Alexander Men’s final lecture, given on September 8, 1990 the night before Fr Alexander’s assassination. It was at the opening of the Alexander Men Open University and all in all it is a writing of extraordinary importance. The source is our own First hour and the translation of Steve Griffin.
And so together we have reached the end of our journey which has taken us through the ages, around the world philosophies, and we have come to the summit, to that sparkling mountain spring wherein the sun is reflected which is called Christianity.
While Christianity arose as a challenge to many philosophical and religious systems, it at the same time fulfilled the expectations of the majority of them. In fact the greatest thing in Christian spirituality is not negation but affirmation, inclusion, and completion.
As the passion for salvation and deliverance from evil permeates Buddhism (the Buddha said that as the waters of the sea were saturated with salt, so too his teaching—dharma—was permeated with the idea of salvation), so the thirst for, and indeed promise of, salvation is inherent in Christianity. Similarly in Christianity one finds as in Islam, absolute devotion to a God who is sovereign ruler of the cosmos and mans destiny, and the notion in Chinese thought that heaven (Tien) provides man with a compass in life, even in its details and various traditional nuances. Even the Brahman belief in diverse manifestations of the Divine, or the notion in pantheism that God is in all, and that He, like a mysterious force, permeates every drop, every atom of the universe (although it does not restrict the work of God to this all-encompassing presence), are to be found in Christianity.
It would be a mistake, however to perceive Christianity as an eclectic world view of the sorts which simply gathered together all elements of former belief systems. On the contrary, it forcefully manifested something new, which was to be found less in doctrine and more in the breaking-through of another life into this everyday life of ours. The great teachers of humanity, like the authors of the Upanishads, Lao Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Socrates, Plato and others understood Truth to be like the top of a mountain to which one ascends with great difficulty. And they were right, because Truth cannot be obtained effortlessly, but is rather like a high mountain that one must climb, short of breath, clambering about the ledges, occasionally looking back, and feeling that a steep climb still lies ahead. I never shall forget that remarkable comment made by a simple Himalayan highlander, a Sherpa tribesman by the name of Tenxing, who climbed Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. He said that one must approach mountains with reverence. So too with God. Indeed, the greatness and beauty of mountains are understood only with a special attitude of soul. Truth is hidden from those who seek it irreverently and who are unprepared to proceed regardless of the dangers, precipices, and clefts.
One might question the image of human history as an ascent, of course, pointing to all the regressions. To be sure, at first glance there are more steps backwards than forwards; more people have slid back into the abyss. But what matters to us is that man has in fact scaled the heights of intellectual and spiritual contemplation, for his greatness lies in his ability to ascend, as Pushkin put it, to “God’s vicinity.” We have two homelands: the earth, where we are born and raised, and that precious world of the Spirit which no eye can see nor ear can hear, but to which we belong by nature. We are children of the earth and at the same time guests in this world. Through religious quest we cultivate our higher nature far more than when we wage war, plough, sow or build. Even termites build after all, while ants sow and apes wage war (in their own way of course—not so maliciously as humans). But no living creature apart from man has ever pondered the meaning of life, risen above natural physical necessity, or demonstrated the capacity to risk his life for the sake of Truth or that which he cannot grasp in his hand. And thousands of martyrs from all times and nations are a unique phenomenon in the history of our solar system.
But when we turn to the gospels we find ourselves in a different realm: not one which provides an array of stirring quests or surges into heaven, but one where we find ourselves before the mystery of responsibility. Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, spent twenty five years in ascetic discipline to achieve enlightenment. In the same way yogic masters, philosophers and ascetics have also labored intellectually, spiritually and psychophysically. But Jesus Christ who emerged from a simple village where he led the life of a common man, never had to climb anywhere: in Him all was ready. Instead he condescended to humanity.
Every great teacher has been aware of his ignorance. Socrates said “I know that I know nothing.” The greatest saints of all times and nations sensed their own sinfulness more than we do because they were closer to the light; each blemish on their life and conscience was more evident than in our murky life. Christ however, knew no sin. Neither did he come as one who had achieved something, but as one who brought to humanity that which was in him by nature from the beginning.
I should immediately draw your attention to the fact that Jesus Christ did not teach Christianity as some sort of concept. That which he proclaimed he called besora, in Greek, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), which means “good news.” What was this good news?
Man has the right to distrust the universe, to feel he is in a strange and hostile world. Modern writers like Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and others have spoken of the terrible absurdity of existence. We live in a cold, dead or dying world which we cannot trust because it is threatening, inhuman, meaningless and absurd. Of course these writers, novelists, dramatists and philosophers spoke as atheists (Sartre and Camus spoke from the standpoint of atheistic existentialism), and seemed to have overlooked one thing. When they said that the world was absurd and meaningless they knew this only because man possesses the opposite notion of meaning. The person who does not know what meaning is does not feel, nor will he understand, what meaning is. He will never rebel against, nor be disturbed by, absurdity; but will live in it like a fish in water. And the fact that man revolts against the absurd and the meaninglessness of existence speaks for the existence of that meaning.
The ancient scriptures teach that we can change inwardly and say “yes” to our existence: to trust what seems terrible and frightful. When we do, the eye of God like the sun through dark clouds appears through the chaos, absurdity, and monstrosity of life. And this God is personal, for his personality is reflected in each individual so that contact with him is possible as between like beings. Man finds ultimate meaning in the fact that he is made in the likeness of the one who created the world. While Charles Darwin did not perceive the world mechanistically, as a process, he still found it hard to understand how blind coincidence could have brought about our enormously complex world, and wondered whether some form of reason like ours (indeed endlessly surpassing our reason, one might say) lay behind it.
Old Testament religion developed the notion of faith as trust: not as a theoretical, philosophical or religious conviction, but as a break from deathly and absurd reality, when man says to God “I accept and take heed.” In this way the ancient covenant or union between God and man came about.
But of course the union between primitive, ancient man and the divine could not be final and perfect, but represented only man’s infancy or period of nurturing. The human race’s youth would be announced in the seventh century B.C. by the prophet Jeremiah. “Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant (brit hadasha or new union) with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” Seven hundred years later twelve men gathered in a small room and a sacrifice was offered. Usually the sacrifice was a blood sacrifice, symbolizing life, which belongs only to God. The custom from ancient times among all peoples,right up to the late primeval time and paleolithic man,was to sprinkle the members of the community gathered together with the blood of the sacrificed animal. So Moses, as he contracted the covenant with God and His people, sprinkled everyone with the blood of a lamb. But on that night in the Spring of the year 30A.D. Jesus of Nazereth surrounded by the twelve memorialized the freedom which God grants; for there was no blood, but instead bread and a cup of wine. Jesus took the bread and gave it to his disciples saying “This is my body”, offering it as the sacrificial lamb on behalf of the people. Then he offered them the cup saying “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Thus at this holy table God and man are united not in real physical blood but in the symbolic blood of the earth. Grape juice (or wine) is the earth’s blood, while bread is the earth’s fruit. Nature, which feeds us, and God who offers himself as a sacrifice for humanity. Since that holy night when Jesus of Nazareth performed this sacrifice, the cup continues to be raised and the eucharist celebrated. This sign can be found in every current of Christianity, in all churches and denominations.
It is sometimes said that Christ taught a new ethic when he said: “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” While the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” had been given before through Moses, Christ gave it a completely new sound with the words “as I have loved you” because he remained with us in this filthy, bloody, and sinful world out of self-giving love. For this reason he said that the one who would follow him must deny himself (not his personality—for that is holy—but his ego or false self-affirmation), give himself up, take up his cross, which is to say his service in suffering and joy, then follow him.
Christ calls humanity to bring about the divine ideal. Only near-sighted people can suppose that Christianity has seen its time. Christianity has only taken its first, I would say timid, steps in human history. To this day many of Christ’s words are incomprehensible because we are still moral and spiritual neanderthal men. The gospel arrow is aimed towards eternity, and that which we call Christian history is in many ways a series of clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to bring Christianity about.
One might ask then, how have we had such great masters, like unknown iconographers, Andrei Rublev and the like? Of course, there have been great saints: precursors who stand out against a black sea of dirt, blood and tears. Apparently that was the main thing that Tarkovsky wanted (perhaps unwittingly) to show in his film Andrei Rublev. Just imagine the circumstances in which that most magical tender and divine vision of the Trinity was created! The wars, torture, treachery, violence, fires and barbarity depicted in that film were true. Against such a background man, without God’s illumination, could only create Goya’s Los Caprichos. But Rublev created a divine vision, which meant he drew it not from the world around him, but from the spiritual world.
Christianity is not a new ethical system, but a new life which brings humanity into direct contact with God through a new union or covenant. How is this mystery to be understood? How are we to comprehend the way in which humanity is attracted like a magnet,to the person of Jesus Christ, even though he came into the world in humility, without the mysterious quality of the Indian sages, nor the poetic exoticism of eastern philosophy?
Everything Jesus said was plain and clear. His parable illustrations were taken from everyday life and he used simple words to reveal the mystery. When in the gospel of John we read how Philip had asked to be shown the Father (or the One the Greeks called ἀρχή (arkhē), “the first beginning”) Jesus answered as no philosopher on earth had ever answered: “Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus spoke such words on other occasions, and many turned their backs on him and left in indignation because these words were always a call. One had to grasp the special mystery, which Christ never formulated directly, but instead asked: “Who do the people say that I am? A prophet, the resurrected John the Baptist? And who do you say that I am?” “You are the Anointed One, King, Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” they answered. This revelation must be experienced internally. And he still asks each person the question, because God speaks with human lips.
Jesus Christ is the human image of the Eternal, Ineffable, Boundless, Inscrutable, Nameless One. And Lao-Tse was right when he said that the eternal name is the one we do not utter. If God is Nameless and Unfathomable, in Jesus Christ he becomes not only nameable, but he can be known even by name, even a human name, as the one who carries with us the burdens of life. Herein lies the center and axis of Christianity.
When we move from the gospels to the Acts of the Apostles and epistles we focus our attention on the second personality of the New Testament. As one French scholar said, the New Testament is made up of two biographies, that of Jesus Christ, and that of his follower Saul of Tarsus: the Apostle Paul. Of course, any of us, turning from the gospels to Paul’s epistles, falls from heaven to earth, as it were even though Paul in many ways surpassed the gospel writers. He was a man of immense talent, spiritual strength and learning who created very personal works; his epistles are written with his heart’s blood. But to compare them to the gospels is difficult, in any case, because the gospels reflect not so much the literary talent of their authors, but the very Model that they saw before them. And while the apostle Paul stands before us as a mere man, Christ is the revelation of God.
But why is St. Paul important for us, and why did the Church place him beside Christ in the New Testament? How do we account for the fact that the majority of the epistles bear his signature, and that his life plays a major role in the Acts of the Apostles?
The fact is that Paul, as far as we can tell, never encountered Christ during his earthly life, although it has been suggested that they might have crossed paths in Jerusalem (for Paul was born in the first years A.D. in Asia Minor, but studied in Jerusalem, when he might have seen Jesus). In any case it is unlikely that he ever saw him. This fact, I think, attracts the Church to Paul, for neither have we seen Jesus. But Christ appeared to Paul so authentically, far surpassing any superficial physical encounter. For even Christ’s enemies saw him, as did the scribes, pharisees, and Pilate, but that did not save them. Paul too was an enemy, until he encountered Christ on the way to Damascus and was called to be an apostle. That event changed not only his life but the destiny of the entire early Church, because as “apostle to the nations” (or “apostle to the heathens”), Paul became one of those who carried the Gospel from Syria and Palestine throughout the world.
Educated in the Jewish faith, Paul knew that one cannot merge with God: that one is mistaken if one believes, according to the eastern notion, that to experience ecstasy is to merge with the Absolute. One can only make contact, for in the heart of the Divine there burns an all-consuming, everlasting fire. Between the Creator and creation, as between what is absolute and what is conditional, there is an abyss which one cannot cross either by means of logic or existentially.
But there is a bridge which extends across that abyss. Paul himself felt it because he encountered Christ and joined with him internally, in endless love, so that he sensed that he carried Christ’s wounds within him, and that he died and was resurrected with him. As he wrote: “No longer I live, but Christ in me. I died with him and with him I am raised to life.” If one cannot merge with God then one can with the God-man for he belongs to two worlds simultaneously, ours and the eternal.
And the entire Christian mystical tradition from Paul to the present is built on this: that the way to the Father is only through the Son. Christ said “I am the door”, the gateway to heaven.
As Christian ascetics recite various prayers they, in certain respects, resemble their eastern or Indian counterparts who recite various mantras. But one of the most important prayers of the Christian ascetic tradition is called the “Jesus Prayer” where one continually repeats the name of the One who was born, lived on earth, and was crucified and resurrected. The Christocentrism of this foundational Christian prayer radically distinguishes it from all other meditations and mantras, because through it an encounter takes place: not mere concentration of thought or submersion in an ocean or spiritual abyss, but a personal encounter with the face of Jesus Christ, who stands both in and on the earth. I recall one of Turgenev’s “Poems in Prose”, where he stood in a village church and suddenly felt that Christ was standing beside him. Turning around he saw an ordinary man, then when he turned away again he felt that He was there. Indeed the Church of Christ exists and grows because He stands within it.
While Plato left his Dialogues, Moses the tablets with the Law inscribed on them and Mohammed the Koran, Christ left behind not a single written line. Neither did he form orders, as did Gautama Buddha. Instead he said: “I am with you always to the close of the age.” When his followers sensed that they would part with him he pronounced those prophetic and eternal words: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” And he continues to come even today.
On this only is Christianity founded; everything else amounts to superficial layers. In every other respect Christianity is like any other religion.
World religions are cultural expressions which develop together with man’s spiritual impulse towards eternity and transcendent values. In Christianity, though, the current is from above. For this reason a theologian of our century could say: “Christianity is not one religion among many, but the crisis of all religions.” It raises itself above all others because, as St Paul said, no one is saved by works of the Law, but only by faith in Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I must explain to you these words of Paul. “Works of the Law” are a system of religious rites and rules, necessary as a means of nurturing. They are man-made, sometimes through great insight, other times through the force of tradition, but in some cases through delusion. In the Old Testament they are revealed, but are meant for a specific phase of intellectual and spiritual development. To be “saved” means to unite one’s ephemeral, temporal life with immortality and God. The thirst for salvation, or desire for union with the divine life, is found inside each one of us. It is hidden, and we can conceal it deep within, but it is there all the same. The apostle said that the Law is holy. Indeed the Old Testament law which God gave is holy and good, but one can join in the Divine life only by faith in Jesus Christ.
What does it mean, however, to have faith in Jesus Christ? Does it mean to believe that such a man lived on earth? That would not be faith but knowledge. The fact that he lived was recorded by his contemporaries and the gospel writers left reliable evidence. Today’s historian will agree that such a man was a real historical figure. Attempts to assert that Christ was a mere myth have long been refuted, except, of course, in our country, where the notion has been upheld as in a wonder preserve.
So what does it mean to believe in Him? Does it mean to believe that he came from the world beyond? This is also true, but only theory all the same. Here we must recall that faith which was declared in the Old Testament: faith as trust in being.
When Abraham said “yes” to God, more accurately, did not say it but silently obeyed His call, this was when faith was born. In ancient Hebrew the word “faith” is “emuna,” from the word “aman,” faithfulness. Faith is an understanding very close to the understanding of faithfulness. God is faithful to his promise, man is faithful to God; weak and sinful, he is nevertheless faithful to God. But to which God? Secret and awesome as the universe, sometimes as far from man as the ocean.
But if the God to whom man was then faithful was a secret and awesome, sometimes remote Creator God, Christ revealed through himself a new dimension of God. He hardly ever used the word “God” but instead addressed him as his “Father.” And in his earthly life he used the tender and affectionate (but untranslatable) word that children in the East use when addressing their father. Christ reveals God as our heavenly Father, and in so doing he creates brothers and sisters, for brothers and sisters are possible only where there is a common father.
So our common spiritual Father is God. And the mystery of the Gospel is this: an openness of the heart to the news of Jesus Christ. This is because each of us knows very well how weak and confused we are, and how every manner of sin and disorder has built its nest inside us.
Of course there is a strength which Christ gives freely. In Russian it is called благодать (blagodát') a blessing which is given, not earned. We must make the effort, as well as struggle with sin and strive for self-perfection, as long as we remember that we can only do the preparatory work. Herein lies the fundamental difference between Christianity and Yoga, which maintains that man can reach God and become part of Him of his own accord, so to speak. Christianity teaches, on the contrary, that while man can perfect himself, it is impossible to reach God as long as He himself does not come to man.
So grace surpasses the Law. The Law is the first stage of religion, which begins with childhood, where do’s and dont’s are necessary until grace comes through an internal encounter with God. That encounter is like love, rejoicing, victory and the music of the spheres.
Grace is new life. St Paul tells us of the dispute which arose between those who wished to keep the ancient Old Testament rites and those (Greeks) who did not. And in fact the only thing that was ultimately important was a new creation, and faith, which acts in love. This is authentic Christianity. All else—everything associated with culture—is historical wrapping, frame, and environment.
I am speaking of the very essence of Christian faith: the limitless value of human individuality, the victory over death and decay, and a new covenant which grows like a little acorn into a tree, or which does to history that which leaven does to dough. And today God’s kingdom mysteriously manifests itself among us as we do good, show love, contemplate beauty, or feel the fullness of life.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom is not only in the distant future or a futuristic contemplation: it exists here and now. The Kingdom of Heaven will come, but it has already come. The world will be judged, but is already being judged. “Now is the judgment of this world” said Christ when he proclaimed the gospel for the first time. Elsewhere he said “and this is judgment that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light…” The judgment began during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and spread to Jerusalem, Golgotha, the Roman Empire, Europe in the Middle Ages, Russia, and into this century and beyond. The judgement will continue through human history, because history is Christian as the world keeps step with the Son of Man.
Finally, the essence of Christianity is found in God-manhood, or the joining of the organic and temporal human spirit with that of the Eternal and Divine. It is found in the sanctification of the flesh, for the world and nature, which is the birthplace of the Son of Man as both man and God-man, was not cast away or degraded, but elevated to a new level and sanctified ever since the Son of Man took upon himself our joys and sufferings, our creation our love and labor.
In Christianity the world is sanctified, while evil, sin and death are conquered. But the victory is God’s. It began on Resurrection morning and will continue as long as the world remains.