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…
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,
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.”
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.”
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 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.