Any believer who ventures to suggest, be it in the form of a question, that God may suffer, seems to be going beyond the bounds of provocation. Reason, already troubled by the idea of a God who becomes Man, is now being harrassed by a challenge which is bound to cause offence. The essential attributes of the divine Being are at stake: he is perfect, eternal, unchanging, immutable, invulnerable. Then a common temptation is an immediate, initial rejection of any idea that God may suffer, especially if it is remembered that in the early third century already, Hippolytus and Tertullian felt obliged to rise up against the Patripassians, those who professed a "passion" of the Father. As a matter of fact, Patripassianism was only one form of Modalism, in which, since the Word was only another name for the Father, it had to be the Father who took flesh and suffered. The question we are asking today has nothing to do with that heresy. Far removed from ancient trinitarian and christological controversies, today it is the word, rather than its contents, that appeals to the imagination, stimulating some to systematic defensiveness.
One other temptation is that of fideism, the rejection of any dialogue between faith and philosophy. Our mystery of the suffering of God is just one particular, though extreme, point of an unsoveable antinomy. No veto by Reason is going to keep the fideist from reading the Bible uncritically. His mind is clear: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Jesus Christ, is not and cannot be the God of philosophers and thinkers.
Can fideism be said to be "the ultimate ploy of a selfishness where a person no longer adores anything except their own emotions"? Is it a concession made to a popular sentiment one feels vaguely in sympathy with? Is it the result of a dramatic coversion experience, a spontaneous dislike of utterances, as if one has suddenly and for ever measured the incommen surable distance between human wisdom and divine holiness? Is it the effect of a personal preference for a Pascal or a Kierkegaard, someone whose ideas one is not afraid to bend in the direction of one's own temperament? Or is it, quite simply, a form of mental laziness? There is fideism and fideism. But no form of fideism has any place in the Church. It is always, sooner or later, the grave-digger of faith, as the Church well knows.
That is why the early Fathers of the Church, while careful to safeguard the transcendence of the Mystery, were always most particular to pay full respect to the demands of Reason, the daughter of God. They knew only too well that a religion which is no longer anything more than a life-style is doomed to gradual erosion and ultimate obliteration. To them, the word truth had a meaning. They were not prepared to sacrifice to usefulness, even spiritual. For "God is Spirit" (Jn 4:24).
At the dawn of Greek thought, Xenophanes initiated the movement of the intelligence towards a severe criticism of the human forms in which his compatriots had clothed the gods. He paved the way for the great Eleatic thinkers, for Parmenides and Zeno. Powerless to raise themselves to the idea of a personal God who creates Man in his own image, they were able at least to contest vigorously any god made in the image of Man. Their criticism of religious anthropomorphism marks the beginning of reflective thought in the West. Their fundamental dogma is the immobility of the It Is. What Is is. It Is all. It Is the All. Cannot not be. Cannot not have been. Cannot cease to be. No void, at beginning or end. If all Is, nothing becomes. Movement is mere appearance. "There above, high noon, unmoving high noon."
Heraclitus stands at the opposite extreme. To his mind, all things move and change. Being is becoming. We need only consider nature, the nature of things or of humanity, to perceive unceasing mutation, an interplay of opposites ever engendering and destroying one another. The primordial Fire will in the end absorb all forms. "Here I inhale my own future smoke."
The philosophy of the following centuries turned its back on the Ephesian; it purified the Eleatic concepts of their rough pantheism and won back, in opposition to them, the distinction between the human and the divine. But what Parmenides had affirmed of the All, it always attributed to the One, to Plato's Idea, to Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, and to Plotinus's Primal One. In Heraclitus there had been a seed of tragedy, a grain of anxiety, a threat of scepticism, a disturbing obscurity. As Rene Char wrote, "His paths end in the sombre yet dazzling reaches of our own days." Our contemporaries have exhumed Heraclitus in the same way as they have renewed sympathy for Ecclesiastes. But the mainstream of the philosophia perennis in the West has developed along the sure logic of the principle of identity, protected from all contradic- tions, metamorphoses, and fluidities: if God is eternal, he is unmoving; if he is unmoving, he is impassible.
Christian apologists did not feel obliged to impugn these concepts. Yet they believed in God's becoming man. Becoming? Now, God does not become, He Is. Yet the Scriptures attest that he is Love and Freedom. Christ, true Man, is also true God. How then is it possible to deny that, in loving, God freely becomes? Unless it is thought, as the Docetans did, that in Jesus he seems human but is not. In which case, God is cheating. His honesty is challenged, in order to protect his transcendence! The Church rejected this easy way out, since it offends against love, and spent three centuries stubbornly affirming in the Man-God the divinity of the human, the humanity of the divine. The cathedral of dogma is "motionless yet advances with all its pillars from porch to quire." It advances, for there is a development of dogma; it is motionless, for, despite the controversies, God's immutability is never impugned.
Yet Origen could write:
The Saviour came down to earth in pity for humankind. He experienced our passions before he suffered the cross, before ever he even deigned to take our flesh: if he had not first experienced them, he would not have come to share our human life.
What is this passion that he first experienced for us? The passion of love.
But the Father himself, God of heaven and earth, full of longanimity, of mercy, of pity, does not he too in some way suffer? Do you not realize that when he concerns himself with human things, he suffers a human passion? "For the Lord your God has taken your ways upon himself, as one who takes up his child" (Deut 1:31). God then takes upon himself our ways, as the Son of God takes up our passions. The Father himself is not impassible! If we pray to him, he has pity and compassion. He suffers a passion of love."
Father de Lubac remarks: "What an astonishing, wonderful text! Origen knows how sensitive the philosophers are on this point. He himself, in other places, learnedly expounds the doctrine of the divine impassibility. Even here, he is obviously watching his words, realizing how daring he is being... (But) he accepts, he chooses, he puts forward the paradoxical proposition: `The Father himself is not impassible!' No doubt he is far removed from any common pathos," but, resisting a "sensible timidity" that takes too much note of the "opinions of the wise of this world", he maintains that "in his love for humanity, the Impassible suffers a passion of mercy."
In Origen's days the word pathe, not merely in the sense of "suffering" but more broadly of "passion, emotion", had, in philosophical language, a pejorative connotation. Usually it implied some kind of physical or metaphysical lack, and a moral degradation. This may explain why, despite the testimony of the Gospels, people were at times reluctant to use it, even when talking of Christ. If Origen is so audacious as even to employ it in speaking of the Father, it is because he has profoundly modified the sense of the word; for him, this suffering can only be the suffering of love, experienced at the very heart of the Fullness. The most admirable thing about his text is the way in which he firmly maintains the Father-Son duality, rejecting an opposition which he fears may ultimately lead to a rejection of the Father. It is quite clear that today, against the whole authentic tradition of Christianity, this trend is dangerously on the upsurge.
In a small work in dialogue form, De Passibili et Impassibili in Deo, Gregory the Thaumaturge, who was one of Origen's disciples, attempts to reconcile the impassibility of God, something he was not prepared to question ("How could we possibly not confess that God is impassible?"), with his suffering love in Jesus Christ. It is in the very passion and death of the Son, he claims, that the immutability of the divine essence is revealed. Just as the salamander contains cold enough within itself to cool the flames enveloping it so that it is not burned, so likewise God enters death and remains incorruptible. He participates in the suffering without suffering.
Saint Bernard was later to put more stress on the mercifulness to which the Scriptures testify: "Though God is impassible, he is not devoid of compassion, since nothing is more deeply inherent in him than to have pity and to forgive. Those, then, who are united with the God of pity must be full of pity, though they may be in no way pitiable: delivered from suffering, they share suffering."
Earlier, Clement of Alexandria, who is also very firm on the apatheia of God, "made an explicit exception in the case of pity (eleos); he was, after all, quite clear that it could not be excluded from christian perfection; but since he dared not openly contradict Stoic orthodoxy, he got round it by making an all-purpose distinction. In every passion, he said, there is an element of sensible pain; now pity is not itself pain, so it is therefore not a form of passion, and in that case there is no reason why the perfect should not experience it."
Thomas Aquinas, faced with the same problem, proposes an analagous distinction: "Pity, he says, is supremely attributable to God, but in terms of the effect produced, not of the passion felt (secundum effectum, non secundum passionis affectum). For people are called pitiful insofar as they suffer the pitiful wretchedness of others as if it were their own. And they strive to remedy it, as an effect of that pity. It does not befit God, then, to feel sorry for another's pitiful plight; but to undo that plight in which the other is found wanting befits him most supremely." The Middle Ages thus saw the doctrine of the Impassibility of God passed down without any interruption from the Patristic Age.
Yet Jacques Maritain admits to a difficulty here. What Saint Thomas affirms, he says, "is perfectly true, and it is quite obvious that sadness and distress, since they imply dependance and imperfection, cannot be attributed to God. Yet the mind is left somehow dissatisfied, especially when it recalls the Gospel parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son, or the stories of the Sinful Woman in Luke 7, the Samaritan woman, and the woman taken in adultery. Not only whatever Jesus does the Father does, whatever Jesus is, the Father is, equally. And Maritain arrives at a positive contradiction of Saint Thomas: "If a perfection such as love, to which pity is so close, is attributed to God, that is not only by reason of the effect produced. Love is not only attributed to God because it is a cause of good in his creatures. Love, not only in terms of what it does, but in terms of what it is, is a perfection of God, and is indeed God. Is not the same true of pity? It is found in God in terms of what it is, and not only of what it does, but raised to that state of perfection for which there is no name."
Faithful to the rules of analogy, Maritain admits in God "something unnamed and unnameable, unknowable as such by any of our concepts... a splendour... to which corresponds, not only as regards its effects but as regards its essence, that which in us is called pity." Far removed from those forms of pathe which degrade, all that which is noble and majestic in human suffering must have its "eternal form" in the Creator's heart and be an "integral part" of his beatitude. "A peace, perfect but raised infinitely above all that is humanly conceivable, consuming in its flames what for us is irreconcilable." And it remains, moreover "obvious" that this beatitude is "absolutely immutable."
Naive and profound at the same time, old Arkel in Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande cries out, "If I were God, I would have pity on human hearts!" And Julien Green, quoting this phrase, writes, "There is in Paris a writer who once told me, who phoned me only to say, that it was `a blasphemy'!"
This same theme of "passionless compassion" was tackled once again, in the Modernist period, by Baron von Hugel. Active sympathy, he says, is not necessarily the same as suffering. "Father Damien did not need to be a leper in order to love lepers. He understood them, he shared in their plight, -- much more so, indeed, than lepers normally do among themselves. His rich imagination and his lively sensitivity more than made up for his lack of direct personal experience. Then how much more must God penetrate into the concerns of his creatures without any loss of his divine perfection!"
Of course, sympathy is not always preceded by suffering, but suffering must surely be its necessary consequence, assuming at least that one takes seriously to oneself the other person's misfortune? Certainly, but compassion is in itself an act distinct from the upset senses, the "psychological shock," the "nervous disorder," that are associated with it in the creature of flesh and blood. What happens in our humanity does not happen in God, who is a spiritual being.
Commenting on this passage, Maurice Nedoncelle reflects, "Certain thinkers deny God all emotional life. They seem to consider that feeling is an awareness of organic disorder, that God cannot be thus afflicted because he is pure Spirit. Their argument is based on a far too superficial psychological understanding of affective states in our human experience. More than that, their transposing of this to the things of God is excessively hasty. Why refuse to God an immense life of feelings, while nobody ever seems to hesitate about attributing to him an immense intellectual life? If our human emotions are linked to physical phenomena, the same is equally true of our human thinking. If, in spite of this material linkage, human thought appears to us to be a participation in God, why should it be otherwise for the best of our sensitivity?
In one of his books, the Strasbourg philosopher notes that "unfortunately, no one has ever attempted to compose a phenomenology of our finer sensitivities, with the result that we are utterly bereft of words in which to indicate the finer nuances of the mind. However, one thing is quite sure: this cannot much longer remain fallow ground, the religious demands of our contemporaries will never again be satisfied with the merely verbal responses it may be offered here."
Or as Schelling said earlier, "The philosophy of revelation is not for the well-filled and replete, it is for those who hunger and thirst after a real, radical regeneration of their manner of thinking."
"God is not expressed by movement, still less by immobility."
There may be anthropomorphism in saying that God suffers. There is even more in thinking that he does not.
The concept of a suffering God may be a scandal to our reason, the reality of an impassible God revolts the heart, which "has its reasons".
The impassibility of God is deduced from the perfection of his nature; but any nature which is obliged to be what it is, is imperfect. Marble too is impassible; it is obliged to be cold and opaque.
In Aristotle, God was necessarily obliged, in the name of the perfection of his nature, to be utterly unaware of the very existence of the imperfect world.
Paul Valery's Semiramis soliloquizes:
Your imperial eye thirsts for that great empire
which under your harsh sceptre is obliged to suffer bliss. (Air de Semiramis)
but nations groan when they are constrained, even constrained to bliss, groan, at least, if they have any liking for liberty. God is not the victim of any necessity of that kind.
God is self-choosing: he is not what he is, but what he wills to be.
There are passions devoid of greatness; there can be no greatness without passion.
One modern temptation is simply to draw a thick, black line through the entire metaphysics of divine impassibility, its whole Greek, patristic and medieval evolution, from one end to the other. It is not so sure that such an operation would be entirely free of risk. It may be possible to regret a certain one-sidedness in centuries gone by, in the West at least; it would be a doubtful kind of progress merely to impose an opposite form of one-sidedness. Having a diversity of symbols is one protection against the threats of sectarianism, systematism, and idolatry. Blondel was well aware of this, "so he advocated, so to speak, free play in representa tions, a kind of freedom by diversification. He advised his friend von Hugel, with his excessive personalism, to balance out, in effect, the notion of person applied to God with that of substance. To an Aristotelian he would have given the opposite advice."
Therefore, we shall avoid simply setting aside the concept of nature or of essence. It is not because God is not subject to his nature that he is without nature. Likewise, we shall not cast doubt on God's sovereign independence. God is not God, if he can be said to be dependent on the world. Anticipating certain over-fanciful interpretations of Teilhard de Chardin, Father Martelet reflects:
Is God not immutable? Unchanging is his faithfulness is what the Bible says. How could God be said to change? Was God not God before the Creation? Has he become more God, or has he ceased to be God, since the Incarnation?
Of course, if Teilhard had said that it was the creation of this world which gave being to God, that would have been an error. Far from the life of the world composing the Life of God, it is on the Life of God that the existence of the world rests and is based, for He alone is in Himself and of Himself the Beginning, the eternal Source of being.
If Teilhard, passing from the creative Act to the mystery of Christ, had intended to say that God is the Trinitarian God of Revelation only because he become incarnate, and that before he became man He was not yet Himself, then the doctrine of the divine immutability would have opposed itself to Teilhard's idea... That God is immutable means for Teilhard, as for any believer, that God does not owe Son-ship and Spirit-hood to the fact that he became incarnate, but to the fact that He Is.
Yet a few lines later we find him writing:
Nonetheless, Teilhard considers that the affirmation of the divine immutability, thus understood, neutralizes errors but does not yet express the whole truth. The most paradoxical thing is that God, the "true" God, must be defined in Himself as well as for us by a communication, a passing towards, and thus by a becoming in love...
God is immutable God only by being, as Father, an eternal passing towards the otherness of his Son in the Singleness of the Spirit.
Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, and the entire Eastern Church tradition down to Bulgakov, distinguish between the essence, or superessence, in God, inaccessible, and the energies in which there can be a participation. If the divine Being were completely identified with its essence, Gos would be unable to reach outside of himself to act outside of himself, Creation would be impossible. But, "although the Essence is necessarily the Being, the Being is not necessarily the Essence." Thus, God can manifest himself in his very Being while it remains impossible to participate in his essence. It is his will, not his essence, that is the origin of the created order. Creation leaves his essence immutable. God has no need of the creation, suffers no limitation of his power, since any such need, any such limitation, would be weakness and "complexity". If God were only essence, he could not be free, impassible, and active, all at the same time; if he were not himself "essence and energy" he would be unable to possess naturally creative power and begin to create. "How, asks Palamas, could the many divine thoughts and the images of the beings yet to come which those thoughts reflect... be themselves the essence? For by them God is in relationship with those beings, whereas by essence he is outside all relation ship."
So it is, in the words of Olivier Clement, that "the essence and the energies are in some sort the contradictory modalities of the living Absolute, who gives himself totally while remaining always Other.... This distinction between essence and energies is an extension of the great trinitarian antinomy between essence and hypostases, source of all communion..." (The mystery of the Trinity suggests "the absolute coincidence, in the living God, of identity with difference".) So God is able "to emerge from his inaccessibility, from his impassibility, and go to the extremes of self-sacrificing love."
"The ultimate presupposition of the kenosis, adds Hans Urs von Balthasar, is the `self-forgetting' of the persons (as pure relationships) within the inter-trinitarian life of love... There is a lasting, supra-temporal state of the Lamb: not only, as the French school has suggested, as the on-going `sacrificial state' of the Risen Lord, but as one state of the Son co-extensive with all creation, and thus affecting in some way his divine being itself."
"Hegel, Karl Barth used to say, is the great attempt, and the great temptation."
The attempt? To integrate the tragic and the logical, the real pain of history with the ideal necessity of the mind, in order to overcome the opposition between reason and history.
The temptation? To crush the event, and in particular the Jesus event, in the stranglehold of a system; to stifle the divine freedom in a cage of necessity.
Theologians are today divided as to whether it is possible to pursue the attempt without the temptation. Hegel's shadow lies wide-cast across many areas, many works, sometimes burdening, sometimes stimulating. It is time for an end to trembling: some fearing to seem to sanction an attempted secularisation of the christian faith, others on the contrary afraid lest they appear too cool towards one of the greatest names of modern times.
A christian must be able to reflect about the suffering of God without simply transposing Hegel, but still realizing just how much he owes him.
The word "become" belongs, inevitably, to the vocabulary of christology. It is useless for some to wish to avoid or even abolish it. "The Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14): that means that God became man. Is that possible without there being in him some change?
To maintain with Saint Thomas that the change is wholly on the human side, not at all on God's side, relying on his distinction between "real relation" and "reasoned relation", may safeguard his Being, it offends against Love as well. Our history with all its pain would not be really, in Jesus Christ, the history of the Word, our becoming his becoming, our life his life. The event of the Incarnation would be an event for us and not for God.
Peguy accused those who would only consider the Incarnation "from the eternal point of view" of cheating. He was right. It is not, he said, only "something that happened to God." We need "the counterpart, the counter-view, so to say": this earth, in "welcoming eternity" "gave birth to God." The Incarnation is "within the order of temporal events as a temporal flower and fruit... as an outcome, a crowning in due time, a supreme instance of temporal fecundity... as a fleshly implacentation... as an ultimate fructifying... as a tale of something... that happened to the earth." There is a "fleshly generation" of God, and it "passes by way of crimes of the flesh." Ex ea quae fuit Uriae ("David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife" Mt 1:6) -- "honest Matthew does not conceal from us whose son Solomon was."
Yet there is equally a risk of cheating if, as we hesitate to use the words become or change for fear of impugning the divine immutability, we set up a new docetism, subtler than the old but no less suspect. The Incarnation is not only, in Jesus Christ, a change of man. It is a change, in Jesus Christ, of God into man. It is, Peguy also said, "the very maximum of man and, so to speak, the very maximum of God." Now there is only a maximum of God if there is a maximum of love. And there is no maximum of love if "all our becoming, all our history with all its weariness, remain on this side of the absolute abyss separating, without confusion, the immutable, necessary God from the feeling, contingent world."
Reflexion on the mystery of God cannot be satisfied with a double statement of his Trinity and his Unity. It delves more deeply onwards, until it arrives at the point at which Trinity is revealed as the perfection of Unity: if God were not Trinity, his Unity would not be a matter of fullness, but of mere sameness.
Similarly, to affirm simultaneously that God is immutable in himself, mutable in the other, leaves the mind less than satisfied. God is not a Sphinx, and man is no "diviner of riddles". A mystery, though obscure in itself, enlightens. It must be possible, if not to comprehend then at least to sense -- intuition is no stranger to concrete experience, nor to the intelligence -- that in God becoming is the perfection of being, motion the perfection of immobility, change the perfection of immutability.
Only in the realm of love -- God is Love (1 Jn 4:8 and 16) -- the meaning of these words is radically transfigured.
A motionless eternity, such as many imagine, holds no fascination, even if based on bliss and love. Shades of boredom take away all attraction. In literature you can find faultless passages that send you to sleep. Julien Green talks of the "boring perfection" of certain pages of Merimee: "That elegant tone, that perfect control of the emotions, that distrust of any enthusiasm, that brilliant, icy phrasing...." Jules Laforgue delightfully evokes "heavenly Eternullity." On a more serious note, in the poem by Mallarme which forms the sequel to the Heroidiade, the detached head of John the Baptist prefers to remain earthbound, rather than attempt a "hagard leap" towards the "eternal chills." Just as we see movements suddenly frozen on the screen during some match or race, we picture God as a complex of petrified gestures: the outstretched arms of Father towards Son, of Son towards Father, and their common kiss, the Spirit. When life is immobilized, is it still life?
If anthropomorphism is inevitable, then in evoking eternity it is surely better to build on experiences of novelty, rather than of repetition? Human eternity is youth, wonder, desire. "Insatiable satiety" Saint Augustine called it. God's eternity, if not in itself a springing source, a rushing torrent, and all the freshness of love, would offer us nothing but a share in monotonous duration. Le Senne once expressed his astonishment that some people seem to consider eternity as a "final state": "There is no final state. We must rid ourselves of those doctrines that make of time a kind of corridor through which the spririt is brought into a state in which it is fully satisfied, and from which it cannot fall." To that, Father de Montcheuil replied, "If there is no final state, is it impossible for there to be a perfect act? The authentic eternal life of christianity does not end with the soul frozen in passive contemplation of an object, be it the most perfect of all objects. If the perfection of every spirit is the triumph within it of charity, and if God is utter Charity, then the fulfillment of the spirit is to become involved in that immanent activity of God. It is not a fall into immobility and inertia, with enjoyment taking the place of effort, but the perfection of activity taking the place of the imperfect."
Putting the same thing in other words, humanity does not cease to be historical. God is never for man a perfect object. When we deny that God can be an object, we deny at the same time that our history can end. It continues, quite other, an infinite bliss, in the dynamic power of limitless desire. Vita mutatur, non tollitur, life is changed, not taken away.
And if desire were to cease with God,
Ah! I would envy him as I envy Hell!
At the end of his life Jacques Maritain wrote for the Little Brothers of Jesus who were his companions at Toulouse a few lines that are not naive but candid, simple, leaving out all the whys and wherefores, less fanciful and more rational than may at first appear, words that might have delighted Teresa of Lisieux. I have selected a few phrases:
"Just as the incarnate Word had on earth a life both divine and human, so likewise the blessed in heaven have entered into the divine life itself through the Vision, but also live, outside of the vision but penetrated by its splendour, a glorious transfigured human life. There is intellectual communication between them, without words, of course, depending on the free will of each one. Each of the blessed is master of the thoughts of his heart and exposes them freely to whom he will... In heaven, there are events that take place; new blessed arrive, constantly arrive from this world and are born to eternal life, they are made welcome by the others, friendships grow... All of that makes for a splendid history, in a duration other than our own history here... As for the love the saints had while on earth for those they "loved" there, that too they have kept in heaven, transfigured, not abolished by the glory... You remember what Teresa of Lisieux said? `I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.' Those are extremely far-reaching words, in the sense of what might be called the humanism of the saints in heaven... Why do I specially mention those we have known?... Because the elect who are not canonizable, the inconspicuous saints, have a special role that must be recognized... they have taken with them to heaven the memory of their friends. They go on loving them there as they used to love them here..."
Here we are far removed from the "eternal chills."
Whenever I hear Mahler's Songs for Dead Children (Kindertotenlieder), a prayer automatically arises within me. It is as though each note, so pure, so poignant and joyful, conjures up a vision in the form of prayer. A priest, "weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice" (Rm 12:15), I might equally well be the father, the husband, or the lover, the music would be much the same, to say nothing of the words by Ruckert with which my prayer begins: "A tiny lamp has gone out beneath my tent, glory to the Sun, the light of the world!" And I go on:
Now you are every day younger, every day more adult, with the grave enthusiasm of a spiritual understanding made simpler day by day. An enthusiasm as reasonable as was for Rimbaud the angels' song! Grave, not austere, but sovereignly calm! In your light-filled body you are more passionately in love than ever here. That dazzling smile, that once unfolding like the song of a bird used so to delight me that I could only blush, today is bright with all the brightness of God. Your desire is possession, your possession desire. In you, there is fullness, and constant growth of fullness. In a single movement you are turned towards God, and towards me who loved you. You are ever more deeply in God's heart and in mine. In mine, but not removed from other people, for if I alone were the object of your consideration, you could no longer contemplate God!
You are one particular blue, unique, irreplaceable, within the great rose-window that is perfectly one and yet composed of myriads of colours. I helped to form that blue which is you: there is something of myself in it. I am already that nuance, one not identical with yours, but close to it, but now opaque, covered with that dust that Saint Augustine called glutinum. God, and you with him (for the saints intercede, and interceding is acting), ceaselessly breathes upon it.
The same Breath creates and cleans. Purgatory, in which I believe as firmly as in every dogma of my Church, has begun in you, in the painful crossing of a threshold, that rejuvenating movement that will never end. I feel how within you the urge, the power, and the gentleness of holding, of embracing, grow more and more. Every embrace is gentleness and strength. In you, though not alas in me, gentleness and strength grow together. All the vastness of the cosmos is for you wrapped in the warmest intimacy; and all that to your spiritual sight becomes vaster becomes to your heart more intimate. Knowing -- no, believing, or more exactly believing and sensing, just how happy you are, is enough to make me weep for joy! As a father who has lost his daughter just as she was becoming a woman, as a husband who has laid to rest his wife's mortal body, I would wish in the future to need no other joy than yours. At least, I want to need your joy!
Prayer, truth to tell, does not put an end to my tears. They flow as Mahler sings. Suffering and joy exist together. In us, at least. But in God?
If every suffering were in part the effect of frustrated selfishness, we would obviously have to deny that God suffers. Such selfishness is inherent in human love, no matter how purified: as I weep for that other who is no longer where I am, I also weep for myself. Nothing in us is absolutely pure. The child is the very symbol of that purity for which we must never stop striving, but which we know we shall never attain, even at our last breath. Otherwise the catholic belief in purgatory would have no meaning. Is it possible to conceive of a pure suffering, within that love which is nothing but love? If so, that is the suffering of God.
"To love, says Jean Lacroix, is to promise, to others and to oneself, never to employ means of power towards one I love. And refusing all `power' means exposing oneself to rejection, incomprehension, unfaithfulness." There are many kinds of "power", ranging from innocent-looking seduction to brute violence. And between them lie all the distortions of authentic values like kindness and sacrifice. We know only too well that coquetry, flattery, lies even, are the worms concealed in the fine fruits we offer. Giving in to these camouflaged forms of violation is a poor way of loving. The only language suitable for love is prayer. God does not "want", he "prays." Wanting implies power. To pray is to renounce power. To pray is to ask in fear and hope: will I be heard? Will my prayer be answered or not? In a united family, all pray one another, mutually, exposing what is "desired". In speaking of God, the word "will" is traditional, and Jesus himself adopted it, it is at the heart of the Lord' Prayer. But we must take care not to give it a sense that is incompatible with love. The same goes for the word "commandment." If we have to pray God, still it is God who, first, prays us. "He first loved us" (I Jn 4:10); he, first, tells us his desire and addresses his prayer to us: will you accept what I offer to you -- Myself? When a person grants God's prayer, they attain the highest level of existence.
It is misguided to think that perfect love has no concern for reciprocity. When God invites us to love him in return, that does not mean that he is turning in, bending back upon himself; only, love being the supreme value, his desire is that we should live by it as he himself lives by it. Extreme disinterestedness is nothing other than indifference. Claiming to go beyond, it denies. If we are to sense something of the depth of the risk God takes in creating, and how a desire for reciprocity, then hope and fear as well, are not absent from God's love for us, then we must first contemplate perfect trinitarian Charity, as it is in itself. Richard of Saint Victor will be the best guide and director here. His main point is that we have to adopt the viewpoint of love itself, not of happiness, if we are to realize that for the one sovereignly loving something would be lacking if the one sovereignly loved were not also sovereignly loving. For only the perfection of love is worthy of perfect loving. Sovereignly loving and sovereignly loved, that means that each of the divine Persons, being perfect in love, is sovereignly loveable. There could be no perfection of love without the perfection of reciprocity.
The creature, finite and sinful, is not sovereignly loveable. Whatever is within the intertrinitarian life, God cannot not desire that that should also become, by Christ, in his life-with mankind, always more, eternally more, as Peguy might have said. Being unable not to desire, so long as he still loves, how could God, so long as we are in via, not fear our refusal, the absence of any love in return, or its feebleness? Now fearing is the opposite of hoping. Just as he is the first to love and pray, so too God is the first to hope and fear.
Here I want to transcribe some lines by Pierre Lachieze-Rey, a philosopher noted for his rigorous line of argument:
If the awareness and personality of God are the conditions of every destiny, that can only be insofar as the relationships between God and human personalities take on the most perfect forms that we can conceive and attain under the impulsion of our own mind as directed power. And that perfect form is not one of authority and fear, neither is it one of collaboration in domination and power; it cannot be conceived otherwise than as that of the reciprocity of Love, in man love ascending, a love composed of trust, in which he abandons himself in order to receive God in the intelligence, sensibility, and will -- and in God love descending as he gives himself and thus raises up man to an ever-increasing possession of his being, insofar as man consents to accept it in his freedom.
Exploring in ever greater depth this idea of the reciprocity of the gift under its two, distinct forms, the ascending and the descending, never reducing it to a mere verbal formula but entering into its design and movement, the philosophical soul will advance from one discovery to another, without ever being able to exhaust its wealth, for trust and gift are open to unlimited developments; but in particular it will discover there a new and ultimate condemnation of Wisdom. This latter has never known charity; rather, it has gone so far as to reject it as a form of weakness and tried to put in its place a certain virtue of generosity, similar to the light of the sun which gives light to spaces by a simple manifestation of its nature; in the same way, the wisom of the sage is thought to shine out over other people without any loss of his Olympian serenity and without his putting himself under the dependance of the foolish. But such an attitude could never correspond to that of true love; love does not consist in giving, but in self-giving, and the gift of self always implies a risk, that of an absence of response, that of an absence of acceptance, that of rejection and negation.
It is true that Brunschvicg felt that the Stoic idea of autarkeia could be adopted without rejecting love; he criticizes what he calls "reciprocity anxiety" as a stage to be gone through in order to raise love to such a high level of disinterest edness that it can no longer become a source of sorrow. But not every reciprocity anxiety is selfish. Even in the case of relationships between human consciences, independently of any appeal to the divine, to respond with indifference to goodness and sacrifice, to sincere giving and the helping hand, is the mark of an ingratitude and deficiency of the soul such as charity cannot ignore, and from which it could not avoid suffering without ceasing to love. Now the matter is even more obvious when the self-giver constitutes, as is the case with God, the only possible good for that soul.
Thus we read in the Gospel that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than for ninety-nine just people who need no repentance; thus we see, also in the Gospel, the shepherd abandon the rest of his flock and set out in search of the sheep that is lost, and the housewife call all of her neighbours to share her joy on finding the coin she had lost. It is striking to see how, to within a few fine nuances, Bergson and Peguy agree in their conclusion that love makes God dependent on man. We need only to read those marvellous meditations in which Peguy, whom we might call the Bach of our literature, shows how this kind of privileged position granted to the sinner derives from the fact that he has put hope and fear in the heart of God. Saint Louis trembling for Joinville's salvation, and Christ troubled by the death of Judas, do not for one moment think of declaring themselves apathes (impassible) or autarkes (master of self).
How remarkable is this agreement of Lachieze-Rey, Bergson and Peguy! The extreme precision of the text should be noted: God, who creates by his omnipotence -- the omnipotence of love -- sets himself by his love in a state of dependence on man, his creature. God, as God, does not depend on man, but love makes him dependent.
"All of which, observes Hans Urs von Balthasar, developing the same idea, is infinitely far from Hegel, yet it is the truth of Hegel, but within the domain of the reciprocal freedom of love."
Still, Goethe's words remain obsessively present: "What does it matter to you if I love you?" That is a cry of such high solitude, of such independent pride, that the God who desires, hopes, depends and fears may at first seem reduced, less great. Then it may perhaps be necessary to pass through, not by-pass, the temptation of preferring Goethe to the Gospel. But not without doubting the doubter! He must admit the disdain concealed in his loftiness! He must confess that his greatness is proclaimed at my expense. For if if it a matter of indifference to him whether I love him or not, that means that my being is of little importance to him! His own is enough for him. But here is the contradiction: one who loves is not self-sufficient. Love according to Goethe avoids suffering. It is not creative. It is an agape without eros that, by excluding the risk, destroys itself as agape. If his eternal decision models him on Goethe, we would have to say that as God creates he sees without trembling the battlefields, the atomic bombs, the "Goulags" of East and West, the disgusting universe of the Guermantes of Paris and elsewhere: mankind without love and its manifold degradation. Be or become as you like, rise or fall: I am God and I love you.
At the opposite extreme from Goethe, Blondel had marvellous words to express that "stigmatizing sympathy in the service of which an omnipotent Will has bridged the metaphysical gulfs and the seeming logical impossibilities."
In the order of being, suffering is an imperfection. In the order of loving, it is the very seal of perfection.
According to reason, that being is perfect which suffers neither variation nor limit, which is absolute: God is called the Absolute. But this concept is purely negative. Of the absolute nothing can be said, since every determination, in relativizing it, annuls it. Claude Bruaire, whose profound philosophy is inspired by that of Schelling, recalls here fundamentals too often neglected:
To know, he says, presupposes an object, or a being, defined and capable of being expressed. Even if some form of intuitive knowledge were to be admitted, beyond language, still it would need to be able to grasp some kind of determination, doomed otherwise to evaporate in the confusion, then the void of its own self. Now no precision, no determination is possible without reference, since it is reference that permits the difference that is necessary for real distinction. That is something clearly expressed by the simple logic of propositions and definitions, when it stipulates that whatever is to be known must be circumscribed and delimited by means of differences and oppositions. But the absolute prohibits all reference, indeed it is that very prohibition itself. Thus the absolute, or God in the religious vocabulary, designates only the purely unknowable and, in terms of perfection, the perfection of the vacuum. A vacuum for all knowledge, absorbing into its void all the knowledge that the religions claim to give us of God.
It is not in the name of such an entirely negative perfection that any will affirm, as self-evident, the impassibility of God. Whoever sticks to the concept of the absolute either remains indefinitely on the same spot, or opts for atheism, which is the only logical step. A form of perfection which would have the effect of limiting God, prohibiting him from willing himself to be as he wills to be, implies a contradiction: God, if he exists, is limited by nothing, above all not by himself. He is not bound to his own necessity. Far from being subject to himself, he wills himself. He frees himself eternally from nothingness as he fills the pre-original indeterminacy with positivity. He is Decision of love. Of love indivisibly creative, incarnate, crucified. That decision which is his very act of existing: the actus purus, or the esse, of high Scholasticism. In the actuality of an eternal present which is not an eternal fixity. The human mind goes astray if it yields here, however slightly, to the temporalizing imagination which tends to objectivize a before and an after. The beginning of God is without beginning, his genesis without genesis, his becoming knows no becoming. Whoever draws back from the gaping night of this mystery cannot avoid being confronted with the enigma of a mere Identity.
This is something that Claude Bruaire best deciphers, exercising his philosopher's "right of investigation" to deny "the formula of the negative absolute, the fundamental formula of all rationalism and of its sequels, irreligion or atheism."
It seems impossible, unless we remain stuck in the ever-deep ruts of Nestorianism, to set side-by-side a God impassible in himself and the suffering of a human nature in Christ. That does not mean that we are saying that suffering is the essence of God. The Japanese, more than any others sensitive to the sacrificial aspect of divinity, at times affirm it positively, if we are to believe what the commentators tell us. According to Kazoh Kitamori, the mystery of God is approached through the experience of tsurasa. The "movement of the action" in Japanese tragedy, the "drama", is tsurasa, meaning the sacrifice of self, or of a loved one, in favour of some other person. Thus God, as Christ reveals him by his death on the cross, is sacrificial Suffering in the very depth of his being. God does not suffer because he loves; he loves because he suffers. Suffering is "so essential to the nature of God that it is the very source of his love." If it were not so, God would be offering us "love on the cheap."
Doubtless we should not harden the thought of the Japanese theologian by excessive systematization. Let us admit that we have here a healthy reaction against a certain kind of liberal theology; and it is very true, we agree, that the death of Christ reveals the depths of God. But we do not believe that God is Tragedy. He is Beatitude, and wills himself to be vulnerable Love, quite a different idea. If God is, by essence, suffering, then he is subject to himself in loving us. Unless Kitamori goes so far as to think, using Claude Bruaire's terms, that God "frees himself from nothingness" by willing himself as Suffering? Revelation does not, I think, authorize such an interpretation.
One school of Hindu spirituality in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries defined the absolute Being as "essential Emotion". There was there a sentimental inflation that Kitamori certainly seems not to agree with. But the slope is a slippery one.
One has a vague feeling of being guilty of an indiscretion, and almost of disrespect, when one ventures to reflect on what may have occurred on Calvary between Father and Son. Yet we have already suggested, a little earlier, that Jesus touched the very depths of people's anguish in espousing on the cross their solitude. He did not know, we said, that the Father shared his suffering: here the kenosis becomes an abyss. But what the Father then shares is, deeper than all other suffering, the Son's solitude. For he knows that the Son does not know, and his love, as it prevents him from intervening, attains the utmost summit of its power: here it is, literally, All- mighty. Is it possible to think (I simply ask, no more) that at Calvary each of the divine persons suffers with a suffering not transfigured by communion? Suffering in communion with others is something quite different from suffering in solitude. The Three, if they suffer, suffer in communion. And yet here One of the Three, the Son, suffers in solitude. Then, near him, in him, Father and Spirit, too. Does the incarnation reveal that Love, such as is lived eternally by God in communion, is sufficiently strong to be lived in solitude, too? In this way, vulnerability would be at the heart of his Being as supreme Power.
Let us now try to gather together the bundle of our gleanings.
God is eternal Decision to love,
therefore to speak,
therefore to pray,
therefore maybe to suffer.
These "therefores" are disagreeable, if they refer to imperatives of formal logic. I do not intend them in that way. They claim to owe their rigour to experience, experience of the commonest, humblest kind, but reflected on.
LOVE. - Love lifts the indetermination of the absolute without relativizing it or limiting it. It de-termines without including any term. "Love's determination, says Nedoncelle, is to be the soul of all determinations." Love is the positivity of the free infinite.
WORD. - If love, with a desire essential to itself, desires reciprocity, it manifests itself thus. It utters itself. Jesus Christ is that Manifestation, that Utterance. A flatus vocis, a declaration like that of a lover to his love, would not express God divinely. But the Word made flesh says truly, "Whoever sees me sees the Father."
PRAYER. - Emanating from love and addressed to other freedoms, the Word is Prayer. The eros that is inherent in the divine agape offers itself to the human eros and asks it to ennoble itself by accepting the gift that will transfigure it into a participation in agape. In one and the same movement God gives himself and implores to be received.
SUFFERING. - When love gives up that power that is resolved to impose its law, it exposes itself to refusal. There is one form of suffering that is familiar to us but unknown to God: that of knowing oneself to be insufficiently loving. If God suffers, it is from too much loving (all the mystics stress the word excess). "The myth of God's sorrow concerning man and by love for man, says Berdiaeff, brings us close to the ultimate secrets." The word "myth" is ambiguous and risks being misunderstood. We may prefer "symbol", for any language about God is in some way symbolic. But "brings us close" is the correct term, reminding us that whoever touches lightning dies, that the mystery can only be glimpsed through the shadows of analogy.
When Ivan Karamazov pauses in his recital of all the dreadful stories he has collected, about children being tortured with adults enjoying the sight of their tears, he asks Aliocha, whom he sees ill at ease, "Do you want me to stop?" And Aliocha replies, "No, I want to suffer too. Go on."
Masochism? Let each interpret as he will. To me, that young man's face reflects the light of God. He is living analogy, in flesh and blood.