The awakening: An anthological dialogue
Marco Barone is book coordinator at the Reformed Free Publishing Association, author of Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross, and an independent scholar who pursued postgraduate studies in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland
Agostino was very happy that he happened to be in Naples at the same time that Giosué was visiting the city. Giosué was no less happy than his friend. They met at the old cafe where they used to pass time during their undergraduate days.
“Could you tell me more about that ‘awakening’ you briefly mentioned the other day on our video call?”
“Wait, you want to stop us patting each other’s backs for our academic achievements?”
They both giggled, old and wise enough to know that their accomplishments were straw. But sharing their respective works was a pleasant topic of conversation precisely because of their relativizing recognition that their successes were straw, and that only in fellowship with the triune God is there permanent satisfaction and stable fulfillment.
Agostino took another sip of espresso, and gave a quick look at the noisy people of Naples walking outside the cafe where they were sitting.
“I would be glad to.”
“Of course you would. For what other reason would you come to have coffee with me with a backpack full of books?”
“I admit I was hoping you would ask, but I became sure you would ask when I saw that you also came here with some books.”
“You know me too well, friend.”
“Anyway, it’s a long story.”
“I have time.”
“Still, don’t be lengthy.”
“I was only five or six years old. I was standing in front of a mirror in the elevator of the apartment block where my parents still live. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a new experience, a new state of consciousness came upon me. I started looking at my face, and at myself as an entity, in the mirror, with a different awareness I had never had. I was amazed and in awe. No, I was not in awe at his appearance or at his features, it was nothing vain like that and it was much more complicated. I was blown away, astonished by the mere fact that I was there.
“I was there. Why was I the way I was? Why did my body have the characteristics it had? Why did I have that personality? And who was I? Who caused me? No, I didn’t mean my parents. Where did I come from, and why did I exist at all?
“I was there. I am here, in front of my reflection. I touch my face. I am. I do not know what that means, but whatever that means, it is an amazing thought.”
“I was there. Why there? Why in Italy? Why in that region? In that province? In that city? In that family? Why not somewhere else? And why is there a there at all?”
“And you said this happened to you at the age of five or six?”
“Perhaps one cannot believe that a boy of that age could come up with questions like those. True, I would have not been able to express it all in words at the time. However, I can clearly remember asking myself those very same questions. I had the same experience more than once, perhaps even before the specific event I recounted here, and certainly after it.”
“But you must have started acquiring clarity about this experience sometime, somehow.”
“Yes. As the years went by, I gradually gathered, through meditation and readings, fragments of explanations for my awareness. Although my conversion to the Christian faith significantly helped to satisfy many of these questions, it has been only relatively recently in my spiritual growth, with time and through reading and meditation, that I cam upon a little book which gave me a sufficient realization of that experience, that great awakening.”
“Perhaps you could read me some passages.”
“I’ll be glad to. The very first lines of the first chapter of the book directly tackle this issue: ‘When we for the first time are consciously aware of what really is going on in the world, and therefore suddenly look at the world with renewed eyes, that is the precise moment when we are overwhelmed with questions.’[i] Then, the author goes on to describe the significant, revelatory, and awesome nature of such acquired awareness, and how ‘it really is quite unusual when all these questions arise in us.’ We are in front of ‘a great awakening; that is a great arousal jolting us out of the stupor of everyday life; this is a real revelation when we at last see life in all its marvelous mystery.’ It changed the way I looked at the world: ‘The disguise now obscuring the real hurly-burly of our world is torn away.’ Of course, it changed the way I looked at myself.’”[ii]
“What are these overwhelming questions?”
“Questions that arise when we ‘discover that our entire existence is veiled in enormous mysteries,’ For instance: ‘Where do I originate? What actually is the purpose of my life? And when I pose these strange questions, then I am utterly amazed in my innermost being…’”[iii]
“That would sound funny to most people.”
“Yours is a timely interruption. In fact, the author also says: ‘I smile in spite of being somewhat perplexed by the novelty of it all … But now, fully conscious, they [that is, those questions] overwhelm you in an awesome amazement. You are flabbergasted that this strange being is you, and you don’t know from where you came and how you came to be and for what reason you are here.’”[iv]
“I struggle to make sense of the fact that so many never once stop to marvel at the wonder that anything exists at all, as you describe it. Why do you think this is the case?”
“Well, there might be several reasons, and…”
“Let me take a look at your books, please.”
“… Here, I feel better knowing that the writer himself understands my difficulty. He says that there are ‘multitudes of men and women who hardly have any inkling–or interest–in these questions.’ They seem to live ‘sedate and uneventful lives, and never give it a thought that they dwell in a world full of miracles.’ Their existence seems to be little more than ‘a series of ups and downs, of enjoyment and hatred, of being happy and suffering, of struggling and respite, of being alive and facing death,’ and only at death’s door does the ultimate question flash through their spirit: What has been my life’s purpose? Have I really pursued a goal? Is death the end, or…? Did my life really make sense?’”[v]
“This really reminds me of a passage from a book I have here with me. He believes that ‘due to our anxiety over the future and our guilt over the past, we ignore and flee the present.’ We become ‘so bound up in living falsely toward the past and falsely toward the future that the momentous gift of the present is unreceived.’ This creates the experience of ‘an inattentive, absentee existence, which disregards the promise of the now.’ We should ‘receive each moment afresh as a new arena for value actualization’ by ‘receiving and creating contextual values.’ But instead ‘we are boredwith this now.’ I am sorry, this is so interesting that I will take the time to read it in full:
‘Because of our preoccupation with the dead past and the possible future, our ears are dulled to the address of reality in the moment. Instead of experiencing the fullness of time in the present, as if now were eternity entering time, we feel on our hands the slow emptiness of time. Instead of understanding this moment as the only moment we actually ever live, we feel that this moment is perhaps the dullest, least interesting of all. It is only some past moment that we cherish, or only some future moment which we idealize as fulfilling for us. So we play a game with time, pretending a glorious past and a promising future, but no present. Although it is a fantasy, we take the game with a certain absurd seriousness. In our romanticism we dream of those good old days, and in our messianism we dream of the great deliverances to come; but in the meantime we live as if the present had no being, or as if its being had no value. Real values and meanings lie behind us and before us in time, but certainly not now … The one we wait for visits us every day, but we do not recognize him, since we cannot believe he could be so near.’[vi]
“Moreover, Man is indeed a creature wonderfully made, ‘an eternal mystery.’ Man is ‘a spiritual as well as a natural being,’ and ‘he belongs to two worlds at the same time, the natural and the supernatural.’[vii] But if we are not attentive to what is in us, how can we be attentive to the wonders around us?”
“Well said. In fact, the same author says that this inattentiveness is ‘what explains how man may appear so self-contradictory’, and how ‘the best and the worst are inextricably mixed together in him’[viii] …I’m going to the restroom.”
After a few minutes, Agostino comes back, saying: “Can you believe there was no toilet paper!”
“Oh, come one, it must be an accident. This cafe is awesome. Anyway, I was asking what you think is the reason for such a predicament mankind is in.”
“You interjected and already mentioned some of the possible reasons. As I was saying…”
“I know one of the books you have there … let me find the passage I am looking for … I found it: ‘Some of us were deeply sensitive to the wonder of life as it is revealed in nature. Slowly, under the pressure of work and social life and the lure of cheap pleasures, we lost the wonder of our earlier years—the intense joy and sense of the mystery of life in the freshness of young day or the glory of the dying afternoon, the splendor of the mountains and the infinity of the sea, or in the perfection of the movements of a young animal or of a flower breaking through the soil.’”[ix]
“Ah! Perhaps you are. But something else bothers me. We are Christians. How is it that many Christians, ourselves included, also seem to fall into such slumber? That sounds quite inconsistent with the Christian doctrine of the triune God, of creation, incarnation, and pretty much any other article of our faith.”
“You are correct, it’s rather inconsistent. Well, perhaps it’s because also we Christians are inclined to look for some unusual miracle that visibly breaks the laws of nature, missing the fact that everything that is in us and outside of us is miraculous. We are helpfully reminded that “all reality is a cause for wonder.” In fact, “with what justification, then, do we arbitrarily segregate some of these wonders and label them as ‘miracles’”? Rather, “all is a cause for wonder, but a miracle is a wonderful wonder, both in that it is wrought by an extraordinary use of secondary means, as in raising the dead, and also in that its peculiar mission is to arouse men to hear and embrace a message from God.”[x]
“But doesn’t that view risk making all events the same, so to speak? To collapse the natural and the supernatural?”
“I don’t think so. The main issue is to understand that miracles are events that go above, beyond, and sometimes against the common course of nature; however, from God’s point of view, raising the dead is not more difficult or more spectacular than providing food for ants. As a theologian says, it is true that “the miracle causes us to stand amazed and draws our special attention.” In fact, “in the miracle God certainly performs something special, which exactly through its special character draws the attention.” However, “the cause of this must not be found in the fact that we comprehend the common events and acts of God’s providence while the wonders transcend our comprehension, but rather it must be found in that we become so accustomed to the daily works of God’s omnipresent power that we usually pay no attention to them.” Ultimately, “all the works of God are wonders because as works of God they are marvelous … The things or events which we call natural are always works of God, manifestations of the omnipresent power of God by which he sustains and governs all things.”[xi]
“I remember Augustine saying something similar, somewhere.”
“Yes, and perhaps even better! I have it right here. Can I read it in full?”
“Go ahead. Who cares about the other customers looking at us funny.”
“My friend, both you and I have faced too much darkness and fire in our life to be ashamed of a couple of curious looks. Here is Augustine:
The miracle indeed of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby He made the water into wine, is not marvellous to those who know that it was God’s doing. For He who made wine on that day at the marriage feast, in those six water-pots, which He commanded to be filled with water, the self-same does this every year in vines. For even as that which the servants put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner also is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the doing of the same Lord. But we do not wonder at the latter, because it happens every year: it has lost its marvellousness by its constant recurrence. And yet it suggests a greater consideration than that which was done in the water-pots. For who is there that considers the works of God, whereby this whole world is governed and regulated, who is not amazed and overwhelmed with miracles? If he considers the vigorous power of a single grain of any seed whatever, it is a mighty thing, it inspires him with awe. But since men, intent on a different matter, have lost the consideration of the works of God, by which they should daily praise Him as the Creator, God has, as it were, reserved to Himself the doing of certain extraordinary actions, that, by striking them with wonder, He might rouse men as from sleep to worship Him. A dead man has risen again; men marvel: so many are born daily, and none marvels. If we reflect more considerately, it is a matter of greater wonder for one to be who was not before, than for one who was to come to life again.[xii]
“Beautiful quotation,” said Giosué, “but its length brought something else to my mind. I am curious how you dealt with the awareness we are discussing before you found the Truth.”
“Once one starts asking these questions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore such a state of awareness, and it will always lurk in the background of our consciousness. I quote:
The trouble is, as soon as we even start to pose these questions, there is no longer an end. They leap at us, they cling to us, and demand answers. The only thing that we can do is to push them back, drown ourselves in the fast flow of life and even there discover that they lurk and threaten to pull us down.[xiii]
“At times, such a state of consciousness, and the questions that ensued, became overwhelming. With time, also a sense of terror and existential dread started to develop with it. I did not find answers to those questions for many years. Furthermore, the several traumas I faced throughout my life only worsened my condition. As if it wasn’t already enough, both the media and school bombarded me with many messages of utter skepticism. The answers’ delay to those overwhelming questions, combined with my life circumstances, developed in me a sort of metaphysical disease, a kind of metaphysical desolation. It was a twofold despair: on the one hand, despair over being unable to stop asking questions beyond my ability, and, on the other hand, despair over knowing that the answers were beyond my abilities.
“This resulted in periods of depression which became so ingrained in my being that they never truly left, even after finding Christ. The irony was that, during those periods, my awareness was turned on its head: everything both in and outside me suggested, not the wonder of existence, but the horror. It is real, unadulterated misery. I felt impotent as it seemed I could not fight this malady, I might “as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all-beclouding hopelessness.”[xiv] How can one not feel impotent when “the wonder and deep amazement at the world is an offense,” and even “the freedom of birds a threat”[xv]? Death is all that I saw while awake, and all that I coveted was never ending sleep.[xvi]“Everything that is seen or heard, even if it were good, at that time evokes only nausea of the spirit.”[xvii]
“The brain is in itself tortured, so that it pours back the sensation of suffering upon all impressions alike, whether glad or grievous. Every memory and every association is poisoned, for the sick mind says to itself, when it receives a pleasurable emotion, that there was a time when this was delightful; but now it merely serves to mark and emphasise the contrast, and thus all delight is poisoned at the source, and the only refuge for the brain is to escape as far as it can from all impressions whatsoever. Even affection and sympathy are but as fuel to the malign fire; they bring no comfort, and the mere act of apprehending them is in itself pain.[xviii]
Every evil, from the most futile mishap to the greatest tragedy, immersed me in hopelessness.
‘When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape.’[xix]
They both stopped, thinking for a few moments about the anguish just described. They exchanged a sympathetic look.
“Nevertheless,” Agostino broke the silence, “it was all providentially very fruitful. Fruit trees are not helped by gold and precious stones, but by dung and worms deep in the underground’s darkness. He who knows anguish finds repose, and only he who descends into the underworld will ascend with beloved, newly found light.”[xx]
“It is indeed a dark descent.”
“Yes, but followed by an ascent to light.”
“Yes. The ultimate ground of all reality, the triune God revealed in the person of his incarnate Son Jesus Christ. The fact is that when the soul senses this awareness and receives those questions, ‘then our very innards are in uproar.’ We find ourselves ‘before the very gates of the eternal truth, resembling a beggar, barefooted, draped in the threadbare rags of ignorance.’ Then “our soul knocks at the door of eternity,” and prays suppliantly.
O, God, if you exist, O, God, tell me what I am and why I am and why all is. I don’t want to dream, my God, but I want to live and to live is to see. Show me the truth, your eternal truth, so that my soul may live! How has it come that I exist and that I do not see you? Why do these curtains, these heavy drapes, hang there between you and my soul, between my soul and the truth? Please, Lord: before the tiny spark of my life is extinguished in the global holocaust of dissolution, allow me first to see the origin of my life and my final destination.[xxi]
But God! May his name be praised, because God has indeed spoken!
The eternal mystery of the ultimate basis of everything that exists has been revealed. In Jesus Christ the Light has come, the Light that bans all darkness from our hearts and instills in us the unspeakable joy of having found and having been found. All this reminds us of Jesus’ profound words: ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all our questions.[xxii]
“Amen. Still, my friend, even those who have been enlightened need to use the means God had granted them to keep this openness to wonder. Our natural gifts, even if also a gift of God, are not sufficient for such continual activity. It is a bit like Ransom going to the wonderful and awe-inspiring world of Perelandra.
Don’t imagine I’ve been selected to go to Perelandra because I’m anyone in particular. One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly, it is never for what the man himself would have regarded as his chief qualifications.[xxiii]
It is by grace alone, but it is true that God established both the ends and the means.”
“By all means!”
“Ah! Poor me! Stop it!”
“Jokes apart, you’re right. We are fallen creatures in a fallen world, and even the redeemed have only a beginning of glory, and our spiritual attentiveness has constant ups and downs. The path is hard, and it needs established continual discipleship and practice. The means are, of course, the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. But also the communion of the saints: we were not created to be alone. Prayer, meditation, soul-nourishing readings, especially the Holy Scriptures, with the realization of the wonderful book it is: ‘Jesus Christ said great things so simply, that it seems as though He had not thought them great; and yet so clearly that we easily see what He thought of them. This clearness, joined to this simplicity, is wonderful.’[xxiv]
It is good that we look at nature and stand in awe at the creative glory of God, since ‘the creatures of the sense world signify the invisible attributes of God, partly because God is the origin, exemplar, and end of every creature, and every effect is a sign of its cause, the exemplification of its exemplar, and the path to the end, to which it leads” In fact, ‘every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom.’[xxv] Then, ‘open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips, and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God.’”[xxvi] Above all, it’s vital to keep our minds set upon the God-man, Jesus Christ, because all other creatures which point at him are created by him: ‘all things were created by him’ (Col. 1:16). O, the incarnation of the Word! The Son of God united to a man in one person! How can we lose our wonder, if the one by whom “all things consist” (Col. 1:17) is our living Savior and Lord?
This most beautiful flower of the root of Jesse (Isa. 11:1), which had blossomed in the incarnation and withered in the passion, thus blossomed again in the resurrection so as to become the beauty of all. For that most glorious body-subtle, agile and immortal-was clothed in glory so as to be truly more radiant than the sun, showing an example of the beauty destined for the risen human bodies.[xxvii]
Well, now I have talked, and read, enough.”
[i] Johan Herman Bavinck, The Riddle of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 1.
[ii] Bavinck, The Riddle, 2.
[iii] Bavinck, The Riddle, 2.
[iv] Bavinck, Riddle of Life, 2
[v] Bavinck, Riddle of Life, 4-5.
[vi] Thomas C. Oden, The Structure of Awareness (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 169), 187-188.
[vii] Paul Tournier, The Seasons of Life (Richmond, VA: John Know Press, 1970), 11-12.
[viii] Tournier, Seasons, 12.
[ix] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 38-39.
[x] Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: A Philosophical Defense of the Trinitarian-Theistic Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 274).
[xi] Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 1 (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), 345, 343.
[xii] Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 7.1, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Vol. o: Augustine: Gospel of John, First Epistle of John, Soliloquies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995 ), 48.
[xiii] Bavinck, Riddle of Life, 4.
[xiv] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (London, Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 177.
[xv] R. J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Kettering, OH: Angelico press, 2015).
[xvi]Cf., Heraclitus, Fragment 89: “Death is all things we see awake; all we see asleep is sleep.” In Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: A New Arrangement and Translation of the Fragments with Literary and Philosophical Commentary, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 213.
[xvii] Henry Suso, Wisdom’s Watch upon the Hours. Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation: Vol. 4 (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 1994), 143.
[xviii] Arthur Christopher Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff (New York-London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 31-32.
[xix] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1958), n. 692, 198.
[xx] Cf., Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21.
[xxi] Bavinck, Riddle of Life, 3.
[xxii] Bavinck, Riddle of Life, 5.
[xxiii] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003), 22.
[xxiv] Pascal, Pensées, n. 796, 236.
[xxv] Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, The Soul’s Journey into God, 2.12, in Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, the Tree of Life, the Life of St. Francis (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 76-77.
[xxvi] Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God, 1.15, in Bonaventure, 67-68.
[xxvii] Bonaventure, The Tree of Life, 9.35, in Bonaventure, 160.