Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ubi es, bene es.

Ubi es, bene es.

That's Latin. It translates as: "Where you are, it is good."

It itself is a translation from a very old Greek manuscript (the Greek is ὅποῦ εἶ, καλῶς εἶ ).


The text from which this phrase derives is a chapter within the Apophthegmata Patrum ("The Sayings of the Desert Fathers"), entitled "Concerning Father Phocas" -- though it is really about another Father named Jacob, about whom Phocas tells a story.

All these "Fathers" in this collection are monks who lived mostly in the desert regions of North Africa, particularly Egypt, in the first six centuries A.D. -- i.e., in that wonderful era before Mohammed was born and before his maniac minions stormed out of the desert to ravage the world around them. During these six centuries, Christianity grew by leaps and bounds throughout the Ecumene; and sometimes in strange ways, generating a dynamic fecundity of heterodox controversy and internal debate and dissension -- all revolving around the astoundingly weird event at the heart of Christianity: of God becoming a man.

And not just any old god -- with which hundreds of permutations the Greek and Roman and Mesopotamian polytheisms (the dominant civilizations of the Mediterranean) were rife -- but the supposedly magisterial and monotheistic God of the Israelites, a people whom this God had "chosen" in order to reveal a new relationship between humans and the divine: a relationship fraught with problems, and promise. Indeed, the crucial rift at the heart of Judaeo-Christianity -- between Jews and Christians -- involves the fact that many Jews at the time, and certainly most of the leading clerical classes, were theologically and culturally outraged by the implied presumption -- the blasphemy -- of the claim of divinity of this human being, this Jewish Mensch (if not Meshuggeneh), Jesus of Nazareth. And this outrage led to the crucial event around which the Gospels of the New Testament revolve: the execution by crucifixion of Jesus, the God Who became Man.

At any rate, as Christianity evolved in the centuries after that point, and in the meantime Christianized the Roman Empire itself (with the help of a Roman Emperor, Constantine, who converted to this relatively new religion), the subject of Christology became a heated topic among Christians, as they tried to work out what exactly the Incarnation meant.

Among the many disputes and controversies in this regard, and among the many treatises that survive from that period about them, the searing pneumatic experience suffered by Father Jacob of the existential tension aroused by the wonder of Christology stands mostly forgotten, wedged silently among the thousands of dusty pages of the Patrologiae Graecae et Latinae (also having been republished in one or two compendiums of Desert Father sayings which, at best, when they do not remain unchecked-out of a few university libraries, may sit largely unread as coffee table books in the pleasant foyers of divinity schools and comparative religions seminar facilities here and there).

The story of Father Jacob:

To summarize, Father Phocas describes his brother in the faith Father Jacob as a most pious and "simple man"; remarkably so, apparently. But as becomes clear, part of Jacob's piety involved a good deal of inner spiritual turmoil.

Over a long period of time, he became quite vexed by the Christological controversies that were embroiling the Christians of his time, particularly in the urban centers (e.g., Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Caesarea, Nicomedia; not to mention Rome, Nicea, Chalcedon, Constantinople; etc.). While the monks of the desert were, on purpose, far away from those urban centers, it is reasonable to suppose that there existed quite an efficient network of communications bringing the news from the cities to the various widely scattered huts and caves where they dwelled -- perhaps first reaching the somewhat more organized lauras (cells or communities of monks) and from there, through lone couriers, out to austerer outposts in the barren wastes.

So, young Father Jacob had been hearing the news of frequent and major dissensions and rifts among Christians, and it caused him deep consternation. What wracked Jacob's soul then, unfortunately, never disappeared from the history of the Church. Christianity has always been rent into factions: this is the scandal it suffers, and probably will suffer until the eschaton. It continues to this day, only tamed into non-violent civility by the reconfiguration of sociopolitics into a secularism that forcefully over time has separated the realms of religion from the realm of laws and politics in any concrete sense. And this has not been merely a process of external imposition by Secularists upon Christians; but to a great extent has reflected a change of heart and mind, over a long time, of Christians themselves, as they have come, for the most part, to accept this modern order with remarkable maturity and mellowness (often, to the annoyance of the more fundamentalist purists among them, to the point of actually embracing secular values that may seem "un-Christian").

A deeper and broader mystery one may palpate, by which the scandal of the Church may be emblematic, as a sort of macrocosmic microcosm, of the general, perennial problem of truth itself, in tension with the multitudes of uncertainty of human existence in the
chiaroscuro of the "cloud of uknowing" through which our one and common sun out of the cave, the Heraclitian Logos, remains ever less than fully in view.

At any rate, as a result of this problem, Jacob retreated further into isolation, and began fasting and praying nearly all the time, dressing himself in the garment fit for someone to be buried, from the depths of his broken heart earnestly entreating God to answer why these scandalously fractious disagreements among Christians were happening, and what it all means, and will it ever be healed?

Many days into this (the text specifies "forty" (quadraginta), perhaps harking back to Jesus's forty days and nights fasting in the desert and his "temptation"), while he was thus wrought up in his spiritual anxiety, suddenly one day a young child came into his habilitation, who seemed to have a joyful countenance.

Immediately, the little boy asked Jacob, "What's the matter? Father Jacob, what are you doing?"

Then suddenly the boy appeared to Jacob as a man, beatifically shining. Jacob answered him as "Lord" now, knowing Who it was.

"Lord," Jacob replied, "you know what's vexing me. One group of Christians tell me, 'Don't leave the true Church.' Then another group of Christians tell me, 'Don't listen to them: they have been seduced by the Diphysites'..."

[Note: The Diphysites being those who, in trying to understand the weird miracle of God's incarnation as a human, posited two "natures", one human and one divine, with an apparent implication that the two natures remained bundled together, so to speak, but not really synthesized as one; these being opposed by the so-called Monophysites, who wanted to emphasize the oneness of Christ, rather than seem to split him into two -- the problem there being, however, the tendency to devalue the unique, and uniquely difficult-to-unify, qualities of the divine and the human.]

Jacob was thus describing the terrible dilemma he was in, spiritually and mentally, whereby he felt literally pulled apart by the dissensions among his fellow Christians disagreeing on how to put Christ together, so to speak.

"Not knowing what to think or where to turn," Jacob added, "I have been led here to this place where you found me."

And then the Lord responded to Jacob:

"Where you are, it is good." (Ubi es, bene es.)

I.e., where Jacob stood right then and there -- in tension, earnestly and existentially seeking a way out, but attentive to, and thus suffering, the fullness of that tension without opting out for an easy release by joining one or the other faction -- "is good". It is those who seek a way to solve that tension, it is implied, who are not "good", insofar as they are prematurely presuming a solution that the mystery of this life cannot offer.

It is true, immediately consequent upon that extraordinary epiphany which this desert saying recounts, it adds, as a final sentence, that the Lord told Jacob:

"Now go to the doors of the holy Chalcedonian Orthodox Church."

This ultimate sentence may be something tacked onto the story by later redactors, to ensure that its rather startling praise of a measure of agnostic existentialism not be construed as a license to stray from the orthodox Church as eventually defined, through majority consensus, at the great council of Chalcedon on the basis of the Nicenoconstantinopolitan Creed developed by the previous great Councils at Nicea and Constantinople; or that final sentence may be a way to say that the very same agonic posture of agnostic existentialism that Jacob achieved and suffered is the heart of Church being more intellectually and administratively clarified by those Councils.

Or it may be some kind of paradoxical combination of both of these.

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