By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Greek philosophers centuries before Christ acknowledged the immense mystery of our being human. Man, they said, is a microcosm, a condensed universe, containing in himself the vast expanse of height and depth, glory and misery, perceived in the intricacies and infinities of the created order. An extension of this idea is the beautiful insight found in both the rabbinic Mishnah and the Qur’an, and quoted unforgettably at the end of the movie Schindler’s List: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
At the heart of this insight is the unique and unfathomable connection between God and the human soul. The dignity of every human person, enshrined in the first page of Genesis, must be a consolation to those who question their worth in the eyes of God. Yet there is also an unmistakable distance that separates us infinitely from God in the very connection we have to Him. Hence the logic of the following statement, frequent in the Church fathers: if man is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and God is utterly beyond our capacity to understand, then man is ultimately incomprehensible to himself. As the theologian Henri de Lubac presents it, “Who can enter into themselves and understand themselves?” A patristic interpretation of Psalm 42:3 underlines this mystery: “Deep is calling on deep (Abyssus abyssum invocat) in the roar of many waters” portrays the depths of the distressed human heart crying out to the depths of the impenetrable God.
As a way of reinforcing this biblical idea, the opening account of creation, unfolded majestically in Genesis 1, can be read profitably from a psychological perspective. The formless void described in verse 2 is the literary depiction of chaotic forces that God orders into beautiful and good existence over the course of the six days: “…the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and the spirit of God hovering upon the waters.” These unruly elements can represent the thoughts, emotions, and passions of our minds and hearts – a twisted and distorted mess that leaves us often feeling strangers to ourselves or, worse still, leads us to hate ourselves.
Dissolving one’s self into a chaotic mix of failures, sins, and anxieties about the future is a natural and familiar disposition for many of us. There is an alarmingly strong temptation to define ourselves by our past mistakes, to dwell in the mental valley of the shadow of death, unable to break free of what chains us. Perhaps we have heeded an inner voice that seeks to convict us as it cries out “You cannot be saved,” or “You, and you alone, are not worthy to receive the unconditional love of the Lord.”
But what God does in the subsequent verses of Genesis 1 is the blueprint for our own psychological and spiritual health: He speaks truth! Through the divine Word, later understood to be the incarnate Christ (see John 1:1-18), God creates order, finds what He has made to be good, and instructs man and woman that they are capable of imitating the very communion that God is.
The author of Psalm 18 subtly confirms this psychological reading when he identifies his personal life-and-death struggle as the microcosm of the Lord’s conquest of sin and death, imagined as abysmal flood waters threatening to submerge him: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction terrified me. The cords of Sheol encircled me; the snares of death lay in wait for me […] The Lord reached down from on high and seized me; He drew me out of the deep waters […] He rescued me because He loved me” (Psalm 18:5-6, 17, 20).
What is the truth we must speak, first within ourselves and then to others? It is this: that God shows us our infinite worth by choosing to share our chaotic burdens with us, so that we might experience the fullness of love and communion for which we were made “in the beginning.”
The deep waters out of which God draws the psalmist are precisely the waters of human misery into which God willingly plunges when he is born of the Virgin Mary. That is why Genesis 1 and the Psalms mentioned above offer a splendid meditation for the upcoming Advent season – they remind us of the precious dignity that is ours. Pope Saint Leo the Great agrees, writing in a Christmas sermon, “In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator […] Remember, o Christian, your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.”
Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.