Mystery

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This installment of my church fathers’ paraphrases comes from St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Hilary was born to pagan parents sometime around AD 310, but early in his life his study of the scriptures led to his conversion. He was well beloved and respected and in 353 was elected to the bishopric of Poitiers.

Hilary’s life spanned the Arian controversy, and he inserted himself significantly into the disputation. He had disagreements with the bishop of Arles, Saturninus, and attempted to have him excommunicated for his Arianism. However, Saturninus convened the council of Beziers in 356 to both justify his position and deal with Hilary’s meddling. As the majority of the council members were themselves Arians, and as the emperor Constantius was disposed to be in favor of protecting Arianism, Hilary was pronounced against and exiled to Phrygia in 356. He was allowed to return to his bishopric a few years later.

St. Hilary was a fairly prolific writer; foremost among his works is his famous treatise On The Trinity, from which this paraphrase comes. Hilary was renowned as a theologian both within his own time and shortly following his death; St. Augustine regarded him as a doctor of the church, and this designation was made official nearly 1000 years later by Pope Pius IX in 1851.

In his treatise On The Trinity, Hilary attempts to put into words the incredible mystery of the Trinity, a task that is doomed to ultimate failure given the finitude of those attempting to comprehend the infinite. Yet the attempt itself is important, for knowing God is to love God, since God is love. Hilary states:

God knows not how to be anything other than love, he knows not how to be anyone other than the Father. Those who love are not envious and the one who is the Father is so in his totality. This name admits no compromise, as if God were father in some aspects and not in others.

For St. Hilary, the crux of knowing God comes through knowing the Son, for as Jesus said, no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son has revealed him. Thus, Hilary’s disputes with Arianism were not just theological wrangling, but encompassed the entire project of Christianity and salvation- the only way to get to God and to know God and to love God is through God himself. If the Son, if the Word made flesh is not God, then we have no way of knowing or loving God. As such, the belief that the Son was ‘Light from Light and True God from True God’ was the hinge point of all Christian belief. It is a mystery, to be sure, and one that cannot be fully perceived by the mind. But this mystery was made flesh, and as such there is a way to the Father; the incomprehensible has taken on skin like we have. Thus, this is no theological mind game, but is the bedrock of all of our hope.

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Mystery

Everything that is exists because of the Father, who is the fountain of being itself in and through Christ.

Unlike things that are created and could at any moment fall into nothingness, the Father is his own existence. To not be isn’t an option for him. He doesn’t receive being as a gift or even grab at it as coming from anything outside of him- he exists because he is existence itself.

The Father goes beyond any kind of measuring, and you could never fence him in with either words or bars. There is no box big enough to contain him, for the truth of the matter is upside down- rather than being contained by anything, the Father contains all things. The furthest reaches of the universe are a pathetic excuse for a yardstick, and a billion universes could not begin to trace his boundaries, for the simple fact that the Father has none. You can’t even truly say he was ‘before’ anything, for time is as much his idea and creation as anything else.

If you let your imagination fly free until you felt your head would explode, if the expanses you dreamt were strained until you could bear it no more, God would be waiting for you there, waiting for you to go further, as if you were sailing to reach the place the where the sky meets the sea. You feel at home in skin; God likes to wear infinity. If it is for you to grasp at endless expanses, it is for God to be quite at home in them.

Talk about God as much as you can, let your words strain at describing the God who causes them to be, but when your vocabulary sputters and fails, don’t think for a moment that you have exhausted who God is. Trace back the lines of history to wherever you like, from yesterday’s traffic jam to the hallowed halls of lost antiquity, and you will find he’s been there all along. Dive deep until the numbers and dates and years blur into nothing and you hear the faintest whispers of time immemorial, and you will have not even begun to count his duration, for eternity is not subject to such quaint measurements like time.

Stretch and struggle in your mind to comprehend him, and he will elude you. The concept of ‘God’ as a whole makes you want to reach out and grab it, to get your fingers and mind around it, but this is but a thought that a limited mind can contain, and all of who God is is limitless. You will find that you only have a part, and have completely missed the whole, like trying to catch an ocean’s wave leaves only drops of water in your tight clenched hands. But these puny drops are certainly not a wave, and so you aren’t even left with a part. For God can’t be divided- you can’t have a part of God. When God shows up, he is fully there.

Your reason can’t handle the thought of him, since there is nothing you could think of that is outside of him, as you cannot see the moon when the sun is bearing down in its noonday heat. Even eternity is not something that God is in, as if anything could contain God, but rather is something that is what God is. We can say without fear of being wrong that the fathomless mystery of who God is is wrapped up in the name of Father: he is invisible; he is indescribable; he is infinite.

When your words finally fail, the silence will state the obvious: you cannot describe him. When your imagination hits a wall, the incomprehensibility will reason it out: you cannot apprehend him. Yet within this ocean of mystery we have the name of ‘Father,’ which tells us something about his nature. He doesn’t exist because of something else; he doesn’t have a grandfather. From the limitless expanse of eternity he exists in himself.

The only one who really knows the Father is the Son. The Son knows the Father as completely as the Father knows the Son. The horizon of love and knowing between them goes on forever, yet is reached and grasped in the very act of being infinite. Since only the Son knows the Father, when we try to think about the Father we should really try to think about the Son, for the Son has come to tell us about him.

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Jason Watson

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