by Clark Wilson
When you pray the prayer rope, how many knots do your fingertips grasp
at one time?" -St. Nepsis
Why care about "this knot"? That is, why focus on the one knot your
fingertips are grasping right now?
"Well," you may say, "it's kind of like juggling. You can juggle only
so many balls or pins at one time, and if you exceed your limit you drop them all. Or
it's lik watching a movie. If you try to keep all the scenes from the whole movie in your
head at one time you'll get really confused and lose track of everything. A clock ticks
one second at a time, and that's that.
"Let me set out another way of looking at it, a way based on what I
(inside my head) call "God's arithmetic."
When I first attended the Orthodox Divine Liturgy one thing that
bemused me (and, I confess, amused me a little) was standing in the midst of a hundred
people who sincerely, in one breath and without contention, claimed to be "first." "I
believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God,
who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first." This is absurd, right?
In any group being ranked by one quality or feature, there can be only one "first."
For a while I wrote this up to Greek or Slavic exaggeration, or read
it as perhaps just a quaint intensifier: "... to save sinners, and I'm a really sinful
sinner, Lord." Then I stumbled upon 1Timothy 1:15 -- "This word is to be believed and
worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom
I am the foremost." (Lattimore translation) Hmm.
What if, somehow, each of us were one-on-one with Jesus? What if,
somehow, it is simply true for all of us that (as some phrase it) "Christ died for me" --
individually and uniquely? Then, according to God's arithmetic, it would be true that
each of the hundred could rightly assert to be "first among sinners" -- each soul truly
and eternally alone with God, having God's full attention; each soul, in some sense in a
separate universe containing only that soul and God.
The Fathers repeatedly tell us not to compare ourselves with others
and our sins with theirs -- as if each of us were alone and one-on-one with God in a
separate universe (my own interpretation). In the parable of the Publican and the
Pharisee, the Pharisee used normal arithmetic and the Publican used God's arithmetic.
But also according to God's arithmetic each of the hundred is, simultaneously and without
contradiction, a member of Christ's body, a part of a whole, one of a hundred speaking in
one breath. The mystery of the undivided Trinity is an example of the apparently
self-contradictory arithmetic of God. God's arithmetic also differs from simple arithmetic
in the the parable of the workers who signed on at the eleventh hour being paid exactly as
much as those who had begun work at the first hour.
Now, how about this moment -- "this knot"? I think that each moment
is unique and universal in the same way that each of the hundred souls claiming to be
first among sinners is unique and universal. God is eternal. I take "eternal" to mean
not "for a very long time, forever" but rather "radical" outside or above time --
literally time-less." We, on the other hand, are in time. At the boundary between time
and the eternal we should expect something like what I call "God's arithmetic." Jesus
was "begotten before all ages" yet became incarnate and was inside time.
character in a C. S. Lewis book says, "[H]umans live in time, but [God] destines them to
eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to
eternity itself and to that point in time which they call the Present. For the Present
is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only,
humans have an experience analogous to the experience which [God] has of reality as a
whole, in it alone freedom and actuality are offered to them.
He would therefore have them continually concerned either with
eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present." (The Screwtape
Letters, XV) I don't think plain ol' arithmetic does justice to each knot. Plain ol'
arithmetic wants to count it with others and average it with others until it becomes tiny
and negligible and is lost. I think God's arithmetic sees in each knot both a fleeting
moment, and an eternity.