John and the Book of Revelation

I had a flash of potential insight during Mass this morning.  Our second reading was taken from the Book of Revelation, one of the early chapters introducing the Lamb who was seated on a throne surrounded by the four living things and the twenty-four elders…

Chapter 5:
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I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number,
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and they cried out in a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.”
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Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”
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The four living creatures answered, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

I have often wondered, who exactly are the four living creatures? Even more so than the twenty-four elders, these creatures caught my attention–that is, when I wasn’t busy being distracted by the part of Handel’s Messiah which uses this text; invariably I get that particular chorus running through my head while reading Revelation. Today, however, I was reminded of the similarity in feel between the Book of Revelation and the gnostic text, the Secret Book of John.

I have often wondered, who exactly are the four living creatures?  Even more so than the twenty-four elders, these creatures caught my attention–that is, when I wasn’t busy being distracted by the part of Handel’s Messiah which uses this text; invariably I get that particular chorus running through my head while reading Revelation.  Today, however, I was reminded of the similarity in feel between the Book of Revelation and the gnostic text, the Secret Book of John.

I want to be truthful here.  I have never fully understood the Book of Revelation, though it has always captivated me, perhaps because it seems to be so rarely studied through the liturgical year of the church.  I only recently read the Secret Book of John for the first time, so I have even less of an understanding of this text.  But the flash I got in my mind this morning put the two texts together, even before I remembered which particular gnostic gospel I was remembering.  When I got home and discovered I was thinking of the Secret Book of John, it started to make more sense.  I returned to the gnostic text, seeking references to groups of four.  I discovered John’s description of the Four Lights which arose from the Invisible Spirit, and were connected to the creation of Adam.  The Four Lights were Harmozel (Grace), Oriel (Perception), Daveithai (Understanding), and Eleleth (Wisdom).  These were described as both realms and beings.  Could these four, then, be the same four living creatures described by John in the Book of Revelation?  If so, then perhaps the Secret Book of John and the biblical Book of Revelation could actually better serve as bookends to describe the origins of the Christian faith.  It still doesn’t clarify everything in my mind–nor did I expect it to–but I feel like I am at least onto something I hadn’t realized before.

It seems like the more I study these ideas, the more flawed the original sources appear to be.  Could it be that in all our yearnings to know God, not only do we have vastly different perceptions of the same Being (similar to blind people describing an elephant), but our perceptions themselves are flawed, limited?  Just the thought of the multiple translations of the original texts into various languages, and what subtle nuances can be found (or lost) in a single word, boggles my mind.  It seems as though there is no way to actually know for certain what to make of God or of the true nature of our relationship with Him.  Which makes the idea of sharing God’s word with others a particularly challenging and frustrating exercise.

In my mind, I keep returning to something the rector of my church said to me as I was studying to join the Anglican community (I used to be a Catholic).  He said that the Episcopal Church has a set of doctrines and beliefs which it shares and professes to others, and yet the Church itself is constantly seeking truth, even today.  Maybe that’s all I can really do for myself.  And maybe it is the idea that the Church knows it is not the complete source of all knowledge of God, which finally led me to believe that this was the right place for me.

Potential

There has been a lot of activity in the news over the past couple of days. Two stories, with more similarities than differences, have caught my attention.

I’ve been seeing a lot of coverage about the shooter at Va. Tech–his thoughts, his actions, his motivations. Apparently we as a society can’t get enough of this. We say we study his actions because we want to know how to prevent another tragedy, when I wonder if the truth is that we can’t help but be captivated by it all somehow. As if we can’t resist exploring our own dark side as we watch it unfold in someone else. But what about the people he killed? Do we explore their lives as well, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, their fears? No. The death toll is just a number, a gauge by which we measure how messed up this shooter was. What if one of the people who died that day was destined to cure cancer? What if the shooter himself was supposed to be the next Einstein? Or Isaac Newton? How has our collective future been altered by a small moment of time? Potential lost. Paths not taken. Possibilities now maybe never explored.

And then there’s the coverage of the Supreme Court’s ban on partial birth abortions. Again, the media misses the mark. An unborn child is the epitome of unexplored potential, as yet completely untouched by the surrounding world. Limitless paths to explore, unimaginable possibilities, a life not yet begun. But this world is filled with people who scream about taking away the rights of women, as if having the right to kill a defenseless child is something for which we should strive. Of course, I am strongly against abortion in general, much less the inhumane method of partial-birth. I figure if a pregnant woman chooses to end the pregnancy, she should at least have the decency to do it as early as possible, when it could hurt a bit less and be easier done. The partial-birth procedure is traumatic for child and mother both, and I am constantly surprised that doctors can stomach participation. I have three children of my own, and each time I was admitted for delivery, I was told (in legal disclosure) that the birthing process could possibly result in my death, should certain complications arise. Each time I was asked to write out a contingency plan should such an emergency occur. Each time I chose to put my child’s life ahead of my own. The way I see it, I have lived long enough that I have had at least some time to explore my own potential, the possibilities in my life, the myriad reasons why I exist at all. I would never willingly take that opportunity away from my child.

Paths. Possibilities. Potential. In this world, we can get so caught up in all the noise and distraction that we fail to see everything that’s around us. Every day there is a chance to make something wonderful, a chance to impact the world for good. But how fleeting those chances are, how easily taken away. How quickly, willingly, cast aside in favor of something that means so much less. How easy it is to forget that those possibilities exist at all, even when seeing them destroyed before our very eyes.

Familiar Versus Unfamiliar

Holy Week is coming up soon, which means the season of Lent is coming near its end for another year. Next week is also my Spring Break (finally!!) so I may not have as much time to let my brain wander while my fingers wander over the keyboard. Or maybe I’ll have too much time. I doubt that somehow. Anyway…

It always seems like with Lent comes some unexpected crisis in my life. As if it is God’s way of testing me, much as Jesus was tested. Not that I equate my sufferings with anything close to crucifixion, although I certain have a way of blowing things out of proportion in the midst of it all.

This year is different, though. Oh sure, I’ve had my share of stress and strain. Financial, mostly, as it always seems to be. But this year I have been shown the sufferings of other people in my life. My mother lost her job unexpectedly. My friend is fighting to keep a separation from his wife from becoming a divorce. A student of mine was in tears today when the stress of her home life proved too much for her. And I’ve had money problems again. So what?

I believe I can say with some degree of certainty that I have no idea what I would do if I lost my job, if my marriage were in danger, if something happened to my kids. Even though I have days where I feel like I am being crushed by the strain of financial stresses, at least this is something with which I am (unfortunately) quite familiar. I suppose I really would take a “familiar evil” over an unfamiliar one. Every year when something stressful happens at this time of year, I would pray for it to be taken from me. Now I know I need to pray for strength to work through it instead, and I need to ask for help in remembering how much I have in life for which to be thankful.

It took sitting with my student today as she cried to realize that I have a choice. I can either preoccupy my thoughts with concern for myself, or I can pull myself out of the situation emotionally and focus on what tasks need to be done in order to fix the problem. I need to save my emotions for other things, like providing strength to others in their time of need. I think that’s why I’m enjoying this blog so much lately; I can sit in (relative!) peace and quiet, and meditate on my own thoughts and feelings on my own. Then when I am out in the world, I can focus my energy outward toward others rather than hoard it all for myself.