The Enigma of I AM- Elder Sophrony of Essex


Primordial Being was made known to us in the Name I AM THAT I AM (Exos. 3.13. – 14). Whoever has been blessed by a vital encounter with Him is in some measure enabled to evaluate the manifestations of God which the Old and New Testaments describe. These progressive revelations of the heavenly spheres are of paramount importance, besides which every other happening in world history pales into insignificance. Not only our secular activity but all that the mind apprehends of the infinite cosmos is a preparation for the unutterable miracle of the spirit’s entry into living Eternity compact of love.

Centuries passed before the true content of this amazing I AM was understood. For all the fervour of their faith neither Moses nor the prophets who were his heirs appreciated to the full the blessing bestowed on them. They experienced God mainly through historical events. If they turned to Him in spirit, they contemplated in darkness. When we, sons of the New Testament, read the Old Testament we notice how God tried to suggest to our precursors that this I AM is One Being and at the same time Three Persons. On occasions He would even speak of Himself as We. ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen. 1.26). ‘And the Lord God said, Behold, man is become as one of us’ (Gen. 3.22). An even more remarkable instance occurs with Abraham: three men appeared to him yet he addressed them as if they were but one (cf. Gen. 18.2 et seq.).

The acquisition of knowledge of God is a slow process, not to be achieved in all its plenitude from the outset, though God is always and in His every manifestation invariably One and indivisible. Christ used simple language intelligible to the most ignorant but what He said was above the heads even of the wisest of His listeners. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8.58). ‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10.30). ‘My Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him’ (John 14.23). ‘I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever’ (John 14.16). (So now a Third Person is introduced.) ‘The Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me’ (John 15.26).

We note that Christ only gradually began to speak of the Father, and it was not until towards the close of His earthly life that He spoke of the Holy Spirit. Right to the end the disciples failed to understand Him, and He made no attempt to explain to them the image of Divine Being. ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now’ (John 16.12). Instead, He indicated how we might attain perfect knowledge: ‘If ye continue in my word…ye shall know the truth’ (John 8.31-32). ‘The Holy Ghost…shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you’ (John 14.26). ‘When he the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth’ (John 16.13). And He came, and revealed to us the fullness of Divine love but the gift was too much for our comprehension. Yet He does not withdraw but waits patiently for us to love Him, Christ, ‘the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1.24), even as He loves us.

‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6.63). It is just this life that we would consider now- life generated by prayer inspired from Above, through love coming down to us, and reasonable knowledge of Primordial Being.

How can one describe the state of the spirit to whom God is revealed as I AM? His closeness to one’s heart is so tangible that joy in Him is like light. He is kind and gentle, and I can speak to Him intimately, face to Face, address Him- ‘Thou Who art’. And at the same time I realise that this I AM and this THOU WHO ART is all Being. He is unoriginate; self-existent; self-sufficient. He is Person in the absolute sense. His consciousness penetrates all that exists. ‘There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known… Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Matt. 10.26, 29-30). ‘Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Heb. 4.13). Every moment of our life, our every heart-beat, is in His Hands. He is in truth the ‘Light in which is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1.5). And there is no one and nothing that can escape His all-seeing eye.

I AM THAT I AM. Yes, indeed, it is He Who is Being. He alone truly lives. Everything summoned from the abyss of non-being exists solely by His will. My individual life, down to the smallest detail, comes uniquely from Him. He fills the soul, binding her ever more intimately to Himself. Conscious contact with Him stamps a man for ever. Such a man will not now depart from the God of love Whom he has come to know. His mind is reborn. Hitherto he was inclined to see everywhere determined natural processes; now he begins to apprehend all things in the light of Person. Knowledge of the Personal God bears an intrinsically personal character. Like recognises like. There is an end to the deadly tedium of the impersonal. The earth, the whole universe, proclaims Him: ‘heaven and earth praise him, the sea, and everything that moveth therein’ (Ps. 69.34). And lo, He Himself seeks to be with us, to impart to us the abundance of His life (cf. John 10.10). And we for our part thirst for this gift.

The soul knows but cannot contain Him, and therein lies her pain. Our days are filled with longing to penetrate into the Divine sphere with every fibre of our being. Our prayer must be ardent, and many-sided is the experience that may be given. In our hearts, subjectively, it would seem- to judge by the love whose touch we feel- that the experience cannot be open to doubt. But despite the all-embracing surge of this love, despite the light in which it appears, it would not only be wrong but dangerous to rely exclusively on it. From Sacred Writ we know that the most pure Virgin Mary hurried off to her cousin Elisabeth to hear from her lips whether the revelation was true that she had received- of a son to be born to her who should be great and should be called the Son of God the Highest; and whose kingdom should have no end (cf. Luke 1.32-33). St Paul, who ‘was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words’ (cf. 2 Cor. 12.4), affords another example. ‘It pleased God…to reveal His Son in me’ (Gal. 1.16); nevertheless, he went twice to Jerusalem to submit to Peter and others ‘which were of reputation’ (Gal. 2.1-2) the gospel he was preaching ‘lest by any means (he) should run, or had run in vain’ (Gal. 2.1-2). The history of the Church provides innumerable such instances, and thus we learn to ask those with more experience to judge whether our case is not merely imagination but grace proceeding from on High. We look for reliable witnesses who are to be found only in the Church whose age-old experience is immeasurably richer and more profound than our individual one. Such in the distant past were the apostles who bequeathed to us in gospel and epistle the knowledge which they had received direct from God. They were followed by a succession of fathers (doctors and ascetics) who handed down the centuries, above all, the spirit of life itself, often endorsing their testimony in writing. We believe that at any given historical moment it is possible to find living witnesses; to the end of time mankind will never be bereft of genuine gnosis concerning God. Only after authoritative confirmation may we trust our personal experience, and even then not to excess. Our spirit ought not to slacken in its impulse towards God. And at every step it is essential to remember that self-confident isolation is fraught with the possibility of transgressing against Truth. So we shall not cease to pray diligently to the Holy Spirit that He preserve our foot from the paths of untruth.

From the time of the apostles the faithful have lived in their prayer the single reality of One God in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Human language has never found satisfactory logical terminology for expressing spiritual experience and cognition of God as proclaimed by God Himself. All the words which new knowledge and new life have passed on from generation to generation have to some extent or another clouded genuine contemplation of God. Consider, for example, two of the formulae for defining Unity. The one that we more generally meet with stresses unity of Substance. God is understood as One absolute Objectivity in Three absolute Subjects. To transfer the emphasis from Substance to Person- which is more consistent with the revelation I AM- the second theory interprets I AM as a Single absolute Subject combining Himself I, Thou, We. (This is the assumption that Professor Bulgakov develops in his writings.) The first formula which purposes to demonstrate the plenitude of Divinity in each Hypostasis tends, as it were, to divide the Three. The second, in which the Personal principle is fundamental, leads to the fusion of the Persons.

The Church surmounted the inadequacy of our language by employing negative modes – teaching to us live the persons of the Trinity ‘neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance’. And where it is a question of the Incarnation of the Logos the definition becomes more complicated by the additions: ‘not by conversion’ (‘of the Godhead into flesh’); ‘without separation’ (‘One altogether… by unity of Person’) (cf. Athanasian Creed). Thus our rationally functioning mind is gripped in a vice, unable to incline to one side or the other, like a figure crucified on a cross.

Contemplation is a matter, not of verbal statements but of living experience. In pure prayer the Father, Son and Spirit are seen in their consubstantial unity.

The Gospel says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3.16). The Holy Spirit introduces us into the realm of Divine Love, and we not only live this love but begin to understand that if God, the First and the Last, were mono-Hypostatic (that is, one Person), then He would not be love. Moses, who interpreted the revelation I AM as meaning a single hypostasis, gave his people the Law. But ‘grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (John 1.17). The Trinity is the God of love: ‘The love of the Father which crucifies; the love of the Son which is crucified; the love of the Holy Spirit which is victorious’ (Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow). Jesus, knowing ‘that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end’ (John 13.1). This is our God. And there is none other save Him. The man who by the gift of the Holy Spirit has experienced the breath of His love knows with his whole being that such love is peculiar to the Triune Godhead revealed to us as the perfect mode of Absolute Being. The mono-Hypostatic God of the Old Testament and (long after the New Testament) of the Koran does not know love.

To love is to live for and in the beloved whose life becomes our life. Love leads to singleness of being. Thus it is within the Trinity. ‘The Father loveth the Son’ (John 3.35). He lives in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The Son ‘abides in the love of the Father’ (John 15.10) and in the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit we know as love all-perfect. The Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and lives in Him and abides in the Son. This love makes the sum total of Divine Being a single eternal Act. After the pattern of this unity mankind must also become one man. (‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10.30). ‘That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us’ (John 17.21).).

Christ’s commandment is the projection of heavenly love on the earthly plane. Realised in its true content, it makes the life of mankind similar to the life of the Triune God. The dawn of an understanding of this mystery comes with prayer for the whole world as for oneself. In this prayer one lives the consubstantiality of the human race. It is vital to proceed from abstract notions to existential- that is, ontological categories.

Within the life of the Trinity each Hypostasis is the Bearer of all the plenitude of Divine Being, and therefore dynamically equal to the Trinity as a whole. To achieve the fullness of god-man is to become dynamically equal to humanity in the aggregate. Herein lies the true meaning of the second commandment, which is, indeed, ‘like unto the first’ (Matt. 22.39).

The integrality of the revelation given to us is inexhaustible. As created beings we are not able to know finally, completely, the uncreated First Being, in the way that God knows Himself. St Paul, however, looks forward in hope. ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly…now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’ (1 Cor. 13.12).

In the history of the Christian world we observe two theological tendencies: one, lasting for centuries, would accommodate the revelations considering the Triune God to our manner of thinking; the other summons us to repentance, to a radical transformation of our whole being through life lived according to the Gospel. The former is laudable, even historically essential, but if separated from life it is doomed to failure. ‘Jesus said…if a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him’ (John 14.23). This is our Christian way to perfect gnosis. The abiding in us of the Father and the Son, and inseparable from Them the Holy Spirit, will give us true knowledge of God.

St Simeon the New Theologian (AD 949-1022) in his Hymn 17 cites the blind and unbelieving who do not accept the teaching of the Church that the Invisible, Incorruptible Creator came down to earth and united in Himself the two natures (the Divine and the created one of man), declaring that nobody of his own experience has known or lived this, or beheld it clearly. But in other hymns St Simon repeats with the utmost conviction that such experience had been given to him again and again. When the imperishable Divine Light is imparted to man, man himself effectually becomes, as it were, light. The union of the two- of God and man- is accomplished by the Creator’s will and in the consciousness of both. If this were to pass unrecognized, then, as St Simeon says, the union would be of the dead, not of the living. And how could eternal Life enter into man unperceived by him? How would it be possible, he continues, for Divine Light, like lightning in the night or a great sun, to shine in the heart and mind of a man, and for man not to be aware of so sublime an event? Uniting with His likeness, God grants true knowledge of Himself as He is. Through the Holy Spirit the Son, too, is made known with the Father. And man beholds them in so far as he is able.

For us, Christians, Jesus Christ is the measure of all things, divine and human. ‘In Him dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead’ (Col. 2.9) and of mankind. He is our most perfect ideal. In Him we find the answer to all our problems, which without Him would be insoluble. He is in truth the mystical axis of the universe. If Christ were not the Son of God, then salvation through the adoption of man by God the Father would be totally incomprehensible. With Christ man steps forward into divine eternity.

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 2: Τhe Enigma of I AM. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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