I’ve been writing a series of blogs (try my last six or seven from the archive) about the Greek word oikos meaning house and its place in the Bible, attempting piece by piece to establish the basis of an oikos theology, that is, one which deals with the house and household of God.
Yesterday I got my hands on the marvellous new translation of the Confessions of St Augustine by Sarah Ruden, which I’ve devoured since in three sittings, and can therefore tell my readers that they should read this great classic of personal faith, now available in a translation that allows him to speak in real English. It is both beautiful and profound. Near the beginning I found this:
So how I will call on God, my God and my Master, since inevitably calling on him is calling him into myself? But what place in me is there to come into for my God- for God to come into me- the God who made heaven and earth? Is it as if, God my master, there is anything in me that could hold you? Could in fact the sky and the earth, which you created, and in which you created me, hold you? Or because without you, whatever is would not be, does it come about that whatever is holds you? Since therefore I also exist, why do I beg that you come into me, when I wouldn’t exist in the first place unless you were in me. I am not now in hell, and yet you are there too, because if I go down into hell, there you are.
To sum up, I would not exist, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you existed in me. Or is it rather that I would not exist unless I existed in you, from whom, through whom, in whom, everything exists? That’s it, Master, that’s it. To what place can I call you if I am in you?
I can speak along with Augustine’s meditation, and share his conclusion. He is playing with two ‘house’ metaphors, the human self as a house of God, and the divine self as a house for the universe and its creatures. Biblically these metaphors are seen in passages in which God is depicted as dwelling with or in his people on the one hand, and on the other, passages in which the people are depicted as dwelling in God.
We can see these images played out in the biblical story of Jacob who, escaping the wrath of his brother, finds himself in a dream where there is a ladder to heaven, and recognises that it is a house of God He offers himself to God in return for God’s support on his travels. Later, when he decides to face his past and his brother, he wrestles with God, who assures him of his blessing. Once he stops trying to include God in his story and is ready to be included in God’s story, God dwells in him.
”Abide in me” Jesus says, “and I will abide in you.”
Augustine states as a primary truth that he abides in God; but he only knows this because he has opened his heart so that God can abide in him. I also would like to dwell in God forever, or I think I would, but must I also invite God into this poor house, where there are corners, no, whole rooms that haven’t been cleaned for years, where some of my secrets are stashed, where there are places so scary that even I do not go there? Can I be open to the God who is open to me?
Augustine also speaks of Jesus, God’s Word, occupying this frail house of flesh, so that human beings are convinced he is a brother they can trust. Jesus the eternal word dwelling in flesh is the presence who persuades human beings to open their bodily lives to him. Augustine’s awareness of himself as a body is evident in the Confessions, especially in his anguished recognition of his sexuality as a barrier between himself and God. He rightly refuses to take the easy way out by labeling all bodily and material things as evil – some of his contemporaries did so- and instead sees that he must surrender his whole life to Jesus. But he doesn’t want to give up his sex life. So, he realises the barrier is his own will, which eventually and with great pain, he surrenders to Jesus his Master, and finds peace as he takes up residence in his life. The question is not, as above, “to what place can I call you?” but, “to what place will I give you access?” since God/Jesus/ Spirit will never intrude where they are not wanted. We are always in God, but God is not in us until we invite him/ her in, as Augustine did.
Augustine was sure that he had completely opened his life to God, once and for all, and certainly a profound turning had taken place. But my own experience is that when I invited God into my “house” I put all the messy stuff in one room, locked the door and put up a notice saying, “No Admittance,” but every now and then, God asks me, what’s this? And this? And this? And I realise I didn’t put all the messy stuff away, and that maybe I’d better open the locked room and have no secrets any more.
I’m helped to do this by consciously living ‘in God’s house’ of which the church is a model. There I am being trained to see my living space as God’s house, open to all creatures, providing equally for them all, changing and developing towards the ultimate perfection God desires for it. So far it is no more perfected than I am, since God will not force it to be so but inspires the creativity of his creatures; and my commitment to its future encourages me to cede more and more of my interior territory to God.
“How lovely to me is your dwelling, Lord of armies!” (Psalm 84) The psalmist was singing of the Temple, but it can mean also God’s household, his people, the universe as God’s house of life, and even the little house of the individual soul. It is a place, the Psalm says, where the most insignificant creatures, the sparrow and the swallow can enter and make a home. The human being sings that her very heart and flesh cry out for the living God; and is rewarded by the assurance that those who dwell in God’s house and sing praise are blest by the presence of God.
There is a vital spirituality of God’s house, such as Augustine knew, which can find new and contemporary forms of expression.