My favorite time of day used to be dusk, when long shadows of twilight suggested finality, reconciliation, the completion of tasks well done or at least assayed. But now I think of morning more favorably: opportunity for beginning anew or reconsidering, for strengthening and adjusting and pondering another time. Sunlight seems more precious now, not to be squandered or curtained away. Birds chirp and wildlife visit. The other night, in the pitch darkness of morning, an owl hooted. In my foolishness, the call was wisdom’s invitation: rise, prepare to salute the sun and the new day. You are granted another gift from the cornucopia of existence, from a vibrant universe that does not want to do without you today.
The depiction is standardized throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, almost always called “Christ Pantocrator.” The word “pantocrator” means “ruler of all,” which carries the connotation of the Old Testament Yahweh, the fierce god of Deuteronomy who commands his people to slaughter their enemies, take their women, and destroy their cities. The image of Pantocrator attempts to reconcile the power of Yahweh with the humanity of Jesus, but who will gauge the image a success in that regard? Can they be reconciled?
Orthodox Christian spirituality, which names and depicts this fearsome image, maintains nevertheless the possibility of “divinizing” the self, something the West has never dared to consider or to even propose in its vocabulary. Perhaps we begin to divinize ourselves by reconciling ourselves to the unreconcilable contradiction of the Jesus of the theologians. He did not want to be a king but in this image he is forced to wear the terrifying cloak of Pantocrator.
In a section of his Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought, Giles Constable considers the persistence of the Martha and Mary dichotomy as it related to daily life and religious vocation. The contrast of the active and the contemplative represented by the Gospel story was used to create conflict between religious orders. But Constable notes that several medieval hermits (Herveus, Helias, Amantius, Wulfric) all refuted the charge of being neither Martha nor Mary. To the hermits, the eremitical life embodied both activity and contemplation.
For the medieval hermit, activity consisted of labor, self-sufficiency, independence of means — which often meant evangelical poverty as a deliberate path that automatically curbed the excesses of Martha. This was the hermits’ retort to the monks living without laboring, without self-sufficiency, and without poverty. The hermits’ lack of formal ritual was a controvery to the orders. But the hermits might contrast it to the monks’ “contemplative” life, which they suggest is actually a life of the luxury of sloth and material comfort, incapable of embodying true contemplation. However, the hermits never went so far as to say this. They wrote nothing, said little. They were more concerned to show action and contemplation with the example of their lives, just as both Martha and Mary simply went about their lives after Jesus had visited them.
Much of what we call or observe as change is contrived by culture. It is brought about artificially by those in power and authority, then redefined as inevitable and necessary for society to accept. The manipulation of markets, economic displacement, technology, profit — no events in modern time are progressions like the seasons or cycles of nature. No reading of stars or entrails of victims or discerning of the will of God in human events can justify the rapacity of human agents. Why is war counted as good for gross domestic product? Why is deforestation or getting cancer good for the economy? Because someone profits from destruction and resupplying the tools of destruction. Because changes require economic decisions and thus “stimulate” the economy. What is defined by modern society as good is consumption, but consumption is destruction, Saturn devouring his children, not Kali regenerating the cycle of nature. The solitary should see through the contrivances of society, the fiction of indefinite change as necessary for the common good. The majority of people suffer the more society pursues this sort of “change.” The common good is in that star, forest, flower, and daydream.
Modern culture has redefined change. Charts assign points to “change events” such as family, job, health, and financial changes. Such changes are redefined as stress. Traditional and spiritual practices related to understanding these life changes are repackaged as “stress management.” But is not change part of a grand and universal cycle? Are not impermanent creatures bound to a cosmic wheel of nature and the universe? Instead of looking in the direction of stress, we must look in the direction of patterns, cycles, and harmonies. Our lives are happier when we fit them to this natural flow, leaving behind (or at least psychologically suspending) the stress that culture wants us to use for measuring the value of our lives.