Throughout May and June we will be having a series of reflections shared by Michael Petrow. Michael is a scholar of Origen, who was a brilliant early Christian theologian from the second century. Even though Origen’s name has been tarnished with the label of heresy, his writing has had as much impact on Christianity as Augustine and Aquinas. In this series (every Wednesday for the next couple months) Michael is going to share with us some of Origen’s timeless wisdom and relate it to our complicated modern day lives.
Michael is also a spiritual director and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!
Having just lost a friend recently, I’m all the more impacted by our reflections on Origen’s notion of soul. Just before receiving the news, I had spent the better part of 90 minutes re-reading a piece I’d written on an Origenal reading of Ecclesiastes. Learning from Nature (Physike) is a big theme in Origen’s work, and he sees the same theme in this book from Hebrew Wisdom poetry.
My conclusions were that the crucial confrontation with Nature leads us inevitably to a confrontation with death. Qoheleth seems to lead us to this directly in his writing. And as we ask, how should we respond to death, three answers stand out for the contemplative.
First, Ecclesiastes reminds us that you seemingly only live once, so you ought to remember to live. YOLO. Mortality drives us to embrace reality and life. One might even go so far as to say the author suggests it is better to die regretting what one has done than regretting what one has left undone.
Second in recognizing that all life is fleeting, or that all existence is constant change, we stop trying to hold onto what can’t be held onto. This is the path of renunciation, of non-grasping, of non-attachment. We rip our bones out joint clinging to that which cannot be held onto. Instead we should practice wu-wei and learn to go with the flow of life, which needs not be rigid asceticism as much as the gentle practice of always letting go, letting be. “To everything there is a season… sunrise, sunset.”
This IS the rhythm and way of the monk and the controversial way of the Holy fool, but it is also simply the way of the truly wisened worldly one. But as we let go of what cannot be held onto, it opens our hands for what CAN be held onto.
And here we enter the Chistian teaching that only three things last forever–faith, hope, and the greatest which encompasses the other two, LOVE. Love is the only treasure that lasts, and it is the only treasure worth investing our hearts in. It just might be the energy that cannot be created or destroyed, the DNA of the cosmos and certainly the Divine.
Love connects us beyond the womb and the grave. It is that which brings us into the world, that from which we give to each other, and that which draws us back to itself when we supposedly “leave”. It is the only invincible substance of spirit and soul. It operates counter-intuitively, as Merton says “Love can be kept only by being given away.” But it also gives us insight into the nature of life and death, as it exists as that which perpetually is giving itself away, emptying itself, and in so doing filling the cosmos with life.
It leads me to the conclusion that in life—as Hans Urs Von Balthasar says “Love Alone is Credible.” Certainly on my most atheistic of days (we all have them yes?) I am 100% convinced that as long as we love, we are never truly apart from those we lose to distance, discord or even death.
And in wondering how one truly lives while letting go of all that cannot be held onto, I am reminded of the wise words of James Finley: “Can I be emptied by love, of everything less than love, so that there will be nothing left of me but love? The mystic is not the person who says listen to what I’ve experienced, the mystic is the person who says ‘Look at what love has done to me. There’s no one here anymore but love.’”
So perhaps then facing death itself is a cross. It certainly is, my heart is devastatingly broken for the loss of my friend. But to give Finley another go at the final word, this reminds me “The cross is the crucifixion of our cherished illusions that anything less than infinite love has authority to name who we are.” The greater suffering comes of trying to hold onto anything less than that. In the end there will be nothing left of any of us, but love.
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