ORTHODOXY IS LOVE
Saint John of Damascus
“An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”
BOOK II CHAPTER XI
Now when God was about to fashion man out of the visible and invisible creation in His own image and likeness to reign as king and ruler over all the earth and all that it contains, He first made for him, so to speak, a kingdom in which he should live a life of happiness and prosperity. And this is the divine paradise, planted in Eden by the hands of God, a very storehouse of joy and gladness of heart (for “Eden” means luxuriousness). Its site is higher in the East than all the earth: it is temperate and the air that surrounds it is the rarest and purest: evergreen plants are its pride, sweet fragrances abound, it is flooded with light, and in sensuous freshness and beauty it transcends imagination: in truth the place is divine, a meet home for him who was created in God’s image: no creature lacking reason made its dwelling there but man alone, the work of God’s own hands.
In its midst God planted the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. The tree of knowledge was for trial, and proof, and exercise of man’s obedience and disobedience: and hence it was named the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or else it was because to those who partook of it was given power to know their own nature. Now this is a good thing for those who are mature, but an evil thing for the immature and those whose appetites are too strong, being like solid food to tender babes still in need of milk. For our Creator, God, did not intend us to be burdened with care and troubled about many things, nor to take thought about, or make provision for, our own life. But this at length was Adam’s fate: for he tasted and knew that he was naked and made a girdle round about him: for he took fig-leaves and girded himself about. But before they took of the fruit, They were both naked, Adam and Eve, and were not ashamed. For God meant that we should be thus free from passion, and this is indeed the mark of a mind absolutely void of passion. Yea, He meant us further to be free from care and to have but one work to perform, to sing as do the angels, without ceasing or intermission, the praises of the Creator, and to delight in contemplation of Him and to cast all our care on Him. This is what the Prophet David proclaimed to us when He said, Cast thy burden on the Lord, and He will sustain thee. And, again, in the Gospels, Christ taught His disciples saying, Take no thought for your life what ye shall eat, nor for your body what ye shall put on. And further, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. And to Martha He said, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her, meaning, clearly, sitting at His feet and listening to His words.
The tree of life, on the other hand, was a tree having the energy that is the cause of life, or to be eaten only by those who deserve to live and are not subject to death. Some, indeed, have pictured Paradise as a realm of sense, and others as a realm of mind. But it seems to me, that, just as man is a creature, in whom we find both sense and mind blended together, in like manner also man’s most holy temple combines the properties of sense and mind, and has this twofold expression: for, as we said, the life in the body is spent in the most divine and lovely region, while the life in the soul is passed in a place far more sublime and of more surpassing beauty, where God makes His home, and where He wraps man about as with a glorious garment, and robes him in His grace, and delights and sustains him like an angel with the sweetest of all fruits, the contemplation of Himself. Verily it has been fitly named the tree of life. For since the life is not cut short by death, the sweetness of the divine participation is imparted to those who share it. And this is, in truth, what God meant by every tree, saying, Of every tree in Paradise thou mayest freely eat. For the ‘every’ is just Himself in Whom and through Whom the universe is maintained. But the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was for the distinguishing between the many divisions of contemplation, and this is just the knowledge of one’s own nature, which, indeed, is a good thing for those who are mature and advanced in divine contemplation (being of itself a proclamation of the magnificence of God), and have no fear of falling, because they have through time come to have the habit of such contemplation, but it is an evil thing to those still young and with stronger appetites, who by reason of their insecure hold on the better part, and because as yet they are not firmly established in the seat of the one and only good, are apt to be torn and dragged away from this to the care of their own body.
Thus, to my thinking, the divine Paradise is twofold, and the God-inspired Fathers handed down a true message, whether they taught this doctrine or that. Indeed, it is possible to understand by every tree the knowledge of the divine power derived from created things. In the words of the divine Apostle, For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. But of all these thoughts and speculations the sublimest is that dealing with ourselves, that is, with our own composition. As the divine David says, The knowledge of Thee from me, that is from my constitution, was made a wonder. But for the reasons we have already mentioned, such knowledge was dangerous for Adam who had been so lately created.
The tree of life too may be understood as that more divine thought that has its origin in the world of sense, and the ascent through that to the originating and constructive cause of all. And this was the name He gave to every tree, implying fulness and indivisibility, and conveying only participation in what is good. But by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are to understand that sensible and pleasurable food which, sweet though it seems, in reality brings him who partakes of it into communion with evil. For God says, Of every tree in Paradise thou mayest freely eat. It is, me-thinks, as if God said, Through all My creations thou art to ascend to Me thy creator, and of all the fruits thou mayest pluck one, that is, Myself who art the true life: let every thing bear for thee the fruit of life, and let participation in Me be the support of your own being. For in this way thou wilt be immortal. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. For sensible food is by nature for the replenishing of that which gradually wastes away and it passes into the drought and perisheth: and he cannot remain incorruptible who partakes of sensible food.
Saint John of Damascus
An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith
BOOK II CHAPTER XI