The Water and The Kiln


This edition of my church father paraphrases comes from Didymus the Blind, born in the early fourth century and the eventual head of the celebrated catechetical school in Alexandria. Although he became blind at age four and never learned to read, he was nevertheless one of the most learned men of his time, having committed vast amounts of scripture, history, philosophy and the like to memory. It is said that he confessed his frustration with his lack of sight with the monastic paragon St. Anthony, who replied:

How could a wise man regret the loss of that which he had in common with ants and flies and gnats, and not rather rejoice that he possessed a spiritual sight like that of the saints and Apostles?

He apparently also experimented with a system of engraved letter blocks to assist him in reading, a sort of ancient precursor of Braille.

He was a student of St. Athanasius, and himself was an instructor of many other luminous thinkers and writers, notably St. Jerome and Evagrius Ponticus, the former who chose to refer to Didymus not as “the Blind” but rather as “The Seer.”

Although renowned for his erudition and sanctity in his lifetime, his too close association and affinity with some of Origen’s errors led even St. Jerome to regret his former praise of his teacher. And due to later anathemas attached to some of Origen’s errors (with which Didymus came to be associated), Didymus’ body of work was largely neglected by later generations, with the eventual effect that much of it is lost. One surviving work, De Trinitate, fleshes out Didymus’ doctrine of the Trinity, and in some respect serves as a bridge between the thought of St. Athanasius and St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen. He is also often credited with coining the Trinitarian formula of treis hypostaseis, mia ousia.

We are revived through baptism by the Holy Spirit’s divinity, his indivisible portion with the Father and the Son. He finds us in our misshapenness and re-scultps us into an image more sublime and primeval. The Spirit clears out the detritus from our hearts and fills us so full of grace that no lesser love can make its home there. The bond of death and sin is broken, so that men of flesh and bone become men of spirit, finally able to receive the patrimony of God’s glory as his heirs. We are remade in the image of the Son, and by doing so inherit as sons the kingdom of God and his majesty. Our dusty home is exchanged for the verdant splendors of heaven, its gates now opened forever. And as co-heirs with Christ we soar higher than even the throngs of angels, for the deluge of baptism douses hell’s infernal terrors.

We owe our first conception to the body, and our second to the Spirit, as John says: To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. These were born not by human generation, not by the desire of the flesh, not by the will of man, but of God. Those who believe are given the power to become God’s children; it is the Holy Spirit who births us and brings us into the family of God. Christ confirms this lineage when he says: I give you this solemn warning, that without being born of water and the Spirit, no one can enter the kingdom of God.

The waters of baptism that the priest applies to the body serve as a figure of the spiritual conception and the promise of the resurrection. And though hidden from our eyes, the ineffable Spirit- through the ministry of the angels- baptizes both body and soul, birthing them again in his own nature. Thus John the Baptizer literally speaks of the baptism of water and the Spirit when he says: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Clay must be cleansed before it enters the furnace, and as earthen vessels we must be baptized in water before we can be engulfed by the fire of the Holy Spirit; after all, the Scriptures declare the God is a consuming fire. Only the Holy Spirit can recreate us, only his fire can purify us, only baptism can prepare us for the kiln to be made new in him.

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