The Alpha and the Omega

“’I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was
and who is to come, the Almighty [pantocrator]” (Rev. 1:8).

 “You judge your people with righteousness and new life abounds.”
Prayer of Dedication by Rev. James G. Kirk

This past February my husband and I spent two weeks in Sicily. Our “home base” for that time was stunning Cefalú on the northern coast, with its famous Norman cathedral built in 1131, commissioned by King Roger II. In the cathedral’s apse is one of the most famous mosaic icons of Christ Pantocrator. “Pantocrator” can be translated as “Ruler” or “Sustainer” of all, an idea that, if you peruse the internet quickly, you will see described as an apt image, borrowed from imperial Rome, for an imperial church. It is sometimes even translated as “king.”

But this Easter I’d like to propose that following Jesus, even as a king, is somewhat more complex than most Wikipedia articles and travel guidebooks suggest, and one way we can be certain of that is the widespread popularity through the ages of the Christ Pantocrator image. To put it more personally, I might be the Christian least likely to be attracted by empire in any place or in any form, so I don’t think that’s the reason I felt drawn to stop in to visit that Christ Pantocrator twice a day. I would guess it has been the same for other Christians who have been drawn to that image, either in Cefalú or many other places, throughout the Christian world.

Even a brief gaze at the icon begins to reveal its complexity. The Christ in Pantocrator images carry a book of scripture in his left hand. I am not an expert in icons, but I understand that if the book is closed, the image is technically a Pantocrator, and if the book is open to reveal a passage of scripture, as in Cefalú, the image is a slight variant usually called “Christ the Teacher.” Therein lies the beginning of the depth of the image in Cefalú: is this Christ merely the image of conquering Norman power in religious dress, or is he more? And if he is more, then what does he have to teach?

So Pantocrator sometimes translates as “king”. But what if the point of using it, like the imperial titles and slogans that are applied to Christ throughout the New Testament (“savior,” “prince of peace,” and so on), is to subvert imperial pretensions?  When we hear phrases like “all things,” we tend to think “all things human.” But the phrase is repeated enough in the scriptural witness that I do think it means all things. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17). Aside from a line or two in Virgil, even the masterful propagandists of Augustus dared not make such claims.

How do we, limited as our horizons are, even begin to consider this idea that “in him all things hold together”? In Cefalú, the book Jesus carries is open to the Gospel of John 8:12, which reads in both Greek and Latin: “I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in darkness but will have the light of life.” A lock of Jesus’ hair is being gently blown across his forehead. The better guidebooks will point out this realistic detail as one of the great artistic triumphs of this particular image, and indeed it is dazzlingly that.

But the lock of hair and the passage from John reminded me that light often represents the gentle presence of God but it rarely gets the credit that Elijah’s moving “gentle breeze” does. Both images suggest an all-encompassing and ever-present reality of God’s sustaining love to which we often choose not to attend and yet most of us wish to experience as fully as possible. Some have recently found the appreciation of the cosmic Christ in the everyday expressed poignantly in what is now referred to collectively as the Celtic tradition. In a meditation on an Easter pilgrimage she took in Wales, Rev. Mary Earle tells us that

[i]n Welsh, the ordinary word for universe is “bydysawd,” which means “that which is baptized.” All that has come into being—every particle of matter, every creature, every person, every star and planet—is encompassed in the pattern of Christ’s dying and rising…The Celtic Church, following the teachings of the early councils of the church, understood that this all-encompassing, uncreated Light of Christ, the Light that breaks into the tombs of our hearts and the graves of our bodies, is eternally present in all times and in all places.

I expect this is what the image of our Pantocrator meant all along to those not looking through eyes and hearts desiring dominance, a deeply benevolent sustainer of all who loves so much as to join us in darkness and help us find the gentle light in all. That is a far cry from the “peace through victory” that is a maxim of any form of empire. I once heard Daniel Berrigan say, in response to a question that was desperate with the desire for the United States always to win in all ways and at any violent cost, “Maybe we just need to change our idea of what winning means.” That sentence changed the course of my life, because I suddenly understood that domination is never true power, not at all related to God’s power.

So now I see this Christ Pantocrator with the blowing lock of hair and the words of light ruling more like the Celtic St. Melangell. The sixth century Irish princess fled her father and his plans for her marriage, becoming a hermit in Wales. She was given land for a monastery, as the story goes, by a prince who found her sheltering under her robe the rabbit he and his hounds were hunting.

So maybe it’s time to stop rolling our collective Catholic eyes at rabbits as a “pagan” Easter symbol (mea culpa). Maybe care for the most vulnerable creatures and recognition of our oneness with them—created by God for himself and from his love and redeemed together with all creation—is in fact at the heart of Christ’s resurrection and rule. And perhaps the righteous judgment that comes from our great Pantocrator is the ever-flowing gift of new life, even when we can’t quite discern either the light or the life in a particular situation. The Pantocrator images represent the constancy of God’s gentle sustenance, symbolized especially in this annual feast of Easter.

At the end of their pilgrimage, Rev. Earle writes that the pilgrims were given a poem by the Welsh poet, Saunders Lewis, one of my own favorites. They are lines which can serve as a daily reminder to stay attentive to the Uncreated Light who sustains all:

Cherish the dark’s obscurity
Look for the diamonds in debris,
Thank God for all His mystery

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Merton – On Simplicity of Life

In the 19th century, such notables as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott conducted experiments in simple living.  In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi lived simply in order that others might simply live.  During the same century, Thomas Merton sought to embrace and live out the Cistercian monastic charism of simplicity of life, which is rooted in the Rule of Saint Benedict.  According to Merton, “The very essence of Cistercian simplicity is the practice of charity and loving obedience and mutual patience and forbearance in the common life which should be on earth an image of the simplicity of heaven.”[1]

As a Cistercian monk, Merton studied, wrote about, and sought to live out Saint Bernard’s understanding of simplicity.  According to Merton, Saint Bernard’s teaching on simplicity of life is valid for all Christians, not simply for Cistercians.  Reflecting on Saint Bernard’s teaching, Merton notes that when Adam and Eve fell from grace their pride was the birth of sin and the immediate ruin of human simplicity.  Duplicity (doubleness in self) then concealed each person’s natural simplicity.

Merton explains that, for Saint Bernard, in order to reach the desired return to one’s original, natural simplicity, one must first develop simplicity in the sense of sincerity that includes the awareness of one’s shortcomings.  Next is simplicity in terms of humility, which involves self-acceptance as one dependent upon God for all things, especially one’s very existence.  For Saint Bernard, a further form of simplicity is that of the intellect.  Regarding intellectual simplicity, Saint Bernard stresses that the one thing necessary in life is knowledge and love of God and that the only way a person can truly know God is by loving God.  Additionally, as Saint Bernard indicates, there is also the matter of simplicity of will that manifests itself in one’s embracing the common will, which is the good of all.  For Cistercians, simplicity of will includes obedience of the monk to his abbot who, in monastic life, is considered Christ’s representative, and submission to one’s brothers in community.  Regarding monastic obedience, Merton reflects: “If we want union with God, let us obey our superiors and give in to one another, and seek to do what is profitable to others, not what happens to suit our own pleasure or convenience.”[2]

According to Saint Bernard, a person who embraces a life of simplicity is able to progress to the experience of union of his or her will with God’s will in a marriage of love.  In this union, which Saint Bernard describes as a kiss, the person who is immersed in God has no other interests or desires but those of God.  In such a mystical marriage, the person participates in God’s uncreated and utter Simplicity.

During his life as a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton strove to live out the Cistercian charism of simplicity of life. In his final years, as a hermit Merton took up residence in a cinder-block dwelling on the monastery property.  There, Merton developed a daily simple routine of prayer, study, some writing, preparing and consuming  meals, washing dishes, and cutting wood.   In the greater silence of his lodging in the woods, Merton sought mystical union with God.

Also during the latter part of his life, Merton became interested in the community called the Shakers.  The Shakers’ simplicity of life was what most attracted Merton to this celibate community.  According to Merton, the Shakers and the Cistercians were “born of the same Spirit.”[3]  In a letter to Edward D. Andrews, Merton wrote:

I am deeply interested in the thought that a hundred years ago our two communities were so close together, so similar, somehow in ideals and yet evidently had no contact with one another. … I feel all the more akin to them [Shakers] because our own Order, the Cistercians, originally had the same kind of ideal of honesty, simplicity, good work, for a spiritual motive.”[4]

Merton recognized in both the Shakers and Cistercians a lifestyle centered on the rhythmic interplay of prayer, work, and study.  Both communities looked upon work as a sacred endeavor, a participation in God’s ongoing work of creation, entered into for the praise and glory of God.  Both groups also shared a commitment to peaceful living and the sharing of goods in common.  The motto: “Hands to work and hearts to God” that Shaker foundress Ann Lee coined Merton deemed applicable to the Cistercian as well as the Shaker way of being.

In his writings, Thomas Merton stresses that the Cistercian and Shaker commitment to simplicity of life provides a clarion call to humans to embrace sustainable ways of being.  With respect to sustainable practices, I believe Merton would insist that all be done by humans in order to grow in greater union with God by loving all of God’s creation.  Finally, I am convinced that Thomas Merton would argue that any sustainable actions of the human community be entered into in order to live simply so that others, including Earth itself, might simply live and that simplicity of life is always a work in progress.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Spirit of Simplicity (Trappist, Ky.: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948) 124.

[2] Merton, Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard, 143.

[3] Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life, Ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham (San Francisco, Calif.: HarpercCollins, 1996) 287.

[4] Letter of Thomas Merton to Edward Deming Andrews, dated December 12, 1960 in A Meeting of angels: The Correspondence of Thomas Merton with Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, Ed. Paul M. Pearson (Frankfort, Ky.: Broadstone Books, 20087) 12-3.