Christians who live so that they are never contaminated are useless, and they are liars, because we are all contaminated more seriously than we can imagine if we have ever seen a human soul as it was meant to be…
When first a more serious, idealistic Christian, I didn’t think this was even a possibility. Surely those who follow the Humble God, who died an ignominious death at the hands of slanderers would, if liars, just follow someone else or themselves. After all, the gold for selling yourself and damaging those who threaten you is a bigger pile on the world market.
Since that first, idealistic time, and as I began to be aware of and to leave my own lies behind, I have had experience of Christian liars. These are people who present an image containing many good things: piety, manners, a well-phrased turn of speech, admiration from peers and those they claim to serve, a focus on virtue, ad nauseam. Often, these are very educated people in positions of influence, precisely because the image they present is so compelling and admirable to other idealistic Christians who, like me, cannot fathom a liar following a persecuted-for-His-honesty God.
But: Can you be a Christian, a follower of Christ, and be a liar?
The answer should be obvious, but it is not in the realm of individual human beings and their complexity. Complexity for a human being, in our deepest places, is not a good thing. The neo-Platonic philosopher and mystic, Plotinus, articulates this via his insight of the One, the Highest Being, who is absolutely simple, containing everything in a profound unity.
Plotinian “simplicity” is not imbecility, or naivety. It is more akin to the Christian virtue of purity, or single-mindedness, a single-mindedness that is focused on the truth, on reality; it is the desire, at the center of one’s being, to simply be in the presence of, and unified with, God, who is Reality, and Truth, and Love—even at great cost to one’s success or reputation; it is leaving the myriad, complex desires of ourselves or others behind, like one leaves the intricate patterns made by shadows on the ground, in order to stand in pure light. Simplicity is to become pure light.
Complexity is existence away from that simplicity, a life in a chiaroscuro world of desires and mistaken ideas, an existence subject to the very difficulty presented by human communication in a fallen world. We find Our Lord, walking on the lonely roads through Palestine, struggling with human complexities: We find Him using parables because he knew that the truth could not be received like direct, pure light by these mosaic-like, shadow-laden creatures. He slowly begins to feed the disciples more pure food, and his disappointment is evident at their impurity of thought, their inability to hear the simple truth, even at the very end of his ministry. We, with hindsight, often find ourselves chuckling at their blindness, their “when are the Jews going to have hegemony again?” even after three intimate years with Him; yet, how often can we hear the truth when it is uncomfortable, or shatters our expectations and images we’ve built carefully over years, those built into us by our broken parents and friends and spouses, our broken culture? How can we communicate and receive the truth, not lies? How do we know if we are liars?
In the Gorgias, one of the greatest treatises on human communication ever written, Socrates confronts a series of well-heeled, well-educated liars, young men who are the cream of the crop, the leaders, those who sought lying, pandering, as means to power. For the Greeks, the highest art or mode of living was to be a leader of the polis, and to influence others in a direct democracy, especially, required rhetoric. On the other hand, the Socratic ideal for the polity was to find reason together, to live well, to live virtuously, to live according to reality, to create a human community which lived in the light of the Good. Dialectic, the use of communication in discussion or argument, was the means to finding the right way. Rhetoric, or persuasive language, was the means to persuade the city at large to follow the right way found through dialectic. Rhetoric, according to a student of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, is a means for creating an image in the soul of the person receiving it from the rhetorician; fundamentally, it is allowing the rhetorician and his view of the right way to create an image common to both speaker and hearer in both their souls, according to the truth, to reality. We see Socrates practicing this kind of rhetoric, in another dialogue, the Republic, when he creates the image of the soul by creating for his disciples an image of the ideal republic, so that, “by seeing a larger image, they can understand the deeper, harder-to-see one, that of the soul.” Spoken in Christian terms, rhetoric is imitating the power of the logos, Who spoke reality into being from all that He received from the Father. For a human being it is a kind of sub-creation, and a powerful rhetorician will create an image that people will see as the true narrative, or eikón, of reality and so become unified with others in the Right Way. Fundamentally, the root of “communication” is “to commune” or “to have unity.” Past bodily unity in this life, fleshed souls must commune via image transfer, through language mainly: and of course, this rhetoric can be creating true images, or false ones.
The young students of rhetoric and politics, the young aristocrats of the Gorgias, have varying views of rhetoric, which is ultimately political leadership; however, they have lost sight of the true eikón which is based on reality, on truth, on the simple light, and they have mixed in their own desires and selfhood with it. For them rhetoric is the power based on their own superior sight (which pride makes blind); thus their communication becomes instead an eidolon, an apparition or ghost of the real thing. They think that they see the truth, and in the end, they are those who despair in ever knowing real love, or truth, or that the universe is built on this love. It is not surprising. One can pity these young men; yet, what was it in them that made them turn on Socrates, who spoke truth, or rather stepped aside to try and let them see the true eikón? Like Christ, we can see Socrates attempting different forms of language to try and commune, be unified with, to midwife the truth between himself and others. Like Christ, Socrates was ultimately killed by his own people, perhaps even by some of the young men in dialogue with him about communicating lies or truth.
The young men of the Gorgias are complex, living in the shadows, made so, perhaps by the ideals of pagan culture: warrior-class prowess and an image of success based on might and domination, the deep, almost-inherent force within fallen human beings and demons that seeks to destroy the father and mother, the source of oneself, in order to gain primacy and independence, like Zeus destroys his own father, like Greeks destroying Troy, like Priam lying in his own blood at the foot of the altars, slain both by the actions of his own son and those of the culture that was engendered by his own, a culture that desired what he possessed, yet desired also to outstrip it in glory.
This father-mother slaying, this rising above in power, is a cultural eidolon, a false image which answers the very complex desires of… us. None are exempt from it at birth but are subject to Adam and Eve’s original creation of this image. Our first parents, too, attempted a source-slaying, in order to have their own identity, an identity they owned. Original sin, in this sense, can then be seen as a kind of deep rhetoric, an eidolon, seeded deep in our being, deep in the heart of our species. Adam and Eve run into the shadows away from the pure light, and they live (in us) in that chiaroscuro world of shadows, complexities away from the unified light, the purity and simplicity of God.
Complexity of desires, wounds, ego, and solipsism, all communicated by different kinds of language, or rhetoric, is the rampaging, over-fertile soil in which the liar can grow. Like our First Parents, and the young men of the Gorgias who became later those men who murdered Socrates, and the disciples of Christ, or the Jewish elites who murdered Him, or like each of us… we human beings drowning in impurities are tempted to kill the truth, especially about ourselves.
We all, like those who were privileged to be present at Socrates’ dialectic towards truth, or those who met Truth Himself along the Palestinian roads and in the synagogues, will be creatures full of the eidolon of our respective cultures, and the eidolon we carry within ourselves, about ourselves. The eidolon will face the eikón—an image communicated to us through a story, a gospel, a vis-a-vis Christ or one of those who carries, truly, His eikón. It is a battle of life and death, of truth and lies. Lies are myriad, and the truth has a unity so that even small truths are intimately connected to the Whole, in simplicity and purity. Lies look self-ward, towards reinforcing the eidolon and so, like weeds, are difficult to eradicate.
Furthermore, instead of just a cultural eidolon that is pushing people together the wrong way (like Stalin’s Russia), we now have an eidolon that pushes us farther into our individual eidola, so that now rhetoric, though pretending to be about unity in tolerance, is really about creating eight billion little universes detached completely from reality, which is truth.
And so, how much are we Christians seduced into this multi-headed, beast-like eidolon—the beast with eight billion heads? Are we malformed, wounded, like the young men of the Gorgias? Have we fallen into the lie about ourselves?
If piety has become your “choice”; if your education has initiated you into “those who know” instead of “those open to truth”; if your image as pious, or educated, or “better than those prostitutes” has eclipsed your sight of the Other, of Christ in the poor of this world, of Christ hidden deep within your own soul—then you are a liar.
I have not only seen this in myself, I have also seen Christians become actual liars, spreading slander, worshipping their own eidolon about another as the truth, because they feel that they, with their greater education and sight, simply cannot be wrong. I have seen this morph, inexplicably, into slander that protects something that these liars want to protect. But if protected by lack of knowledge, lack of relationship, lack of truth, anything—even something that by itself may be good—anything or anyone, even liturgy or doctrine, becomes just a tool for the erecting of a self-eidolon.
I witnessed a great writer fighting for Christian causes in public spheres turn and slander a four-year-old child and a family to the Christian community around them, effectively ostracizing and scapegoating an imperfect, yet decent family. And Christians like this prey on the trust of those basically good people who believe them. I have seen pious people destroy another’s reputation on the spurious words of others without having enough love and courage to find out the truth for themselves through loving relationship with their brothers and sisters. I have seen those who say, “They are not our kind of people” because they want to be better, they want not to be contaminated. They are still writing and fighting and visiting Marian shrines and going to church, but I believe these may find the Lord saying, “You said, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but your hearts were far from me. I do not know you.”
If I have done this, even out of fear or insecurity, I may find the Lord saying it to me, and this is the worst thing that can befall me. Therefore Socrates tells the young men in the Gorgias that it is far better to receive injustice than to commit it, and if there is injustice in the soul, the discipline of justice is preferable, and “injustice is best eradicated by grief and suffering.” It is a radical life to accept this kind of self-immolation, but if a just soul before God is our proper end, then we each must first look to the weeds in our own garden. I must live a life of constant conversion and repentance; the greatest gift for someone like this, like me, is to be given the pain of seeing the true image of myself so that I can repent. As Father Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, explains, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
And so, if you lie not only about and to others, but to yourself, how can you be got out of it? Add to that the lie about yourself as a follower of Truth, and you’ll see Christian liars are much, much more dangerous than anything out there. They are the proverbial snakes in the grass, the rhetoricians from whom we most expect the truth.
How shall you know them? How shall you know the liars? How shall you know the true rhetorician, the real Christians, from the liars?
Everyone knows the answer. But it is not always easy to see the fruits when you have a very intelligent Christian liar, and often no one imagines the pain of one being persecuted, slandered, by those who are upheld in honor by everyone else: only Christ. I believe the fruits we are looking for are those which are very obvious to those who can see them, those with enough single-minded desire to truly know God. It follows the truth that “those who have, will have more.” The desire for truth must be present, in love, before one can see the fruits of it.
An example might be most helpful: I choose Mother Teresa because her story is most obvious, and yet holds a deep truth that is perhaps not as easy to see for those of us blinded by her celebrity. I grew up with her celebrity: I was surprised to learn, after her death, about her darkness.
She was called not only to “serve the poor”—this she could have done from her Loreto convent in Calcutta—she was also called to “live with the poor, to be one of them.” The significance of this is missed, often. She was called to a unity with the dying, the suffering, the poor, and most importantly, with the abandoned, those whom nobody else wanted, the refuse of the world, as she used to say.
So, like Francis of Assisi, whose prayer she said every day, she took this most literally and went with five rupees to live with the poor. And like Francis, who set about rebuilding, literally, a little run-down church when God was asking him to rebuild the Church, the Body of Christ, Mother Teresa fed the poor and sheltered the dying, when God was asking her to become an eikón of them, a true and living image. He gave her success in her efforts, he gave her celebrity, yet He also gave her darkness. She lived for fifty years feeling abandoned by God, unwanted, unloved.
Why? Isn’t doing good works enough? Isn’t piety, or good teaching, or education, or profound rhetoric, a humble exterior, going to the right places and liturgies, being a Catholic family, open to life, enough? Wasn’t God cruel to ask more than this of none other than Mother Teresa? Wasn’t she other-worldly enough in her rejection of power or status in the pagan sense and in the worldly religious sense (everyone sees how Christ-like I am, what I’m doing for the Kingdom)?
I thought at first, naively, even stupidly, that God allowed this darkness to protect her from the temptations of fame. But now I see that would be cruel, in a sense. The profundity of Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani (My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?) cannot but be wasted if simply to provide a hedge against temptation (though in itself not a small thing). No. In reading about her, it becomes apparent that she lived this forsaken moment of Christ’s passion for fifty years, she became externally and inwardly this moment of Christ’s union with broken humanity, the ultimate poverty—not just God become Man, but God become abandoned man, man unable to help himself: Refuse Man.
It is astounding.
And it holds a truth about being a true Christian, not a liar, about becoming an eikón. Everyone has seen an “icon,” which is derived, of course, from eikón. An icon is an image done in the Eastern Christian tradition, and it is more than a “painting.” It is a “writing” in the sense of logos, in the sense of true rhetoric, wherein an image is communicated, a true image, a real image of the person, the truth, the Logos, the Unity of Truth and Love. The icon is spoken of in the East as a “window” or “sight-gate” to reality, a reality that the saint has become. The saint himself or herself has become an icon, a “sight-gate,” a communion, with Christ, and through Christ, to the Father: “That they may be one as We are One.” The grit of ego, of self-focus, has been cleaned away, renounced, so that Christ can shine through the glass.
Mother Teresa became an icon, a true and real image, a reality, by being willing to identify completely with those she was called to help save. She was, in her very being, not a liar, not an eidolon, which she easily could have become: a pious, good-works-doing, but prouder-than-hell Christian on the inside… the ultimate lie, the lie that Satan performs each instant to us all—the lie which is all too easy for Christians, especially the privileged, gifted kind.
Her fruit? Compassion—co-suffering. I think you know you are with Christ, a real Christian, when he or she steps into your poverty and suffering, becomes with you that image at the cost, perhaps, of his own reputation, in order simply to be with you, and to bring God into that shared poverty, that sin, that suffering.
Does this mean one becomes a prostitute with other prostitutes? After all, the Lord told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, effectively becoming one with her. He made Mother Teresa live the life that sin brings—that of refuse, of separation from God. The truth is that God did not intend Hosea to be a prostitute, or intend Mother Teresa to be abandoned. He wanted to show Israel, through Hosea as a profound sign, that he loved her so much that he would join Himself to her even in her sin; he wanted to show us that we abandon Him in sin, and become poor, and with Mother Teresa as His icon, that He is willing to become, to feel, abandoned, in order to simply… be with us and to rescue us.
You will know a real Christian the way you know a real Socrates, a real teacher: He or she is not “one who knows” (a guru) but rather one who steps into the sewer with others, is willing to be in the mud, to be covered with excrement, to be Christ, to find the Christ within the other, to be the rope, “the tool in His hand”—most assuredly not the guru, but the midwife, the rope that God uses to pull the poor, the lonely, the sinful, the abandoned, the ignorant, out to the place where the still, cleansing waters are.
God has no use for the educated and the pious unless they see that piety is a duty, fundamentally, to follow Him to crucifixion, to ignominy, to self-death, out of the abundance of love that they, as a true icon of Him, bring.
Christians who live so that they are never contaminated are useless, and they are liars, because we are all contaminated more seriously than we can imagine if we have ever seen a human soul as it was meant to be. We work to build a culture of love and beauty, the beauty of the monastery and the liturgy, but we don’t do it because we want an uncontaminated, sterile test-tube to save for later. We do it so that there is a true icon of heaven, knowing we are just the imperfect tools, knowing with the true joy only the selfless know that it may be built in a way that we cannot imagine. Like Socrates, our rhetoric, our dialectic, our plans, must be always open to the Other, to the other. To the unexpected.
We must, then, live within the tension of sub-creating beauty and yet being an icon of the Suffering Servant, who goes out to find the lost sheep in the bracken; further, to save, we must step into their suffering. The beauty of the House of the Dying, where resided the Eucharist in an old Hindu temple, out of which Mother Teresa, icon of abandonment, sign of the God who wills to suffer with the human being impoverished by the sin that plagues us all, went into the sewer, literally, and returned with those whom the sewer had claimed.
That is true rhetoric, true imaging, and she told the truth in every fiber. Let us be that and the Holy Spirit will pour Himself out through a billion springs.
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