at his feet with my forehead to the ground: ‘Forgive me,’ I said.  At that he was completely astounded: ‘My dear master, but how can you….I’m not   worthy…’  And he suddenly began weeping himself, just as I had done shortly before, covered his face with both hands….  [He goes to the place of the duel]    They set us twelve paces apart, the first shot was his–I stood cheerfully  before him, face to face…looking at him lovingly….  He fired.  The shot just grazed by cheek and nicked my ear….and I seized my pistol, turned around, and sent it hurtling up into the trees….  I said to my adversary: ‘My dear sir, forgive a foolish young man, for it is my own fault that I offended you and have now made you shoot at me….  Gentlemen, I cried suddenly from the bottom of my heart, look at the divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass, the birds, nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, we alone, are godless and foolish, and do not understand that life is paradise…and we [then] shall embrace each other and weep….'”

This moment of conversion and enlightenment then infuses all of Zosima’s life as a monk and a spiritual father and it is a constant in his teaching.  We shall return to his teaching extensively in later blogs, but suffice it to say now that for Fr. Zosima and the Russian hesychasts, “paradise” was returned to by a radical redefinition of our human identity through our acceptance of “our neighbor” in love, forgiveness, humility and mercy.  First of all, this will inevitably place us “within the dynamic of the Cross.”  Then furthermore this uncovers the real nature of our relationality to all of reality.  And then we are “walking with God.”

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