When a monk says “I am nothing”, I think he’s saying that what I am and what I think I am, in my passions, are not of the same order. Likewise, when he says “I have done nothing good” or “what I have done is nothing”, I think he’s saying that what he has done and what he sees he ought to do are so far removed, that there is no comparison. It’s the same, in a way, as when we say that if God exists, I don’t, and vice versa. There is no analogy between contingency and the Holy Trinity. To say “I am nothing” is not to deny that God created me, nor that God loves me. It’s to say that all that I have attributed to “I”, quite falsely, has no analogy to what I really am designed to be – we are created in the indelible image of God, but the likeness of God is something only reachable through theosis. Somewhere along the lines, Death seeped into my best efforts, my best intentions, my seemingly “pure” motives.
A cake is not terrible because it’s fallen. But it’s not what we mean, exactly, by “cake”, nor was it the intention for that particular cake. It might taste delicious. It might be wonderful in its mess and failure. But it’s not a cake, not really. As far as cake is concerned, it’s nada. And that’s because a cake is more than just the shape, or the taste, or any of the components – it’s the far greater sum of the whole.
We might do things well, and so thing we are “good” according to one order of thinking. But to say simultaneously that what we call “good” is nothing, is to say simply that there’s no analogy between God and man. I can achieve good only in a broken way. I can become good only in that way. But brokenness isn’t analogous in any way to the whole that we were meant to be, untroubled by Death. That whole is more than the parts we see broken, as if gluing them back together would create what God had in mind, let alone make it godlike. “I am nothing” means “there are other worlds besides these”, that not everything is of this order, not everything is subject to Death – just everything that I see. In that sense, “I am nothing” is the quintessential expression of faith itself.
I am nothing is to say that being made in God’s image does not, in this Death that consumes all that is, confer godlikeness. The image and the likeness, precisely by the severing sword of Death, have become disconnected, flung apart, so far apart that there is no longer any analogy.
When we read in the scriptures, “if I have not charity, though I move the mountains, I am nothing” and we listen to all the monks denying that they have charity, saying “I have not loved,” “I do not love”, “I know nothing of love – I have only failed at love”, meaning that what they have achieved of love is so far removed from the love that God tells us about and has revealed in Christ, so un-analogous, it is only consistent, and indeed the same thing for them to say “I am nothing” for exactly the same reasons. All that I am is so far removed from what I am meant to be and what Christ truly is, and I someday may be through theosis in Christ, that today I say “I am nothing”.
The fallacy the general populace makes is to think all things are of the same order, making God only a “higher” form of eggplant. But these monks would say that it is so far removed that if I were to attribute an “order” to things, God would not be of any order, and vice versa. To say “I am nothing” is not so different than to speak of the darkness of unknowing, or alternately that God “dwells in unapproachable light” – these things, again, simply underscore the failure of analogy between the created order and the Holy Trinity. Indeed the life St. Paul described (“the thing I do is the think I would not, and the thing I would not is the thing I do”) is another way of saying not that he didn’t do ‘good’ things, but that this the good of those things is so far removed from the good he is striving for, that it is not the goodness that we do, make, or think, or *are*, that is in question from the words “I am nothing”, but rather the limitation of our own vision of the good, because the only good we see is the good accessible to this created order, this contingency, this orb of existence revolving in Death.
The vision the monks have is of things beyond the created order. They’re saying that compared to my best and all I am in contingency (which is forever) and in Death (which is not), the other is everything, and I’m nothing. This is badly written, and I’m not wise. I am not really able to say what the vision is the monks have. Because I listen to them, doesn’t mean I can tell you what they are talking about. Only someone who has seen what they can see can say. Even to repeat is to lose, in ‘translation’, the meaning, when I do it – it is to recontextualize and reduce it and even misuse it. So forgive me for where I have erred. This blog is a way of looking and trying to listen, and to remember and to think, far more than it is an attempt to tell anyone anything. I realize that’s unconventional – it’s just what works for me.