A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XIII

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XIII April 4, 2011

Introduction and Part II

Why was man created? In order that, by apprehending God’s creatures, he might contemplate and glorify Him who created them for man’s sake. The intellect responsive to God’s love is an invisible blessing given by God to those whose life by its virtue commends itself to Him.[1]

We have an innate desire for purpose for our lives. We seek to understand what we are meant to do, so that we feel all the work and suffering we go through in our lives ultimately leads to some good. We can accept the difficulties we face if we understood their point.

The world was created out of love by God for the sake of its creatures. Each creature can believe and understand the world was created for it, because God has given it a place in the world, in a world in which it can live and thrive and achieve its proper end. Because of the interdependent web of life which connects all living things together, everything in a way is made for everything else. We interact with each other and create the world together. In saying this we must be careful and not reify this thought and make every other creature mere play things of our will. They are subjects in their own right, with their own subjective good, a good God has given them for their own selves. Nonetheless, this subjective good is not to be reified either; nothing lives alone, no living thing is an individual purely unto itself. The world was made to be interactive, for creatures to relate, one to another, and to need one another in a variety of ways.

We were given a special role in the world, to be a mediator in creation. We are to observe creation, and to delineate it. To see the placement of everything in the world and to classify it, recognizing the relationship between the things of the world with the Wisdom of God from which they flow. Living creatures, because they have been given life, share more in the Wisdom of God, show more of the glory of God, and so are to be given greater respect and honor than inanimate creation. We were called to help raise them up to perfection, to realize their ideal in God. The world was chaotic, and filled with violence; we were called out of that violence to create paradise, to help creation open itself up so as to establish on earth the kingdom of God as it is in heaven. To do so, we are to open ourselves to God’s love, to let God’s love take control of us so that we can be vessels of grace into the world. Sadly, at the onset of our arising in the world, we failed to do this; we ended up loving ourselves, closing in on ourselves, closing off the infinite grace needed in order to deify ourselves and creation. We became like gods, with our false, constructed selves being turned into idols which we worshiped. In a world where we walk like gods, we must then try to create the purpose of being for ourselves; however, since we find our being is limited when it is closed off from God, the purpose we create for ourselves and the world never satisfies, leaving us once again wondering who we are and what it is we should be doing.

To understand our place in the world, to receive the knowledge and wisdom we seek, we must open ourselves up to God. Christ came, in part, to show us the way, to show us the path to life is to be had through the death to the self.[2] We must not let our inordinate desires dictate to us our place in the world: following them we will only find ourselves lost, suffering the fate of the damned. We must conform ourselves to God and His will, to seek after the God of love through love. We must surrender ourselves to God. This is not easy. It requires trust. It requires a willingness to lose everything we think we have, to place ourselves entirely bare before God and to wait in love.

The world will change around us as God rewards our love with his grace. The world will speak God. Everything will reveal the wisdom of God to the soul cleansed from its fallen mode of being. The world will shine in splendor and bring joy to the soul because the soul will see the work of God within creation and understand, truly, its own share in the glory of God, and what it is meant to do with it. Only by opening up to God can this intellectual gift be given, for it is by removing all that holds one back one is able to experience the Wisdom of God and see the world as a reflection of that Wisdom. Wisdom reveals itself in and through love, for it is love. By being united with the Wisdom of God through love, creation is seen, not as a brute, material world, closed off from the Wisdom of God, but open and ready for the penetration of God’s grace into it. We become the vessel of God’s grace; we praise God in and through love, seeing the world in and through that love. Our vision of God includes a vision of the world, the world as it truly is, with our place in the world revealed to us. We are then made free through grace to be in the world, to know our place in the world, because we have come to know ourselves.

The way humanity is portrayed here is similar to what we saw previously in this text.[3] The world and its creatures are seen as being made for our sake. What was said in that section, therefore, holds true here, and need not be repeated. But we can wonder if there is but an echo here of the sentiment found at the beginning of one of Anthony’s letters: “The rational man who has prepared himself to be set free through the advent of Jesus Christ, knows himself in his intellectual substance. For he who knows himself knows the dispensations of the Creator and all that He does among His creatures.”[4] Once we have conformed ourselves to God, set free through Jesus Christ, we come to know the world in and through God, to see the glory of God in the world.

The central theme of this paragraph can also help explain a passage in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Here, we find that Anthony was concerned with understanding the world and the way the world worked, in understanding the purpose of life, especially when the world seems to run contrary to justice, with many dying young, with the wicked seemingly blessed with riches, with the righteous seemingly cursed with suffering, with people whose lives seem to end unfulfilled. Why is the world like this? To understand the purpose of life, it seems that this question must be answered. In the Sayings, we find God answering: “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not your advantage to know anything about them.”[5] Now, it would seem that God is giving to Anthony the answer he gave Job. Yet,  perhaps we can see that there is something more going on here, because it is a wisdom statement Anthony told others. Wisdom sayings might at first appear to say one thing, but, for the one who explores them and unlocks their contents, they say something else. The key here is to come to know oneself, to receive the rational, intellectual gift of God. Until we have worked out our own salvation with much fear and trembling, until we have purified ourselves, attempts to understand the way of the world will fail, and our attempts to cure what ails the world will fail. We must focus on ourselves, purify ourselves, remove the log out of our eye first, for then we can find the answers we seek. Once we have come to know ourselves, we will find ourselves knowing God and creation. Without such an interpretation, Anthony’s saying would not make sense, and God’s answer would be a non-answer. We are told that we must conform ourselves to God’s will, to cleanse ourselves of all thoughts which would separate us from God, if we want to be enlightened by God and to know the world as it is. Then, and then alone, can we truly know the purpose not only of our life, but of all that happens in history.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 337 (#55).

[2] Christ is the cosmic mediator between God and creation, and so we must understand he did more than lead by example, but finished the work of creation; that is, he became the means by which original creation can find its proper end in the eschaton.

[3] See section IX.

[4] Chitty, The Letters of Saint Antony, 9 [Letter III].

[5] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.

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