For Yuri, a prelude (whose scope and sprawling messiness was massively underestimated when I began work on it) to other pieces, already underway.
The Prompt for This Post
Or, How I Ended Up Down This Rabbit Hole
This bizarre and metastasizing tumor of a post was initially prompted by a number of passages in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, one in particular that comes towards the beginning of the book. The figure in this passage, Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov, is left motherless at the age of four. The narrator tells us that “though it is strange, I know that he remembered his mother all his life — as if through sleep, of course.” We soon hear this repeated:
although he lost his mother in his fourth year, he remembered her afterwards all his life, her face, her caresses, “as if she were standing alive before me.” Such memories can be remembered (everyone knows this) even from an earlier age, even from the age of two, but they only emerge throughout one’s life as specks of light, as it were, against the darkness, as a corner torn from a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except for that little corner. That is exactly how it was with him: he remembered a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all), an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and before the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God, holding him out from her embrace with both arms towards the icon, as if under the protection of the Mother of God…and suddenly a nurse rushes in and snatches him from her in fear. [A1]
The sequence of the narrative seems to suggest a connection between this memory and Alyosha being gathered to the Elder Zosima.
The imagery in the excerpt above seemed to have familiar symbolic elements in the background, and so called my mind back to a passage I read about fifteen years ago in a book by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, Theology of Wonder. There Bp. Seraphim wrote about a certain myth, where
[t]he story is told, (we will use a Jewish narration which comes from a deep meditation of Genesis), Adam was clothed in light, yet somehow, whereas children grow out of their clothes, he diminished, and his clothes were shattered and the shards of light became the worlds. And Adam himself was somehow shattered. It is said that the Shekinah, the Presence of God, wanders the world in search of the shreds of light, to gather them. And Adam also, in his exile, seeks to find himself, the way back to himself. It is the story of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, isn’t it? 
Given the way that the characters in Brothers Karamazov are themselves fractured bits in search of wholeness, and of integration beyond the clamor of interpretations, it seemed like digging up this tradition might be profitable for exploring some of the themes of that novel.
I reached out to Bp. Seraphim for the sources that this passage was drawing upon, but he wrote it long ago, and could not confidently recall them, as he has been occupied with other reading and writing, and with pastoral-episcopal obligations. Therefore, I couldn’t let go until I had gotten to the bottom of things; it took me down a rabbit hole, and here is what I found, Yuri.
It turns out that his telling is an accidental fusion of two traditions.
The first is the very old tradition –earliest evidence in the first century B.C. or A.D., though I have a hard time imagining it is not older– of Adam’s primordial garments of light, lost through the transgression, to be reunited at the end of time, or to reappear in and on the Messiah. Sometimes the garments are clearly garments of light, sometimes Adam is covered with “light”, sometimes “glory” or canopies of cloud. (It is not clear that second temple Jewish authors made a very strong distinction between light and glory.) This theme of “the glory of Adam” is found in late second temple Jewish, Rabbinic, Samaritan, and Christian contexts. The Syriac tradition is the one that carried this tradition the longest, with the most explicit language. Probably through East Roman (vi&., Greek) readings and incorporations of the hymnody of Ephrem the Syrian, a variant of this tradition ends up in the Byzantine Liturgy, and so would have been familiar to Dostoyevsky through its recitation at the beginning of each Lent with the chanting of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the hagiographer of St. Mary of Egypt. (This, in addition to any detection Dostoyevsky may have made of this theme in the New Testament.) In the Greek, Roman, and Syriac traditions, there is a strong internal element to these garments, even if they appear ritually in the baptismal robes — the heart can be “clothed in light” or “clothed in darkness”, and the soul can become, especially in the writings of Pseudo-Macarius, the chariot or tabernacle or temple of God himself.
The second is a late medieval Kabbalistic tradition about the “shattering of the vessels” coming from Adam Kadmon (something like the primordial man, the first emanation of Ein Sof in Lurianic Kabbalah, not to be confused with “the human, humus from the soil” as Robert Alter translates Genesis 2:7). This tradition is associated with Isaac Luria. The distinction between the primordial archetype of humanity and the original human being goes back at least to Philo of Alexandria, who, as I recall, upon reading the distinctive stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, interpreted Genesis 1 in a Platonic fashion. (There is an analog of this theme of gathering in the Hebrew Bible, in the writings of the second temple period, and in the New Testament [1γ]. Fair warning: I won’t be exploring the themes in this parenthetical note in what follows.)
Time constraints prevent me from being exhaustive in exploring these myths — I do not have time to look at the Lurianic one here, though I recommend Gershom Scholem’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism if you’d like to pursue it, Yuri (there is a whole section on this myth there), and several have recommended this book by Luria’s disciple, apparently summarizing the Lurianic system. (I cannot chase that stream right now.) Further, I shall be uneven in the degree to which I examine the several themes pulled out, below, but I would like to look at some of their elements (of responsibility, of autonomy, of alienation, of interiority, of clothing, &c.). I am told that the Zoharic tradition contains nothing in it about the Shekinah gathering anything to do with Adam, as (again, so I’m told by the several scholars I touched base with) the advent of the Torah coincides with the return of the Shekinah to heaven in the Jewish mystical tradition.
The list I have just mentioned is itself, of course, not exhaustive of the texts under consideration, but relative to imminent projects, and many bear upon themes and passages in The Brothers Karamazov. I leave them here, mostly in isolation from those projects, so that other interested readers may examine this tradition without referring to the concerns that brought me to research and write this for you in the first place.
Across cultures and traditions, across temporal and national epochs, people express a desire for perfect unity, simplicity, and integration. Not everyone, of course — and yet the desire cannot be brushed off as peculiar to a tradition or a time period. The expression is colored by a number of cultural features, and so the metaphors used for this unification and simplification vary from mostly natural imagery (Daoism) to mostly political imagery (Christianity). The predominant metaphors are important, and weight a tradition in a certain way. Traditions can overlap, of course, and the boundaries between them are not always quite as neat as either cultural taxidermists or identity politickers would like; and yet, the desire for unification remains. Nor is it simply a desire: in (neo-)Platonism, Daoism and Christianity (to offer three examples), the ethical drive for unification is connected with both cosmological speculation about the characteristic features of the world as a whole and ontological reflection on the nature of being itself. Specifically within the Christian tradition, the desire for unity, and the accomplishment of unity, is tightly connected to Christology.
The imagery of God as a king at war against the agents of injustice, chaos, and death surrounds all Christology. Because of this, there is an inescapable political element to Christian models of the unification of the person; a sloppy reading of this can lead to some very unethical social, religious and political positions. Here I will trace the twin themes of integration and unification in Mark, which signal the health that is found in redemption (itself a loaded economic, political and military term for liberated captives), and a return from an unnatural slavery under dark powers. I will occasionally ask about the consequences of this political language, sometimes with regard to the pursuit of unification in non-Christian traditions. Does the non-frustrated pursuit of integration in non-Christian traditions indicate that Christology is superfluous to this project? What does Christology assume about the good, about the world, and about reality? Continue reading
The late-5th- or early-6th-century figure Pseudo-Dionysios (or simply the Latin “Dionysius” or the French equivalent “Denys”) is a cardinal figure in the history of Western thought and civilization. Given his high importance for Christian theology East and West, one would think that he would be more read, or at least better-understood by specialists. Unfortunately, he is not well-understood, not even by the most prominent name in Denys studies, Paul Rorem. Alas, the most easily-available translation of Denys’ works are marked by the massive anachronistic distortions of Rorem’s Lutheran confessional bias (a topic for another time). There are also specialist biases in play from other Athenian-Pagan-Hellenistic directions, as the scholarship of Ronald F. Hathaway shows (Hathaway I have read with much more profit than Rorem, however). Eric Perl has the best introduction to Denys. Hieromonk (now bishop?) Golitzin wrote a necessary, complementary second. John D. Jones’ translation of the Divine Names is still the best English-translation text to begin digging into Denys himself.
I’ll be posting about Denys in the future, given my love for him and his value and importance (which needs much more articulation than I can possibly give it here). In the meantime, I thought that a good place to start would be to publish a comparative list of three translations of Denys’ Epistle 9, mostly about scriptural language. The Luibheid/Rorem translation is sadly the most easily accessible, the Parker translation unfortunately forgotten or unread, and the Hathaway translation is, lamentably, mostly gathering dust on university libraries (or in professors’ shelves). Given these injustices, this columned, comparative translation seemed worth sharing. I may offer more such in the future — a chapter or two each from the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. (Denys coined the term “hierarchy”, and it does not mean for him what it means for us.)
Denys’ approach to scriptural figures for God –or any figures for God at all– is markedly unlike any modern confessional theology. Such confessional theologies are dogmatically committed to the existence of secret truths about God that are simply unknowable to us until we are told them, and which reason –any model of reason or rationality– has no capacity to verify. This is idolatry, and Denys shows us the beginnings of seeing why and how this is so. (It also leads to atrocious psychological, social and political configurations, but I shouldn’t run too far, too fast.)