“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty famously said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  In some ways our post-modern, fake news-attributing culture is very familiar with this perspective. It seems natural and even desirable to “create your own reality” and then disparage anyone who objects to it for one reason or another, as being intolerant.
This attitude of course is monological and utterly without empathy and love. From this one-sided perspective, the other person does not exist as anything more than an admiring audience. When we operate from this perspective we end up with dueling monologues that result in never ending conflict or else the slavery of groupthink.
Jesus is God’s Word “through Whom all things were created, the true light that enlightens every person was in the world, yet the world knew him not.” Since God’s Word is Truth, from Humpty Dumpty’s perspective it follows that it must be totally our responsibility to understand God as He intends and to obey His Commandments without question. Who challenges God and wins the argument? Thankfully, God’s way is quite different than monologue which is the method of Lucifer. God begins the dialogue in extreme humility encountering us in our helplessness, shame and incomprehension in order to prepare a Way for us to cross over from the determinism of our created-from-nothingness natural life into one of Eucharistic reciprocity which is eternal dialogue with God.
For authentic dialogue to occur, when I use a word, I need to understand what that word is likely to mean to you, regardless of what it means to me. There must be empathy. I must find a way to communicate with you what it is I want to say, with the least chance of being misunderstood. It doesn’t matter how sincere I am in what I say, if I am clueless about how it may affect you. Or I am uncaring. Dialogue requires that I am vulnerable to you and willing to self-examine in response to your reactions, because you matter.
Once I invited a Chinese student and her mother, who was visiting, over to the house for dinner. I presented her mother with a gift I was very pleased to give her. I explained that I gather up all the spent beeswax candles from our worship services and melt them down and refashion them into large scented candles. I presented her with a large fragrant, black, patchouli-scented candle I had made. I noticed that she was quiet and didn’t show signs of appreciating it as much as I felt joy in giving it to her. At the time, I attributed this to the language barrier and cultural differences and said nothing.
At the table during dinner, my student, who spoke English very well, talked continuously throughout the entire dinner, while her mother was silent, and there was hardly room for her, Claudia or me to offer any responses. I judged her actions of hogging the center of attention to be disrespectful to her mother and explained to myself as she was talking, that I was seeing both her extreme extraversion as well as some narcissistic features at work.
Later, my student informed me that in Chinese culture to give a black candle to someone is like a curse meaning that you want that person to die! Her mother’s lack of response at the time suddenly became crystal clear as did my student’s continuous talking during dinner, which was to save her mother further embarrassment as well as to avoid shaming her teacher. Even though my intentions had been good, I was totally wrong in my understanding of every single thing from offering the candle to my interpretations of each of their responses for the rest of the evening.
Humpty Dumpty might feel entitled to simply say ‘I was sincere in wishing your mother well, offering her a handmade gift precious to me from our worship and it is a symbol of life not death. I hope she can appreciate what I meant.” But that would still be self-centered and monological. Sincerity and goodwill are not sufficient response to the fact that my actions proved hurtful to another person due to my ignorance. I felt shame, gratefulness to my student, and remorse for the pain I had unwittingly caused. What a valuable lesson.
Authentic dialogue is an act of love and demands re-spect. I put a hyphen in the word “re-spect” to emphasize the meaning of “looking again.” If I fail to look again and again at a person in order to understand the differences that arise between us in communication, I am disrespecting the person. Because of a failure to love, I will remain without repentance in my illusions and incomprehension as a result of being unwilling to be vulnerable to the other person’s reality. Imagine how this works in response to God.
Dialogical reciprocity is a way of repentance and growth. It is the way the Lord seeks to bring us into the fullness of eternal life as persons sanctified by Grace through offering Himself for the Life of the world in hopes that we will respond to Him by doing the same in return as we are gradually illumined through living His word. He does not approach us as Humpty Dumpty, as an unfeeling potentate, expecting us to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” regardless of our state of maturity without help from above, just because He asks this of us, without regard for the difficulties involved. Knowing the frailty of our created natures, Christ humbles himself at every point, even unto death. He embraces the full forsakenness and the hell of our condition. He does this in order to sanctify us by revealing the difference between human life and a life infused and transformed by divine Grace. To the incomprehension, unfaithfulness, persecution and rejection of Him he responds with mercy as if all our difficulties were his own fault.
When St. Peter answered Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am” by saying, “You are the Christ the Son of God,” Jesus told him that he had not answered this from himself, but it was a gift from God beyond him. At that moment, Peter was given knowledge, but he had not yet acquired understanding. This became clear immediately, because as Jesus began to speak about the journey of obedience to the Father that is epitomized in his rejection and death on the cross, Peter, in all sincerity and love, as best he understood at the time, had the temerity to motion Jesus aside and rebuke him, saying, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Knowledge is just a passing presence in Truth. Knowledge is to understanding, what flat is to cube. Understanding means to ‘stand under’ the Truth in obedience—to know it ontologically through illumination and existentially through living it in personal encounter, not just visiting it for a moment and then departing, untested in the grip of an intensified vainglory and pride. The greater the revelations, the greater the tests that lead to understanding. Knowledge is like a photograph or a memory, only a passing reflection or objectification of truth. Acquiring the wisdom of understanding comes through being obedient to the Truth by participating in dialogical relationship with divine grace and existentially engaging in spiritual struggle to confirm it in our lives.
St. Sophrony said that it took years for a dogmatic consciousness to form in him in response to the gifts of illumination that were given him early in his life. The process of recognizing the difference between himself and the Living God through faith in Christ was a painful one that involved repeated experiences of repentance and self-emptying. The humility and kenosis of Christ invites continual confrontation with the depth of our attachment to created natural life and all its pleasures and joys. Our ignorance of the real meaning of eternal life is revealed as we discover that worldly life is not satisfying apart from Christ.
Like the Apostles, after our first experiences of divine grace, we do not clearly distinguish our joy from the blessing of having the things we already want in life even without Christ. Like St. Peter, we all want good health, success, comfort, freedom, recognition, power over evil and to be able to do good things for people. At the same time, we resist experiences of helplessness and shame that arise in the face of incurable illness, rebelliousness, ungratefulness, and rejected aspects of ourselves and others that resist our best attempts at overcoming them.
Dialogue with Grace invites us in the direction of Christ’s humility and total self-offering which includes willingly undergoing all our afflictions and the results of our rejection of Him as we encounter this in “the least of these.” In the throes of His own agony he prays “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” That proves to be a road too far for worldliness to travel. This radical reversal of our fallen way of being in the world, of trading self-centeredness for Christ-centeredness in and for all others, beyond desire for happiness in this life, does not happen all at once. St. Sophrony writes,
Experience shows that it is assimilated only after a prolonged process of self-emptying. Then, beyond all expectation as it were, comes the uncreated Light to heal our wounds. In the radiance of this Light the ‘narrow way’ that we have traversed appears like the Self-emptying of Christ through which even such as we are granted sonship to God the father.”
Like the disciples, “we worship and yet are afraid,” confused by the infinite depth to which His invitation calls us. In the beginning we only vaguely glimpse what is in store for us as we initially seek to follow Christ in hope and joy. Little by little we begin to realize that the more deeply we love Him, the greater becomes our disappointment in ourselves for our failure to overcome sin and be obedient to Him as our heart increasingly calls for. The closer He moves toward us, the more painful are the times we feel helpless and abandoned and subject to temptations we are unable to resist, love we are unable to offer or that seems to make no difference.
The paradox is that to enter paradise, Christ invites us to “pick up your cross” and follow Him to Golgotha. “Unless a single grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone…” Every Christian is in the process of learning exactly what St. Peter and the other Apostles learned about this with Christ and the Holy Spirit over a lifetime. In this sense we can say that with His incarnation it seems Christ offers us a beautiful white candle which promises life. There is only a hint of the black one in the blessed Symeon’s prophesy to the Theotokos, “That a sword shall pierce your heart also.” 
Slowly His Passion unfolds toward a blackness where all seems lost as the water and blood pour from Christ’s side at the tip of a spear in death. At this point, Christ Himself seems to many as nothing more than a pure black candle. A curse has fallen on him. Yet it is precisely at this point that death is overcome and the Ancient Curse is lifted. With His Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, His invitation for us to die is recognized as being the portal to eternal life.
It is our repeated failures which gradually crush and humble our hearts in order that we begin to realize Christian faith is not a monologue from God or from us, but a dialogue of reciprocity and mutual vulnerability in which mankind comes to realize, again and again, as happened with my Chinese student and her mother, that we are approaching things all wrong with Christ. Unless the Lord chastens me, I will not know the depth of my egotism. My self-centeredness and spiritual naiveté are greater than I ever dreamed. I am more like Humpty Dumpty than I want to admit. My inability to heal myself and overcome my sin becomes more apparent the longer I live. “I must see Christ ‘as he is’ in order to confront myself with Him and thus perceive my ‘deformity.’”
The difficulty is that I keep making God over in my own human image according to my human knowledge instead of being fashioned into His likeness through understanding that emerges from the grace of obedience to His commandments. For “Christ’s commandments are, by their very essence, the projection of Divine life on our plane.” They help initiate us into a new life.
My repeated disobedience and inability to remain faithful to Christ begins to make clearer the division experienced within myself and intensifies the struggle that is true for every human being. I discover that I have received God’s Grace and many times remained content with converting it into gratefulness for worldly blessings instead of a deeper ascetical surrender to the Way of the Cross. But man cannot serve two masters. “We must choose one of two paths: either, in our pursuit of psycho-physical delights and comfort, shun God and so die spiritually; or, in our striving for a supra-natural form of being, let ourselves die to this world. In this ‘dying’ lies our cross, our crucifixion.”
As Christ empties himself for the world, in obedience to the Father, it seems I am only too happy to step up and receive the benefits of His sacrifice, just as Adam and Eve were eager to receive the gifts of the Garden of Eden’s beauty and delight, without offering themselves to God in return. I am happy, like St. Peter and the others on Palm Sunday, to proclaim Hosanna, “You are Jesus Christ the Son of God and King of Kings!” expecting to share in the joy of his enthronement. St Sophrony points out how easily we are turned from the path.
The ascetic striver may be distracted from love of God by desire for life, or fear of death; by the attractions of worldly pleasures, by illness or hunger, persecution or other suffering; by the eminence and light of other revelations, the profundity and majesty of other conceptions; by the grandeur of various possessions, or the breadth of other possibilities; by the vision of angels and similar heavenly beings; or because of the violence of the powers of evil.
Like Peter, I too resist hearing about the sacrifices that may be asked of me the deeper I enter into Christ’s love. Yet this is what the Lord predicts happens in every human heart as Grace acts upon it, as it did in Peter’s. It begins to cleanse and awaken the heart by burning away the passions through repentance of exposing our weaknesses and melting the hard-heartedness that governs our attempts at self-sufficiency, with mercy and forgiveness. If we persevere in faith, we come to learn that “God is truly experienced either as purifying fire or as Light that illumines.”
Deeper recognition of sin becomes a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit because “in the impulses and actions which our reason justifies, we cannot see “sin”….Sin is recognized by the gift of the Holy Spirit combined with faith in the Personal Absolute, our Creator and Father.” The paradox is that the stronger the recognition of sin, the closer to Christ we are, otherwise we could not see it in ourselves. Therefore, we should not despair in our helplessness or sense of failure. Like Peter, “as we shed bitter tears over our sin, in miraculous fashion we become aware of God Himself in us, clasping us close in Fatherly love. No effort on our part can retain this delicate Spirit.”
This is the lesson of Good Friday. As the Lord said, “No one is good but God alone” and goodness does not prevail apart from love. By remaining in dialogue with Him over a lifetime, we discover more and more the nothingness of our own created life apart from Him. This prepares us for the moment in which He will stand before us in glory with such humility, love and mercy, that only the abject cry from love, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me the sinner” can overcome the abyss that will otherwise separate us from Him.
 Lewis Carrol (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 6, p. 205 (1934). First published in 1872.
 Jn 1:3.
 Jn 9,10.
 Mt 5:48.
 Mt 16:22.
 Lk 23:24.
 Sophrony, A. We Shall See Him As He His, Rosemary Edmonds, (trans.) Essex: St. John the Baptist Stavropegic Monastery, 1988, PP17-18
 Jn 12:24.
 Lk 2:35
 Mt 28:9,10.
 Sophrony, p. 59.
 Sophrony, p. 129.
 Sophrony, p. 93.
 Sophrony, p. 83.
 Sophrony, p. 21.
 Sophrony p. 34.
 Sophrony, p. 44.