Written by the Very Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky
“The brain – is wider than the sky;
For – put them side by side-
The one the other will contain
With ease – and you – beside”
Emily Dickenson is among my favorite American poets. I appreciate her near monastic life style and relish her sparse verse. In the poem above, however, she reveals her religious background by demonstrating the limits of reason. It’s typical of us all who are products of our educational system, emphasizing and accepting nothing beyond the expanses of the human mind’s capacity for knowledge and experience. Orthodox Christians know there is more human potential than reason.
The brain and the sky are juxtaposed. Which is greater? Most say the brain, since it contains the imagination, if indeed we can conceive of imagination as something containable. I think it’s possible, however, to argue her next presumption: The brain can also contain “you,” meaning us readers. Can it really? Or is it not the elusive personality that fascinates the portrait artists. The prime example is in Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. The subject appears to be smiling as she mocks the great genius, one of the most intelligent and curious people who ever lived, because he is trying to capture her personality on his canvas. She eludes his search. He cannot fathom that woman.
The human brain cannot do it. Does a mother truly know the child she bore, nurtured and fed, or can the child transcend her impressions of him and surprise her positively or otherwise? Of course. The human mind and soul remain a profound enigma even to the one whose mind it is. Christ’s admonition: “Know yourself,” is a lifetime challenge rarely if ever accomplished. As another great genius tells us: “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I want to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). We Orthodox Christians have a solution for that dilemma.
High in the sanctuary wall of most Orthodox Christian churches, looking outward at her spiritual children is the icon of the Mother of God, usually with the Christ child embossed on her breast. Her arms are extended wide apart from her body. This icon is called Platytera, meaning: More Spacious Than the Heavens. What’s implied is that her womb extends beyond any measurement. In bearing the long anticipated Messiah, she held in her womb the Son of God. This is not meant as a spiritual riddle; it makes a doctrinal statement to confound Docetists and others who reject the truth that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and One of the Holy Trinity before the universe came into being. Her womb challenges our reason and imagination.
So much of our faith is a matter of mystery. To be Orthodox Christian is to appreciate and explore what we don’t know, only what we discern in hints and epiphanies of insights when we prepare our souls for the gospel message. Consider the reason why our Lord left behind two thirds of His apostles in the camp while He took the A Team with Him on the mountain of Transfiguration, or why He asked the same three to watch and pray in Gethsemane while He prepared Himself for the ordeal of crucifixion. Faith meets and surpasses our mental limitations. And here’s where we part company with many western Christians. For them, reason is imperative. For us, reason is capped with faith, and that suggests trust that even when we don’t understand what God is doing for us, we have confidence in His will for our lives here and beyond.
Mary, Christ’s holy mother, puts a human face on the buildings blessed to contain the people called Christian. It reminds us not just that God is Person, but that the Son of God is both divine and human; and in order to become like us the Father took one of us to be His Son’s mother. We are invited to share the divinity which she knows, not as one of the Holy Trinity, but through the Spirit who came to her and to us as well.
= = = = = = =
All of creation rejoices in thee
O full of grace
The assembly of angels and the race of men
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise
The glory of virgins
From whom God was incarnate and became a child:
Our God before the ages.
He made thy body into a throne
and thy womb He made more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O full of grace. Glory to thee!