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Nicholas Arseniev

Transfiguration of the World and of Life in Mysticism

From "Mysticism and the Eastern Church". Translated from the German by Arthur Chambers. St, Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1979.

Chapter 3: Antinomy in Christianity: Suffering and its Overcoming

THE soul is drenched with joy, the world transfigured by love - these are the tones we hear ringing through Christian, and to some extent also through non-Christian, mysticism. But behind this external similarity of spirit there lies a radically different apprehension of the world and of life. Non-Christian mysticism shows a frequent tendency -e.g., in Kabir and in the Persian Sufis-in its spirit of tumultuous jubilation, to shut its eyes optimistically to the evil prevailing in the world. The world becomes entirely, or at any rate chiefly, an "aspect» of the divine, it becomes pantheistically illumined, affirmed and glorified (139). The problem of evil, suffering, death and sin is either entirely left out of sight, or its whole vast significance is completely underrated(140): thus these things are looked upon as necessary having regard to the general development(141), nay more -want and suffering are actually only illusory, deception and sham: nothing is real save joy, the stream of joy!

The Christian idea is quite otherwise. It has its roots in a deeply felt antithesis. It does not in any way close its eyes to the whole power, the whole bitterness of evil, to the painful reality of suffering and sin. "The whole world lieth in wickedness'; "in the world ye shall have tribulation!" "Ο wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death” (142) ?But in the midst of this pain, so really felt, in this world full of evil, death and imperfection, there is revealed to the Christian consciousness, the Christian mysticism -as indeed we know- infinite value. "The Word was made flesh ... and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (143). "Surely He hath borne our grieves"(144). He descended to the deepest depths of our desolation, till there came the heart-rending cry of actual experience: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" Through Him suffering has been transfigured, sanctified; though not abolished, it has become participation in His suffering and His struggle. And further still: voluntarily to take up His Crοss, and to follow Him unflinchingly along the "narrow way of the Cross" is the indispensable and enduring condition of participation in His glorified life. For this we are buried with Him, crucified with Him and suffer with Him. And this nearness to Him -though it be also in suffering- is the greatest gain, the richest treasure, the highest joy. With Him even death is life, life eternal! "I am crucified with Christ: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." "For, as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." "I am filled with comfort, I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation." "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh"(145). Here we have those floods of joy which we have seen to be so characteristic of primitive Christianity, so inseparable from it, which constitute in a word the inmost being of this Christianity, the elemental, basic power in which it lives and works, the "Gospel," the "message of joy"! For it is a message of joy. Through His death victory over death; through His resurrection -eternal life! This is not a mere mood of boundless joy, a purely emotional riot of feeling, blurred by sentiment, sensuous or merely aesthetic, as is so often the case with the Sufis, Indian poets, or other Pantheists; it is a faith, a firm conviction, having reference to a concrete fact. The seed of immortality is already, now, sown in the world, in a world still imperfect, still full of sin and death. But potentially, in principle, this sin and death are already overcome. He in whom this seed is sown possesses already a "treasure," the treasure of eternal life, "the kingdom of God is within you"(146). Already are fulfilled the words: "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world"(147). He is the "vine" and we the "branches"(148). or in the words of Paul: "Christ in you, the hope of glory"; "Christ who is our life"; "for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain"(149).

Eternal life has already appeared in the midst of the world, in the midst of our lives, and through communion with Him life and the world have assumed a new value. "For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's."—" Therefore we are buried with Him ... that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life"(150). Fοr "the old is passed—behold all is become new." This is a new perception of the world, a new valuation of life, a new appreciation of ourselves also, even of our physical nature. "Know ye not that your body is the Temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? fοr ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. ... "(151)

And the time will come; the kingdom of corruption, death and sin will end, and then will come the complete revelation of glory, the fullness of eternal life: death will be "swallowed up in victory"(152).

Here we have a unique blending of a certain dualism, a recognition of what is merely the transient power of evil and suffering -in all its painful reality- with the consciousness of the presence of eternal life, with the overwhelming consciousness of victory and of the all-prevailing power of this eternal life, which is now already revealed to us, as the fullness of the divine, in the Son, in the person of Jesus. And therein lies the irrationality, the paradox and at the same time the soul-conquering, unageing power of Christianity.This message of the necessity to suffer with Christ and of the saving power of His suffering is in fact "the stumbling-block and foolishness of the Cross" and at the same time the message of eternal life!

Out of this belief that eternal life has entered the world, that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us"(153). and passed through the abyss of
death -out of this conviction arises the profound uniqueness of the Christian glorification of the world and of life. It is no flippant or obtuse ignoring of pain, no superficial optimism. Rather is it a joyful conviction conquering pain: " In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world"(154).


139. The pantheistic note is very marked and definite in the Sufis, and appears with special force, for instance, in the poem of Ibnu'l Farid (vide R. A. Nicholson's "Studies in Islamic Mysticism," 1921). Religious experience also bears a definitely pantheistic colouring in Manikka Vasagar (vide G. M. Pope's "The Tiruvàçagam," e.g., hymn v, 70, p. 72) and in Tukaram (vide, e.g., Sir R.G. Bhandarkar, I.c., 97; cf. also "Psalms of Maratha Saints, “translated by N. Macnicol, p. 21). Vide also Hymn xiv in "One Hundred Poems of Kabir."

140. Cf., e.g., N. Macnicol, I.c., p. 28.

141. Vide, e.g., R.A. Nicholson's " Studies in Islamic Mysticism," p. 131; also the same author's "The Idea of Personality in Sufism," 1923, p. 51 (passages from Jili and Jalâleddîn Rumî).

142. I John v, 19 ; John xvi, 33 ; Romans vii, 24.

143. John i, 14.

144. Isaiah liii, 4.

145. Gal. ii, 20; 2 Cor. i, 5; vii, 4; Col. i, 24.

146. Luke xvii, 21.

147. Matt, xxviii, 20.

148. John xv, 4.

149. Col. i, 27 ; iii, 4; Phil, i, 21.

150. Rom. xiv, 7-9 ; vi, 4.

151. I Cor. vi, 19-20 ; cf. iii, 16.

152. I Cor. xv, 54.

153. John i, 14.

154. John XVI, 33.

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