Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh


A sermon preached at Great St. Mary’s, the University church. Cambridge
18th November 1979

My subject is 'Who is God?' From the hymns which you have been singing, from the neighbouring hymns in the hymnal, I could derive a complete sermon without introducing you into what is really my own faith and my very deep feeling. And so turn to these hymns, reflect on them, search the Scriptures; and I will tell you a few things which perhaps will help you hold together things more deep and more holy than what I can say. At the very heart of the Orthodox communion service in the canon of the liturgy there is one word that hits me in the heart every time I come to pronounce it because it confronts me with God in a way so absolute, with a nakedness so complete, that there is no escape for me. 'Holy and most Holy art Thou’, and there it ends. The phrase continues but there is no qualifying phrase, no adjective, nothing to hide the nakedness and the direct impact of this word 'Thou', because God is the only one who for each of us and for the whole of creation from worlds visible and invisible is the 'Thou', the second Person with whom we are confronted, whom we can address without confusion of persons, with a directness which is truly terrifying because there is nothing to shield us from the directness and the nakedness. I am exposed totally to this presence 'Thou' - the only one whom the whole creation and each one of us can address as the one who is ultimately, totally the other one, totally separate, so that one can be face to face with Him without any sense of confusion between the two, any sense of aggression on His part; only the immediacy and the wonder of this vision of the other one.

I would like to say a word about this 'otherness' before I proceed further. Otherness in common speech, in our habitual perception of life, signifies, points towards, separation, distinction, estrangement and as a consequence the fear of aggression or the fear of rejection and loneliness. This is not what we find in God. The otherness which we perceive between human beings is indeed what I have just described. The other one is perceived by us as 'what I am not'. God is not to be perceived as 'what I am not' because the distinction itself does not make sense. He is so radically, so ultimately other than me that we cannot draw comparisons; we cannot speak of Him in contradistinction; He is Him and I am I, and it is because He is so perfectly, so gloriously Himself that He need not prey upon me, He does not need to be an aggressor, He does not need to take possession of me, He can leave me free, and yet relate to me in complete and perfect harmony.

All comparisons are poor. But think for an instance of music, think of every note of music, they are each of them unique in their own order, they cannot be confused with each other, they are so totally, finally different from each other that they stand in their own right without any sense that one or the other can endanger the harmony by existing in its own right. There is this total identity in God which allows Him to be Himself, totally different from us, yet relating to us without aggression. In what way is this possible?

One of the things that strikes me in God is His wonderful shyness, the wonderful way in which He may call with courtesy and love, He may present Himself and offer all He is and all He has to us but never, never does He try to force His way and to enforce Himself. This thought is a borrowed one. A certain number of years ago I was present at an interview in the Leningrad Theological Academy between an examining board and a young man who had been an atheist and who wanted now to be trained for the priesthood. Amongst other questions he was asked, "What turned your mind towards God?" And he said that it was the contrast he suddenly perceived between the fruit of aggression of atheism which tried through propaganda and all the means of coercion, mental and emotional, to take hold of him and make him a prisoner - and God, who stood in all His greatness, all His beauty and called him to a fullness of life but left him free to respond or to reject His call.

How is that possible? How is it possible that one can relate to God so profoundly as the believer does in prayer, in sacrament, in love, in life, (indeed we recall in the words of St Peter's Epistle 'to become partakers of the divine nature’) so to unite ourselves to Him that what He is we should become and yet remain free? I will return for a moment to our Orthodox liturgy. Before the Creed is sung the priest addresses the congregation with the following words: “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may acknowledge the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Trinity Indivisible and Consubstantial.”

Why at the outset of a proclamation of faith which is couched in words that seem to be so clearly intellectual are we called upon to love one another? Because the God whom we are to proclaim is love, and unless in a reflected way to the extent to which we are capable of knowing love and living by love, to the extent to which we are capable of this, we can proclaim a God of love. But if we do not, any proclamation that we do make will be a lie, a blasphemy. As Dr Visser’t Hooft, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches for so many years, said in one of his lectures: "One can be a heretic not only by proclaiming what is false concerning God but by living in a way which is a denial of the faith which we proclaim."

But what is this love? Can one with any sense imagine that God is the kind of love that we know in emotion, a sentiment multiplied by infinity, so, so, so vast? It would be ridiculous. We cannot think of a God who would be an immense and imaginable emotion of feeling. Love is something much more essential and we have a glimpse of it from time to time but we lose sight of it because our sight is blurred. Our perception is blurred by our emotions, by our feelings, by our bodily reactions. Love, ultimately in the end, is the resplendence, the exaltation of triumphant life. Love is life so powerful, so intense, so complete, that it knows no shadow. It knows no cramping limitations, it is freedom and exaltation; and only that kind of love can be a love that is made perfect in the sacrifice of one's own life. It is when love is a plenitude of life that one suddenly feels that we can lay down our life, give it freely with joy, because nothing, not even the loss of our earthly life, can deprive us of this plenitude and this glory and this splendor.

In that sense, God is love. He is the fullness of life that can without fear of being diminished, without fear for itself, give itself, himself, all he is and all he has. And indeed, in the act of creation by which God posits before Himself a whole world of beings endowed with the freedom to respond to His love or to reject Him, in this act of creation God already lays down His life, surrenders Himself to us unreservedly because we have power to reject Him, we have power subjectively to kill Him out of our own existence. God gives us existence and being and life by establishing us face to face with Him and giving, not the power to be or not to be, but the power to undo our relationship with Him if we choose. He establishes us in a first aspect of what we call freedom, the freedom of choice. It may begin when we are still very raw, very uncouth, with what Sartre calls 'the freedom of indetermination', that situation in which foolishly we balance indifferently between good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, uncertain as to which one we will choose because the one calls us serenely by the vision of beauty and the other one allures us by promises that will never be held; but this we will discover only later.

From there we must learn more about freedom. I am not a linguist, and not knowing so many languages I turn perhaps more often than my betters to a dictionary. When I came upon the English language more than half-way through my present life, I turned to the dictionary to try to find the meaning, the real meaning of words. Not the meaning which we attach to them in common speech because so often we betray their meaning. And I made the discovery that still sings in my heart, rejoices me. I discovered that the word 'freedom' both in English and in all languages derived from Germanic roots comes from a Sanskrit word which means in its verbal form 'to love’ or ‘to be loved', and as a noun 'my beloved one, darling'. That is true freedom. And this is what makes it possible for us to stand face to face with him who is the other one in a radical and ultimate manner and at the same time to be free from the fear and indeed the objective risk of aggression. We are in a love-within-a-love relationship with God. His act of creation is not an act by which He wills us by an act of power into existence. It is an act by which He loves us into existence, establishing simultaneously our existence and a love-relationship between Him, a love- relationship which is all on His side until we have responded to His offer of love. But a God to whom we can say 'Thou’, a God who is the other one, and yet not an opposite number but who is the ground of our being, the foundation of our existence not in terms of power but of love.

This God is a person. When we use the word 'person' we think immediately, as when we use the word 'the other one', of someone who is opposed to us, someone who is limited, distinguishable in terms of contrast and opposition. And, indeed, the Latin word in that sense does not give us an opening on the mystery which it translates because the councils when they spoke of God as a person first used the Greek word which is not exactly what the word ‘person’ is. It is a word that means 'a countenance’, someone with whom one can stand face to face. It does not describe the countenance, it does not indicate what this countenance is, it simply signifies the possibility we have to be face to face with Him, alive, communing, sharing, questioning like Job, betraying like Peter, and yet being restored in a mysterious way the moment we discover that beyond, below, as it were, all these imperfections of ours, all our treasons, we can like Peter say, "And yet, Lord, you know that I love you". A God who is love, a God who is a person whom we can meet face to face, a God who is love in the sense that I have tried to convey it, a God to whom we can relate in terms of freedom again in its proper meaning and not in the debased terms which we use all the time.

But this God, what has He got to do with me? First of all, how far is He? And on the other hand, can I not only love Him but admire Him, marvel at Him? And which to me, at the moment when I did not believe in Him, was of paramount importance: can I respect Him? Is it a God who having launched a world, and me - because I am the most important part of this world as far as I am concerned: sorry! - having launched me into existence without ever having asked whether I was willing or not to be, was waiting at the exit ready to judge me for what I have not asked to be, nor to do. Is that in any sense justifiable?

To this point the Gospel answers something which means so much. Let me start just a little bit on the side. A Russian writer of the 16th century said somewhere in his tragic autobiography that this is the way in which he sees the beginning of the world: "The Father turned to the Son and said, "My Son, let us create a world". And the Son said, "Yes, Father". And the Father said, "Yes, but this world will lose its way. It will betray its vocation and to save this world You, my Son, will have to enter into it and to die for it". And the Son said, "Let it be so, Father". And the world was created."

This is a poetic illustration perhaps of the word of the Scriptures that tell us of the Lamb slain before all the world. Before all the world; in his foreknowledge and wisdom God knew that death will enter into the mystery of life. And that He, the immortal one, will have to meet death and to face it.

I belong to a generation who was brought up in the First World War and in the Russian Revolution and later had to face hardships in the early years of an emigrй's life. My parents and my older contemporaries had known a God in glory, installed in the cathedrals of Russia, worshipped in the magnificence of liturgical services. This God my generation has not known. We worshipped in backrooms, in old garages, in shacks. The icon screen was of plywood and the icons of paper, and the first thing we perceived was that a prophecy proclaimed by a Russian shepherd had come true: "The time is coming when the holy vessels will be of wood but priests will be of gold".

And then we discovered God, our God, the same God indeed but as the Gospel speaks of Him. In the magnificent surrounding, against glorious background of the liturgy so many of us, perhaps, would not have noticed Him. We discovered a God who was as helpless as we were, as vulnerable as we were, a God seemingly defeated, a God contemptible in the eyes of the world that believes only in success and visible victory. We discovered a God who in an act of love had chosen to be what we were, defeated, helpless, vulnerable, contemptible, hopeless, rejected, superfluous, a God who was not ashamed of being like us and indeed of whom we had no need to be ashamed. And we discovered that the glory of God, the resplendence of God, is made manifest in that. This God we can venerate, we can respect, we can learn from, we can follow, we can trust, we can worship. God remains the great God of heaven, the Holy One of Israel, the God who is beyond all notion but not beyond knowledge; but another knowledge, that material knowledge which we acquire of thought and of things, a knowledge of communion, of sharing the life He offers, of becoming through this participation to His grace, His gifts, His overflowing into us what He is. God exists objectively and yet we know Him only in a subjective and personal experience !

And if you want to know who God is, indeed I doubt if I have conveyed to you any of it. Learn not to live on the surface of your life. Go deep - deep into the deepest depth of your soul. That depth of which most people are afraid, the unknown, and then there you meet the living God in the silence of worship, in the wonder of a confrontation at the moment when you have no other words for him but 'Thou', and no other gesture than to prostrate yourself soul and body in an act of adoration and of marvel.

Metropolitan Anthony Library

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Foundation
- (Book Shop)
  Facebook  Rambler's Top100