In this fourteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of the word “believe” in the Christian Gospel. The word “believe” crops up again and again in the Gospel – this is what God requires of us: to believe in him, to believe in his name, in order to receive – the power to become children of God, eternal life, salvation, healing. When we believe, all things become possible. The video focuses on John 7:38 and the verse from Scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Once again, language is not only used to convey the message – it is the message.
I have always been confused whether we are supposed to receive a sign and then believe, or to believe and then receive a sign as a result of our belief, a confirmation, as it were. That is, does God open the doors of our senses to the other world, we perceive the other world and therefore believe, or does he open the doors of our senses as a result of our belief? Is it possible to believe something (or someone) you have never seen?
What set me on the journey of faith was an experience I had in 2001 on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, Italy. I asked for a sign and I got one. So in a way my belief was a result of the sign I received. But that sign came about because I asked for it, so I was predisposed, I had realized the limitations of my self, my need for the other, I had pulled down the walls of my self-sufficiency, thrown open the gates, invited God in. Is this, therefore, the procession of faith: an understanding of our own limitations leads to a call to God, which leads to a response on his part, which leads to faith on ours?
BELIEVE itself is a very interesting word. It spells VEILED in reverse (remember the physical pair, pair of letters that look alike, b-d, one of which is a mirror image of the other). Well, the mysteries are veiled, aren’t they? We don’t see them at once, but they reveal themselves to us gradually, in response to the level of our faith and repentance.
But BELIEVE contains another word: if we take a step in the alphabet (b-c) and apply the phonetic pair l-r, we get RECEIVE. Christ said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mk 10:29-30). So when we believe, when we follow Christ, we are to receive a hundredfold – the blessings of the spiritual life – with persecution – the world no longer recognizes us as one of its own because we have switched allegiance – and the ultimate goal is eternal life.
John the Evangelist has a lot to say about belief and eternal life in his Gospel. It is clear that the precondition for eternal life is that we believe. In fact, belief is the work of God – not to build mansions, not to perform impossible feats, not to exert ourselves strenuously, but simply to believe! The crowd has witnessed the feeding of the five thousand on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Christ’s disciples have returned to Capernaum in the only boat available. Christ did not leave with them, and yet when they wake up, they see that he is not there. They take some boats that have come from Tiberias and travel to the other side, only to find that Christ is already there, having walked on the water. How has he got there? Christ says they have come looking for him because they had their fill of loaves the previous day and it is this that motivates them. He endeavours to redirect their aspirations and when they ask, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’, he comes out with a strikingly simple statement: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ (Jn 6:29) – that is, that you believe in me. Well, that’s not much to do, is it?
But the crowd immediately asks for a sign: ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?’ There we go again, the need for a sign to trigger our belief.
The first chapters of John’s Gospel are full of people like us looking for signs. In chapter 1, Nathanael believes because Christ saw him under the fig tree. In chapter 2, in Jerusalem, ‘many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing’ (Jn 2:23). In chapter 4, Jesus says to the royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum and to those with him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ (Jn 4:48), though to his credit the royal official believes before he has actually witnessed the miracle. When Christ says, ‘Go; your son will live’, crucially he believes the word that Christ has spoken, even though he has yet to receive confirmation of the healing. The Church Fathers are always telling us when we ask for something – from God or the saints – we must ask with faith in our hearts, in the belief that what we ask for, if it is for our salvation, will come to pass. It’s no use asking half-heartedly. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures, and for the royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum, this was an extreme situation. So he believed. With all his heart. This is all Christ asks of us. As a result of the healing (a sign or wonder), it then says that the royal official ‘himself believed, along with his whole household’ (Jn 4:53). Belief leads to healing, which in turn leads to more generalized belief.
In chapter 6, ‘a large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick’ (Jn 6:2). Again, a sign triggers belief. After the feeding of the five thousand, ‘when the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world”’ (Jn 6:14). A sign leads to belief. Even Christ’s disciples, after the miracle of the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, then believed: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (Jn 2:11).
So it seems that we are only persuaded as a result of signs, an accusation Christ was often levelling at the Pharisees. But what does he say we are to do? I think he understands our weakness and accepts that we need to see a sign in order to believe. But, when it comes down to it, what we are to do is to believe his testimony. He does not testify on his own behalf – this point is reiterated several times in the first chapters of John’s Gospel – but rather he testifies to his Father, and it is his Father – together with John the Baptist in chapter 1, the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 and the scriptures in chapter 5 – who testify to him. There is a wonderful altruism here. We are to believe him because he does not testify to himself, but to the other, and this we can take as a confirmation of what he is saying.
The point is heavily emphasised. Just perform a search of the words ‘testify’ and ‘testimony’ in the early chapters of John’s Gospel. You might also perform a search of the word ‘believe’. These are probably the most important words, together with ‘water’, ‘bread’ and ‘eternal life’.
It is belief that leads to eternal life:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (Jn 3:14)
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (Jn 3:36)
Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. (Jn 5:24)
Those who hear will live. (Jn 5:25)
This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life. (Jn 6:40)
Whoever believes has eternal life. (Jn 6:47)
It would be difficult to make the point more emphatically. But there are two other things that will lead us in the direction of eternal life: WATER and BREAD. These two words are, of course, connected if we apply the phonetic pairs d-t and b-v-w. BREAD is one of three words that refer to nourishment, all beginning with the same letters: BREAD, BREAST and BREATH. They are all connected by the phonetic pair d-t, addition of s or h. And WATER is a short step from WORD (phonetic pair d-t, change of vowels, all of which are open).
We come across the first in the wonderful story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman is very striking. She has had five husbands for a start. She also has a pithy way about her, asking Christ (the Creator of the universe!) how he thinks he is going to manage to pull up some water from the well where they meet near the city of Sychar if he doesn’t have a bucket! This is the man who created the universe, through whom the world was brought into being, and all she can do is affirm that he doesn’t have a bucket and he must think he is clever or something if he thinks he’ll get some water out of the hole without one.
Christ observes (as always), enjoys the humour (as always) and then comes straight to the point: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (Jn 4:13-4). He refers to this as ‘living water’ (Jn 4:10).
The ‘living bread’ comes in chapter 6. Remember that rousing hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’, in which the words ‘bread of heaven’ are repeated? The crowd who witnessed the feeding of the five thousand and followed Jesus across the lake have made reference to the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Now that was a pretty impressive sign, wasn’t it? How about something similar? They want a corresponding sign without realizing (like Pilate when he asked Christ, ‘What is truth?’) that the sign (truth) is standing in front of them. To which Christ replies, ‘I am the bread of life.’ That bread is his flesh, the sign is himself, the body of Christ that we receive in communion. He doesn’t magic manna out of thin air. No, this is different. We partake of his body and by ingesting his body, which thus becomes part of us, we become part of his body. He goes on, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’ (Jn 6:51). There we have it once more – eternal life.
So eternal life is to believe in Christ. But it seems that not even his brothers believed in him, as John reports at the beginning of chapter 7. The time for the Festival of the Booths in Jerusalem is approaching, and they think he should make himself known. Jesus says his time has not yet come, but after they have gone to the festival, he goes anyway, in secret. He testifies to his Father. He performs signs. The chief priests and the Pharisees send the temple police to arrest him! The crowd is divided (as always). When he says he won’t be with them for much longer, they wonder if he is planning to travel among the Greeks – to go on an excursion! It gets to the last day of the festival, and by now (after seven chapters of signs and testimony), Christ is becoming weary.
And he does something uncharacteristic. He cries out. He shouts. He is at the end of his tether. He desperately wants them to get the point, to stop squabbling, to stop trying to kill or arrest him. And he cries out some of the most remarkable verses in the whole of the New Testament:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ (Jn 7:37-8)
The actual word in Greek for ‘heart’ is ‘belly’ (κοιλίας). And I wonder if the mention of ‘living’ reminds you of the creation story? After the Fall, what did Adam, the one who had been given the task of naming the creatures (that is, of translating), decide to call his wife? ‘Eve, because she was the mother of all who live’ (Gen 3:20). A footnote in the NRSV version of the Bible informs us that in Hebrew Eve resembles the word for living (Ḥawwāh/ḥāyâ).
And what do we get if we put ‘belly’ (translated as ‘heart’) and ‘Eve’ (which resembles the word for living) together? BELIEVE. The word BELIEVE confirms the truth of what Christ is saying.
I have already explained that, for me, the Fall happened so that we could have children, so that we could participate in the act of creation, and in this way form the body of the Church. I think God wanted us to participate in this action, even though he knew that sexual maturity would lead to our physical death, a barrier we must cross in order to enter eternal life (did I just see ENTER in ETERNAL?). This is where we are now, in the spiritual womb of the world, out of which the collective body of the Church is being born, in the same way as the body of an individual is born out of their mother’s womb. We are to be born twice, and this is the point we are missing. We are not there yet. We have been born physically (out of our mothers’ wombs), but now we must be born spiritually. That is the point of all the suffering, confusion, mistakes, misunderstandings – we are pointing in the wrong direction until we point towards Christ. There the needle will stop turning and become fixed.
BELIEVE contains other words: for example, I, BE and LIVE. It is also extremely close to BIBLE.
The message is there. All that we need to know is in the Bible, where Christ testifies to his Father.
And because he testifies to another – his Father – though he could equally testify to himself (Jn 8:14), we can accept that what he is saying is true. All we have to do is believe him.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
We live in the white space of eternity, but we cling to the line of time. It is extraordinary that the word TIME contains DIE (phonetic pair d-t, addition of m), but if we take a couple of steps in the alphabet it also gives LIVE (alphabetical pairs l-m, t-v). We have seen how it also contains MEET and DENY – this life on earth is our chance to meet Christ or to deny him, it is as simple as that. This is the purpose of life – do we choose to count down from the ego, I, to God, O, or do we prefer to attend to our own self-interest and to amass possessions by counting up from the ego, I? Once you start counting up, there will be no end, and we have seen how the English alphabet does this – it goes from the letter A to I to Z (1 to 2), it starts to count up, which may be seen as signifying a Western rational way of thinking, counting the cost, whereas the Greek alphabet, which may be taken to signify a spiritual way of thinking, a spontaneous response, counts down, it goes from the letter A to I to O (1 to 0, or omega).
This is very telling. We somehow have to escape the line that is represented by the ego, I, or by the timeline. LINE is close to MINE (alphabetical pair l-m) – when we draw a line, we are limiting ourselves, laying claim to possession, fencing ourselves in. We may find that the LINE leaves us ALONE, whereas in fact we are ALL ONE, and the one we have in common is God.
We see our life on earth in terms of the tenses: present, past and future. How much time do we spend in the present? Perhaps not very much, we are always thinking about events in the past or worrying about the future.
An example of the present tense is ‘I live in London’ or ‘I like to visit Hyde Park on a Tuesday’. It is used to talk about routines, actions or states that we consider to be fixed.
If we want to ask a question or to make a negative in the present, we have to use what is called an auxiliary verb – a verb that ‘helps’ us to ask the question or to make the negative – and the auxiliary verb for the present is ‘do’: ‘Where do you live?’ ‘I don’t like going out in the dark.’ We cannot ask a question or make a negative without the auxiliary ‘do’, or we will sound a little foreign: ‘Where you live?’ ‘I not like going out in the dark.’
Auxiliaries are a feature of the English language. Other languages like Ancient Greek and Bulgarian have little particles that enable the hearer to understand that what is coming is not a statement of fact, but a question: ‘ara’ in Greek, ‘li’ in Bulgarian. Languages like Spanish use intonation. ‘You live in Madrid?’ with a rising intonation informs the hearer that this is a question. I’m not telling you, I’m asking. But English has need of auxiliaries.
So it is in the past, and the auxiliary is the same: ‘I went to school in Clapham.’ ‘Where did you go to school?’ ‘I didn’t like it very much.’
So ‘do’ is the first auxiliary. ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Do you often come here?’ ‘Don’t talk to me like that!’
The auxiliary for the future is ‘will’. This little word expresses intention or a prediction: ‘I will come and help you.’ ‘I think it will rain at the weekend.’ ‘Will you tell me what it is?’ Whereas the auxiliaries in the present and past – ‘do’ and ‘did’ – are only used to ask questions or to make the negative, in the future the auxiliary must also be used in positive statements – precisely to signify that it is the future: ‘I come to lunch on Tuesdays, but next week I will come on Wednesday.’
We have seen how language encourages us to think in terms of the collective, not in terms of the individual, and the future provides us with a wonderful example because if we contract ‘I’ and ‘will’ we get ‘I’ll’ – this is a way of talking about plans in the singular – whereas if we contract ‘we’ and ‘will’ and think about the future in terms of the plural, we get ‘we’ll’.
Language appears to be telling us something: ‘I’ll’ and ‘we’ll’. I’LL and WE’LL. Take away the apostrophe that indicates a contraction and you have ILL and WELL. Isn’t this language telling us to think in terms of the plural? We might also notice that ME becomes WE when we turn the letter M upside down (physical pair m-w). And what is the plural of ‘you’ (think not how the word is written, but how it sounds)? Why, ‘us’ of course!
There is an aspect – the perfect – that we can apply to the tenses we have talked about, the present, the past and the future. This perfect aspect has the amazing ability to connect the tenses, to join them together, but our emphasis is still very much on the line.
For example, imagine that I started to live in London in the year 2000. It is now 2020, and I still live in London. You have a past – I moved to London in 2000 – and a present – I live in London now. What if you want to join them together? You can only do this by using the perfect, the auxiliary for which is ‘have’: ‘I have lived in London for twenty years.’
Imagine a point in the future: when you get home. I want to say that between now and the point in time when you get home, that is between the present and the future, I am planning to finish baking a cake. I will say, ‘By the time you get home, I will have baked a cake.’ There is the perfect again, by means of the auxiliary ‘have’, and it connects two points along the line, the past and the present, the present and the future, even the past and a point further back in time: ‘When you came to visit me, I had already put the things away.’ Before that point in time when you turned up, I had performed this other action, between the past and a point further back in time (when I got home from the office, for example).
Well, after that short lesson in grammar, we are equipped to say that the auxiliaries that cover the timeline are ‘do’, ‘will’ and ‘have’.
But doesn’t this tell us something about how we approach time, our lives on earth? Because the first auxiliary, ‘do’, refers to activity – we must always be busy. The second auxiliary, ‘will’, refers to intention – what I want. And the third auxiliary, ‘have’, refers to possession – how much I have. Couldn’t this be said somehow to sum up our approach to life: what I do, what I will and what I have?
This is because we are clinging to the timeline. We are like vines on an arbour or shellfish on a submerged pillar. We cling to what we know. And what we know is what we can see in front of us, what we can lay our hands on. But there is so much more. There is the enormity of space, to start with. There is also the enormity of ourselves – isn’t the kingdom of heaven within us? There is the enormity of our hearts, of our reaching out to one another, of the many examples of endurance and selflessness that humanity has shown. There is the moment when, albeit we are busy or tired, we take time out to focus on the other’s need. We shift away from the timeline, we take a step over the abyss. We enter the white space of the whiteboard. We realize that the battle has already been won and we are picking up the pieces. We step outside of time and into the light. We cease – for a moment – to linger on the past or to harbour concerns about the future. They are always only moments – the past and future quickly reclaim their place, like a tide coming in. But there are moments when we can separate ourselves from the timeline and enter eternity. We are in eternity. Now.
And what is the fourth auxiliary that is used to represent the continuous aspect, to talk about the moment? It is ‘be’. ‘Where are you at the moment?’ ‘I am sitting in the garden.’ Enjoying life, focused on the here and now, amazed by the wonder of it all. Isn’t this life? Amazement at the other, amazement at ourselves. Little coins that jingle in our pockets. Coins that are like suns, shimmering in the light.
Faith is stepping off the line. I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time, I’m too busy, I can’t do it for you, otherwise…
Faith is being quiet. In the moment, when we prise the timeline open and expand it, blow a little air into the bag.
When we expand the moment, we use ‘be’ (a word that we have seen is connected to ‘we’ and is contained in both ‘die’ and ‘live’). ‘I was reading a book when you arrived’ (I was unaware of time). ‘We will be waiting for you when the train arrives’ (the train will pull up alongside the platform, but we will already be out of time – waiting for you). ‘Be’ takes us out of time – it is used for actions that may be temporary (‘I am living in London at the moment, but next month I may not be’), continuous (‘we were walking alongside the river when it happened’) or repeated (‘I have been trying to get hold of you for ages’). It takes us away from the apparent security of our own efforts (‘do’), our own wills (‘will’) and our own possessions (‘have’).
There is so much noise in the world, but the truth is that the silence is much greater. There are so many words on this page, but the truth is that the white space is far greater. There is so much substance to our bodies, but the truth is that we are peppered with holes and invaded by space.
So it is with time. Time – the cross (†), I and me – is in eternity. It is the only place it can be. At some point, the teacher of English will come along and rub out the timeline. And then our preoccupations, our money and possessions, our frustrated wills, will count for nothing. All that will count is who we have allowed ourselves to be.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
Hate is the opposite of love, it is the dark side of love. All the shoots we have put out in order to communicate with our neighbour, in order to interlink our life to theirs, we begin to withdraw, to take away, to withdraw our favours. And at the same time, our sight, which was focused on those we love, begins to wander, we begin to entertain temptations, even though we know that they will destroy us, so hate engenders self-destruction.
If hate engenders self-destruction, it is a form of death. We are slowly but surely heading towards death, but not death as a portal of life, not DIE so that I can BE, as we saw in a previous article. This is death with no continuation. This is THE END of the film (these two words are beautifully connected: phonetic pair d-t, physical pair – pairs of letters that are an extension or a reversal of one another – h-n). This is the death of the popular imagination, where there is no continuation or, if there is, we don’t want to know about it.
So hate is a negation of God, because if we deny the existence of heaven, we deny the existence of God; if we deny the possibility of good (in ourselves quite apart from anyone else), we again deny the existence of the GOD who is GOOD. Do you see how language, the Word, wishes to teach us? GOD is GOOD, but the DEVIL is EVIL. If you look up these pairs of words in a dictionary and search for the etymology, you will find that their roots – horizontal, over time – are different. Not so in a vertical understanding of language. They are very close for a reason.
So hate makes us first withdraw into ourselves, reject contact with those who are close to us, and then seek to scatter ourselves further afield, to disintegrate, in what may be a call for attention or a means of revenge or a wish for self-annihilation.
But there is always the call of God, the call of our conscience, if we can only overcome the barrier of our ego, of our pride. PRIDE is in DESPAIR, and it is despair that robs us of our willingness and strength, as Saint Porphyrios points out in the book of his life and sayings Wounded by Love (p. 98).
Hate leads us to despair, while love gives us hope, hope of a better future. This is why HOPE is connected to OPEN (that same physical pair I talked about earlier, h-n). Hope keeps us open to the other, to their love, which is calling us, just as a dog hears the call of its owner. Hope keeps us open, but of course this means we can be wounded – the Wounded by Love of the book title.
Dark thoughts explore our mind. They can be a little frightening, these thoughts, even overwhelming. Where do they come from? Are they really ours? Well, given that the whole theme of my writing is that we are translators, not authors, and things pass through us, I am inclined to believe that thoughts also do not start with us. What belongs to us is our reaction, the choices we make, whether we choose to ignore these thoughts, to exercise self-control, to seek the good, or to enact the thoughts, to give free rein to our baser instincts. Does this really mean that no thoughts belong to us, only our reaction does? I am inclined to believe so, and thoughts are like language, roots travelling underground, in the subsoil of our minds.
In which case, we should be able to take a dark thought and simply make it good, turn it around, do the opposite, embrace the one we want to hate. This will hurt, though. It will hurt in that place we have opened up in order to embrace the other, in order to apologize, in order to see it from the other’s point of view, in order really to lessen our own importance in the grand scheme of things. Will anything really happen if I let go of my hatred? Will the world collapse if I forget to maintain my resentment? No, the world will carry on as normal, and I might even feel a little relieved – also a little sore perhaps – the hatred like a mole popping up its head from time to time, breaking the soil, trying to remind me of its existence, trying to draw me down again into the dirt of non-existence.
These thoughts, I let them go. They are nothing. Thoughts are insubstantial, a monk once told me. They have no substance. If they have no substance, they have no reality beyond the reality I choose to give them, even if it doesn’t feel that way when they assault me and seem to control me, not the other way around.
Perhaps I just stop thinking. THINK, after all, is connected to NIGHT by the phonetic pair g-k. It may be over-rated. It may be better just to WAIT. What word connections can I find for WAIT? Well, DAY is in there (phonetic pair d-t, addition of w). So is FAITH (f-v/w, addition of h). Isn’t the meaning of FAITH to WAIT? Maybe God doesn’t expect me to achieve something every day, to justify my existence all the time. After all, he has the bigger picture. He envelops time. Time is an envelope, and he sticks it down, says when it is finished. Perhaps he will put it in the post, send it to the outer reaches, open it later on, while we are all busy or asleep, and see what it is that everybody did with the time allotted to them. Take out the letter of our actions, intentions, good deeds. The desert fathers say that God always sees the intentions behind our actions, our motivations. What is it we are trying to achieve? Are we just trying to get his attention? To call him down, to force him to intersect with our lives because the horizontality of living got too much, too boring, too monotonous, the street, the cars, the coffee, the cake, get up, work, eat, sleep. So much going in and out of ourselves. Things passing by. Ourselves sometimes ineffectual, unprepared, unable to influence events. WAIT, whispered FAITH. Look at me. I am here.
Christ, I am in the night of hatred. Will you love me even down here? Will you see a speck of goodness in me that is worth saving? Is my breath anything to you? Of course, it is. You gave it to me. You are the Word. My breath is yours and the Holy Spirit’s. I beg of you, hold me. Deliver me. See how DELIVER contains DEVIL. Our Father, which art in the heavens…
DEVIL in reverse reads LIVED. Past tense.
DEATH with the letters rearranged spells HATED. Past tense.
There is no future in either of these. If we apply the phonetic pair d-t, we will see that HATE is connected to HEAD. DEATH contains both of them. Perhaps thinking, calculation, is not the way. But where does that leave us?
It leaves us in the moment. In the moment, there is no time. It is the only place where we can escape time. The moment is, in effect, the nullification of time. We are not controlled by past memories or future fears. We simply place ourselves in the O of repentance, the star in the night sky, the pinprick of existence.
A star is not light coming from a long way away. A star is a window, an invitation, a ladder of ascent. It is where the threads of our garments do not meet, where the air passes through, it is the interstice, it is the light, it is the way we slip through the net. It is a hole in the fabric.
Even the flame of a match banishes the night. ‘Flame’ contains ‘I am’, the name of God in Exodus 3:14. It enables us to make a hole in the line of time. We use the flame as a nib, a bubble, a leaf, and begin to write.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com