To Sing Like a River

We stood looking out at a river rushing past the rocks
– a brisk morning in the North Carolina mountains, a
rare setting for the Divine Liturgy. The tradition of the
Church generally holds that services such as the Divine
Liturgy are to be held indoors, in the Church. There are
exceptions. In monasteries across the world, it is not
unusual for a major feast to be held outdoors to
accommodate the large crowds that attend. But such events
are exceptional. Last Sunday morning was an exception
– the occasion being a liturgy for a large crowd who
were participating in an area-wide Orthodox camping
retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. My parish was
among them.

There is an antiphonal quality in such a liturgy –
the words, music and actions of the liturgy meet a
constant response from the nature that surrounds it.
Indeed, nature does not “house” the liturgy so
much as join into the liturgy itself.

There are numerous examples in Scripture that speak of
creation giving praise to God. To treat such verses as
mere metaphor or anthropomorphizing would be a profound
mistake. Of course, it is not uncommon in the modern world
for people to imagine themselves as the only sentient
creatures while staring out into the heavens wondering if
there is some other possible life-form out there. We fail
to understand the creation in which we live because we do
not understand ourselves.

We are thinking matter, made of the same stuff as
everything around us. And though we can say much about the
activities of our brain, we cannot, somehow, actually
translate or even correlate that activity with the thing
we experience as thought. It is thought itself
that we have mythologized and mis-imagined. With this same
failure of imagination, we do not understand the
fundamental communion of all created things, nor the
utterly cosmic nature of the statement that God
“became flesh and dwelt among us.”

hear our own voices but do not recognize their
kinship to every other sound around us. The sound of
my voice and the sound of the river belong to the
same class of event.

Fantasy novels often do a better job of imagining. Trees
speak and animals discuss among themselves. We think to
ourselves, “What if trees could actually
speak?” But we never seem to think, “What if
we actually knew how to listen?”

Most people would be greatly surprised to know that plants
have a soul. According to the traditional teaching of the
Church (which draws strongly from Aristotle), plants have
a “vegetative soul” that comprises their drive
towards reproduction and life itself. The human soul also
has this same component, also called the “vegetative
soul” by some, as well as an irrational component
and a rational component. None of these divisions is
dogma, and they may well be a bit antique and rooted in
older philosophies. However, it is worth noting that the
Tradition is quite comfortable with thinking about a
“soul” even in plants.

I am convinced that most modern people, and certainly
modern Christians, imagine the soul to be somehow distinct
from the body and somehow synonymous with
“thinking.” It isconsciousness that
we identify as the self, despite its occasional
disappearance. I am also convinced that this understanding
is largely mistaken. Earlier, I described us as
“thinking matter.” That such a phrase sounds
like a contradiction, an oxymoron, simply says something
about how we understand matter and how we understand
thought. I suspect we are wrong about both.

The mystery of the Christian faith and the belief in a
soul is not found in the concept of thinking matter.
Rather, it is found in the concept of any sort of human
thought or consciousness that is not material.
The existence of the soul apart from the body (after
death) is sheer miracle and beyond imagining. It is
something that God alone makes possible. It is not in the
nature of the soul to have an existence apart from the
body. The “immortality of the soul” is a
statement about what God does for us, not a statement
about an inherent property of the soul.

…the souls of the righteous are in the hand of
God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of
the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure
was thought to be a mistreatment, and their going from us
to be their destruction; but they are at peace. (Wisdom

Just as a tree longs for water and sends its roots in
search of it, so, too, does it long for God, in whom it
lives and moves and has its being. A tree’s desire
for God differs from our own desire for God in that it has
no “rational” component. But the desire
remains. We do not speak of rocks having a soul (a
“soul” means the “life” of
something and is thus only posited about
“living” things). Nevertheless, the existence
of all created things “tends” towards God. St.
Paul describes this as a “groaning in travail”
(Romans 8:22).

The Fathers often point towards human rationality as an
excellence that sets us above the rest of creation. In
modern thought, however, we seem to think that we are
somehowdistinct from the rest of creation, with
little in common. In truth, though, our thoughts are not
so much distinct from the the other parts of creation
(particularly higher animals) as they are simply more

The tendency to attribute our “higher”
faculties to something transcending our materiality comes
dangerously close to treating our materiality as merely
incidental to our lives. There is indeed a transcendent
quality within our lives, but our materiality is not
dismissed in its transcendence. The materiality of our
existence, so far as we know, is always involved
inevery thought and experience within
our lives. We are not angels.

Modern attitudes towards consciousness and the human body
(particularly those found among contemporary Christians)
often belong to the “two-storey universe.” We
assume that our thoughts and feelings are
“spiritual” (not material) while our bodies
are not. This is nonsense and a terrible distortion of the
classical Christian worldview.

This understanding belongs to the ever-changing world of
non-sacramental Christianity, whose version of humanity is
largely drawn from the world of pop-psychology and
self-help books. The Reformers in the 16th century dropped
the earlier understanding of the tripartite soul and opted
instead for a simple model in which the human soul was
comprised of reason and the will. It was an abstraction
ripe for distortion (but ideally suited to consumerism).

St. Maximus the Confessor described a series of
polarities: male/female; civilization/paradise;
earth/universe; seen/unseen; created/uncreated. It is
interesting to note that he did not posit a polarity
between thought and matter. Thought belongs to the
world of matter

Despite the many critiques of modern
“materialism,” we believe in nothing of the
sort. The modern world holds to a false
sentimentality. It is insufficiently materialist.
Classical Christianity is the true materialism, revealing
a dignity of the created order that never enters the
sentiments of the modern mind. Our modern sin and failure
is not found in loving material things too much –
rather, we love them too little and in the wrong manner.
We love our ideas about things and how we
feel about things
. Nothing is therefore loved for
itself, but only for the sentiments that arise from its

The worship of God is a truly cosmic event, something that
is the united and harmonious voice of all created things.
The song itself is a material offering. We either sing
within that harmony and within its key, or we sing amiss.
There are no soloists in the choir.

Glory to God for all things, and with all things!

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