The burning bush


This Icon is a Byzantine Mosaic in St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

The name of the Icon, “Burning Bush,  derives from the mysterious encounter of Moses on Mount Horeb (or Sinai). As described in the book of Exodus, whilst Moses was tending his Father-in-law’s flock, he witnessed a bush burning with fire, “yet unconsumed.” Drawing nearer, God called out to Moses from amidst the flames, telling him to remove his sandals “for the place where you stand is holy ground”(Exodus 3:1-6). Moses was then called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

The mosaic concentrates on the moment when Moses begins to take off his sandals. One foot is now unshod and he lifts the other on to a rock and begins to work at the lacing, but his eyes are elsewhere. His eyes are gazing in the direction of the mysterious voice, signified by the stylized Monty Pythonesque Hand. It’s a moment of command and direction, a “call from on high” to which Moses is responding in an act of obedience and humility.

As such, it characterizes the long relationship between God and Moses of which this is just the opening scene. God calls and Moses answers, but not without considerable struggling, fear and doubt. Even in this Scene 1, Moses comes up with multiple reasons why he shouldn’t follow God’s call. It’s a very human narrative, very believable!

And Moses’ unwillingness to obey is echoed a little later by Pharoah’s stubborn refusal to “Let my people go.” He too, it seems, found it difficult to acknowledge the speaking voice of God, even as plague succeeded plague as the signs of God’s power and purpose.

But the difference between the two is the whole story of this marvellous Icon. Pharoah “hardened his heart.” He chose, out of his own free will, to pridefully resist God.

And Moses chose to yield.

And who, reading this blog, doesn’t  desire to submit to the speaking voice of God? The only problem is of recognising that voice.What if it comes through another human being? How do we listen to one another? Are we ready to listen, to perceive God, to recognize God’s image in another?

I was reading an Orthodox reflection on this vital point of submission which certainly challenges me in some hidden corner of an unyielded heart! In the talk to which I refer, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh was speaking  about the role of a priest as a “spiritual father”, and of the gentleness required in dealing with another human being. He referred to this Icon to make the point.

I was profoundly stirred by the bishop’s words, the more so since they come from a Christian tradition so utterly unlike my own as to almost require translation. But the unfamiliar language could not disguise my own disquiet, and I shudder at the dismissive and careless way I often treat my human relationships. He writes:

“It is easy and expected for a spiritual child to have humility. But what humility a priest or spiritual father must have in order not to intrude upon that sacred realm, to treat a person’s soul in the way that God commanded Moses to treat the ground surrounding the Burning Bush! Every human being—potentially or actually—is that very Bush. Everything surrounding him is sacred ground upon which the spiritual father may step only after removing his shoes, never stepping in any other way than that of the publican who stood in the back of the temple, looking in and knowing that this is the realm of the Living God, that this is a holy place, and he has no right to enter unless God Himself commands him, or as God Himself suggests he proceed or what words to say.”

He goes on: “This is very important, because obedience does not mean blindly doing what someone who has either material-physical or emotional-spiritual authority over us says. …Obedience is first and foremost a gift of hearing—not only with the mind, or with the ear, but with one’s whole being, with an open heart; a reverent contemplation of the spiritual mystery of another human being.”

A spiritual father, just as the simple and ordinary, commonplace priest, should be in a condition to see the beauty of God’s image in a person that cannot be taken away. (This condition often takes effort, thoughtfulness, and reverence for the person who comes to him.) Even if a person is marred by sin, the priest should see an icon in him that has been harmed either by conditions in life, from human neglect, or blasphemy. He should see an icon in him and have reverence for what has remained of this icon; and only for the sake of this, for the sake of the divine beauty within that person, he should labor to remove everything that deforms that image of God.

When …God looks at a human being, He does not see the virtues that he may lack, or the successes he has not attained—He sees the unshakeable, radiant beauty of His own Image.

Thus, if a spiritual father is incapable of seeing this eternal beauty in a person, to see the beginning of the process of fulfilling his call to become a God-man in the image of Christ, then he is not capable of leading him, for people are not built or made. They are only aided in their growth according to the measure of their own calling.

At this juncture, the word “obedience” calls for a bit of an explanation. Usually we talk about obedience as submission, being under authority, and often as a kind of enslavement to a spiritual father or a priest whom we call our spiritual father or elder—not to our own detriment only, but also to his.

Obedience consists in, as I have said, hearing with all the powers of our soul. However, this obligates both the spiritual father and the “listener” equally, because a spiritual father should also be listening with all his experience, all his existence, and all his prayer. I will even go further to say that that he should listen with all the power of the Holy Spirit working in him to what the Holy Spirit is bringing to pass in the person entrusted to his care. He should know how to search out the paths of the Holy Spirit in him, to be in awe before what God is doing, and not bring him up according to his own image or how he thinks he should develop, making him a victim of his spiritual guidance.

… One of the tasks of a spiritual father consists in educating a person in spiritual freedom, in the royal freedom of God’s children. He must not keep him in an infantile state all his life, running to his spiritual father over every trifle, but growing into maturity and learning how to hear what the Holy Spirit is wordlessly speaking to him in his heart.

Humility in Russian means a state of being at peace, when a person has made peace with God’s will; that is, he has given himself over to it boundlessly, fully, and joyfully, and says, “Lord, do with me as Thou wilt!” As a result he has also made peace with all the circumstances of his own life—everything for him is a gift of God, be it good or terrible. God has called us to be His emissaries on earth, and He sends us into places of darkness in order to be a light; into places of hopelessness in order to bring hope; into places where joy has died in order to be a joy; and so on. Our place is not necessarily where it is peaceful—in church, at the Liturgy, where we are shielded by the mutual presence of the faithful—but in those places where we stand alone, as the presence of Christ in the darkness of a disfigured world.

On the other hand, if we think about the Latin roots of the word humility, we see that it comes from the word humus, which indicates fruitful earth. St. Theophan writes about this. Just think about what earth is. It lies there in silence, open, defenseless, vulnerable before the face of the sky. From the sky it receives scorching heat, the sun’s rays, rain, and dew. It also receives what we call fertilizer, that is, manure—everything that we throw into it. And what happens? It brings forth fruit. And the more it bears what we emotionally call humiliation and insult, the more fruit it yields.

Thus, humility means opening up to God perfectly, without any defenses against Him, the action of the Holy Spirit, or the positive image of Christ and His teachings. It means being vulnerable to grace, just as in our sinfulness we are sometimes vulnerable to harm from human hands, from a sharp word, a cruel deed, or mockery. It means giving ourselves over, that it be our own desire that God do with us as He wills. It means accepting everything, opening up; and then giving the Holy Spirit room to win us over.

It seems to me that if a spiritual father would learn humility in this sense—seeing the eternal beauty in a person; if he would know his place, which is nothing other (and this is a place that is so holy, so wondrous) than the place of a friend of the bridegroom, who is appointed to safeguard the meeting of the bride—not his own bride—with the Bridegroom. Then the spiritual father can truly be a travelling companion to his spiritual child, walk with him step by step, protect him, support him, and never intrude upon the realm of the Holy Spirit.

Then the role of the spiritual father becomes a part of that spirituality and that maturing into the sanctity to which each of us is called, and which each spiritual father should help his spiritual children attain.”

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